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.
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.
This volume seeks to provide a critical analysis of pragmatic themes within the phenomenological tradition. Although the volume is overwhelmingly geared towards presenting critiques of some of the most authoritative pragmatic readings of Martin Heidegger – readings by Hubert Dreyfus, John Haugeland, Mark Okrent and Richard Rorty – a handful of the fourteen chapters expand the discussion of the pragmatic dimension of the history of phenomenology by engaging with the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Max Scheler and Jan Patočka. Although the contributors do well to explain their ideas, useful appropriation of the volume will require a working knowledge of the developments in twentieth-century pragmatism and phenomenology, their basic features as philosophical enterprises and, most importantly, the central tenets of Heidegger (in particular), Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.
I will now outline what I see to be the primary claims of some of the collected papers (unfortunately, there are too many to be discussed with the level of detail required), linking those claims to the aims of the volume as a whole and providing some modest comments of my own.
For the editors, there are several characteristics of pragmatism:
- According to pragmatists, ‘intentionality is, in the first and fundamental sense, a practical coping with our surrounding world’;
- According to pragmatists, ‘language structures derive their meaning from their embeddedness in shared, practical activities’;
- According to pragmatists, ‘truth is to be understood in relation to social and historically contingent practices’;
- Pragmatism maintains ‘the primacy of practical over theoretical understanding’;
- Pragmatism criticises ‘the representationalist account of perception’;
- According to pragmatists, ‘the social dimension of human existence’ is prior to an individualised conception and manifestation of agency.
Although the editors and contributors do not explain whether these are necessary and sufficient conditions for a pragmatist reading of the phenomenological tradition (after all, the notion of necessary and sufficient conditions cannot be easily reconciled (if at all) with pragmatist and phenomenological approaches to philosophical method), whether by adhering to just one of these conditions makes one a pragmatist or whether these conditions are fundamentally interrelated, we may claim (in no particular order) that pragmatists tend to subscribe to one or more of the following (indeed, individual contributors touch upon some of these themes):
- ‘Subject naturalism’ (whereby naturalism should be understood as ‘naturalism without representationalism’) is either prior to or a rejection of ‘object naturalism’ (Price 2013);
- The representationalist order of explanation, which, broadly speaking, presupposes the non-deflationary structure of identification between representations and states of affairs, is a misleading explanatory model from ontological, linguistic, experiential and epistemological points of view;
- The notion that something is ‘given’ in experience, that is, that there is something existing ‘out there’ – in reality but independent of our minds – to which our claims, beliefs, justifications, theories and meanings should correspond, is a myth;
- Semantics does not come before pragmatics – notions such as reference and truth are not explanatorily basic and cannot account for inference;
- Metaphysics tends to be deflationary in the sense that the contents of our concepts lay claim to how the world is;
- In addition to the fact that the sense of a word, term, proposition, sentence, belief, fact, value or theory is how it is used in actual practices, semantic notions of truth, reference and meaning are to be understood in terms of social norms;
- Judgments that concern normative statuses, fact-stating talk and objectivity-claims are to be understood in, and gain validity from, the realm of giving and asking for reasons.
The revival of pragmatism during the latter half of the twentieth century and a renewed focus on exploring the nature and origins of normativity in other areas of philosophy has coincided with an increasing body of literature dedicated to exploring some of these pragmatic themes in various canonical texts in the history of Western philosophy, particularly those of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. That said, the majority of today’s most prominent pragmatists draw inspiration from their immediate predecessors. In terms of Anglo-American pragmatism, for example, references are almost always made to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars (who, in turn, engaged extensively with the work of Kant), W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Indeed, when pragmatists engage more broadly with the history of philosophy (as is the case with Robert Brandom, for example), the focus tends to be on the work of Kant and Hegel. Consequently, in the context of twentieth-century pragmatism, Rorty and Hubert Dreyfus were peculiarities in the sense that they were two of the first self-professed pragmatists (in English-speaking academic circles) to explore the pragmatic dimension of phenomenological traditions of Western philosophy. Through their correspondence, the pragmatic interpretation of the history of phenomenology, and of Heidegger in particular, began in earnest. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that Rorty and Dreyfus’ respective interpretations are, perhaps, the paradigmatic pragmatist readings of Heidegger and a driving force behind pragmatic appropriations of other well-known phenomenologists, specifically, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. In terms of Heidegger exegesis, not only have they inspired equally famous readings by Haugeland and Okrent, the interpretations of Rorty and Dreyfus, as this volume testifies, continue to demand critical engagement from Heidegger scholars.
It is apt, therefore, that the book begins with an essay by Okrent – an implicit focal point for the majority of the discussions and criticisms that follow in the other chapters. Along with Okrent’s introduction to some of the most important features of a normalised pragmatic reading of Heidegger, part one of the volume is made up of chapters dedicated to elaborating the pragmatic dimension of the history of phenomenology. Part two critically engages with extant pragmatic readings of the phenomenological tradition and addresses some of the issues that emerge through pragmatic engagements with texts by non-canonical authors such as Scheler and Patočka. The final section contains four contributions that attempt to advance the debates in the history of phenomenology through new perspectives.
