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.
Phenomenology and Intercultural Understanding: Toward a New Cultural Flesh unites texts based on studies which Kwok-Ying Lau presented at conferences between 1996 and 2016. Despite the fact that the volume is a collection of essays, it does read as a unified work particularly since the author took care to emphasize the studies treating what is indeed the most original contribution in this work, the notion of cultural flesh. He deals with the notion of cultural flesh both at the very beginning of the work and the end, that is, in Chapters, 1, 10 and 11. In the intervening chapters the reader is lead through a variety of discussions of possibilities for intercultural understanding in light the work of mostly European phenomenological thinkers. Although his approach cannot really be characterized as post-colonial since he does not draw on post-colonial theory in any explicit manner, Kwok-Ying Lau reads and re-reads mostly 20th century thinkers – Hegel, Husserl, Lévi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty, Patočka (and in a kind of appendix in the last chapter Lévinas, Deleuze, Michel Henry) – from an extra-European perspective in a critical and constructive manner with a view to understanding how their approaches might serve in intercultural understanding.
Merleau-Ponty represents Kwok-Ying Lau’s primary source of inspiration and in contrast to many other European thinkers addressed here, is revealed to have real intercultural sensitivities. Kwok-Ying Lau devotes two chapters to Jan Patočka whose significance for the Chinese community he underlines (Chapters 5 and 6). In Chapter 5 Patočka is examined as a ‘Non-European Phenomenological Philosopher’ and the ‘Critical Consciousness of the Phenomenological Movement’. Chapter six works with Patočka’s interpretation of the Platonic notion of care for the soul and compares it to Mencius theory of the ‘four roots.’ These chapters read very well and show how Patočka models certain possibilities for non-eurocentric (even post-european) approaches to Phenomenological research with applications to intercultural understanding.
Several chapters deal with some classical Chinese philosophy. As already mentioned Kwok-Ying Lau refers to Mencius’ theory of the four beginnings in Chapter 6 (p. 99). He comes back to this text in Chapter 8 (p. 134) while Chapter 3 is entitled ‘To What Extent Can Phenomenology Do Justice to Chinese Philosophy? A Phenomenological reading of Laozi.” Kwok-Ying Lau also devotes a chapter to Buddhism and the manner in which it was viewed by Hegel and by Husserl. Kwok-Ying Lau shows how, in spite of having enunciated a very Eurocentric conception of Philosophy, Husserl in fact demonstrated an appreciation of the philosophical (and even phenomenological) depth of early Buddhist writings, particularly in so far as they represent a philosophy of consciousness not without relation to Husserl’s. Overall, although he does have some good insights into East-Asian thinkers, Kwok-Ying Lau seems more interested and familiar with the European authors he works on than the Chinese and Indian texts which he discusses in these chapters.
Chapter 8 ‘Self-Transformation and the Ethical Telos: Orientative Philosophy in Lao Sze-Kwang, Foucault and Husserl’ is devoted to demonstrating how Lao Sze-Kwang’s characterization of the nature of much East-Asian philosophical thought as ‘Orientative’ rather than a ‘purely cognitive and theoretical enterprise’ (p. 125). Here Kwok-Ying Lau shows how certain developments in Foucault’s later thought inspired by Pierre Hadot’s work on Ancient philosophy as Spiritual Exercise go in the direction of Lao Sze-Kwang’s Orientative Philosophy. Kwok-Ying Lau seem to suggest that the future of Phenomenological research will go in this direction which is more amenable to intercultural understanding.
In both Chapters 2 and 7 Kwok-Ying Lau sketches out what he takes to be the premises for doing intercultural philosophy. His approach involves what he calls a double epoché of language. He explains as follows:
The person in question must perform a double epoché with regard to language used. First of all she must abandon her native language, at least temporarily, and speak an international language which in most cases is English … she must perform a second epoché with respect to the philosophical language through which her thought is expressed (p. 23).
