Edited by C. Tewes and G. Stanghellini, Time and Body. Phenomenological and Psychopathological approaches (2021) is concerned with working out the role of phenomenology and embodiment research methodologies and insights in order to explore the interrelation between psychopathology, temporality and the embodied mind. The volume’s emphasis lies in investigating the temporal and intersubjective constitution of the body in phenomenological and psychopathological approaches.
An introductory essay by Tewes and Stanghellini (2021) and a preliminary paper by Fuchs (2021) ̶ to whose enduring work the book is also dedicated ̶ open this interdisciplinary collection. Fuchs’s seminal influence over the subsequent researches presented in the volume is thus recognized right from the start. His own hypothesis is that a desynchronization of the intersubjective time experience causing a loss of bodily resonance (2013, 99) lies at the heart of several psychopathologies, such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anorexia nervosa (2021). The remaining essays are grouped by pathologies into 4 sections: I. Body and Time (Legrand, 2021; Stanghellini, 2021; Depraz, 2021; Tschacher, 2021); II. Grief and Anxiety (Køster, 2021; Tanaka, 2021); III. Borderline Personality and Eating Disorders (Ratcliffe & Bortolan, 2021; Schmidt, 2021; Rodemeyer, 2021; Doerr-Zegers & Pelegrina-Cetran, 2021); IV. Depression, Schizophrenia and Dementia (Lenzo & Gallagher, 2021; Froese & Krueger, 2021; Van Duppen & Sienaert, 2021; Tewes, 2021). Interesting commentaries follow each article, discussing the item at issue. The book shows how insights and methodologies from phenomenology and enactivism can be applied in clinics (p. 5), especially in suggesting alternative treatments: Dance therapy or music therapy, for example, can induce a re-synchronization, restoring co-temporality in the therapeutic relationship.
Since Gibson’s (1979) and Varela’s (1991) seminal works on the ecological approach to mind and consciousness, embodiment and enactivism have gained an increased following in the cultural (intersubjective) domain too (Durt, Fuchs & Tewes, 2017; Etzelmüller & Tewes, 2016). What is still missing, however, is an investigation into the interconnection between temporality, embodiment and intersubjectivity (Fuchs, 2013, 2017, 2018) and its significance for psychopathology (Fuchs, 2021): This is the novel contribution the book aims to provide. The main goals of the volume include increasing understanding of the intertwinement of time and bodily experience as well as in the development of an embodied-based phenomenological psychopathology. Some fundamental phenomenological insights can enlighten the several psychopathologies analyzed: The distinction (and shift) between the body as subject / as object (Merleau-Ponty, 1945); time, as an implicit/explicit feature (Husserl, 1952); intersubjectivity, and the related self/other demarcation (as disrupted in pathologies (Sacks, 1987; Sass, 2003; Tsakiris, Prabhu & Haggard, 2006)) as well as the debates about ‘minimal self’ (Lane, 2020; Zahavi, 2017; Nelson, Parnas & Sass, 2014).
With this in mind, another useful way of carving up the conceptual space of the book is by a further thematic (phenomenological) grouping of the several contributions to the volume. Each essay is concerned with the interrelation between temporality and the embodied/embedded mind in psychopathology. However, it is also possible to recognize a particular focus on some of these fundamental phenomenological insights.
Most of the essays are committed to the grounding role of the body. Section I includes papers focussed on the shift from the subject-body [Leib] to the object-body [Körper] in psychopathology. Stanghellini (2021) points out this shift to an ‘objectified body’ in schizophrenia. The Leib profile, meanwhile, is recognized as related to the borderline disorder ̶ especially under the outlined profile of the ‘sheer flesh’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, 1968; Henry, 1965). Moreover, Stanghellini identifies the ‘body-for-others’ ̶ i.e., the body under the others’ gaze (Sartre, 1956) ̶ as being particularly impaired in eating disorders. Beyond the traditional Körper/Leib distinction, he also works out multiple layers of Leib (the ‘lived’ body) as distinct from the ‘living’ body: A crucial difference (but also an intimate relationship between living/lived body), that is further recognizable between just ‘living’ and ‘feeling’ of being alive, Leben and Erleben (Fingerhut & Marienberg – Eds., 2012; Fuchs, 2012; Engelen, 2014, 2012; Barile, forthcoming). In the following sections of the volume, Tanaka (2021) also investigates the role of the body-as-a-object ‘for others’, but in the context of social anxiety. Doerr-Zegers and Pelegrina-Cetran (2021) are concerned with the shift from the body-subject and the body-object in anorexia, as related to implicit/explicit temporality. Van Duppen and Sienaert (2021) examine catatonia ̶ a psychopathology that is underinvestigated ̶ particularly body freezing, as ‘objectifying’ the body. Finally, Tewes’s (2021) contribution on dementia offers an embodied approach to selfhood and personal identity over time. Specifically, he assigns a constitutive role of bodily continuity to personhood, in line with other kinds of approaches also in opposition to the brain- and cognitive-centred mainstream view (Damasio, 2021, 2010; Barile, 2016).
A minor part of the essays collected in the volume focuses on the other grounding phenomenological insights of the book: Time (as implicit/explicit temporality), and intersubjectivity. Tschacher (2021) emphasizes the role of time and body in psychotherapy, offering a quantitative approach based on dynamical systems theory. Adopting a microphenomenological methodology, Depraz (2021) instead investigates psychosomatic diseases as related to chronic time. On his side, Rodemeyer (2021) deals with temporality and body involvement in gendered experiences in the context of eating disorders. Lenzo and Gallagher (2021) underline the role of intrinsic temporality and its disruption in depression, schizophrenia and dementia.
As concerning intersubjectivity, Tewes and Stanghellini’s (2021) and Fuchs’s opening articles (2021) on embodiment, temporality and intersubjectivity in phenomenology and psychopathology are seminal contributions. Among the others, Legrand (2021) is the most committed to the very intertwinement of intersubjectivity, time and body in psychopathology. From a phenomenological (Merleau-Ponty, 1945) and a psychoanalytical perspective (Lacan, 1981), she focuses on the fundamental role of body and time (synchronization) for clinics. As concerning body, ‘otherness’ and the self/other demarcation, Legrand argues against Nancy (2000) for the existence of ‘fluctuating’ boundaries between bodies, recognized as at the basis of both singularity and alterity. Also committed to the ‘being-with’ feature, Køster (2021) provides an existential-phenomenological analysis of the feeling of ‘emptiness’. Ratcliffe and Bortolan (2021) deal with borderline disorder (BDP) as related to emotion dysregulation and unstable interpersonal relationships. On his side, Schmidt (2021) offers a holistic account and a multifactor description of BDP. He focusses on self-experience (which all other factors amount to) rather than on interpersonal relationships only. Froese and Krueger (2021) also concentrate their attention on intersubjectivity and the disturbed self/other demarcation, particularly in schizophrenia.
In sum, the volume turns out to be an interdisciplinary collection of essays accomplishing the goals «to sharpen and deepen an understanding of the intertwinement of time and bodily experience» and «to contribute to the further development of an embodied-based phenomenological psychopathology» (p. 4). Furthermore, the book offers some important contributions (particularly, Tewes & Stanghellini, 2021; Fuchs, 2021; Legrand, 2021; Køster, 2021; Ratcliffe & Bortolan, 2021; Schmidt, 2021; Froese & Krueger, 2021) to enlightening the interconnection between temporality, embodiment and intersubjectivity (Fuchs, 2013b, 2017, 2018b) and its significance for psychopathology (Fuchs, 2021). This aspect is recognized as «still missing» in embodiment and enactivist researches in the introductory paper by Fuchs (p. 12): Some steps on this direction can be traced back to Fuchs’s seminal work (2013b, 2017, 2018b) as well as a number of others (Durt, Fuchs & Tewes, 2017; Etzelmüller & Tewes, 2016; De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007; Koole & Tschacher, 2016). Disclosing the interconnection of time, body and intersubjectivity in psychopathologies constitutes a key ‘inspiration’ of the volume. However, the innovative approach to the clinical practice, considered in the light of phenomenology and embodiment research methodologies and insights, is where this volume’s main contribution lies.
The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
The title of the book reviewed here can be rendered in English as On Husserlian Legacies; Chair, Body, Dynamics of Desire: Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry. The book traces a philosophical genealogy seen seldom, if ever, in Anglophone scholarship. It is customary to read English-language works about Husserl’s influence on Heidegger or Derrida, or others on Husserl and one of the thinkers named in the title, or again on the significance of Heidegger’s thought for Lévinas or Sartre. But this book stands out in that it follows the fate of some of Husserl’s most significant but problematic ideas as they were translated, inherited, and transformed by Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry—an unusual yet fascinating mélange.
In this sense, the book complements its philosophical finesse with accurate historical work and (sometimes daring) philological speculation. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that its three chapters do not simply discuss the Husserlian legacy to be found in each of the three French thinkers in turn, but rather treats the three themes put forth in the title—chair (flesh or Leib), corps (body or Leib/Körper depending on the context) and the dynamics of desire. This thematic approach allows Spagnuolo Vigorita to uncover not only the way in which Husserl is received in the thought of these French authors, but also how they received, reinterpreted, and even rejected each other’s work.
On Husserlian Legacies will be of interest to phenomenologists working on Husserl, as well as those whose scholarship concerns any or all three French philosophers. But it provides crucial material also for historians of philosophy interested in Husserl’s impact at the international level, as well as in the genesis of French phenomenology. Finally, scholars who work on the philosophies of embodiment, affect, or desire are sure to find valuable insights in Spagnuolo Vigorita’s penetrating book.
Before I proceed to summarize the book, however, it should be known that the contents of the book rest on a fundamental assumption of which the reader should be aware for a full appreciation of the book’s accomplishments and shortcomings. The assumption is that
“the publication of Husserl’s unpublished materials does not keep us from continuing to consider the Méditations Cartesiennes not only the most complete formulation of transcendental phenomenology, but also—and this is the more relevant aspect for this work—the privileged and most detailed instance [luogo nevralgico] of the dialectical tension between own-body and object-body” (136).
In other words, the Méditations would remain the most complete account of the tension between Körper and Leib, as it was for Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, even if Husserl’s unpublished materials are taken into consideration. But when made in the context of a work that mainly offers a historical and philological account of Husserl’s reception among these French thinkers, this statement becomes ambiguous. It has been thoroughly established that the first generation of French phenomenologists based their interpretations mostly on Ideen I and Méditations, as Spagnuolo Vigorita herself mentions. But the statement above appears in the context of a comparison between Merleau-Ponty, who visited the Husserl Archives in 1939 to study Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts (especially Ideen II) precisely to investigate the role of the body in the process of constitution, and our three thinkers, who limited their reading to Husserl’s published works and give rise, with respect to Merleau-Ponty, to “an alternative history of the body” (153). In this context, the comments on this divergence risk sounding apologetic rather than historical, especially when the author quotes an article that claims that “Husserl’s unpublished materials do not contain significant deviations from or explicit contradictions of his published works, but rather present a source of indications, developments, and insights into the themes already dealt with in his publications” (135). Thus, as much as the reading of Ideen II contributed to a broader understanding of the phenomena of embodiment and intersubjectivity, it would nevertheless be legitimate to treat the Méditations as Husserl’s definitive account of these phenomena. While the reader should defer to the author on the point that Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry believed this, from a theoretical perspective this position remains more than debatable. At the same time, this theoretical disagreement does not make the history of the body analyzed in the book any less relevant or legitimate.
