Corporealities: From the Logic of Expression Toward an Ethics of Bodies in Merleau-Ponty
Landes, Donald Arthur
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Having developed a phenomenology of lived and embodied experience in his first major work, <italics>Ph nom nologie de la perception</italics> (1945), French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) began to worry that his phenomenological approach remained nonetheless attached to the"philosophy of consciousness" that he had aimed to dissolve. Such a philosophy, namely, the idea that there is a transcendental mind separate from, though somehow attached to the body was, for Merleau-Ponty, the underlying problem with modern philosophy, modern humanism, and the implicit ontology of modern science. Turning his phenomenological gaze towards politics and aesthetics, he began to explore what he called the"paradox of expression" as central to a new conception of human being and metaphysics. By 1953, Merleau-Ponty would conclude that beyond the"bad ambiguity" in the phenomenon of perception, which leads to a mere mixing together of idealist and realist perspectives, there is a"good ambiguity" in the phenomenon of expression. This good ambiguity promised to"be metaphysics itself" and"at the same time give us the principle of an ethics." Upon his untimely death in 1961, neither of these promises had been fulfilled. Merleau-Ponty's fundamental philosophical gesture, namely, the paradoxical logic of expression, draws together his diverse work on perception, language, politics, history, and ontology, thereby addressing the first of these two promises. For Merleau-Ponty, the wonder of human being is that we represent the hinge, or the place of intersection between real and ideal systems, and, nonetheless, our action also creates and sustains these systems. Hence, Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is a rejection of both idealism and realism. There is no pure mind behind our expressive activities and there is no `ideal text' that our spoken words attempt to translate, nor is speaking a mere mechanical unleashing of physiological and chemical processes. In the speaking of a metaphor, in finding the `right word' or phrase, I bring about a figurative meaning that did not exist in any real sense prior to its expression, though it certainly did exist as a potential towards which I was drawn. Once spoken, the metaphor has a retroactive effect upon the linguistic landscape. It shifts the potential uses of these words for future speakers and myself. In the context of intersubjective communication, metaphor is possible because of what the words meant, but the metaphor also, paradoxically, changes what the words mean. Part I places Merleau-Ponty's paradox of expression in the context of traditional accounts of expression and considers the phenomenological evidence against these traditional approaches. Part II establishes the logic of expression in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy by placing it into dialogue with Henri Bergson's theory of action and memory, Edmund Husserl's theory of language, and the philosophical debate about the nature of metaphor. Part III is a close reading of the expressive logic in Merleau-Ponty's account of perception, language, politics, and aesthetics in order to develop the structure of his ontology. I argue that Merleau-Ponty generalizes the logic of expression by suggesting that all action is both a response to the weight of ideal structures and a creative act in the face of the urgency of the real situation. The results of this expressive activity suggest an open ontology of intersubjective communication. Even if an answer to his first promise for a viable metaphysics can be thus constructed, Merleau-Ponty's sudden stroke at age 53 left his project of finding the"principle of an ethics" through the phenomenon of expression wholly unfulfilled. My contribution not only points to the absence of this ethical reflection, but also offers some preliminary interpretation of what this principle might be, namely, an ethics of responsibility in light of our situated freedom and the accidental consequences of our actions.