I have to admit that I am not entirely comfortable with Kwok-Ying Lau’s approach here. Nor am I convinced by the argument unfolded in Chapter 7 which asserts that intercultural philosophy can only take place in a ‘Disenchanted World’. In both, Chapters 2 and 7, in fact, Kwok-Ying Lau seems to embrace what many might take to be Eurocentric positions on universality, language and rationality, positions which are very controversial and have received much discussion by feminist and post-colonial thinkers. (It is particularly unfortunate that Kwok-Ying Lau takes a Palestinian suicide bomber as an example of someone who ‘lives under the domination’ of what he calls an ‘un-disenchanted world-view’ (p. 108), not only because of the rough handling of very sensitive political issues, but also since he more or less baldly asserts that anyone who believes in certain kinds of transcendence – including, it would seem, almost any practitioner of an Abrahamic religion – is disqualified from participation in intercultural thought!).
This reader was also somewhat disappointed by the absence of reference to other thinkers who work on intercultural philosophy. One might mention the work of the likes Hall and Ames or the kind of scholarship which is published in the Journal Philosophy East and West. The work of Francois Jullien is dismissed rather uncharitably in a footnote to page 213, while not single work of his is cited in the Bibliography.
In any case, with the notion of ‘cultural flesh’ Kwok-Ying Lau has forged a useful conceptual means to facilitate intercultural understanding, and even, I might add, intercultural philosophizing. (I would have liked to see the notion of cultural flesh elaborated in greater detail, since it is genuinely a novel concept but is only sketched out in this book. Perhaps this might be something Kwok-Ying Lau could deal with in a future monograph.) More generally, Kwok-Ying Lau has made a valuable contribution to phenomenological research and intercultural philosophy with all of the studies which constitute this volume in so far as they re-evaluate Phenomenological thought from an extra-European perspective. This book will be of interest to those who seek to better understand what kind of resources Phenomenology can contribute to intercultural philosophy.
Hegel, Husserl and the Phenomenology of Historical Worlds by Tanja Staehler is an effort of integration between the phenomenological thinking of two of the most influential philosophers in the contemporary tradition: G.W.F. Hegel and Edmund Husserl. The author’s intention is to reframe a phenomenology of historical and cultural worlds by pursuing the potential of a mutual compenetration of the two German philosophers more than focusing on a static and sterile debate regarding what might make them two different thinkers. The main thesis here shows how Husserl’s phenomenology radicalizes Hegel’s by adding the character of infinite openness to the teleological development of historical Spirit, which afterwards will manifest itself as horizonally constituted. At the same time an Hegelian narrative applies to the entire “parabola” of Husserl’s thought, which the author describes as a progressive development from an abstract to a concrete phenomenology that finally emerges in his later studies and that, by an effort of recollection in the most Hegelian meaning, illustrates the phenomenological development with the motivations and explanations for his abstract beginning. Important to mention is how, within the tradition of Husserlian debate, Staehler takes the side of Derrida and Steinbock by defending the presence of a third phase in Husserl’s philosophy, alongside the static and the genetic, which she names historical. The three stages also serve as the methodological sections of the work.
Hegel and Husserl, in their different phenomenological traditions, both make clear that if philosophy wants to be recognized as a rigorous science it must be presuppositionless and thus, that a leap is required by consciousness in order to clarify what remains overshadowed by the immediacy (in Hegel) and naïveté (in Husserl) of our natural attitude toward the world. In this sense phenomenology takes the sceptical critique as its own starting standpoint by moving the focus of analyses from its directedness toward being, backward to the level of its appearance to consciousness. Scepticism then becomes a moment in the philosophical approach more than a simple school of thought (a point we credit to Hegel) and the very beginning of self-reflection. What for Hegel, however, is a thoroughgoing scepticism, simply “directed against the being of sense-certainty which takes its being as true as such,” and which points beyond the level of phenomena (although in a new mediate form), for Husserl the philosophical approach takes the shape of a refraining from positing the being in the world. We might say that while the teleological presupposition leads Hegel toward a pre-established pathway engaging in what the author calls a pedagogical dialectic between the natural attitude and philosophical consciousness, Husserl chooses the path to suspend the natural attitude itself and to assume a philosophy of a perpetual beginning. A difference in the perspective but not really in the ultimate goal, as the final idea is to have a rigorous discipline better able to disclose in a clearer way the interplay of the perception between the individual consciousness and the phenomenal world. Alongside the similarities and differences between Hegel and Husserl, Staehler lets us notice how a first problematic arises when we approach the beginning of philosophy in the form of a necessary sceptical attitude as it represents everything except a presuppositionless standpoint and which thus requires a given motivation and a contextual explanation. This is a question that remains open until the last part of the work where the encompassing Spirit (in Hegel) and the Lifeworld (in Husserl) will appear and will be able to give a context to the motivation by an effort of recollection.