After the editors’ introduction, Okrent begins by outlining two features of normative pragmatism – a position he attributes to Heidegger and one that is also affirmed by certain figures in the current Anglo-American pragmatist movement, specifically, Robert Brandom. For Okrent, normative pragmatism is, firstly, committed to the idea that an object’s nonnormative, factual properties are ‘possible only if there is some respect in which it is appropriate to respond to certain situations or to certain entities in certain ways’ (p. 23). Secondly, après Wittgenstein, normative pragmatism is committed to the claim that it is correct to respond to certain situations or to certain entities in certain ways primarily due to ‘the norms implicit in behaviour rather than with following explicit rules’ (ibid.). To speak about appropriate responses to objects, whereby appropriateness is measured according to the norms of social practices, is to think of objects as tools or equipment. According to pragmatist readings of Heidegger, tools are not primarily conceived in terms of their hermetically-sealed physical make-up in space-time. Rather, tools are understood, initially, in terms of what they are used for – the practical contexts and instrumental ends that will be fulfilled through their use. Furthermore, whether tools are used ‘correctly’ comes down to whether they are appropriated according to the norms of tool-use derived from social practices. The key point is that both Okrent and Heidegger view linguistic phenomena as tools. In accordance with the two theses attributed to normative pragmatism, Okrent states that ‘to grasp an entity as merely present, then, an agent must grasp it as essentially a possible object of an assertion. But to grasp something as an object of an assertion is to use the appropriate group of assertions as they are to be used within one’s community’ (p. 26). It follows that an object’s nonnormative properties are ‘simply invisible to an agent if she can’t use assertions to make claims about that entity’ (ibid.).
Okrent’s chapter is a response to criticisms that Brandom has levelled against Dreyfus, Haugeland and Okrent and their respective interpretations of Heidegger. In laying out the central tenets of normative pragmatism, Okrent highlights the similarities between Brandom’s reading of Heidegger and his own. However, disagreements emerge over their respective conceptions of intentionality. According to Brandom, Okrent, Dreyfus and Haugeland adopt a ‘layer-cake’ model, according to which our meaningful, norm-governed, practical responses to certain objects in certain ways is, in a sense, pre-predicative and nonconceptual and, therefore, distinct from (but also the basis of) the propositional articulations we make concerning such objects and our engagements with their nonnormative properties. In other words, the view that Okrent supports, and that Brandom believes is based on a misinterpretation of Heidegger, claims that ‘there are two layers to Dasein’s intentionality, the nonlinguistic skilful coping involved in the utilisation of equipment as tools that are essential to Dasein as Dasein and the linguistic, assertoric intentionality that intends substances as substances and is not essential for Dasein as Dasein’ (p. 29). Okrent goes on to defend the layer-cake model of intentionality on the basis that, for Heidegger, not all interpretations of entities as what they are involves assertion.
In terms of defending his interpretation of Heidegger as a layer-cake theorist in the face of Brandom’s reading, Okrent is convincing. That said, in terms of defending the layer-cake model of intentionality against Brandom’s claim that intentionality does not contain a nonconceptual component – that all experience can be understood in terms of the space of reasons – he is less successful. The other contributions in this volume do far better justice at demonstrating some of the problems with Okrent’s account than I can here. However, what I will say (paraphrasing the main issue in the Dreyfus-McDowell debates) is that although one can claim that propositions, assertions, sentences and theories are embodied, and even originate in our practical activities, that does not mean that our absorbed involvements that grasp the world as what it is are fundamentally and distinctly nonconceptual. Indeed, Brandom’s starting point is to conceive the world ‘as a collection of facts, not of things; there is nothing that exists outside of the realm of the conceptual’ (Brandom 2000: 357). On that basis, he has presented a whole system of normative pragmatics and inferential semantics to support his non-representationalist metaphysical project. Whether we agree with him or not, it follows that Brandom has the means to defend the view that even those interpretations, repairs and improvements of tools and equipment that seemingly operate outside of the bounds of general acceptability, and that Okrent takes to be nonlinguistic, are predicated upon a (at least implicitly) conceptual understanding of intentionality. In other words, our perceptions and skilful copings are permeated with the as-structure of interpretation that fundamentally understands seeing something as something in discursive terms (regardless of whether those concepts are made explicit in discursive practices).
