From Deleuze to Derrida, from Badiou to Nancy and Marion, the concept of event (évènement) witnessed an important development in the last fifty years of French philosophy and it is present in the most influential authors’ thought. Today, this notion still plays a central role in several attempts to rethink ontology and phenomenology, such as Claude Romano’s evential hermeneutics (hermenéutique événementiale). Even if the ideas of these philosophers substantially differ from each other and cannot be simply grouped together, we can trace at least one common issue in the notion of possibility. Events – with capital E – are happenings inaugurating a new horizon of possibility. They can actualize unforeseeable potentialities or make the impossible possible. For this reason, Events are said to be extraordinary moments and it has been argued that they should be unpredictable (imprévisible) or even impossible (impossible) since they lie beyond the ordinary structure of possibilities in which normal ontological movements take place. It goes without saying that the foundation of the modal structure of Being in such Events attests several theoretical problems If such Events overstep the general structure of Being, how are they supposed to happen? And where should an Event take place and have a place if Being cannot harbor its excess?
Some years before the flourishing of French “event” philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas formulated the notion of nocturnal events (événements nocturnes) in the preface of his masterwork Totalité et Infini. Levinas’ purpose is not to develop a philosophy of events. Indeed, in the whole book the expression “nocturnal event” is no more used and the adjective “nocturnal” appears just a few more times. However, even this parsimonious use of the term is enough to give us an important suggestion. The ultimate events that allow the deployment of new possibilities and which our comprehension of the world is based on are maybe not to be thought as impossible (im-possible), neither as unpredictable (im-pré-visible). They could rather be just invisible (in-visible).
After his impressive book on Derrida and Searle, Raoul Moati keeps deepening his researches about contemporary French philosophy dedicating an entire essay to Levinas and his idea of nocturnal events. What these two works have in common is the great attention given to the concept of intentionality and its Husserlian origins in the phenomenological tradition. Levinas and the Night of Being offers a fine reconstruction of the path undertaken by Levinas in Totalité et Infini to trace the way from the sensible ego to the infinite Other. Moreover, Moati shows us to what extent Levinas takes distance from other phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre as well as what does he own to their ideas. This review will first address which are the ontological and phenomenological involvements of nocturnal events that Moati highlights in his book. We will then retrace the way to the infinite in the context of a nocturnal conception of Being. Finally, we will have an overview of this book and its English translation by Daniel Wyche.
The Night of Being.
What Levinas reproaches to ontology and phenomenology is not, as other philosophers would have it, to be a sort of metaphysics of presence. Moati shows that the main critique that Levinas addresses to ontology and phenomenology is to be in a certain sense a metaphysics of light: they are based on “structures of illumination” (65), such as intuition, intentionality or comprehension. Sight and touch tended to have absolute primacy in the philosophical tradition, where “to be” means thus to be visible and graspable (67). The immediate consequence of this “diurnal sense of being” (XVI), from which Totalité et Infini attempts to liberate ontology, is that there is no more room left for otherness and exteriority: being becomes a totalizing structure and the Other is reduced to the self. A drastic rethinking of ontology, as a nocturnal broadening, is therefore needed in order to establish a place for those events that cannot be understood as being part of Being as a totality. That is to say, the nocturnal events:
There must be an ontology that establishes a place for ultimate events of being. […] Such events will no longer draw their significance from a Hegelian totalization or even from phenomenological constitution (Husserl) or the comprehension of the sense of being (Heidegger). The horizon of their deployment consists in a relation to being that overflows the light of objective evidence and of which all of these cases constitute various avatars (11).
The representation of Being that Moati presents us with is thus not that of a light irradiating the sensible world anymore, nor would it be that of a unique and totalizing illuminated surface. There are actually more than one illuminated surfaces, and we are only able to perceive them because of the dark background that encloses and undergirds them. Being does not correspond to these bright spots, but rather to the infinite night surrounding them. This night can be lightened by our “structures of illumination” and this is what originates diurnal events. However, there will always be a dark part not being seen in which nocturnal events are taking place.
