Merleau-Ponty and nature
Barbaras R. (2001) Merleau-Ponty and nature. Research in Phenomenology 31(1): 22–38. Available at http://cepa.info/4050
The course on nature coincides with the re-working of Merleau-Ponty’s breakthrough towards an ontology and therefore plays a primordial role. The appearance of an interrogation of nature is inscribed in the movement of thought that comes after the Phenomenology of Perception.What is at issue is to show that the ontological mode of the perceived object – not the unity of a positive sense but the unity of a style that shows through in filigree in the sensible aspects has a universal meaning, that the description of the perceived world can give way to a philosophy of perception and therefore to a theory of truth. The analysis of linguistic expression to which the philosophy of perception leads opens out onto a definition of meaning as institution, understood as what inaugurates an open series of expressive appropriations. It is this theory of institution that turns the analysis of the perceived in the direction of a reflection on nature: the perceived is no longer the originary in its difference from the derived but the natural in its difference from the instituted.Nature is the “non-constructed, non-instituted,” and thereby, the source of expression: “nature is what has a sense without this sense having been posited by thought.”The first part of the course, which consists in a historical overview, must not be considered as a mere introduction. In fact, the problem of nature is brought out into the open by means of the history of Western metaphysics, in which Descartes is the emblematic figure. The problem consists in the duality at once unsatisfactory and unsurpassable – between two approaches to nature: the one which accentuates its determinability and therefore its transparency to the understanding; the other which emphasizes the irreducible facticity of nature and tends therefore to valorize the viewpoint of the senses. To conceive nature is to constitute a concept of it that allows us to “take possession” of this duality, that is, to found the duality. The second part of the course attempts to develop this concept of nature by drawing upon the results of contemporary science. Thus a philosophy of nature is sketched that can be summarized in four propositions: 1) the totality is no less real than the parts; 2) there is a reality of the negative and therefore no alternative between being and nothingmess; 3) a natural event is not assigned to a unique spatio-temporal localization; and 4) there is generality only as generativity.
It is only very late in Merleau-Ponty’s work that the concept of nature becomes the object of a separate reflection. Until 1956-57 Merleau-Ponty utilized this notion in a non-critical way and conferred upon it the current philosophical meaning. Thus, The Structure of Behavior opens with these words: “Our goal is to understand the relations between consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social. By nature we understand here a multiplicity of events external to each other and bound together by relations of causality.”[Note 1] This certainly is the classic conception of nature, common to Descartes and Kant, which Merleau-Ponty retains here, even if, to be sure, he inquires at the same time into the possibility of the upsurge of consciousness in the midst of this nature. But Merleau-Ponty is led to put into question this acceptance of naturalism common to classic philosophers. The discovery of the body itself, irreducible to natural causality as to transcendental consciousness, will allow precisely the thinking of an insertion of consciousness into nature that would not exclude this nature’s appearing to consciousness under the form of a perceived world. It is nonetheless true that throughout Phenomenology of Perception, there persists the horizon of a nature in itself, as totality of objective events governed by laws. Thus, for example; at the conclusion of his long and decisive analysis of space, in which he demonstrates the specificity of spaces that he calls anthropological, Merleau-Ponty concludes: “We must contrive to understand how, at a stroke, existence projects round itself worlds which hide objectivity from me, at the same time fastening upon it as the aim of the teleology of con sciousness, by picking out these ‘worlds’ against the background of one single natural world.”[Note 2] The perceived world, correlative of corporeal existence, is very clearly inscribed in the midst of a nature, which prescribes to it a horizon of objectivity. The phenomenology of perception reveals the descriptive specificity of the perceptive layer but does not go so far as to inquire about the relationship of this perceptive layer to reality in itself: the sense of being of nature does not necessarily seem to be questioned by the discovery of the perceived world.
It is therefore only on the occasion of a lecture series given at the College de France that nature becomes the object of a specific inquiry. Moreover, if we refer to the published lectures, we are struck by the absence of a philosophical justification prior to the lectures themselves that, for the first year, dealt with the historical variations of the concept of nature. On the other hand, if we refer to the resume written at the end of the academic year, we discover that this choice is motivated by the necessity of avoiding the impasse in which contemporary philosophy had become engaged. In fact, Merleau-Ponty remarks that the abandonment in which the philosophy of nature has fallen involves a certain conception of the mind, of history and of the human person. It is, he writes, “the permission that we give ourselves to make them appear as pure negativity. Inversely, by returning to the philosophy of nature, we turn away only apparently from these preponderant problems, we attempt to find a solution for them that is not immaterialist.All naturalism aside, an ontology that ignores nature encloses itself in the incorporeal and it gives, for this very reason, an unrealistic image of the human person, of the mind and of history.”[Note 3] This reflection on nature appears therefore as motivated by the necessity of a kind of re-balancing and, so to say, of reexamining, the stakes of which we will see shortly. Now, during the succeeding years, the preliminary philosophical justification takes on a greater and greater importance, not only in the resumes but also in the lectures themselves. Thus, in the introduction to the third year’s lectures (1959-60), from which we have only notes, we can read in this instance: “Nature as thin sheet or layer of total Being the ontology of nature as way toward ontology, way that we prefer here because the evolution of the concept of nature is a more convincing propaedeutic, revealing more clearly the necessity of ontological mutation” (N, 265). The philosophical style has changed: the questioning about nature is inscribed in an explicitly ontological project, and the privileged character of the approach through nature depends on its history, as if in it there appeared a theoretical impasse calling for a change in orientation.