The theme of layer-cake interpretations of both pragmatism and intentionality and the question of the dependency of skilful coping on conceptual meaning are taken up again in Carl Sachs’ contribution. The starting point for Sachs is the debate between Dreyfus and John McDowell regarding the relationship between rationality and absorbed coping and the consequences of this relationship for understanding intelligibility and intentionality. Like Brandom and McDowell, Sachs recognises the problems inherent in the layer-cake model of nonconceptual skilful coping – a distinct kind of intelligibility with its own internal logic. He also acknowledges McDowell’s claim that layer-cake pragmatists make the mistake ‘in thinking both that rationality consists of detached reflection and that rationality is the enemy of absorbed coping’ (p. 96). Unlike Dreyfus, Okrent and Haugeland, both Brandom and McDowell argue that rationality should not be construed as detached contemplation. Furthermore, intentionality is fundamentally conceptual. However, as Sachs observes, the problem with claiming that conceptuality permeates all of our skilful copings is that intentionality tends to be treated as only ‘“thinly” embodied’ (p.94). Through the work of Joseph Rouse, and by confronting the question of how absorbed, embodied coping can fit within the space of giving and asking for reasons, Sachs provides a convincing and highly innovative critique not only of layer-cake interpretations of the phenomenological tradition, but of approaches to contemporary pragmatism that do not pay sufficient phenomenological attention to the embodied dimension of intelligibility. Undermining Dreyfus’ distinction between the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘space of motivations’, Rouse follows McDowell (and Brandom) in, firstly, rejecting the view that rationality is found in detached contemplation and, secondly, claiming that discursive practices are embodied. Where Sachs sees McDowell as paying only lip service to an embodied conception of rationality, Rouse uses developments in evolutionary theory to naturalise the space of reasons and, by implication, our norm-governed engagements with the world. Having arrived at the claim that discursive practices are conceived as ‘highly modified and specialised forms of embodied coping’ (p. 96), Sachs builds on Rouse’s account by defending a distinction between sapient intentionality and sentient intentionality in order to demonstrate that ‘McDowell is (mostly) right about sapience and that Dreyfus is (mostly) right about sentience’ (p. 88).
Whereas Okrent and Sachs’ respective contributions tackle the Dreyfusian tradition of Heidegger scholarship, Andreas Beinsteiner provides a critical assessment of Rorty’s engagement with the pragmatic dimension of Heidegger’s thought. The focus is on Rorty’s purely language-oriented interpretation of the ‘history of Being’. According to Beinsteiner, even though Rorty agrees with Heidegger’s claim that our vocabularies and practices are contingent, Rorty’s criticism of Heidegger’s ‘narrative of decline’, which is characterised by a lack of recognition regarding the contingent nature of both meaning and language, is problematic. For Beinsteiner, the issue Rorty has with the idea that contemporary Western society, when compared with previous epochs, is less able to grasp the contingency of language rests upon Rorty’s two conflicting versions of pragmatism – instrumental pragmatism and poetic pragmatism. According to Beinsteiner, when Rorty argues for social hope as opposed to decline, he has seemingly failed to acknowledge the contingency of his own language and has, as a result, fallen into the trap that instrumental and poetic pragmatism disclose in different ways. Ultimately, Rorty is trapped within his linguistic conception of intelligibility, one that, he believes his instrumental conception of language has some sovereignty over, when, in fact, according to Beinsteiner, our conception of meaningfulness not only precedes the purposes of our language, it grants Rorty’s language with the purpose of instrumentality in the first place. In the remainder of the chapter, and in the face of what he sees as Rorty’s linguistic treatment of meaningfulness, Beinsteiner offers a challenge to Rorty’s critique of the narrative of decline by demonstrating technology’s ability to guide our understanding of intelligibility.
One of the problems with Beinsteiner’s critique is that Rorty is clearly aware of the dangers of becoming trapped in non-contingent conceptions of one’s language and understanding of meaningfulness. Rorty acknowledges that we can and, indeed, must aim for as much intersubjective agreement as possible by opening ourselves up to other cultures and their associated languages. As he explains, ‘alternative cultures are not to be thought of on the model of alternative geometries’; ‘alternative geometries are irreconcilable because they have axiomatic structures, and contradictory axioms. They are designed to be irreconcilable. Cultures are not so designed, and do not have axiomatic structures’ (Rorty 1991, 30). Consequently, by engaging with different cultures, it is at least a possibility that our language and conception of intelligibility can be destabilised and transcended. However, Heidegger claims that exposure to other cultures through media technology will fail to transform our conceptions of language and meaningfulness. As is evident from Beinsteiner’s contribution, Heidegger’s claim rests upon a one-sided interpretation of technology, one that is justified by criteria located in his own ‘final vocabulary’. This raises a problem, one that is emphasised when Beinsteiner makes claims regarding the pragmatic dimension of technology that coincide with Heidegger’s narrative of decline (even though Beinsteiner states that his point ‘is not to defend a supposed Heideggerian pessimism against Rorty’s optimism’ (p. 64)). A critic would likely argue that if Beinsteiner wishes to argue for the contingency of language and meaning and, thereby, avoid falling prey to the criticisms he levels at Rorty, he needs some criteria for judging the ‘primordiality due to new media and communication technologies’ (p. 64). Indeed, in order to avoid the charge that he is trapped within Heidegger’s vocabulary, such criteria would need to come from elsewhere. Unfortunately, a comprehensive and justified account of such criteria is noticeably absent in both the work of Heidegger and Beinsteiner’s contribution.
