Timothy D. Mooney: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Cambridge UP, 2022

Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception: On the Body Informed Couverture du livre Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception: On the Body Informed
Timothy D. Mooney
Cambridge University Press
2022
Paperback

Marie-Eve Morin: Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being

Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being: At the Limits of Phenomenology Couverture du livre Merleau-Ponty and Nancy on Sense and Being: At the Limits of Phenomenology
New Perspectives in Ontology
Marie-Eve Morin
Edinburgh University Press
2022
Ebook (PDF) £85.00
216

Reviewed by: Vanessa Ossino

Marie-Eve Morin’s comparative study of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy focuses on two objectives: First, it compares Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s stances on the nature of the relation between “sense” and “being” which includes a lengthy analysis of their methods as well as an elaborate inquiry of their respective ontological framework. Secondly, Morin responds to “the new realist critique of post-Kantian philosophy, according to which all post-Kantian thinkers in the phenomenological tradition would remain unable to think an outside worthy of the name.” (183)

Right from the beginning, it becomes apparent that the study is of relevance to the broader field of phenomenology, and promises nuanced insights into still pressing questions posed by new realists and post-phenomenologists. One of those questions being: To what extent is phenomenology able to speak of an »outside« which is not suspected of being a correlation of consciousness? Another challenge posed to phenomenology by the aforementioned philosophical strains is concerned with the claim that phenomenology narrows »sense« into »being« and vice versa. This is assumed in particular by ‘traditional phenomenologists’ with whom Morin mainly means Edmund Husserl and the early Martin Heidegger. Through her engagement with new realism and phenomenology, Morin frames her study in-between two antithetical stances:

(1) The premise that sense and being are divided along the lines of a »subjective inside« and an »objective outside« (new realism).

(2) The premise that being is a function of meaning, which reduces it to the limits of sense (Husserl and Heidegger of Sein und Zeit).

The risk to which phenomenology allegedly exposes itself is that “by reducing fact to sense, phenomenology abandons pure otherness or brute factuality, in order to arrogate to itself the right to speak” (12). By bringing Derrida’s critique of the phenomenological method into play, Morin places her focus in a still gaping wound of phenomenology, which is located at the border-crossings of phenomenology and ontology. In the words of Derrida:

« We pass from phenomenology to ontology (in the non-Husserlian sense) when we silently question the direction of the upsurge of naked factuality and cease to consider the fact in its phenomenological function. Then the latter can no longer be exhausted and reduced to its sense by the work of phenomenology, even were it pursued ad infinitum.” (Derrida 1989, Edmund Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’: An Introduction, p. 151-2, trans. mod. by Morin)

The logic by which phenomenology gets challenged here is as follows: If, for those phenomenologists that remain in the Kantian tradition, the limits of consciousness are the limits of what can be given, then transcendental subjectivity must be seen as the universe of possible sense and thus as possible being in its givenness.

Through this perspective of questioning, Morin inscribes herself in the discourse on phenomenology’s correlationism. The latter can be described as the view that subjectivity and objectivity cannot be understood or analysed apart from one another because both are always already intertwined or internally related. It is the view that we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking (theory) and being (reality) and never to either in isolation from or independently of the other. (Zahavi 2016: The end of what? Phenomenology vs. speculative realism, in: International Journal of Philosophical Studies, p. 294).

In the words of Morin, the question that she confronts through her engagement with speculative realist states as follows: „How to speak of an outside that is inscribed in the inside as absolute outside without falling into too much modesty or too much presumption?” (3) Taking this question as guidance, Morin turns to Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s respective philosophies, that in her view provide promising approaches responding to the posed questions.

As for Merleau-Ponty, Morin rightly hints at his radicalization of the paradoxical relation between being and sense, which does not allow being to be limited to sense, but much rather points to a Being within which sense is entailed. Nancy’s ontology of sense on the other hand is not situated within the theoretical realm of phenomenology, even though he is still concerned with a philosophy of experience. Both thinkers share an engaged interest in the torsion between inside and outside, which manifests in their “displacement of the metaphysics of presence toward a thinking of the ‘subject’ as non-presence-to-self, as a co-existence with the world and with others prior to the division between subject and object […].” (15) In other words, both philosophers share the effort to think sense and being beyond a rigid subjective consciousness, without losing the focus on experience altogether.

The well-structured introduction offers a plausible guide to the oftentimes in-transparent and enigmatic realms of Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s ideas, promising a profound analysis of the different thought patterns as well as their respective ontologies, which touch on the same object and yet approach it from different angles.

The study is divided into three parts: Body (I), Thing (II) and Being (III), with each part being divided into three chapters. The first chapter always thematizes Merleau-Ponty’s stance on the notion in question, the second chapter respectively concerns Nancy’s stance and the third chapter brings the two philosophers into dialogue. This structure succeeds in guiding the reader carefully through the different thought realms of Merleau-Ponty and Nancy, leading to a two folded incline in Morin’s argumentative fashion, in that each part includes an interim conclusion, with all three interim conclusions building up to a final conclusion.

In what follows I will outline Morin’s inquiry in accordance with the mentioned structure. I will do this in a rather detailed fashion in order to engage thoroughly with Morin’s argumentation.

Part I – Body

The first part addresses Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s respective conceptions of embodied existence and puts them into dialogue through distinguishing them in accordance with the conceptual pair of »unity« versus »dislocation«.

Chapter 1

In this chapter, Morin puts Merleau-Ponty’s well-known contention with René Descartes in relation to an underexposed perspective, which argues that Merleau-Ponty is driven by a “desire to find the premise of his own theory in Descartes” (see Morin 47 footnote 1, citing Isabel Thomas-Foigel 2011: ‘Merleau-Ponty: De la perspective au chiasme, la rigueur épistémique d’une analogie’, Chiasmi International 13, p. 387, Morin’s translation). In stating that Merleau-Ponty finds in Descartes the necessary tools to overcome the cartesian dualism, Morin’s begins her inquiry into Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the lived-body in an unusual but daring fashion.

Early on in the chapter Morin emphasizes that Merleau-Ponty’s main interest in Descartes lies at the heart of the imminent tension between Descartes’ »philosophy of the understanding« and his »philosophy of existence«, between »reflection« and the »unreflected« (31). Morin argues that Merleau-Ponty criticizes Descartes for excluding the lived experience of the unity of body and soul from his notion of nature as extension. Thereby, Descartes states that our lived experience cannot teach us anything more than what our understanding of it offers to us. It is in the periphery of Descartes’ philosophy of understanding and reflection that Merleau-Ponty thus finds his guidance into a field of truth that is concerned with the “obscure sphere of unreflected existence” (30, cited in a note from Merleau-Ponty autumn 1957, Morin’s translation). This »sphere of unreflected existence« is located at the – for Descartes – confused unified experience of two different substances: body and soul. And yet, this unified experience has a certain clarity in itself, one which ‘renders unintelligible’ once it is disentangled through analytical thought, as Merleau-Ponty points out. Therefore, he argues that the lived experience of the »unity of the body and the soul« offers us a certain intelligibility of the opaque realm of an unreflected existence, to which analytical thought can never account for sufficiently. Descartes’ sixth meditation, in which he states that “nature also teaches me […] that I am not merely present in my body […] but that I am very closely joined and […] intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit” (Descartes 1996: Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 56), reveals in the eyes of Merleau-Ponty that “there is something before and after the ‘series of reasons’, and this something is called ‘existence’.” (32)

Thus, Morin highlights that Merleau-Ponty’s own method develops through a circular reading of Descartes, in that he takes the sixth meditation with its emphasis on the unreflected unity of body and soul as remaining valid in the face of the second meditation, in which the cogito is elaborated. Followingly, the unreflected unity still holds accountable throughout a certain reflection, one that Merleau-Ponty calls »radical reflection« in contrast to the ‘intellectualist’ philosophies of reflection, including Husserl’s phenomenological-transcendental reduction. Morin emphasizes that a radical reflection, far off from being an ‘ultimate’ reflection, is grounded on factical experience and concerns an existential philosophy that questions the “ever-renewed experience of its own beginning in the unreflected and the description of that experience” (34, citing Merleau-Ponty 2012: Phenomenology of Perception, lxxviii, trans. mod.). The difficulty in such a radical reflection lies in the fact, that it still has to account for a mode of openness of a certain pre-reflective and pre-linguistic towards reflection and language. In order to not fall back into the argument of a constituting consciousness, Merleau-Ponty therefore posits a »tacit cogito« on the grounds of a sensing and self-sensing lived body, a body which opens itself towards itself as well as towards the world through active-passively sensing of an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ at what seems to be the same time.

At the end of the chapter, Morin emphasizes, with regard to different objections that were raised after the publication of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, that the notion of »tacit cogito« still remains entangled with some kind of constituting consciousness, not being able to “develop the specific way of being of the body [as a mediator] itself in a positive way.” (42)

Chapter 2

In the second chapter Morin enriches the idea of a possible operative cogito beyond a constituting consciousness through Nancy’s reading of Descartes in Nancy’s book Ego Sum. Through this engagement, she emphasizes Nancy’s notion of the body not as mass but as differance (26). Similar to Merleau-Ponty, Nancy points to the special »kind of unit« in Descartes’ sixth meditation, with the focus on the unit being “neither-soul-nor-body” (56) but an opening that articulates itself, not in the structure of a substantial presence but in that of a »to-itself« (57). As Morin emphasizes, Nancy here argues that “the to-itself denotes […] the movement of existence as being-towards itself so that […] there is no self at the origin of this movement” (57, my emphasis). Again, similar to Merleau-Ponty, Nancy focusses on the moment in which ‘the subject’ comes to its first articulation, which for him necessarily implies an experience that is given through the body.