Nocturnal events are “the nocturnal dramas by which being exhaustively produces itself” and amount to “a more originary experience for consciousness than transcendental constitution” (15). Is it possible to find a concrete case of nocturnal events? Moati provides us several examples taken from Levinas’ philosophy to describe these “nocturnal dramas”, among them we find the erotic encounter, fecundity, sociality and messianic peace. All these are for Levinas elements that, on the one hand, ground our primordial openness toward the Other and his or her face and which, on the other hand, constitute the base of an ontology that renounces to contain Being within the unity and recognises rather its plurality, taking up the discontinuity of the same and the other (81).
Even though Levinas affirms the primacy of events that are more primordial than subjective comprehension and transcendental constitution, Moati decisively stresses that this gesture does not correspond to a denial of the fundamental role that subjectivity, sensibility and ego play on the path to infinity. Indeed, without the ego’s sensible rooting in Being, no experience of infinite otherness would be possible: “the metaphysical alterity of the Other requires the precondition of the position of the self, a here-below positioned in relation to an over-there” (30). We will now see how nocturnal events and the sensible ego lead us on the way to infinity.
The Terrestrial Condition.
While in the first and last chapters of Levinas and the Night of Being Moati outlines the idea of a nocturnal ontology and unfolds the ontological involvements of nocturnal events, in the central chapters he deploys Levinas theory of the sensible ego and follows the path to infinity he had already sketched in Totalité et Infini. The book structure self is in this way a good representation of the nocturnal conception of being, where nocturnal events are the dark frame of our illuminated terrestrial experience.
First of all, Moati recalls the Levinasian notions of jouissance and element (élément). As it is known, according to Levinas the pre-objective degree of sensation corresponds to what he calls il y a (there is), that is the undefined existence without the existent, the undifferentiated element in which the self is originally immersed, the starting point of any further experience: “the element is the content from which forms are carved out, but it is not, as such, itself delimited by anything” (52). The first break in the uniformity of the element coincides with the subject’s jouissance, representing “the concrete mark of separation” (41). Enjoyment is “the contact between sensibility and the formless quality of the element” (94). It corresponds to sensation and more precisely to the very moment when the instrumental schema of the sensible is rejected and the subject just perceives his or her distinction and independence from the elemental world. Before having the possibility to be part of an ethical encounter with the Other, the subject should first have an ontic consistency: “enjoyment thus reveals the fundamental priority of the ontic for ontology” (47). This idea of a detachment and a constitution of the subject from and through the element questions the phenomenological distinction between constituent and constituted. Indeed, if on the one hand the ego shapes objectivity starting from the undifferentiated element, it is itself in turn delimited by the element:
Enjoyment reveals the impossibility of reducing the constituted to the position of the intentional correlate of the constitutive acts of transcendental consciousness. Every constituted object reveals itself through enjoyment just as much as it occupies the position of the constituent, which is to say the sensible nourishment of the self (55).
Once subjectivity consolidated, the self is ready for the encounter with the Other. This encounter begins in two other well known topoi of the Levinasian production: the dwelling (demeure), that is “the starting-place of any finalized human activity” (91), and the labor (travail), that consists “in the transformation of elemental nature into a world of identifiable things” (94). In order to encounter the Other, that is to manifest himself or herself to the Other, the subject should first have some possession to share with the Other, something to communicate to him or her. Here lies the fundamental importance of labor. It allows us to substantialize the element and fix it between the dwelling’s walls. Through labor we make the world and its objects identifiable and we start having possessions. At this point, Moati highlights and develops another great Levinasian intuition that, as the idea of a nocturnal ontology does, anticipates and responds to several difficult theoretical issues emerging in later event philosophy, especially the ones related to the possibility of the given and to its ontological status. Labor and possession – says Moati – turn the category of being into the category of having and they do that through a neutralization of being:
The thing is also, therefore, nothing more than the element, because it coincides with an element whose ontological independence has been neutralized and, in other words, whose being has been anesthetized. Put differently, through labor and the possession that results from it, the being (l’être) of the element becomes the having (l’avoir) of the self. […] The element becomes something only through the suspension of its being. Here, the ontological frontiers of the element no longer exceed those of the self, which is to say that we are now dealing with being insofar as it is possessed by someone (the self) (95).
