Thursday, September 29, 2005

Late Merleau-Ponty, revived

Eric Matthews
Radical Philosophy
July/Aug 2005

Not only has he retained a following among philosophers, but he has attracted considerable attention from psychologists, sociologists and literary theorists, inspired in part, perhaps, by the reflection of some of his central themes in the contemporary analytic debates between such figures as Evans, McDowell and Peacocke. Much of the revived interest focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s later thought, as expressed in the posthumously published The Visible and the Invisible, and other works written in the last years of his life.

  • Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy is often presented as a move away from the Husserlian phenomenology of his major early work, Phenomenology of Perception, in the direction of more Heideggerian ontological concerns. But this is rather oversimplified.
  • Even in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty was a ‘phenomenologist’ only in the sense that he had an aversion to abstract theorizing; but, as Carman and Hansen rightly point out in their Introduction to the Cambridge Companion, he was already dissatisfied with Husserl’s sharp distinction between subject and object.
  • In The Visible and the Invisible, he chides himself for not being sufficiently dissatisfied on this issue in his earlier work, and tries to set out more plainly a rejection of the distinction.
  • But, despite what he says there, the basis for such a rejection was already present in his earlier conceptions of embodied subjectivity and of human being as being-in-the-world.
  • In The Visible and the Invisible we can see his attempt, never completed because of his death, to develop the logical implications of these conceptions; and in his lectures on Nature, written at the same time, we can find clues to help us in interpreting his aims in that work.

So what was going on in Merleau-Ponty’s later thought? Carbone several times cites a remark of Merleau-Ponty’s from another late text, Eye and Mind. Merleau-Ponty there says that he feels that a ‘mutation of the relationship between humanity and Being’ is taking place in our age, and that what is needed is to develop a ‘new ontology’ to give expression to that mutation.

  • What is meant by an ‘ontology’ here seems to be an account of the relation between consciousness and what we are conscious of. ‘The ontological problem’, Merleau-Ponty says in Nature, is ‘the problem of the relation between subject and object’.
  • In the Cartesian ontology, which provided the framework for classical physics (and so for science in general in the early modern period), this relation was conceived of as holding between a disembodied and timeless subject and an entirely external objective reality.
  • Classical science is thus based on an ‘objectivist’ conception of nature, as an ‘in-itself’ to which we, as subjects, have access only from the outside. This objective reality, which includes our own bodies and living matter in general, is seen as existing in an absolute space and time, and as operating in accordance with causal laws.

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