Carl Sachs identifies himself a Kantian naturalist (2). What he means by this is that he accepts as plausible the transcendental standpoint and that its task is one of cognitive semantics, identifying the minimally necessary conditions for an utterance to be expressive of a thought. He identifies as a naturalist in the sense that he aims to provide an account of intentionality that is fully naturalizable. He argues that transcendental naturalism is the view that “transcendentally-specified roles must have empirically-specifiable role-players” (9). Sachs frames his book not only around the Myths of the Given, but around the question of how to account for original intentionality as opposed to derived intentionality. In laying out his solution, he favors a two-fold sense of original intentionality, what he calls bifurcated intentionality. He argues “both discursive and somatic intentionality must be considered as equally original…because discursive intentionality and somatic intentionality are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for judgments with empirical content” (8). This is endorsed in order, Sachs argues, to answer the naturalists challenge. It is a cornerstone of Sachs’s attempt to realize John Haugeland’s claim that there is a position between neo-behaviorists (Quine, Dennett) and neo-pragmatists (Sellars, Brandom). In contrast with Haugeland, Sachs approaches his challenge by relying heavily on the work of Merleau-Ponty. This, he believes, enables him an opportunity to construe one form of original intentionality as both non-social and non-linguistic, namely somatic intentionality: the intentionality of the body in its lived engagements and comportments.
Sachs makes a reasonable case that Wilfrid Sellars’s Myth of the Given has traditionally been too narrowly interpreted in terms of its scope. He argues that the problem is not just with an empirical given, but rather whatever sort of thing one treats a given. What’s more, Sachs argues that to understand Sellars’s criticisms of C.I. Lewis, one needs to appreciate that the given in question is not an epistemic given, but a cognitive-semantic given. To clarify, “the epistemic given has both epistemic efficacy (it plays a justificatory role in our inferences) and epistemic independence (it does not depend on any other justified assertions). The semantic given is both efficacious and independent with regard to cognitive semantics” (22). The Myth of the semantic Given is “the thesis that cognitive significance, objective purport, requires something with a semantic status, or a kind of meaning, independent of and yet bearing on the meaning of objectively valid judgments” (29). Sachs’ view of these two Givens is that his account of bifurcated intentionality opens room for non-conceptual content that does not violate the Myth of the semantic Given. Sachs believes a benefit of his account is that it preserves “transcendental friction,” which is “that it must be possible, by reflecting on our most basic conceptual and perceptual capacities and incapacities, to guarantee that we are in cognitive contact with the world we discover and do not create” (13).
Chapter one provides a lot of the groundwork for the book. This includes defining terms like non-conceptual content and transcendental friction. By the former, Sachs means “personal-level representational cognitive-semantic content that does not conform to the Generality Constraint [that a subject cannot conceive of a is F if she cannot also entertain the thought that a is G and that b is F]” (12). The latter is the requirement that “it must be possible, by reflecting on our most basic conceptual and perceptual capacities and incapacities, to guarantee that we are in cognitive contact with a world we discover and do not create” (13). The first two chapters are basically dedicated to explicating and defending a view of C.I. Lewis’s thought. It is done to establish a basis for the thesis of bifurcation. One might contend that Sachs is establishing a neo-Lewisian view. Indeed, the entire setup seems to leave one the impression that Lewis was very close to the truth, but lacked a sufficient understanding of somatic intentionality to make his semantic foundationalism work. In particular, Sachs argues at the close of chapter two, that one of Lewis’s critical errors was to adopt an Augustinian conception of language.
