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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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In The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons, Susan Bredlau argues that, beginning in infant-caregiver relations, others are integral to the form of our experience of them, and claims that this gives rise to interpersonal trust as “the condition of healthy perceptual development” (3). The major contribution of her study, Bredlau claims, is the phenomenological analysis, or “the concrete working out” of how, beginning in infancy, our experiences of other people are formative of our existence as subjects and of our experience of dwelling in the world. While this might seem to be a well-discussed point central to phenomenology, Bredlau takes this discussion further. She develops a comparison between the formative experiences of early childhood subject development, where we emerge from what might be considered a complete and unchosen vulnerability to the existence of others, into a world that “demands our adherence to what has already been established” (89), and the voluntary high stakes vulnerability of our subjecthood in adult sexual relationships.
Overall, Bredlau’s book is a philosophically rich text. A range of philosophers, for example, Heidegger, Hegel, Beauvoir, and Gallagher, and child development researchers, including among others, psychologist Daniel Stern, are key to the discussion of human behaviour. Primarily, however, Bredlau brings together the thinking of three philosophers—Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Russon—relating these thinkers to each other and to what is a central trajectory of thought in phenomenology, and in so doing, continuing the discussion in thoughtful and insightful ways.
The text is essentially divided into two sections of two chapters each: the first two chapters are structured to cover each of the three philosophers in turn, in this way highlighting both their debt to and differentiation from the work of their predecessors, and establishing the phenomenological perspectives that will be applied in the second half of the book. Central to these discussions is Husserl’s focus on experiences of ‘pairing’, that is, “an experience of actually perceiving—rather than imagining or remembering—another human body.” (31) Here, “[t]he experience of perceiving—in contrast to the experience of imagining or remembering—is inseparable from the body’s position” (31) and as Husserl argues, “The other body there enters into a pairing association with my body here and, being given perceptually, becomes the core of an appresentation.” (Husserl, cited in Bredlau, 31) The final two chapters cover two key aspects of experience whereby our ‘pairing’ with others shapes this experience of the specific other as in some way essential to us. Bredlau argues that it is this pairing that founds our intersubjective relationships throughout life and goes on to claim that, therefore, “trust is the essential medium of our erotic relationships, relationships that in principle carry an equivalent sort of ethical weight to that of caregiver relationships [in childhood]” (4). That is, trust is at the core of her claims regarding the “ethical questions that pervade the intimate bonds we form, whether we form these bonds in affirmation or in denial of the freedom and responsibility that is constitutive of intersubjective relationships” (96).
Bredlau handles the phenomenology of our perception of others particularly well, identifying and concretely mapping out how what is happening in perception goes well beyond perception and encompasses the development of our personality and character, our sense of having a world, and what Merleau-Ponty refers to as ‘the body schema’ through which we experience self and others. This insight will be familiar to readers of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Russon, and it is to Bredlau’s credit that she builds so respectfully on these works. One of the great merits of The Other in Perception is its sensitive exegesis of the nuances of each philosopher’s thought and the insights into what amounts to a significant philosophical conversation that is being had over time. In the opening chapters which might be seen as preliminary to the presentation of Bredlau’s own arguments, we find that phenomenological concepts are presented carefully and methodically, with the implications of such thinking made clear. The development of the ontological implications, and how the different philosophers have taken them up, is carefully traced and the commonalities that then appear among them add weight to Bredlau’s overall intentions. On the concept of infant “pairing”, for instance, Bredlau clearly presents both Husserl’s original insights and use of this concept, but also the differences between Husserl’s understandings and Merleau-Ponty’s later thinking about the child’s relations with others. There is a culmination in Bredlau’s presentation of Russon on pairing and how “the significant people with whom we are involved in our lives function more as aspects of the form of our perception than as its contents or objects” (39). Russon’s notion of polytemporality, a concept that references musical experience to draw out how “the many non-thematic dimensions of experience that must be operative if we are to perceive the present sound—the note—as music… provide[s] a basic logic for understanding the larger structure of the world that contextualises our everyday experiences” (17), also serves to demonstrate the affective structures and sense of temporal layering that are produced by such pairing, and how these reflect the situated historical context of all perceptual experience. Importantly, Bredlau then goes on to establish how this developmental capacity can be opened up to renewal through our intimacy with others.
