Late Merleau-Ponty, revived

Late Merleau-Ponty, revived

Eric matthews

* Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France, compiled and with notes by Dominique Séglard, trans. Robert Vallier, Northwestern University Press, Evanston IL, 2003. xx + 296 pp., £69.95 hb., £14.95 pb., 0 8101 1445 3 hb., 0 8101 1446 1 pb.; Mauro Carbone, The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Pontyʼs A-Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, Evanston IL, 2004. xi + 93 pp., £39.95 hb., £15.50 pb., 0 8101 1363 5 hb., 0 8101 1986 2 pb.; Taylor Carman and Mark B.N. Hansen, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005. 406 pp. £40.25 hb., £17.99 pb., 0 521 809894 hb., 521 00777 1 pb.

Since his untimely death in 1961, Merleau-Ponty has undergone a postmortem decline in interest, though he has never fallen entirely out of view: not only has he retained a following among philosophers, but he has attracted considerable attention from psychologists, sociologists and literary theorists. Now, however, there are signs of a more general revival, with the publication of a number of books and articles on his work, 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-Pontyʼs later thought, as expressed in the posthumously published The Visible and the Invisible, and other works written in the last years of his life.

Three recent books are part of this revival.* Nature is based on notes for three courses that Merleau-Ponty delivered at the Collège de France, in 1956–7, 1957–8 and 1959–60. The concept of nature was crucial to his later thought. The other two books are commentaries on his philosophy. The work by Mauro Carbone is entirely concerned with Merleau-Pontyʼs later thought. The Cambridge Companion is a collection of essays, most of which at least take into account developments in his later period.

Merleau-Pontyʼs 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 ʻphenomenologistʼ 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 Husserlʼs 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.

The unfortunate thing, from this point of view, is that what we have of these lectures is not a full text of what was said, but only a version based in part on notes taken by an unknown student who attended the first two courses and in part on Merleau-Pontyʼs own very sketchy and often illegible working notes. It is impossible, of course, to place too much reliance on this kind of evidence: it is often obscure in expression, and it is always difficult to tell whether the text expresses Merleau-Pontyʼs actual thinking or simply the studentʼs perhaps garbled understanding of it. Ironically, instead of using the lectures to help in understanding The Visible and the Invisible, commentators often have to use their interpretation of the latter (itself an incomplete and obscure text) as a key to understanding the lectures. Nevertheless, in the absence of much else as evidence for the later thought, we are obliged to make whatever use we can of the clues we can find here.

So what was going on in Merleau-Pontyʼs later thought? Carbone several times cites a remark of Merleau-Pontyʼs from another late text, ʻEye and Mindʼ. Merleau-Ponty there says that he feels that a ʻmutation of the relationship between humanity and Beingʼ is taking place in our age, and that what is needed is to develop a ʻnew ontologyʼ to give expression to that mutation. What is meant by an ʻontologyʼ here seems to be an account of the relation between consciousness and what we are conscious of. ʻThe ontological problemʼ, Merleau-Ponty says in Nature, is ʻthe problem of the relation between subject and objectʼ. 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 ʻobjectivistʼ conception of nature, as an ʻin-itselfʼ 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.


Merleau-Ponty is by no means against science. Indeed, he says in Nature that we need ʻto be interested in science in order to know what Nature isʼ. Science is ʻexperience in its most regulated formʼ, and so must be our starting-point in thinking about what we mean by nature. Nevertheless, ontology is not part of scienceʼs business, and must rather result from philosophical reflection on the results of science. One reason why we need a new ontology is that science itself has developed in new directions in the twentieth century. In particular, quantum mechanics has forced us to reformulate the way we see the relationship between ourselves and nature, and above all to abandon the sharp distinction between nature as ʻin-itselfʼ and ourselves as ʻfor-itselfʼ.