Returning to the Dreyfusian tradition of Heidegger scholarship, Tucker McKinney’s contribution addresses a long-standing problem with layer-cake approaches to pragmatism; specifically, the issue of whether and how (what Okrent calls) ‘the nonlinguistic skilful coping involved in the utilisation of equipment as tools that are essential to Dasein as Dasein’ (p. 29) can be reconciled with self-conscious inquiry and the resulting ‘first-personal knowledge of one’s activity’ (p. 71). In the face of traditional approaches to philosophy of mind that interpret self-consciousness in terms of self-representing contemplation, which he acknowledges is a form of self-consciousness that Heidegger criticises, McKinney sees Heidegger as advancing a conception of positional self-awareness ‘as an action-guiding practical knowledge of what to do to sustain one’s being in the world, realised in our affective lives’ (ibid.). Whereas typical pragmatist readings of Heidegger claim that our nonconceptual and non-representational ability to skilfully and habitually cope with the world means that the capacity to represent (the world and our representations of the world) through concepts is both merely derivative and something we can identify or attribute to ourselves only after our unselfconscious practical activities, McKinney defends the view that, according to Heidegger, ‘our engagements with entities are permeated with a sense of our own agency, our own active and participatory engagement with objects’ (p. 78).
In the face of problematic normalised and normalising pragmatic readings of Heidegger, many will welcome McKinney’s contribution. Whether it provides ‘a new ontology of self-possessed activity’ is questionable. Indeed, the approach shares some affinities with Hegel’s account of self-consciousness, Wittgenstein’s conception of private language and (more obviously) Habermas’ work on the relationship between self-awareness, affectivity and intersubjective communicative action. The basis for divergence stems from McKinney’s focus on ‘attunement’ [Befindlichkeit], which he translates as ‘findingess’ but can also be interpreted as ‘affectivity’ (Crowell 2013) and ‘state-of-mind’ (Braver 2014), and its concrete manifestation as ‘mood’ or, more literally, ‘tuning’ [Stimmung] (such as when the sound of a musical instrument changes depending on how it is tuned). At a very basic level, Heidegger describes moods as ‘fleeting experiences that “colour” one’s whole “psychical condition”’ (GA 2, p. 450). From a phenomenological point of view that McKinney adopts in his discussion of the concept of fear, moods influence how things are meaningfully encountered in the ways they are during my practical engagements. On the basis of moods, my activities express an understanding of my own agency (p. 83). Furthermore, and this is matter that McKinney does not discuss (but Heidegger does), it is an existential-ontological condition of my capacity to interpret the world that I, myself, must be affectively attuned. Without attunement, any act of skilful coping would not present itself to me as intelligible. Consequently, in terms of a phenomenological reading of the concept of mood and ontological considerations of attunement, there is, as McKinney recognises, scope to innovatively extend non-Cartesian debates regarding the nature of self-consciousness.
Turning to part two of volume, in which the contributors focus specifically on the phenomenological dimension of the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Scheler and Patočka, Jakub Čapek’s contribution exemplifies some of exegetical challenges that face traditional pragmatist readings of the phenomenological canon. On the basis of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘perceptual faith’, which describes ‘how our involvement in the world precedes and sustains all perceptions, the true and the false’ (p. 141), Čapek argues that although Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s pragmatic readings do not address ‘perceptual faith’ directly, their understanding of objects as mere correlates of our practical involvements, which Čapek sees as a consequence of the ‘primacy of the practical’ in pragmatism, generates a restricted interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s account of perceptual experience. Čapek acknowledges that Merleau-Ponty does in fact claim that perception is an engaged, interested and skilful activity that allows us to cope with the world (in contrast with the interpretation of perception as an intermediary in a two-step, realist epistemological model, whereby passive receptions of something like sense data are synthesised as representations of external objects). However, that does not mean that the objects we perceive can be completely reduced to the meanings we accord them in our practical dealings. Even though Merleau-Ponty claims that our ontological commitments are embodied to the degree that an object is, as Čapek says, ‘a correlate of the body’, it is a feature of phenomenologically-oriented ontology that an object transcends ‘action-relevant predicates’ such that it is irreducible ‘to all that makes it a familiar part of our surroundings and of our activities’ (p. 152). In the sense that the ontology of things is dependent upon embodied perception to the degree that ‘in perception, we are directed to the things themselves, not through their appearances but to things themselves as they appear’ (p. 147), Čapek draws upon Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the transcendent dimension of ontology to argue that the latter’s account of ‘perceptual faith’ leaves room for an ‘interrogative, non-practical or disinterested’ dimension to perception (p. 143).
The only downsides to Čapek’s chapter are that he provides neither an in-depth account of the meaning of ‘the interrogative mode’ of perception (minimal references are made to perception as ‘transcend[ing] things’ and affirming ‘more things than are grasped in it’ (p. 154)) nor a discussion of how specifically pragmatic interpretations of the history of phenomenology could be revised in light of such a phenomenologically-oriented conception of disinterested perception. This is indicative of the limitations of the volume in general. Specifically, because the majority of the contributions employ interpretations of texts in the history of phenomenology to either elaborate upon or challenge more paradigmatic readings, there is little room for exploring the implications of such scholarship for debates at the forefront of contemporary phenomenology and pragmatism.