Now, if we refer at this point to his notes for The Visible and the Invisible, [Note 4] we observe that the orientation concerning the question of nature is not circumscribed in the lectures, and that, quite to the contrary, it gradually impregnates the elaboration of an ontology. I want to use as proof for this the outlines for The Visible and the Invisible, that Merleau-Ponty has left us, all of which foresee a part dedicated to nature and which, above all, manifest an evolution regarding the place given to this question. (Ibid.).
In the earliest outlines (end of 1959, beginning of 1960), the analysis of nature appears as either a chapter of a first part entitled “Being and World,” or as a second separate part following a part on the world. In any case, clearly it appears that nature was conceived as subordinated to the study of a primitive dimension that Merleau-Ponty calls vertical world or brute being. In the later outlines (end of 1960), the work is conceived as structured according to the opposition between Nature and Logos (for example: I. The Visible and Nature, II. The Invisible and Logos). Thus, the study itself of the vertical world is referred to a reflection on nature. With this series of lectures on nature that was not foreshadowed by anything, we see that something decisive took place. First of all, it is clear that this lecture series is contemporaneous with the Merleau-Pontian turning point that leads him toward ontology, and that the very elaboration of the ontological question is inseparable from the reflection on nature. We must therefore attempt to examine more closely this movement to ontology through nature. On the other hand and such is the ultimate horizon of a reflection on nature – we can ask at what point the element in which ontology is elaborated does not come to inflect the meaning of it in a direction that would turn it away from phenomenology. Otherwise stated, if it is incontestable that it is by means of the inquiry surrounding nature that Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is elaborated, it is legitimate for us to ask to what degree this ontology takes the form of a philosophy of nature, which remains to be characterized.
We must therefore try to show initially that the inquiry concerning nature corresponds to an inflection of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, which is inscribed in its overall movement. The Phenomenology of Perception has an essentially critical and descriptive focus: it is a question of denouncing the intellectualist conception of perception (and its accompanying empiricism) in order to expose the perceived as such, liberated from the idealizations that covered it like layers of sediment. However, the return to the immediate is not itself immediate: it requires a phenomenological reduction that, in Merleau-Ponty’s work, takes on an unusual meaning. In fact, by proceeding in a direct way, according to what Husserl himself calls the Cartesian way, one runs the risk of identifying the perceptive cogito with the reflective cogito, of bringing down the perceived world on a universe already objectified. This is what justifies the detour through physiology and the psychology of form. It involves in fact showing that science is led by its own conclusions to reform its spontaneous ontology to the extent that it discovers, under the name of behavior, a mode of existing which is not inscribed in the objective world without nonetheless being confused with the cogito.Thus, the Merleau-Pontian reduction, in its original form, is understood as reduction to the incarnate subject; by means of Gestalt psychology and physiology, the perceived world is then attained as world, no longer constituted by, but correlative of or inhabited by this incarnate subject. The Phenomenology of Perception consists therefore, in its essence, in an archeological work of unearthing a perceptive layer buried under the strata of objectifying activity.
