Category Archives: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Merleau-Ponty on method

One of the interesting things about reading the working notes from The Invisible and the Invisible is that the reader gets to look inside the philosopher’s head; to see Merleau-Ponty trying to figure out his ideas, holding forth with himself, questioning his own approach, and testing out his own ideas. This is particularly the case with Merleau-Ponty for at least two reasons.

First, it seems that Merleau-Ponty thought on paper, working out his ideas with his pen. As Claude Lefort notes in his editorial introduction “The author was in the habit of jotting down ideas on paper, ordinarily without concerning himself with style nor even obliging himself to compose complete sentences. These notes, which sometimes contain but a few lines and sometimes extend over several pages, constitute drafts for developments that figure in the first part of the work or would have figured in its continuation.”

Second, Merleau-Ponty is a philosopher of work in progress, of the unfinished nature of work. When we close the question of being we lose being. It is rather, in our continued strivings for truthful expressions that we catch glimpses of truth. We often will complete works, and well we should, and we should also hope that they speak truthfully, that they are successful. But our work is never finished; at most it is passed down to those who follow. All this is to say that there is a certain sense in which Merleau-Ponty’s working notes showcase his work at its most truthful. The form of a finished book, with a concluding argument that wraps of the questions asked, cannot distort the fact that here is someone striving for truth and whose truthfulness is found to great degree in such authentic strivings.

This is perhaps no more the case than when Merleau-Ponty comes to questions of method: how will he present this book? There are numerous proposed outlines and various notes questioning where best to put different ideas. Here’s a gem that Merleau-Ponty jotted down in January 1959:

“Indicate from the start of the analysis of Nature that there is circularity: what we say here will be taken up again at the level of the logic (2nd volume). No matter. One does have to begin.”

Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

My (recently footnoted) series on idolatry owes much to Merleau-Ponty. This is particularly the case in regards to my distinction between ‘finished’ and ‘completed’ works of art. For any interested readers and for further elucidation I’ve provided some of the relevant passages from Merleau-Ponty here. Continue reading Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

Ontology — Badiou and Merleau-Ponty — Part I

“Why should I read Badiou?” is no longer the question — “Why wouldn’t you read Badiou?” – Dr. Jonathan Widell.

I think Badiou’s thought is often initially difficult to engage with partly because it is not very obvious how it relates to other ontologies. In order to show how this relation, I thought I would put Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished attempt at an ontology into dialogue with Badiou’s Being and Event.

M-P takes the same starting point as Heidegger: Being is said in many different senses. The recent advances in science increasingly broaden the scope of what is said to exist. Stars are said to exist, though their light takes years to reach us; particles are said to exist, though they may exist for a fraction of a second; I exist and you, my reader, exist. Can we say that all of them exist in the same sense? Though physicists acknowledge that there are many different kinds of beings, it does not think that it is necessary to develop an ontology that would take these differences into account. If a being can be measured, then it exists and that which cannot be measured must be cast aside.

Merleau-Ponty is not satisfied with the naïve ontology that satisfies the physicist, nor is he satisfied with the widespread view that only science can speak truth. Merleau-Ponty holds that the answers to these questions are extremely complex. Propositions like, “all we are is chemical reactions, all we are is a series of objects” are flawed because they ignore our experience of different variations of beings. In this case, human beings affect us differently, and with greater power, than other beings. I can say that humanity is one animal among others, but there is no question that the experiences I have with other people influence me far more than those of animals -– sometimes their absence (like a death) affects us more than their presence. And I can say that all people are, at bottom, are objects ( a person is an object just as a table is an object) and that I can choose to feel how I want to feel, but when I look at my day to day experience of people, I realize that I do not interact with someone as I would a pencil, or desk, or even the stars, nor do I think of myself as an object. For example, I say that the table is next to the chair, but I do not say that my hand is next to the glass. These types of examples, analyzing these common ways of speaking, continually arise in Merleau-Ponty’s work as a possible indication of what is true. This leads M-P to use ordinary speech as a possible tool for grappling with questions such as “what is Being? What is true? How are beings structured?”

The Editor, Claude Lefort, writes this description of Merleau-Ponty’s work in the forward (one of the best forwards I have ever read, btw):

“But if speech, which is born from silence, can seek its conclusion in silence and make that silence not be its contrary, this is because between experience and language there is in principle, exchange; it is because experience is not something one could coincide with, because it bears a transcendence, since already, in itself, it is differentiation, articulation, structuration, and because in some way it calls for language; it is because language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated, because beyond the movement of the pure significations there remains the silent mass of the discourse, that which is not of the order of the sayable, and because the greatest merit of expression is to disclose this continuous passage form the word to being and from being to the word, or this double openness of the one upon the other. To think through this exchange is no doubt what The Visible and the Invisible was to devote itself to, at the end.” Xxix

In other words the study and interpretation of being. Interpreting being meant, for Merleau-Ponty, a proper account of being’s exchange with the language of our experience, and in experience in general. And perhaps the difficulty of elucidating the meaning of this exchange led Merleau-Ponty to ask whether or not a new style of language was needed in order to study wild and brute being. Though he hesitant to conclude that language was needed to be used in a new way, he was confident that only a method of inquiry that let the things themselves speak could be possible by departing from experience and all of the variations that are found in it. He believed that fruitful research was no longer possible where research departed from assumed categories like God, nature, or humanity because this type of research often detaches thought from its experience and cease to be a faithful interpretation of the world. Thus, a large part of his work and method focused on the interrogation and clarification of ambiguities that tangled up better paths towards a truthful exegesis of being.