The book is divided into three chapters. The first treats the transition, pioneered by our three thinkers, from epistemology to life as the central theme of phenomenology. The second gives an account of the “alternative history of the body” mentioned above; and the third chapter is devoted to the dynamics of desire. The first chapter opens with a prefatory section on Lévinas’ role in the reception of Husserl in France. This is not simply a historical account, however. The tacit argument here is that, although others before Lévinas had taken up Husserl in France (the author mentions Jean Hering and I would add Gabrielle Peiffer), the Lithuanian-born philosopher was the one who brought an epochal change to the French philosophy of that time: “Emmanuel Lévinas, translator and interpreter of Husserl: this is the philosophical shock that, in the 1930’s, marked the genesis of the receptive process of phenomenology in France” (26). This receptive moment begins, on one hand, with the publication of Lévinas’ doctoral dissertation (La théorie de l’intuition dans la phénomenologie de Husserl), and on the other, with his re-elaboration and translation of Husserl’s Paris Lectures of 1929, which were published under the title Méditations Cartesiennes. These publications would leave an indelible mark on French philosophy, as the phenomenologies of Sartre (especially in his La transcendence de l’ego) and Henry (in particular his Phénomenologie materielle). Spagnuolo Vigorita does not shy away from the complexity of the genealogy she traces, rightly acknowledging that Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is deeply influenced by Heidegger’s factico-existential phenomenology. Still, Lévinas’ anti-intellectualistic interpretation of phenomenology is not only to Heidegger’s credit, but depends just as much on Lévinas’ encounter with Husserl’s Paris Lectures, lectures that emphasized the lived body, intersubjectivity, and the lifeworld.
Lévinas’ mediation of Husserl’s philosophy thus begins from concepts that allow him to recast the phenomenological enterprise as one that must be thoroughly embodied, affective, and relational. As such, phenomenology in France cannot but move away from the Bergsonism that tacitly reigned at that time. And yet, Bergson’s intuitionism presented “not only a method that contained a certain proximity to the thematic nucleus of Husserlian speculation, but also, in a certain sense, a disposition of thought that had already sensitized the French spirit to a philosophy hostile to all abstract structures and purely rational deductions” (41). In this sense, Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is ambiguous in that, on one hand, it heralds phenomenology as an authentic return to the things themselves, but, on the other, it rejects the centrality of representation that Husserl—at least in Lévinas’ reading—confers to the intentional relation. This does not allow a true follower of Husserl to account for the situation of the living, worldly, historical human being during the process of reduction. In this sense, Théorie de l’intuition is just as much an enthusiastic introduction of phenomenology as it is a rejection of some of Husserl’s most central themes. Intentionality “in the strong sense of the term” (66) means making explicit the point of convergence of thought and life, and in this way to understand intentionality more properly as transcendence toward and into the world. While Lévinas never forsakes his critique of Husserl’s reduction of lived experience to what is present for consciousness, he does find in the German philosopher’s unpublished writings the resources to push phenomenology away from representationalism and toward an account of transcendent life as first and foremost embodied and affective: “Reduction, intentionality, embodiment, [pre-predicative] perception: new themes [which], from now on, offer themselves as the fundamental concepts of phenomenology (81).
Sartre’s first works of phenomenology are also critical of Husserl’s intellectualism even as they praise the notion of intentionality. For Sartre as for Lévinas, it is a matter of actualizing the possibilities that the phenomenological revolution brought to French philosophy, and of thus being, as the saying goes, more Husserlian than Husserl himself. And the affinity between the French thinkers is no mistake, the author claims, as the determining moment for the Sartrean appropriation of phenomenology is his reading of Levinas’ Théorie de l’intuition. This is a daring moment of philological speculation, since there are hardly any references to Lévinas in Sartre’s entire oeuvre, but Spagnuolo Vigorita argues convincingly for it. The main themes of Lévinas’ interpretation—the emphasis on contingence, the historical situatedness of the subject, the importance of the reduction, and most of all the understanding of intentionality as a veritable explosion toward the world—all find a home in Sartre’s phenomenological work. And here, too, one cannot but notice that Husserl’s philosophy is filtered through Heidegger’s. For Sartre, phenomenology offers a third way that would evade both (subjective) idealism and scientific naturalism, and can even prepare the way for a new philosophy of emotion and passivity. “What seems to me indubitable,” the author writes, “is that the identification of affect as the privileged means of self-transcendence toward the world…became Sartre’s weapon against the false myths of the ‘interior life’” (85). It is not a matter of denying the cogito as much as it is a matter of scaling down its constitutive-representational powers in favor of the spontaneous self-revelation of the worldly phenomenon and the subject’s living praxis. Yet Sartre goes further than Lévinas. Where the latter sees in intentionality the possibility of thinking the primordial “how” of the relation to the world, Sartre appropriates the concept in order to sweep away any “thingly” aspect of consciousness that takes away from its absolute spontaneity. This, for Sartre, is the true sense of the reduction: the elimination of the ego as the last psychical remainder that characterizes consciousness as self-positing. After all, if the ego is absolutely self-transcendent, then it is a worldly thing posited along with the rest and, as such, it must be excluded.
A particularly brilliant part of the author’s analysis of Sartre shows that “his pre-reflective remodulation of phenomenology that begins with his works…seems to be inextricably tied to bodily experience” (97) even as the early Sartre seeks to expel all transcendent objects from the field of consciousness, even the ego. The body, as the most transcendent part of egoic experience, should be the first aspect of the ego to be reduced away, and yet there necessarily must be an “implicit body” (98) that plays a tacit but crucial role in Sartre’s early phenomenology. In La Transcendence de l’Ego, the body would thus be given as a visible and tangible sign of the ego understood not as the result of reflective thinking—the “I myself”—but as the unreflective pole of spontaneous praxis. After all, “it is evident that the support for…the motor functions [implied in praxis]…cannot but be the body” (101). Spagnuolo Vigorita’s argument for this implicit body is well grounded in the text and convincing.
The section on Henry is shorter than the previous two for two reasons. First, Henry himself is much more critical of Husserlian phenomenology than the others. If Lévinas and Sartre find in intentionality the conceptual resources for a philosophical revolution despite their disagreements with Husserl, “for Henry it is precisely in this concept that the forgetfulness of a more originary kind of manifestation, i.e., that of life, is accomplished” (110). In other words, there is less negotiation to be found in Henry’s engagement of Husserl because, for him, the intentional relation is what obscures life’s phenomenality. In this sense, Henry’s Phénomenologie Materielle and many of his subsequent works seek to unbind the conditions of phenomenality from the “outside” (dehors) or externality of the world. The title of this first chapter, “From Epistemology to Life,” fits Henry’s trajectory perfectly.
Nevertheless, the author gives an informative account of how Henry argues for his phenomenological rebellion and how Husserl’s thought informs it. As with Sartre and Lévinas, Henry certainly rejects the primacy that Husserl bestows upon representative and predicative thinking. Furthermore, he follows the two in recasting the process of phenomenological reduction, so that, for Henry, “the radicalization of the reduction coincides with the suspension of the ecstatic dimension of visibility” (115). A more radical reinterpretation of the reduction and its uses, since Henry does not seek to suspend only the representative powers of consciousness, but the very equivalence, always taken for granted, of visibility and manifestation. In other words, it is not only a matter of helping consciousness in making the phenomenon of sense visible through a sinngebenden Akt, but rather of letting manifest what most originarily self-manifests of its own accord—and this is life. As much as this might seem a complete rejection of Husserl’s thinking, it is through Husserl that the phenomenology of life becomes possible at all. In fact, Henry takes up Husserl’s account of hyletic givenness to argue that there is an intelligibility in the immanent passivity of hyletic affection that precedes and founds all active sense-giving. This precedence of affection over activity shows that the visibility of all objects appearing in the world necessarily depend on the invisible, immanent, and self-affecting life. As soon as consciousness “reduces the hyletic impression to the mere content of a noetic act…the material stratum becomes nothing but an opaque dimension subordinated to the higher functions of intentional apperception” (118, 119). The absolute scission between immanent life (with its material self-affection) and transcendent world (with its sense-receiving objects) is not an oppositional dualism, but a relation of founding and founded strata.
For all three philosophers, then, it is a matter of bracketing predicative, sense-giving activity, which Husserl is seen as privileging, in order to make manifest the living, practical, and carnal dimensions of experience that make manifest the more authentic themes of phenomenology.
The second chapter, titled “Between Ownness and Alterity: With and beyond Husserl,” takes up Husserl’s well-known account of the experience of other subjects in the fifth Cartesian Meditation and shows how Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry modify it in their own accounts of alterity. It is here that the author traces the “alternative history of the body” that, in her view, is not as widely recognized as Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of embodiment and intersubjective.
“To dispel the danger of the solipsism that the transcendental path of the pure ego necessitates,” Spagnuolo Vigorita states, “the fifth Méditation begins by asking whether, in a gnoseological sense, the experiences of self-identity and alterity are reconcilable” (140). Husserl’s reduction to the sphere of ownness is here interpreted as a methodologically necessary step—one that excludes all traces of other subjects—that paves a via negativa to the experience of the other as someone who is not myself. In this sense, it is necessary to start from what belongs purely to the ego if the experience of the alter-ego is to be possible. The experience of one’s own body is the basis of all possible action, most crucially of actions aimed upon oneself. In touching my hand with my other hand, I discover the interchangeability of agent and patient that is unique to my Leib, and thus that the experience of my own body is constituted as an inescapable commixture of ownness and alterity, Leib and Körper. My body is not only available to me as the organ of my action, but always and also in the way that another subject would experience it, i.e., as extraneous. The alterity that my own body can always present me with is just as foundational as its ownness. Thus, there is no essential difference between my experience of an alter-ego, who manifests primarily through its physical body as Körper, and my experience of my own body as Körper. The similarity between my body and the other’s makes possible my recognition of it as always also the Leib of another subject and not merely a Körper indistinguishable from all other worldly objects.
The problem with such a “proof” of the alterity of the alter-ego, as Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry recognize, is that it makes this alterity depend on my experience of ownness: If Husserl can conclude that the alter-ego is not simply a duplicate of myself, it is because their objective body reproduces the mode of appearance that my own body would have if it were “there” rather than “here.” In other words, the existence of the alter-ego is always mediated by the objective experience of two Körpern. For this reason, Lévinas proclaims himself “très embarrassé” (171) by Husserl’s fifth Meditation. The alter is not truly alter if their very possibility is deduced through an analogy with myself. On the contrary, it is my ownness that is jeopardized by the experience of the Other, an experience that precedes all possible self-reflection. Material, embodied experience constitutively contains a degree of passivity in which alterity (and not just that of the alter-ego) is always active. Otherness affects the self so intimately that the very status of the “mineness” of my body is no longer a certainty, “because the existent, in the very moment in which it comes to itself, is already confronted with the internal sundering that constitutes it” (166). In this way, Lévinas rejects the Husserlian dictum that the “I-can” is the most distinctive characteristic of Leib, thus substituting for the principle of praxis a more original bodily ambiguity. Furthermore, Lévinas’ later reflections on the Face of the Other must be read against this phenomenological critique of Husserl, lest we take his mature philosophy to reject all lived experience in favor of an ethics that precedes all manifestation. That the Face precedes me is not simply an abstract ethical starting point, but most properly names the original vulnerability of the self to alterity in general and to the Other most of all.