Chapter three is broken into three subsections. The first section outlines the dispute between Roy Wood Sellars and C.I. Lewis, specifically between the former’s physical realism and the latter’s conceptualistic pragmatism. The middle section establishes how this contextual backdrop informs Wilfred Sellars’s formulation of the Myth of the Given and his criticisms of Lewis. The final section establishes the place of non-conceptual content in lieu of the arguments presented by the younger Sellars. This chapter should be of immense historical value to the history of analytic philosophy. In terms of phenomenology, I believe that there is substantial potential for further engagement. The first section in particular has much in common with disputes between Husserl and Heidegger. This is in no way to assert that the disagreements or their terms are the same, only that there are sufficient parallels to warrant further comparison. The middle section might provoke an interest in drawing Mikel Dufrenne’s work on the a priori into dialogue with the analytic literature on the synthetic-analytic distinction in fruitful ways. As for the final section of the chapter, its concern for transcendental structures bears clear interest to the phenomenologist, even if the latter is not generally concerned for the causal role of said structures. That said, the way Sachs frames the chapter could be helpful for phenomenologists in thinking about how their work relates to work in other fields. That said, there is one clear complaint that anyone with a phenomenological background would raise. At the end of the chapter, Sachs quotes Sellars’s remarking: It is by the introduction of visual sensations that we transcend phenomenology or conceptual analysis. They are not yielded by phenomenological reduction but postulated by a proto-(scientific)-theory” (Sellars in Sachs, 69). Puzzlingingly, no relation of this passage to phenomenology is ever provided. Given the care in which Sachs works through the analytic literature, this is very surprising. This idea only returns directly in the Appendix. In either case, no mention is made of Sellars’s relationship to Marvin Farber or that Sellars is clearly claiming to have bettered both Husserlian phenomenology (Husserl, Farber) and conceptual analysis (Ryle, Lewis) on the question of non-conceptual content. It is disappointing that this comes at the end of the chapter without discussion or more critical attention.
Chapter four outlines the Brandom-McDowell dispute, and their shared rejection of non-conceptual content. It ends with a discussion of Dreyfus’s and McDowell’s exchanges. All of this seems to serve the purpose of establishing that non-conceptual content is rightly dismissed where one begins from discursive intentionality as paradigmatic. However, it is not clear that discursive intentionality is the (sole) original form of intentionality. Hence Sachs’s advocacy in the fifth chapter for Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on somatic intentionality as a co-original form of intentionality.
This all leaves open a position that might challenge Sachs. One might argue that somatic intentionality is original and that discursive or linguistic intentionality is secondary. This challenge does get a response at the end of chapter six, when Sachs offers his reasons for rejecting this sort of position in the work of Dreyfus and Todes. I’m not convinced that this possibility is so easily rejected, as it seems to hang on the requirement that defining intentionality in terms of language and not vice versa is true. While the latter is at odds with the Sellarsian approach, one might want more careful reasons for rejecting that alternative. Alternatively, why not think that something like somatic intentionality – or a system of affectations that might grow more and more sophisticated – is more basic? This certainly would make more sense of the evolutionary continuity one finds across species, and would help make sense of human development as well.
Chapter five brings Merleau-Ponty into the discussion. Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of intellectualism and empiricism are used by Sachs to ground the necessity that somatic or motor intentionality is distinctive from discursive intentionality. For Sachs, discursive intentionality consists of both directedness and aboutness, especially since he couches it in terms of Sellars’s community of language users, i.e. the deontic scorekeepers. Somatic intentionality, on the other hand, lacks aboutness but consists of directedness. It is also non-apperceptive. Sachs presses the distinction between the “I think” and “I can” in accentuating this difference. Discursive intentionality is associated with intellectual activity and judgments; somatic intentionality with the habitual deployment or execution of embodied postures or gestures. Habits are understood as quasi- or proto-normative. With regard to somatic intentionality, Sachs argues that the Myth of the Given – in either epistemic or semantic form – is avoided only insofar as one appreciates a distinction between pre-personal and sub-personal senses of non-conceptual content. If one locates non-conceptual content at a sub-personal level, then, he argues it cannot take on an intentional structure. That point is not consistent with Merleau-Ponty’s broad application of intentionality to the natural world (Merleau-Ponty 2003; see also Hamrick 2011). However, Sachs believes that conceiving of non-conceptual content in pre-personal terms avoid this problem.