Hegel describes the process that leads consciousness from the immediacy of sense-certainty to the understanding of itself as the one very constitutive agent of the perceptual activity in the first three chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit. The possibility of self-certainty is triggered by a tension between the unity of the object and the multiplicity of its properties which leaves us the feeling of a phenomenal world characterized by an ungraspable double nature. However, as the author underlines, that uncanniness is only given as a consequence of a static point of view and that when a dynamic perspective is taken the contradiction is solved. The concept of force is probably the best image to show how the coexistence of unity and its unfolding multiplicity is easily graspable when framed within a process-oriented approach. Staehler sees here a common pattern with the Husserlian image of the apple tree and the changing of its determinations in the persistence of an identical bearer. Important to notice is how the possibility of the synthesis of the manifold of the modes of givenness into a phanto-matic unity is possible only by the mediation of time which in Husserl is constituted at the level of inner consciousness. From a static and descriptive methodology the analysis here starts to move slightly to a genetic and constitutive approach. However, while a dynamic-oriented philosophy might represent the possibility of a parallelism between the two philosophers, a basic difference between them remains in the attitude toward the nature of the unity beyond the phenomena. If Hegel, carried by his teleological impetus, does not show any refraining from positing the identity of the object, for Husserl its possibility can be given only when all its modes of appearance are taken into account, a possibility that lies in the infinite. As the author says, “the goal of the perceptual process thus cannot be the adequate givenness of the object, but the closer determination of the thing in the process itself.”
The fact that the absolute identity of the object might be attainable only by an ideal and infinite perspective does not mean that Husserl denies the possibility of knowledge. The author is clear on that point when she frames both philosophers in what she calls an idealistic realism. The tension between unity and manifold is a tension between the focus of the natural attitude on the identity of the phenomena and the relativity of kinaesthetic, individual and cultural horizons while the role of phenomenology is the achievement of a more balanced perspective. Objectivity in Husserl is always partial but anyway possible and progressively enriched not only at the level of internal consciousness but even through communication with others. The analysis on identity and differences (in Hegel) and unity and manifold (in Husserl) begins to show the emergence of the main thesis of this work, namely how the character of openness of Husserl’s phenomenology might radicalize Hegel’s historical development. In order to proceed to this new stage of analysis, however, it is necessary to enter into the debate regarding the interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenology which, following Staehler, has been often too quickly enclosed in an idealistic framework as a consequence of misunderstanding the Husserlian concept of solipsism. The genetic approach, especially the one developed in Ideas and Cartesian Meditations, actually poses the possibility of the otherness of the other and it establishes the basis for what the author calls the historical Husserl. Solipsism, from her point of view, is not to be interpreted in the classical way but as a phenomenological reduction, exactly as the concept of the epoché, in order to clarify the how of the possibility of otherness. At the end of the genetic phase it eventually “becomes accessible in its inaccessibility” allowing the possibility of the foundation of the realm of intersubjectivity to be posed.
Hegel describes the development of the social and cultural world in the fourth chapter of his Phenomenology of Spirit where the master and slave dialectic and the struggle for recognition are introduced. The contradiction is eventually resolved in a typical Hegelian movement by a process of sublation by which the two forces find a balance within a new encompassing level, allowing Spirit to emerge. One of the last chapters of the work is dedicated to the Hegelian interpretation of the Antigone where the dialectical process is again described at the level of an ethical development. Far from psychologizing the characters, Hegel is more interested in the invariant pattern that Antigone and Creon carry on. In the struggle between the divine law and the political law an impasse is reached where neither of the two loses or wins. A reconciliation is only possible at an encompassing level, where the two compenetrate each other. This is expressed by the Chorus. Nothing similar appears in Husserl’s phenomenology of intersubjectivity, which never thematizes the Lifeworld as encompassing realm. Staehler states however that Husserl in his later studies, specifically the ones figuring into the Crisis, shows a plexus of phenomenological approaches which stand apart from the transcendental-psychological way opened by the epoché and by which an ontology of a Lifeworld is posited. The concept of the crisis is openly disclosed and serves as a catalyst in a recollection of the entirety of Husserl’s philosophy.