The bulk of M-P’s unfinished ontology focuses in on the true and those “various vibrations of being” that produce the true and how the true can remain, despite the presence of deception, lies and the false which throw the true into question. In other words, how we can have the world (yes something is true) and yet not have it (moments later we find it is false)? How can we have a world that does not close in on over itself? In the end, Merleau-Ponty, the famed phenomenologist, was no longer satisfied describing the world. He died before he could finish the project.

Let’s turn to Badiou. Being able to say “what is true” does indeed play a central role in Badiou’s work, e.g., determining the validity events and looking at the state of the situation and so on. But he does so by incorporating mathematics. At first glance this might seem contrary to Merleau-Ponty’s project.

Does not mathematics occupy itself to the fullest extent with the measurable? And would it not be a step in the wrong direction, towards the naïve physicist, to place mathematics as the definitive mode of ontological exploration?

However, Mathematics has no objects – it merely formalizes relations. It is grounded upon the central idea that “insofar as it exists, then ….” The requirements for a being’s existence are whatever one would like them to be. But those requirements are not found in mathematics. Mathematics is simply there to formalize these requirements. Hence, the gap between knowing whether something exists and the meaning of these existing things might mean is traversed in an instant by mathematics.

Without losing any real substance of M-P’s ontology, one could easily imagine that it occupies itself entirely with the motto of mathematics: “insofar as it exists…” What does existence mean? What is it? How can I know what either mean? Primarily concerned with proofs, mathematicians tend to leave these questions to philosophers.

To put it as simply as possible: mathematics are capable of formalizing any ontology. And so far, set theory, more specifically, Zermelo-Frankel Set Theory seems to be the most adequate, according to Badiou. Insofar as there are beings in the world, mathematics can formalize them. The world, though, is that which is made up of objects. Which is where physics comes in. Physics is concerned only with objects. Mathematics merely formalizes the relations between these objects.

The final answer for what an object is is rather difficult to find in the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. But they are able to talk about them. They are capable of having a discourse on objects, beings and truth without too much difficulty. The difficulty lies in finding definitive answers. This is why they can’t be said to be “doing physics.” They are not speaking purely about the relationship objects have to one another.  They are concerned with objects and beings, insofar as they exist for us, that is, insofar as they matter to us.

Merleau-Ponty’s demand for a new language to speak more rigorously about Being might be met in the work of Badiou. Indeed, Badiou does speak about Being in a new way. And Badiou explicitly states that his work is not about the world, which deals with objects: it is about discourse. Discourse is meant in the broadest possible sense. This discourse is about our experience of the world and how we communicate this experience. And since how I speak about the world affects my relationship with it, the better my discourse, the better I can engage with beings insofar as they exist. Or as mentioned earlier in the quotation: “language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated.”

In sum, Badiou follows Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty by stressing the importance of Die Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein. It revealed our incapacity to fully declare and define what Being is in its many vibrations. But Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were not successful in finding any sort of answer to the question. The success their work has lies primarily in keeping the question of Being open which promotes a certain ethos of understanding, a perspective that moves back and forth between ignorance and knowledge and enjoying a kind of rest in this movement. Badiou also accepts this position. But he wants to know how we are able to distinguish between beings and the saying of being in many senses. Instead of the question “What is meant by the fact that we say beings exist in many senses?” he asks “How do we distinguish between two beings? How do we distinguish between many beings and one being?” To answer this, he turns to mathematics.

Proust and Merleau-Ponty on memory, naming, and perception

Memory, naming, and perception: three daily aspects of human life. One cannot collapse them to each other, but they are closely linked. Our memories – who we are, what we know, how we have experienced things previously – shape our perception, give us the ability to name old things, and anticipate our future expression. Naming draws things, people, and categories out of an undefined generality and thereby gives birth to and sustains much of our perception and memory; the moment of naming often coincides with the moment of seeing or of memory. At the same time, we seek for our naming to coincide with what we perceive, and a good memory must bear a close relationship to what we have perceived in the past. Memory, naming, and perception are inseparable and persistently separate.