Sachs makes a surprising, if subtle, error in his discussion of Merleau-Ponty (107-108). He correctly indicates that motor intentionality is directedness without aboutness. A dog might be directed towards the object of play, even if it might not experience play as something about which it participates. However, he misapprehends what is meant by Merleau-Ponty identifying it as non-apperceptive. Apperceptive contents in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty – unfortunately ambiguously used by both – refer to the adumbrated profiles associated with the object of experience, or to the pre-reflective mineness of experience. That is apperception refers to the unity of the experience of this or that both in relation to the “object” and to the “subject.” Motor intentions aren’t necessarily constituted through profiles. Nor are they the sorts of things that one generally recognizes their self to be enacting or embodying in an explicit, voluntaristic manner. The later part Sachs gets right, though his interpretation is perhaps a little intellectualist, thinking this is about a reflective “I think.” It’s more a comment for Merleau-Ponty about the absence of the pre-reflective sense of an “I” in the experience of these intentional states. For example, one affects a posture, but one is neither aware of one’s affecting one’s posture nor is one’s affectation of a posture something that’s adumbrated. There are no posture-profiles intended in absence of the intentional affectation of the posture itself. By denying that there are profiles, absences co-constituting internal horizons of the intention, one does not deny that motor horizons have temporal dimensions that involve action-possibilities.
Chapter 6 pulls all of the parts together firmly and offers closing arguments. Interestingly, Sachs believes that it is worthwhile retaining Sellars’s non-relational conception of discursive intentionality over Merleau-Ponty’s relational conception, though he concedes that somatic intentionality is by its nature relational (136). Sachs offers a succinct three thesis summary of what he’s arguing for, which is helpful for his pointing out how he resolves both the Sellars-McDowell and the McDowell-Dreyfus debates. They are:
(a) discursive intentionality is non-world tracking;
(b) perceptual episodes have somatic intentional content (phenomenologically considered);
(c) perceptual episodes have world-tracking representational content (naturalistically considered) (138).
Sachs insists upon preserving (a) on the basis that rejecting (a) “leads one right back to all the problems of ‘intentional inexistence,’ realism about universals, and so on” (ibid). I’m not sure why that would have to follow, though Sachs seems to treat language games as abiding by their own internal rule-systems without necessary reference to the world. The deontic scorekeepers track whether one’s usage is correct, not whether one’s claims track true. Sachs understands our embodied coping skills in terms of “sheer receptivity” (ibid). It should be warned that Sachs does not equate receptivity with passivity (139). Rather it is a spontaneous non-conceptual, non-inferential state of affairs. Phenomenology’s role in this line of reasoning is to dislodge the assumption that “rational conceptuality is the paradigm of intentional activity” (139). Rejecting the view attributed to Dreyfus and Todes that somatic intentionality grounds discursive intentionality, Sachs does accept that the former constrains the latter. By this he understands that “the normativity of bodily habits constrains (but does not determine) the normativity of social norms” (139). More formally, somatic intentionality is necessary, but not sufficient for discursive intentionality. As noted above, one is wont perhaps for a more complete set of reasons why one should reject the thesis of somatic-intentionality’s grounding discursive intentionality. Sachs is skeptical in no small measure because, he argues, were somatic intentionality necessary and sufficient for discursive intentionality, one would succumb to the Myth of the Given again. I’m not sure why that would have to be the case, even if I accept the reasons he offers. In other words, I don’t see why one can’t agree that the relationship is as Sachs states – that somatic intentionality is necessary but not sufficient for discursive intentionality – and not still prioritize somatic intentionality as more basic. Granted, that might require going with Merleau-Ponty in denying (a) and affirming a relational account of language.