Overall, this is a book that argues for the value of phenomenology. At the outset, Husserl’s radical idea is established: that we must put aside our thoughts about whether things we perceive “correspond” to the things themselves, and start by describing the things we perceive; it is through the process of phenomenological description that we can come to recognise that we perceive real things rather than mental representations. Bredlau takes this up from the outset, carefully explaining that when Husserl describes a physical object as transcendent to consciousness, “he is not claiming that the things we are conscious of as physical objects first exist independently of our consciousness of them, as we presume in [what he calls] the ‘natural attitude’; he is describing the way in which these things exist within our experience.” (9).
Also central is Husserl’s description of pairing as a “second kind” of relation other than object experience: that is, “we “live through”, or “perceive with” another human body and find ourselves in a world as perceived by the other rather than simply by us” (33). Our experience of others is of beings who are themselves conscious of the natural and cultural world as perceiving subjects (not as thinking subjects). We are aware of them as “making specific perceptual sense of their specific physical situation” (29). As such, and central to Bredlau’s argument, there is the understanding that subjectivity is embodied, with our behaviour the activity of a perceiving body.
Thus, such pairings, which are “formative of our self-identity in a way that shapes the very form of our perception,” are the founding, formative context of our perceptual life. Bredlau closely examines pairing at the level of “intrinsic embeddedness of others in our very bodily comportment” (45), evident in infant-caregiver relationality, utilising Merleau-Ponty’s work in “The Child’s Relation to Others”. Here Merleau-Ponty argues that the infant does not “reason by analogy” using reflection on comparisons between her own visible behaviour and that of others. Rather, the infant has not seen her own expressions as she intends to bite the care-giver’s finger and thus what might initially be theorised as reflective behaviour, needs to be understood as “the baby’s direct perception of [her care-giver’s] behaviour as perceptive, as intending a meaningful world” (47). This is, Bredlau stresses, “behavior that is as much expressive of an orientation as it is responsive to a setting” (47). This point is crucial to the parallels Bredlau later draws between infant behaviour and adult intimacy. Also important, Bredlau stresses, is that this is a situation of “play”; the world is there for the infant, “appresented” through the care-giver’s body as a meaningful world; the baby is not strictly speaking imitating, but is, rather, participating in the caregiver’s specific way of perceiving the world, and the baby’s perception is “inherently collaborative” (49).
What is vitally important here, therefore, is, Bredlau’s conclusion: “How, then, the particular caregiver with which a particular infant is paired perceives the world will be of lasting significance for an infant’s perception of the world” (62). Via discussions of how the intentional shifting of the caregiver’s affective tempo, or pace, can influence the infant’s affect or arousal, we see the ethical dimensions of Bredlau’s work coming into sharp focus. It is through the body that the infant experiences how their caregiver sees them and how they belong in the immediate world of the caregiver, and what this world is like. Such understandings become incorporated into our experiential structures through our body schema.
In her second study of a phenomenological understanding of pairing, Bredlau claims that it is reasonable to understand adult intimate relations as another instance of great interpersonal vulnerability, and being thus, “like childhood intimacy, sexual intimacy is ultimately a matter of trust” (87). Here she draws significantly on Russon’s work to demonstrate how, while “what is at stake in sexual experience is mutual attraction and the mutual realization of our autonomy, the vulnerability entailed by sexual experience often leads us to deny these stakes.” In this way, Russon’s work is central to Bredlau’s concrete working out of the ways in which “our sexual practices can embody such denials and thus amount to betrayals of trust—of the intersubjective bonds that are constitutive of our experience” (87).
These betrayals, and it is important that we keep in mind that these are ultimately betrayals of trust, can take two forms: the first being in the form of theft—“claiming what is ours to be solely mine” or; secondly, these can be of a form that “pretends that a bond does not require judgement and appropriation, that it is not ambiguous and shared but is an obvious and settled piece of reality” (87). The first form takes us to thinking about the power plays operating and often indeed seen to be norms of sexual behaviour—where each person is imposing their sexual behaviour on the other while at the same time this other is imposing their sexual behaviour on them, the result being that one of either is controlling the relationship dynamic (theft) or pretending not to be implicated in it (88).
The second form is that whereby we treat sexual relations as “situations governed by pre-existing standards and thus…Both our bodies and other bodies may retreat into explicit codes of sexual conduct or implicit sexual norms and act as if these codes or norms—rather than the unique desire of uniquely embodied subjects—determine how sexual experience should unfold” (88-89). Drawing on Russon, Bredlau argues that “if we take our culture’s definition of a fulfilling relationship as definitive for our sexual relations, we actually deny the reality of our sexual relations” (89). I think that it is important here to point out how Bredlau’s preliminary discussion of male and female sexuality, drawing on Beauvoir, comes back into play and we see the significance of how these two forms of betrayal often overlap and thus compound the betrayal of trust; many of our cultural norms around sexuality point towards women being submissive to the normative ideal of the powerful male.