Furthermore, in the event of the encounter our possessions become gift for the Other (136), and this gift is the content of the fundamental relation of teaching, that is the constitutive relation that marks the Other as such. As someone being my master not because of his or her deeper knowledges, but because of his or her radical otherness (126). Our shared world, that is the object of our ontology, does not follow the logic of being anymore, but that of having and giving. We are here facing a movement from être to il y a, from sein to es gibt.
Our possessions, shared in the social contest, exceed thus the ontology of light and become constitutive of the nocturnal event of sociality, a feature that marks us as humans. As the last step of the reconstruction, Moati finally points out how such nocturnal events, way far from being transcendent moments indirectly concerning the terrestrial condition, are not to be thought separately from our sensible way of being and how it grounds all other diurnal activities. We will now cite two cases Moati presents us with: sociality and fecundity.
Sociality is the base of our relationship with the Other. Because ofit we always already possess the idea of the infinite (107), which otherwise would be paradoxical and unreachable, for it would be reducible to totality of the self. Through sociality, ultimate event of Being, it is possible to articulate a relationship between the two terms (me and the Other) and at the same time maintain their separation (112). It is remarkable that sociality is an event of Being itself, constitutively belonging to its nocturnal structure. Because of sociality, Being is not a totalized monolithic Eleatic Being but is rather open and plurivocal. Moreover, in reason of this fundamental sociality, subjects can live their ethical relationship with the others expressing themselves through their discourse and interlocutory presence. Discours and teaching are the way in which the Other reveals to us his or her transcendence and allows us to have a relation with the infinite without reducing it to ourselves. Moati stresses one more time that this kind of expression is not to be understood in the context of a structure of illumination: “The one who expresses himself or herself does not draw his or her intelligibility from the light ‘borrowed’ from intentionality and unveiling, from which the same emerges” (115).
If sociality allows a relation without totalising elements of a plurivocal being, fecundity makes possible the production and realization of the infinite becoming of being. Moreover, it also represents a valuable alternative to the Heideggerian Geworfenheit to describe our terrestrial condition and our rooting in the concrete temporal situation. Moati recalls the famous example of the father/son relationship and gives us an account of its ontological meaning:
For the self, to be is also, through fecundity, to be other. The father is his son, in the precise sense in which the father transcends the horizon of his own selfhood in the son. The selfhood of the son, in the form from which the self of the father emerges, no longer coincides with the selfhood of the departure, that of the father. In fecundity, the self is discontinuous, fragmented. This discontinuity is an ultimate event of being itself, insofar as it is social, which is to say, transcendent and plural (172).
Levinas and Phenomenology.
As we mentioned before, together with a detailed development of the concept of nocturnal events and a reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation with the infinite, Moati provides us with illuminating comparisons between Levinas and other prominent phenomenologists throughout this book . These comparisons aim at explaining to what extent he kept following the Husserlian and Heideggerian ideas and what kind of disagreements he had with his contemporaries.
It goes without saying that the greatest dissent with Husserl concerns the ideas of transcendental ego and intentionality. We already saw how Levinas gives up the primacy of intentionality as a mean of objective representation since it is reduced to a structure of illumination, and how the distinction between constituent and constituted is questioned. Besides it, Moati also stresses the fact that Levinas cannot accept Husserl’s notion of transcendental ego for at least two reasons. First of all, the ego is always already sensible and we cannot think of an ego beyond its sensible situation. Second, Levinas reproaches the subjective non determination of the concept of transcendental ego. Indeed, its generality “hinders the possibility of establishing a relation that departs from the concrete immanence, from which only the other may speak — which is to say, deploy its ethical infiniteness” (182). All these remarks could be summed up in the general critic that Husserlian phenomenology brings about a totalization of the other and reduces it to the self.
