Marvin Farber on Maurice Merleau‑Ponty

4. Merleau‑Ponty makes critical reference to Husserl's conception of a life-world in his Phenomenology of Perception. [9] He interprets Husserl as conceding, in his last period, that all reflection should return to the description of the world of living experience, the Lebenswelt. The point is, then, "by means of a second 'reduction'," to reinstate the structures of the world of experience "in the transcendental flow of a universal constitution in which all the world's obscurities are elucidated." It should be noted, however, that there can be no thought of changing the incompleteness or obscurity of experience, which are rather to be seen, just as they were experienced. The incompleteness of natural experience is seen "completely" in reflection; and obscurity is viewed in its contrasting relationship to clarity. Whether this can be given an empirical form is another question, with which pure phenomenology is not concerned.

Merleau‑Ponty argues that phenomenology is now faced with a dilemma: "either the constitution undertaken by phenomenology makes the world transparent, in which case it is not obvious why reflection needs to pass through the world of experience, or else it retains something of the world, and never rids it of its opacity." In Merleau‑Ponty's opinion, Husserl's thought moves increasingly in this second direction, "when he bases knowledge on a basic doxa." But the attempt to set up a dilemma is not successful. The first horn of the purported dilemma amounts to a specious objection—as though passing through the world of experience by reflection could be avoided. The alternative, that reflection "retains something of that world," is an understatement, for it retains everything. Since a dilemma is no better than its horns, Merleau‑Ponty's analysis has hardly added to the appraisal of the life‑world.

Failure to indicate explicitly that one has left "the ground of the world" in phenomenological analysis may result in strange assertions. Thus Merleau‑Ponty declares that "the existence of other people is a difficulty and an outrage for objective thought" (p. 349). Why it should be called an "outrage" is not clear. More understandable but not more reassuring is the assertion that there is no place for other people and a plurality of consciousnesses in objective thought. His reasoning is not convincing. "Insofar as I constitute the world," he reasons, "I cannot conceive another consciousness, for it would have to constitute the world, and, at least as regards this other view of the world, I should not be the constituting agent. Even if I succeeded in thinking of it as constituting the world, it would be I who would be constituting the consciousness as such, and once more I should be the sole constituting agent" (pp. 349ff.). But why is it not possible to conceive another consciousness on the basis of my own constitution of the world? Is one to preempt experience of much of its most significant content, in order to retain an "egological" core, belonging to my own, artificially limited experience? Furthermore, would "another consciousness" have to constitute "the world," or "a world"? One must consider the programmatic, methodological character of "egology." The aim was to see how for one could go on the basis of his own process of experience, and to build constructively ("constitutively") on that basis. Another consciousness or ego had to be "exhibited" in one's own conscious sphere. Whether that is done successfully or not, it is a fact that there are other consciousnesses or egos; this is no "outrage" to "objective thought." The denial of other consciousnesses would be outrageous, for it would be a standing warning that something important had been missed in the analysis. In short, "my own" experience is not real experience if it does not involve other consciousnesses, or a society of other human beings‑and a world as well. The critical ("radical") inspection of experience, evidence, and knowledge that is made possible by the "reduction" to one's own consciousness is accomplished by means of reflection. In reflecting about the world, one does not leave the world; it remains in existence. In reflecting about other knowers, one does not rule out their continued existence. But the kind of method employed should always be made explicit. One should not permit a natural fondness for paradox, if not for obscure "truths" that pass all understanding, to render him misleading. Something is seriously wrong with one's language or one's analysis if it turns out that the existence of other people and of other consciousnesses is a kind of unwarranted intrusion for any type of subjectivism. This may amount to misplacement of a method of inquiry.

9 (New York: The Humanities Press, 1962), p. 365.

2. The premise of subjectivism is also present in Merleau‑Ponty's version of phenomenology, as seen in his Phenomenology of Perception. [1] A rather mixed subjectivism results, with indebtedness to Husserl and Heidegger. Instead of delivering the whole realm of existence to an absolute subject, the argument operates with mundane and subjectivistic factors, using an individual subject as the point of reference. Time or temporality provides the crucial test. It is denied that time can be regarded as characterizing the field of existence in or by itself, and time is ascribed to subjectivity. The reasons given are specious, and recall idealistic tenets of a bygone generation. Thus the phenomenological world is said to "lay down being," rather than to bring a preexisting being to expression. Merleau‑Ponty maintains (op. cit., p. 410) that existence "cannot be anything—spatial, sexual, temporal—without being so in its entirety . . . with the result that an analysis of any one of them . . . touches upon subjectivity itself." To make sure that time involves subjectivity is the primary concern. Thus if a person says that a glacier had recently produced the water that is passing at this moment, he is said to be "tacitly assuming the existence of a witness tied to a certain spot in the world" (p. 411). Now one must consider whether this witness represents a dogma that must be granted, or whether this view should not be granted, on simple grounds of fact. One should reexamine the "disclosure of the world" that is supposedly effected. In Merleau‑Ponty's view, "there are no events without someone to whom they happen"; but this is false for natural events. It should read, "there are no experienced events without someone to whom they happen," which would then be simply analytic. The contention that "time presupposes a view of time" could only apply to experienced time.

To argue that "time is not a real process," and that "it arises from my relation to things," is to cast the shadow of the cogito over the field of existence, if not to circumscribe existence. But one cannot deal so lightly with time. If I can consider it from my viewpoint it can also be considered from innumerable other points of view. An egocentric view of time is not the only one. Neither does it dispose of temporality as a universal feature of events in the sense of independent natural existence. One can speak of existence as an unfinished whole; but one can also speak of the events making up the process of existence in relationship to various frameworks of reference, including other physical events.