In the Cartesian ontology, ʻnatureʼ had a double meaning. On the one hand, it meant ʻsomething about which we cannot say anything except through our sensesʼ; on the other, nature ʻis known as constructumʼ. In the first series of lectures, Merleau-Ponty reviews some of the attempts made by post-Cartesian philosophers to cope with this ambiguity. Kant, for example, is seen in his transcendental idealism as seeking to unify the two meanings by treating Nature, at least for us, as something constructed out of our representations. But that of course leaves nature-in-itself as something distinct and unknown. This led Schelling to see nature as ʻbarbaricʼ, as something which appears as if it could be teleologically understood, but in fact is rationally unintelligible, governed by a ʻblind mechanismʼ. In the twentieth century, Bergson followed Schelling by seeing nature as a ʻprimordial lost non-dividednessʼ, but governed by an élan vital which was neither mechanical nor strictly teleological.

In addition to developments in modern physics,

Merleau-Ponty was also impressed by some aspects of modern biology, in particular the new interest in animal behaviour, represented by such figures as Konrad Lorenz and Wolfgang Koehler. Even to talk about the things which animals do as ʻbehaviourʼ is to regard them as more than a passive response to an external stimulus, governed by mechanical laws (a view which implies that biology is reducible to physics). It is to see them as having a meaning for the animal itself, and so as admitting of ʻunderstandingʼ rather than simply of causal explanation. The ʻactive/passiveʼ distinction is transcended: animals are actively involved with their surrounding world (Umwelt, as the biologist Uexkull called it), but are also ʻpassiveʼ in the sense that the meaning they can find in the Umwelt is constrained by what is actually there, and by their own physiological structures and biological needs. In this way, the scope of intentionality is extended from the conscious activities and cognition of human beings to include the unconscious and non-cognitive relations of animals (and indeed of human beings themselves).

The principal thing that is different about human behaviour, from this point of view, is that human beings have an articulated language, which enables them to formulate more complex and individual purposes for acting. But this does not imply that human beings, unlike other animals, are essentially disembodied. Rather it implies, as Merleau-Ponty already saw in Phenomenology of Perception, that the human body is not, as in the Cartesian conception, a mere object in the ʻexternal worldʼ like any other, governed by mechanical laws alone. Human beings as subjects are essentially embodied, so that their being is inthe-world. The human body is a part of nature, but a very special part because of the human possession of speech (logos). In this sense, it is the intersection of nature and logos. This notion of human subjectivity as embodied is, as was said, extensively developed in Merleau-Pontyʼs earlier thought: in his latest period it is radicalized into the concept of ʻthe fleshʼ, characterized by Merleau-Ponty in Nature as ʻthat-is-openness to things, with participation on their partʼ. This radicalization effectively abolishes the whole subject–object distinction, making nature part of ourselves, as we are also part of nature. Merleau-Ponty identifies with Whiteheadʼs view that ʻThere is a sort of reciprocity between Nature and me as a sensing being.ʼ

An embodied being is thus necessarily actively involved with, and inseparable from, its surrounding world. Indeed, it can be said, in virtue of its purposes as an organism, to ʻsketch outʼ its surrounding world. In the higher animals, including human beings, ʻThe world is possessed by the animal.ʼ That is, as MerleauPonty goes on to explain, the more complex the nervous system, the more differentiated its responses to the surrounding world can be, and so the more complex the world that the animal can ʻpossessʼ. Physiology has to be understood, on this view, not as an account of a set of passive responses to the external world, but as a means of active engagement with that world. Biology becomes not simply a derivative of physics, but a science which involves the interpretation of the meaning of actions performed by living beings. This is not a return to ʻvitalismʼ, the idea that there is a life force independent of matter which directs the operations of living organisms – that is simply another form of causal explanation. What Merleau-Ponty seems to be saying rather is that a completely different form of explanation needs to be used, not only of the actions of human beings, but of the neurological processes which lie behind those overt actions.