The book closes with an Appendix, addressing the question as to whether or not phenomenology commits itself to the Myth of the Given. In brief, Sachs’s argument is that Merleau-Ponty successfully avoids the Myth in either form, but that the early Husserl commits to the Myth. Specifically, Husserl commits to the Myth through the correlation of noesis and noema. Says Sachs, “Correlationism is Mythic dues to its foundational role within the total system as the presuppositionless condition of possibility of cognitive experience, just because our awareness of the correlation is achieved when all presuppositions are suspended, i.e. when the phenomenological reduction is complete” (161). Sachs believes this fits Sellars’s metaphor of the “seal on melted wax.” I’m not sure how this is supposed to be, as it strikes me as a misunderstanding of Husserlian phenomenology. That we discover noetic-noematic correlation while maintaining the phenomenological reduction is not a problem in this manner. Sachs forgets that the reduction effects the suspension of the natural attitude. That is, our everyday comportments in the world are focused on the objects themselves as given. The reduction enables us to step back from that naïve standpoint in order to identify and explicate the subjective roles played in consciousness in experience. A shift of attentional focus is a necessary condition for discovery of the workings of consciousness. Nor does presuppositionless mean suspension of contents, only suspensions of interests and judgments. I suspend my affirmations and negations, specifically my existential commitments. Husserl never asserts that “the categorial structure of the world imposes itself on the mind as a seal on melted wax” (Sellars in Sachs, 161). What Husserl does argue is that the categorial structure of consciousness arises in relation to the experienced contents of lived experience. What’s discovered is that our epistemic and semantic starting points involve an exchange or relation between the subject and the world – which is precisely the thing Sachs praises Merleau-Ponty for discovering. I can appreciate that if one interprets Husserl’s reduction as violating the demand for transcendental friction, that one might argue that he is committed to the Myth. However, Husserl is careful to articulate how the content of consciousness involves the relationship between the subject and her world. That relationship grounds his consistent concern for evidentiary fulfillment. There could be no concern for fulfillment unless it were possible that both that the subject be mistaken – either noetically or noematically – and that evidences be possible. Husserl’s neither granting justificatory nor semantic roles to the given. One might think that noema can stand in isolation and that this is precisely what the reduction realizes or reveals. However, that cannot be the case, because Husserl is clear that noema emerge from out of a horizonal network, i.e. meanings are the results of interactive relations between categorial elements (see Logical Investigation VI) and the subject’s comportment within and towards the world. Unfortunately, it may be the case the Sachs is inheriting mistaken attributions about Husserl’s philosophy from Sellars, who received those mistakes from Marvin Farber (1943).
A quibble with Sachs’s book might be raised about the book’s approach on the whole is how quickly Sachs is to brush over applying categories associated with historical figures. For example, much of the book involves consistent usage of Kantian v. Hegelian labels to distinguish different positions or thinkers in their disputes. Given that these labels aren’t always defined, and that they represent potentially niche interpretations of those labels, one wonders if they might not obscure things at times. For example, in one of the early chapters, Sachs associates Kantianism with Lewis White Beck’s translation. While that was an influential translation of Kant’s Critique, it is now generally regarded as excessively Humean in its interpretive approach. More recent Kant scholarship is far less enamored of the Beck paradigm that Kant was directly responding to Hume. Rather, Kant is far more grounded in the development of the Leibniz-Wolff tradition, and in responding to Baumgarten’s work. This isn’t to say that Kant is not influenced by empiricism as well, just to note that Hume’s role in spurring Kant’s philosophical development is much less important than Beck and cohort asserted. What’s more, the term Hegelian has different meanings in different circles as well. Within British Idealism it meant one thing, and variants from that school of thought inform the American Hegelian lines. But this is not obviously the same Hegel that one finds in Marx or the German tradition. None of this is Sachs’s doing, historical chains of influence are intrinsically complex. But the plurality of these interpretive lineages do raise questions about the efficacy of using the labels so freely.
A more substantive question I have is whether or not Edmund Husserl’s account of the genetic origins of judgment in Experience and Judgment poses a challenge to Sachs’s approach. Not only does Husserl offering a rather robust account of how judgments – discursive intentionality – arise from out of non-discursive origins; but it is well known that Merleau-Ponty was familiar with most of Husserl’s later works – as Sachs acknowledges in The Appendix. As such, there is a possibility that Merleau-Ponty has an intrinsic objection to how Sachs is approaching bifurcated intentionality. This is in no way an argument here, only to raise the consideration – as such scholarship is beyond the scope of this review.
On the whole Sachs’s Intentionality and the Myths of the Given is a worthwhile text. It provides careful and precise elucidations of Sellars’s Myth. It deepens the historical context and understanding of important debates in contemporary philosophy, especially analytic philosophy – for which Sachs’s contribution might be invaluable. And it joins a growing chorus of works that bring phenomenological philosophers into prominent dialogue with more widely read philosophers. The book’s aim to outline an approach to intentionality without succumbing to the Myths of the Given and to preserve transcendental friction both succeed. While the book is often very technical and dense in the usage of terminology that would be potentially prohibitive for a broader audience, I believe it merits recommendation for those working on issues relating to the nature of intentionality or the Myth(s) of the Given.