However, at the level of the Phenomenology of Perception, the exact significance and scope of this description of the perceived are not clearly thematized. In particular, as we have already seen, the true status of the body itself and the sense of being of the correlative perceived world are not clearly established: does the specificity of perceptive life have a transcendental meaning or merely a psychological one? Does the perceived world define nature or is it inscribed in a nature in itself accessible to understanding? What is at stake here is nothing less than the question of knowledge; as Merleau-Ponty expresses it in his text supporting his candidacy at the College de France: “Now if we consider, above the perceived world, the field of knowledge properly so called – i.e., the field in which the mind seeks to possess the truth, to define its objects itself, and thus to attain to a universal wisdom, not tied to the particularities of our situation – we must ask: Does not the realm of the perceived world take on the form of a simple appearance? Is not pure understanding a new source of knowledge, in comparison with which our perceptual familiarity with the world is only a rough, unformed sketch?”[Note 5] This question directs Merleau-Ponty’s research for the ten years following the Phenomenology of Perception: it involves the elaboration of a theory of truth beginning with the fundamental principles of this work. This is tantamount to demonstrating that the mode of being of the perceived object – not positive unity of meaning but unity of a style that appears in filigree in sensorial aspects – has a universal significance, that the description of the perceived world can therefore give rise to a philosophy of perception revealing, at the heart of everything that can exist for us, an identical mode of being. This is why the theory of truth is constituted as a theory of expression.There is no pure understanding appropriating truth without mediation: just as perceptive meaning appears only in a perceptible material, the meaning of ideality is given in filigree in a linguistic fabric, it is essentially interdependent with an act of word. The years, which follow the publication of the Phenomenology of Perception, are therefore dedicated to the elaboration of a theory of expression. This theory possesses two distinct aspects. On the one hand, it consists of the examination of expression itself in the light of linguistics and artistic/literary creation. It then leads to a general theory of intersubjectivity that concerns “the exchange not only of thoughts but of all types of values, the coexistence of men within a culture and, beyond it, within a single history”[Note 6] – the theory of expression becomes philosophy of history. The articulation of these two aspects takes place around the concept of institution.Indeed, linguistic expression allows us to understand, more clearly than did perception, that the latency of the pre-objective meaning has a temporal significance: it corresponds to the open ensemble of its possible renewals. The unity of meaning is nothing more than the axis or the principle of equivalence according to which its expressions are accomplished. Meaning is instituted rather than constituted and, as such, it institutes itself a future. As Merleau-Ponty expresses it, what we must understand by institution are “those events in experience which endow it with durable dimensions, in relation to which a whole series of other experiences will acquire meaning, will form an intelligible series or a history – or again those events which sediment in me a meaning, not just as survivals or residues, but as the invitation to a sequel, the necessity of a future.”[Note 7] We therefore see how, by understanding expression as institution, Merleau-Ponty simultaneously finds in this concept elements for a theory of history. This movement of generaliz‑ing the theory of expression, starting from institution, is evident in the order of the lectures delivered at the College de France during the first four years: after the examinations of word and expression, there follows a lecture on institution that leads to a reflection on history and dialectic.
It is in this context that we must understand the emergence of an inquiry regarding nature. In fact, if the shortcomings of the Phenomenology of Perception created a reflection centered on the problem of ideality and therefore of expression, on the other hand, this reflection inflects the approach of the perceived. The ultimate question, which is on the horizon of The Visible and the Invisible, is the one concerning the mode of unity between expression and perception, between truth and experience; the response to this question demands that we return to the perceived starting with the knowledge from the study of expression. As Merleau-Ponty expresses it in a summary of the lectures quoted above, if one wants to escape from an immaterialist vision, in other words untenable, of man and history, one must question the foundation of expression. Now, it is precisely because it is apprehended in the light of a theory of institution that this foundation is determined as nature.The perceived is no longer understood as the immediate differentiated from the derived or as the sensorial in opposition to the intelligible, as it was in the context of an inquiry that began with perception: it is henceforth conceived of as the natural in opposition to the instituted. It is therefore precisely the extension and the confrontation to the order of logos that inflects the phenomenology of perception in the direction of a reflection on nature. Instead of approaching nature starting with perception, as what this latter ultimately aims at, Merleau-Ponty approaches perception beginning with nature, understood as what is not instituted. The perceived therefore occupies a place in a new system of oppositions that is going to allow the significant deepening of its meaning. In the Phenomenology of Perception, the study of the meaning of being of the perceived was dependent on that of perception, itself referred to the body. Thereby, it had an essentially negative scope that impeded the possibility of an ontological inquiry. Indeed, in grasping the subject of perception at the level of corporeal existence, Merleau-Ponty showed that perception could not consist in the intellectual apprehension of a transparent meaning, as in Descartes’, he showed that the perceptive meaning was always incarnated, in short, that perception manifested the original unity of fact and meaning. However, from the moment that he took the perceptive subject as his starting point, Merleau-Ponty was condemned to approach perception in terms of the very categories themselves of that it is an actual contestation: he was able in a way to reduce the gap between fact and meaning to show their unity, but this unity remained a unity of act and of meaning.This is why the ontological question of the meaning of being of the perceived cannot be asked: the perceived was grasped at once in the perspective of consciousness, and its sense of being became exhausted therefore in that of correlative of incarnated consciousness that is initiated to it. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty, so to speak, de-intellectualizes perception by demonstrating the adherence of meaning to fact: he is unable to grasp the perceived as a specific being. On the contrary, approached from the question of truth, that is to say in the horizon of institution, the perceived no longer refers back to perception but to a type of specific being, natural being, where the ruinous split between subject and object disappears. We should add here that, by virtue of the context we have attempted to clarify, the concept of nature is a generic title for an examination that deals with a certain type of being, namely, that which is not instituted: through nature, it is the sense of being of natural being, new name of the perceived, which is in question. The natural does not come to qualify what belongs to nature; this latter appears rather as objectifying, at least linguistically, a natural being conceived of as a specific sense of being. Merleau-Ponty makes this clear in the introduction to the third year lecture series: the thorough analysis of nature is, he says, “neither simple reflection on the immanent rules of the science of nature – nor recourse to nature as to a separate and explicative being – but clarification of the meaning of natural-being or being-naturally.”[Note 8] We see that the inquiry regarding nature can also be understood as an inflection, if not an inversion, of the very meaning of phenomenological epoche.The latter has ultimately for its purpose to achieve the true meaning of what Husserl calls natural attitude. Now, vis-a-vis this attitude, which designates initially our immediate relationship with the world and the thesis of existence that it implies, two very different kinds of readings are possible. One can stress the fact that the natural attitude is a spontaneous altitude and not a thematic one. We can then take possession of it only by transforming it into a reflective attitude or rather by revealing a specific mode of thought at work in this very spontaneity, hence the putting in parentheses of the thesis of the world, to allow bringing about a conversion of the gaze toward what the thesis suggests from the beginning, namely, the life of the transcendental subject. In this perspective, which is Husserl’s, the naturalness of the natural attitude possesses an essentially negative connotation, and it suggests therefore a reflective resumption. But one can also put the accent on the fact that the natural attitude is the attitude that initiates us to nature in its original meaning (which is not yet that of the natural sciences): one no longer sees then an absence of knowledge in its spontaneity but rather a guarantee of its originalness, that is to say an absence of symbolization. In this perspective, which is Merleau-Ponty’s, it is by clarifying the meaning of natural being that we can take possession of the true meaning of the natural attitude. One does not go from a neutralization of nature to the affirmation of transcendental consciousness, but rather from the clarification of nature to a reform, indeed a calling into question of, consciousness.