Concerning Heidegger, Moati highlights that in the eyes of Levinas his historical and temporal conception of Dasein and thrownness (Geworfenheit) surely represent a step forward compared to the Husserlian suprahistorical model of consciousness. However, it would be a mistake to describe the sensible installation of our sensible ego within the element in terms of thrownness. More specifically, the concept of thrownness is linked to a conception of our existence based on the notion of power, that Levinas instead wants to quit: thrownness reveals our limits only in regard to the power that we have over our being. On the contrary, for Levinas our primordial situation is a position that locates consciousness beyond any positive or negative reference to power (78) and corresponds to the nocturnal event of fecundity. While thrownness puts us in the tragic condition of being powerless faced with our historical sensible determination and subject to the given horizon of possibility that is opened up to us with our birth, fecundity frees our terrestrial condition from this tragic connotation. Indeed, fecundity is here situated in the context of an ontology that renounces every claim of totalization and, therefore, renounces the primary role of power in representing our relationship with the Other: “the primacy of sensible happiness over any condition of misfortune becomes intelligible only once the nocturnal event of fecundity is elucidated, which in turn opens up the sensible depth of our being-in-the-world. It is thus fecundity that exhausts the reference to power and allows us to grasp the depth of our foundation in being” (83).
Another important disagreement drawn by Moati concerns Sartre. It is true that for both Levinas and Sartre the Other cannot be the object of a phenomenological reduction because of his or her transcendence and the encounter with the other takes the form of a dispossession of the world. But in this disagreement, Sartre understands this dispossession as a kind of alienation from the world, while for Levinas it actually corresponds to the “real becoming an objective world” (135). Indeed, Levinas sees a world that is only possessed and not shared, a silent world without discourse, as a contradictory world that remains subjective and relative. Since sociality grounds our being in the world, sharing our possessions with the other becomes the realization of our humanity and does not imply for us any kind of loss. The world is always a common world.
The last comparison that Moati presents us with is the one with Derrida and focuses especially on Derrida’s essay Violence et métaphysique. First of all, Moati points out a misunderstanding concerning the concept of “transcendental violence” in Derrida’s reading of Totalité et Infini. This misunderstanding is caused by the different grasping of the concept of intentionality and egoity that the two authors have: while Derrida thinks about the ego in the ethical relation as a transcendental ego (even if, as we all know, he strongly criticizes the Husserlian idea of transcendental), Levinas is instead talking about a sensible ego. The critique Derrida addresses to Levinas on “transcendental violence” thus misses its addressee, since Levinas refuses to problematize the subject’s relation with the other in transcendental terms (181). Moreover, the most stimulating remark that is formulated by Moati in this comparison is for sure the one concerning their two different conceptions of eschatology, for this thematic directly relates to event philosophy. Roughly, the greatest difference between the two authors lies in the fact that Derrida thinks the infinite in eschatology as a negativity, an endless process of spacing produced by the infinite waiting for an Other that never comes. In other words, as an infinite différance. For Derrida history designates “the ever-unachieved work of transcendental constitution” and is to be understood as “opening up to a nonpresence at the heart of phenomenality” (186). On the other hand, eschatology “lies in history as the movement of overflowing the closure of finite sameness” (187). Quite the opposite, Levinas sees eschatology as a relation to positive infinity. The Other manifests his or her infinite transcendence to us in a positive way, without a negative withdrawing. For Levinas eschatology is not contained within history but rather suspends it, “not only in that the transcendent passage from finite totality to the positivity of the infinite happens through it, but also in that eschatology suspends any recourse to our constituent powers to deduce the event of the revelation of the infinite” (187).
I would like to underline this final remark. In his late works, starting with Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Derrida explicitly mentions the event of the coming of the Other as a fundamental – even quasi-transcendental – element of our experience and the human condition. Nevertheless, for Derrida the Other never comes and should never come in order to keep open the empty space needed to welcome him or her. This is why the event is impossible for Derrida; its conditions of possibility are its condition of impossibility. Levinas’ nocturnal events, and above all the event of sociality allowing our relationship with the infinite transcendence of the Other, free us from the paradox of an impossible foundation of our experience and knowledge. Indeed, both in Derrida and Levinas, our theoretical openness is based on the previous ethical striving for the Other. But while the Levinasian ethics finds its foundation in the nocturnal event of sociality, Derrida always misses the fundamental encounter with the Other.
In the night of Being, the Derridean spectre of the impossible could be chased by invisible ghostbusters: the nocturnal events.
