A book analyzing Hannah Arendt’s phenomenological background thoroughly is long overdue. Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young Bruehl, mentions one of very few occasions, when Arendt spoke about her method (Young Bruehl 1982, 405), revealing her inclination to phenomenology: “I am a sort of phenomenologist. But, ach, not in Hegel’s way – or Husserl’s.” What sort of phenomenologist was Arendt then? Many scholars struggle with her methodology and it even worried one of her greatest mentors, Karl Jaspers, who complained about the ‘intuitive-chaotic-method’ of her writings. But could it be that there was a consistent methodological framework behind an ostensible chaos? Is it possible that Arendt not only was ‘a sort of phenomenologist’, but a fully fledged representative of the second generation phenomenologists after Husserl and Heidegger – whose members include Sartre, Fink, Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and Lévinas –who transformed phenomenology? In her new book, Sophie Loidolt makes a strong case for an affirmative answer to both of these questions. Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Subjectivity is a very challenging read but it is also a very rewarding book.
Loidolt aims to draw a phenomenology of plurality from Arendt’s work and to illuminate consequences of a politicized approach to phenomenology by doing so. A further objective of the book is to rethink Arendt’s connections to phenomenology, positioning her in the broader context of traditional and contemporary phenomenological discourse (2). Both these aims interweave in Loidolt’s book, where she reconstructs basic phenomenological notions in Arendt, referring mainly to classical accounts of Husserl and Heidegger. The result is a novel account of the phenomenon of ‘actualized plurality’ in Arendt’s writings. Loidolt connects actualized plurality to the activities of acting, speaking and judging, which through their actualization evoke different spaces of meaning, where multiple subjects can appear to each other. The book brings Arendt into dialogue with numerous phenomenologists, most notably Merleau-Ponty and Lévinas. Further, Loidolt places her reflections in the broad context of Arendt-scholarship, although she distances herself from some prevalent paradigms present in the contemporary debate: the line of interpretation informed by the Frankfurt School (Habermas, Benhabib, Wellmer, and others), the poststructuralist approach (Honig, Villa, Heuer, Mouffe and others), as well as from the treatment of Arendt’s oeuvre from a purely political perspective, hence ‘de-philosophizing’ her (4) (Disch, Dietz, Canovan, Passerind’Entrèves, and others). In contrast, Loidolt aspires to rediscover the philosophical dimension in Arendt, not by depoliticizing her work, but rather by emphasizing the coexistence of both aspects and the connections between them. This inclusive gesture resonates with Arendt’s unwillingness to belong to any club and, consequently, with the difficulty to ascribe her to one academic field rather than to another.
Loidolt begins her book by invoking her intention to illuminate the philosophical dimension of Arendt’s work without distorting it by ignoring its other dimensions and deriving from it her goal to unveil the philosophical significance of Arendt’s work through a phenomenological examination of the notion of plurality. Many texts within Arendt-scholarship simply adopt Arendt’s language – often full of beautiful and meaningful expressions – without supplying a deeper analysis of its content and context. This is not the case with Sophie Loidolt’s book. She does not just ‘talk the talk’, she also delves deep into the meaning of Arendt’s language. Loedolt’s expertise in phenomenology allow her to achieve this goal, which also contributes to the achievement of her broader aim to familiarize both phenomenologists with Arendt and Arendtian scholars with foundations of phenomenology. The complexity of Loidolt’s book lies in this twofold focus: at first glance, it seems that the reader should have an extensive background both in Arendt and in phenomenology – a combination, which, as the author admits, is uncommon (2 – 8) but Loidolt does not demand so much of her readers. She draws numerous parallels between Arendt’s theory and those of other philosophers, whose status as phenomenologists is less contested, and she also continually draws readers’ attention to methodological elements that lie at ‘the heart of the phenomenological project’ (e.g. 25, 75, 125, 176). This way, she completes the task of introducing Arendt to phenomenologists and of introducing foundations of phenomenology to the Arendtians masterfully. Although this approach means that the book is not an easy read, it is definitely worth the effort.
The book consists essentially of two parts: in the first part, Transforming Phenomenology: Plurality and the Political, the author elaborates on the relation between Arendt’s account and phenomenology, whereas in the second part, Actualizing Plurality: The We, the Other, and the Self in Political Intersubjectivity, Loidolt develops her own phenomenological interpretation of Arendt’s philosophy of plurality. Each part comprises three chapters, divided into numerous subchapters, which makes this complex text more reader-friendly. The book is easy to navigate: every chapter begins with a very neat summary of the previous contents and a preview of what is tofollow. As such, each piece of theory that we encounter in subsection is approachable and easy to situate within the overall framework of Loidolt’s study. The only potential editorial refinement that comes to mind would be to number subchapters and to list these in the Contents, especially since the author often refers to subchapters by its number (e.g. 3.2), but these are not to be found in the current layout of the book.
In the first chapter, Loidolt lays the foundation for her investigation by drawing on the primordial event of the emergence of plurality. She sets off by reconstructing Arendt’s critique of Existenz Philosophy and classical phenomenology, based mostly on her early writings from the ‘1940s. The author sketches Arendt’s argument against (or at least relativizing) phenomenological accounts of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, as well as her take on Jaspers, who represents ‘all that is good about Existenz Philosophy’ (35). Through these moves of association and distinction, says Loidolt, Arendt formulates what can be described as ‘new political philosophy’ (39-40) – even if Arendt herself would have considered this a contradiction in terms. Arendt had good theoretical reasons to renounce philosophy altogether, but since Loidolt aims at recovering the philosophical profundity of her thought, this term seems to be acceptable in this context. The key elements of the new political philosophy would then be a focus on the being-with dimension of human existence (42), a refusal to engage in the project of mastering once being (26, 44), and hence also underlining the fragility of the realm of human affairs (46). These elements resonate with central categories of Arendt’s account of the political: plurality, freedom, and natality.
After having ‘provided a point of departure for a phenomenology of plurality’ (51), in the second chapter Loidolt puts actualizing plurality in a space of appearance in the center of her reflection. She emphasizes its active character as a contingent, non-necessary event and identifies it as a core phenomenon of Arendt’s new political philosophy. The chapter consists of an analysis of three central notions that indicate Arendt’s affinity to phenomenological approach: appearance, experience, and world. Each section traces one of the aforementioned notions back to its origins and shows its relevance for the project of the new political philosophy. First, Loidolt explores the notion of appearance, establishing, with Villa, its status as constitutive of reality (55). Through illuminating this ontological status of appearance in Arendt, Loidolt proves her to be a phenomenologist at heart: Arendt insists on exclusive primacy of appearance, an idea that she gets primarily from transforming Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenological accounts and not, as Villa and Beiner argue (55), from Kant. Following Cavarero’s claim that Arendt’s political theory implies a radical form of phenomenological ontology, Loidolt retraces Arendt’s project of pluralization of appearance (64) and unfolds its consequences for her understanding of reality, self and world, referring in the course of her analysis to Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Additionally, the author supplies a table relating respective concepts in Husserl, Heidegger, and Arendt that allows readers to follow the depicted transition at a glance. The second section focuses on the notion of experience. Loidolt offers a short overview of phenomenological-hermeneutic takes on Arendt’s notion of experience, but also investigates the deeper level of her engagement with experience, which goes beyond Arendt’s ‘techniques’ of narration, interpretation, and storytelling and concerns the very structure of experience (76). In the subsection devoted to this deeper level, she links Arendt’s historical hermeneutics to the phenomenological tradition, evoking not only Husserl and Heidegger, but also Lévinas, Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and Fink, and points at the interconnected notions of intentionality and subjectivity, which constitute the structure of experience. She shows how experience in Arendt is being actualized and pluralized, so that experiencing subjects can be conceived as ‘essentially existing as enactment’ in their multiplicity, hence transforming them into a moment of actualized relation (84, 93). The third section discusses Arendt’s concept of the world. Loidolt draws our attention to three notions of the world present in Arendt’s writings: the appearing world, the objective world, and the with-world (93). In her phenomenological analysis (turning again to Husserl and Heidegger), Loidolt displays the interrelation of these three notions and how they build upon one another. Indeed, the notions of the world as the space of appearance and the space of the political (with-world) are often used interchangeably in the literature. Loidolt’s phenomenological perspective contributes greatly to a more nuanced understanding of the difference between the two, which proves to be quite fundamental. Throughout the three sections, Loidolt constructs the ‘pluralized and politicized’ phenomenological account that Arendt, according to her, had in mind. By doing so, she reaches out to both her target groups: Arendt-scholars and phenomenologists. She shows, on the one hand, that a phenomenological perspective can provide a better and more thorough understanding of Arendt’s theory, without ‘transcendentalizing’ it too far á la Husserl, and, on the other hand, that Arendt’s writings have a vast potential for contemporary social ontology, as pursued by phenomenologically oriented scholars.