I think it is important to precisely examine the connection that is being made between adult relations and infant relations and how this might be contextualised within the broader philosophical discussions of trust. For Bredlau, both forms of relations involve experiences of vulnerability and intimacy, with much at stake, both physically and existentially. The crux of the connection is that, similarly to infant relations, where questions “that our bodies can never answer for themselves and must, instead, turn to other bodies to answer” (87), sexual situations are situations of great vulnerability, and thus, “like childhood intimacy, sexual intimacy is ultimately a matter of trust” (my italics, 87).
This claim asks us to undertand all that Bredlau has presented about infant perception and the formation of meaning as subjectivity and subjectivity of our world, as ultimately a matter of trust. Given this claim, we might now expect some significant discussion connecting perceptual experience to trusting experience. Yet, in the whole text, there is only one section that is specifically directed towards the question of trust; Chapter 3, “The Institution of Interpersonal Life”, titled Pairing and Trust. This might be anticipated to be not only a culmination of thought as it pertains to Bredlau’s central argument regarding trust, but also a bringing together of this phenomenological work with some of the broader philosophical discussion of trust. Yet, this is not the case, and nor does Bredlau return, in any substantial discussion, to matters of trust directly. While Bredlau is clear that her discussion of forms of betrayal are about betrayals of trust, this needs, I believe, the modes of trusting be made visible, if we are to see how trusting is iressolvably intertwined with our experience of subjectivity “precisely as embodied”, and this is to be considered a substantial contribution to philosophical thinking about trust. My point is that Bredlau does not present trust to us through a conceptual lens. That said, she is contributing phenomenological work important if thinking about trust is to deepen; she is contributing phenomenologically rich descriptions of lived experiences that are themselves trusting or concerning our trusting, and that we recognise them as such. We generally know what trusting is without the exact contours of the philosophical concept being explained to us.
In order to highlight the significance of Bredlau’s phenomenological insights and identify how these contribute to a broader discussion of trust, I think that it is important to go beyond Bredlau’s text and bring some of the broader philosophical work on trust into the discussion. For example, discussions of trust often refer to the way that trust seems to be everywhere, is amorphous and difficult to define. Bredlau’s work, identifying the ways that the contextual intimacy of perceptual experience that is foundational to world and self development is essentially about trust, can give us insights into how it is that trust might appear to be everywhere. Perhaps more specifically significant is to bring Bredlau’s work into the context of Annette’s Baier’s reflections on how we might understand infant trust. Baier, who has written at length and insightfully about trusting, refers to the experience of ‘innate’ trust. Innate trust is unreflective and unwilled and can readily be seen in the situation of infants who will generally respond to parents without apparent concern for assessing threats to their vulnerability (Moral Prejudices, 107). She goes on to argue that, for trust to be trust proper, the situated context of this innate trust, as it occurs in our adult experience, must also come into my awareness as a situation of risk that requires evaluation and commitment by me, while the trust that seemingly got going without me, is maintained. Baier does not explain the innate capacity of the infant but, importantly, she does describe its fundamental forms and makes some significant caveats, including, in particular, that infants
… cannot trust at will any more than experienced adults can … One constraint on an account of trust which postulates infant trust as its essential seed is that it not make essential to trusting the use of concepts and abilities which a child cannot be reasonably believed to possess. (Baier, Moral Prejudices, 110)
It is this very point that directs analysis of infant innate trust to the various stages of infant development, pointing to, for example, the development of basic social emotions in early childhood. What Baier calls innate trust is also, in philosophical investigation, called “basic” trust, suggesting that it might be, perhaps, more in tune with instinct. Indeed, Baier is drawing the same sort of line in the sand; while identifying the importance of trust, she indicates there is something called trust proper, that is, the trust that is warranted in its relationship to the trustworthiness of others. Innate or basic trust has thus tended to be considered as not of consideration as concerns trust and moral development, separated because we do not choose it, while it merely exposes us to the underdetermined trustworthiness of others. These are serious and significant moral issues, and any connection between infant trust and adult reflective trust must come to grips with these questions.