European man in Husserl’s terms lives in a contextual crisis that is rooted in the forgetfulness of the subject and of the Lifeworld, which are overshadowed by objective and scientific thinking. The role of philosophy is to find again a balance by the re-establishment of the subject as a real active agent of history. The role of phenomenology and its motivation, which were left suspended at the beginning of the work, are now finally explained. If the psychological-transcendental way, following the author’s analyses, leads us to the threshold of the ontology, the ontological way by historical reflection shows us the necessity for a better understanding of our inner consciousness. The recovery of the active role of subjectivity and intersubjectivity allows Husserl to move from history as a pure objective science of facts to what he calls ideal-history and toward a more horizonal and culturally-constituted historical development.
Cultural worlds are described by the author as a plexus of products, norms and values and also as “a world of custom, laws and regulations which the individual needs to consider.” They manifest themselves with the double nature of being established (stiftung), re-established and changed by man but at the same time at work as contextual constraints. There is a kind of Hegelian process in this circularity of an endless creation of new institutions and their establishment as new habitualized norms. The modern crisis can be seen as a consequence of the scientific attitude which eventually led to the forgetting of the primordial philosophy of the Greeks. The possibility of “re-inventing” history makes clear how there is an inner teleology at work in the Husserlian ideal-history. Goals conceived as norms and values are continuously posited anew thus offering the possibility of an open historical development in contrast with the Hegelian absolute teleology.
Staehler’s work gives so many causes for reflection that it is really difficult to give a complete account of it. It is worth mentioning that her insight on the phenomenology of historical and cultural worlds is not reduced to the simple encounter between Hegel and Husserl’s phenomenology. Other authors are discussed. The concept of event by Derrida for example and Levinas’s idea of an ungraspable future as something Other in regard to the Sameness of the intentional consciousness introduce a more radicalized character of nonlinearity to the historical development. More, a postscript is entirely dedicated to Heidegger’s primacy of moods and Merleau-Ponty’s concept of reversibility and ambiguity in the dialectical process. Not to mention Eugen Fink’s different approach on the motivation for the beginning of philosophy.
How do children come to learn their first words? One key term in answering this question is ostension: lacking linguistic resources, language speakers recur to ostensive acts or movements –such as gestures and pointing– to teach someone the name of an object. This is the phenomenon that concerns Chad Engelland in his book Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind. For Engelland, the question regarding first-word acquisition involves several other matters: how are the intentions of the language speaker available for the infant? (i.e. the phenomenological problem); if intentions are available through animate movement, what is the concept of the mind that allows such availability? (i.e. the intersubjective problem); how can infants understand an ambiguous movement such as an ostensive act? (i.e. the epistemological problem); and, finally, what is the place of animate movement in nature and its relationship with language? (i.e. the metaphysical problem).
Engelland focuses on the phenomenological question, a matter he takes to be prior to other issues. For him, phenomenology is necessary to make sense of ostension because it is a matter of availability. He claims that the question of ostension “asks how the intentionality of the other is intersubjectively available in a prelinguistic way (…) ostension concerns how specific items in the public world can be mutually manifest as the target of joint attention” (xxvii). Only when we have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon we can answer the epistemological question and advance into the metaphysical problems of the nature of the mind, and language. According to Engelland, phenomenology is an adequate method to tackle the problem of first-word acquisition because it is concerned with making explicit the way something is manifested in our everyday experience. Phenomenology grasps the interplay between presence and absence, manifestation and hiddenness, an interplay that lies at the heart of Engelland’s account of ostension. Ostension is, for him, the prelinguistic means by which infants enter the public game of language, a character that necessitates a phenomenological account.