Beyond these similarities, the first grave difference between Merleau-Ponty and Nancy lies at the heart of their respective notions of »body«. Where for Merleau-Ponty the lived body can still be posited as a certain subjective operative consciousness (at least in the Phenomenology of Perception), which indeed implies a subject, Nancy aims at egressing subject-philosophy in stating the utterance of the »ego sum« as “a pure performative, […] without underlying substrate or subject (53, citing Nancy 2016: Ego Sum: Corpus, Anima, Fabula, p. 84-5). The performative utterance of the »ego sum« is stated as an action without subject (54) or in the words of Derrida: as a »teleopoetic utterance«. With regard to the relation of body and ego, the teleopoetic utterance, by uttering ‘ego’, produces something proper: “An I that can say ‘I’, and ob-jects the body, that is, throws it in front of itself. […] [B]ut only because it is effectively not its own body […] holds the body at a distance” (57). The limit of the self for Nancy is a limit that does not lead to a solid ground but to an »abyssal intimacy«, which Morin, in accordance with Nancy, names the “inside of the world” (57).

Reminding us of Merleau-Ponty’s »radical reflection« in which a certain pre-reflective sets the stage for an endless endeavor of reflection, so too – but in a different fashion – Nancy hints at Descartes’ sixth meditation in order to show that “what is most inside is not some me that would finally coincide with itself but always something more […] and opens me up to relation” (58). The union of body and soul for Nancy is not a relation between two things, but an ontological spacing or opening-to of the other (60). For him, not only bodies are radically plural and fragmented, but so is the world and with that sense making itself. Sense-making, which constitutes on the model of touch in Nancy’s thought, is always an experience of a limit (64). The world, far from being understood as a cosmos, follows the logic of a singularity that is always plural in its origin (80).

Thus, a major difference between Nancy and Merleau-Ponty can be found in their elaboration of Descartes’ unity of body and soul in the sixth meditation. Where Nancy follows the logic of divergence, Merleau-Ponty respectively focusses on a certain logic of entanglement (as can exemplary be seen in his notion of body-schema).

Chapter 3

In this chapter Morin puts Nancy and Merleau-Ponty in a more direct conversation and refers her inquiry back to the guiding question of how the nuanced differences in their respective ontologies lead to new insights on Merleau-Ponty’s path along the edge of phenomenology. Morin mainly focuses on the difference that “lies in their respective ways of conceiving of sense and making sense” (70). She casts this difference in terms of a »priority of unity« (Merleau-Ponty) over »dislocation« (Nancy), which for her includes a priority of interiority over exteriority or of the moment of reappropriation and integration over the moment of alienation and separation. Even though Morin repeatedly emphasizes that Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical endeavor aims at overcoming such dichotomies, and especially the dichotomy of interiority and exteriority, she oftentimes methodically draws back on such a dualistic thinking, which might leave the impression of a problematic tendency to undermine Merleau-Ponty’s original thought beyond such dualisms.

Yet, the reader gets a better sense of her usage of such conceptual pairs through her comparison of Merleau-Ponty’s »body-schema« and Nancy’s description of the body as »corpus«. Through engaging with the lived body as body-schema and Nancy’s corpus as “constituted by a fragmentation that is never mended” and which “difference spreads to the body’s relation to the world” (71) it becomes obvious that Morin uses such dichotomic pairs in an argumentative-methodological fashion, in order to highlight the nuanced differences of the two thinkers in a straightforward way. This leaves the impression that she somewhat simplifies the argument for readers who might not be too familiar with the respective philosophies. Nevertheless, such a simplification through a contrasting dichotomic argumentative fashion to me seems like a valid methodological approach, especially with regard to the sometimes very opaque subtleness of Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s ontologies.

Without going into too much detail, it is sufficient to emphasize that in this third chapter Morin thoroughly shows how Merleau-Ponty’s »lived body« – which is distinguished by a body-schema that allows for the integration of my synesthetic perception, gestures and relation to the world as well as to others through a kind of pre-reflective synthesis -, differs in its way of sense-making from Nancy’s »corpus« – which is derived from Descartes’ partes extra partes and highlights the plurality of my senses and of my bodily being in general and that cannot be collected into a systematic whole (76). Whereas for Merleau-Ponty sense is related to a unified pre-reflective synthesis (at least) given through the body-schema, sense for Nancy finds its place in the differentiation of multiple singularities.

Interestingly, Morin concludes the chapter with a critical outlook on Nancy, arguing that: “What Nancy emphasizes then is resistance to synthesis or unification, even if one must in the end say that the subject or the world finds in this resistance its ‘stance’, that is, a certain kind of unity” (81).

Part 2 – Thing

As the title promises, the second part is concerned with the status of the object or thing in Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s philosophies. Whereas the first part drew on Descartes as a dialogue partner, the second part starts a conversation with more recent thinkers of object-oriented ontology, new materialism and speculative realism. In order to better understand the ‘accusation’ of correlationism, Morin is concerned with the question of the strategic role of a supposed anthropomorphism in Merleau-Ponty’s description of inhuman things.

Chapter 4

In order to understand Merleau-Ponty’s alleged »strategic anthropomorphism« in his description of things, Morin engages with his phenomenology of perception which emphasizes the paradox that perception is always perspectival but nevertheless neither the perception of the thing for-itself nor of a sign of the thing. What Morin calls the »paradox of the in-itself-for-us« highlights the fact, that perception is not a mere step in the path of objective thought towards the objective relations behind an experience, but that perception itself, in its finite character, exposes the objective thing in its reality as it is given in its appearance. Speculative realists interpret this as a philosophy of immanence, predicating that phenomenology is stuck ‘within’, and thus, does not have the possibility of comparing reality as it would be ‘without’ consciousness (91).

In order to not fall back on the difficulties of a philosophy of immanence respectively a philosophy of transcendence, Morin reminds us that Merleau-Ponty thinks reality at the level of the phenomenon, an order in which we are neither solely a being nor a constituting consciousness, but first and foremost we are mixed up with the world and others in that we are united to being “through the thickness of the world” (Merleau-Ponty 2012: Phenomenology of Perception, p. 311, my emphasis). The notion of »thickness« that we encounter in Merleau-Ponty in different stages of his thought is not always easy to understand, since – similar to his notion of style – he doesn’t really offer an explicit definition of it. Nevertheless, Morin lucidly underlines that “this thickness is not a third thing that would stand between consciousness and being and hide the latter. It is rather the world not as thing but as promise of something more that sustains my explorations” (92).

We learn from this chapter, that in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking ‘the thing’ offers itself to us through a certain manner or style, which we encounter in its phenomenality and not its mere appearance. In its phenomenality, an object is an “intersensorial thing that speaks to all my senses” (93) without being absorbed into the sum of its parts. Ultimately Morin encounters a sort of »strategic anthropomorphism« in Merleau-Ponty’s correlative concept of the lived body and its being-towards-the-world. The important difference between a reductive anthropomorphism and Merleau-Ponty’s stance lies in the fact, that for Merleau-Ponty one encounters the world through a body that is never fully mine, “i.e. that is never constituted by and hence laid out in front of consciousness” (97). The thickness of the world is a modality of the inexhaustibility of my relation to the world as well as my relation to myself as a bodily being.

At the end of the chapter though, Morin rightly points to the fact that even though Merleau-Ponty was able to dialecticise the notion of subject and object into a system in which both are correlates, in the Phenomenology of Perception he is not yet able to account for the being of the dialectical relation itself.

Chapter 5

Here Morin continues to inquire of a »strategic anthropomorphism« in Merleau-Ponty.  She mainly addresses two questions in this chapter:

(1) Do objects refer us back to ourselves, since they are filled with our own possibilities projected in space?

(2) If so, are objects mere internal possibilities?

In order to answer these questions, Morin engages with a notion of »cautious anthropomorphism« introduced by Steven Shaviro and Jeffrey Cohen, to broaden the strategic anthropomorphism in Merleau-Ponty in order to show that his anthropomorphism is not about centering a thing around human abilities, feelings or categories, but much rather about how a thing appears to us in entering our existence and is thus always recognized in its own place, in which objects dialogically shape our experience of the world (115). Objects then might refer us back to ourselves but neither in a way that would lead us to acknowledge them directly or in their totality nor in a way that would amount to an alleged neutrality of intellectual contemplation. On the contrary, in accordance with a »cautious anthropomorphism« – that Morin sees reflected in Merleau-Ponty’s »strategic anthropomorphism« – objects are guaranteed an irreducibility to mere intellectual ideas, in that they are given »in the flesh« which arouses certain »desires« and amounts for the incompleteness of any exploration.

With regard to Morin’s own method, I here find it a bit irritating that, even though she underlines Merleau-Ponty’s refusal to commit to a notion of an active constituting consciousness, she sometimes underlines that we, as sentient-beings, take an active positioning, in that “we lend things our flesh in order to make them flesh” (113, my emphasis). Although this might be a rather fussy critique, I would argue that such phrasing can be misleading with regard to Merleau-Ponty’s argument, that the underlying structures of our engagement »in the flesh« are of a certain passivity. In fact, Merleau-Ponty prominently speaks of a passivity without passivism (Merleau-Ponty 2010: Institution and Passivity).

Chapter 6

Morin starts the chapter with a synopsis of Nancy’s “radical desubjectivisation of freedom” (119). For Nancy freedom does not resemble self-determination but it means “to be absolutely without ‘why’” (120). Morin underlines: “Freedom is the unfounded factuality of an existence that surprises itself in existing” (120). She then continues to connect Nancy’s notion of freedom with his understanding of »finitude« that lies in the fact “that any being must be exposed to an exteriority or an otherness in order to be what it is” (120). The finitude of singularities in their infinite exposition to an exteriority expresses an open-ended movement of coming to presence. In putting Nancy in dialogue with his Heideggerian roots, Morin underlines that »the freedom of the world« outreaches Heidegger’s concept of world that stands for a “coherent milieu of significance already laid out in advance” (122). In emphasizing Nancy’s depart from phenomenology through his detachment of sense-making from any form of intentional givenness, Morin uncovers Nancy’s concept of world as “the space of sense: the sharing of singularities exposed to one another: stone, ground, dog, grass, star, and me, and you” (122). The world is thus free in its infinite finitude in that it signifies a “groundlessness of the world, the ever-renewed coming-to-presence of the world […]” (120). To say that a thing exists then, is to affirm its structure of difference and spacing which is opposed to a pure in-itself as well as an essence for consciousness. In this way, sense is not reduced to its givenness and accessibility, be it to intentionality, a sentient lived body or a Dasein. In challenging phenomenology’s access as the a priori of being-in-the-world, Nancy emphasizes »sense« as that “what happens on the edge or threshold, in-between singularities, in the encounter with an […] alterity that resists assimilation […], to which there is access precisely only in the mode of non-access” (125). The exposition of a thing thus, is an exposition of an »it-self« to itself and others.