As with Lévinas, so for Sartre the phenomenological experience of embodiment is most properly understood as a being vulnerable to others. When Sartre writes of the visage, he is referring to the way in which the corps vécu differs from the massiveness of worldly objects: “before any gnoseological definition, each movement of the body, that is, of the face, is first of all a gesture with a specific orientation and temporality that escape universality” (178). However, Sartre parts ways with Lévinas in that the former’s account of intersubjectivity revolves around sight and the visual. My own face shows its liveliness only when another looks at me and thus offers me his own face. The reverse is also true: when I see the other, I immediately recognize the excess of the human over the world of things, because the voracious eyes of the other betray their transcendence toward the in-itself. As far as Sartre is concerned, then, Husserl’s error would be in ascribing an extended, material body to the ego when, in fact, these objective attributes are only apparent to the gaze of another.
In the transition from Husserl’s idealism to Sartre’s existential phenomenology, the separation of Körper and Leib becomes sharper. This is true of Henry as well, for whom “the praxis of the body, an event that takes place in phenomenological silence, is accomplished in its pathos” (187). It is only when I take up a representational attitude that I can grasp my body as an object, for the lived body has nothing to do with the physical body composed of cells, molecules, and atoms. For both authors, the lived body has absolute precedence over the known body, but each will resolve the Leib/Körper aporia differently: where Sartre holds that bodily sensations, e.g., touch, only reveal something about the transcendent world of the in-itself, Henry sees in sensation the absolutely immanent self-sensation of Life. In both cases, the sensing body as liminal space between the immanent and the transcendent, is directed only one way, be this outward or inward, but never both at once—sensation is not double sensation. It is on this question of double-sensation that the path of French phenomenology splits. The “alternative” history of the body that the author sketches is an alternative to Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment and its influence in the French phenomenological scene. The sections on Merleau-Ponty close with remarks on the critiques that our three thinkers develop in response to his ideas of chiasmus and chair du mond.
If Sartre and Lévinas agree that bodily experience is the dimension in which all possible self-identity is always already contaminated, Henry’s position is significantly different. This discrepancy of views stems from Henry’s peculiar understanding of subjectivity. For where Lévinas and Sartre both conceive this contamination as a challenge to the ego’s self-coincidence, Henry holds that all difference and separation can only yield a false account of the subject, who is uniformly compact in its absolute immanence. The possibility of self-transcendence toward the world and toward others is not constitutive of subjectivity, but rather a modification of it insofar as it entails separation. Henry’s subject begins to resemble Sartre’s in-itself in that his affirmation, “je suis mon corp,” does not require any further analysis: to say “I am” is to say “I feel myself in my self-coinciding immanence.” Sartre cannot but appear, in Henry’s philosophy, as its foe. In this diametrical opposition between the two philosophers of transcendence (Lévinas, Sartre) and the philosopher of immanence (Henry), we can observe just how fruitful it is to trace the effects of the French reception of the Méditations Cartesiennes.
And yet, while radical transcendence and absolute immanence cannot coexist in one and the same phenomenology, Husserl’s account of the intersubjective relation provides a foil that brings the three French authors closer together. In all three, in fact, we find instances “that coincide with the common preoccupation of safeguarding the threads of pluralistic life against objective and objectifying knowledge” (258). For Sartre, this can be seen in the experience of shame where the separation between eyes and gaze is most evident; for Lévinas, the Face is the ungraspable mystery of the Other that nullifies and reverses the directionality of intentional consciousness; and for Henry, the experience of alterity is, paradoxically, an experience that takes place purely within myself, i.e., the ultimate test of his doctrine of absolute immanence. Perhaps, in rejecting all transcendence even in the experience of alterity, Henry necessarily misses the most captivating dimension of otherness (259), but his phenomenology of life does not fail to transform the Husserlian account of intersubjectivity into a philosophy that overcomes the paradigm of objectivity.
The third and final chapter discusses the “dynamics of desire” in our three thinkers, though the phrase “vicissitudes of desire” is just as appropriate a title. While the first two chapters contained detailed historical and philological research, along with relevant comparisons between the father of phenomenology and his French interpreters, this chapter is somewhat less admirable on these points. There is no discussion here on the fate of Husserl’s account of desire in the works of the three French authors, which would have been the most original analysis in the book and would keep to the promise of its title. Indeed, the only mention of Husserl that appears at all in this chapter is in reference to the French phenomenologists who saw fit to investigate the erotic phenomenon “as a privileged starting point for denouncing the ineffectiveness of the visual and cognitive relation, [which is] the presupposition of the classical notion of intentionality” (268). Nevertheless, this section is not limited to a simple exegesis of the texts where Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry discuss desire and its dynamics. It also offers fruitful comparisons between these three and shows how Lévinas’ account of eros succeeds in mediating between the carnal and transcendent aspects of desire where Sartre and Henry can only fail. The Lévinasian position is the successful culmination of the analyses of life and embodiment that the author carried out in the previous chapters.
This chapter begins with Sartre’s lengthy account of désir as it is discussed in L’Être et le Néant. In Sartre’s view, and as the reader might expect, desire fails to accomplish what the for-itself hopes it would do, because the carnal aspect of existence can only ever be constituted as an objectification of myself on the part of the other. The author warns us here not to reduce this account to a Sartrean version of Hegel’s master-bondsman dialectic, where two self-consciousnesses seek to achieve the desired recognition by reducing one another to material, servile existence. While Sartre certainly draws from Hegel here, he goes beyond the Phenomenology of Spirit by capturing the drama that carnal, specifically sexual desire implies for both the lover and the beloved. This drama is best understood as a cloudiness that contaminates water that would otherwise be limpid and transparent. In this sense, desire threatens the freedom of the for-itself by affecting it and thereby rendering it passive to its own carnality. The relation to the other is thereby already compromised and destined to fail. Nevertheless, through desire I attempt to objectify the other by possessing their body, and the other does the same with me. However, the use of my own carnality (read: facticity) as the means by which the other is objectified inevitably places my own freedom in peril: “the for-itself chooses its being-there on the basis of a process in which passivity does not mean a pure undergoing of affection and in which, at the same time, self-projection does not completely overcome the inertia [of the other’s facticity]” (282).
Desire, for Sartre, carves out a liminal space wherein carnal encounters are not immediately objectifying, though they will eventually result in objectification. The example of the caresse shows this well. Inasmuch as it is an expression of the will to subjugate the other, the caress remains an instance of carnal contact. However, the caress is not only this because it also signifies a will to express one’s own carnality, i.e., one’s vulnerability. Erotic desire thus represents the unique possibility of reciprocally abdicating one’s freedom in order to feel, through one’s own flesh, the flesh of the other. The “magic” of the caress inevitably fails, but “between the genesis and end of desire, something out of the ordinary takes place and it has to do neither with possession nor with the instrumentalization of the other. Rather, the space of a reciprocal desire is the possibility to make oneself and one another present as chair and to discover the event of incarnation” (296).
The dynamics of désir in Sartre’s works thus have an inevitable fate—not because of a pre-established teleology, but because in Sartre’s hands, desire must be a contradictory endeavor in the same way that the for-itself seeks to become like a god (a for-itself-in-itself) but can never accomplish this because of the opposition between the two structures. But Lévinas offers an alternative analysis in which desire, understood as eros, has a happier fate. Already in his Carnets de Captivité, he makes observations about the relation between eros and caresse that contradict Sartre’s erotic fatalism. The caress is the concrete form of the hope for the present. It does not say that things will get better (nor would anyone expect it to do so, given the context in which the Carnets were written), but it redeems from within the present.
In fact, the whole dynamics of eros promises, for Lévinas, to be the first gesture toward a true intersubjectivity, toward a communal existence. The Carnets offer a glimpse into the tormented reflections that would become the foundation of an ethics beyond ontology, and as sketches of living thought rather than crystallized publications, they sometimes go beyond what Lévinas restated for all to read. A particularly pregnant phrase, for instance, states “sexuality as the origin of the social,” a phrase that contains the aspiration to found communal being on desire, the body, the carnal relation with another: “because there is such a thing as sexual ‘intimacy,’ there is the phenomenon of the social as something more than the sum of individuals” (301). Far from being doomed from the start, bodily desire is for Lévinas the possibility of a relation that overcomes the fundamental ontology of the Daseinsanalyse. This is not limited to sexual desire or eros, but bodily needs [besoins] in general are the first step toward happiness. “If, in the case of bodily needs, satisfaction leads to an absorption of the object on the part of the subject…the peculiarity of the erotic relation lies in the impossibility of overcoming the separation [of subject from subject]” (302). But unlike in L’Etre et le Néant, this impossibility must be read positively in the sense that it always refers to something beyond simple fulfillment.
Where does Henry fit in here? The author compares three texts side by side, one from each philosopher, to show that Lévinas acts as mediator between the extreme positions of Sartre and Henry: “From the being-there of chair that Sartre’s caresse aspires to, to the secret of a sexuality hors du monde, through Lévinas and the violation that does not unveil” (329). It is difficult for Henry to account for the sexual relation, since a relation that is outside of the world-horizon and understood as something subjective and immanent, then it is hard to see how it is a relation at all. Henry is aware of this difficulty, but the author again proposes that the Life-World distinction must be read not oppositionally but foundationally: the non-appearing Life is what makes the appearing world and its objects possible. On the basis of autoaffective Life, all human gestures and not only the sexual relation must be rethought, according to Henry. The body of the other is a transcendent and objective body, but within its finitude I cannot help but glimpse something more. “This is the unspoken presupposition of sexual intentionality,” writes Spagnuolo Vigorita. “To seek, by means of something objective, what could never be touched nor seen because it is something essentially transcendent” (333). Here the reader cannot but intuit a certain closeness between Henry and Sartre, for in the works of both authors the essence of desiring consciousness is to seek the absolute beyond, or within, the contingent. But while Sartre thinks a consciousness so transcendent that its relation to others is part of its facticity, Henry seems unable to respond to the urgency of a phenomenological account of the carnal relation.
And yet, the phenomenology of Life does answer the question of inter-carnality, if only in an almost mystical, almost unintelligible manner: “Even when we go into the world, when we cross a space, we move—this is Henry’s conclusion—toward something that already exists in each living: the instinctual, impulsive community [comunità pulsionale] of which Life is the essence. We might assume that, if all relations obey the laws of originary autoaffection, the erotic community is no exception” (335). Pleasure would be the limit-experience that clarifies this conclusion. It is the same Life that pulses within each of us and that affects itself in perfect immanence, but a desiring consciousness that comes out of itself and into the world in order to feel the pleasure, the Life of the other, cannot but fail because it is precisely in the gesture of self-transcendence that Life is no longer given. In this sense, Sartre and Henry reach the same conclusion while standing at opposite extremes of the intentional spectrum.