Dufrenne, Mikel. 1966. The Notion of the A Priori. Edward S. Casey, trans. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Farber, Marvin. 1943. The Foundation of Phenomenology. Albany: SUNY Press.
Hamrick, William. 2011. Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought. Albany: SUNY Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. J.N. Findlay, trans. London: Routledge. Husserliana (Hua) XIX/1 and XIX/2: Logische Untersuchungen. Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis, Zwei Bänden, ed. Ursula Panzer. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2003. Nature: Course Notes from the College de France. Robert Vallier, trans. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Sachs, Carl. 2014. Intentionality and the Myths of the Given. New York: Routledge.
The main title of this book suggests that it is a defense of phenomenology. An interesting and alluring idea. In fact the book is not a general defense of phenomenology, but is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and thus of his particular brand of phenomenology – in the course of this it is also a defense of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, since the author holds that it has been misunderstood, or at least in certain crucial aspects fundamentally misrepresented. The particular villain of misunderstanding is Vincent Descombes in his venerable, but still quite widely read, introductory book Modern French Philosophy first published in French in 1979 and in English in 1980. It is unclear how influential Descombes book still is however, leaving one to wonder whether his view of Merleau-Ponty is still the prevailing one that might justify the effort involved here of showing up its flaws. Still, if the view presented by Descombes is mistaken, that gives some grounds for thinking such a misunderstanding as his needs countering, as it might turn up anywhere. It is also worth noting that one would be unlikely now to recommend Descombes book as a first introduction to phenomenology when there are more recent books, quite possibly better ones that do not take Descombes’ view of Merleau-Ponty, such as David E. Cooper, Existentialism, (second edition, Blackwell, 1999) and Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth, Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology (Blackwell, 1991). Descombes’ book is conspicuously absent from Cooper’s bibliography.
Still, the first main section of Douglas Low’s book is a systematic and detailed refutation of the view of Merleau-Ponty as presented by Descombes. It is this that I shall concentrate on in this review. There are three other chapters in the book: ‘One Merleau-Ponty, Not Two’, ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Criticism and Embrace of Hegel and Marx’, and ‘Marx, Baudrillard, and Merleau-Ponty on Alienation’. As can be seen from this, the book is a set of essays, rather than an integrated work, but one linked all the time by the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.
So let us look at the issue of Merleau-Ponty’s basic philosophy, and how it might be misunderstood. Low’s principal objection to Descombes is that he portrays Merleau-Ponty as a subjectivist, albeit of an absolute idealist sort, derived from misunderstanding Merleau-Ponty’s view that the self is involved in every understanding of the world. Whereas the truth of the matter is that Merleau-Ponty wishes to find new categories to overcome the dichotomies of subject and object, and mind and body. What eliminates the putative gap is the human body which looks both ways: it constitutes, and is essential to being, a subjective self, while at the same time it is the way we encounter the world and is an object in the world.
Before looking at what Merleau-Ponty might or might not have said about the problem of our understanding the world and our place in it, let us consider the problem itself. The traditional problem is essentially of Cartesian manufacture. The way it is set up by Descartes opens, as it turns out, an unbridgeable gap between our ideas of the world and how the world really is, or at least our being able to know how the world really is. The approach of phenomenology as it developed from Husserl’s initial version of it, the new version, a version common in certain basic respects to that of Heidegger and Sartre (just to pick out the major players) is to undercut the ideas-representation/world dichotomy. The attempts to go from idea-representation to the world by various means has tormented philosophy ever since Descartes. The approach of the new phenomenology is a variation of the old joke that if I wanted to get to there I would not start from here, as well as showing that the proposed starting place is in fact, as described, not a place from where one could start.
Descartes not only thought he had to set aside all that he could not be certain he knew to be true in order to build up a picture of how things are uninfected with falsehoods, he thought that such a picture should strip away all that makes the view dependent on contingent features of a perspective, all the things that make it my view, for with these in place we would not have a view of how things are in themselves, but rather a subjectively corrupted view of how they appear to creatures such as ourselves. What he was aiming for was an objective-conception, God’s-eye, view of reality that could then with justification be taken as showing how reality is, one not polluted with the trappings of a perspective. But once he retreats to the idea-representations of the world in his mind he finds it impossible to get out again so that he might be sure that any of them may be known to correspond to how the world actually is. The desperate nature of his plight is shown by the desperate measures he takes in drawing on a dubious medieval argument for the existence of God so that God may act as the guarantor of the truth of things he clear and distinctly perceives, for it is inconceivable that God would allow him to be deceived when he has made his best and most honest effort to grasp the truth.