Levinas and the Night of Being is an outstanding work of research in which Raoul Moati fully develops the ontological and phenomenological consequences of the notion of “nocturnal event” – on which very few was previously written – and properly contextualizes Levinas production in the phenomenological frame. Moati’s reading of Levinas thus provides us with new conceptual instruments to understand the key concept of ethics and otherness, theoretical core of Totalité et Infini. Inlight of his knowledge of phenomenology and French philosophy, Moati manages to explain with a remarkable clarity what is Levinas’ relation toward Husserlian phenomenology and how it is developed in contemporary philosophy, while also presenting critical readings of his work, such as the Derridean argument. Even though the chapters dedicated to the reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation to infinity give us a general glimpse of Levinasian main concepts, I would not suggest reading this book to first approach Levinas’ philosophy because of its complex critique of ontology and phenomenology. I would rather warmly suggest this reading to anyone who is already familiar with Levinasian ideas in general and with Totalité et Infini in particular. Indeed, Moati’s book not only helps us understanding his work by giving us a rigorous phenomenological context but it also prevents us from misreading Levinas as an anti-metaphysical or anti-ontological author. On the contrary, Moati shows us that an ontology is definitively possible insofar as we accept to also consider its nocturnal component.
Last but not least, I would like to spend a few words about Daniel Wyche’s translation as conclusion. Translating such a book is for sure not an easy task. Beyond the difficulties caused by philosophical jargon and complex argumentative structures there are several expressions in French, untranslatable in English, that should be rendered with neologism or directly rewritten in French. The most complex paragraphs may therefore prove more difficult to understand in the English version. It is maybe for this reason that the author chose to completely rewrite several passages exclusively for the English version. Overall, Wyche’s realized an elegant translation and managed to render in English concepts that are so idiosyncratically French. However, I would suggest to francophone readers to check also the original version, at least the least clear passages.
The main title of this book suggests that it is a defense of phenomenology. An interesting and alluring idea. In fact the book is not a general defense of phenomenology, but is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and thus of his particular brand of phenomenology – in the course of this it is also a defense of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, since the author holds that it has been misunderstood, or at least in certain crucial aspects fundamentally misrepresented. The particular villain of misunderstanding is Vincent Descombes in his venerable, but still quite widely read, introductory book Modern French Philosophy first published in French in 1979 and in English in 1980. It is unclear how influential Descombes book still is however, leaving one to wonder whether his view of Merleau-Ponty is still the prevailing one that might justify the effort involved here of showing up its flaws. Still, if the view presented by Descombes is mistaken, that gives some grounds for thinking such a misunderstanding as his needs countering, as it might turn up anywhere. It is also worth noting that one would be unlikely now to recommend Descombes book as a first introduction to phenomenology when there are more recent books, quite possibly better ones that do not take Descombes’ view of Merleau-Ponty, such as David E. Cooper, Existentialism, (second edition, Blackwell, 1999) and Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth, Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology (Blackwell, 1991). Descombes’ book is conspicuously absent from Cooper’s bibliography.
Still, the first main section of Douglas Low’s book is a systematic and detailed refutation of the view of Merleau-Ponty as presented by Descombes. It is this that I shall concentrate on in this review. There are three other chapters in the book: ‘One Merleau-Ponty, Not Two’, ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Criticism and Embrace of Hegel and Marx’, and ‘Marx, Baudrillard, and Merleau-Ponty on Alienation’. As can be seen from this, the book is a set of essays, rather than an integrated work, but one linked all the time by the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.
So let us look at the issue of Merleau-Ponty’s basic philosophy, and how it might be misunderstood. Low’s principal objection to Descombes is that he portrays Merleau-Ponty as a subjectivist, albeit of an absolute idealist sort, derived from misunderstanding Merleau-Ponty’s view that the self is involved in every understanding of the world. Whereas the truth of the matter is that Merleau-Ponty wishes to find new categories to overcome the dichotomies of subject and object, and mind and body. What eliminates the putative gap is the human body which looks both ways: it constitutes, and is essential to being, a subjective self, while at the same time it is the way we encounter the world and is an object in the world.