The question that hovers above this chapter followingly, is whether Nancy’s materialism resembles a kind of unifying relationalism after all, in that one still has a certain kind of access to a thing by means of a contact-separation of surfaces. This impression deepens when Morin stresses in Nancy that “I am able to encounter the stone only insofar as I am also already stone” (125). A sentence which Morin further contextualizes in view of Merleau-Ponty’s later ontology of flesh, an ontology that she argues to be too unifying in view of Nancy. She engages with this question through further elaborating on Nancy’s notion of sense as material, by which he means that sense-relation resembles precisely not a givenness but a “void – or space […] which relates without gathering, or gathers without uniting” (128). Followingly, Nancy’s ontology does advocate a certain relationalism, with the main difference that it is not unifying, in that it hints at a “materialism [which] is linked to the plurality of origins in their impenetrability” (135).

Part III – Being

The final part of the book confronts Merleau-Ponty’s “carnal ontology” more directly with Nancy’s “ontology of the singular plural” in order to elaborate on their respective quests for “a principle of non-dialectical difference that allows for the emergence of sense right at Being itself” (145).

Chapter 7

Morin starts the chapter with an extended dialogue of Merleau-Ponty, Nancy and Heidegger. She emphasizes that both, Merleau-Ponty and Nancy, “seek to undo the metaphysical difference between existentia and essentia in favour of thinking of existence or presence that is not pure positivity but includes a moment of negativity that is not the other of presence but its opening” (146). In terms of Merleau-Ponty, this chapter engages with his reappropriation of the notion of »Wesen« through his reading of Husserl and Heidegger, in order to “emphasize the intertwinement of fact and idea, or existence and essence” (152). In this way, facticity becomes the ground or ‘fabric’ that gives essences their solidity.

In order to further analyze the tools with which Merleau-Ponty and Nancy ponder Being beyond the dichotomy of presence and absence, negativism and positivism, Morin engages with Merleau-Ponty’s ontology as a “third genre d’être between Being and Nothing” (153) and continues with Nancy’s annulment of the ontological difference through his emphasis that “there are only beings, nothing behind, beneath or beyond them” (164).

Morin concludes the chapter with the lucid observation that for both philosophers the »il y a« or »es gibt« does not mean that Being gives the given. Through making a detour of a deconstructive reading of Heidegger she reasons that: “Rather, we must hear the Heideggerian es gibt through Derrida’s deconstruction of the gift in Given Time. […] The gift must not only be thought as without giver and without given (beyond subject and object) but also as without property or propriety” (163).

Chapter 8

The last chapter is dedicated to the question, to what degree Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh “introduce[s] difference – differance, spacing – at the heart of sense, which would bring Merleau-Ponty’s later thought in closer proximity to Nancy’s ontology” (169). She engages with this question through a reevaluation of the notion of »écart«, which both thinkers use extensively. »Écart« in its broader sense is understood as divergence and hints at a self that is never truly identical but only given through divergence, which thus becomes a constituent for sense. Following this thought, Morin asks how radical Merleau-Ponty’s account of »divergence« is. She points to his notion of »chiasm« and asks if its underlying assumption of reversibility succeeds in giving “spacing, exteriority and alterity its due” or if it ends up “reinstating a massive unity at a higher level” (178).

Morin finds her answer in a final juxtaposition of Nancy and Merleau-Ponty. Because Merleau-Ponty repeatedly underlines that »écart« is rooted in the notion of flesh, as the “primordiality of écart” (180) and the “formative medium of the object and the subject” (Merleau-Ponty 1968: The Visible and The Invisible, p. 147), promiscuity and encroachment lie at the heart of »écart«.

This latter conclusion remains foreign to Nancy. Morin argues: “Speaking of what happens between singularities, Nancy also uses the image of the intertwining or the knot, but insists on the absolute separation of the different strands being knotted” (180). Followingly, Nancy in opposition to Merleau-Ponty, highlights an »ontological void« at the limit that exposes bodies to themselves and each other (180), so that the in-between of singularities remain an “absolute separation” (180). For Merleau-Ponty on the other hand, the in-between already belongs to one flesh, which does not resemble a simple unity, but nevertheless does not include an ontological void.

Conclusion

To get to the point: Morin succeeds in her proclaimed aim, in that she effectively casts the differences in emphasis of the two respective philosophers, so that each is an important corrective to a tendency in the other’s work (182). In approaching her study from the angle of speculative realism and its criticism of phenomenology’s correlationism, she fruitfully offers an alternative reading of post-Kantian thinkers in the phenomenological tradition, that, in light of the criticism, “would reduce all being to sense-making to a subjective process” (183).

Through her engagement with Nancy and Merleau-Ponty, Morin offers a coherent and pertinent proposition, which underlines that at least two positions in the broader post-Kantian phenomenological realm neither collapse being into sense nor reinstate a strong division between them. She concludes: “[B]oth Merleau-Ponty and Nancy displace and reassess the role of the limit in sense-making as the place of separation and exposure” (183) and thus of a place at the limit of subjective processes.

Morin’s study offers a highly relevant perspective in a time that “demands a decentering of the human and an attentiveness to the human outside” (184). In light of this, her book can also be read, not least (!), as a fruitful addition to the very lively discourse of a phenomenological geography, which engages with challenges that the climate-crisis impose on us as human beings.

Sara Heinämaa, Mirja Hartimo, Ilpo Hirvonen (Eds.): Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity, Routledge, 2022

Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity: Norms, Goals, and Values Couverture du livre Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity: Norms, Goals, and Values
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Sara Heinämaa, Mirja Hartimo, Ilpo Hirvonen (Eds.)
Routledge
2022
Hardback £96.00
270

Dorothea E. Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty

Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception Couverture du livre Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception
Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $28.00, Hardcover $75.00, eBook, $27.99
180

Reviewed by: Timothy Deane-Freeman (Deakin University)

At first glance, a monograph simultaneously dedicated to the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze might seem an obscure, even capricious proposition. Why, after all, bring these particular thinkers into dialogue? Why instigate this particular “three body problem” (1)? The answer to this question is complex, but lies in part in the immense structural influence they succeeded one another in exerting over French philosophy. Throughout a period of over one hundred years, French thought was fundamentally coloured first by Bergsonian “vitalism,” then by existentialist phenomenology, and finally by a “post-structuralism” of which Deleuze is considered a primary, if sometimes unwilling figurehead. To trace the shifting conceptual lineages marbled throughout their work is therefore to map the very movement of 20th century French thought, such as has colonised a stubborn corner of the globe’s intellectual life. But there is more than just this profound institutional influence linking together these disparate philosophical projects. As Dorothea Olkowski argues, throughout her accomplished and intriguing study, Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The logic and pragmatics of creation, these thinkers also share a common set of problems and an overlapping conceptual vocabulary, the complexities of which she draws out across six brief, rich, yet challenging essays.

Perhaps the foremost of these problems is a familiar dualism haunting philosophy, which here emerges in several guises. Thought and extension, reality and signs, the empirical and the transcendental, formalism and its “outside”- Olkowski returns frequently to this nebulous dialectic, and makes a compelling case for its centrality in the work of each of her subjects. As she writes, evoking the terms of Deleuze’s study of Bergson in Cinema I: The Movement-Image, and establishing one of the central argumentative lines of her own book:

…each of the three is engaged in the undoing of dualism -understood as the relation between thought and movements- by slightly different means […] providing an explanation of the relation between empiricist and formalist approaches to reality (18).

This latter schism is key, emerging as it does with the existential challenge posed to modern philosophy by the immense descriptive powers of post-Enlightenment science. For Olkowski, a strict division between empiricist and formalist approaches is intimately linked to this confluence, in particular to “the view that emerged, starting in approximately the sixteenth century, that science is autonomous, that it generates its own elements, that it stands outside time and outside the lived experience of a subject” (2) -in an epistemological splitting which establishes observer and observed as radically distinct. Against this view -which is far from synonymous with the self-problematising realities of scientific practice- Olkowski excavates a threefold project to reinject questions of genesis, vitality, subjectivity and temporality into a scientistic episteme which has perhaps tended to obscure them.

Indeed in her first chapter, which recapitulates themes from 2012’s Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn, she introduces this epistemological backdrop, and the bifurcation by which we inherit “two” contemporary philosophies- an analytic approach grounded in formal logic, and a Continental tradition oriented by phenomenology and metaphysics. The former, of which a thinker like Frege is paradigmatic, seeks to “ground” the empirical findings of science through a purely formal analysis of logical relations. This approach turns to signs -to their relations and modes of reference- eschewing all discussion of ontology or the empirical, given that such discussion “violates the principles of formalist systems,” producing unfounded and speculative “nonsense” (26). And while Frege -like Russell, the logical positivists and Wittgenstein- thus seek to banish metaphysics from the philosophical enterprise, what unites Olkowski’s subjects is their determination to develop a metaphysics adequate to contemporary science, simultaneously drawing out the contingency of logic- an approach she will introduce via the French philosopher of mathematics Jean Cavaillès.

For Cavaillès, Olkowski notes, an important contemporary of her three primary subjects, “the logic of a formal system requires an ontology to complete it; in addition to the formal system, it requires reference to an exteriority, to objects, and not just to other signs in the system” (16). And this determination to think the compossibility of the empirical and its symbolisation beats at the heart of Olkowski’s text. Signs and their systems, are not, after all, “immaculate.” An ontology is implicit, indeed required, in order for us to ask questions about their affects, milieux and genesis. And one of the book’s central propositions is that these thinkers help us to understand the genesis of formal systems in and from an empirical and pre-signifying world which can only be sensed. This approach leads to a threefold philosophy of perception, and to the complex ways in which manifold sense-data becomes sensible, taking form under the aegis of a “sign,” “Idea” or “Gestalt” in an operation which is simultaneously pragmatic and creative.