This understanding of phenomenology allows Engelland to engage with philosophers within the phenomenological tradition such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Robert Sokolowski, but it also allows him to read Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Augustine on this basis. Besides recurring to historical figures, he engages with contemporary thinkers, within both philosophy and psychology, such as W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Paul Bloom, and Michael Tomasello. The dialogue with philosophers that belong to different traditions and times is part of Engelland’s strategy. Philosophy is, for him, a conversation that inevitably ends up facing questions regarding human nature. In that respect, he claims that: “The restlessness of conversation, its incessant movement back and forth, is rooted in the natural aims of human like. To reflect on language in terms of conversation is to reflect on those who desire to converse with one another, with those who wish to share a life with one another. The turn to conversation necessarily involves the question concerning human nature” (216).
Part I. Contemporary Resources
Engelland begins this philosophical dialogue conversing with contemporary thinkers and scientists. In the first chapter, he starts by looking into the theory of language acquisition of Quine and Davidson. Quine gave a central role to behaviour in his explanation of language learning. He takes behaviour to be intrinsically ambiguous, an ambiguity that can only be (partially) remedied through repetition. However, Engelland considers that Quine’s external account of behaviour results in an artificial reconstruction of ostension and fails to see that, in an ostensive act, an item of the world is jointly disclosed but from different embodied perspectives: “[o]stension makes something jointly present to each, and presence involves people for whom it is present, people who together experience the world but from different points of view. In this way, there is an ineluctably ‘inward’ dimension to ostension, and there is more to behaviour than the behaviorist can see” (5).
Donald Davidson follows Quine in his account of ostension, but he emphasizes an important relational feature of the phenomenon. Language learning is the result of triangulation, that is, of the interaction between two agents, and other items in the world. The language learner associates the intention underlying the behaviour of the other agent with changes occurring in their surroundings.
Quine and Davidson are clear in that ostension is the prelinguistic means that allows first word acquisition. But, as mentioned earlier, for Engelland, ostension can only be properly unpacked phenomenologically. Phenomenology can answer “how the intentions of others are on display” in our actions (11). The movement Engelland is concerned with is not mere behavior, rather he is interested in intentional actions, actions in which one’s affective engagement is advertised. Even perception is among this kind of actions: it is not a passive process. He follows Ava Noë and Kevin O’Regan in their enactive account of perception, according to which perception is an embodied activity. Perception advertises intentionality and affectivity just like any other action; and just like any other action, perception takes place in the world and not just in our heads. Engelland also draws on the enactivist movement to account for the intersubjectivity that is constitutive of experience. Finally, Engelland draws on Gadamer’s concept of “play”, a concept that bring action and manifestation together. Play involves turn-taking and mirrored actions; players are interacting between each other, they are presenting their actions to themselves, to other players, and to spectators; it displays actions that are directed to the world and which are structured with a distinction between means and ends. This will turn out to be important features of ostensive actions.
In the second chapter, Engelland turns to scientific accounts of first-word acquisition, a matter he qualifies to be “a burning issue” in contemporary psychology. He draws mainly, on the one hand, on the work of Paul Bloom, who recovers an Augustinian proposal of language learning; and on the other, on the work of Michael Tomasello, who offers, in turn, a Wittgensteinian account. The psychological studies recovered by Engelland show that infants do not learn new words unless both the language speaker and the named item are present. For language learning, presence and intersubjective interaction is crucial. Ostension presupposes what Colwyn Trevarten identifies as the first and second stages of intersubjective development: (1) first, an understanding of others as “fellow animate beings” to whom a newborn child pays attention and with whom she interacts by imitating and by taking turns in their interactions; (2) second, an understanding of others as “intentional agents” with whom an infant engages in joint situations. It is not only that the infant can understand gestures and follow gazes, she recognizes “that these actions have reciprocal possibilities” (28). To explain the phenomenon of mirroring, Engelland recurs to the mechanism of mirror neurons, which fire when seeing the actions of another agent.
At the end of this chapter, Engelland reaches the following definition of ostension: it is “[a]n unintentionally communicative bodily movement, arising from a pattern of meaningful human action, that makes an item in the world jointly present and affords the opportunity for an eavesdropper to identify a certain kind of item in the world and/or to learn the articulate sound used to present the identified item” (36). It differs from ostensive definition in that (a) it does not necessarily have communicative intentions; and (b) it arises from a meaningful pattern of action.
