Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The world, the flesh, and Merleau-Ponty

Which, I suppose, suggests that M-P is in some sense associated with the Devil -- well, at least in the sense of a rejection of the rejection of the world and flesh. That's important, but it isn't what distinguishes M-P himself. Here's an attempt to explain just that:
Merleau-Ponty's masterpiece, Phenomenology of Perception, was a bold, internally coherent attempt to overcome the problems of empiricism and rationalism in the Cartesian tradition of modern philosophy. As Dillon has shown in his Merleau-Ponty's Ontology, it is pedagogically instructive to introduce Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology as an attempt to resolve Meno's paradox. Meno's paradox, of course, is from the dialogue between Meno and Plato in Plato's Meno. Meno poses a dilemma to Plato: "But how will you look for something when you don't in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don't know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you found is the thing you didn't know?"
Merleau-Ponty's existential-phenomenological epistemology and ontology can be seen as resolving the problem of Meno's paradox, and it does so by relentlessly demonstrating how both empiricism and rationalism fail to do so. Merleau-Ponty writes: "Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism (rationalism) fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching." (Phenomenology of Perception)
Merleau-Ponty begins his phenomenology by giving primacy to perception. The phenomenologist, says Merleau-Ponty, returns "to the world which precedes (scientific description), (the world) of which science always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific characterization is an abstract and derivative sign language as is geography in relation to the countryside."
... In order to understand how Merleau-Ponty understands this subject-object dialogue, we first need to understand a new idea, something which Merleau-Ponty brought to phenomenology: the idea of the lived body.
For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is not just something that goes on in our heads. Rather, our intentional consciousness is experienced in and through our bodies. With his concept of the lived body, Merleau-Ponty overcomes Descartes' mind-body dualism without resorting to physiological reductionism. Recall that for Descartes the body is a machine and the mind is what runs the machine. For Merleau-Ponty the body is not a machine, but a living organism by which we body-forth our possibilities in the world. The current of a person's intentional existence is lived through the body. We are our bodies, and consciousness is not just locked up inside the head. In his later thought, Merleau-Ponty talked of the body as "flesh," made of the same flesh of the world, and it is because the flesh of the body is of the flesh of the world that we can know and understand the world (see The Visible and the Invisible).
The idea of the lived body allows Merleau-Ponty to resolve Meno's paradox. The body is both transcendent and immanent. It is the "third term" between subject and object. I know that transcendent things exist because I can touch them, see them, hear them. But most importantly, I never know things in their totality, but always from an embodied perspective.
... I know when I've found what I'm looking for because the world is already pregnant with meaning in relation to my body. Things begin as ambiguous but become more determinate as I become bodily engaged with them. On the other hand, I do not already know what I am looking for, because the world transcends my total grasp. At any given time, the world as it is given includes not only what is revealed to me, but also what is concealed.


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