Bearing in mind the limitations imposed on the volume due to the purely hermeneutical approach taken by the majority of the authors, it should be said that James Mensch does offer interpretations of Aristotle, William James, Heidegger, Patočka, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas in his contribution. But these readings are for illustrative purposes only, employed to elaborate upon the respective natures of pragmatic and theoretical attitudes in philosophy and their relationships to broader concepts of objective truth and freedom. For Mensch, what defines the pragmatic attitude is not only (as Čapek highlights in his contribution) the treatment of objects and their properties as mere correlates of practical involvements, but, more specifically, the reduction of an object’s essence to instrumentality – ‘its function as a means for the accomplishment of my projects’ (p. 191). The pragmatic attitude is seen as particularly problematic for the philosopher ‘who seeks simply to understand’ (p. 194) as it results in a performative contradiction. Conversely, the theoretical attitude deals with the ‘objectivity’ of phenomena ‘in terms of the evidence we have for what we believe about them’ (p. 195), evidence that can transcend our means-ends understanding of objects. Mensch goes on to explain the relationships between the respective ontological commitments that arise from the pragmatic attitude and the theoretical attitude in terms of the concept of freedom. Following Heidegger, Mensch recognises that there are many possibilities for the intelligibility of objects and their properties, and it is up to the philosopher to choose which possibility to actualise. In short, for Mensch, freedom is an ontological condition on the basis of which philosophers choose to adopt a theoretical attitude that suspends their pragmatic concerns in order to inquire into the ‘intrinsic sense’ of objects qua their objectivity. Furthermore, whereas the pragmatic attitude does not allow the object to ‘transcend the [pragmatic] conventions that govern our speaking’ (p. 199), the ‘intrinsic sense’ of an object does make room for such transcendence because (due to the fact that it is conceptually constituted and predicated upon intersubjective agreement) we can recognise the alterity of other objectivity claims that call my claims into question. Indeed, Mensch states that it is the alterity of the ‘Other’ that makes both philosophical freedom and a theoretical inquiry into the ‘intrinsic sense’ of things possible.
Critics would likely argue that Mensch’s distinction between pragmatic attitudes and theoretical attitudes is altogether too simplistic, resulting in an argument that is explanatorily weak. Indeed, due to the reification of pragmatic and theoretical attitudes, it would be difficult to abstract any genuine pragmatic (let alone broader metaphilosophical) concerns without being charged of straw-man-building. For example, contemporary Anglo-American pragmatists would challenge the claim that the pragmatic attitude purely apprehends the essence of objects in terms of its instrumentality. For example, as Beinsteiner observes earlier in the volume, Rorty advocated both instrumental and world-disclosing dimensions of pragmatism. In addition, as already mentioned, Brandom is a pragmatist, one that, simultaneously, adopts a theoretical attitude in order to inquire into Mensch’s conception of the ‘intrinsic sense’ of objects. Brandom is clear that not only do the contents of our concepts lay claim to how the world is, the meaning of our concepts is derived from the reasoning practices and inferential processes of discursive practitioners in the space of giving and asking for reasons. Furthermore, Brandom is also aware that freedom plays a pivotal role in the realm of contestable objectivity-claims. He argues that judgment, in terms of committing oneself to deploying concepts and, simultaneously, taking responsibility for the integration of the objectivity-claims and their associated conceptual contents with others that serve as reasons for or against them, is a ‘positive freedom’ (Brandom 2009, 59). I do not have the space to expand further. Suffice it to say, however, that Brandom’s inferential semantics and normative pragmatics articulates a number (if not all) of the themes that Mensch attributes to the theoretical attitude.
If Mensch’s characterisation of the pragmatic attitude is representative of a concrete approach in pragmatism, then perhaps one could claim that it only holds for layer-cake readings of Heidegger. Even then, however, the likes of Dreyfus and Okrent are careful to explain the fact that what Mensch apprehends as the theoretical attitude is dependent upon, and, ultimately, derives from, our shared, practical involvements in a world that is constituted by the activities of others, rather than something we can ‘choose’ to adopt completely outside of our practical copings and activities (a choice, based on Mensch’s account, without any causal repercussions and considerations and no rational constraint or motivation). Furthermore, whereas Mensch claims that the ontological condition of the ‘Other’ allows us to disclose a theoretical alternative to the pragmatically-apprehended world, the Dreyfusian tradition is well aware that we, as a skilful and absorbed copers, are ‘being-with’ [Mitsein], in the sense that when we encounter something as both meaningful and as what it is, it discloses to us those ‘others’ that also find the same thing meaningful in the same ways. To stress the importance of the ‘Other’ for the conditions of the theoretical attitude in particular, as Mensch does, is to severely misinterpret or (worse still) ignore the concept of the ‘Other’ in layer-cake pragmatism. This begs the question that if what Mensch defines as the pragmatic attitude does not successfully capture the complexities that surround layer-cake approaches to pragmatism, let alone contemporary pragmatism in general, then why should pragmatically-oriented philosophers take Mensch seriously? Furthermore, why should they care? Perhaps one could argue that Mensch’s chapter is a lesson in what can happen when not enough attention is paid by phenomenologists to developments in pragmatism, just as this volume as a whole discloses the problems that arise from pragmatic interpretations of the history of phenomenology.