Part II. Historical Resources
The historical conversation held throughout the second part of this book sets the stage for the final philosophical discussion. Although Engelland chooses four thinkers that come from different backgrounds and contexts, the way he guides the discussion enables a productive intertwining that enlightens the problem of ostension. While Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty explicitly deal with the problem of language acquisition, Aristotle does not. This is one of the virtues of the text. Engelland shows that Aristotle has the conceptual resources to deal with the issue of world learning; furthermore, Aristotelian philosophy allows the clarification of problems that arise within the other views, such as the nature of movement, and of animal life.
In the third chapter, Engelland starts this historical journey analysing Wittgenstein’s position which he reads in a phenomenological manner: the task of philosophy is not to raise scepticism, but to clarify the phenomena that appear in our everyday experience. Wittgenstein develops his account in opposition to Augustine’s. Firstly, he regards Augustine’s theory to apply only to naming; secondly, he takes it not to involve ostension, but ostensive definition which supposes the infant to have some kind of mental language; finally, he emphasizes the ambiguity of ostension as a central aspect of ostension, one that Wittgenstein considers to be missing in Augustine’s account.
Engelland argues that these objections are due to a misconstruction of Augustine’s position which, without realizing, is a lot closer to Wittgenstein’s own account in the following aspects: (1) firstly, ostensive acts (i.e. gestures) enable infants “to follow intentional cues and, when coupled with training, find their way into a language game” (52); (2) secondly, there are some human voluntary movements that are universal and which reveal our intentions; (3) gestures reveal the consciousness of another, (4) facial expressions betray our attention, (5) and the tone of voice and its modulation reveal emotions; (6) finally, all of these reveal affections, they “serve to make manifest one’s affections in the pursuit or avoidance of things” (53). Given that our body manifests our intentions, one can perceive the other’s affective life. Per Wittgenstein, minds are not private, they rather seem hidden when we are facing an ambiguous behavior. Despite the similarities of Wittgenstein’s account with Augustine, there is one central difference. For the former, ostension is disambiguated thanks to training, because the infant cannot surpass ambiguity without the help of a teacher. Engelland rejects this picture of the passive child and instead takes Augustine’s perspective of a ripe infant who desires to participate in the language game.
In the next chapter, Engelland revisits Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s position regarding language learning. The phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty allows Engelland to account for the intersubjective interplay that lies at the basis of ostension. For Merleau-Ponty it is not so much that the child acquires language, rather she gets habituated to the language game. In learning to speak, the infant is learning to play a role and, thus, is acquiring not language but a whole world of meaning. In that sense, Engelland claims with Merleau-Ponty that “the body gains a ‘figurative significance’” (71).
To understand the communicative powers of the body, Merleau-Ponty abandons the opposition between a material world governed by causal relations, and consciousness. The body “must become the intention” if it is to account for our communicative interplay. The reciprocity of communication is possible in virtue of a common world to which both the language speaker and the infant belong. Engelland follows Merleau-Ponty in claiming that intersubjectivity is constitutive of the body. The flesh, a term that the French philosopher coined to refer to the basis of this embodied intersubjectivity, brings together the activity of the lived body and the passivity of the perceived body. Engelland claims that “the twofold or chiasm of flesh places each of us in a world together, enabling gesturing and joint attention” (81). For Engelland, Merleau-Ponty captures in a brilliant way “how the body is the best picture of the mind” (82). However, he fails to account just how it is that the body is twofold, a task that can be accomplish by two classical programs.
In the fifth chapter, Engelland addresses the first of these programs: Augustine’s account of word learning. With Jean-Luc Marion, Engelland takes Augustine to be concerned with the phenomenological question regarding ostension. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine notices that there are signs that are instituted or conventional, and, therefore, are arbitrary. However, that poses a problem for word acquisition: if these signs are arbitrary, how can they be acquired? To explain this, it is necessary to account for the joint attention that precedes language learning. Augustine recalls the context in which he acquired language: “a context of interpersonal affection nourished by expressive bodily movements” (93). In that context, the infant fails to disclose her needs, affections, and desires, and “discovers the ability to do so by understanding the bodily movement of language speakers” (94). Unlike the passive infant in Wittgenstein’s account, Augustine’s infant wishes to participate in the language game. This infant learns in an important sense by eavesdropping the conversations that take place in daily routines. Context controls ambiguity in an important way.