From then on much of the history of philosophy becomes an attempt to solve the conundrum set up by Descartes, but, and this is crucial, still in Descartes’ terms and with his assumptions. One of the most obvious lines taken is various forms and degrees of idealism. If we cannot epistemically bridge the gap between our ideas of the world and the world in itself, one approach is to bring the world back into the realm of ideas. Obviously some distinction needs to be maintained between how things are in a merely subjective sense, thus how they are objectively; but this is done by epistemic devices and identifying features within the realm of ideas. Thus we have Kant’s transcendental idealism where objectivity is derived from those conditions that are necessary for the very possibility of experience, ‘the world’ being the sum total of such possible experiences. But because Kant was unable to give up completely on the idea of things as they might be, independently of any of the modes of acquaintance by which we may access them, he posits thing-in-themselves or noumena. To stop having something like noumena left hanging we move onto absolute idealism where ultimately the fully developed mode of knowing the world and the world itself are one. If you cannot get from ideas to the world, bring the world into the fold of ideas, thus making it in principle completely knowable. But this leads to one huge problem for many: plausibility. And it is not just nineteenth-century European philosophy that wrestles with bridging the Cartesian gap, one can see it running through the writings on epistemology and perception in twentieth-century analytical philosophy, at least until the later Wittgenstein and with him the first signs that a new radical approach was needed.
That approach on the continent is the new phenomenology. What is crucial to understanding it, and in particular the way that Merleau-Ponty presents it, is to show how Descartes is simply not entitled to use all the concepts, or ideas, that he has about the world, given where he starts from as a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness. Descartes simply helps himself to these concepts – through which he might articulate a view of reality, and then wonders whether such articulations are true – and does so unquestioningly and without entitlement. He is not entitled to the meanings that these concepts provide, without which no truth (or falsehood) may be articulated about the world, because from the point of view of a God’s-eye objective disembodied pure consciousness, no sense of the meaning of being would arise at all that might be captured in any concepts whatsoever. Now when we look as to why he is not entitled to the articulating concepts that present to us a world that has determinate being, we see that such concepts, and such a world, only arise at all because we are not a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, but are rather creatures that are a interested, embodied, impure consciousness. By this is meant that what gives any sense and meaning to the world, such that it may be thought of at all, is our being contingently-configured, engaged, embodied, creatures, and the particular senses and meanings that emerge reflect the particular form of our contingently-configured embodiment and engagement. It’s hard for us to notice this, as it was difficult for Descartes, because such modes of thinking are so pervasive, habitual and taken for granted. It’s only when we step back that we see that our very modes of thinking about the world depend on something that means that the ideas-representation/world gap is not merely bridged, but also eliminated because it could not have existed. For Merleau-Ponty, as Low clearly explains, that eliminator of the ideas-representation/world is the body. Crucially – and this needs emphasising – the body does not bridge the gap – it is not another solution to the traditional Cartesian problem – rather, if it is understood properly, it is the entity that is both a realm of ideas and the realm of the world. Dual featured, it is both, taking the first two together, the mode by which any understanding of our understanding of the world is possible, and the mode by which any understanding of the world is possible, while also being an entity in the world understood. Our bodies are, as Low puts it, that little bit of the world by which the world understands itself. And the crucial feature of the body is that it allows us to be engaged with the world. It is of us and of the world. It is only by being engaged with the world that the being of the world may be something to us (and to any understanding creature, although they may have different contingent-configurations). To put it crudely, only by bumping into things in the world do things come into being for us, have significance, as articulated in concepts that go on to have normative interconnections – thus, say, solid and liquid become opposed terms. The bumping into may be more or less literal of course – let us perhaps call it a matter of resistance and limits – so that things become such that they cannot be passed through, or are out of reach, or are unliftable, or have a beginning and have an ending. And such resistance and limits may only arise from being embodied, and embodied in a manner that must necessarily be determinate in some way or other. Thus all the meanings that Descartes used to speculate as to whether things could be known to be true or how things really are are meanings that could only arise by there being a world to which the meanings apply for us. Without being embodied and engaged in the world, it would be an undifferentiated homogeneous ineffability – this of course Kant understood when he posited noumena, even if he did not see the full significance of why such a world would be, or should be, strictly speaking inarticulable – and that only by a contingent mode of engagement with the world provided by a body does the world become something ‘bumpy’ so to speak, with peaks and troughs of significance and degrees of interest which concepts can mean. For a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, (it is questionable indeed if such a thing is possible for it may be argued that it could have no thoughts) there would be no guiding motivation to develop any concepts which might express an understanding of the world at all, nor one might add an understanding of ourselves, a self. Why would there be? Without an other there can be no self and without a self there can be no understanding of the other. A view from nowhere is no possible view at all.