On Husserlian Legacies is a work that has a lot to offer to scholars of phenomenology, for it has something to say on many issues surrounding questions of embodiment, affectivity, desire, and the phenomenological possibility of an authentic intersubjectivity. While its comments on Husserl serve more as a background for the investigation of points of contact between Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, the study proposed by Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita fills several lacunae in Anglophone research in phenomenology. Its historical acuity, philological depth, and theoretical grasp of the three French figures analyzed therein, will no doubt renew phenomenological research on the themes of embodiment, intersubjectivity, and affect, and will have Anglophone scholars reaching once again for the works of Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry.
 It should be noted that the English term “desire” is not perfectly equivalent to the French désir or to the Italian desiderio. The latter two are broader than the former and include connotations of yearning, longing for, aspiring to, or wishing, as well as connotations of craving, needing, lusting for, feeling an urge for, or coveting. The English “desire,” on the other hand, strikes me as more restricted in its extension, leaning more toward the appetitive than the aspirational.
Selon Paul Valéry, « la connaissance a le corps de l’homme pour limite ». Un grand paradoxe se présente donc si nous essayons de penser philosophiquement la violence, un sujet urgent et d’actualité : la violence nous renvoie immédiatement au corps, et la connaissance philosophique trouverait sa limite dans le corps. Nous pouvons cependant considérer la réflexion philosophique comme une réflexion qui dépasse les limites de la connaissance, et en ce sens, qui ne peut se réaliser que dans la considération du corps. En tout état de cause, toute la difficulté est de savoir si la philosophie est la discipline la plus adéquate pour traiter le sujet de la violence. Le philosophe est-il capable d’apporter quelque point de vue d’importance à ce sujet ? Katherine Mansilla le pense, en suivant Maurice Merleau-Ponty, un philosophe qui est parvenu à développer une réflexion philosophique sur le corps. Mansilla présente la pensée de Merleau-Ponty afin de soulever des questions et de proposer des réponses possibles aux différentes significations qui découlent du thème de la violence. Mansilla estime que l’importance de la perspective élaborée par Merleau-Ponty est qu’elle nous permet de comprendre la violence à partir de la contingence : l’histoire, les relations collectives, notre pays. En ce sens, le livre de Mansilla est aussi une refonte de la pensée politique de Merleau-Ponty basée sur le concept de violence. Mais le texte de Mansilla est loin de diviser la pensée de Merleau-Ponty entre une partie théorique et une partie pratique, entre sa phénoménologie et sa philosophie politique. Mansilla relève le défi de penser, enrichi par la perspective gestaltiste de la figure et du fond, l’unité de la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty, de sa phénoménologie de la perception à sa dernière ontologie, en tenant compte du fait que l’unité de la production philosophique est encadrée par le fond historico-politique qui traverse toute la pensée de Merleau-Ponty.
I. Le fond socio-historique
Que la philosophie ne puisse être détachée de son contexte ou de son fond socio-historique est une intuition qui a accompagné Merleau-Ponty tout au long de son œuvre. Cependant, cette appartenance ne peut être comprise qu’à travers l’effort de comprendre cet arrière-plan comme la condition de possibilité d’une expérience constitutive. Comme on le lit dans Éloge de la philosophie, « la philosophie habite l’histoire et la vie, mais elle voudrait s’installer en leur centre, au point où elles sont avènement, sens naissant. Elle s’ennuie dans le constitué. Étant expression, elle ne s’accomplit qu’en renonçant à coïncider avec l’exprimé et en l’éloignant pour en voir le sens ». Mansilla parvient à rendre compte de la dialectique qui s’établit entre le constitué et le constituant dans la pensée de Merleau-Ponty. Une dialectique qui, selon elle, est présente dès ses premières œuvres, dans lesquelles il tente d’élucider la structure de la perception. Elle se consacre donc non seulement à situer la pensée de Merleau-Ponty dans son contexte socio-historique, mais, à partir de là, elle délimite le rôle des concepts les plus importants de sa pensée en général – tels que le corps propre, l’intentionnalité opérante, la temporalité, l’être-au-monde – afin de comprendre sa pensée sur la violence. Cette pensée ne doit pas être comprise comme une position « politique » mais plutôt comme une pensée sur « le politique », qui répond à des concepts tels que la dialectique sans synthèse, l’anonymat social et l’institution.
C’est le premier chapitre, intitulé « Merleau-Ponty sur le fond social de l’entre-deux-guerres », qui sert de base à ce fond socio-historique. Mansilla se place dans le contexte biographique de Merleau-Ponty afin d’établir une relation entre la violence vécue par le philosophe en temps de guerre et sa critique de la philosophie de « survol ». Un événement important souligné par l’auteure est la participation de Merleau-Ponty à la fondation, avec Sartre, du groupe Socialisme et Liberté en 1941, qui a soutenu la Résistance dans ses publications. C’est à cette époque que le philosophe prépare les bases de ce qui deviendra la Phénoménologie de la perception dans sa thèse dirigée par Émile Bréhier. À cette époque, parmi les lectures les plus importantes de Merleau-Ponty figurent les textes de Trosky, de Lénine et l’ouvrage de Renaudet sur Machiavel. Dans le contexte mondial, à la fin de la guerre, l’idéologie totalitaire est en plein essor, ce qui entraîne une opposition entre le libéralisme et le communisme.
II. L’héritage husserlien
Mais de cet arrière-plan ou fond biographique émerge l’exigence philosophique héritée de la phénoménologie husserlienne du retour aux choses elles-mêmes qui, dans la vision de Merleau-Ponty, prend le sens d’un retour de la réflexion philosophique au sujet de son propre corps dans un monde marqué par la violence. À cet égard, les conférences de Paris données par Husserl à la Sorbonne en 1929 ont été fondamentales pour la conception de la phénoménologie de Merleau-Ponty. Mais l’héritage husserlien est également fondamental pour comprendre le sens de la liberté que Merleau-Ponty articule afin de donner un sens au politique. Il est intéressant de noter que l’auteure reprend la distinction ricœurienne entre la politique, domaine ontique des pratiques institutionnelles rationnellement assumées par la philosophie politique, et le politique, domaine ontologique ou structurel des relations de pouvoir, afin de situer la perspective de Merleau-Ponty dans la dialectique de ces deux domaines, que l’auteure comprend comme la dialectique de l’institué et de l’instituant.
En ce sens, la liberté est comprise dans une perspective génétique qui permet à l’auteure de revenir sur les aspects constitutifs du politique. Cette sphère précède la sphère de la connaissance ou de la délibération. Ainsi, les intérêts socio-historiques sont ici fondamentaux pour comprendre l’orientation des analyses de la Phénoménologie de la perception dans la perspective de Mansilla. Ces intérêts radicalisent la description de Merleau-Ponty grâce à la perspective génétique héritée de Husserl. Mansilla emprunte ici les instruments de cette orientation de la méthode husserlienne pour comprendre Merleau-Ponty, ce qui ne trahit pas le sens de la réduction husserlienne. Comme on le sait, en tant que dévoilement ou thématisation de la constitution, la réduction husserlienne est toujours une « interrogation rétrospective » (Rückfrage) qui peut avoir deux orientations, correspondant à un fondement de validité (Geltungsfundierung), et à un fondement génétique (Genesisfundierung). Ces deux types de fondement correspondent au sens philosophique de « fondement ». Mais c’est cette dernière qui nous permet d’expliciter, selon les termes de Fink, la « pauvreté, la plus extrême qu’on puisse imaginer » de la subjectivité.
Mansilla découvre le même geste dans la pensée de Merleau-Ponty. Il nous exhorte, précisément, à revenir à une expérience originelle du monde, une expérience qui précède toute connaissance. C’est à ce niveau que nous nous reconnaissons comme des êtres vivants face à un monde qui nous est inéluctable (p. 42). Mansilla nous fait ainsi lire ce fragment de la Phénoménologie de la perception : « la perception n’est pas une science du monde ce n’est pas même un acte, une prise de position délibérée, elle est le fond sur lequel tous les actes se détachent et elle est présupposée par eux ». Selon Mansilla, le travail de Merleau-Ponty sur la perception nous permet de prendre conscience que nous sommes des corps qui forment un seul système avec le monde, ce qui peut être compris comme la signification du monde par le corps dans une relation circulaire. Le sensible demande au monde d’être mis en forme par le corps. Le corps répond à cette demande et met le monde en forme. Cette mise en forme est comprise par Mansilla comme expression ou signification, ce qui lui permet de voir la continuité entre les analyses merleau-pontiennes consacrées à la perception et celles consacrées plus tard à l’expression. Dans cette perspective, nous lisons précisément dans la Phénoménologie de la perception une radicalisation du thème de l’expression en vue de l’orientation génétique qui annonce déjà ce qui va suivre dans la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty :
« C’est la fonction du langage de faire exister les essences dans une séparation qui, à vrai dire, n’est qu’apparente, puisque par lui elles reposent encore sur la vie antéprédicative de la conscience. Dans le silence de la conscience originaire, on voit apparaître non seulement ce que veulent dire les mots, mais encore ce que veulent dire les choses, le noyau de signification primaire autour duquel s’organisent les actes de dénomination et d’expression ».
Selon Mansilla, Merleau-Ponty poursuit ainsi les analyses génétiques de Husserl, renouvelle l’héritage phénoménologique qu’il assume de manière rigoureuse sans cacher ses paradoxes et dont il explore différents horizons thématiques pour développer sa propre réflexion. En ce sens, le corps et le langage sont compris dans l’héritage génétique de la phénoménologie husserlienne. C’est ce même héritage qui lui permet de surmonter les dichotomies qui découlent du sentiment de violence. Ainsi, dans le deuxième chapitre intitulé « Violence et humanisme », l’auteure échange les analyses génétiques contre une vision profonde du politique.
Le texte clé est ici le célèbre ouvrage Humanisme et terreur. Sur la base de ce texte, et sans négliger le contexte socio-historique marqué à cette époque par la participation de Merleau-Ponty à la revue Les temps modernes, l’auteure retrace le lien entre les différentes significations de la violence chez Merleau-Ponty. Le premier a trait aux phénomènes politiques que le philosophe traverse entre 1945 et 1947, qui peuvent être compris comme le conflit entre libéraux et communistes sur la violence que les uns rencontrent chez les autres. Cette violence est appelée, par l’auteure, violence idéologique. Merleau-Ponty trouvera une forme de violence pré-prédicative et pré-rationnelle qui lui permettra de dépasser les dichotomies des idéologies de la guerre froide. Cette forme de violence qui répond au second sens peut être explicitée grâce à une perspective humaniste de la violence, qui comprend la violence comme matériellement constitutive de toute praxis politique.