Does the volume as a whole succeed in meeting its aims? If the aim of the volume is to offer a ‘complex analysis of the pragmatic theses that are present in the works of leading phenomenological authors’, then (despite the proclivity for Heidegger at the expense of other central figures from phenomenological tradition, including those that are still alive and still researching), I would say ‘yes’. However, as the volume is oriented towards the relationship between pragmatism and phenomenology through interpretations of canonical works in the history of Western philosophy, there is very little meaningful discussion of the theoretical implications of the dialogue for either current phenomenologically-oriented philosophical research or the pragmatic dimensions of contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science and ethics. In this sense, the title of the volume is misleading and perhaps should be taken as ‘pragmatic perspectives in the history of phenomenology’. Nevertheless, there are some excellent papers here that not only articulate the pragmatic turn in the history of phenomenology, but offer much-needed insight into the problems associated with long-standing pragmatic interpretations of the works of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.
Brandom, R. (2000) ‘Facts, Norms and Normative Facts: A Reply to Habermas’, European Journal of Philosophy 8 (3): 356-74.
Brandom, R. (2009) Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Braver, L. (2014) Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Crowell, S. (2013) Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1977) Gesamtausgabe, GA 2: Sein und Zeit, ed. F. von Herrmann, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
Price, H. (2013) Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rorty, R. (1991) Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Sachs also addresses the concept of attunement when he argues that affordances and solicitations (traditionally distinctive of embodied coping) should also be contextualised within the space of reasons.
This book is the first English-language translation of Alloa’s 2008 text, which originally appeared in French under the title La résistance du sensible: Merleau-Ponty critique de la transparence. Emmanuel Alloa is a student of the prominent Merleau-Ponty scholar Renaud Barbaras, and an occasional editor of Chiasmi, the leading journal for Merleau-Ponty studies. Although the length of its body chapters comes in under 100 pages, this book is less of a standard introduction to Merleau-Ponty than a dense thematic, historical study of key issues figuring into the philosopher’s development from the early works up the unfinished texts in progress at the time of his death. The three principal chapters analyze the transformation and interior narrative of Merleau-Ponty’s thought across the three subjects that figure foremost in his legacy. Chapter One examines the notion of perception in the context of the early texts The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception. The second chapter takes up Merleau-Ponty’s conception of language, with particular attention to the essays in the middle-period Signs and the abandoned work The Prose of the World. The third chapter, entitled “Ontology of the Visible,” studies Merleau-Ponty’s late attempts to formulate a phenomenological ontology centered in the visible and sensible. The book does not cover any aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s political or social philosophy. Throughout, Alloa discusses in depth the philosopher’s engagement with numerous influences and contemporaries including Husserl, Sartre, Fink, and Saussure. Methodological emphasis is likewise placed on the genesis behind Merleau-Ponty’s shaping of central concepts and terms.
Alloa’s statements in the Introduction of the book provide an overview of how he understands the core idea of Merleau-Ponty’s thought: while perception is ultimately the philosophical concept that overtly engaged Merleau-Ponty, it is the resistance of the sensible that the philosopher actually grappled with. By this notion of resistance, Alloa indicates that the sensible is what is obvious to perception, yet which cannot be penetrated by analysis (5-7). In highlighting the concept of the “obvious,” (or ob-vious) Alloa refers to what is in front of one and standing against one. For the sensible characterizes not merely what perception encounters, but also the experiential world as a whole (7). In Alloa’s view, this is decisive for Merleau-Ponty’s work because it provides a more focused approach than Husserl’s epistemological project of uncovering the conditions of knowledge. As Alloa sees it, Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental insight in this regard is recognizing that what is sensible, what is in front of one, resists; it is not transparent and never will be so. (In making this observation, Alloa is cueing upon the important difference Merleau-Ponty demonstrated from Husserl early in his career: the view, contra Husserl, that a complete reduction is never possible.) As Alloa observes on this score, treating the sensible as the entry point for philosophy is a more tangible and direct method than Husserl’s approach of beginning phenomenological description with the structures of consciousness. Moreover, Alloa suggests that for Merleau-Ponty, the perspectival limit of perception characterizes the essence of philosophizing as well, viz., to philosophize means to grapple with what resists and refuses transparency. This consequence results because thought is by nature also conditioned by the sensible; thinking is permeated by vision, and vice versa. Therefore, to return to the things themselves, as is phenomenology’s mantra, entails thought becoming sensible (9, 11).