Merleau-Ponty’s is quite possibly the clearest account of this position – far more so than the later Husserl, or Heidegger or Sartre. Indeed Merleau-Ponty thinks that Sartre in his distinction of the for-itself (conscious self-awareness) the in-itself (non-human things) perpetuates too much the traditional mind/world distinction, and again leaves himself with a gap to be bridged. For Merleau-Ponty the body is both mind and world, and the understanding of the mind without the world and the world without the mind is impossible –each entails otherness. This also denies materialism as well as idealism. He shares however the primary thought that because of the, as it were, assumptions of the body, how we think about the world because of the contingently-configured body means that we are thrown into the world-ready-made. And we are thrown in as human beings qua human beings. It presents itself to us already there as being – it is not something we construct from the impressions on a mental tabula rasa. This may be modified by personal and cultural variations, but as Low explains quoting Merleau-Ponty, because of the durable commonality of the flesh, my world is essentially the same world as that of Plato and Aristotle. (cf p.12). Nothing is reached as it is in itself for it is necessarily encountered through the human body, but what is reached is always perceived gestalt as something that goes beyond the perception and with an awareness of its being something other.
Low’s is an excellent book, and he makes his case convincingly. It does something not only towards giving a better understanding of Merleau-Ponty, but also to clear up a possibly misunderstanding of him that may detract from our realising his importance. If anyone should lead the new phenomenological approach and show up the mistaken assumptions of much of previous philosophy, then Merleau-Ponty is an excellent candidate, and it is clear that he deserves more attention than he gets in philosophical academia. As hinted earlier, his approach has much in common with the later Wittgenstein when it is closely examined. The common approach, with noted differences, between Heidegger and Wittgenstein has recently been well explored in Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (The MIT Press, 2012). It would be fascinating and fruitful for someone to do the same with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. Your next project, Professor Douglas Low!?
Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. However, a philosophy taken outside of the context of the philosopher’s life can make their ideas seem, at best, un-relatable and, at worst, inaccessible.
In her latest work At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell revisits the texts that defined her adolescence and adopts this premise, writing, “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so” (p. 326) This feeds into her interest of investigating the lives of the seminal philosophers who re-appropriated German phenomenology into a redefined brand of continental philosophy known as existentialism. In doing so, Bakewell assumes the role of cultural tour guide and frames an ever-vivid and occasionally nostalgic milieu of love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, lifelong partnerships, and the fallings-out of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright, Edmund Husserl, Jean Genet and other larger-than-life thinkers who defined the thinking and culture of the post-World-War II generation.
In the book’s opening pages, Bakewell encapsulates the depth of her scholarship and biographical pluck by encapsulating the birth of existentialism into a singular point, “near the turn of 1932-3 when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails” (p. 1). These burgeoning philosophers included a 27-year-old Sartre, his 25-year-old girlfriend Beauvoir as well as Raymond Aron, an academic colleague of Sartre’s who was visiting during winter break from his philosophical studies in Berlin.
Suffering from intellectual atrophy in their own careers, Sartre and Beauvoir were interested in the intellectual discoveries Aron had unearthed in Berlin. Aron was only happy to oblige by describing a new brand of philosophy purported by Martin Husserl and refined by Aron’s mentor, Edmund Heidegger. Using vivid prose, Bakewell richly describes the Husserlian word phenomenology,
[Aron] was now telling his friends about a philosophy he had discovered there with the sinuous name of phenomenology—a word so long yet elegantly balanced that, in French as in English, it makes a line of iambic trimester all by itself (p. 2).