In the third chapter of her book, Arendt’s Phenomenological Methodology, Loidolt focuses on two aims. First, she examines human conditionality, referring to a famous (and, as Loidolt shows, easy to misinterpret) systematization of activities from The Human Condition and emphasizing the enactive character of Arendtian conditions. Second, she develops an original interpretation of Arendt’s theory by applying the concept of ‘spaces of meaning’. The first subchapter criticizes approaches that tend to essentialize and solidify different activities and their respective conditions. These are often naively understood analogically to a baby shape sorter: just as every wooden block fits into a particular hole in a box, every human activity correlates to one of three categories. Loidolt, on the contrary, presents labor, work, and action as a dynamic structure, where all conditions are interconnected: “Since all conditions are actualized simply by human existence, i.e. by being a living body, by being involved in the world of objects/tools and by existing in the plural, being human means to dwell, however passively, in all of these meaning-spaces at one and the same time.” (116). In the second section, she presents what amounts to one of the most interesting moments of the book: the articulation of Arendt’s background methodology in terms of “dynamics of spaces of meaning” (123). According to this interpretation, every activity that takes place develops its particular logic, which can be described as a space of meaning. These spaces of meaning stand out as worlds with specific temporality, spatiality, a specific form of intersubjectivity, and an inner logic of sequence, rhythm, and modality (128). Loidolt adds a transformative dimension: a shift in meaning takes place when an activity and its space part (126). In this context, she takes up a controversial discussion about normative character of the private, the political, and the social space in Arendt and joins advocates of “an attitudinal rather than content-specific” interpretation of this distinction (145, cf. Benhabib 2003: 140). With her notion of meaning-spaces, Loidolt offers a vivid image that helps us to comprehend the structure of human existence as presented by Arendt in its full complexity. It also shows us how to avoid interpretative pitfalls resulting from attempts to essentialize human activities and ascribe them to a clear-cut realm, be it the private, the political or the social. Her main effort is directed towards emphasizing the activating element in Arendt’s account: the whole picture awakens before our very eyes.
Chapter 4, which opens the second part of Loidolt’s book, addresses plurality as political intersubjectivity. The author begins with an overview of different interpretations of plurality in various fields: political theory, social ontology, and in Arendt-scholarship. She presents a strong argument for political interpretation of plurality, which she describes as a plurality of first-person perspectives. Such a plurality forms a certain in-between, an assembly of those who act together, which provides a ground for any politics (153). When discussing plurality accounts within political theory (Mouffe, Laclau), Loidolt focuses primarily on post-foundational discourses and praises these for granting plurality ontological relevance. At the same time, she emphasizes that within this approach the first-person perspective gets lost. This, in turn, leads her to phenomenology. She positions her “phenomenological investigation into the social-ontological dimensions of plurality as a political phenomenon” (154) within the area of phenomenology, which addresses the “moral, normative and especially political dimensions of the ‘We’” (154, cf. Szanto& Moran 2016: 9). Subsequently, she sketches a broad context of Arendt-scholarship about plurality and draws our attention to the fact that a suitable answer to one fundamental question often remains a desideratum: What is plurality actually? (156) Loidolt develops an answer to this question in further sections of this chapter. She does so by, first, referring to Husserl and Heidegger – the move we already know from previous chapters. In what follows, she displays her phenomenological interpretation of plurality as ontologically relevant condition of beings as first-person perspectives, who exist in plural. As such, plurality has a fragile status: it can be actualized or not (175). This is one of the most philosophically dense parts of the book, where Loidolt formulates a number of illuminating theses to support her aim. She refers to well-known motives linked to plurality, such as uniqueness, the “who”, multiple points of view, web of relations, but she also evokes some new constellations, such as theorizing acting, speaking, and judging, as three equal-ranking modes of actualizing plurality (183). This chapter paves the way for the two that follow.
Chapter 5, “Actualizing a Plural ‘We’”, focuses on the question of actualization of plural uniqueness. Loidolt emphasizes the crucial problem of the fragility of plurality in terms of such an actualization: plurality can, but does not have to be, actualized. Arendt herself was aware of this fragility, not only in view of great catastrophes of the 20th Century, such as the rise of totalitarianism, but also in terms of human existence in a community in general. Plurality is the central condition of action, which facilitates an emergence of a public space. But ‘acting in concert’ – bringing multiple “who’s” into a common space of the political, is, as Arendt states, a rare event (Arendt 1998: 42). This might seem counterintuitive, since most of us are surrounded by other people on an everyday basis. But, for Arendt, not every human interaction is genuine action. To refer to a notion coined by Loidolt: the respective space of meaning must occur. According to the author, the three activities through which an actualization of plurality takes place are acting, speaking, and judging. As Loidolt herself admits, this constellation of activities is not a common move in interpretations of Arendt’s work (212). Indeed, Arendt counted judging among faculties of the mind. But to anyone familiar with Arendt’s work, Loidolt’s justification for bring the three together will be apparent. In the three sections of the chapter, she pursues a phenomenological inquiry of each of these activities with respect to their potential to actualize plurality. First, she brings Arendtian speaking together with Heidegger’s ‘being-as-speaking-with-one-another’ (195). She then presents acting as praxis or performance and points to its inherent connection to plurality: acting always appears within a web of relationships (200). Finally, Loidolt approaches judging not only in political terms, but she also draws our attention to its reflective dimension (213 – 218). However, judging differs from the other two activities because, while it seems capable of actualizing plurality as intersubjectivity, it does so in a slightly different space of meaning, which is not a space of appearance per se. Loidolt addresses the issue of public appearance directly in the course of this chapter, emphasizing that ‘actualized plurality needs the visibility of an in-between’ (225). The question of how this can refer to the faculty of judgment remains somewhat vague. It is clear that our “who” does not appear to others in judging in the same way, as it appears on what Arendt calls ‘the stage of the world’ (Arendt 2007: 233, 249. Arendt uses this expression only in the German version of the text). The community of judgment is an imaginary one, so we may only speak of appearance of the “who” in a metaphorical sense. Thus, Loidolt’s argument here calls for further investigation. This, however, does not jeopardize her overarching argument for an ethics of actualized plurality (230).
The question of normative potential of Arendt’s theory and its alleged ‘lack of moral foundations’ (233, cf. Benhabib 2006) is the theme of the last chapter of Loidolt’s book. As the author argues, a phenomenological inquiry shows that “ethical elements are inherent within Arendt’s conception of the political qua actualized plurality” (233) and do not need to be imposed on it from outside. The aim of this chapter is hence to provide the readers with an intrinsic ethics of actualized plurality (235). Loidolt begins with an analysis of thinking in Arendt. She does not follow interpretations “investigating the inner tension between the bipolar ‘moral self’ and Plurality”, but tends, rather, to maintain the specific separation of the political and the moral (234 – 235). This comes as a surprise, since Loidolt presents a convincing case for ‘pluralization’ of so many other phenomena throughout her book. Thinking, on the contrary, appears as a ‘solitary business’ and a ‘lonely experience’. This is a one-sided interpretation of Arendt’s concept of thinking. Obviously, it fits Loidolt’s argumentation at this point, but it also neglects the pluralistic aspect of thinking as an inner dialogue and its implications for the emergence of the ‘who’. As Arendt says, “And thought, in contradiction to contemplation with which it is all too frequently equated, is indeed an activity, and moreover, an activity that has certain moral results, namely that he who thinks constitutes himself into somebody, a person or a personality” (Arendt 2003: 105), even if she directly clarifies the difference between activity and acting. Loidolt takes a different path and describes thinking as a ‘derivative phenomenon’ (235) that cannot be a point of departure for an ethics of actualized plurality. Granted, this corresponds to the conditions of actualization of a “we”, which she identifies as: directedness/intentionality, authenticity, and visibility. At least visibility was not her concern in case of judging, though, while it seems to be decisive when it comes to denouncing thinking as a lonely enterprise. This, however, is my only criticism of Loidolt’s analysis. Overall, she presents a convincing account that integrates a particular normative – or rather proto-normative (234) – element into Arendt’s concept of plurality. She shows the fragility of the space created by action and plurality, but not only to emphasize its unsteady status. More importantly, she transforms this fragility into an asset: action follows its intrinsic logic, which means that it can be interrupted and taken up again, hence it is open to redefinition and reinterpretation by multiple interpreters (237). Through faculties of forgiving and promising, we establish relations between persons, which bring an element of the ‘empowerment through others’ into play (139). Loidolt then discusses ethical demands, which intertwine with domains other than the political: life, truth, and reason. Here, as she argues, actualized plurality is ethically relevant to addressing current global challenges of totalitarianism and biopolitics (234). Loidolt closes this illuminating chapter by reaching out to Lévinas and his ethics of alteritas and by presenting benefits of interrelating both theories (252).