Olkowski’s second chapter develops these themes via Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of logic, primarily as it appears in What is Philosophy? We’ve already spoken of Frege’s ambition to develop a philosophy homogenous with scientific description, moving it away from metaphysical “speculation” in favour of a systematic “science of logic” (30). At the heart of this endeavour is an idiosyncratic concept of the “concept,” inherited in part from Kant, which sees the concept become a logical function- a component of propositions which maps arguments to one of two truth vales (true or false). Thus, to use a well-known example, “is a man,” is a concept/function we can complete (or “saturate,” to use Frege’s intriguing term) by inserting the object “Socrates,” in a move which points us to the proposition’s ultimate referent- the truth-value “true.” But Deleuze and Guattari will claim that this approach, by virtue of its determination to avoid all empirical content, alongside its obliteration of particularity in positing only two possible referents for propositional sentences, gives us an empty formalism, applicable only to the most trivial and pre-determined propositions (32). What Frege gains in “perspicuity,” this argument suggests, he loses in consequence, and the possibility of meaningful philosophical engagement with the real.

Against this model, Olkowski sketches the Deleuzo-Guattarian “concept”- a concept which “belong(s) to a subject and not to a set,” constituting “a function of the lived” (33) as opposed to a purely formal abstraction. At the same time, they are eager to avoid the pitfalls of the “phenomenological concept,” which they see as rooted in the experience of a transcendental subject, and as such incompatible with a philosophy of immanence. One of Olkowski’s richest contributions, indeed, is a thorough mapping of this persistent Deleuzian critique of phenomenology- the charge that it establishes subjective, “natural” perception as a transcendent norm, elevating a particular and contingent relation to the status of a philosophical first principle. In so doing, claims Deleuze, it betrays philosophy’s task of breaking with doxa or opinion, establishing natural perception as Urdoxa, or original opinion, in a moment which is both conservative and anthropocentric. And while Olkowski is generally conciliatory, suggesting several times that Deleuze exaggerates the space between his and Merleau-Ponty’s thought, her identification of the numerous points at which their approaches diverge is a sophisticated complement to extant work by Wambacq (2018) or Reynolds and Roffe (2006).

Opposing themselves to both the Fregean (analytic) and phenomenological (transcendental-subjective) concept, Deleuze and Guattari sketch their own, intensional concepts, which Olkowski convincingly links to another key thinker threaded throughout her exegesis- the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. For Deleuze and Guattari, concepts are “intensional” inasmuch as they constitute multiplicities whose unity is effected by their components’ internal (differential) relations. In this sense, Olkowski argues, they bear a striking resemble to Peircean “consistency” or “Thirdness” -habits, laws or generalities “to which future events have a tendency to conform” (42)- and which likewise produce continuity as the effect of multiple singular elements or events. Leaving aside the intricacies of Olkowski’s exegesis, it suffices to say that she does convincing and useful work here, tracing Peirce’s influence right across Deleuze’s oeuvre, particularly as it pertains to his recurrent conception of multiplicity as simultaneously “continuous” yet composed through differential relations.

Chapter three turns to Bergson, and an explication of his thought in the form of a rebuttal of the famous criticisms made by Bertrand Russell. Russell claims that Bergson’s thought reduces both distinction and abstraction to spatial phenomena, thereby demoting logic to a lesser branch of geometry (59). Graver than this, however, is Bergson’s apparent rejection of the mathematical model according to which change is apprehended as a series of discreet states. The indivisible continuity of Bergson’s “duration,” Russell argues, eschews the rigour of mathematics and science, opening the door to an irrational and irresponsible Cartesianism- a world in which things are never in any “state” at all, and the distinctions made by the intellect hover over of an indissoluble ontological mush. Olkowski links these criticisms to those made in the fallout of Bergson’s ill-fated encounter with Albert Einstein. While the latter is dedicated, by virtue of his theories of relativity, to a space-time continuum which is arguably “timeless” -with “any temporal event […] merely a geometric point in spacetime” (60), Bergson is interested in the qualitatively evolving and radically undetermined temporality of process, an approach which causes him to hesitate before the singular and unitary time of the physicist. In both cases, as Olkowski rightly notes, critics have sought to oppose the rigour of science and mathematics to Bergson’s “fuzzy” and “irrational” vitalism, effecting a discredit so fundamental as to cause even continental thinkers to “step[…] lightly around” (58) his thought.

Significant exceptions, of course, are Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, and Olkowski devotes the rest of the chapter to their spirited defence of his concepts in the face of these attacks. For Merleau-Ponty, Bergson’s is a radical philosophy, one which breaks with Cartesianism by “present[ing] a being that is duration in place of an ‘I think’” (64). Further, Merleau-Ponty will argue that it is Bergson, rather than Einstein, who offers a temporality adequate to quantum physics, and a universe of indeterminacy and discontinuity ushered in by wave-particle duality (65). For Deleuze meanwhile, Bergson’s thought possesses an implicit mathematical rigour which renders it far closer to Russell than the latter himself supposes. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze will refer to Russell’s distinction between lengths and distances, the latter of which cannot be divided into homogenous and interchangeable series but rather constitute “irreducible” series “derived in some way from perception” (69). As Olkowski notes, “Bergson too defines duration as a multiplicity or divisibility that does not divide without changing its nature, and so duration begins to sound like Russell’s concept of distance” (69). Deleuze will take up this hybrid Russellian-Bergsonian multiplicity in Difference and Repetition, using it as an image of ontogenesis- a mapping of the way in which intensive differences are explicated (differenciated) as “extensity” (or distance) in the context of individuation conceived as actualisation of the virtual. Olkowski’s work here is detailed and meticulous, illuminating the often-overlooked connections between Bergson, Deleuze and Russell.

In chapter four, Olkowski turns to Deleuze’s two volumes dedicated to film, Cinema I: The Movement-Image and Cinema II: The Time-Image, which she reads in the context of her central theme- a philosophical project to overcome the dualisms of thought and extension, reality and signs. Essential here, to Olkowski as to Deleuze, is Bergson’s idiosyncratic use of the term “image” as a means of effecting a rapprochement between realist and idealist accounts of reality. Prior to adopting either one of these positions, Bergson writes, “I am in the presence of images, in the vaguest sense of the word, images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed” (2005: 17). And this first principle, far from strictly phenomenological, becomes the staging ground for an immanent metaphysics of “images,” given that, he continues, “to make of the brain the condition on which the whole image depends is, in truth, a contradiction in terms, since the brain is by hypothesis a part of this image” (2005: 19). In this way, the brain becomes one image among many, perceiving or receiving movements from the images which surround it. Its apparent singularity stems not from any unique metaphysical status, but from a capacity to create a “gap” or “interval” (écart) between these received movements and reaction. As Olkowski explains, according to this model, “the brain is neither the origin nor the centre of the universe of images; it is the centre of indetermination in the interval between reception and reaction” (87), a centre of non-action which enables the organism to draw on virtual forces and escape the determinism of pure motricity.

This approach, which serves to render thought immanent to the interacting planes of “movement-images” which compose it, is then linked to another Deleuzian adaptation of Peirce, and his claim that the cinema volumes constitute a “taxonomy” of signs in the Peircean sense. Importantly, and against a then-dominant model in continental film theory, the “signs” of cinema do not resemble a language. Rather, and in keeping with the ontology Deleuze inherits from Bergson, signs are also “images”- catalytic reflective centres, situated on the same luminous register as their affects. This section of the book, it should be said, comprises a clear and insightful explication of the key ideas animating Deleuze’s work on cinema, albeit one which doesn’t offer a great deal which can’t be found in other works.

From here Olkowski shifts into a discussion of what Deleuze will call the cinematic time-image– the source of “pure” sonic and visual signs which confound action, and as such our habitual, action-oriented modes of thought. Paradigmatic are the signs/images of Italian neorealism, which confront both character and spectator with situations which are “unthinkable” in their magnitude, horror or banality. These images see the subject stripped of its capacities for action, and as such confronted with “the pure power of time that overflows all possibility of reaction and defeats, immobilizes and petrifies figures […] condemning them to a horrendous fate…” (93). For Deleuze, in keeping with a generalised hostility to the subject conceived as an autonomous and self-identical interiority, these images are thus immensely valuable to philosophy, enacting a temporal-semiotic deterritorialization of the cogito as the source and site of agency.

Against this fundamentally inhuman temporality -a time which fractures and problematises the subject- Olkowski will then contrast the approach of Merleau-Ponty, for whom “time and the subject communicate […] in virtue of an inner, interior necessity” (97). For Merleau-Ponty, Olkowski explains, both subjectivity and perception are fundamentally temporal, the persistence of bodies in space is “an expression of the network of temporal relations of a subject…” (97), and the subject is itself a “temporal wave that moves, particle to particle, through the matter of the world” (96). This approach, in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist leanings, establishes the centrality of choice and engaged action as constitutive of a subject’s world- a vocabulary which is thoughtfully juxtaposed against Deleuze’s fundamentally “inhuman” time-image.

The book’s two final chapters continue in this comparative mode, embarking on a protracted discussion of the concept of the “Event,” as it appears in both phenomenology and Deleuze and Guattari, and as it pertains to the notion of freedom. For Merleau-Ponty, as we’ve seen, subjectivity is fundamentally temporal, simultaneously linked to a subject’s capacity to perceive spatial relations through time and to the way in which it is able to “inhabit” these relations. In this context, freedom is also temporal, given that “the stimulations an organism receives are possible only because its preceding movements have culminated in exposing the organism to these external influences,” such that, “the organism chooses the stimuli in the physical world to which it will be sensitive” (114). And while this suggests a rather limited remit of free action in the case of non-human organisms, integral is Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that “we are not simply a material plenum” (115)- that subjectivity exists across the fields of physical, physiological and mental “forms,” and as such is irreducible to simple “causal events” on any particular register.

Olkowski then returns to Deleuze, and to his critique of phenomenology in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Here, Deleuze will suggest that while phenomenology remains wedded to the forms of a particular “lived body,” his own (or rather Artaud’s) concept of the “body without organs,” “arises at the very limit of the lived body” (118), as a process which renders life unliveable– impelling it towards traumatic processes of (re)formation. For Deleuze, as we have seen, phenomenology thus embraces the affective and perceptual clichés of a particular lived experience, reifying them as philosophy. The task of philosophy, however, is that of breaking with these clichés (doxa)- a task the “anexact” concept of the BwO is designed to help us realise.