If we now return to Bredlau, we see that what has been achieved is a concrete presentation of how it is the experience of perception in infanthood that is the experiential medium instituting meaning of self, world and others. Bredlau argues that in adult experiences of sexual intimacy we are opened to the possibility of a fundamental recognition and thus re-emergence of subjectivity. She claims that it is these experiences of perception that are essential to trusting. I agree most ardently with Bredlau on this point and see that it is exactly the sort of work that Baier’s caveats require. This is not bringing adult forms of knowing and judging into infant experiences of trusting in order to explain how infant experience is one of trust. Bredlau’s work re-centres the focus of examination in order to show how adult experiences of trusting are grounded in on-going perceptual experience that begins in infancy. However, on my reading of her text, while her claims around trust provide a most interesting perspective on the work being undertaken, it is a perspective that, in the end, might be easy to overlook. There remains much important work to do, bringing the insights that Bredlau has made look easy to the broader philosophical discussion of trust. We can all be grateful for Bredlau’s contributions to this discussion, and how this future work might itself be just that little bit easier because of her contributions.
In closing, I would like to draw attention to one final point, one that assumes we take Bredlau’s claims about the significance of trusting as given. While Bredlau speaks here to sexual intimacy as offering a prime example of high stakes vulnerability, and this as having ground in the development of the existential intimacy of the infant and her meaningful world, there are, of course, other experiences that demonstrate the profound significance of understanding “subjectivity precisely as embodied” (85). The forms of perception that Bredlau presents are ways of bodily “thinking” and “judging” that necessarily involve others and our capacity to trust them, the circumstances we find ourselves in, and our own capacity to respond, and these are developed experientially over time. A difficulty that emerges in most discussions of trust is the way that there is, at some level, a trusting that is assumed. This is an issue that needs close attention as we take up Bredlau’s claims about infant perceptual experience being essential to trust.
The world is largely presented here as a place to be trusted, and, in this, situations are trustworthy, or not; the caregiver’s capacity to trust and be trusted belongs to this world that is directly experienced by the infant. Our developing sense of the world as trustworthy is informed therefore via the caregiver’s capacity to trust, which is itself shaped by intersubjective experiences beginning at this foundational level. The significance of this was not lost on Susan Brison, for example, who, after being raped, experienced post-traumatic flashbacks and panic attacks about a world that had become untrustworthy—a profound example of what is discussed by Bredlau as a form of betrayal of the intersubjective bonds that are constitutive of our experience. Brison, on becoming pregnant some years later, becomes acutely aware of the need to bring her child into a world that will be perceived as trustworthy and not wanting her one experience to create a whole world for her child. Through Brison’s experience we catch a glimpse of how the infant-caregiver relation is one of mutual intimacy and vulnerability, with the collaboration mutually transformative. Brison says:
While I used to have to will myself out of bed each day, I now wake gladly to feed my son whose birth, four years after the assault, gives me reason not to have died. He is the embodiment of my life’s new narrative and I am more autonomous by virtue of being so intermingled with him. Having him has also enabled me to rebuild my trust in the world around us. He is so trusting that, before he learned to walk, he would stand with outstretched arms, wobbling, until he fell, stiff-limbed, forwards, backwards, certain the universe would catch him. So far, it has, and when I tell myself it always will, the part of me that he’s become believes it. (Brison, 66)
This work by Brison serves to emphasise the potential of Bredlau’s work. The body, and our perceptual relations with others, offer the opportunity for authentic experience that has the capacity to continue the processes of intimate pairing. These processes, that shape the infant’s lived sense of “I can”, also continues the adult’s world building, and this is both beyond and incorporated into the life of the infant. These insights mean that we can begin to think about how the opportunities that are our body as our opening onto a world of meaning, are numerous, and in many instances, ordinary, all instituting trust as a “pattern in the weave of life”, with this patterning “under the aspect of meaningfulness and purpose” (Lagerspetz and Hertzberg, 36).
Susan Bredlau. 2018. The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons. State University of New York Press.
Susan Brison. 2002. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Annette Baier. 1994. Moral Prejudices. USA: Harvard University Press.
Olli Lagerspetz and Lars Hertzberg. 2013. “Trust in Wittgenstein.” In Trust: Analytic and Applied Perspectives, edited by Pekka Makela and Cynthia Townley, 31-51. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.
Phillipe Rochat. 2010. “Trust in Early Development.” In Trust, Sociality, Selfhood, edited by Arne Grøn, Claudia Welz, 31-44. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
 See for example, Phillipe Rochat, who, as developmental psychologist, argues that trust, as a concept, is used to refer across a variety of experiences covering “basic social emotions and affectivity to cognition, morality, the laws, politics, economics, and religion” (Rochat 2010, 31) and identifies that the common ground to the various experiences to which the concept is referred is the sense of “holding expectations about people and things” (33); from our earliest existence, we are inclined towards creating “stability and unity over constant changes, to construct some mental anchorage for harnessing the constant flux of perceptual experience” (33).