Loidolt rightly contests the common belief that Arendt’s methodology was eclectic and random (52). Through her thorough and deep phenomenological investigation of Arendt’s political thought, she makes a successful attempt to display its overall methodological framework (which may not even have been fully evident to Arendt herself, considering her lack of interest in a methodological self-analysis). Husserl and Heidegger play a major role as references in Loidolt’s study, which is methodologically and historically comprehensible. It is an additional benefit of the book that she brings other phenomenologists from the ‘second generation’ (7) into play, which further underlines the potential for Arendt’s work to guide contemporary phenomenological inquiry. Loidolt also draws our attention to a particular feature of Arendt’s corpus: she wrote many of her texts first in English – a foreign language to her and not the one in which she received her philosophical education – then rewrote them in German herself. (12, 265). Loidolt, a native German speaker, observes that she found phenomenological traits to be omnipresent in the German versions of Arendt texts. She was surprised to discover that these traits were either much less apparent orabsent entirely from the English versions. This, I would argue, is one of the reasons why Arendt’s potential for phenomenology is not universally recognized and also why phenomenological takes on Arendt remain outside of the mainstream of Arendt scholarship, at least within the Anglophone reception. Another reason lies probably in the difficulty involved in comprehending Arendt’s particular phenomenological approach. However, Loidolt suggests that doing so is the only way to fully understand Arendt. I am not convinced that this claim can be supported without restrictions. First, there are multiple very appealing interpretations of Arendt that completely abstract from her bonds to phenomenology. Second, it seems to be quite far away from the Arendtian spirit to assert that there is only one perspective on a story. Loidolt herself emphasizes that she does not want to force Arendt into any club (2). Nevertheless, through her impressive study, Loidolt advocates her case very convincingly. It is possible to see Arendt’s work through multiple lenses, but it is indeed very difficult to ignore the phenomenological lens, since once it has been applied what has been seen cannot be unseen. Therefore, due to its comprehensiveness and the depth of Loidolt’s analysis, the book has great potential, not only to inspire a new, phenomenologically-oriented appreciation of Arendt’s work but also to become a crucial contribution to Arendt scholarship.
Arendt, Hannah. 2007. Vita activa. München/Zürich: Piper.
Arendt, Hannah. 2003. Some Questions of Moral Philosophy. In: H. Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment. New York: Schocken.
Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Benhabib, Seyla. 2006. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought. In: Garrath Williams (ed.), Hannah Arendt: Critical Assesment of Leading Political Philosophers, Vol 4., pp. 234 – 253. London/New York: Routledge.
Benhabib, Seyla. 2003. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. New Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Szanto, Thomas & Moran, Dermot (eds.). 2016. The Phenomenology of Sociality: Discovering the ‘We’. London/New York.
Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. 1982. For Love of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
This volume of fourteen essays honors and explicates the underappreciated Belgian phenomenologist Jacques Taminiaux. The essays cluster around the theme that there is in phenomenology and society a primacy of the political echoing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s primacy of perception. The book treats the political not as foundational to philosophical inquiry but as inescapable. The claim made by the editors is that “almost any sort of philosophical research, whatever its specific object, will find itself confronted by the mirror of the political,” and, therefore, phenomenology cannot claim the attitude of the uninvolved spectator and “exempt itself from being reflected in the mirror of the political.” (vii) Instead, phenomenology must enact a fundamental attitude of judgment and respect. Not all of the essays in this book, however, directly address the thought of Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology, but all of the essays contribute to phenomenology in general.
Shaun Gallagher’s essay, “The Struggle for Recognition and the Return
of Primary Intersubjectivity,” explores the distinction between primary and secondary intersubjectivity. Gallagher’s approach is to contrast Fichte’s concept of summoning, Honneth’s concept of a Hegelian struggle for recognition, and Ricoeur’s concept of a gift. The question that Gallagher takes on is whether mutual recognition emerges as a natural and automatic event regardless of any practical response an individual makes. His response is basically that it does not. He takes a somewhat negative view of Honneth’s Hegelian theory that dialectical struggles for recognition lead to self-realized individuality and then onward to politico-economic justice and social solidarity. Acknowledging that an individual’s autonomy depends on intersubjective mutual recognition, Gallagher astutely points out that that this situation does not necessitate that we accept that mutual recognition is perfectly reciprocal. Gallagher proposes a model of primary intersubjectivity that does not depend on reciprocal recognition but instead acknowledges that recognition relations are imperfect. At times, we give recognition without expecting reciprocation and receive recognition without being able to return it. In these circumstances, recognition is best seen as a gift or summons. Primary intersubjectivity, therefore, does not require a dialectical struggle to find ourselves where we are.
Fabio Ciaramelli in “Intuition and Unanimity: From the Platonic Bias to the Phenomenology of the Political” extends Taminiaux’s claim of a Platonic bias in philosophy. For Taminiaux, the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy subordinated the body politic’s life and action to the sage’s life of contemplation that brought with it a problematic failure in understanding human affairs. (16) Ciaramelli takes the impetus of Taminiaux’s antispeculative research to connect the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy’s ontological paradigm of an ideal truth with the preference for unanimous solutions to social and political issues. For Ciaramelli, the issue is a matter of totality versus plurality because the Platonic bias to unanimous solutions implies a repression of plurality. (18-19) Ciaramelli takes an unexpected and interesting approach to the issue, basing his essay on a 16th century text by Etienne de La Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie’s essay criticizes passive submission to a unique center of power. La Boétie goes so far as to blame the people for their servitude, reasoning that by continuing to submit to power, they prefer servitude to liberty. Ciaramelli interprets La Boétie as advocating two conflicting social models: a pluralism that allows uniqueness to flourish and a totalizing model that dominates individualities and produces uniformity. (20-21) La Boétie argues that nature does not give us a model for either servitude or freedom; therefore, the ways to safeguard individual uniqueness and pluralism must be socially instituted. From this concept, Ciaramelli deduces that it is necessary to reject the Platonic bias of a universal solution. He insightfully extends this thought to La Boétie’s conception that to achieve liberty “nothing more is needed than to long for it,” connecting this conception with the preference for unanimous solutions that threaten plurality. (25) Ciaramelli concludes that La Boétie, despite his insights, is also guilty of confirming the domination of unanimous solutions.
In “Phronêsis and the Ideal of Beauty,” Danielle Lories extends Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the difference between Aristotelian phronêsis and the Kantian judgment of taste. Lories’s close analysis of particular passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s Third Critique is of interest to scholars of those books, or of Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, but Lories does not connect her topic to Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology.
Rosemary R.P. Lerner’s essay, “The Ethical Dimension of Transcendental Reduction,” attempts to craft a “coherent, unitary view of [Edmund Husserl’s] thought that integrates all of its various dimensions.” (46) Her first step is to free Husserl from Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Husserl’s project as intellectualist, and Lerner gives a useful overview of the history of Husserl interpretation as background for her argument. Lerner recasts Husserl’s phenomenological reduction “as an eminently practical—namely, ethical—achievement (Leistung), driven by a practical virtue, responsibility.” (45) Lerner argues that ethics were a systematic locus in Husserl’s proposed idea of philosophy. She describes Husserl’s gradual transition from viewing ethics as founded upon formal a priori laws to viewing the ethical motivation of right and valuable actions as love in its diverse forms. (52) Husserl never wavered in his view of the importance of the rational, but, Lerner points out, Husserl also included acts of loving, hating, and desiring. This connects with Lerner’s thesis that Husserl’s motivation is responsibility as a function of practical reason. “The intellect is the servant of the will in the same way that I am the servant of those that configure our practical life, as leaders of humanity,” she quotes Husserl as writing and offers other quotes to back up the idea that this idea guided Husserl’s thought. (55) Lerner connects this thought to the primacy of the political in that even if Husserl does not mean that philosophers should immediately dedicate themselves to political life they should set the bedrock of the essential structures of being human, a bedrock on which authentic moral philosophy can be built. (55) She concludes that Husserl’s transcendental reduction can be understood as a resolution to adopt an authentic, good, and responsible life and, therefore, as an ethical renewal. (61-62)
“Individuation and Heidegger’s Ontological ‘Intuitionism’” by accomplished Heidegger scholar Mark A. Wrathall explores the meaning of individuation. Following Taminiaux, Wrathall defines intuitionism as the privileging of perception over thought and the necessity of approaching the Self by means of intuition rather than symbolism. For Wrathall, this means that what individuates each of us is something to which we have direct access. (71) It is possible and necessary to see the distinct individual that I am and to do so in the most radical way. We transcend everyday intelligibility and arrive at an intuitive apprehension of Self that is required for an authentic selfhood. Wrathall states, however, that the transcendental moment in the intuition of the self can never dispense with shared, everyday modes of self-interpretation. Again agreeing with Taminiaux, Wrathall holds that Heidegger erred in thinking that the Self is separated from and constituted independently from relations with others, a view that closes off the Self from ethical demands. Intuition is the priority of “seeing” over thought, (75) but the kind of sight involved in individuating oneself as an authentic agent is a particular type of seeing: perspicuity. (78) Wrathall says that “the sight of perspicuity plays an intimate role in the process of the realization of myself as a self, because it allows me to recognize myself as co-responsible for the opening up of the world.” (83) We are not cut off from others when we individuate ourselves but we see our Self in a shared public world within which we realize ourselves as individuals. The purpose served by achieving a perspicuous grasp of myself and an authentic disclosure of the world, then, is to allow me to comport myself toward my existence in such a way that I “own” or take responsibility for it. The end goal of owning myself is to forge a stable, autonomous character. A responsible existence ultimately depends on an intuitive grasp of myself.