This vocabulary of perceptual and affective clichés also implicates art, and the aleatory methods Deleuze’s Bacon deploys in his diagrammatic “battle” against painterly cliché. Indeed, in the context of their cleft approach to “natural perception,” both Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty turn to painting, in particular to Cézanne, such that Olkowski rightly notes that “it is secretly Cézanne’s paintings that are the battlefield upon which the contest between the philosophy of the Event and phenomenology takes place” (121). For Deleuze, Cézanne “renders visible” the vital power of the body without organs -the pure, formless chaos which arrives as the Event- that which overturns all previous organisation. For Merleau-Ponty meanwhile, Cézanne’s canvasses capture organisation itself, the hesitant process of “matter taking on form and manifesting the birth of order…” (121), in a model Olkowski thoughtfully contrasts with Deleuze’s.

After appearing to hesitate for a moment between these two alternatives, or perhaps to think their compossibility, Olkowski’s final chapter renders her Deleuzo-Guattarian allegiances clear- particularly in its final pages, which see her embrace their ambiguous injunction that we need to open thought onto the deterritiorializing forces of the “Cosmos” (148). Whereas Merleau-Ponty, indeed, remains dedicated to a familiar concept of “freedom” as the remit of human subjectivity, Olkowski will follow Deleuze and Guattari in locating this problem in the “Cosmic” sphere, asking, and then answering: “Can the Earth become cosmic, and can the people of the Earth also become cosmic people? To the extent that this is possible, it is what takes the place of the old concept of freedom” (148).

Deleuze and Guattari take the concept of the Cosmos from Paul Klee, from whom they likewise borrow a model of art as that which does not “render the visible,” but rather “render[s] visible” (2003: 56). What it renders visible, Deleuze, Guattari and Olkowski claim, are the invisible forces of the Cosmos, the formless, imageless and non-thinkable “open” which is the condition likewise for science and philosophy. But how, exactly, does it do this? Here, Olkowski evokes the semiotic processes Deleuze and Guattari call “refrains” (ritournelles) -rhythmic, expressive repetitions which work to organise chaos as habitat. A little child sings in the dark to reassure herself; the colours of a bird’s plumage vibrate to communicate its territory:

In each case, milieus, blocks of space-time, are created by the rhythm, the vibration, the periodic repetition that holds back the intrusion of chaos, the milieu of all milieus. This means that the milieus are coded, and each serve as the basis for another coding and transcoding as one milieu passes continuously into another through the chaosmos, the rhythm-chaos (145).

Importantly, Olkowski draws out the fact that this process of rhythmic territorialization establishes not just a sheltering “inside,” but a simultaneous “outside” we might now venture out and begin to explore. This amounts to a semiotic transformation of the chaotic into the Cosmic, the “plane” upon which philosophy, art and science conduct their experiments. In this context, Olkowski explains, in a model of thought as free conceptual creation, “the philosopher […] makes thought into pragmatics, asking what a concept can do, enabling a force of the Cosmos that travels” (147).

The refrain, indeed, brings us back to the problem(s) with which the book began, that of the individuation of signs, ideas, or forms and of the ontogenetic conditions which enable it. Across the many models Olkowski treats, and of which I have selected only a handful, she creates a philosophical assemblage dedicated to logics of perception, affection and creativity which allow us to think across the apparently irrevocable empiricist/formalist division. This approach problematises traditional dualisms of observer and observed, signifier and signified, in an immanent pragmatics which reinstates the necessity of both semiotics and metaphysics.

In keeping with this approach, Olkowski is not content to lapse into an apparently “neutral” exposition, as though the reconstruction of these three projects might somehow avoid a similarly interested perception. Indeed, perhaps the richest aspect of the book is her attention to this often repressed “stylistic” dimension of exegesis, and the way in which explication is itself creation. Her numerous additions and digressions -through contemporary literature, science, and cinema- accentuate this fact, and renew her subjects’ thought as living bodies. At the same time, the author is herself implicated by this process -an “authority” which cannot but be problematic, as Olkowski herself acknowledges:

I have examined the relationship between the creation of ideas and their actualization in relation to semiology, logic, and the cosmos in the philosophies of Deleuze, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty. It is not a linear path. It is more a question of periodic orbits following strange and unrepeated trajectories that have been generally unpredictable. In other words, in spite of what I think I know or understand, I have, at every instance, sought to remain attentive to alternatives to my former views in order to consider ideas, concepts, orientations, problems, and solutions that could unexpectedly erupt and so alter the orientation of my own thinking within the context of the problem I have set out (2).

And this brief precis proves instructive, given that the book is ultimately comprised less of clearly demarcated, linear arguments than a series of interwoven and recurrent conceptual refrains which, while generally compelling, can also feel occasionally disorienting.

Indeed readers looking for close, methodical explication and clearly identified lines of scholarly argumentation may want to look elsewhere, as Olkowski’s book constitutes more an image of thought-in-motion, which is occasionally unwieldy and often unpredictable. There are points at which her readings of each thinker are heterodox, and there is a tendency to overlook periodisation of their oeuvres in favour of a more thematic, and as such perhaps selective exegesis, which runs very different works together. I do not intend these remarks as “critical” in the non-philosophical sense. Olkowski herself gestures towards the ethic which I take to animate this approach in her final chapter, when she asks: “Can philosophers envisage a diagram for philosophy such that it is no longer philosophy as we now conceptualize or imagine it?” (149). Olkowski rightly notes that this is the challenge Deleuze and Guattari lay down with their own work. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty is a book which is both difficult and worthy because it takes this challenge seriously.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. 2005. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel Smith. London: Continuum.

Reynolds, Jack & Roffe, Jon. 2006. “Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: Immanence, Univocity and Phenomenology.” In Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology. Vol. 37, No.3. 229-225.

Wambacq, Judith. 2018. Thinking Between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953

The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953 Couverture du livre The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated from the French with an introduction and notes by Bryan Smyth
Northwestern University Press
2020
Paperback $34.95
320

Reviewed by: Antonia Schirgi (University of Graz)

Background

Merleau-Ponty suddenly died in 1961, at the young age of 53, at a time when he was still in the process of developing his thoughts and was working on a major book in which he wanted to further his thoughts and present a new ontology beyond a strict distinction of subject and object. For many years thereafter, notes that Merleau-Ponty drew up in preparation of this book that were posthumously published under the title The Visible and the Invisible and his  second thesis (habilitation), the Phenomenology of Perception, were considered to be his most important works. Apart from some published articles and books, Merleau-Ponty left a number of unpublished manuscripts and working notes (more than 4000 pages). Some of these unfinished works and notes were published in the years after Merleau-Ponty’s death. In 1992 the majority of Merleau-Ponty’s notes were donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by his family and, since then, some previously unpublished materials have been published. These notes allow their readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts from his early works to the later ones, to see continuities, moments of self-criticism as well as to understand his engagement with certain philosophical and other literature (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 7).

After the completion of his second thesis, Merleau-Ponty was affiliated to the University of Lyon (1945-1949), later he held a professorship for child psychology at the Sorbonne (1949-1952). In 1952 he was elected to the Collège de France, he assumed his position there the same year, held his inaugural lecture on the 15th of January 1953 and began his regular teaching activities the following week (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). The Sensible World and the World of Expression (Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression) was the title of one of the two courses that Merleau-Ponty gave that year. The Collège de France is a unique institution; even if it is a public university, it does not offer regular introductory courses. The courses taught at the Collège are lectures and colloquia that permit the professors to present their ongoing thoughts and recent research to advanced students and/or the general interested public. Holding a chair in philosophy at this institution permitted Merleau-Ponty to further his philosophical thoughts, to return to some the phenomena that he treated in his first and second thesis as well as to some issues of his approach that he became aware of during the years after the completion of these books, and to present these thoughts to his audience. This return does, however, not present a break with his work and thoughts from the years at Sorbonne; rather, the insights that he gained during these years enriched his perspective on the phenomena (perception, the union of body and soul etc.) that he re-started to deal with.

In this review, I will discuss the translation of the posthumous edition of Merleau-Ponty’s notes on The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Furthermore, I want to give a brief overview of the course and of some of the key innovations that can be found in these notes. However, I will not discuss the content of the book in detail here.

The Manuscript

Detailed preparatory notes for the course on the sensible world as well as some further workings notes were part of the materials donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF “don 92-21 de Suzanne Merleau-Ponty”, NAF 26993 X). Merleau-Ponty himself published a brief summary of this course (cf. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968, 11-21), as he did of every course that he held at the Collège de France, but he did not publish any further materials. The preparatory and working notes were transcribed and published by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen in 2011 (MetisPresses).

