by David Abram
Slowly, inexorably, members of our species are beginning to catch sight of a world that exists beyond the confines of our specific culture—beginning to recognize, that is, that our own personal, social, and political crises reflect a growing crisis in the biological matrix of life on the planet. The ecological crisis may be the result of a recent and collective perceptual disorder in our species, a unique form of myopia which it now forces us to correct. For many who have regained a genuine depth perception — recognizing their own embodiment as entirely internal to, and thus wholly dependent upon, the vaster body of the Earth — the only possible course of action is to begin planning and working on behalf of the ecological world which they now discern.
And yet ecological thinking is having a great deal of trouble taking root in the human world—it is still viewed by most as just another ideology; meanwhile, ecological science remains a highly specialized discipline circumscribed within a mostly mechanistic biology. Without the concerted attention of philosophers, ecology lacks a coherent and common language adequate to its aims; it thus remains little more than a growing bundle of disparate facts, resentments, and incommunicable visions.
It is my belief that the phenomenological investigations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty provide the seeds of a new and radical philosophy of nature that remains true to the diversity of experience within the biosphere of this planet. In this paper I show why a phenomenology that takes seriously the primacy of perception is destined to culminate in a renewed awareness of our responsibility to the Earth, and why the movements toward an ecological awareness on this continent and elsewhere have much to gain from a careful consideration of Merleau-Ponty’s discoveries.
Merleau-Ponty was born on the west coast of France in 1908. He studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he began teaching upon receiving his certificate in philosophy in 1931. A careful student of developments in psychology and the natural sciences, he was a powerful innovator within the tradition inaurgurated by Edmund Husserl, and he won wide recognition after the publication of the Phenomenology of Perception in 1945. Influenced by Marx’s profound sense of the material embodied relations that underlie our ideas and ideals, Merleau-Ponty’s version of phenomenology was far more embodied than that of the the other phenomenologists and more attentive to the nuances of political engagement. With Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he founded Les Temps Modernes — a journal of cultural and political critique for which he was editor-in-chief from 1945 to 1952. In 1952 he was named to fill the prestigious chair of philosophy at the College de France, a position which he held until his sudden death in 1961. He was also a prose stylist of stunning originality. The work of such theoriests as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida owes much to certain formulations in the late work of Merleau-Ponty; nevertheless, many of his most radical insights have yet to be discovered by later thinkers and activists.
I will be, of necessity, simplifying his work. I am not, moreover, interested in merely repeating his ideas twenty-five years after his death; I wish rather to accomplish a creative reading of his writings in order to indicate, not necessarily what Merleau-Ponty knew he was saying, but rather what was gradually saying itself through him. Where this interpretation moves beyond the exact content of Merleau-Ponty’s texts, it is nevertheless informed by a close and long-standing acquaintance with those texts. Since I am here interested less in the past than in the future of his project, I have organized this paper in accordance with the plan that Merleau-Ponty himself proposed in the final working note that he wrote down in March 1961, shortly before his unexpected death, in which he projected three major sections for the new book on which he was working: first “The Visible,” then “Nature,” and finally “Logos.” (1)
The visible about us seems to rest in itself. It is as though our vision were formed at the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as that between the sea and the strand. (2)
There must be depth since there is a point whence I see—since the world surrounds me…. (3)
The great achievement of Merleau-Ponty’s major completed work, The Phenomenology of Perception, (4) was to show that the fluid creativity we commonly associate with the human intellect is an elaboration or recapitulation of a deep creativity already underway at the most immediate level of bodily perception. Phenomenological philosophy had, since its inception, aimed at a rigorous description of things as they appear to an experiencing consciousness. Yet the body had remained curiously external to this “transcendental” consciousness. Merleau-Ponty was the first phenomenologist to identify the body, itself, as the conscious subject of experience. Transcendence, no longer a special property of the abstract intellect, becomes in his Phenomenology a capacity of the physiological body itself—its power of responding to other bodies, of touching, hearing, and seeing things, resonating with things. Perception is this ongoing transcendence, the ecstatic nature of the living body.
By thus shifting the prime focus of subjectivity from the human intellect to what he called the “body-subject” or the “lived body,” Merleau-Ponty uncovered the radical extent to which all subjectivity, or awareness, presupposes our inherence in a sensuous, corporeal world. And this presupposed world is not entirely undefined, it is not just any world, for it has a specific structure—that is, it exists in both proximity and distance, and it has a horizon. More specifically, this always-already-existing world is characterized by a distant horizon that surrounds me wherever I move, holding my body in a distant embrace while provoking my perceptual exploration. It is a world that is structured in depth, and from the Phenomenology of Perception on, depth—the dimensional spread from the near to the far—becomes the paradigm phenomenon in Merleau-Ponty’s writings.