Pol Vandevelde’s “Historicizing the Mind: Gadamer’s ‘Hermeneutic Experience’ Compared to Davidson’s ‘Radical Interpretation’” is as the title advertises. Vendevelde contrasts the two differing views of interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer characterizes interpretation as an event of hermeneutic experience, whereas Donald Davidson, against what he sees as Gadamer’s relativism, sees interpretation as an ahistorical but empirical process of triangulating subjective, objective, and intersubjective positions. The difference between the two theories of interpretation, Vendevelde argues, lies in their treatments of concrete individuals within their own historical situations. (104) Davidson’s theory, by dehistoricalizing interpretation, depersonalizes the concrete historical individuals who have made their own interpretations. The political ramifications of Davidson’s presumed neutrality is a neutralizing, if not empowering, of dominant cultural narratives that prevents concrete individuals, who perform interpretation, from being observed and considered, and therefore is a marginalizing of individual interpretations from subaltern groups.
Focusing on Merleau-Ponty, Stephen Watson addresses the issue of the incompleteness of the phenomenological reduction. Watson observes that “the search for truth is always an embodied truth, but equally a veiled truth.” (108) In “On the Metamorphoses of Transcendental Reduction: Merleau-Ponty and ‘The Adventures of Constitutive Analysis,’” Watson analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s writings on incompleteness to uncover the nature of what is incomplete in the reduction. Watson’s position is that the incompleteness is owing to the inexhaustible transformations involved in the work of making origins manifest rather than a failure fully to grasp originary evidence. Watson links this realization with what he claims is Merleau-Ponty’s idea that we barely coincide with the originary: “what justification we have comes to an end without attaining ultimate determinacy—but not because its itinerary does.” (122) Therefore, Watson concludes, phenomenology itself becomes an open multivocal practice of symbolic institutions as the world is revealed.
Also writing on Merleau-Ponty is Babette Babich in her essay, “Merleau-Ponty’s Lamellae: Aesthetic Feeling, Anger, and Politics.” Babich attempts to show how throughout Merleau-Ponty’s writings is a sustained engagement with psychology and biology. She draws mainly on Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on embodiment and bodily engagement with the lifeworld to show how his phenomenology is a multifaceted topography of thought and intercorporeal life. Babich’s overview of Merleau-Ponty’s views on flesh, spacings, and lamellae does not break new ground, nor do her observations on the relevance of Merleau-Ponty warning’s against violence and capitalist imperialism. She does make some good observations on Merleau-Ponty’s connection between lamellae and flare-ups of anger in relation to embodiment and space (137-139) but does not pursue them fully. A further pursuit of the political implications of personal anger would be highly valuable to social and political theory, and Babich provides some thoughts and resources on this important issue.
Of significant value to addressing the current crisis in education is Sharon Rider’s insightful essay, “Coercion by Necessity or Comprehensive Responsibility? Hannah Arendt on Vulnerability, Freedom and Education.” Speaking on an important current topic, Rider questions recent trends in education policy and provides a much needed counterpoint to them. First, she argues that there is a false image in education of children’s autonomy. She accuses educational “progressivism” of advancing the idea that there is “a child’s world” separate from the adult world that educators and the education process must take into account and therefore not guide but merely support children. (165) She then turns to the related assumption in educational progressivism that there that there can be a science of teaching that can be studied and implemented without mastery in the subject matter taught. Any teacher who has been dragged into certain “training sessions” will commiserate. Armed with an understanding of these two false assumptions, Rider argues, we can move to the more fundamental problem of what the crisis in education says about our form of life. Rider applies Hannah Arendt’s thought to the philosophy of education and proposes the idea of an institution of truth-telling and critique (173) in which we understand human beings as part of the world, always beginning again. Rider says that “it is within the public organization of a collectivity where we are not under the sway of necessity that the new emerges.” (173) The answer to the crisis in education is to treat education as a collectivity that recognizes our shared vulnerability and exercises authority to build stable institutions in which children learn to face facts about who we are and what the world is, as well as learning the discipline of sound judgment.
Environmental ethics are at the center of “Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt, and a Phenomenology of Nature” by Janet Donohoe. She starts with Husserl’s concepts of the lifeworld and the distinction between homeworld and alienworld. Donohoe contends that lifeworld is so deeply intertwined with homeworld and alienworld as to be inseparable, providing the foundation for the objective world but not being itself an objective world. (177) She then addresses the question of whether nature is something separate from us that we define ourselves against or whether we are immersed in and inextricably part of nature. Donohoe is firmly on the side of the latter, drawing on Arendt and Kelly Oliver to craft an understanding of us as intertwined with nature. Her purpose in this analysis is to argue for a conception of animal ethics based on the idea that our human lifeworld is not separate from the animal environment. In other words, animals are not an alienworld to our homeworld, but our homeworld is grounded in the same environment shared with nonhuman animals. We are therefore responsible to Earth and the other creatures with whom we share the Earth. (187)
In the most directly political essay in the book, Paul Bruno’s “Symbols and Politics,” the author takes on the thorny issue of the display of the Confederate flag in the United States. Taking as his starting point debates over display of the flag at a particular university, (190) Bruno understands the conflict as regarding the definition and meaning of a symbol, not only in a political sense, but in an aesthetic sense. Bruno is employing aesthetics less in an artistic sense and more in the sense of how humans perceive the meanings of objects. With this move, he can adroitly position the symbol of the flag within the setting of a culture and language. To assist in his analysis, he engages in a phenomenological reading of Kant’s Third Critique, assisted by Taminiaux, focusing on the concepts of symbol and imagination. Our thought takes into account others’ ways of presenting something to compare our own judgments with human reason in general. Importantly, this means that “impartiality is achieved by taking into account other people’s way of seeing or feeling, including those ways of seeing and feeling that we may not find palatable.” (202) Education and politics require that we interact with others’ biases so that we may see our own biases in a new light. Bruno therefore concludes that: “Becoming sensitized to evils perpetrated under the Confederate flag or Nazi flag requires a place in public discourse for those flags. Putting those images in a lockbox is a recipe for them becoming rancid, tools of resentment and disillusion that fester in the hands of the disengaged, or dare I say, the excluded.” (203)
In “Poetics and Politics,” Françoise Dastur examines Taminiaux’s interpretation of tragedy from 1967 to 1995. Dastur reconstructs Taminiaux’s argument of the connections between poetics and politics from Aristotle to Heidegger, assessing it mostly positively. Dastur is critical, however, of Taminiaux’s attempt to argue for a distinction between praxeological and speculative readings of Greek tragedy. She is skeptical of the need for a speculative reading, and drawing on the German Idealists and Niezsche, states that perhaps a praxeological reading of tragedy is adequate to uncover the varied speculative aspects of Greek tragedy. Dastur then questions Taminiaux’s core thesis that poetics and politics are two sides of the same coin. Dastur instead holds that both the ontological
dimension and the political dimension of the tragedy have to be taken into account because they concern human beings in their entirety.
Finally, the two editors each contribute an essay. Véronique M. Fóti stresses the impotence of understanding Merleau-Ponty to understand Taminiaux in “Nature, Art, and the Primacy of the Political: Reading Taminiaux with Merleau-Ponty.” Similar to Donohoe, Fóti argues against treating nature as separate from us. Fóti uses Merleau-Ponty’s arguments against the intellectual subjugation of nature and in favor of the intercorporeality, or interanimality, of animal being and humanity. Her exegesis of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature highlights the need to understand our place in nature as the inter-being of self and other and that our unique spatio-temporal emplacement is a radical contingency, leading us to accept that we cannot intellectually dominate nature. From this concept, we can place our emphasis on lateral rather than hierarchical relationships of power that reject structures of domination. Fóti then turns to Merleau-Ponty’s interrelation between political philosophy and the philosophy of art, a question she relates to an ontology of nature. The political dimension, Fóti says, is not a region set apart but is fundamentally co-extensive with the lifeworld and we must abandon a binary opposition of political and nonpolitical life.