But, what happens when the context is not enough to disambiguate? For Augustine, the infant possesses some kind of perception or receptivity that allows disambiguation. The child conjectures that “bodily movement signifies soul” (101). But this conjecture is not an inference, it is rather an awareness we share with other animals and that is rooted in our inner sense. The infant develops this awareness when developing motor control. Nonetheless, interanimal awareness is not enough to make sense of this phenomenon. The child requires understanding as well to grasp bodily movement as an intentional action. Engelland intends to show, contra Wittgenstein, that Augustine does consider ambiguity as a problem. Not only that, Augustine realizes that ambiguity is a central feature of language learning, and that it is an obstacle that is not easy to surpass.
The last stop in Engelland’s historical route is Aristotle. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle does not have an account of word acquisition, however, Engelland reconstructs what would be the Aristotelian account of language learning, an account that offers some important concepts that were lacking in Augustine’s view. Engelland begins his reconstruction with the argument against the denier of PNC (the Principle of Non-Contradiction). For Engelland, this refutation shows that the PNC accounts for the possibility of intelligibility. But, what accounts for the possibility of joint intelligibility?
For Aristotle, animals communicate on the basis of natural significations: they express pleasure and pain. Humans, on the other hand, transcend this and institute conventional terms to express something other. However, these conventional terms are problematic in that they must communicate the way the world appears individually to each of us. This inward dimension of affectivity does not represent a problem, because it can be shared through our bodily movement. Aristotle’s account of movement differs from that of modern physics. For him, natural movement reveals the power to move. Animate movement, which is common to all animals, has a discriminatory character because it “targets a good or avoids a bad” (116). What is specific of deliberate human gestures is that they invite the other to look beyond them and to rest their attention in something else. Human joint activity goes beyond coordination, and turns into political cooperation (i.e. into a “share[d] belief about what makes for a good life” (124)). According to Engelland, the reciprocity of understanding in Aristotle’s description of friendship, sheds light to the meaning of cooperation: in friendship, we understand ourselves by understanding others.
Part III. Philosophical Investigations
These two conversations –the one with contemporary thinkers and the historical one– allow Engelland to set the stage for his philosophical investigations. In chapter seven, he gives a phenomenological account of ostension, according to which the intention of ostensive bodily movements is manifested, and not inferred. Engelland draws on the theory of the perception of emotion developed by J. L. Austin for whom: “one’s body advertises the movement of emotions to all those who have eyes to see” (p. 134). For Engelland, the advertisement of our affections is not reduced to emotion, but extends to action and perception in general.
Engelland rejects the inferential position because it assumes the “Cartesian bifurcation of internal and external evidence” (136). This bifurcation implies that, in order to go from behavior to internal intentions, the infant would need to experience such an internal realm. Inference requires the experience of internal intentions as evidence. Without it, the child has no basis for inference. He claims that: “[The inferential view] assumes a flawed framework in which the terms inside and outside, private and public, self and other, are mutually exclusive. The chasm separating these two domains cannot be bridged by endowing the infant with mindboggling powers of inference; it can be bridged only by uncovering the perception of animate movement. On this view, the infant appears more naturally as an understanding animal, not an inferring scientist” (138).
Per Engelland, ostension is not the coordination of the inner lives of two agents through behavior, it is rather joint perception. Joint perception requires spatial and temporal presence not only of the agents, but of the perceived item as well. Our individual perspective of the perceived object does not cancel joint perception because we perceive the public appearance or look of the item. Things have a public dimension and it is this dimension that we perceive and intend. In ostension, my bodily movement manifests the intended object, thus, bringing it to presence or making it an object of joint attention to anyone who is attentive to my movements.
In the following chapter, Engelland tackles the problem of other minds. The inferential view of ostension claims that, in analogy to ourselves, we take the other to be an agent. Wittgenstein notes that underlying this view is the notion of the body as a machine inhabited by a consciousness. However, for Engelland, this is an odd view: it would seem more natural to “perceive fellow animate minds at work” (155). He follows several phenomenologists, such as Edith Stein, Hans Jonas, and Evan Thompson, in claiming that our body is not properly understood as a machine, it is rather a lived body. We live among animate bodies, and our own animate movements “puts us into spontaneous communion with one another” (p. 155). Engelland takes one step forward from these phenomenological considerations in that, for him, although it is the case that we take the others to be animate beings because we understand ourselves as such, it is also that we are aware of our own life because we perceive it in the others.