Merleau-Ponty explicitly says in Nature that no new force is involved – that ʻThe living being works only with physicochemical elementsʼ. The difference in his view from that of classical mechanistic science is the idea that the animal itself regulates the way in which the ʻphysicochemical elementsʼ operate. In turn, the Umwelt comes to be characterized in terms of the meaning which objects in it have for the animal. This is most obviously true, for the reasons already stated, of the human animal. Our own bodies are no longer seen as objects, but as relations to the surrounding world, which in turn is defined by its relation to ourselves as embodied and active beings. In his earlier thought, this was expressed in the doctrine that it is our bodies themselves which are the subjects of experience. But in the more radicalized version of his later thought, Merleau-Ponty seeks to escape from the subject–object distinction altogether by means of a concept already mentioned, that of the ʻfleshʼ. According to this conception, my body is ʻin a circuit with the world, an Einfühlung with the world, with the things, with the animals, with other bodiesʼ.

The last three words in that quotation are important. To abolish the distinction between ourselves as subjects and the world of which we are conscious, to see our being as an engagement with the world, is also to abolish any ultimate distinction between ourselves and other human beings (or even, as in the quotation, other animals). Since other human beings are, like ourselves, essentially embodied, our relation to them is ʻwith other bodiesʼ. This enables Merleau-Ponty to incorporate into his thinking the insights of Freudian psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on an all-pervasive sexuality in our relations to the world and to other people. The Einfühlung, or empathy, which we as embodied beings have with other embodied beings is identified with the Freudian notion of libido, or desire. Our being for others is rooted in this way in the natural libidinal structures of our bodies.

In this way, the conception of human being as being-in-the-world, which had been present in MerleauPontyʼs thought from the beginning, is given a more radical interpretation. There is no room any longer for a notion of the ʻsubjectʼ, for a distinction between the ʻin-itselfʼ and the ʻfor-itselfʼ. Merleau-Pontyʼs position is thus sharply differentiated from that of Sartre. Although Sartre too speaks of human being as ʻbeingin-the-worldʼ, the distinction between ʻin-itselfʼ and ʻfor-itselfʼ is crucial for his philosophy. Merleau-Ponty criticizes this element of Sartreʼs thought in Nature. Sartreʼs view, he argues, leads to the conception of the ʻfor-itselfʼ as a ʻnothingnessʼ, which has to be overcome in order to be in the world, an impassable subjectivity set over against both the world and other, equally impassable, subjectivities. (Hence his view that conflict is the essence of our being-for-others, and the dramatic descriptions in Being and Nothingness of sadism and masochism as the only possible ways in which we can relate to others, both equally doomed to failure.) We ought rather, Merleau-Ponty argues, to conceive of ʻthe true nothingnessʼ as ʻan Etwas [something] always on the horizonʼ. This in turn implies at least the possibility of relations with other human beings which are not simply sado-masochistic.

But human embodiment is essentially ambiguous.

The human body is, as said earlier, at the intersection of nature and logos: the possession of language, and thus of the possibility of articulating subtly differentiated purposes and meanings, makes a significant difference. In particular, it makes it possible to see human existence as not just biological but historical. There cannot be a history of life as such, he argues, because we cannot say what life ʻwantsʼ. We can, on the other hand, say what human beings want, so that for them history is possible.

It should be said, however, that the passage just cited is full of textual uncertainties and editorial queries, so that it is impossible to know whether one has read Merleau-Pontyʼs thinking correctly. This illustrates a general point made earlier about this book. What we have in it is not Merleau-Pontyʼs own worked-out expression of his thinking, but either a studentʼs attempts to understand what was said in the lectures or else Merleau-Pontyʼs very sketchy notes. But we all know both how easy it is for students to get hold of the wrong end of the stick and how little can be contained in a lecturerʼs outline notes, which are often more of an aide-memoire than anything else. If we had the full transcript of the lectures, much more reliance could be placed on them as a source for the later thought. But we donʼt, and so we have to rely on our interpretations of the fragmentary evidence we have. One might wonder whether there is any real value in publishing such an unreliable text. It certainly gives the reader some of the intellectual exercise and fun of a detective story or an archaeological dig, but it would be unwise to place too much reliance on what emerged from that exercise.