Un troisième sens de la violence est la violence de l’histoire, qui est le fondement des deux autres formes de violence. Merleau-Ponty reprend ici, selon l’aurore, ses analyses de la perception en identifiant en elle un corps traversé par son intentionnalité opératoire située dans une temporalité perceptive. En bref, l’histoire, en sédimentant les sens dans le temps, et en demandant aux hommes de marcher en un sens, change. Selon Mansilla, « l’histoire est violente parce qu’elle est contingente et ambiguë » (p. 57). Merleau-Ponty nous invite donc à aborder l’histoire à partir d’un sujet acteur dans une histoire ouverte, violente, sauvage. L’avenir politique est donc un acte révolutionnaire dans un sens existentialiste, créatif et révolutionnaire. Dans chaque type de violence, nous trouvons une structure de plus en plus fondamentale et constitutive du social. Ainsi, dans le troisième chapitre de cet ouvrage intitulé « L’anonymat social », l’auteure revient sur l’influence husserlienne de l’analyse génétique chez Merleau-Ponty pour comprendre ce dernier type de violence. Nous sommes confrontés à une radicalisation du fondement contingent du politique et de l’expérience. C’est cette radicalisation qui aurait conduit Merleau-Ponty à se rapprocher de Machiavel.
III. De Machiavel à Marx
Machiavel permet à l’auteure de plonger dans le contexte socio-politique révélé par les analyses de la perception. Le texte clé ici est une conférence sur Machiavel présentée au Congrès de Florence de 1949 et publiée dans Signes. Mansilla identifie ici une confluence entre la préoccupation merleau-pontienne pour le langage et pour la contingence fondamentale du politique. Au fond, c’est cette préoccupation commune qui aurait conduit Merleau-Ponty à chercher chez Marx certaines réponses à la réflexion philosophique sur les problèmes politiques et sociaux qui traversent son contexte socio-historique, comme le montrera Mansilla dans le cinquième chapitre de son livre intitulé « Merleau-Ponty, lecteur de Marx ».
L’auteure comprend la relation de Merleau-Ponty avec le marxisme comme une relation constante et dialogique. Elle identifie ainsi les mentions de Marx depuis la Phénoménologie de la perception jusqu’à Les aventures de la dialectique. Le concept clé ici est celui de production, un concept que Merleau-Ponty comprendra dans une perspective existentielle et humaniste. Mansilla parvient également à rendre compte de la discussion de Merleau-Ponty avec les marxistes de son temps sur la défense du Parti communiste français, ainsi que de la rupture avec Sartre. Selon l’auteure, il s’agit dans les deux cas d’une radicalisation de la perspective de la contingence par rapport au social.
Dans le dernier chapitre intitulé « Expression, institution et contingence », l’auteure propose une vue d’ensemble du politique dans la perspective de Merleau-Ponty, en s’appuyant sur les aspects explorés dans les chapitres précédents. Le concept clé ici est celui de l’expression, qui permet à l’auteure de comprendre la dialectique entre l’institué et l’instituant. L’auteure identifie un lien primordial entre la contingence du langage et la contingence de la politique. Cela permet au philosophe d’expliciter les relations dialectiques comme étant les siennes, dans une vie commune contingente qui s’enracine dans sa communication et son action avec les autres. Nous nous retrouvons donc avec une conception purement contingente de l’histoire qui place dans un cadre phénoménologique génétique divers événements historiques qui traversent la vie de Merleau-Ponty. L’expression comprise dans le cadre de la communication entre individus et cultures diverses nous permet de reconnaître une universalité ouverte fondée sur un anonymat originel. Merleau-Ponty nous permettrait ainsi de nous interroger sur un sens profond de la violence qui implique ses significations historiquement sédimentées et une approche de notre réalité sociale.
Mansilla nous permet enfin de poser certaines questions qui dépassent le cadre de la philosophie merleau-pontienne et s’adressent à la philosophie en général : la philosophie peut-elle dire quelque chose de radical sur la constitution politique du monde dans lequel nous vivons ? Est-il possible de réaliser une philosophie engagée dans la réalité ? Cet engagement est-il accessoire ou nécessaire au travail philosophique ? Le pari de Mansilla est un pari qui défend l’unité de la théorie et de la pratique philosophiques, une unité incarnée dans un contexte socio-historique vital que nous ne pouvons pas « survoler ». En ce sens, il est impossible de ne pas rapprocher l’ouvrage de Mansilla, dont nous recommandons absolument la lecture, aux tentatives qui ont déjà été faites en phénoménologie pour défendre cette unité chez des penseurs comme Claude Lefort, Tran Duc Thao et Enzo Paci.
 P. Valéry, Cahiers. Tome 1. Paris : Gallimard, 1973, p. 1124.
 M. Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, Paris, Gallimard, 1953, p. 59.
 Cf. P. Ricœur, « Le paradoxe politique » (1957), in : Histoire et vérité, Paris : Seuil, 1964.
 E. Fink, Sixième Méditations cartésienne. L’idée d’une théorie transcendantale de la méthode, traduit par Nathalie Depraz, Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, 1994, p. 62.
 Cf. ibid.
 Cf. ibid., p. 103.
 M. Merleau-Ponty, La phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard, 1945, p. V.
 Ibid., p. X.
 M. Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur. Essai sur le problème communiste, Paris, Gallimard, 1948.
 M. Merleau-Ponty, « Notes sur Machiavel. Chapitre 10 », dans Signes, Paris, Gallimard, 1960.
 Cf. M. Merleau-Ponty, Les aventures de la dialectique, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.
Ian Angus’ Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World is not a light book, both literally and figuratively, at 537 pages of dense analysis of two of the most discussed thinkers in the last few hundred years. Not many contemporary works have tried to integrate Marxism and Husserlian phenomenology. While perhaps everything in the life of the mind is ultimately connected, the project laid out by Husserl and that by Marx seem to point in quite different directions with very different methodologies. Subsequent works by famous thinkers who were influenced by both, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Herbert Marcuse, and Jan Patočka, did not seem to penetrate deeply into the scholarship of the side they are less famous for—that is, contemporary theorists of Marx do not go to Merleau-Ponty to discuss Marx, nor do phenomenologists routinely discuss Marcuse. Angus’ book truly does provide a groundwork to facilitate more work that does not neatly subsume the thoughts of one thinker under that of the other. While Angus notes his main textual supports will be Husserl’s Crisis and Marx’s Capital I, he also embraces a range of scholarship.
One generic challenge to phenomenology is that it struggles to critically engage with complex structures in our societies that exceed examination from the first-person perspective. Perhaps we are not just molded by our social, cultural, economic, and historical place in time, perhaps even what the idea of subjectivity is itself merely a momentary reverie and thus there is no ground from which to properly phenomenologize. A generic one to the Marx of Capital I-III is that the force of his understanding of capitalist logic creates a world in which things are happening with or without individual investment. We are all swept up in the force of history. Not only does the critic point out what Marx thought would come from capitalism has not transpired, but the idea of a self-enclosed system that will either end in ruin or revolution seems to ignore the manifold possibilities that have arisen, for better or worse, as capitalism spreads over the world. While both critiques can of course be argued against as misrepresntations, I bring up these challenges as a way to situate Angus’ impressive text as taking seriously both the analysis of capitalist logic as well as the importance of subjectivity. I read him as arguing that one can do a critical phenomenology in a capitalist world without reproducing bourgeois sentiment in a new form. In particular, his use of the idea of fecundity, ecological thinking, and Indigenous thought help explore places where capitalist logic fails to entirely dominate the lifeworld and places from which we might consider a robust contemporary phenomenological Marxism.
Overview of the Book
Part I: Phenomenology and the Crisis of Modern Reason & II: Objectivism and the Recovery of Subjectivity
In the first two chapters, Angus lays out the crisis of the modern sciences in order to set the ground for his later discussion of the lifeworld. The crisis of the sciences frames the entry into Husserl’s phenomenology and its relevance for the integration of Marx’s work. Husserl asserted that the crisis of the sciences is that they have become abstracted from their origin in human life, and thereby lost their meaning for humanity. The development of the modern sciences initiated the institution of the mathematization of nature. While mathematization of the modern sciences is not called into question as wrong, Angus notes that the issue becomes when the mathematization becomes “sedimented” and sciences assume “their validity has become an available tradition that further researchers use without investigating.” (43) Sciences thus use their symbolic systems, such as mathematization, as if it were full of human value even though it, by necessity, is abstract from human meaning. If we come to assume that only that which is objectively demonstrable by mathematization is “real,” then we are adrift in a world with reality devoid of meaning. The human world of intuition, tradition, sensuous nature, language, culture, and embodied experience cannot be mathematized. When objectivity found from abstract mathematization becomes “true” and subjectivity mere opinion, we find a crisis of reason. “This is the crisis: reasonproceeds without meaning for human life, while value loses its sustenance in reason.” (46) Angus says that the “healing power of phenomenology” is how phenomenology can uncover this historical sedimentation of mathematical reason and recover value.
Chapters three takes up the idea that one aspect of the crisis is the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. To begin, Angus uses Herbert Marcuse’s discussion of Husserl and deepens the manner in which the crisis of the sciences affects the lifeworld. Marcuse, like Husserl, is concerned with the manner in which instrumental reason cancels out the validity of subjective experience. What Angus draws out is how Marcuse draws attention toward the way in which the lifeworld becomes, under the reign of instrumentalism, merely a thing to be used by various techniques and technologies. It is natural to use technologies and associated technical practices to obtain ends; it is only when we have no other means to think of our lives that they become “emptied out.” “The emptying-out that treats a type as a formal ‘x’ removes the technical end from any relationship to other ends as experienced in the lifeworld and theorizes it strictly formally, that is to say, without any consideration if such an end is valid, good, or just.” (101) If human life is merely how we can as living objects use technologies and techniques to obtain certain pre-determined ends, say more money, more production, we merely become things. Moreover, we become things that cannot determine value ourselves since we are seen only as a means to a pre-determined end.
In chapter four, the discussion of technology is drawn into the 21st century. Angus considers how our contemporary digital technological culture is an extension of the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. While digital culture pervades our lives and determines the character of our self-understanding, we do not actually experience the digital itself. We receive information on our computers, tablets, and phone instantaneously (120). Here Angus develops briefly the idea about the importance of silence and delay which will be more developed in chapter nine. As digital culture transmits its information instantaneously, we have no space from which to take a pause from it given how quickly we are presented with new content. Yet, while the lack of any pause or delay can cover up the capacity for bracketing the digital, Angus states that “this absorption can never be complete” for the subject registers this information with a certain “intensity” or “valence” that is dependent upon other investments within the lifeworld (125). These other investments can produce a delay or lack of circularity of the system of digital culture and thus potentially ground a recovery of reason and value.
Chapters five develops further how value is both lost and potentially can be recovered and draws Marx into the picture to understand how abstract labor separates us from value. We do not encounter things in the lifeworld as value-free and then intellectually add value to them some x-value. Such a move would follow from the model that the instrumentalization of the lifeworld suggests. We have both social valuations that come from a determinate time and culture as well as subjectively personal valuations based on our own experience. Here Angus connects Marx and Husserl, reading both as concerned with the manner in which formal sign-systems are unable to address individual objects of value (139). In commodity fetishism, social relations are systematically concealed, similar to how in a “scientific” view of objectivity, one is unable to return to the value that grounds subjective experience. Moreover, because the system of exchange is hidden in object fetishism, self-knowledge is eluded. “This systematic absences of self-knowledge in social action is reproduced in an apologetic scientific form in political economy such that it produces a systematic lack in the social representation of value.” (143) Angus believes in the value of self-knowledge, but also importantly in the idea of a universalization that will permit escape from both a valueless scientific or economic system and from value being relative to particular cultures. In the fourth part of the book, this idea is sketched out more fully.