Be that as it may, this context clarifies the manner in which Merleau-Ponty sketches a preliminary definition of nature. It is clear that it can be a question only of a sketch since the goal of the study of the historical concept of nature is precisely to conquer the meaning of natural being. It is nonetheless true that the several preliminary definitions at our disposal are characterized by this problematic context. They conjoin two aspects. On the one hand, “nature is the primordial, that is to say the nonconstructed, the noninstituted; from whence the idea of an eternity of nature, of a solidity”; but, inasmuch as it is not only soil but also cradle of expression, inasmuch as the ultimate horizon of inquiry is the unity of perception and expression, nature cannot be confused with raw being in itself, the night of non-sense, and this is why in the short introduction to the lectures Merleau-Ponty refers to the primordial meaning of yr6cric: “there is nature everywhere where there is a life which has a meaning, but where, however, there is no thought …: nature is what has a meaning without this meaning having been posed by thought.”[Note 9] We can only be struck by the proximity of this definition to the definition of the perceived. An undated, unpublished note, which sums up well the double tenor of the meaning of nature, echoes this idea: “to describe a world of nature, one in which nothing has not yet been said, symbolized, expressed, neither space, nor time, nor, all the more so, particular processes, – and which is not however amorphous, formless and without significance, which is nevertheless a world.”[Note 10]
Thus, after this moving through the question of truth, itself giving rise to a theory of institution, inquiry concerning perception, which remains the center of Merleau-Pontian thought, becomes inquiry about natural-being. Hence this long lecture series on nature, unfolding in two phases, the necessity of which we must understand: on the one hand, a long, historical overview, organized around the opposition between the humanist conception and the romantic conception of nature; on the other hand, a detailed study of scientific theories, which moreover begins with the first year. This review is itself organized according to three foreseeable levels: physical nature, living being, and the human body. Now, the long historical study of conceptions of nature that precedes the study of natural being strictly speaking, must not be conceived of as preliminary, as a way of subscribing to a didactic necessity. It is critically important in that it allows the defining of the question of the meaning of natural being in the form of a specific problem. This problem itself emerges from the account of a tension, and accordingly from an insufficiency, which MerleauPonty ends up affirming, is constitutive to the history of ontology, or rather, of ontology as it has historically unfolded. In this regard, far from remaining outside the philosophical question of nature, the historical exposé is integral to the determination of the meaning of natural being. It is, more precisely, by means of Cartesian metaphysics, which appears in this context as the emblem of Western ontology, that Merleau-Ponty brings to light the ontological problem underlying the question of natural being. However, his reading of Descartes is itself enlightened by the critique of metaphysics that Bergson developed in Creative Evolution.“Both historically and philosophically our idea of natural being qua object in itself, which is what it is because it cannot be another thing, derives from the idea of an unlimited being, infinite or causa sui, and this in turn comes from the alternation between being and nothing.”[Note 11] Because it is put in balance with a possible nothingness, nature is conceived of as proceeding from an infinite being: it can emerge from nothingness only by its plenitude of being. Now, by virtue of the identity of understanding and the will in God, nature is through and through what it is for understanding, i.e., realized possibility; this ontological complex, Merleau-Ponty notes “… obliges every being, under pain of being nothing, to exist completely without hiatus, and with no hidden possibilities. There is to be nothing occult or enveloped in nature any more. Nature must be a mechanism…”[Note 12] Such a nature is defined by radical exteriority of its parts, it does not possess a peculiar unity outside that conferred upon it by the laws of nature: it is naturated nature (nature naturee).Thus, as Bergson sees quite clearly, to grasp nature on the basis of a possible nothingness, is to refuse it any peculiar form of negativity, it is confusing it with the thinkable. Nonetheless, this thesis of the unity of being and essence must be denied at the very instant that it is posited, and this by the virtue itself of what leads to positing it. Indeed, because being is put in balance with nothingness, it can be only by being fully, but, for the same reason, it is not necessary that it be, and this is why its being envelopes not only essence but also its realization in existence, realization of that there can be no thought. To the extent that being is grasped on the basis of nothingness, we must recognize in it a dimension of pure existence that falls outside essence. This signifies that “.. by maintaining the contingency of the act of creation, Descartes upheld the facticity of nature and thus legitimated another perspective on this existent nature than that of pure understanding.”[Note 13] In effect, while the essence of natural being is offered to understanding, that is to say to reason, its existence is accessible only by a “natural inclination,” which pushes me to believe in the existential effect that my senses deliver to me passively. Correlatively, the composite of soul and body, disqualified from the point of view of understanding, is seen as rehabilitated by virtue of its aptitude of establishing a relationship between me and a naked existence. Thus, Merleau-Ponty interprets the duality of the meanings of nature in Descartes (reason/natural inclination) as the index of an ontological tension, the full dimension of which he unfolds, between what he calls an ontology of the object and an ontology of the existing (or of the event).