The depth of a landscape or a thing can often be construed by the body-subject in a number of different ways: that cloud that I see can be a small cloud close overhead or a huge cloud far above; meanwhile what I had thought was a bird turns out to be a speck of dust on my glasses. Depth is always the dimension of ambiguity, confusion. The experience of depth is the experience of a world that both includes one’s own body and yet spreads into the distance, a world where things hide themselves not just beyond the horizon but behind other things, a world where indeed no thing can be seen all at once, in which objects offer themselves to the gaze only by withholding some aspect of themselves—their other side, or their interior depths—for further exploration. Depth, this mysterious dimension, which every schoolchild knows as the “third” dimension (after height and breadth), Merleau-Ponty asserts is the first, most primordial dimension, from which all others are abstracted.(5) To the student of perception, the phenomenon of depth is the original ambiguity: it is depth that provides the slack or play in the immediately perceived world, the instability that already calls upon the freedom of the body to engage, to choose, to focus the world long before any verbal reflection comes to thematize and appropriate that freedom as its own. And so the experience of depth runs like a stream throughout the course of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophizing, from the many analyses of visual depth and the incredible discussion of focussing the eyes in the Phenomenology of Perception(6) to the extended meditation on depth in his last complete essay, “Eye and Mind”(7) —a subterranean stream which surfaces only here and there, but which ceaselessly provides the texture of his descriptions, the source of his metaphors. As he himself asserts in a late note:
The structure of the visual field, with its near-bys, its far-offs, its horizon, is indispensable for there to be transcendence, the model of every transcendence.(8)
It is no accident that the crucial chapter of his final, unfinished work is entitled “The Chiasm,”(9) a term commonly used by neurologists and psychologists to designate the “optic chiasm,” that place in the brain where the two focusing eyes intertwine. Yet Merleau-Ponty always maintained a critical distance from the sciences that he studied, acknowledging specific discoveries while criticizing the standard, Cartesian interpretations of those findings. Merleau-Ponty was one of the first to demonstrate, contrary to the assertions of a dualistic psychology, that the experience of depth is not created in the brain any more than it is posited by the mind. He showed that we can discover depth, can focus it or change our focus within it, only because it is already there, because perception unfolds into depth—because my brain, like the rest of my body, is already enveloped in a world that stretches out beyond my grasp. Depth, which we cannot consider to be merely one perceptual phenomenon among others, since it is that which engenders perception, is the announcement of our immersion in a world that not only preexists our vision but prolongs itself beyond our vision, behind that curved horizon.
Indeed, if I attend to my direct sensory experience, I must admit that that horizon I see is curved around me, as surely as the sky overhead is arched, like a dome, like a vault. Examining the contours of this world not as an immaterial mind but as a sentient body, I come to recognize my thorough inclusion within this world in a far more profound manner than our current language usually allows. Our civilized distrust of the senses and of the body engenders a metaphysical detachment from the sensible world — it fosters the illusion that we ourselves are not a part of the world that we study, that we can objectively stand apart from that world, as spectators, and can thus determine its workings from outside. A renewed attentiveness to bodily experience, however, enables us to recognize and affirm our inevitable involvement in that which we observe, our corporeal immersion in the depths of a breathing Body much larger than our own.
Often it takes a slightly unusual circumstance to disturb our metaphysical distance from the corporeal world. On certain days, for instance, when the sky is massed with clouds, I may notice a dense topography that extends overhead as well as underfoot, enclosing me within its layers, and so come to feel myself entirely inside. In general, if I pay close attention to bodily perceptions over a period of time, I may notice that the primordial experience of depth is always the experience of a sort of interiority of the external world, such that each thing I perceive seems to implicate everything else, so that things, landscapes, faces all have a coherence, all suggest a secret familiarity and mutual implication in an anonymous presence that subtends and overarches my own. I may discern, if I attend closely, that there is a certain closure which is suggested by the horizon and its vicissitudes, a sort of promise, in the distance, of a secret kinship between the ground and the sky, a fundamental nonopposition, a suggestion that ground and sky are not two distinct entities but two layers or leaves of one single power, two leaves that open as I move toward that horizon and that close up, behind me, back there.(10)
The importance of the visible horizon for all of Merleau-Ponty’s interrogations can lead us to realize that the “world” to which he so often refers is none other than the Earth, that the coherent unity of the “visible” which slowly emerges through Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of perception—the “field of all fields,” or the “totality wherein all the sensibles are cut out’’(11) —is not the abstract totality of the conceivable universe but the experienced unity of this enveloping but local world which we call Earth.