Part III: The Living Body and Ontology of Labor
Chapters six and seven productively develop stronger connections between the phenomenological project and the Marxist one. One the most developed discussions coming out of phenomenology’s approach to experience is developments that surround the consequences of understanding ourselves as first and foremost living bodies. We do not first consider the world consciously and then judge it, but are first born into a complex cultural, historical, and economic world and our embodied experiences with that world come to shape our judgements by sedimentation, not by conscious deliberation. Hence the lifeworld is not seen as “a” lifeworld, but simply what is, including the values and norms that our society has educated us in to see certain things as real or valuable when it might be just as conceivable that others things might be more deserving of value. The living-body is “the root-experience of the lifeworld” but we are always being with other beings; we are always part of a human, not just an individual, experience. (157) Angus separates out two features of our shared human experience: the positive “we-subjectivity,” the community in which we live, work, and commune with others, and the other and self as “objects” that either benefit or hinder any individual project (157).
Angus then turns toward Marx’s ontology of labor as the foundation of what it is to be human and what shapes human history. Certainly we need labor to live, but Marx argues that labor is also how we constitute our identity and the world in which we live (162). In Husserl’s work, the living body’s motility grounds subjectivity and Marx’s ontology of labor helps develop one way in which this subjectivity is formed. Angus agrees with Jan Patočka and Ludwig Landgrebe that early Marx’s view on labor lacked, unlike Husserl’s, a full account of subjectivity. However, as Angus will point out the Marx of Capital I presents us with a more complex view of labor. Here we see the sketch of much of the rest of the book—how an ontology of the lifeworld, in particular labor and its relationship to subjectivity, permits an understanding of the structures of that world. In order to connect the ontology of the lifeworld to a phenomenology of the living body, what Marx would call a critique, one must go beyond the “evident” nature of the lifeworld to question its current form and status.
Marx’s mature ideas of an ontology of labor as “a phenomenology of the role of human activity in nature” will shape much of the rest of the section’s discussion (180) While largely sympathetic with Marx’s focus on labor, Angus argues that Marx’s interest in technology as history determining cannot make sense without a better account of the surplus productivity of labor that allows such technology to form itself. I think it beyond the scope of this review to examine this critique—that is, is it really the case that Marx failed to understand the necessity of surplus productivity’s relation to nature?—but rather to take Angus at his word, and examine the interesting idea of fecundity that Angus will develop throughout the remainder of the text (187). The logic of capitalism of collecting commodities to be exchanged can appear to have circular and enclosed perspective. We work to produce things that can be sold to obtain money to buy or produce other things, ad infinitum. One can think here of Hannah Arendt’s dismissive view of labor as this endless need of human work to survive without the possibility of anything new coming from it, other than more survival and thus more labor. Angus writes that what actually happens, and what can be thought to perhaps undermine the capitalist project, is that labor exceeds what is needed to complete the next circuit—what is “the fecundity of nature.” (187) Here one is too reminded of Michel Foucault’s interesting ideas of how any regime of power/knowledge creates subjectivities that are not just docile, but also then have the means to creatively exceed that structure. Later Angus will develop the idea of fecundity to argue for an interesting ecological view of our current situation. Herbert Marcuse’s work helps underscore the emancipatory possibilities inherent in human activity outside its insertion merely into the logic of capitalism as labor. The event of any human activity is not subsumable entirely to the motivation that preceded it. One example is that the excess that labor can create produces not just things for survival, but culture as well. Culture then creates new forms of organization that exceed strict capitalist production.
Chapter eight is one of the densest chapters in the book. It takes up the idea of abstraction and its relevance for labor and value and concludes with how to revive value in the lifeworld. Abstraction in Marx’s theory is complex, there is the abstraction where individuals are only understood as significant insofar they play a role—say laborer or capitalist. Abstraction can also be where one analyzes the core features of capitalism and sets aside the actual concrete form. In this sense, abstraction comes close to a phenomenological reduction. Finally, there is abstraction in the sense of addition—“When we consider any only single factor, such as labor, there are a number of historical and imaginary, or logically possible, forms in which that labor could be organized: capitalist, trial, state, cooperative, etc.” (237) This groundwork lays the foundation for the most important abstraction in Marx’s text, to be later complemented by Angus’ formulation of abstract nature: abstract labor. Abstract labor is not illusory, it is real in the that is produced in the system of exchange of commodities. Workers, as individuals, are now just understood in abstraction as nothing but laborers qua commodities—things that can be bought. The commodity hides the relationship between humans, we do not encounter or know those whose products we purchase hence we tend to assume the value lies within the product—what is commodity fetishism. Laborers themselves becomes a thing as their labor-power is just another unit of exchange. Moreover, abstract labor operates as value—abstract labor has a certain value in the system of exchange and can be taken without consideration of the particular work the laborers are performing. As Husserl wrote about in the Crisis, one consequence of modern science has been the mistaking of the method of mathematization for actual truth and meaning. Marx’s understanding of the abstract labor likewise performs this move in a system of value (256). If only abstract labor is considered valuable, one has lost any footing the real world of humans, as individuals and also as communities in their culture and their history.
The lifeworld is able to recover reason as the place in which one can situate the historical nature of abstract labor and account for how its excess cannot be contained within capitalist reason. Excess productivity produces culture and also draws from the fecundity of nature which is never completely exhausted by capitalism. Nature, individuals, and communities produce excesses but given the particularities of the concrete spaces in which such productivity exists, there is no “unitary source” and thus they do not produce uniform products. Hence, “the proletariat has never acted as a unitary subject as Marxist politics has expected.” (277) Angus develops from this work on abstraction to an idea of abstract nature as critical to his phenomenological Marxism, pointing out that Marx, by not having a concept of abstract nature, is unable to explain just what abstract labor is to be performed upon. Briefly, Angus points toward ecology as a way exit the limitations of capitalist and modern scientific thinking and integrate nature and humanity. “The task of transformation would be to recover nature as the source of meaning and value, human labor as the giving of a specific form to that source.” (286) Ecology works from the connections between nature and cultures and can provide a method to get beyond our reductionistic thinking.
Technology is the theme of chapter nine which develops further the way in which the regime of capitalist value homogenizes production. While Marx and Marcuse’s views on technology are important to underline that there is no simple nature unchanged by humans nor humans apart from technical extension, it is Gilbert Simondon’s work permits us to consider our contemporary lifeworld more fully. Simondon is critical of Communist Party Marxism, arguing that the development of more technological societies with machines as central to production creates a particular kind of alienation where “both the worker and the industrial boss are alienated insofar as they are either above or below the machine.” (303) Hence, some Marxist views of technology as liberating are false. Angus draws our contemporary situation as another crisis because contemporary digital culture “approaches a pure transparency without delays or silences that could initiate emergent meaning” as discussed in chapter four (319). The speed of transmission of information and the lack of spaces in which to not be presented with such information reduces the capacity for the kind of productive excess that permits a possible exit from capitalist logic. One striking feature of our own society dominated by the capacity to share on the internet is how information is exploited much like physical labor. Cognitive capitalism is “neo-mercantilist” as a socio-economic form with the important element of “decay”—that is, the value of the digital form reduces over time (324). Thus, new digital products have a very short lifespan where they produce surplus profit and must be constantly produced by tech workers. As with his earlier discussion of technology, Angus argues that instead of transforming such digital spaces, “the struggles of the working class in such industries would not necessarily be to transform them as such, but to exist to become an independent, self-defining enterprise.” (324) Technology itself does not liberate workers if they do not have the means to define its value.
Chapter ten lays the groundwork for the recovery of the concrete grounds from which to critique the mathematization of science and the abstractions of capitalism. Husserl himself celebrated biology in its connection to the living body as a means to connect the lifeworld in experience and the sciences of life. However, Angus points out that, as Marx shows us, bodies can be abstracted in labor and creates a closed system of understanding bodies that does not permit a true phenomenological investigation. Angus’ idea of abstract nature is added to this critique in order to point out that it is not just labor, and thus humans, that are abstracted in capitalism, but nature as well. Angus writes, “abstract nature if the fundamental critical category of our phenomenological Marxism that can be counterposed to the discovery of natural fecundity as an excess that underlines all human productivity and culture.” (345) Again, Angus draws attention to ecology as a way of thinking since it considers the connections between life-forms and the worlds in which they live, something biology does not do. This is a concrete starting place instead of the abstraction required by the sciences or capitalism and can think of communities instead of only abstract systems.
Part IV: Transcendentality and the Constitution of Worlds
Chapter eleven and twelve deepen Angus’ ideas of the phenomenological project and the need for an intercultural self-responsible phenomenology. Emphasizing the intersubjective nature of any lifeworld and the plurality of them helps underline how the need for the phenomenological view to complement Marx’s work. In Marxist thought, there is the tendency to see subjectivity as rather uniform amongst classes. Angus takes up the question if Husserl’s commitment to seeing Europe as central makes phenomenology not just Eurocentric, which I would think is hard to deny, but also fundamentally invested in an implicit view of European superiority. Angus develops a fascinating perspective on America, here understood as the Americas, rather than simply the United States, as the kind of example that makes any kind of European view limited. America is not a repetition of Europe; America is shaped by the “conquest-disaster” of its origins as well as by the Indigenous traditions and thoughts that also continue to shape it. The conquest-disaster begins “an ongoing institution that remains with us to this day and points toward some sort of resolution of final goal (Endstiftung). We live within this institution and its assigns us a task.” (399) The task is to see this lifeworld as it is, not as Europe’s, but with its own shape and demands. Angus argues this broader view of the historical nature of cultures helps expose the need to respond not just to the scientific and economic crises, but also to our “planetary crisis.”