In Merleau‑Ponty's view, "the objective world is too much of a plenum for there to be time." If it is made to be a plenum, time can be pushed off as a secondary feature of existence, involving a subject for experience and existence. Hence the location of time is crucial in ontology. Existence may be talked about "as such," if not as a whole, but not profitably for very long. It occurs piecemeal, with successions of events that are distinguishable to observers. That innumerable events do not depend upon or involve observers for their separate and distinct traits and their relationships to one another, is a matter of fact. The tiger killing its prey, without a witness; the stone rolling down a hill and crushing a plant, or moving another stone, or raising dust—such events do not depend upon a knower. If one asks how we know these things, the question is merely temporarily disconcerting, for direct experience is not the only mode of knowledge. It seems that everybody must pass through that stage of argumentation.

It is unavoidable that transcendence be spoken of from a subjective point of view; this signifies a means of deliverance from the self‑imposed limitations of one's analysis. Transcendence at once supports subjectivism, and acts as a major instrument of concealment; to view the world as inseparable from the subject and the subject as inseparable from the world represents a limitation of existence in accordance with the idealistic tradition. The only way to sustain such a thesis would be to define the world in relationship to a subject; for the world to remain "subjective" can be achieved only with the help of "the subject's movement of transcendence" (in the words of Merleau‑Ponty, p. 430). It is not surprising, therefore, to find the spotlight in many countries turned on a more or less perplexing or mysterious "transcendence." Where ever there is subjectivism, the word "transcendence" at least must appear.

That Merleau‑Ponty was well aware of some important objections to his position is shown by a crucial question he cites (p. 432): What about the world before man's appearance on it? To his assertion "that there is no world without an Existence that sustains its structure," one may object that the world preceded man, that the earth may be the only inhabited planet, so that his view may seem to be incompatible with the most firmly established facts. It seems that such objections are cited with the speedy aim of undermining them, for it turns out that there are misconceived "facts." Merleau‑Ponty's text shows how he employs a familiar type of argument. He asks "what precisely is meant by saying that the world existed before any human consciousness?" Such words as earth, nebula, life, etc., like every equation in physics, are said to presuppose our "prescientific experience of the world." He adds, in the spirit of Berkeley, that "nothing will ever bring home to my comprehension what a nebula that no one sees could possibly be"; that "Laplace's nebula is not behind us, at our remote beginnings, but in front of us in the cultural world." It would be desirable for the outcome of the issue to adhere unflinchingly to that thesis. The statement that "there is no world without a being in the world" is taken to mean that "consciousness always finds itself already at work in the world." This must be examined carefully, to determine in what sense it is "at work." What does it do? The "nature" that is granted "is not that of the sciences"; it is a kind of uncontaminated nature, "which perception presents to me."

The emphasis is on what is presented to me. In basic conformity to Husserl's general view, Merleau‑Ponty states that another person "will never exist for us as we exist ourselves" (p. 433). As he expresses it, "we never feel in him as we do in ourselves the thrust of time‑creation."

It must be asked whether "existing for us" is the only condition of existence that has meaning; this doubt must be posed in the context of established knowledge and experience. Even if "egology" is recognized as a special type of inquiry, the claim to greater certainty of "existence for me" can be challenged on grounds of truth. Consider, for example, a worker and his foreman, or a mother and her child. What appears to one person, or what exists for one person, may be as true for other persons with the same compelling evidence as anything pertaining to their own body; and those other persons are not necessarily limited to "existence for me." It can be argued that other persons and the world of nature are as truly existent as I am, with my conscious processes. And such processes would not be at all without other persons and the world of nature. Should not a philosopher acknowledge at least this much?

[1] Cf M. Merleau‑Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: The Humanities Press, 1962).

The observer has been taken to be an individual, whose reports are to be tested in comparison with the reports of others. If the observer is a subjectivistic philosopher, he may well ask, "Who, then, are these so‑called 'others'?" Following Husserl, Merleau‑Ponty (in his Phenomenology of Perception) assigns a lower level of certitude to the status of other persons. As a methodological device, a subjectivistic procedure has its limited usefulness; but to make it yield an ontology would be naive indeed, reducing the procedure to the level of a deceptive device.

Would the argument be altered by making the world of existence dependent upon a society of knowers? But if all knowers. were to disappear, would there be no world? And would the same be true of the time when there were no knowers? If one replies that there would be no known worlds without knowers, that would merely have the force of a redundancy. Merleau‑Ponty's convenient disposal of this question gives the impression of defending a lost cause. To shift from the fact of the recent emergence of knowers, which supports the thesis of natural independence, to the fact of man's relationship to the world, which is meaningful only because of man, is evidence of unclarified motives and rational processes. The procedure consists in defining meaningfulness in relationship to man, and in using the redundancy that results to imply ontological dependence (or necessary relatedness to human subjectivity).

In the case of outer perception, it is the world of existence or, more exactly, its parts, that are being described, unless one errs. One can also attend, in reflection, to the experiencing of the world or its parts. There is still a possibility of error, although it is greatly reduced through the specialization of the procedure.

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. Phenomenology and Existence: Toward a Philosophy Within Nature. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.  Excerpts: pp. 145-147, 198-201, 236-237.

Phenomenology and Existence: Toward a Philosophy Within Nature by Marvin Farber

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