The notion of mind that is at play in Engelland’s view is one that recovers an Aristotelian hylomorphism according to which “[p]oints of view are essentially embodied” (p. 170). Engelland enriches this position with the phenomenological account, thus, resulting in a view that takes the mind to be animate: “The mind is not incidentally attached to a body; the mind is essentially embodied and on display in animate action” (170).
And how does this account of ostension and of the animate mind deal with ambiguity? The ninth chapter of the book deals with the epistemological challenge regarding ambiguity. Although ostension recurs to similar resources to those of ostensive definition to control ambiguity –for instance, movement and novelty–, it also has “unique disambiguating cues”: (a) natural wants and desires, (b) daily routines and games, and (c) repetition across contexts. However, Engelland, inspired by Aristotle’s and John McDowell’s reflections on human nature, also argues that we are naturally inclined to the development of specific habits. To explain what he means by natural inclinations, Engelland draws on the concept of life-form developed by Michael Thompson. Life-forms are judgments that we use to “make sense of each other” (181), in that they afford ways of “generalizing or profiling” (183). Human inclinations are natural because they belong to our common nature, one that is available in the intersubjective realm of our perception. When learning a language, infants risk acts of identification and profiling. Engelland claims that “[t]he ostensive act affords the interlocutor or eavesdropper the opportunity to achieve something like a nominal definition, that is, an understanding that allows him or her to identify the spoken item and distinguish it from other sorts of similar things” (188).
In the final chapter of the book, Engelland focuses on the metaphysical problems concerning ostension. For him, what makes ostension logically possible is the structure of our experience. Given that experience is dominated by rest and sameness, movement and change call our attention. The relevance of movement and difference make ostension possible.
In this chapter, Engelland also discusses the relationship between phenomenological movement of disclosure and manifestation, and physical motion. For him, physical happenings are necessary for phenomenological movement, nonetheless, the latter does not identify with mere physical happenings. He claims that “[p]henomenological movement needs all this physics to happen, but it is something other than the physical happening” (198). Furthermore, we can only make sense of physical motion if it is immersed in our phenomenological experience.
This distinction leads Engelland to discuss the relation between scientific explanation and phenomenology. Although Engelland does not explicitly refer to this debate, I believe he engages with the problem of naturalization of phenomenology when dealing with the question about the relation between these two kinds of explanations. Engelland adopts Sokolowski’s notion of lensing to account for the role the brain, the nervous system, and our senses have in our experience. These do not appear in our everyday experience since they are transparent. These physical structures enable experience and “[make] the world available” (201).
Given their transparency, Engelland considers that a phenomenological account of consciousness is irrelevant for biological explanations. For him, there is an uncontroversial division of labor between phenomenology and science: biology is equipped to understand life, while philosophy is equipped to understand the manifestation of life. Philosophy, then, cannot contribute to biology as such, but it can make a non-biological contribution. In that vein, Engelland shows that joint presence is a condition of possibility of scientific discourse. Philosophy contributes in our understanding of the world, a world to which science belongs. Engelland would seem to claim that phenomenology cannot be naturalized in the sense that: “philosophers have no reason to adopt the scientific image as their point of departure or their point of return” (214). If that is so, why engage with science at all? Engelland is right in distinguishing the tasks of philosophy and science, but such a distinction should not amount to the claim that philosophy does not depart nor return to science. Claiming the latter inevitably leads to philosophical solipsism, something that Engelland himself avoids throughout his book by taking philosophy as conversation.
Ostension invites the reader into a dialogue that not only goes through different disciplines, but also through different philosophical traditions and problems. It offers a treatment of first-word acquisition that takes into account traditional and contemporary considerations, but goes beyond them by introducing a new perspective that is enriched by phenomenology and psychology. Its originality lies in the explicit formulation of the phenomenological question regarding first-word acquisition. This book will be valuable to anyone who is interested in theories of meaning, language acquisition, and the dialogue between phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and science.