This planetary crisis refers to the reason understood as technology that is based on formal-mathematical science as the origination of crisis and phenomenological reason as the renewal of meaning and value through a recovery of relation to the lifeworld. Meaning and value must be generated, not simply from looking back to prior institutions, but from events constituted by the planetary encounter of culture-civilizations that motivate an appeal upward on step toward great universality. (403)
What is needed is intercultural-civilizational understanding that moves toward universality. This might seem a bit strange, after all typically calling for greater intercultural understanding can be seen to call for something particular and non-universal. Angus develops not a particular kind of universality, say something like “Europe,” that should be taken as the goal, but rather a certain kind of community living together. While we live in a world saturated by calls for cultural understanding, one might rightly see them as a kind of buffet model—a little of this one and a little of that. This can be seen as how scientific-technological civilization renders all traditions as local and particular to the universality of its enterprises, so culture becomes like a disposable addition upon “real” understanding which is of course that which can be reduced to either scientific models or capitalist logic. This can also be seen as expressed, in a much different fashion, in relativist philosophies where one can affirm the other, but is left in without any means of overcoming differences. Angus takes up an approach where what the phenomenological tradition can guide for intercultural understanding is by pursuing not a “truth” that then can add various cultural views, like clothing, nor a set of discrete truths which cannot communicate, but a center-periphery logic where different assumptions in culture-civilizations can be upended by each other in discourse and attention to practices. Angus looks to build:
A philosophy that would be ecological, in the sense that it would focus on the concrete relations that construct a Whole; that would be Marxist, in the sense that is would criticize a social representation of value that relies on commodity price; and that would be phenomenological, in that it would ground value in the lifeworld in action and intuition, is a possibility that would enact this hope. (441)
Chapter thirteen spells out just what intercultural-civilization phenomenology could be. By using place-based knowledge, such as Indigenous thought, we can displace the tendency of planetary technology and capitalism to homogenize by abstracting individuals and nature. Like ecological thinking, Indigenous thinking starts from relationships and from thinking from community instead of thinking of individuals first. Yet of course, any community might not be compatible with another, so in order to move from the value of community to the kind of universal investment needed to combat the crises of our age, Angus appeals in chapter fourteen to Charles Taylor’s notion that “each cultural group can find its own reasons for belonging in a higher unity, that the reasons do not have to be identical for each group.” (453). Hence, the intercultural dialogue would consider crises that face us all, but not require that each group form a new identity but rather that each group understand their share and investment in the problem. The final chapter of part IV considers how philosophy can work to restore the fecundity of nature, of human labor, and of community investment. Natural fecundity is found not “outside” human experience in the environment as a thing, but rather within a cultural heritage’s manner in which it takes up freedom. Indigenous thought and ecological thinking help show ways in which cultural heritage and cultural understanding are not limitations to “proper” science or economic systems, but important ways in which to understand relationships and value.
Part V: Self-Responsibility as Teleologically Given in Transcendental Phenomenology
The final section of the book develops the idea that philosophy in the manner outlined above cannot be first and foremost about rule-following. After all, if we are to take seriously intercultural dialogues and the heritage of communities, we cannot find a common set of ethical rules that must guide them all. Moreover, any lifeworld unexamined appears to us “how it is” and thus its “rules” are unexamined as they seem natural. The separation of meaning and value caused by the mathematization- mechanization of the world by the modern sciences and the forced abstraction of humans from their bodies and nature in capitalism requires both an analysis of its origins as well as a responsible call to action to try and guide a method for the renewal of meaning and value. Angus appeals to the idea of responsibility as a method of living by inquiring. “Self-responsibility is the ethic of philosophical inquiry and its practice in confronting the rule-following inherent in lifeworld practices.” (489) This is both a responsibility toward humanity and to the individual. Angus finds that Husserl remains too embedded in the tradition of knowledge “for its own sake” and thus remains unable to articulate a call to action. Instead, learning should be drawn into the strife of the world “with eyes wide open” and to search for justice. (499)
In the preface to the French edition of Capital I, Marx chides the “French public” who are “always impatient to come to a conclusion” that they might not wish to labor through the early chapters. However, he writes “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” While I have nothing to say about if this characterization of the French public of 1872 is deserved, I do want to qualify my comments below as that perhaps they are testimony more to my challenges with the book’s steepness than the text itself. No book can serve all possible audiences, but I did wish the book were more readable for someone who was versed in one or the other tradition and curious about the possible connections. As it is, I would find it quite challenging for someone to read who didn’t already have a good command of Husserl’s phenomenology and at least an understanding of the critique of capitalism in Marxist thought. While Angus does provide an extremely detailed discussion of the main points he wants to draw from each, and thus this could act as a kind of summary, he does not explain for the reader the general frame in which to understand these very detailed summaries. This is particularly so for the phenomenological discussions. I cannot see someone who was well-read in Marxist thought making much sense of the phenomenological project herein since the discussion assumes a certain understanding of phenomenology’s language. I could imagine a reader unfamiliar with Marxist thought, but familiar with phenomenology understanding better the discussion of abstract labor and nature, so central to the book, since capitalism so defines our current reality and even someone who has not read Marx would be familiar with the idea that there might be problems with capitalism.
I wonder if the book began not with Husserl’s thought, but instead with a shorter discussion of ecology that appears very late in the text. This would provide a kind of framework and directionality to the text in which to work through the crises of science and labor. While the ultimate longer analysis of ecology rightly should follow his analysis at the end of the book, any reader would be familiar with our current environmental crisis and could help understand that this book would help elucidate this crisis and provide some ideas for action. In addition, more framing of phenomenology’s method might aid in reaching a wider audience. I also wondered at the conclusion, so exclusively considered with phenomenology where it would have seemed to my mind obvious here to appeal to the call to action in Marxist thought. In the discussion of communities, one could also think not just of communities qua historical cultures, but also communities such as labor unions, political groups, and religious groups.
However, this is a “groundwork” not an introduction to phenomenological Marxism and as such perhaps it is a text that is rightly directed toward an audience who can follow its density and read further as need be. It is a welcome addition to our intellectual life and provides an important way in which to address the manifold contemporary crises our world faces. In particular, Angus presents a compelling model wherein we engage with Indigenous and community-based thinking not to simply affirm the “otherness” of this thought, but to see it as an important interlocutor with European phenomenology and Marxism. The crises we face are not culturally located, but planetary, and as such require a universalizing, but not totalizing, response.
 Karl Marx. 1976. Capital Volume I, 105. London: Penguin.
Merleau-Ponty suddenly died in 1961, at the young age of 53, at a time when he was still in the process of developing his thoughts and was working on a major book in which he wanted to further his thoughts and present a new ontology beyond a strict distinction of subject and object. For many years thereafter, notes that Merleau-Ponty drew up in preparation of this book that were posthumously published under the title The Visible and the Invisible and his second thesis (habilitation), the Phenomenology of Perception, were considered to be his most important works. Apart from some published articles and books, Merleau-Ponty left a number of unpublished manuscripts and working notes (more than 4000 pages). Some of these unfinished works and notes were published in the years after Merleau-Ponty’s death. In 1992 the majority of Merleau-Ponty’s notes were donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by his family and, since then, some previously unpublished materials have been published. These notes allow their readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts from his early works to the later ones, to see continuities, moments of self-criticism as well as to understand his engagement with certain philosophical and other literature (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 7).
After the completion of his second thesis, Merleau-Ponty was affiliated to the University of Lyon (1945-1949), later he held a professorship for child psychology at the Sorbonne (1949-1952). In 1952 he was elected to the Collège de France, he assumed his position there the same year, held his inaugural lecture on the 15th of January 1953 and began his regular teaching activities the following week (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). The Sensible World and the World of Expression (Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression) was the title of one of the two courses that Merleau-Ponty gave that year. The Collège de France is a unique institution; even if it is a public university, it does not offer regular introductory courses. The courses taught at the Collège are lectures and colloquia that permit the professors to present their ongoing thoughts and recent research to advanced students and/or the general interested public. Holding a chair in philosophy at this institution permitted Merleau-Ponty to further his philosophical thoughts, to return to some the phenomena that he treated in his first and second thesis as well as to some issues of his approach that he became aware of during the years after the completion of these books, and to present these thoughts to his audience. This return does, however, not present a break with his work and thoughts from the years at Sorbonne; rather, the insights that he gained during these years enriched his perspective on the phenomena (perception, the union of body and soul etc.) that he re-started to deal with.
In this review, I will discuss the translation of the posthumous edition of Merleau-Ponty’s notes on The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Furthermore, I want to give a brief overview of the course and of some of the key innovations that can be found in these notes. However, I will not discuss the content of the book in detail here.
Detailed preparatory notes for the course on the sensible world as well as some further workings notes were part of the materials donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF “don 92-21 de Suzanne Merleau-Ponty”, NAF 26993 X). Merleau-Ponty himself published a brief summary of this course (cf. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968, 11-21), as he did of every course that he held at the Collège de France, but he did not publish any further materials. The preparatory and working notes were transcribed and published by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen in 2011 (MetisPresses).
Merleau-Ponty wrote up these notes in order to present the thoughts they contain to his audience; however, they are not immediately written for a public (like it would be the case with an article or a book). The manuscript contains some paragraphs that are written in full sentences. Nevertheless, large parts of the manuscript consist of incomplete sentences, bullet points, or listings of keywords. The editors of the French edition “strove to present Merleau-Ponty’s notes in a virtually verbatim form, and meticulous effort was made to keep the page layout as close as possible to that found in the actual notes themselves” (xliii). This effort of the editors is of high value for those working with Merleau-Ponty’s notes, as it permits readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in the way he developed them and not to be simply guided, and potentially misguided, by the interpretation of the editors. However, interpretations of a text like the present one, are challenging. As Merleau-Ponty’s notes are, to my knowledge, the only materials available (no student notes or similar document have been published or included in the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), it remains unknown how Merleau-Ponty elaborated and discussed his thoughts during his lectures. Smyth argues for a limited interpretation of this manuscript. Even if these notes were of importance as they date back to a crucial moment in the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts, the thoughts they contain were thoughts and work in progress. According to Smyth one should not over-hasty draw conclusions from these notes, from the perspective of a present-day reader who knows the further development of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Furthermore, the course notes should not be interpreted “in isolation from his other courses at the College de France” (xxxvi). Merleau-Ponty himself stated in his official course summary that it would still be necessary to further explore linguistic expression in order to define the philosophical meaning of the analyses perused during this course (cf. xxxvi; Merleau-Ponty 1968, 21). Therefore, Smyth argues that “we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from them [these notes, A.S.] at all” (xxxvi). His call for a cautious interpretation of a manuscript like the present one seems adequate and valuable, but it might be a bit too far reaching. In this manuscript Merleau-Ponty discusses issues from a different angle than he did in other texts, and he elaborates thoughts more in details than he did in his published writings. Even if these notes were still work in progress, they can help readers to understand where Merleau-Ponty was coming from – which sources he considered important, in which direction his thoughts developed etc. To name an example, the importance of the writings of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder for Merleau-Ponty’s development of the concept of the body schema can only be understood from the present manuscript, not from Merleau-Ponty’s earlier writings (in the Phenomenology of Perception Schilder is only mentioned once). His discussion of the body schema in the present preparatory notes does not only deepen the thoughts Merleau-Ponty already developed in the Phenomenology of Perception, but it also shows new directions that he has been about to take with regards to this concept. Smyth is right that these preparatory notes should not be interpreted in isolation from Merleau-Ponty’s notes for his other courses and other materials, but does this not hold true for all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings? Even if certain writings, like the Phenomenology of Perception, were published by Merleau-Ponty himself, now that we know from courses like the present one as well as from articles and manuscripts that Merleau-Ponty himself was critical of some of his early positions and descriptions, it seems wrong to interpret the position he presented there as the position of Merleau-Ponty. Besides that, the problematic status is not unique to the manuscript of the course on the sensible world. None of the posthumously published manuscripts was intended to be immediately published. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s most renowned mature work – The Visible and the Invisible – is the publication of a manuscript that Merleau-Ponty prepared for publication, the manuscript that Merleau-Ponty left when he died in 1961 seems to have been far from a final version. We can only speculate how he would have further developed this manuscript would he had been given the time to do so.