Merleau-Ponty wrote up these notes in order to present the thoughts they contain to his audience; however, they are not immediately written for a public (like it would be the case with an article or a book). The manuscript contains some paragraphs that are written in full sentences. Nevertheless, large parts of the manuscript consist of incomplete sentences, bullet points, or listings of keywords. The editors of the French edition “strove to present Merleau-Ponty’s notes in a virtually verbatim form, and meticulous effort was made to keep the page layout as close as possible to that found in the actual notes themselves” (xliii). This effort of the editors is of high value for those working with Merleau-Ponty’s notes, as it permits readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in the way he developed them and not to be simply guided, and potentially misguided, by the interpretation of the editors. However, interpretations of a text like the present one, are challenging. As Merleau-Ponty’s notes are, to my knowledge, the only materials available (no student notes or similar document have been published or included in the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), it remains unknown how Merleau-Ponty elaborated and discussed his thoughts during his lectures. Smyth argues for a limited interpretation of this manuscript. Even if these notes were of importance as they date back to a crucial moment in the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts, the thoughts they contain were thoughts and work in progress. According to Smyth one should not over-hasty draw conclusions from these notes, from the perspective of a present-day reader who knows the further development of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Furthermore, the course notes should not be interpreted “in isolation from his other courses at the College de France” (xxxvi). Merleau-Ponty himself stated in his official course summary that it would still be necessary to further explore linguistic expression in order to define the philosophical meaning of the analyses perused during this course (cf. xxxvi; Merleau-Ponty 1968, 21). Therefore, Smyth argues that “we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from them [these notes, A.S.] at all” (xxxvi). His call for a cautious interpretation of a manuscript like the present one seems adequate and valuable, but it might be a bit too far reaching. In this manuscript Merleau-Ponty discusses issues from a different angle than he did in other texts, and he elaborates thoughts more in details than he did in his published writings. Even if these notes were still work in progress, they can help readers to understand where Merleau-Ponty was coming from – which sources he considered important, in which direction his thoughts developed etc. To name an example, the importance of the writings of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder for Merleau-Ponty’s development of the concept of the body schema can only be understood from the present manuscript, not from Merleau-Ponty’s earlier writings (in the Phenomenology of Perception Schilder is only mentioned once). His discussion of the body schema in the present preparatory notes does not only deepen the thoughts Merleau-Ponty already developed in the Phenomenology of Perception, but it also shows new directions that he has been about to take with regards to this concept. Smyth is right that these preparatory notes should not be interpreted in isolation from Merleau-Ponty’s notes for his other courses and other materials, but does this not hold true for all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings? Even if certain writings, like the Phenomenology of Perception, were published by Merleau-Ponty himself, now that we know from courses like the present one as well as from articles and manuscripts that Merleau-Ponty himself was critical of some of his early positions and descriptions, it seems wrong to interpret the position he presented there as the position of Merleau-Ponty. Besides that, the problematic status is not unique to the manuscript of the course on the sensible world. None of the posthumously published manuscripts was intended to be immediately published. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s most renowned mature work – The Visible and the Invisible – is the publication of a manuscript that Merleau-Ponty prepared for publication, the manuscript that Merleau-Ponty left when he died in 1961 seems to have been far from a final version. We can only speculate how he would have further developed this manuscript would he had been given the time to do so.

The Translation

Editing notes, like Merleau-Ponty’s notes on the sensible world, is not an easy task; the same holds true for their translation. The present edition is a translation of the French edition (not of the original notes) (cf. xliii). The peculiar style of the manuscript that is, as I already mentioned, excellently reflected in the French transcript, has largely been preserved in the English translation. This means, for example, that words that Merleau-Ponty underlined, are underlined in the book, words that he crossed out, are included in the text, but crossed out as they were in the manuscript and so on (cf. xliv). Nevertheless, a translation is not simply a reproduction of a text in a different language, but it is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Smyth makes very clear that he is aware of his own interference in the text, when he states: “It is not possible […] to translate the notes as they stand without engaging in some disabbreviation, for there are simply too many uncertainties and ambiguities at the level of the words themselves.” (xlv) Hence, while the French edition in general does not add any terms to the text itself, but sticks to the original manuscript and its abbreviated style, the English translations “adds a very large number of terms within the text itself” (xiv). Thereby Smyth wants to enhance the readability of the text, “to facilitate as clear and unambiguous a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notes as possible” (xiv), and to outline the “intended meaning of the transcribed words” (xiv), or rather the transcribed words as they were read and interpreted by the translator. Further to the additions that Smyth made to the text itself, his translations “includes a new and expanded set of annotive notes” (xliii), that go beyond the notes included in the French edition. In addition, Smyth outlines his choices concerning the translation of some crucial terms that are not easily to translate – the “hard cases” as he would say (cf. xlvi-li).

The Structure of the Course and of the Book

In general, Merleau-Ponty held two courses per year, each one comprised fourteen to fifteen lectures (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). Often the topics of the two courses corresponded – this was also the case in 1953, when Merleau-Ponty dealt with issues of language in his second course – and on two occasions the two weekly courses were merged in order to develop one single issue more in depth (1956-1957 and 1957-1958, when Merleau-Ponty gave two intense courses on nature).

The Sensible World and the World of Expression comprises fourteen lectures. The course can be divided into four parts: (1) the first three lectures serve as a general introduction and overview of the course, (2) in lessons four to ten Merleau-Ponty discusses space and movement from a phenomenological point of view (including depth perception, a phenomenon that has become highly important for Merleau-Ponty), (3) the lessens ten to thirteen are dedicated to the body schema and (4) the last lesson dealt with expression (primarily with non-linguistic expression, but Merleau-Ponty gave some indications concerning linguistic expression too). As Smyth points out, Merleau-Ponty did not intend to discuss linguistic expression in detail in this course; however, he did intend to discuss “the passage from expression at the level of the sensible to cultural expression that is not yet language” (xvii), as it is the case in visual art. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty took more time than planned to elaborate the basis of his thoughts and therefore he could only discuss this move in his last lesson. Hence, the four parts were not given equal attention in the course (cf. xvii).

The book (the French and the English edition) contains the notes preparing the course, as well as working notes that Merleau-Ponty developed while preparing the course. These notes were not dated or classified by Merleau-Ponty. The editors of the French book categorized them thematically for their edition (cf. 129; Saint Aubert 2011, 171).

Merleau-Ponty’s Thoughts on the Sensible World

In The Sensible World and the World of Expression Merleau-Ponty primarily deals with the relation between the bodily human being and the sensible world. As I already mentioned, the relation between the world of expression is briefly touched in this course, but dealt with more in detail in his courses and writings on language. So, how does Merleau-Ponty understand this sensible world and what did his course aim at?

Sensible world = things

World of expression = cultural things, ‘use objects,’ symbols. (I didn’t say: universe of language)

Double goal:      — deepen the analysis of the perceived world by showing that it already presupposes the expressive function.

                             — prepare the analysis of this [expressive] function through which the perceived world is sublimated, produce a concrete theory of mind. (9)

This brief definition and equally brief statement concerning the double goal of the course present the first lines of the preparatory course manuscript of Merleau-Ponty. Even if these first words seem to indicate a strong division of the sensible world and the world of expression, in what follows Merleau-Ponty makes clear that they are not separated, but “enveloped” (27) in each other. He is less interested in their analytic distinction, than in the dynamic passage from the one to the other in and through movement. As explained above, Merleau-Ponty did not follow his original plan for the course, in particular did he not manage to extensively discuss expression. Therefore, the course dealt more with the first part of his twofold goal than with the second part; indeed, after spending more time than expected on topics related to the first part of his general aim, only the last lesson remained for the second part (cf. xvii).

The main concepts that Merleau-Ponty deals with in this course are perception and expression (in its relation to the sensible world). Already on the first page of his manuscript Merleau-Ponty criticises his own approach towards perception, as he presented it in the Phenomenology of Perception and in a lecture that he gave at a meeting of the Société française de philosophie in late 1946 on the issue of the Primacy of Perception (lecture and discussion published with Northwestern University Press, 1964). He argues that his earlier works did not present strong and clear enough a break with classical positions, concepts and terms. With reference to the critique by Jean Hyppolite and Jean Beaufret, following his lecture in 1946, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that readers and listeners could have gotten his thoughts wrong, as (1) one could have thought that the “primacy of perception” as he presented it was primacy in the classical sense, a “primacy of the sensory, of the natural given”, even if for him “perception was essentially a mode of access to being” (10); (2) one might have missed Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thoughts and taken his work as “only a phenomenology” (10); (3) therefore readers might have thought “that being was reduced to the ‘positivism’ of perception”, even if the perceived is “not possessed” by the philosopher, but “unquestionably before us” (10; underlining in the original). With reference to this discussion, Smyth argues that the main innovative aspect of this course “is that Merleau-Ponty is also revisiting the phenomenological analysis of the perceived world itself.” (xvi, emphasis in the original) However, Smyth presents an even stronger claim concerning the shift in Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts as he outlined them in the present course. According to him, Merleau-Ponty realized that his manner of presenting the problem of “how the sensible is taken up expressively […] made it unsolvable” (xvi). Perception was an “encounter with the sensible” and as such it was “already expressive” (xvi). Hence, Merleau-Ponty “came to realize […] that he didn’t get the phenomenology of phenomenology right, because he didn’t get the phenomenology itself right in the first place. So, he was still building his phenomenological method, not building on it” (xvi-xvii; emphasis in the original). Even if this reading indicates a strong shift in and important innovations of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology and the phenomenological method, it does not negate the continuity of this development.

Besides perception, the other central concept that is discussed in this manuscript, is expression. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression is broad: Expression is “the property that a phenomenon has through its internal arrangement [son agencement interne] to disclose another [phenomenon] that is not or even never was given” (11; annotations and emphasis in the original). This definition already highlights the relational aspect of expression. Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of perception and expression presuppose and involve a certain conception of the human being. As he already did in his early works, also in this course Merleau-Ponty opposes dualist conceptions. It is the body (in its entirety) that perceives and expresses. A body that is able to perceive and to express, is a body “as [a] given organization, [as] ‘sensory’ activity” and a “body that moves itself”, it is a body “[as a] response to ‘natural’ aspects of the world” and a body “[that] returns to the world in order to signify it [or] to designate it” (28; annotations in the original).

Particularly during the first two introductory lectures Merleau-Ponty discusses consciousness. In the second part of his course, he deals with space and movement, especially with depth perception and the perception of movement. The following lectures are dedicated to the body schema (a part that Merleau-Ponty seems to have added in the course of the semester) (xxii). The notes to this course are the first writings in which Merleau-Ponty aligned depth perception and (the perception of) movement with the body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 10-11).