If (and it is a big ʻifʼ) one accepts the reading of these lectures I have given here, some general philosophical worries arise about the direction MerleauPontyʼs thinking was taking in the last years of his life, which was at least in line with, and possibly influential on, the philosophical developments that took place in France in the generation of thinkers who succeeded him. Can we really, for instance, abolish altogether the subject–object distinction? Even to say that they have a reciprocal relation is to accept that they are to some extent distinguishable. And it seems inescapable that different human beings are distinct subjects: to say that we communicate with each other, or are involved with each other, is in itself to imply that we are separate individuals. The paradox of our humanity is that we are distinct from each other and yet essentially related to other subjects. We can reject ʻhumanismʼ by rejecting one half of that paradox, but in so doing we would be rejecting something which seems plainly true. It may be true, as the editors of the Cambridge Companion say in their Introduction, that ʻWhat might be gained by a return to MerleauPonty now … is a turn away from the antihumanist radicalization of ontology and the cultivation of new ways of exploring the ontological correlation of human beings and the world.ʼ But this falls short of the much more radical ontological claims which seem to be implied by the later work.

The interpretation presented above is also the reading of Merleau-Pontyʼs later phase found in Mauro Carboneʼs book, a collection of papers originally delivered to various audiences of Merleau-Ponty specialists. (Carbone, Professor of Aesthetics at the State University of Milan, is a leading scholar of phenomenology and post-phenomenology, in particular of the work of Merleau-Ponty.) Carbone speaks of Merleau-Pontyʼs quest for a ʻnew ontologyʼ, emphasizing the notion of ʻchiasmʼ found in a working note of The Visible and the Invisible. According to this notion, ʻevery relation with being is simultaneously a taking and a being takenʼ. Merleau-Ponty sees this as the essence of the change in the relation of humanity to Being which characterizes our age, expressed both in quantum physics and in modern art, literature and music. It means, as Carbone interprets it, that what used to be called subjectivity is not confronted by the world as an object, but is rather a ʻresonance chamber for our encounter with the flesh of the worldʼ. MerleauPonty uses an image derived from Proust to clarify this idea: ʻthe body is suspended in what it sings, the melody incarnates itself and finds in the body a type of servantʼ. The world, in other words, expresses itself in the human body.

This reference to Proust is but one illustration of the importance of the novelist to Merleau-Ponty, which is extensively discussed by Carbone. Already in Phenomenology of Perception there are references to Proust in connection with Merleau-Pontyʼs discussion of time. Subjectivity is there identified with temporality, in line with the Proustian tendency to personify time, in which past, present and future flow into each other. This Proustian conception, with which Merleau-Ponty sympathizes, describes a life, in the latterʼs words, ʻwithout interiorityʼ, which Merleau-Ponty intends to restore by his philosophy, just as Proust had sought to do in his novel. In effect, Carbone argues, both show that very disintegration of the idea of the subject which is the essence of the new ontology. In a striking anticipation of the next generation of philosophers, Merleau-Ponty even speaks in The Visible and the Invisible of language as ʻhaving usʼ rather than of our ʻhaving languageʼ: ʻit is being that speaks within us and not we who speak of beingʼ. Being is always already there before us; it ʻoverflowsʼ us and we are ʻcaught up in itʼ, rather than constituting it.

This implies something about the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy cannot be, as it was classically conceived, a rational reconstruction of reality as experienced, but must seek to make a close connection with the actual experience of existing human beings. Merleau-Ponty saw the classical philosophical tradition as having undergone a steadily deepening crisis after Hegel, to be seen in the work of Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger. It has moved steadily towards becoming a ʻnon-philosophyʼ, meaning not the rejection of philosophical reflection, but what Carbone calls ʻa-philosophyʼ, a negative approach to Being. Nonphilosophy is not centred on a ʻtheory of knowledgeʼ, an account of the ways in which rational subjects can have access to the truth from the outside: we are already in the truth, in the absolute. In that sense, the common opinion or natural attitude is the necessary beginning of knowledge, and phenomenology becomes the making manifest of what is involved in that common experience, which is, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, ʻnot an effect of the absolute, but the absolute itselfʼ (Merleau-Ponty, Notes des cours au Collège de France 1958–1959 et 1960–1961, Gallimard, Paris, 1996, p. 282; trans. as ʻPhilosophy and Non-Philosophy since Hegelʼ, in Hugh J. Silverman, ed., Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, Routledge, London, 1988, p. 15).