Before looking at what Merleau-Ponty might or might not have said about the problem of our understanding the world and our place in it, let us consider the problem itself. The traditional problem is essentially of Cartesian manufacture. The way it is set up by Descartes opens, as it turns out, an unbridgeable gap between our ideas of the world and how the world really is, or at least our being able to know how the world really is. The approach of phenomenology as it developed from Husserl’s initial version of it, the new version, a version common in certain basic respects to that of Heidegger and Sartre (just to pick out the major players) is to undercut the ideas-representation/world dichotomy. The attempts to go from idea-representation to the world by various means has tormented philosophy ever since Descartes. The approach of the new phenomenology is a variation of the old joke that if I wanted to get to there I would not start from here, as well as showing that the proposed starting place is in fact, as described, not a place from where one could start.
Descartes not only thought he had to set aside all that he could not be certain he knew to be true in order to build up a picture of how things are uninfected with falsehoods, he thought that such a picture should strip away all that makes the view dependent on contingent features of a perspective, all the things that make it my view, for with these in place we would not have a view of how things are in themselves, but rather a subjectively corrupted view of how they appear to creatures such as ourselves. What he was aiming for was an objective-conception, God’s-eye, view of reality that could then with justification be taken as showing how reality is, one not polluted with the trappings of a perspective. But once he retreats to the idea-representations of the world in his mind he finds it impossible to get out again so that he might be sure that any of them may be known to correspond to how the world actually is. The desperate nature of his plight is shown by the desperate measures he takes in drawing on a dubious medieval argument for the existence of God so that God may act as the guarantor of the truth of things he clear and distinctly perceives, for it is inconceivable that God would allow him to be deceived when he has made his best and most honest effort to grasp the truth.
From then on much of the history of philosophy becomes an attempt to solve the conundrum set up by Descartes, but, and this is crucial, still in Descartes’ terms and with his assumptions. One of the most obvious lines taken is various forms and degrees of idealism. If we cannot epistemically bridge the gap between our ideas of the world and the world in itself, one approach is to bring the world back into the realm of ideas. Obviously some distinction needs to be maintained between how things are in a merely subjective sense, thus how they are objectively; but this is done by epistemic devices and identifying features within the realm of ideas. Thus we have Kant’s transcendental idealism where objectivity is derived from those conditions that are necessary for the very possibility of experience, ‘the world’ being the sum total of such possible experiences. But because Kant was unable to give up completely on the idea of things as they might be, independently of any of the modes of acquaintance by which we may access them, he posits thing-in-themselves or noumena. To stop having something like noumena left hanging we move onto absolute idealism where ultimately the fully developed mode of knowing the world and the world itself are one. If you cannot get from ideas to the world, bring the world into the fold of ideas, thus making it in principle completely knowable. But this leads to one huge problem for many: plausibility. And it is not just nineteenth-century European philosophy that wrestles with bridging the Cartesian gap, one can see it running through the writings on epistemology and perception in twentieth-century analytical philosophy, at least until the later Wittgenstein and with him the first signs that a new radical approach was needed.