Though well-educated in their own right, neither Sartre or Beauvoir found Heidegger’s treatise on phenomenology to be linguistically accessible. However, on this day, in this café, Bakewell describes the moment Sartre and Beauvoir jumped into the phenomenological abyss, arguably spurring the most influential cultural movement of the 20th-century. Speaking directly to Sartre, Aron said, “You see mon petit camarade…if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p. 3).
Flying in the face of the analytic calculus in which they were formally trained, Beauvoir wrote that, “Sartre turned pale on hearing this” (p. 3). Similarly, Sartre would recall in an interview some 40 years later that moment “knocked me out”, because there was now a treatise for, “doing philosophy that reconnected it with [the] normal, lived experience” (p. 3). In fact, Bakewell’s rendering of just how much Aron piqued Sartre and Beauvoir’s curiosity gives her opening a flavor of France at that time; feverish, yet relaxed.
Ultimately, this new-fangled notion of phenomenology was the ingredient that both young philosophers needed to refine their own theories and a starting point for Bakewell to chronicle how their ideas fuse and infuse the European cultural scene.
Yet, a discussion of phenomenology and existentialism would be incomplete without considering the role of World-War II. Bakewell does this by recounting how even the celebrated minds of philosophy are sometimes thrust into the fray of reality. She illustrates her case with an account of Sartre being held as a German prisoner of war and his anti-climatic escape by making an ophthalmology appointment and leaving unattended, only to never return. Bakewell also parallel’s Sartre’s experience with the measures Beauvoir was taking to survive the rationing of food and other items in Nazi-controlled Paris.
Upon Sartre’s return to France, Bakewell sets the stage to evidence just how much reality can affect even the staunchest of pure practitioners, writing, “Beauvoir was briefly jubilant at seeing Sartre, then frankly pissed off by the way he began passing judgement on everything she had been doing to survive” (p. 143). Sartre’s confrontation with Beauvoir regarding her philosophical compromises would ultimately cause both philosophers to make an introspective inquiry as to how existentialism should now be defined, leading to Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness (1943) and Beauvoir’s feminist treatise The Second Sex (1949).
Combined, these examples are the formative means that Bakewell uses to frame the case that phenomenology and existentialism are more than just a couple of philosophical theories. Rather, they are rather formative notions of the nature of living, suffused with the real experiences and personal sufferings of those who developed the ideas and lived their lives according to their dictates.
Early-on, Bakewell acknowledges the influence existentialism welded on her adolescent years and acknowledges the cherished the role it serves in her life today. She writes, “when reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Albert Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology and Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news” (pp. 28-29). This is why Sartre, Heidegger, and especially Beauvoir would likely approve of Bakewell’s approach to telling the story of existentialism. As a storyteller, she reconnects their lived experiences with their contribution to the development of existentialism as a philosophy. She also pervades her storytelling with the mark of her own interdisciplinary education and experiences.
Born in England and raised in Australia, Bakewell is a polymath and self-reformed academic. She read philosophy at the University of Essex and eventually took a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence. Professionally, she has worked as a factory worker on a tea-bag assembly-line, bookshop attendant, library cataloguer, and is now an award-winning full-time author and professor of Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford, UK. These experiences have influenced Bakewell’s biographical style, giving rise to her willingness to ground the high-brow, biographical tone of her characters to their own story, while also intertwining her own lived experiences.
At the Existentialist Café offers a nostalgic and introspective look at the birth and development of pure existentialism through the eyes of the most notable philosophers of the movement and the author, whose experience with the philosophy provides grounded clarity. The book is also a refreshing glance at the mid-twentieth century ideas that led to the post-modern and deconstructionist philosophies that we continue to refine. Ms. Bakewell’s method of storytelling exudes a personal sense that is neither overreaching nor overtly critical. It is seemingly the result of a conversation between her, a historian, a philosopher, and a cultural critic, all draining Apricot cocktails along a bustling Parisian street, while reminiscing on an earlier period forgotten by most, remembered by some, but loved by all.