Thereby Merleau-Ponty further elaborates concepts and thoughts that he already discussed in his earlier works and at the same time he introduces new concepts and thoughts and present some major shifts with regards to some concepts. Some of the core innovations that he outlines in these preparatory notes are:

  • Merleau-Ponty rejects classical conceptions of consciousness (particularly in the first and second lecture). In his course on the sensible world, Merleau-Ponty introduces for the first time the concept of “écart” (generally translated as “divergence”) (xix). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this, not only but particularly well, by referring to the example of the perception of a circle. When a circle is perceived it offers its sense as a tacit sense (as opposed to the classical position, according to which sense is essence and given). The sense of a circle is a “certain mode of curvature” (13), namely the “change of direction at each instant always with the same divergence” [même écart] (20) and therefor the circle itself is a “mode of divergence” [mode d’écart] (20; underlining in the original). Merleau-Ponty develops this notion further in his preparatory and working notes for this course (e.g. working note on the Diacritical Conception of the Perceptual Sign or working note on Diacritical Perception, included in the present edition on the pages 158 and 159).
  • When Merleau-Ponty discussed the concept of the body schema in the Phenomenology of Perception he presented it mainly as a sensory-motor unity. The Sensible World and the World of Expression is the first document in which the body schema is “understood in a much more active (or enactive) – because expressive – way” (xxii). At the same time, this is the first document in which Merleau-Ponty elaborates its relational dimension – the relation of the body schema and the (sensible) world (cf. 123) as well as the relation between different body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 13). The extension of the concept of the body schema has important implications for Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of movement and expression as well as their perception (movement is perceived by the entire body schema) and the relation to the world and others.
  • In the context of his discussion of the body schema, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of praxis, a notion that he prefers to the notion of action (cf. 100). “The unity of the body schema is that of a praxis so construed, and the body schema is the background implied in [this praxis].” (100; annotation in the original) The praxis builds on the body schema (that is formed by the praxis, but that is more than a memory of previous praxis and/or experience) and continuously forms and transforms the schema. The praxis is a form of interaction with the world – it is not an “adaptation” to the world, at the same time it is not a world-less action performed by an isolated individual, it is “not only functional, but projection of the whole man” (100).
  • Merleau-Ponty intensively discusses movement – what movement is, how movement can be perceived and how movement can be expressed in visual art (How can something that is stationary express movement? (cf. xxxv)). For Merleau-Ponty movement is not displacement, a variation of relations, and a place is not a “relation to other places” (33; underlining in the original), rather it is “first of all situation” (35; underlining in the original). Movement requires that the moving is in movement, that movement is something different to a series of different spatial positions, but rather something “absolute”, something that is “in the thing in motion and not elsewhere” (52). Movement entails an encroachment of here and there, before and after; something that is only possible if movement is neither only in the moving thing nor only in the perceiving or observing subject, but if it occurs “through a sort of mixing of me and the ‘things’” (52). The perception of movement is not simply an intellectual undertaking, rather it is the body schema in its entirety that perceives movement (cf. 64-65).

Consequently, in visual art movement is not something that is depicted by signs that indicate a change of place, but by the “envelopment of a becoming in a stance [attitude]” (124, annotation in the original). It is, for example, the body of a horse that is painted in a manner that shows its intentionality of movement. Movement is indirectly presented or a reference of something oblique. The language of “écart” plays into Merleau-Ponty’s description of the problem of movement in visual art. Movement is “[reference] of signifying to signified that is elsewhere and only appears through [the signifying], presentation through divergences with respect to a norm that is itself never given. Presentation of the world through variations in modulations of our being toward the world.” (125-126; annotation in the original)

Because of these and some further innovations the book is a valuable source for researchers working on and with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Together with his published writings from the early 1950s and the manuscripts of his other courses it can help to better comprehend the development of his thoughts and to enrich one’s interpretations of his concepts.

Bibliography

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard.

Saint Aubert, Emmanuel de. 2011. “Avant-propos.” In: Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, edited by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen, 7-38. Geneva: MetisPresses.

Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, Ohio University Press, 2021

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception Couverture du livre Motivation and the Primacy of Perception
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
2021
Hardback $95.00
6 illus. · 264 pages

Hermann Schmitz: Sich selbst verstehen. Ein Lesebuch, Verlag Karl Alber, 2021

Sich selbst verstehen. Ein Lesebuch Couverture du livre Sich selbst verstehen. Ein Lesebuch
Hermann Schmitz. Edited by Michael Großheim, Steffen Kluck
Verlag Karl Alber
2021
Hardback 29,00 €
312

Dominique Pradelle: Intuition et idéalités: Phénoménologie des objets mathématiques, Puf, 2020

Intuition et idéalités: Phénoménologie des objets mathématiques Couverture du livre Intuition et idéalités: Phénoménologie des objets mathématiques
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2020
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Corijn van Mazijk: Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell

Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell Couverture du livre Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Corijn van Mazijk
Routledge
2020
Hardcover £120.00
192

Reviewed by: Tony Cheng 鄭會穎 (National Chengchi University, Taiwan)

In Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell, Corijn van Mazijk takes up an ambitious project of dealing with a group of central issues in western philosophy, namely: the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between perception and reality. He does this via explicating some aspects of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and John McDowell. It is no news that McDowell’s thinking has a robust Kantian root, but McDowell’s relation to Husserl is less clear. McDowell himself never engages with Husserl’s thinking, and his engagements with the phenomenological tradition – with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty via Dreyfus – have been reactive and minimal (2007a/2008a, 2007b/2008a). That being said, I believe van Mazijk is right in seeing the hidden connections between McDowell and Husserl. Generally speaking, both painstakingly explicate the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between these two poles. More specifically, both see close connections between intentionality and phenomenality. It is a basic dictum in Husserl’s thinking that consciousness is inherently intentional (Ideas I, 1911/1983), and though McDowell seldom remarks on the phenomenal or conscious aspect of our mental lives, he does think the intentional and the phenomenal are closely connected: “Not, of course, that we cannot distinguish sapience from sentience. But they are not two simply different problem areas: we get into trouble over sentience because we misconceive the role of sapience in constituting our sentient life” (1989/1998, 296). This sketchy remark seems to suggest certain version of representationalism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but even if not, it certain echoes Husserl’s idea that consciousness is inherently intentional.

The main text has only 172 pages, which means van Mazijk needs to be selective for both the topics – perception and reality – and the figures – Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. The book has six chapters, with two chapters for each figure. For Kant, ch.1 covers sensibility, perception, and reality; ch.2 covers concepts, deduction, and contemporary debates. For Husserl, ch.3 covers intentionality, consciousness, and nature; ch.4 covers perception, judgement, and habit. For McDowell, ch.5 covers concepts, perceptions, and connections to Kant and Husserl; ch.6 covers reasons, nature, and reality. Given the breadth of the grounds it covers and the space limit, the contents are necessarily compressed, but van Mazijk does an excellent job in explaining things clearly, and making sure the discussions of the three philosophers cohesive. Moreover, he does not aim for a historical study; “Instead, I develop my interpretations of both Kant and Husserl in part to show that history provides us with viable alternatives to McDowell’s theory of our perceptual access to reality” (7), van Mazijk writes. Given this, in what follows I will devote this brief discussion primarily on van Mazijk’s McDowell, as that reflects better his overall aim in the book. This should not be taken to imply, to be sure, that there is nothing more to be discussed concerning Kant and Husserl in the book.

In the two chapters on Kant, there are discussions of traditional Kantian themes such as sensibility and understanding, idealism, noumenon, ideality of space and time, intuition and concepts, synthesis, transcendental deduction, and incongruent counterpart. There are also discussions of contemporary issues such as the Myth of the Given, disjunctivism, and non-conceptual content. A substantive move van Mazijk makes in his interpretation of Kant is the attribution of “weak conceptualism,” “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (4). More specifically, “the central thesis Kant sets out to defend here is that intuitions are always already at least in accordance with pure concepts, which commits Kant to weak conceptualism” (8). In these two chapters van Mazijk touches on convoluted relations between (sheer) intuition, categories, synthesis, and apperception. For example, he writes that “sheer intuitions have the appropriate unity to be conceptualized in the first place is said to rest on synthesis of the imagination, which brings intuitions in accordance with pure concepts” (46). This implies that sheer intuitions are themselves non-conceptual, though they have the potential to become conceptual. A stronger reading of Kant, though, is that the exercise of apperception already implicates categories, so sheer intuitions themselves have to be already conceptualised in a certain sense. I do not take side concerning this interpretative question on this occasion, but it is worth noting that what van Mazijk defends here is close to “sensibilism” in today’s terminology: “at least some intuitions are generated independently of the intellect itself,” and the stronger reading is called “intellectualism,” which holds that “the generation of intuition is at least partly dependent on the intellect” (McLear, 2020). It would be helpful for the readers if this context were explicitly flagged.

In the two chapters on Husserl, the distinction between traditional themes and contemporary issues seems less clear, but this is by no means a criticism: topics such as fulfillment, simple apprehension and perceptual explication, horizons, kinaesthetic habit, and constitution do have distinctive Husserlian flavours, but other topics such as the intentional approach to consciousness, sensation contents, the space of consciousness, fields of sensations, types of conceptuality, objects of thoughts, and pre-conceptual norms are both Husserlian and contemporary themes. This should not be surprising, as Husserl is closer to our time, and his influences on contemporary philosophy have been enormous and visible. There are two elements of Husserl’s thinking that van Mazijk highlights but has not noted their potential connections with McDowell’s thinking. The first is “cultural-linguistic upbringing” and “habit” (96, 111, 117) and their connections to McDowell’s Bildung; the second is “passive synthesis” (99, 103, 107) and its connection to McDowell’s conceptualism, especially the idea that “conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity” (McDowell, 1996, 9), and similarly, “conceptual capacities… are passively drawn into play in experience belong to a network of capacities for active thought” (ibid., p.12). Perhaps van Mazijk does not think the connections here are clear enough, but in any case I suggest these are further directions for connecting Husserl to McDowell. There are other highlights and potential points of contact with the analytic tradition as well, for example the “space of consciousness” (74 onwards) can be compared with the hard problem of consciousness (e.g., Chalmers, 1996), the “field of sensations” (98 onwards) can be compared with the tactile field debate (e.g., Martin, 1992, O’Shaughnessy, 1989, Cheng, 2019), and “lived body” (10, 96, 109) can be compared with Kantian spatial self-awareness (e.g., Cassam, 1997; Cheng, forthcoming b). And there are more. This shows that Husserl’s thinking has much to offer for contemporary philosophy, as van Mazijk rightly points out.