Editing notes, like Merleau-Ponty’s notes on the sensible world, is not an easy task; the same holds true for their translation. The present edition is a translation of the French edition (not of the original notes) (cf. xliii). The peculiar style of the manuscript that is, as I already mentioned, excellently reflected in the French transcript, has largely been preserved in the English translation. This means, for example, that words that Merleau-Ponty underlined, are underlined in the book, words that he crossed out, are included in the text, but crossed out as they were in the manuscript and so on (cf. xliv). Nevertheless, a translation is not simply a reproduction of a text in a different language, but it is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Smyth makes very clear that he is aware of his own interference in the text, when he states: “It is not possible […] to translate the notes as they stand without engaging in some disabbreviation, for there are simply too many uncertainties and ambiguities at the level of the words themselves.” (xlv) Hence, while the French edition in general does not add any terms to the text itself, but sticks to the original manuscript and its abbreviated style, the English translations “adds a very large number of terms within the text itself” (xiv). Thereby Smyth wants to enhance the readability of the text, “to facilitate as clear and unambiguous a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notes as possible” (xiv), and to outline the “intended meaning of the transcribed words” (xiv), or rather the transcribed words as they were read and interpreted by the translator. Further to the additions that Smyth made to the text itself, his translations “includes a new and expanded set of annotive notes” (xliii), that go beyond the notes included in the French edition. In addition, Smyth outlines his choices concerning the translation of some crucial terms that are not easily to translate – the “hard cases” as he would say (cf. xlvi-li).
The Structure of the Course and of the Book
In general, Merleau-Ponty held two courses per year, each one comprised fourteen to fifteen lectures (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). Often the topics of the two courses corresponded – this was also the case in 1953, when Merleau-Ponty dealt with issues of language in his second course – and on two occasions the two weekly courses were merged in order to develop one single issue more in depth (1956-1957 and 1957-1958, when Merleau-Ponty gave two intense courses on nature).
The Sensible World and the World of Expression comprises fourteen lectures. The course can be divided into four parts: (1) the first three lectures serve as a general introduction and overview of the course, (2) in lessons four to ten Merleau-Ponty discusses space and movement from a phenomenological point of view (including depth perception, a phenomenon that has become highly important for Merleau-Ponty), (3) the lessens ten to thirteen are dedicated to the body schema and (4) the last lesson dealt with expression (primarily with non-linguistic expression, but Merleau-Ponty gave some indications concerning linguistic expression too). As Smyth points out, Merleau-Ponty did not intend to discuss linguistic expression in detail in this course; however, he did intend to discuss “the passage from expression at the level of the sensible to cultural expression that is not yet language” (xvii), as it is the case in visual art. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty took more time than planned to elaborate the basis of his thoughts and therefore he could only discuss this move in his last lesson. Hence, the four parts were not given equal attention in the course (cf. xvii).
The book (the French and the English edition) contains the notes preparing the course, as well as working notes that Merleau-Ponty developed while preparing the course. These notes were not dated or classified by Merleau-Ponty. The editors of the French book categorized them thematically for their edition (cf. 129; Saint Aubert 2011, 171).
Merleau-Ponty’s Thoughts on the Sensible World
In The Sensible World and the World of Expression Merleau-Ponty primarily deals with the relation between the bodily human being and the sensible world. As I already mentioned, the relation between the world of expression is briefly touched in this course, but dealt with more in detail in his courses and writings on language. So, how does Merleau-Ponty understand this sensible world and what did his course aim at?
Sensible world = things
World of expression = cultural things, ‘use objects,’ symbols. (I didn’t say: universe of language)
Double goal: — deepen the analysis of the perceived world by showing that it already presupposes the expressive function.
— prepare the analysis of this [expressive] function through which the perceived world is sublimated, produce a concrete theory of mind. (9)
This brief definition and equally brief statement concerning the double goal of the course present the first lines of the preparatory course manuscript of Merleau-Ponty. Even if these first words seem to indicate a strong division of the sensible world and the world of expression, in what follows Merleau-Ponty makes clear that they are not separated, but “enveloped” (27) in each other. He is less interested in their analytic distinction, than in the dynamic passage from the one to the other in and through movement. As explained above, Merleau-Ponty did not follow his original plan for the course, in particular did he not manage to extensively discuss expression. Therefore, the course dealt more with the first part of his twofold goal than with the second part; indeed, after spending more time than expected on topics related to the first part of his general aim, only the last lesson remained for the second part (cf. xvii).
The main concepts that Merleau-Ponty deals with in this course are perception and expression (in its relation to the sensible world). Already on the first page of his manuscript Merleau-Ponty criticises his own approach towards perception, as he presented it in the Phenomenology of Perception and in a lecture that he gave at a meeting of the Société française de philosophie in late 1946 on the issue of the Primacy of Perception (lecture and discussion published with Northwestern University Press, 1964). He argues that his earlier works did not present strong and clear enough a break with classical positions, concepts and terms. With reference to the critique by Jean Hyppolite and Jean Beaufret, following his lecture in 1946, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that readers and listeners could have gotten his thoughts wrong, as (1) one could have thought that the “primacy of perception” as he presented it was primacy in the classical sense, a “primacy of the sensory, of the natural given”, even if for him “perception was essentially a mode of access to being” (10); (2) one might have missed Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thoughts and taken his work as “only a phenomenology” (10); (3) therefore readers might have thought “that being was reduced to the ‘positivism’ of perception”, even if the perceived is “not possessed” by the philosopher, but “unquestionably before us” (10; underlining in the original). With reference to this discussion, Smyth argues that the main innovative aspect of this course “is that Merleau-Ponty is also revisiting the phenomenological analysis of the perceived world itself.” (xvi, emphasis in the original) However, Smyth presents an even stronger claim concerning the shift in Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts as he outlined them in the present course. According to him, Merleau-Ponty realized that his manner of presenting the problem of “how the sensible is taken up expressively […] made it unsolvable” (xvi). Perception was an “encounter with the sensible” and as such it was “already expressive” (xvi). Hence, Merleau-Ponty “came to realize […] that he didn’t get the phenomenology of phenomenology right, because he didn’t get the phenomenology itself right in the first place. So, he was still building his phenomenological method, not building on it” (xvi-xvii; emphasis in the original). Even if this reading indicates a strong shift in and important innovations of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology and the phenomenological method, it does not negate the continuity of this development.
Besides perception, the other central concept that is discussed in this manuscript, is expression. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression is broad: Expression is “the property that a phenomenon has through its internal arrangement [son agencement interne] to disclose another [phenomenon] that is not or even never was given” (11; annotations and emphasis in the original). This definition already highlights the relational aspect of expression. Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of perception and expression presuppose and involve a certain conception of the human being. As he already did in his early works, also in this course Merleau-Ponty opposes dualist conceptions. It is the body (in its entirety) that perceives and expresses. A body that is able to perceive and to express, is a body “as [a] given organization, [as] ‘sensory’ activity” and a “body that moves itself”, it is a body “[as a] response to ‘natural’ aspects of the world” and a body “[that] returns to the world in order to signify it [or] to designate it” (28; annotations in the original).
Particularly during the first two introductory lectures Merleau-Ponty discusses consciousness. In the second part of his course, he deals with space and movement, especially with depth perception and the perception of movement. The following lectures are dedicated to the body schema (a part that Merleau-Ponty seems to have added in the course of the semester) (xxii). The notes to this course are the first writings in which Merleau-Ponty aligned depth perception and (the perception of) movement with the body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 10-11).
Thereby Merleau-Ponty further elaborates concepts and thoughts that he already discussed in his earlier works and at the same time he introduces new concepts and thoughts and present some major shifts with regards to some concepts. Some of the core innovations that he outlines in these preparatory notes are:
- Merleau-Ponty rejects classical conceptions of consciousness (particularly in the first and second lecture). In his course on the sensible world, Merleau-Ponty introduces for the first time the concept of “écart” (generally translated as “divergence”) (xix). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this, not only but particularly well, by referring to the example of the perception of a circle. When a circle is perceived it offers its sense as a tacit sense (as opposed to the classical position, according to which sense is essence and given). The sense of a circle is a “certain mode of curvature” (13), namely the “change of direction at each instant always with the same divergence” [même écart] (20) and therefor the circle itself is a “mode of divergence” [mode d’écart] (20; underlining in the original). Merleau-Ponty develops this notion further in his preparatory and working notes for this course (e.g. working note on the Diacritical Conception of the Perceptual Sign or working note on Diacritical Perception, included in the present edition on the pages 158 and 159).
- When Merleau-Ponty discussed the concept of the body schema in the Phenomenology of Perception he presented it mainly as a sensory-motor unity. The Sensible World and the World of Expression is the first document in which the body schema is “understood in a much more active (or enactive) – because expressive – way” (xxii). At the same time, this is the first document in which Merleau-Ponty elaborates its relational dimension – the relation of the body schema and the (sensible) world (cf. 123) as well as the relation between different body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 13). The extension of the concept of the body schema has important implications for Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of movement and expression as well as their perception (movement is perceived by the entire body schema) and the relation to the world and others.
- In the context of his discussion of the body schema, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of praxis, a notion that he prefers to the notion of action (cf. 100). “The unity of the body schema is that of a praxis so construed, and the body schema is the background implied in [this praxis].” (100; annotation in the original) The praxis builds on the body schema (that is formed by the praxis, but that is more than a memory of previous praxis and/or experience) and continuously forms and transforms the schema. The praxis is a form of interaction with the world – it is not an “adaptation” to the world, at the same time it is not a world-less action performed by an isolated individual, it is “not only functional, but projection of the whole man” (100).
- Merleau-Ponty intensively discusses movement – what movement is, how movement can be perceived and how movement can be expressed in visual art (How can something that is stationary express movement? (cf. xxxv)). For Merleau-Ponty movement is not displacement, a variation of relations, and a place is not a “relation to other places” (33; underlining in the original), rather it is “first of all situation” (35; underlining in the original). Movement requires that the moving is in movement, that movement is something different to a series of different spatial positions, but rather something “absolute”, something that is “in the thing in motion and not elsewhere” (52). Movement entails an encroachment of here and there, before and after; something that is only possible if movement is neither only in the moving thing nor only in the perceiving or observing subject, but if it occurs “through a sort of mixing of me and the ‘things’” (52). The perception of movement is not simply an intellectual undertaking, rather it is the body schema in its entirety that perceives movement (cf. 64-65).
Consequently, in visual art movement is not something that is depicted by signs that indicate a change of place, but by the “envelopment of a becoming in a stance [attitude]” (124, annotation in the original). It is, for example, the body of a horse that is painted in a manner that shows its intentionality of movement. Movement is indirectly presented or a reference of something oblique. The language of “écart” plays into Merleau-Ponty’s description of the problem of movement in visual art. Movement is “[reference] of signifying to signified that is elsewhere and only appears through [the signifying], presentation through divergences with respect to a norm that is itself never given. Presentation of the world through variations in modulations of our being toward the world.” (125-126; annotation in the original)
Because of these and some further innovations the book is a valuable source for researchers working on and with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Together with his published writings from the early 1950s and the manuscripts of his other courses it can help to better comprehend the development of his thoughts and to enrich one’s interpretations of his concepts.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard.
Saint Aubert, Emmanuel de. 2011. “Avant-propos.” In: Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, edited by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen, 7-38. Geneva: MetisPresses.