Whatever the accuracy of this interpretation, what is important here is that Merleau-Ponty sees in it the thematic manifestation, so to speak, of an ambiguity that characterizes Western ontology: “Do we not find everywhere the double certitude that being exists, that appearances are only a manifestation and a restriction of being – and that these appearances are the canon of everything that we can understand by ‘being,’ that in this respect it is being in-itself which appears as an ungraspable phantom, an Unding? Could we not find what has been called an ‘ontological diplopy’ (Blondel), which after so much philosophical effort we cannot expect to bring to a rational reduction and which leaves us with the sole alternative of wholly embracing it, just as our gaze takes over monocular images to make a single vision out of them.[Note 14] Thus, the history of ontology reveals in each thinker the recurrence of a tension between two approaches toward Nature: one that places the accent on its determinability, its transparency to understanding, the other that underlies its irreducible facticity and tends therefore to value the standpoint view of the senses. Now, such is the problem of nature, it is not a question of stopping at this duality, because, as the study of Descartes demonstrates, there arrives a moment when it ends up involving incompatible theses; nor is it, however, a question of purely and simply going beyond it, since any attempt at reducing these two terms to a third one sooner or later revives the duality. Such is the difficulty that the study of nature involves: one cannot stop at the duality, and yet there is no possible synthesis. This is what an unpublished note confirms (1958-59): “value of dualism – or rather refusal of an explicative monism which would have recourse to ‘intermediary’ ontology. I am seeking an ontological midpoint, the field which reunites object and consciousness…. But the field, raw being (that of inanimate nature, of organism) must not be conceived as a cloth in which would be cut out object and consciousness, and the order of causality and the order of meaning.” [Note 15] As Merleau-Ponty writes, the only way out consists therefore in “taking possession” of duality, that is to say, in accordance with the optical comparison, in determining an original plan in which this duality is resolved internally, but at the center of which it is also rooted in such a way that it is possible to make of it the birth of a new approach. It is a question of creating an original meaning of natural being, of which the duality between punctual event and determined object is like an abstract portrait. This requires the undoing of the ontological complex characteristic of classic metaphysics and whose central core consists, as we have seen, in the tripartite division (in reality never really thematized by Merleau-Ponty) among nothingness, essence, and existence: it is by virtue of an identical act that nothingness is posited as necessary condition for being, that this latter is identified with the knowable, and that this identification is seen at the same time as contested by the emergence of a pure facticity falling outside essence. In other words, what is at stake here, so to speak, is the obvious conception of nature as ensemble of spatio-temporally determined occurrences of generic realities.
The question then posed is the question involving the mode of access to this natural being. To the extent that pure philosophy is always threatened by ontological diplopia, it is on the very ground of contemporary science that Merleau-Ponty finds the necessary means to contest the ontological complex that dictates classical conceptions, and this is why the historical overview of the conceptions of nature leads to an examination of the status of the idea of nature in modern science. As he expressed it in the lecture notes, if there are not reasons to ask science for a new, ready-made conception of nature, because science is not philosophy, “we find in it the means to eliminate false conceptions of Nature.”[Note 16] Otherwise stated, if science is in general upheld by naive ontological presuppositions, it is led by its own results to a realization and to a reform of these presuppositions to the point where it can indicate at least the path of a new philosophy of nature: “it is the internal critique of physics which leads us to become conscious of the perceived world…. The mediation of knowledge allows us to rediscover indirectly and in a negative way the perceived world that prior idealization had made us forget.”[Note 17] Here again we find the method used in The Structure of Behavior it is on scientific grounds and by means of an internal critique of its own prejudices that the phenomenological reduction operates. Just as in The Structure of Behavior, the experience derived from the scientific study of behavior justified the critique of intellectualism and thus led to perceptive consciousness. The study of the results of contemporary physics and biology nourishes the critique of the presuppositions of metaphysics and allows a renewed determination of natural being. However, we must not conclude from this that philosophy is not required to make its contribution; on the contrary, we can interpret the second part of the historical expose, which concerns the “romantic” conception of nature, as a first attempt, at least a negative one, at what the scientific approach will allow us to clarify.
