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.”
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 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