The book concludes with Pavlos Kontos’s “The Myth of Performativity: From Aristotle to Arendt and Taminiaux.” “The Myth of Performativity” in the title Kontos understands
as the conception in philosophy that some actions constitute pure performances in that they do not leave behind them concrete traces in the world. Kontos identifies the pitfall of the myth in Heidegger who, Kontos claims, celebrates pure performativity, distorting the performativity proper to actions. Kontos praises Taminiaux’s theory of political action, which speaks against the legitimacy of the Myth. Kontos sees Taminiaux as a corrective for how philosophers like Heidegger and Arendt, under the influence of the Myth, misunderstand the notion of solidarity, power, and memory. For example, Arendt’s idea that the actor and storyteller occupy two different positions is problematic. The storyteller is portrayed as not engaged in the web of political action so that the elusive character of actions is therefore not a predicament. When we reject the Myth, we put the storyteller and the actor into a new light showing that the practice of historical storytelling is intrinsically political.
Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology (henceforth Perception and its Development) is a volume of fifteen papers from different authors, each addressing the most significant (or at least the most explicitly addressed) topic of the philosophical path of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that is perception. Each chapter focuses on a specific subset of philosophical issues related to perception, all of them initially addressed by Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception (henceforth the Phenomenology).
Perception and its Development has two strikingly original aspects. First, although the authors use ideas thematized by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology as guidelines for their expositions, their understandings of these ideas are not limited to this context. Rather, the authors commonly enlarge the scope of their analyses beyond the Phenomenology, tracking conceptual developments through Merleau-Ponty’s later works. This strategy both offers us a different and broader perspective on the Phenomenology, and opens the door to new hermeneutical possibilities of this work that are unexplored in other companion readers. Secondly, while the authors do considerable hermeneutical work to reach this wider perspective, they do not subject us to extensive commentaries of Merleau-Ponty’s original texts. Instead, they usually appeal to more contemporary problems in diverse areas of philosophy, science, arts, and even politics, a method that unveils through demonstration the similar approach used by Merleau-Ponty in his work to the philosophical problems of his concern.
The fifteen chapters are separated in four sections. The logic behind the section divisions, the editors claim (8), is to reproduce the progressive advance made by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology, from the most basic aspects of our perceptual experience (i.e. our practical engagement with the environment as individuals), to the most complex contexts where our perception is at work—namely, in arts and politics, those activities proper to human culture. Despite the general similitude in the organization of Perception and its Development with the Phenomenology, the structure of this volume also displays a very different order of exposition. For instance, Perception and its Development begins by explicitly addressing the questions of passivity, intersubjectivity, and even freedom—all subjects that are addressed much later in the Phenomenology. This new order has both negative and positive consequences. The fact that there is no detailed account of the notions of “perception” and “the body” in the context of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology before deeper consequences of this phenomenological approach (especially those in later periods of his philosophy) are addressed may prove a real challenge for the novice reader of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy who, without first being lead to the proper conceptual clarity, may find themselves confused by claims made in Perception and its Development. Nevertheless, the alternative would be to follow the less original path already taken by most companion readers to the Phenomenology. In a positive light, then, the reordering of the topics of the Phenomenology, together with their integration with his later accounts of expression (a fundamental aspect of his post-phenomenological period) and his unfinished ontology highlights the pertinence of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for addressing the ongoing philosophical concerns on particular aspects of perception like intersubjectivity.
Given their depth and complexity, a detailed description of the ideas posited in each chapter surpasses the scope of this review. In what follows, I shall summarize the main proposals of each author, focusing on the four conceptual divisions of this book.
Part I is titled “Passivity and Intersubjectivity” and deals explicitly with these topics, but it quickly becomes clear that freedom is also a crucial concept for immersing ourselves in the question of passivity in our perceptual lives. In chapter one, John Russon describes the act of (paying) attention as an act of freedom. This freedom is, however, not to be understood as the independent will of our minds (25), but as an act shaped and constrained by the organic nature of our bodies, the physical conditions of the environment, and, fundamentally, our engagement with others in shared projects (28-29). This is because our perceptual attention exhibits the capacity of our bodies to be responsive to particular conditions of the environment that call for a specific set of actions (i.e. bodily skills) on particular features of the environment, which appear as possibilities for action or affordances (30). This responsiveness of the body is generated through a process of habituation (31), but the normative process of habit acquisition is importantly determined by the intersubjective dimension. This is because the plasticity of the world and of the body is not enough to establish the necessary conditions for the criteria of adequateness needed to make our bodies responsive to worldly situations (32). Work and communication are described by Russon as further expressions of our freedom in human contexts (35-36).
In chapter two, we find a more detailed description of the nature of the interrelation of the body and the environment in what Maria Talero calls experiential workspace. This experiential workspace describes “the enactive coupling of bodily and environmental potentialities” (45). That is, the space where the bodily skills and the affordances of the environment are related. In this regard, the attunement of the body and the environment, in Talero’s metaphor, is like catching the rhythm of a piece of music when we dance. It is by understanding the rhythm of music in my body that I am able to coordinate my body movements with those of my partner, and effectively dance (49).
In chapter three, Kym Maclaren employs two further concepts to improve our understanding of the body/environment entanglement: institution and emotion. In Merleau-Ponty’s later work, the notion of institution clarifies how the body, the world, and their interrelation are not set in advance of their actual interaction. Maclaren names this process an entre-deux dialogue between an embodied being and the environment (52). The open-ended nature of the body-world entanglement, become stabilized (instituted) in a narrative form (56), like a story that help us to understand where something comes from (its past), but also, by setting the orientation of its future developments, where something is going, thus establishing “a matrix for future elaborations” (56). Maclaren offers three examples of institution: artistic expression, perception, and emotion, the most intriguing of which is the latter. Emotions, such as the love described by Merleau-Ponty in his lectures of Institution, are not psychological states of individuals, but the very relation through which two people are entangled (66). The expressive behavior of the other (their gestures, words, and actions) shapes the way I open toward them, and vice versa, such that the realm of emotion institutes a way of being with the other, a “binary rhythm” (66). Maclaren draws on an example of this from Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Child Relations with Others,” (in The Primacy of Perception) in which a child needs to reconfigure his emotional relation with his family after the birth of a new brother. Essentially, this child needs to “institute” a new form of interrelation with his family, given the loss of his position as the youngest son. This process of institution is possible only when the child reestablishes the equilibrium of the interfamilial relations (69).
Maclaren’s descriptions of emotions working as institutions of our relations with others preludes the central idea of chapter five, in which Susan Bredlau shows that perception may involve the active role of others as a form of incorporation. Merleau-Ponty argues in the Phenomenology that a blind person using a cane to navigate, given their habitual use of it, may incorporate the tool to the sensibility of their body. Likewise, for Bredlau, our perception extends its reach by involving the active participation of other people (82). An incorporation, Bredlau explains, involves a new form of sensitivity: the use of the cane is not the transformation of tactile experience in vision-like experience. Rather, it entails the acquisition of a new form of spatial navigation. Thus, “both perceiver and perceived take on new identities” (82). Bredlau distinguishes three types of scaffoldings based on other people incorporations: placement, engagement, and handling. The first type concerns the role of others drawing the paths of movement; the second refers to the influence of other people in constraining the possible actions that can be afforded in particular situations; and the third involves their participation in the development of the bodily skills necessary to function in such situations (95).
In part II, “Generality and Objectivity” the focus is turned from the most basic layers of our immediate perceptual experience of and ability to cope with the world to what gives to perception its “general” or even “objective” character, that is, that we naturally experience the world of perception as an independent reality given the stable structures of our perceptual field. In this regard, Kristen Jacobson, in chapter five, focuses on the virtual dimension of the body (the set of bodily skills learned by the body in his developmental path to cope with the environmental conditions) and the establishment of spatial orientation in what Merleau-Ponty names spatial levels (the meaning of the situation that is revealed through “calls,” or possibilities for action, corresponding to the acquired bodily skills) (103). From this perspective, Jacobson addresses the case of spatial neglect, a condition where people, having suffered brain damage, are incapable of moving one side of their bodies, and equally incapable of explicitly perceiving this same side in their visual field (104). In Jacobson interpretation, patients neglect one side of their visual fields because, while their “habitual” body (the body as structurally instituted in the past) is able to perceive the actual set of affordances in the environment, their actual bodily capacities, given their new physical condition, impede their ability to adequately respond to this environment such that they are no longer capable of making sense of this part of their visual field (113). They have lost the capacity to actualize their body/world relation—a condition that is similarly analyzed by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology, in cases such as that of Schneider (111). Thus, what is at stake in this condition is the incapacity of their lived bodies to create new spatial levels by actualizing the relation between their actual bodily skills and the present environmental conditions, a capacity we normally possess, and through which we adapt ourselves to the ever-changing realm of worldly situations (115).