How we remember, name, and perceive matters quite a bit. It is often rightly observed that how we see the world bears a close relationship to our ability to act well in the world. Only if we can see and name violence, goodness, where God is working in the world, the potential for human flourishing, and so on, can we act ethically. And because the world is made up of stories, our ability for such sight and naming will come largely from the stories we receive and encounter, and whether we receive them with the grace to remember them well. Continue reading Proust and Merleau-Ponty on memory, naming, and perception

The World Beyond The Barrier

“At the close of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche expressed his scorn for his contemporaries’ stupid insistence on trying to “see through everything” (263). He protested the lack of reverence and discretion which fueled their tactless attempt to “touch, lick, and finger everything” (213). The phenomenon Nietzsche decried is the frenzied desire we still see all around us, the desire to cast aside every veil, penetrate every surface, transgress every barrier in order to get our hands on the real thing lying behind it. We seem to have installed in the modern world a new “beyondness,” a new untouchable, or a new secularized sacred, one that inspires a new desire for transgression. This secularized sacred originates not in a belief in the existence of another world, but from the belief that what we want in this world always lies behind a barrier which prevents our access to it.” 175

This is taken from Joan Copjec’s The Object-Gaze: Shame, Hejab, Cinema. I found this last sentence to be just as profound as it is provocative. But is it true?

There is a similar belief that says: anything worth doing requires hard work.

There is a great satisfaction that one gets from learning something new or completing a project, especially when they are difficult. We all know this kind of satisfaction. But I’d like to examine it in more detail. So for me, this often means learning a difficult piece of music.

In order to let the music speak, I must be sensitive to every detail and challenge that it presents to me and let the details of the music unfold according to their role within the piece. This kind of engagement takes time. The more advanced the piece is, the more time I must spend with it. When one spends time with something, a relationship is formed. In this case, it is a demanding relationship with very specific expectations. I expect to make the music my own. I expect that my previous work has enabled me to meet every challenge and that I will grow because of it.

Difficult challenges install in me frustration, anxiety, fear of failure, and even despair. So I must take each challenge in manageable portions, lest I become discouraged and quit. When they are conquered, I have confirmation that my previous work is valid, enriched, and I am given confidence and excitement to keep going. Equally as important: it gives me reprieve from anxiety, frustration, fear of failure, and despair. I know that these small success are important without having to think about it because they are signs that the work is nearing completion. In isolation, the importance of each of these scattered challenges and the success that might await me are thrown into question. Only within the context of the complete work do they gain their unified importance.

The importance of the entire work is deemed as such if it is consistent with a more general, believed idea. An idea, or a truth, that orients one’s life. For instance, anything worth doing requires hard work.

This relationship between the work and the idea that propels it is fundamental to our experience of the world. The completed work means nothing without the idea and vice versa. The point is not to complete your work, but to continue to complete challenging work consistent with the idea. This also means that one should not attempt to derive ultimate satisfaction from the finishing of the work.  Rather, the completing of the work ensures that the believed idea continues to function. Without the work and the idea contributing to each other, both will die. Feed the idea with your work. Feed the work with your idea.

Let’s turn back to the original quote. Is it true that what I want always lies behind a barrier? I think that, on the contrary, the joyful experience that I have of overcoming barriers and obstacles is so powerful that it extends to so many spheres of my life — So far, in fact, that obstacles come to be looked at as life giving opportunities.

(According to Merleau-Ponty) Engagement with the things is the way to truly let them be

“The effective, present, ultimate and primary being, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being – to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its own astonishment. It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no.” – The Visible and The Invisible, 101-102

Seeing Things in Merleau-Ponty

I have often been in conversations with people much smarter than I. Often I try to ask questions that I can’t quite formulate, yet I have a feeling that there is an inconsistency with the terms that I have in my thoughts. I can’t nail it down. The smart person will say: “ah, what you are trying to say is ____.” They are able to re-organize my own thoughts for me.  These moments where my thoughts are clarified and said anew by another are the moments in conversations that are often the most satisfying. Here is what I am trying to say…

“Great works of philosophy, like great works of art, have a [style of an oeuvre]. The style of a thinker’s thought, its unthought element in other words, is more easily recognizable by others than it is by the thinker himself

…when I realized that Merleau-Ponty does not say some of the things I thought he should, I wondered whether all along I had been seeing things in his work that simply are not there. I became convinced, however, that what he does say points unequivocally in the direction of an overall view that he seems not to have been able to articulate himself. I leave it to the reader to determine whether the interpretation I give is reckless or responsible. In any event, there is no doubt that it forms the type of history of philosophy that stands on the “middle-ground where the philosopher we are speaking about and the philosopher who is speaking are present together, although it is not possible even in principle to decide at any given moment just what belongs to each” (S 202/159). Merleau-Ponty, like Heidegger, thought that this way of engaging with a philosopher is the best way to be faithful to him. I hope he was right”  Sean Kelly from Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty

Still, I do think that with most of our work there is a nameable element that is perceived only by others, who can give new life to our thoughts — regardless of how “great” we are. It is a matter of being faithful and engaging with each other, not just with philosophers.