That approach on the continent is the new phenomenology. What is crucial to understanding it, and in particular the way that Merleau-Ponty presents it, is to show how Descartes is simply not entitled to use all the concepts, or ideas, that he has about the world, given where he starts from as a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness. Descartes simply helps himself to these concepts – through which he might articulate a view of reality, and then wonders whether such articulations are true – and does so unquestioningly and without entitlement. He is not entitled to the meanings that these concepts provide, without which no truth (or falsehood) may be articulated about the world, because from the point of view of a God’s-eye objective disembodied pure consciousness, no sense of the meaning of being would arise at all that might be captured in any concepts whatsoever. Now when we look as to why he is not entitled to the articulating concepts that present to us a world that has determinate being, we see that such concepts, and such a world, only arise at all because we are not a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, but are rather creatures that are a interested, embodied, impure consciousness. By this is meant that what gives any sense and meaning to the world, such that it may be thought of at all, is our being contingently-configured, engaged, embodied, creatures, and the particular senses and meanings that emerge reflect the particular form of our contingently-configured embodiment and engagement. It’s hard for us to notice this, as it was difficult for Descartes, because such modes of thinking are so pervasive, habitual and taken for granted. It’s only when we step back that we see that our very modes of thinking about the world depend on something that means that the ideas-representation/world gap is not merely bridged, but also eliminated because it could not have existed. For Merleau-Ponty, as Low clearly explains, that eliminator of the ideas-representation/world is the body. Crucially – and this needs emphasising – the body does not bridge the gap – it is not another solution to the traditional Cartesian problem – rather, if it is understood properly, it is the entity that is both a realm of ideas and the realm of the world. Dual featured, it is both, taking the first two together, the mode by which any understanding of our understanding of the world is possible, and the mode by which any understanding of the world is possible, while also being an entity in the world understood. Our bodies are, as Low puts it, that little bit of the world by which the world understands itself. And the crucial feature of the body is that it allows us to be engaged with the world. It is of us and of the world. It is only by being engaged with the world that the being of the world may be something to us (and to any understanding creature, although they may have different contingent-configurations). To put it crudely, only by bumping into things in the world do things come into being for us, have significance, as articulated in concepts that go on to have normative interconnections – thus, say, solid and liquid become opposed terms. The bumping into may be more or less literal of course – let us perhaps call it a matter of resistance and limits – so that things become such that they cannot be passed through, or are out of reach, or are unliftable, or have a beginning and have an ending. And such resistance and limits may only arise from being embodied, and embodied in a manner that must necessarily be determinate in some way or other. Thus all the meanings that Descartes used to speculate as to whether things could be known to be true or how things really are are meanings that could only arise by there being a world to which the meanings apply for us. Without being embodied and engaged in the world, it would be an undifferentiated homogeneous ineffability – this of course Kant understood when he posited noumena, even if he did not see the full significance of why such a world would be, or should be, strictly speaking inarticulable – and that only by a contingent mode of engagement with the world provided by a body does the world become something ‘bumpy’ so to speak, with peaks and troughs of significance and degrees of interest which concepts can mean. For a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, (it is questionable indeed if such a thing is possible for it may be argued that it could have no thoughts) there would be no guiding motivation to develop any concepts which might express an understanding of the world at all, nor one might add an understanding of ourselves, a self. Why would there be? Without an other there can be no self and without a self there can be no understanding of the other. A view from nowhere is no possible view at all.
Merleau-Ponty’s is quite possibly the clearest account of this position – far more so than the later Husserl, or Heidegger or Sartre. Indeed Merleau-Ponty thinks that Sartre in his distinction of the for-itself (conscious self-awareness) the in-itself (non-human things) perpetuates too much the traditional mind/world distinction, and again leaves himself with a gap to be bridged. For Merleau-Ponty the body is both mind and world, and the understanding of the mind without the world and the world without the mind is impossible –each entails otherness. This also denies materialism as well as idealism. He shares however the primary thought that because of the, as it were, assumptions of the body, how we think about the world because of the contingently-configured body means that we are thrown into the world-ready-made. And we are thrown in as human beings qua human beings. It presents itself to us already there as being – it is not something we construct from the impressions on a mental tabula rasa. This may be modified by personal and cultural variations, but as Low explains quoting Merleau-Ponty, because of the durable commonality of the flesh, my world is essentially the same world as that of Plato and Aristotle. (cf p.12). Nothing is reached as it is in itself for it is necessarily encountered through the human body, but what is reached is always perceived gestalt as something that goes beyond the perception and with an awareness of its being something other.
Low’s is an excellent book, and he makes his case convincingly. It does something not only towards giving a better understanding of Merleau-Ponty, but also to clear up a possibly misunderstanding of him that may detract from our realising his importance. If anyone should lead the new phenomenological approach and show up the mistaken assumptions of much of previous philosophy, then Merleau-Ponty is an excellent candidate, and it is clear that he deserves more attention than he gets in philosophical academia. As hinted earlier, his approach has much in common with the later Wittgenstein when it is closely examined. The common approach, with noted differences, between Heidegger and Wittgenstein has recently been well explored in Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (The MIT Press, 2012). It would be fascinating and fruitful for someone to do the same with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. Your next project, Professor Douglas Low!?