The nature of the constitution (or institution, in the proper vocabulary of Perception and its development and of Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy) of these spatial levels and the habitual body is a temporal process that Don Beith describes in more detail in chapter six. The crucial step of this chapter is to highlight that the habitual body grounds its own stability through movement. As it has been argued in the previous chapters of this volume, the body “learns” to respond to situations by establishing patterns of movement, or motor habits, in developmental time (127), which are seen to be physical constraints on the scale of evolutionary time (128). The differences between the living bodies of humans and octopuses provide a good example of the peculiarities of movement and the institution of their bodies. Octopuses do not possess joints like us, their bodies are quite flexible. Joints, however, are fixed points of articulation that enable the opposition of different parts of our body and support further sequences of movement and patterns of locomotion. Since an octopus lacks these joints in its physical body, it needs to create the fixed points in its own patterns of movement—that is, in moving, it creates its own joints (126). By contrast, we have joints that certainly constraint the flexibility of our limbs, but at the same time increases the possibilities of movement for our whole body. Thus, paradoxically, the reduced flexibility of our limbs increases the range of freedom of our bodily movements (129). An interesting comparison between perceiving and learning to read is made by Beith at the end of this chapter. Beith believes that we learn to read by writing, and only understand the meaning of read words by also being actively engaged in the motor task of speaking and writing (135).
Although the editors say that the second part of Perception and its development would directly deal with the concepts of generality and objectivity in perception, it is not until chapters seven and eight that such concepts are explicitly addressed. In chapter seven, Moss Brender turns our attention from the perceptual realm of lived space to the perceptual experience of objective space, and in particular our perception of things. Drawing on two of Koehler’s experiments with chimpanzees, both quoted by Merleau-Ponty in the Structure of Behavior (his first important philosophical work), Moss Brender argues that chimpanzees do not possess the capacity to understand the localization of a thing in space if this localization is not relative to the motor actions of their own bodies (145); they remain attached to the present demands of a given situation (147). Humans, by contrast, are capable of understanding the position of things by virtually positioning their own body as if they were occupying the position of the thing, thus possessing a “mobility of perspective” (149). The key to understand the difference between lived and objective spatiality is the exercise of symbolic conduct (150): a sort of second order capacity, a second power (152), that turns the habitual motor significances into explicit or thematic objects of our experience (152). Moss Brender further describes how space has a crucial temporal dimension. On the one hand, space, as grounded in the developmental nature of the body, has an unfixed meaning that is open to the constant changes of that body. On the other hand, the meaning of space cannot be reduced to the activity of this body since space also involves a general or impersonal dimension that precedes the very existence of any-body (154). Hence space has a meaning or a particular orientation before the birth of my body, such that my body and the space it accesses is inherited by a past that is general, like its “evolutionary history” (154). Therefore, the space in which the body participates, the general space embodied by the orientation of the general past, is a tradition or an institution (155), but one that cannot be made fully explicit insofar as it transcends every possible individual body.
In chapter eight, David Ciavatta explicitly approaches the subject of time, and in particular its generality. He argues that, although our notion of time as an objective dimension of the world is rooted in the lived time of the embodied subject, it is the cyclical nature of time that gives it its generality, which does not correspond to any particular experience, but makes all of them possible. Essentially, the cyclical nature of the organic aspects of our bodies (such as breathing) and of natural events (such as day/night patterns) engender an attitude of indifference in experience of any particular moment of these cycles (161). Nonetheless, there is a discontinuity within this generality that makes these recurrent patterns identifiable as episodes of an even more general (or continuous) time, just like this present moment is part of the present day of the present week, and so on. (172). These temporal episodes, always nested in broader cycles, do not represent a simultaneous happening of all of them at once (173), but a disintegration of cycles into more general fields of presence (174). However, since the generality of time is grounded on the existence of individual cycles, each episode of time has an individuality that makes it unique in the general field of time (175). In this regard, any experiential subject has a limited duration marked by the start of their own birth. The time before their birth cannot, nonetheless, be experienced by them, though it can be experienced by someone else. The experience of natural cycles has the same historical or episodic feature. Consequently, the world has its own duration, its own history, its own episode, that is also part of a more general time. But here, we face a level of generality that cannot be lived by anybody—that is, the world has a past that has never been present, and this reveals some sort of natural a priori of time (177).
Part III, “Meaning and Ambiguity,” addresses the eponymous themes in terms of perceptual experience. In keeping with the question of time, David Morris, in chapter nine, lead us deeper into the question of how the temporally open-ended relation of living beings and the environment grounds the emergence of meaning. Morris’s metaphor of “balancing” is helpful in understanding Merleau-Ponty’s description of meaning as something “never fully present” for a subject, but instead present only as a temporal phenomenon of expression and institution. Although “balance” might be “represented” as a point in the idealized space of Newtonian physics, this “point” is actually unreachable in the temporal unfolding of the world. This balance, though, still might be considered as real if we consider it as a phenomenon of time—that is as balancing (201). Briefly, the balancing movement might be oriented towards an optimal state of balance, but this optimality depends on the forces already at work at any particular moment of the movement (such as gravity, momentum, inertia). Thus a balancing object moves towards this never fully given point of balance (its future) that carries on its past (the preset of the dynamic forces) (201). The establishment of (spatial) levels exhibits the same characteristic of balance in terms of the body. The habitual response of the body to the call of different situations is guided by a norm that is not fixed or set in advance of the actual history of embodiment and enactment of the space of any particular situation (198). However, in this latter case, the past of the body is not only the immediate past of its movement, but also the stable structure of the past represented by the habitual or virtual body, and the actualization of his actions when coping with the present conditions of the environment (199). This same phenomenon occurs in perception, where significant changes take place at the level of the stable structure of the environment (200). Finally, to understand the logic of perceptual development, in this normative sense, Morris turns our focus to the questions of expression and institution in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Basically, Morris argues that perception is an expressive act that involves the generation of new meanings through an institutional process (203). Perception articulates new levels by generating new optimal points of balance (meaning), from the already given forces (the instituted past) in its encounter with the present. However, since this expressive act generates a never fully given meaning, the indeterminateness of meaning leaves room for the institution of new meanings (205). This indeterminateness, however, possess a directedness which is an excess, or a pregnancy of potential for new meanings. This excess, Morris argues, is temporality itself (212).
In chapter ten, we find one of the most peculiar texts of this volume. Ömer Aygün, begins by addressing Merleau-Ponty’s characterizations of binocularity from the Structure of Behavior to his posthumous work The Visible and the Invisible. Later, Aygün contrasts the different modes of existence implicated in binocularity and in the monocular vision of Cyclopes, as described in ancient Greece literature. Fundamentally, Aygün argues that binocularity, for Merleau-Ponty, cannot be grounded on the Cartesian idea of two already given separated (retinal) images that are later unified by consciousness. Neither the physical stimuli nor an act of consciousness are enough to explain its unified nature (223-24). This raises the problem of the integration of two different perspectives unified in the visual experience we habitually have. A more holistic approach to binocularity is taken by Merleau-Ponty as early as the Structure of Behavior, but it is in the Phenomenology that Merleau-Ponty offers an account of this issue in terms of an existential project (225)—that is, in terms of the articulation of the body in light of a particular situations soliciting movement. The synthesis of binocular visual fields is thus reached through the seeing subject’s the being-in-the-world rather than in consciousness. Moreover, the kind of unification represented by this binocularity is more than a synthesis. In the Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes this synthesis as a metamorphosis that expresses the power on perception (perceptual faith) to reveal the world as a unified whole where communication with others is possible (228). This communication, like binocular vision, also entails the ambiguity of two perspectives looking at the same object, but nonetheless engaged in one single project (237). By contrast, for the monocular view of the cyclops, the world is revealed as a sheer positivity (that is, presences without ambiguity) (230). This makes him an isolated being, enclosed in his solipsism, and thereby excluded from the normative domain of law, language and love, characteristic of humans.
In chapter eleven, Marrato responds to Levinas criticisms on Merleau-Ponty’s account of alterity. For Levinas, Merleau-Ponty ignores the radical separation between the self and the other (243). Marrato identifies three main lines of criticism. First, Levinas considers that the reversible experience of the body, of touching and being touched, is not equivalent to the experience of touching and being touched by another person’s body. Secondly, he argues that Merleau-Ponty’s account of expression does not highlight the fundamental communicative role of this phenomenon. Finally, Marrato argues, for Levinas, Merleau-Ponty’s focus on visual perception for his philosophical inquiries makes him more concerned with questions about the knowledge of the world than about the ethical engagement with the other (243). In response, Marratto argues that Merleau-Ponty’s account of vision is not the typical theoretical model found in Western philosophy, where the perceiver is detached from the perceived. Instead, vision is an act very similar to touch. But unlike touch, vision is a distancing experience that further emphasizes the inherent depth of the horizons of the world (245). To perceive is, indeed, an active engagement of the body in its response to the solicitations of the environment, Perception, that is, is already an expressive behavior, and the art of painting “prolongs” this power of expression (244). Painting, thereby, does not represent the world but articulates new forms of meaning, a new way to look at the world. Painting, Marratto argues, is already an ethical act since a normative dimension is already present in the very act of expression (246). Expression is achieved when the painter or the seer gives birth to a new meaning—but this meaning is not merely the creation of the painter or the seer. Rather, the visible imposes its own criteria of correctness on the act of expression (246), even as the visible is itself not fully determined in advance (246-47). In this regard, vision opens up to something that is other than itself, questioning and responding through the expressive act of painting and perception. It is in the distance between the question and the response that “the spade of alterity” emerges (247). This space of alterity inhabits the body itself since the reversible act of the hand touching and being touched exhibits a never fully given coincidence within itself (248). A similar account is given across the different modalities of perception (such as vision and touch, 248) and in binocularity (249). Hence the expressive act of perception always involves some degree of alterity.