As one could expect, the study of contemporary sciences, in particular of biology, leads therefore to the undoing of the constitutive ontological presuppositions of classical metaphysics. We can summarize the Merleau-Pontian conception of nature in four propositions that, to be sure, are profoundly interdependent: 1) “the totality is not less real than the parts” (F22); there is a reality of the negative and therefore no alternative between being and nothingness; 3) a natural event is not assigned to a unique spatio-temporal localization; 4) there is generality only as generativity. We will attempt to clarify rapidly each one of these propositions. We have seen that, in Descartes, the principle of nature flows back towards God, so that nature itself is nothing other than the sum of its parts and therefore possesses no unity of its own. On the contrary, as the reading of Bergson foresees, Merleau-Ponty sees in the modern conceptions of nature the rehabilitation of an intrinsic unity of natural being. In other words, there is a natural totality that is irreducible to the sum of its parts without however being something else, without referring to a positive principle. Natural being exists in the global mode, in that what happens in each localized part and what occurs at each moment is tributary to the relationships of each part with all the others, in other words, of what happens to the totality. Or rather, if it is true that the whole is real, the decoupage of spatial and temporal parts depends already on an abstraction: in the same way that the reality of the notes is inseparable from the reality of the melody; the reality of any event situated in time and space depends on what happens to the whole. We have here a striking confirmation of what the psychology of form reveals on the perceptive level. This confirmation can first be obtained on the basis of physics. This is why Merleau-Ponty is interested in the relativist rethinking of Newtonian physics that leads to the revelation of the constitutive interdependence of space and time and, thereby, to the impossibility of adopting an absolute point of view that would situate any temporal occurrence at the center of a unique time. Modern physics, as Merleau-Ponty expresses in a radical way, “studies a massive Being in which what is time, space matter, etc., must not appear as just so many juxtaposed realities, but as an indivisible reality.” [Note 18] In truth, in this regard, Merleau-Ponty owes almost everything to Whitehead to whom he dedicates an entire chapter. Indeed, by defining nature as projection or moving on, Whitehead conceives of it as a massive event; thereby, space and time, far from constituting nature in the sense in which what is situated would compose it, are only abstract modes of determination of the relationships at the center of this global event. Here I will give just one formula, taken from the Concept of Nature, of which Merleau-Ponty’s text could be considered through and through the commentary: “the germ of space is to be found in the mutual relations of events within the immediate general fact which is all nature now discernible, namely within the one event which is the totality of present nature.”[Note 19] Now, this all-encompassing dimension of natural being is confirmed on the level of living nature to which Merleau-Ponty dedicates indeed the essence of his lecture series. Whether we reflect on behavior or on embryology, we discover that we can account for facts only if we admit that each part of the organism carries in it the reference to a total form, which is none other than the organism as such. The organism is not the sum of its parts – and thus we escape from mechanism – without however referring to a transcendental principle, and this is why vitalism is just as inadequate: the living is like a whirlwind, which is nothing more than water and which gives it however its form. In other words, as Canguilhem had seen so clearly from his perspective, life is emerging in relationship to the physical-chemical level. We grasp life only by refusing to restrict ourselves to the analytical point of view and to local phenomena: the organism, Merleau-Ponty says, is a macro-phenomenon or an envelope- phenomenon, which invests the instantaneous-local, which is situated between the components, that is to say everywhere and nowhere. We attain life in its reality only by renouncing the implicit identification between being and corpuscle: “life is visible and exists only at a certain scale of observation, the macroscopic – but at this scale, it is entirely true and original. It exists therefore in solidarity with vision. It does not exist in itself as the indivisible corpuscle does.”[Note 20] In other words, the distinction between physical-chemistry and life is that between the ontic and the ontological: the physical-chemical phenomena do not belong to the being of the organism (as Goldstein points out, and to whom Merleau-Ponty refers in an unpublished note).