In the book’s first chapter, Alloa sets up the premises of Merleau-Ponty’s early studies on perception. He suggests that the first two major works, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, are of a piece insofar as the former attempts to show why a phenomenological account of experience cannot be reduced to a behavioral psychology, while the latter describes the phenomenology of sense experience in a positive fashion (16-17). Structure describes human perception critically, from the outside looking in, whereas the Phenomenology is written with an emphasis on the first-person perspective of sense experience. Alloa sees here not so much a tension in approaches as much as Merleau-Ponty’s developing recognition of a conflict between body and soul; the concept of behavior comprises the locus for Merleau-Ponty’s insight that sense experience is contingent on the milieu of the living being, which Alloa later identifies as the body (24). The phenomenon of behavior reveals an unnoticed synthesis of inner and outer, mind and body, such that this concept is seen as operative prior to any sort of dualism, yet not transparent to perception either. To parse Alloa’s claim here just a bit, the notion is perhaps not unlike Heidegger’s observation in Being and Time that to be a Dasein entails already existing in a world of immediate surroundings where things have their essence in their use; Dasein is neither an inner nor outer, but instead projective being-in-the-world. Alloa sees a link between Structure and the Phenomenology in Merleau-Ponty’s implicit emphasis on the opacification of perception, or the notion that perception is underwritten by a lack of transparency.
Alloa similarly regards Merleau-Ponty’s career-long dialogue with Gestalt psychology as having its seeds in these early works. For Merleau-Ponty, the concept of Gestalt is decisive for highlighting the world’s very appearing as structured (20), where perceptual consciousness is the “site” of this emergence. The forms of the ready-made world of experience are not merely in the world, but emerge with the world. For similar reasons, the mind-body relationship is not an instrumental one. This observation brings to the fore the concept of “milieu”, which Alloa regards as a cornerstone of Merleau-Ponty’s early development. The mind-body relation is founded on embeddedness in a milieu, where phenomenology entails describing an inventory of that milieu (20). Yet Alloa highlights that Gestalt psychology in its traditional guise is insufficient for Merleau-Ponty because it fails to adopt a way of thinking about life; Gestalt psychology overlooks the dialectic between the living thing and its milieu, failing to recognize the dynamic identity of the physical and mental structures of experience (22-23). The milieu comprised by embodiment functions as Merleau-Ponty’s corrective to the shortcomings of Gestalt psychology and scientific mechanism, for embodiment comprises the union of life and environment.
The topic of transcendence takes Alloa into Chapter Two. Alloa suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with language during and after the early works epitomizes his effort to describe the unity of bodily movement and creative freedom (38). “When the subject is collapsed to its corporeal condition alone, there is no longer any possibility of explaining how one moves beyond oneself” (33). Transcendence, Alloa writes, is for Merleau-Ponty less important in the manner of establishing a new notion of epistemological or metaphysical foundation; more important in Merleau-Ponty’s view is the very act of transcending. The act of transcending is coextensive with the opacity of the world (33). Citing the Phenomenology, Alloa observes that an a priori ecstasy of the human subject orients one fundamentally toward this opacity, toward what one is not (33). The first section of Chapter Two, entitled “Expression,” suggests that human expression for Merleau-Ponty comprises the extension of idealization or intellect into the embodied state. Human movement is not merely a bodily activity but includes gesture (35). In this light, following the Phenomenology, the body is the actuality of expression and represents the movement of expression (35). As a result, language for Merleau-Ponty is forever to be subordinated to the phenomenon of expression as bodily act (39), which is to say, Merleau-Ponty does not endorse a pure grammar or universal linguistics. Whereas, these are notions that for instance would be familiar to readers of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. Moreover, Alloa highlights that the diacritical character of language, which Merleau-Ponty adopts from Saussure, further justifies the claim that language can never be made pure or universal. Citing the abandoned text The Prose of the World, Alloa highlights that this character of language means signs, morphemes, and words only convey meaning in their assembly; language constitutes the practice of discriminating signs from one another. And given language’s origin in the embodied state, these features have a coextension with the sensible. Language’s diacritical character “will acquire the value of a perceptible interval forming a pattern on the sensible fabric itself” (45). Yet, the transparency of language in human experience also reveals its resistance, echoing Alloa’s leading claim at the book’s start. Namely, like the sensible, language’s character is to efface itself through its very transparency (51).