The last part of the book— “Expression”—is comprised of four texts that turn our attention from Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception towards his inquiries into expression and ontology, and lead us beyond the Phenomenology. In chapter twelve, Mathew J. Goodwin explores the notion of aesthetic ideas. Instead of adopting the traditional position, which considers thinking and sensation as two separated realms, Goodwin argues that aesthetic ideas make our perception more profound, by revealing the sensible in “its lining and depth” (253). Goodwin starts by introducing us to the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty (adapted from Leonardo da Vinci) between two different kinds of artistic expressions: prosaic lines and flexuous lines. Prosaic lines aim to define, once and for all, the positive attributes of things, like “an eidetic invariant that is never actually perceived” (257)—namely, it is a mere process of abstraction. By contrast, flexuous lines aim to bring our aesthetic experience toward the very genesis of our perceptual experience, the lived space where things are situated and where they become enacted by our bodily activity. Likewise, an object is drawn “…according to whatever interior forces of development originally brought it into being…”. (258). Thus, it is by revealing this genesis that an artist gives us an aesthetic idea, making visible the usually invisible depth of a thing (258). Goodwin later argues in this chapter that Mata Clark’s sculptural performances are a good instance of these aesthetic ideas.
Stefan Kristensen, in chapter thirteen, makes reference to another artist’s work: that of Ana Mendieta. He argues that phenomenal space and the ontological notion of the flesh in Merleau-Ponty entail the phenomenon of mourning. Phenomenal Space or depth are concepts that redefine our traditional notions of space and time (273). Instead of conceiving space and time as already given dimensions where objects and events are juxtaposed and mutually excluded, depth is the dimension where they are seen to encroach upon one another (273). Kristensen is especially interested in the phenomenon of mourning as it is implicated in the temporal dimension of depth (275). Merleau-Ponty describes our experience of the world as involving not only its presence, but also its past. This past is not the discovery of a pre-existence, but the formation of something “that appears as having already been there” (276). Hence when we understand, for instance, a sentence or perceptual gestalt, we make a “backwards movement.” Likewise, the meaning of an utterance or a picture is given only afterwards (276). For perception, it is the structure of the body schema that establishes the “ground of praxis” for individuals’ action and perception (277). However, this foundational dimension of the body represents the already-being-there of the body, its past that cannot be seen but afterwards (278). Mourning, then, is the process of restructuring bodily spatiality (279) insofar as it is a process that set us free from the past, allowing us to become newly instituted in the present. Nonetheless, the divergence of the body from itself is a process of loss, through which the subject of perception has already vanished even before they try to look at themself. Ana Mendieta’s work, for Kristensen, exhibits the intertwining of presence and absence that make manifest the overlapped temporality of the body and space where the past (that has never been present) and the present (enacted by the presence of the past) converge (280).
In chapter fourteen, Peter Costello reveals the political dimension of the ontological descriptions of the flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy. The immersion of the body in the world, becoming part of the flesh (the ontological basis of meaning) exhibits its dual form of appearance as seeing and being seen. This phenomenon, for Costello, is analogous to the Aristotelian affirmation that democracy requires the capacity of citizens to govern and being governed (285). The flesh is also defined as the “formative medium of the object and the subject” (285), and represents the prior dimension of that traditional dichotomy. Moreover, the immersion of the body in the flesh involves the interrelation of the body with multiple (anonymous) other bodies, and thus has an intercorporeal aspect to it (285). This means that the flesh enables an anonymous dimension of visibility (286), like the space of the intertwining with other people—that is, the public space where we are always already interrelated one each other. Nevertheless, the full access to this public space involves our explicit engagement in it, by mutually caring for one another so as to create a community (288). In this regard, Costello considers that for Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne incarnates the democratic nature of the flesh in his paintings by considering color not as an already given property of things (292)—what Cézanne calls “the tyranny over color”—but as symptomatic of the relational space of things and the body, where colors emerge as a spontaneous organization (ibid) only insofar as we participate in their visibility. This makes the observers part of the enactment of colors in Cézanne’s paintings, thereby introducing us to the public space in which things, the painter, and the observer are intertwined in the visual experience (296).
The volume ends with an exquisite text from Laura McMahon, where phenomenology is described as (the reflection on) first order perception. McMahon begins her argument by distinguishing between first- and second-order expression. For Merleau-Ponty, a thought or an idea cannot be given before its linguistic expression since it is in the process of its concrete articulation in language that thought become explicit for the thinker themself, and for the others. Consequently, it is in the moment of speaking or writing that thoughts acquire their particular meaning, their existence (310). However, linguistic expression involves two possibilities: the banal enunciation of already given meanings in second-order speech; and the first-order speech that involves the first-time enunciation of a meaningful utterance, such as when children first begin speaking, or when a poet or philosopher opens a new field of meaning or “world” (314). The institution of a new meaning, therefore, does not constrain the individual to expressing themself through the already given network of significations of the human world, but allows them to break the “primordial silence” of the world (315) by enacting new manners of experiencing it. Expression, nonetheless, is not limited to human speech, since perception is already an expressive act that maintains a “creative dialogue with the things of the world” (316); perception itself is a “nascent logos” (ibid.). The meaningful wholes of perception (Gestalten) are the analogous unities of meaning to sentences in speech (317). In here, McMahon argues, it is also possible to find a second order of perception where things appear as already made objects, fully given in advance to our encounter, as if our own presence were irrelevant for their appearance. This second-order perception describes the experience of the world in a natural or unreflective attitude (320). By contrast, first order perception looks at the very genesis of things: the lived space where we, as perceivers, are already involved in the genesis of the appearance of things. In this regard, the act of perception looks at itself, and not only at what is perceived (321). This kind of self-perception leads Merleau-Ponty in the Visible and the Invisible to talk about what he calls radical reflection. This kind of reflection uncovers its own roots (322), by revealing the genesis of signification in the already given meaning of things. The implicit order of the world experience in second-order perception and in second-order reflection is best carried out by “positive” scientific thought (323). By contrast, the task of radical reflection, analyzing first-order perception, is the task of phenomenology itself. (324).
At the end of the introduction (18-19), the editors mention two important aspects of what they hope this book will achieve. One is to use this book as a companion for the Phenomenology; another is to treat Merleau-Pontian phenomenology as a practice rather than an object. In terms of the first target, I believe the success of this book depends on the degree of Merleau-Pontian expertise that reader brings to their reading. The novice reader may find the multiple terms and metaphors used by the authors, corresponding to different periods of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, confusing. Furthermore, a semantic promiscuity is pervasive across the different chapters, and readers might get confused by the multiple names used to refer to what seems to be the same concept, or at least concepts more closely linked than any author lets on (e.g. lived space, phenomenal space, depth and flesh). Without a further clarification, it is not clear if these terms are used as synonyms or if a nuanced sense is developed through the use of each term. By contrast, for someone already immersed in the vocabulary and general ideas of the Phenomenology, the use of this book as a companion piece will help them deepen their reading of the Phenomenology, explore Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy, and track the development of certain concepts. In respect of the second purpose, I find this volume undoubtedly successful. The fresh approach to the subject of perception that incorporates Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, as well as topics of more immediate, contemporary philosophical concern, avoids the repetitive enunciation of the concepts that one can already find in other companions to the Phenomenology. In conclusion, the works bound in Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology certainly open new possibilities for our practice of reading Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, and for the use of his ideas in addressing contemporary concerns.
Cited Works by Merleau-Ponty
The Structure of Behavior. Trans. Fisher, Alden L. Vol. 3: Beacon Press Boston, 1942/1967. Print.
Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Landes, Donald A. New York, NY: Routledge, 1945/2012. Print.
The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Press, 1964/1968. Print.
The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics. Northwestern University Press, 1964. Print.
Institution and Passivity: Course Notes at the College De France (1954-1955). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003/2010. Print.