The consequence of this discovery is the rehabilitation of the negative, that is to say, the refusal of thinking of it according to a massive opposition to being. In fact, if totality is nothing more than the sum of its parts while at the same time being efficient (since it directs organic phenomena) and is therefore real, we must admit a reality of the negative. As clearly expressed by Merleau-Ponty, “the reality of organisms supposes a non-Parmenidian being, a form which escapes from the dilemma of being and non-being. We can therefore speak of a presence of the theme of these realizations, or say that the events are grouped around a kind of absence.”[Note 21] Each organic event is polarized by a totality that is nothing more than its modes of actualization and therefore never realized as such. Thus, life can be characterized by an “operating nonbeing,” by a lack “which is not lack of this or that,” and this is why, as Bergson had already demonstrated, it is situated beyond the alternative of mechanism and finalism (it is not mechanism since the organism is polarized by the future and therefore more than itself, but it does not depend on finality because what dynamizes the living is not a transcendent and positive being, because the act of becoming of the living is tributary to each of the effective stages). The unfolding of the animal, magnificently stated by Merleau-Ponty, is “like a pure wake which is not attributable to any boat.”[Note 22] This leads us to a third determination.
We have seen that the submission of nature to the alternative of being and nothingness had as a consequence an irreducible and incomprehensible cleavage between essence and existence. Inversely, it is clear that the new determination of natural being as totality, as that with which being envelops, therefore a dimension of negativity, has as a consequence the abandonment of this cleavage. Indeed, if physical nature is to be conceived of as global moving on or massive event, it follows that any spatio-temporal localization, what Whitehead calls a “flash point,” is already an abstraction, and that, in its real texture, that is to say in its natural texture, “the event spans space and time, it is transpatial and transtemporal.”[Note 23] Likewise, to say that any vital process, cellular regeneration for example, refers to an absent form that this process aims precisely at realizing, is recognizing that the organism’s present encroaches on its future, or rather, is the organism’s present only in that it is already future and still past. If the theme of animal melody is nothing other than its realization without coinciding for this reason with any of its stages, we must conclude that its existence is transversal to temporal multiplicity. In the same way, if the organic whole is not the sum of its local parts, without referring to a transcendent principle, we must recognize that it exists in a ubiquitous mode, as that which crosses and connects the local parts. Natural being manifests a quite remarkable type of existence, which we could qualify as general existence: existing in nature or as nature, is not being situated in a point of space and time, natural existence is not pure and simple realization of an essence. This does not mean that nature is foreign to space and time, but that space and time cannot designate an order or an indifferent element to the events that occur in it. Reality no longer means realization, that is to say inscription of a quality or of a determination in the spatial and temporal frame of reference, but spatialization and temporalization inherent in the quality. We would have to say therefore that the natural event does not exist in space-time but as space-time; it does not unfold in the midst of space-time, it unfolds space-time.
Thus we understand the last of the propositions that we set forth in the beginning: there is generality only as generativity. In fact, to say that natural existence is a general existence is tantamount to recognizing that there is generality only as existing generality: generality has meaning only as what spans spatial or temporal localizations, flash points, it is therefore not distinguished from the plurality of events by which it is actualized. We have here the classic conception of the possible, as ensemble of conceivable determinations, in themselves – separate from actuality, and accordingly, the very distinction of the real and the possible that finds itself called deeply into question. As MerleauPonty expresses it in an unpublished piece the title of which is “dynamic morphology”: “with the disappearance of matter, as molecular existence in time and space, the problem of essence disappears. Not that we come back in the least to an atemporal, intelligible world, but on the contrary, because essence (style) is itself bountiful, because it calls forth plurality (instead of surmounting it).”[Note 24] The generality of essence signified no more than its transspatiality, that is to say, in the last analysis, the plurality of events that it engenders: in this regard, we could say that space-time, as we have described it, is the essence of essence. The study of certain vital phenomena confirms this reading. The phenomena of mimicry, for example, remain incomprehensible so long as we oppose qualitative determination to spatio-temporal localization. They are clarified when we understand that there are active relationships, that the similarity is not only a relationship that the mind establishes between individuals outside one another but also a mode of specific being that spans spatio-temporal dispersion: beyond essential unity and spatio-temporal multiplicity, the relationship names the meaning of the true being of natural being. As Merleau-Ponty points out in the same unpublished piece, we no longer need to ask ourselves “how does the child resemble his parents, but: he is his parents. How are the same laws of nature valid here and there, how does sulfur exist in several states, but: it is the same sulfur that is here and there…. Nature is of itself general.” We could say that nature is in the sense in which the child is his parents: a given piece of sulfur and any other piece of sulfur are at the same time identical and different: it is realized relationship, abundant similarity. Such an intuition stems from a deep-seated anti-Platonism: it is the same sulfur, and not the same idea of sulfur, which is here and there.
We should not conclude from this that any distinction whatsoever is abolished between, for example, the organism and its effective manifestations, and we should not extol a radical monism on the pretext that the cleavage between essence and existence is outmoded. If the organism is not yet what it is, we must allow that it is distinguished, as specific being, from its modes of realization. Rather it is a question of inquiring how it is possible to think of this distinction outside the duality of essence and fact, of possible and real. It appears to us that the answer resides in the virtual in the sense that Bergson and Deleuze thematize it: the being of natural being is virtual being. Indeed, the virtual is not the possible, it is real as virtual; but it has “the reality of a task to fulfill,” which is tantamount to saying that it exists only as its own process of actualization, which is always a process of differentiation. Reality is not an incomprehensible leap of essence into existence, but rather the actualization of a virtuality. The virtual is nothing other than the ensemble of its actualizations, which are infinite, since there is virtual only by and as its actualization; but it is distinguishable from it in that it is precisely the power of this infinity and that no actuality therefore exhausts its abundance.