Alloa finishes this chapter by taking up the lines of questioning that permeate Merleau-Ponty’s middle works, especially Signs, Prose of the World, and the Nature lectures, on the issue of exactly where language resides. Language does not reside in mere signs, symbols, or words, nor does it reside in meaning. Where does language have its being? Alloa sketches Merleau-Ponty’s position this way: “We must place ourselves at the very site of language in the process of making itself – between the given and what makes possible the act of giving – without conceiving of Saying on the basis of the already Said but also without relegating language to a sphere of pure potentiality, without isolating an abstract linguistic structure of yielding entirely to a completed embodiment in a concrete signifying formula” (53). In brief, as Alloa describes it, the meeting of embodiment and linguistic signs requires one to describe the immaterial but not simply ideal birth of sense-making (53). Alloa finds that painting for Merleau-Ponty provides one such avenue, to the extent that it comprises a “silent” form of expression, originative in the bodily gesture of the hand, yet also indicative of a verbal lack of mastery of the world and the world’s means of expression. As such, painting exemplifies the birth of sense-making. “The painter’s canvas becomes the site of an experience of relinquishment, an exposure to an outside where the protective envelope of everyday language disintegrates” (55-56).
The third and final chapter offers a focused account of the genesis leading to Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy, particularly his interest in developing an “ontology of the visible.” Texts of especial importance are the philosopher’s final published work “Eye and Mind” and the posthumously edited Visible and Invisible. In Alloa’s description, this late period of the philosopher engages the question of how something can be given to one as visible, and of how words can function to describe this occurrence (60). Merleau-Ponty’s task during this period is to uncover the roots of the visible. Again, painting is decisive because the thought-process shown in work of masters such as Cezanne reveals the visible as resistance to transparency. Alloa characterizes the philosopher’s stance this way: “Thinking as a painter means submitting to the laws of resistance and experiencing feelings within the limits of the sensible” (61). The ontology of painting consequently affords Merleau-Ponty an entry point into the ontology of the visible not by way of what is seen, but by way of what is becoming-seen, becoming-visible (64). This last brings Alloa to the crux of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh.” Because art has its essence not in works but rather in realizing the sensible bonds of experience and world, art helps to instantiate the “flesh” binding the world and human being (65). Given that “flesh” is an obscure concept in Merleau-Ponty, difficult to pin down precisely, Alloa devotes significant discussion to it. Flesh is not a physical or atomistic substantial presence (which may be implied in Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of it in Visible as an element) but it is materially immanent in the sensible (65). Yet flesh is not to be understood as a Leibnizian monad, transposing the principles of life onto nonliving materiality. Alloa cites an unpublished note written by the philosopher in 1960 to the effect that the flesh of the world is not derivative from an understanding of the flesh of the body (67). Rather, the human body we know is made of this very flesh of the world. But again, one can ask, what is flesh and where does it come from? Alloa concedes that Merleau-Ponty’s position on this issue could be ambivalent at best, given that the philosopher was still exploring this question at the time of his death. One compromise, Alloa suggests, is to follow a clue from the Nature lectures, namely Merleau-Ponty’s remark that the sensible is the flesh of the world. In other words, the sensible is the bond uniting experience and world, inner and outer, just insofar as it emerges in the interstices of the subjective and objective, not lying in just one or the other. On the other hand, Alloa also suggests that the more ambiguous “flesh” perhaps better expresses what is neither subjective nor objective, but beyond these, that through which something sensible is sensed (68). Alloa’s meaning seems to be something like the following: the sensation I experience through touching an object such as a pine cone is not merely fostered through my hand’s affectivity nor through the pine cone’s sensible characteristics (e.g. prickly, resinous, woody). Rather, this experience have of the sensible is fostered by a “between” that allows sensible and sensing to meet. I find Alloa’s discussion of flesh to be especially helpful and an illuminating part of the book.
Alloa rounds out the final chapter with some reflections on the underlying commitments of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible. Alloa writes that Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception must become an ontology of the sensible because this is the only way to obviate dualism. And conversely, the sensible must be the seat of ontology because the sensible is the ultimate ground of experience, the medium in which being inheres without needing to be posited (80). Here, Alloa’s characterization of the sensible is not unlike Heidegger’s observations that being in its guise of ereignis comprises the groundless ground. For Merleau-Ponty, the sensible is the ultimate, yet ungrounded given.
In summary, this short but dense book by Emmanuel Alloa is a challenging read. It is also a rewarding one for those willing to do the work to digest carefully his many insightful observations on Merleau-Ponty’s thought and development. Alloa makes a very good case for the notion that despite Merleau-Ponty’s stops and starts with various issues, there is nonetheless a guiding thread to his thought’s development. To be truthful, however, there is an aspect in which this book is frustrating to use as an “introduction” to the philosopher, just because it is written at an astute historiographical level, not one for beginners. One might wonder why the book’s title was altered for this English-language edition. Alloa does not provide extensive exegetical readings of any specific books of Merleau-Ponty, opting instead for frequent citations of one or two lines of text, whose meaning Alloa typically takes as self-evident. There is a measure in which these frequent citations seem taken out of context or otherwise lacking in justification for the lay reader. There is also a noticeable dearth of examples that might help to illustrate for a novice what is at stake in crucial distinctions. This is a book that will much better serve those who are already decently versed in Merleau-Ponty and who possess a workable understanding of at least some of Merleau-Ponty’s key themes. To that end, Alloa’s book will offer potential as a guide for connecting the various topics in Merleau-Ponty’s works and establishing a beginning-to-end narrative.