In this respect, Merleau-Ponty shows the influence of the structuralist thinking of his friend Claude LéviStrauss. But, in their Introduction to the Cambridge Companion, Carman and Hansen argue, following Vincent Descombes, that ʻMerleau-Pontyʼs interpretations underestimate the extent of the structuralist break with the philosophy of the subjectʼ. On this view, Merleau-Ponty remained too much of the ʻhumanistʼ, with some slight modifications, to take on board fully the implications of that crisis in philosophy of which he himself spoke. Carboneʼs reading, on the other hand, both of the lectures on Nature and of The Visible and the Invisible, makes the late Merleau-Ponty into as much of an anti-humanist as any structuralist.

The Cambridge Companion ranges widely, with no single unifying theme. Charles Taylorʼs characteristically illuminating paper on ʻMerleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Pictureʼ presents Merleau-Pontyʼs view of experience as a form of holism different from, for instance, the Quine–Davidson version. What is distinctive about it, according to Taylor, is that the whole is necessary to give sense to the elements of experience, providing a ʻlocus of shared understandingʼ based not on theoretical information, but on a shared practical ʻability to copeʼ. In the same vein, Hubert Dreyfus, in his contribution, explores the differences between the emphasis of recent cognitive science on representations as the basis for intelligent behaviour and Merleau-Pontyʼs account of skilful coping, without representations, as the most basic type of intelligent behaviour.

This emphasis on active involvement and the resulting meaningfulness of our environment is found again in Mark Wrathallʼs discussion of Merleau-Pontyʼs account of the explanation of human action in terms of reasons rather than causes. This account means, according to Wrathall, that the human lived body is neither completely determined nor completely free. Wrathall sees Merleau-Pontyʼs account of motivation as following in the tradition of Husserlian phenomenology. Similarly, Renaud Barbaras sees Merleau-Ponty as completing the Husserlian project by developing a ʻphenomenology of lifeʼ, which aims to give sense to Husserlʼs concept of the ʻlifeworldʼ. In his discussion of Merleau-Pontyʼs later thought, by contrast, Mark Hansen sees a move away from the Husserlian phenomenology of Phenomenology of Perception. I would question, however, Hansenʼs claim that Merleau-Ponty in that earlier work ʻtook for grantedʼ a dichotomy between mind and body on the one hand and world on the other. The emphasis in the earlier work on embodiment and being-in-the-world seems to me to be already a move away from transcendental phenomenology, if not from the Husserl of the Crisis volume. Hansen makes too sharp a distinction between the earlier and later Merleau-Ponty. Apart from anything else, this is inconsistent with the remarks, cited earlier, in the editorial Introduction he wrote jointly with Carman.

Other papers in the collection consider aspects of Merleau-Pontyʼs philosophy that are not directly connected with ontology or metaphysics, though even in these cases there are indirect links the papers bring out. Joseph Rouse, for example, has many interesting things to say about Merleau-Pontyʼs conception of science, including comparisons with Kuhn and Lakatos. He emphasizes Merleau-Pontyʼs critique of realism. Jonathan Gilmore discusses the relationship Merleau-Ponty saw between painting and philosophy. Any theory of painting, in Merleau-Pontyʼs view, must consider the relation of the artist to the world, and so must imply a metaphysics, ʻa conception of how the self, body, mind, and world interrelateʼ. Finally, the papers by Lydia Goehr and Claude Lefort explore aspects of Merleau-Pontyʼs political thought, in particular his differences with Sartre over the relation between philosophical engagement and political commitment. Goehr makes connections between Merleau-Pontyʼs account of the arts and his political thinking, arguing that ʻa philosophical text, a novel, or a film can be engaged by having “political bearing” even if it has no explicit political contentʼ. Lefort sees Merleau-Pontyʼs idea of a politics of indeterminacy, committed to debate, as ʻnot alien to the spirit of Marxismʼ. Marx, he argues, in his account of the proletariat, can be seen as ʻcalling into question, in the very movement of history, manʼs relation to beingʼ. Even in politics, in short, ontology is inescapable.