It now comes time to conclude this presentation on the Merleau-Pontian approach to nature. As we have demonstrated at the beginning, the inquiry surrounding nature is determined by the desire to elaborate a philosophy of perception, in other words, to show that the analysis of perception has such a scope that it allows us to understand the very phenomenon of truth; this is the reason why the perceived is grasped as the non-instituted, that is to say as nature. In other words it is a question of demonstrating that the perceived being described in the Phenomenology of Perception has an ontological significance, that it corresponds to the ultimate meaning of being, that is to say, it defines the conditions to which all that aspires to reality is subjected. Now, this is precisely what the reflection on nature allows us to establish. To say in effect that natural being is macrophenomenon is to affirm that the very realiy of nature implies its perceptibility: there is all-encompassing being only as perceived being. Since I grasp the organism, for example, only as total phenomenon, we must conclude that the constitutive reference of nature to perceptibility does not belie the reality of it: “to seek the real in a closer view, would be to proceed in the wrong way. Perhaps we must take the opposite path. The real is perhaps not obtained by insisting on appearances, it is perhaps appearance. All comes from our ideal of knowledge, which makes a blosse Sache (Husserl) of being. But, for being grasped only globally, the totality is not perhaps lacking reality. The notion of real is not necessarily linked to that of molecular being. Why would there not be molar being [molaire]”?[Note 25] Thus, it is surely due to this long passage through the study of nature that perceived being, such as it was described in the Phenomenology of Perception, comes to designate the very meaning of being, and that Merleau-Ponty can therefore posit the ultimate and eminent identity of the esse and of the percipi.A note for the third year lecture series summarizes perfectly the situation: “natural being is hollow because it is being of totality, macrophenomenon, i.e. eminently being-perceived, ‘image’.”[Note 26] We are therefore witnesses to an inversion of the approach, ultimately still very Husserlian, of Phenomenology of Perception.In this text, the natural world (in the “objective”sense) was reduced to the advantage of incarnated subject, and the constitutive reference of this subject to a perceived world was made to appear. In the later works, Merleau-Ponty suspends subjectivity and becomes interested in only natural being, at the heart of which he discovers a constitutive reference to perception. He no longer takes consciousness as his starting point, which led him immediately to the problem of the relationship between perceived world and nature; he begins with nature to show the identity in it of being and being-perceived. Thus, it is indeed by the reflection on nature that the transition towards ontology comes about.
However, the philosophy of nature is not ontology, natural being is only a “thin sheet of being.” It would therefore remain to be shown how this theory of natural being allows taking logos into account, how the mode of specific being that affirms itself in nature renders conceivable its sublimation under the form of ideality, that is to say, of expressive unity. This is why, if nature is not being, natural being represents nevertheless, as Merleau-Ponty repeats on several occasions, a privileged mode of access to being. Hence a question that we will be satisfied to pose by way of conclusion. If it is true that the reflection on natural being is what allows us to move from a phenomenology to an ontology, to what degree does this ontology remain phenomenological? Does not Merleau-Ponty’s ontology lead toward a philosophy of nature? It appears to me that such is the case, but this does not mean, in my view, that he abandons nonetheless phenomenological exigency. The decisive question that engages the ultimate meaning of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, is therefore, to my way thinking, the following one: is the philosophy of nature that emerges in MerleauPonty’s last work the sign of an abandoning of phenomenology or its most demanding mode of accomplishment?
Translated by Paul Milan Seattle University
La structure du comportement(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1942), 1; translated by L. Fisher under the title The Structure of Behavior (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983), 3.
Phénoménologie de la perception(Paris: Gallimard, 1945), 340; translated by C. Smith under the title Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 294.
La nature: Notes, tours du Collège de France (Paris: Editions du Seta 1995), 91. Hereafter cited as N.
Le visible et l’invisible; Suivi de notes de travail; texte établi par Claude Lefort (Paris: Gallimard, 1964); translated by Alphonso Lingis under the title The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
An unpublished text by M. Merleau-Ponty: a prospectus of his work, translated by Arleen B. Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 6.
“Institution in Personal and Public History,” section 5 of “Themes from the Lectures at the College de France, 1952-1960,” in In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. J. Wild, J. Edie, and J. O’Neill (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 108-9.
N 19, 20.
Untitled note, no date, Merleau-Ponty Archives, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
“The Concept of Nature, I,” section 8 of “Themes from the Lectures at the College de France, 1952-1960,” in In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays, 137.
File 22, dated 1958-1959, Merleau-Ponty Archives, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Hereafter cited as F22.
A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), pp. 52-53.
See, N, 230.
“Morphologie dynamique,” in F22.
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