The two chapters on McDowell cover canonical McDowellian themes such as conceptualism, the space of reasons and the realm of law, and Bildung, and also broader issues connecting to Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Dreyfus, including skillful coping, animal consciousness, and transcendental reasons. In what follows I discuss some highlights and points of potential disagreements. First of all, although van Mazijk mentions the “realm of law” in several places (21, 148, 149, 161), he uses the label the “space of nature” much more (passim), and this can generate the harmful implication that the “space of reasons” is unnatural; for example, he writes that for McDowell some contents are “in some sense not natural, insofar as they stand in a sui generis space of reasons” (124). Charitably, we can say that van Mazijk specifies “in some sense,” and that leaves room for another sense in which the space of reason is natural, i.e., Aristotelian second nature. However, other remarks show that van Mazijk’s understanding of this crucial McDowellian divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law cannot be entirely correct. For example, in introducing this divide, van Mazijk mentions “causal order” to characterise the realm of law, or with his label, the space of nature. But this is problematic on two fronts: first, that might imply that the space of reasons has no causation, which is not true of McDowell’s characterisation: McDowell certainly follows Davidson (1963) here in that they both think, correctly I believe, that reasons can be causes. Second, McDowell also discusses Russell’s view that causation might not be a suitable notion for the realm of law (McDowell, 1996, 71; Russell, 1912-3). Now, such view has become quite unpopular nowadays, but even if Russell and McDowell are wrong in avoiding causation in the realm of law, McDowell would certainly insists on causation in the space of reasons (see also Gaskin, 2006, 28 onwards). Therefore, when we read van Mazijk’s discussions and criticisms of this McDowellian distinction, we need to bear in mind that the characterisation in the book might not be entirely accurate.

There are other oddities concerning van Mazijk’s understanding of the divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law, and relatedly, second nature. For example, consider this passage:

These refer to two ways of speaking about things, of finding things intelligible. However, as it turns out, both spaces ultimately consist simply of natural phenomena. The space of reasons thus fits entirely within that of nature. (van Mazijk, 2020, 150)

Taken literally, this passage might be a fine characterisation of McDowell’s framework. However, since for unclear reasons van Mazijk insists on using the “space of nature” to refer to the “realm of law,” the passage thus implies that the space of reasons is simply “one way of speaking about things.” That is, there is only one kind of things, but there are two ways of speaking about them or finding them intelligible. Now this looks like a description of Davidson’s anomalous monism (1970), which McDowell has emphatically rejects (1985). Whether McDowell’s criticism here is plausible is irrelevant; what is crucial in this context is that he does not hold anomalous monism, but van Mazijk’s characterisation of McDowell’s position makes it indistinguishable from anomalous monism. On another occasion I have argued that McDowell’s view should be interpreted as a kind of emergent dualism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but that requires much more elaborations, and arguably McDowell himself would refuse to acknowledge this classification. Concerning the space of reasons, van Mazijk says that “McDowell’s own definition of the space of reasons is what makes conceptualism attractive” (van Mazijk, 2020, 151). This is meant to be a criticism, but to this McDowell would reply that his invocation of the notion of “concept” is a matter of “stipulation: conceptual capacities in the relevant sense belong essentially to their possessor’s rationality in the sense I am working with, responsiveness to reasons as such” (2005/2008b, 129). His point is that given this stipulation or definition, let’s see what significant would follow. To simply point out that there is a definition involved here can hardly be an objection by itself.

Also relatedly, McDowell’s appropriation of Gadamer’s distinction between environment and world (1960/2004) is not acknowledged in the book, and that affects van Mazijk’s verdict of McDowell’s view on animal minds. Gadamer writes,

Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. The world as world exists for man as for on other creature that is in the world. But this world is verbal in nature… that language is originarily human means at the same time that man’s being in the world is primordially linguistic. (ibid., 440)

[Although] the concept of environment was first used for the purely human world… this concept can be used to comprehend all the conditions on which a living creature depends. But it is thus clear that man, unlike all other living creatures, has a “world,” for other creatures do not in the same sense have a relationship to the world, but are, as it were, embedded in their environment. (ibid.,  441)

Simply put, “environment” here refers to what philosophers normally call “world,” and corresponds to McDowell’s realm of law and first nature. By contrast, “world” here corresponds to the space of reasons and second nature. In Mind and World, Lecture VI, McDowell has explained how human animals like us can possess the world and inhabit an environment, while other animals can only do the latter. This also corresponds to McDowell’s later distinction between “being responsive to reasons” and “being responsive to reasons as such”:

The notion of rationality I mean to invoke here is the notion exploited in a traditional line of thought to make a special place in the animal kingdom for rational animals. It is a notion of responsiveness to reasons as such. (2005/2008b, 128)

And this “wording leaves room for responsiveness to reasons… on the other side of the division drawn by this notion of rationality between rational animals and animals that are not rational” (ibid., 128). That is to say, when other animals see predators and run, they are responsive to reasons, but they cannot recognise those reasons as reasons. With these dualistic distinctions in mind, let’s come back to van Mazijk’s texts and see why the interpretation there is not entirely fair.

In chapter 5, van Mazijk notes that McDowell holds “animals see things or items in the outer world ‘no less’ than we do,” and argues that:

But it is difficult to see how this fits into the conceptualist thesis as discussed so far. For wasn’t the whole idea of conceptualism to take the very givenness of things as a result of conceptual functions of an understanding only rational creatures like us enjoy? It seems that… McDowell contradicts his own conceptualism, which rests on the idea that the sensible presentation of things in the outer world relies on functions specific to rational creatures like us, namely on concepts and the capacity to judge. (131)

We can readily give a “No” to the query in this way: for McDowell, other animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian environment, while rational animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian world. This can also be seen that in later writings, McDowell speaks of “world-disclosing experience” (2007a/2008a, 319): rational animals like us enjoy experiences that can disclose aspects of the world, while other animals are also capable of experiencing, but of their environment only, not the world. This view can be found already in Mind and World, and McDowell further develops it in recent decades. It is worth noting that this view has a clear Heideggerian flavour as well (1927/2010). Similar considerations are applicable to van Mazijk’s discussion in 132, and in chapter 6, especially from p. 150 to 153 on animal consciousness. I shall not repeat my response elaborated just now.

Another point is that van Mazijk does not distinguish between “propositional” and “conceptual”; for example he writes that many philosophers “hold that our thoughts have propositional or conceptual content” (2, my emphasis). It is true that in most cases they coincide: the constituents of propositions are concepts, one might say. However, in relatively recent writings McDowell seeks to set them apart:

I used to assume that to conceive experiences as actualizations of conceptual capacities, we would need to credit experiences with propositional content, the sort of content judgments have. And I used to assume that the content of an experience would need to include everything the experience enables its subject to know non-inferentially. But these assumptions now strike me as wrong. (McDowell, 2008c/2008b, 258)

“What we need,” McDowell carries on, “is an idea of content that is not propositional but intuitional, in what I take to be a Kantian sense” (ibid., 260; my italics). Now, whether this position is plausible or coherent is not important for our purposes (van Mazijk argues that it is implausible in p. 129); what is crucial is that McDowell does hold that view since 2007 or so, and that needs to be taken into account for interpreters. In effect, McDowell’s intuitional content seems to fit weak conceptualism as van Mazijk defines it. McDowell writes,

If it is to become the content of a conceptual capacity of hers, she needs to determine it to be the content of a conceptual capacity of hers. That requires her to carve it out from the categorially unified but as yet, in this respect, unarticulated experiential content of which it is an aspect, so that thought can focus on it by itself. (McDowell, 2007a/2008a, 318)

Now, recall that weak conceptualism has it that “all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (van Mazijk, 2020, 4). So van Mazijk is right in noting that McDowell has hold strong conceptualism, but he might have missed, or at least does not believe, that later McDowell has retreated from that to weak conceptualism since 2007 or so. Elsewhere I have argued that McDowell’s new view might disqualify his conceptualist credential, and might cause trouble for his environment/world distinction (Cheng, forthcoming a), but those are quite different matters.

A final point I would like to highlight is van Mazijk’s understanding of the nature of McDowell’s overall project. He writes,

I want to deal with conceptualism as McDowell understands it – not as a theory concerning the psychology, phenomenology, or epistemology of perception, but as one purporting to address a problem regarding our access to reality. (van Mazijk, 2020, 121)

It is understandable to make such a division, but it is unclear how the above domains can be set apart from one another. It is true that McDowell’s primary concern is not psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), but how can “our access to reality” fail to be epistemological? In the next page van Mazijk rightly reminds that McDowell thinks epistemological anxieties do not go to the root; the problem of intentionality itself is the deepest problem. However, in that context by “epistemology” McDowell means questions concerning justification or warrant; he certainly would not deny that “our access to reality” is broadly (and rightfully) an epistemological issue. Moreover, although the problem of intentionality is McDowell’s primary concern, what he says for that purpose imply theses in psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), and it does not help to insist that the project is transcendental and therefore human psychology is irrelevant (van Mazijk, 2020, 147): for example, if the possibility of intentional action presupposes certain kind of body representation (O’Shaughnessy, 1995), this transcendental conditional can be falsified by what we know about human psychology (Bermúdez, 1995). Van Mazijk mentions that “McDowell’s theory [pertains] to ‘rational relations’ rather than, say, sub-personal psychological contents” (van Mazijk, 2020, 122; quoting Bermúdez and Cahen, 2015). However, McDowell’s view can be about personal psychological contents (McDowell, 1994/1998). This shows that at least some “misunderstandings” concerning arguments for non-conceptual contents van Mazijk tries to point out (137 onwards) are actually not misunderstandings, but it will take us too far if we go into those details.

Overall, van Mazijk has offered a substantive and original effort of explicating aspects of Kant’s, Husserl’s, and McDowell’s philosophy, and identifying various strands in their thinking. It would be unfair to demand any such book project to be close to comprehensive. This is not the first contemporary discussion of the relations between these figures (e.g., Christensen, 2008), and will certainly spark many further investigations into these interrelated themes. My critical points above should be taken as my will to carry on the conversations, and I am sure many others will join and make the exchanges even more fruitful.


Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Cheng-Hao Lin and Kuei-Chen Chen for helpful inputs. Daniel Guilhermino also reviews this book for this journal; I have made sure our reviews do not overlap much.


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Shaun Gallagher, Dan Zahavi: The Phenomenological Mind (3rd Edition), Routledge, 2020

The Phenomenological Mind (3rd Edition) Couverture du livre The Phenomenological Mind (3rd Edition)
Shaun Gallagher, Dan Zahavi
Routledge
2020
Paperback £26.39
304