Luca Vanzago’s The Voice of No One is a thought provoking study in a newer line of Merleau-Ponty studies that seeks to build connections between the phenomenological tradition and process philosophy. Although the connections have not gone completely unobserved (cf. Hamrick 1974, 1999, and 2004), the majority of commentaries on Merleau-Ponty’s thought have completely ignored the importance of Whitehead’s philosophy to it. This situation is unfortunate for any number of reasons, but perhaps mostly due to how such a lacuna forecloses more radical understandings of the phenomenological project in general. By attempting to reinterpret the major concepts of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in terms of the commitments of process metaphysics, Vanzago’s book moves in the direction of closing that gap and offering a different approach within the world of Merleau-Ponty scholarship that emphasizes the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature.
With that said, Vanzago takes a traditional approach to what would be a rather dramatic re-thinking of Merleau-Ponty’s work. After a helpful introduction announcing the book’s main project of drawing the phenomenological and process views closer together by focusing upon the nature of relations, the book begins with several chapters discussing methodological questions regarding the phenomenological reduction (primarily in comparison to Husserl’s method), the nature and possibility of dialectic (with reference to Hegel and Lyotard), reconsidering how relations work (the first major appearance of Whitehead in the book), and how the problem of intersubjectivity plays out in a relational context. These chapters are undertaken utilizing the classic dialogical methodology of European philosophy, and Vanzago offers exemplary studies of the philosophers with whom he engages. In these chapters, he is laying the foundations for the conceptual reconsiderations he introduces in the next several chapters before concluding the book with what this reader took to be the text’s most important contributions, namely those to the ontology of nature. This organizational strategy makes sense, but I found myself wanting the narrative to progress more rapidly toward the book’s announced themes of nature and time, which appear most substantially toward the end of the manuscript. Although Vanzago provides helpful introductory sections to each chapter describing its goals, the aforementioned studies are constructed in a rather self-contained manner. At times, their hermetic quality made it challenging to keep track of how, say, the chapter on passivity (Chapter VI), which contains Vanzago’s close reading of Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Freud’s and Husserl’s views on the passivity of consciousness, contributes to a process view of nature in which consciousness emerges from a previous intersubjective unity.
For that is the main project of the book, arguing that understanding the practice of phenomenology in terms of process metaphysics transforms the problem of intersubjectivity. The persistent criticism of phenomenology, essentially since its inception, has been that even the insistence on the “consciousness is consciousness of …” structure of intentionality and the coexistence of noesis and noema within the intentional act is insufficient to have phenomenology escape one variety of subjectivism or another. For Vanzago, this situation is an opportunity to rethink the nature of phenomenology starting from its foundations, beginning not from the perspective of consciousness, but rather from the perspective of relations. Largely this shift entails an inversion of the usual problem: “when exceeding the limits of egology, phenomenology must become able to bring into its realm that which escapes it, what Merleau-Ponty calls, with an expression coming from Schelling, the ‘barbaric principle,’ the ‘shadow’ of philosophy. In other words, phenomenology must reinvent itself in order to overcome the traditional limits of rationality” (33). A break with the traditional limits of rationality is necessary because the phenomenological thinker must look to what conditions give rise to the possibility of consciousness—the pre-objective, pre-subjective condition out of which consciousness arises—rather than remain ensconced within how phenomena appear to a conscious perceiver. The phenomenologist achieves this break dialectically, proceeding through a number of negations immanent to relational, bodily being, spontaneously creating sedimented “institutions” through which the body habitually relates to the world (44). Chapter III: Chiasms, which offers an understanding of the chiasm through concepts found in Whitehead’s thought, was a true highlight of the book. Here, Vanzago imports a “coherent relationist approach” (48) in the service of making sense of Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to construct a metaphysics that does not rely upon the philosophical tradition’s usual substance-property ontology. Here is where the heart of the process ontology is developed, in the parallelism between Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of a “logos of the aesthetic world” in which bodily perceptual relations are primary (54) and Whitehead’s claim that every relation is an act of experience (62). Since phenomenology seeks to return to the things themselves through a return to experience, one can substitute the relational theory of experience for the more traditional phenomenological account based in the idea of intentional consciousness.
From there, Vanzago uses the idea of chiasmic relations to reinterpret Merleau-Ponty’s own ideas of bodily intentionality in two interesting and innovative ways. The first is to utilize the process view of time as a way of accounting for the emergence of particular objects from within undifferentiated Being or Nature, which seem to be roughly synonymous for Vanzago (e.g., 195). Being is understood as “the texture that is woven between in the concrete existence of men [sic] and beings” (107), the relational stuff, so to speak, out of which specific beings emerge in their particularity. These chapters, V-VIII, roughly argue that Being, when taken as a process, can account for all of the traditional features usually attributed to mind or spirit in a dualistic, substance-based metaphysics—time, “negativity,” intentionality—without resorting to the materialist “realism” that is still so philosophically popular in Anglo-American metaphysics and is currently experiencing a resurgence in so-called “new materialisms” and “object-oriented” ontologies. Doing so, however, calls for the second project: to utilize Merleau-Ponty’s key commitments to reconstruct a conception of nature that does not define humanity and nature in an oppositional or dualistic manner. Appealing to concepts such as flesh, expression, Whiteheadean events, and metaphor, Vanzago reconstructs a conception of nature that in many ways goes beyond the one Merleau-Ponty develops explicitly in his incomplete later works. Chapter IX: Processes and Events is a highlight in this regard and serves as a complement to the aforementioned Chiasms chapter for those interested in an in-depth analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s relationship to Whitehead.
This latter goal, of course, has been the goal of any number of environmental and philosophies in the critical tradition for decades, a fact Vanzago acknowledges (187). Unfortunately, there is no attempt to engage with those thinkers or traditions and a major shortcoming of Vanzago’s book is the nearly complete absence of consideration of either philosophers outside the canon of major 20th Century (male) European thinkers or the wide array of commentaries that already address these concerns. On the first point, particularly noteworthy is the omission of the work of Val Plumwood, whose Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) argued for a non-dualistic conception of nature in a way that accounts for both continuity between humanity and the rest of nature and the distinctiveness of the various forms of life and inanimate beings that comprise nature. Even within the canon of 20th century European thought, however, there are omissions. It is difficult to see how one could write a book on this specific subject without at least acknowledging Luce Irigaray’s (1993) criticism of Merleau-Ponty on precisely the point on which Vanzago focuses: the notion that Being is unitary and difference is something that needs to be accounted for rather than being a foundational element of being. Although getting bogged down in the literature can have a stultifying effect when one is attempting to articulate a new theoretical perspective, it is also true that entering into dialogue with those who are working with similar if not identical questions might help to refine one’s own work. English language scholars have been discussing these issues for some time, with commentaries such as Aarø (2010), Bannon (2011; 2014), Hamrick and Van Der Veken (2011), and Toadvine (2009)—just to name a selection from within the last decade—arguing for similar perspective to Vanzago’s. Rather than, in some cases, treading on familiar ground, I would have like Vanzago to further develop his innovative thesis further with reference to extant interpretations.
In some ways, this book is torn between two audiences. On the one hand there is the world of Merleau-Ponty scholarship where the organization and methodological choices make the most sense, but there is also very little in the way of engagement with other scholars in that field. On the other hand there is the broader world of philosophy, for whom there is much of interest in the book. Here, the ideas would be better presented by organizing around specific questions or problems rather than concepts. Doing so might appeal to the broader audiences alluded to in the book itself: ecological thinkers, philosophers of science and scholars within science studies interested in the ontology of scientific practice, phenomenologists who work on figures other than Merleau-Ponty, etc.
Despite these reservations, however, The Voice of No One is a substantial addition to the literature and deserves a reading from Merleau-Ponty scholars due to its careful analysis of the texts of both Merleau-Ponty and many of his major interlocutors. The text presents a well-argued case for its central thesis and presents strong evidence that the more established interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, particularly the later work, are in need of revision in order to accommodate Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with process thought in general and with Whitehead in specific.
Aarø, Ane Faugstad. 2010. “Merleau-Ponty’s Concept of Nature and the Ontology of Flesh.” Biosemiotics 3: 331-345.
Bannon, Bryan E. 2011. “Flesh and Nature: Understanding Merleau-Ponty’s Relational Ontology.” Research in Phenomenology 41: 327-357.
–. 2014. From Mastery to Mystery: A Phenomenological Foundation for Environmental Ethics. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Hamrick, William S. 1974. “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Some Moral Implications.” Process Studies 4: 235-251.
–. 2004. “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Healing the Bifurcation of Nature.” In Whitehead’s Philosophy: Points of Connection, edited by Janusz A. Polanowski and Donald W. Sherburne, 127-142. Albany: State University of New York Press.
–. 1999. “A Process View of the Flesh: Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty.” Process Studies 28: 117-129.
Hamrick, William S. and Jan Van Der Veken. 2012. Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Irigaray, Luce. “The Invisible of the Flesh: A Reading of Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ‘The Intertwining—The Chiasm.’” In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, 151–84. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Toadvine, Ted. 2009. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature. Evanston, Northwestern University Press.