By Earth, then, I mean to indicate an intermediate and mediating existence between ourselves and “the universe,” or, more concretely, between humankind and the Sun, toward whom our “pure” ideas seem to aspire directly, forgetful that it is not we, but rather the Earth that dwells in the field of the Sun, as we live within the biosphere of the Earth. Much of Merleau-Ponty’s work implies a growing recognition of this enveloping existence, which is only local by current scientific standards, but which is truly total for our perception. Hence, in his later writings, he begins to speak not just of the “world” but of “this world” or “our world”:
Universality of our world…according to its configuration, its ontological structure which envelops every possible and which every possible leads back to.(12)
Indeed all of phenomenology, with its reliance upon the Husserlian notion of “horizon,” is tacitly dependent upon the actual planetary horizon that we perceive whenever we step outside our doors or leave behind the city. As Merleau-Ponty has written, “it is by borrowing from the world structure that the universe of truth and of thought is constructed for us.’’(13) His thesis of the primacy of perception suggests that all of our thoughts and our theories are secretly sustained by the structures of the perceptual world. It is precisely in this sense that philosophies reliant upon the concept of “horizon” have long been under the influence of the actual visible horizon that lies beyond the walls of our office or lecture hall, that structural enigma which we commonly take for granted, but which ceaselessly reminds us of our embodied situation on the surface of this huge and spherical body we call the Earth.
Yet we should not even say “on” the Earth, for we now know that we live within the Earth. Our scientists with their instruments have rediscovered what the ancients knew simply by following the indications of their senses: that we live within a sphere, or within a series of concentric spheres. We now call those spheres by such names as the “hydrosphere,” the “troposphere,” the “stratosphere,” and the “ionosphere,” and no longer view them as encompassing the whole universe. We have discovered that the myriad stars exist quite far beyond these, and now recognize these spheres to be layers or regions of our own local universe, the Earth. Collectively these spheres make up the atmosphere, the low-viscosity fluid membrane within which all our perceiving takes place.
While science gains access to this knowledge from the outside, philosophy has approached it from within. For once again, the entire phenomenological endeavor has taken place within a region of enquiry circumscribed by a tacit awareness of Earth as the ground and horizon of all our reflections, and the hidden thrust of the phenomenological movement is the reflective rediscovery of our inherence in the body of Earth. We can glimpse this trajectory most readily in certain essays by Husserl such as his investigations of the “Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” in which Husserl refers again and again to “Earth, the original ark,” and speaks enigmatically of Earth as that which precedes all constitution,(14) as well as in the later essays of Heidegger which are a direct invocation of “earth” and “sky” along with “mortals” and “gods” in “the fourfold.’’(15) Nevertheless, it is in Merleau-Ponty’s work that the full and encompassing enigma of Earth, in all its dense, fluid, and atmospheric unity, begins to emerge and to speak.
This new sense of Earth contrasts with Heidegger’s notion of “earth” as that which remains concealed in all revelation, the dark closedness of our ground which he counterposes to the elemental openness of “sky.” The Merleau-Pontian sense of Earth names a more diverse phenomenon, at once both visible and invisible, incorporating both the deep ground that supports our bodies and the fluid atmosphere in which we breathe. In discovering the body, or in discovering a new way of thinking the body and finally experiencing the body, Merleau-Ponty was also disclosing a new way of perceiving the Earth of which that body is a part. To assert, as he did throughout the course of his life, that the human intellect is a recapitulation or prolongation of a transcendence already underway at the most immediate level of bodily sensation—to assert, that is, that the “mind” or the “soul” has a carnal genesis—is to suggest, by a strange analogy of elements that stretches back to the very beginnings of philosophy, that the sky is a part of the Earth, to imply that the sky and the Earth need no longer be seen in opposition, that this sky, this space in which we live and breathe, is not opposed to the Earth but is a prolongation, even an organ, of this planet. If the soul is not contrary to the body, then human beings are no longer suspended between a dense inert Earth and a spiritual sky, no more than they are suspended between Being and Nothingness. For the first time in modern philosophy, human beings with all of their thoughts and their ideas are enveloped within the atmosphere of this planet, an atmosphere which circulates both inside and outside of their bodies: “there really is inspiration and expiration of Being, respiration in Being….”(16) Although Merleau-Ponty never quite gives the name Earth to this unity, he does write of “the indestructible, the Barbaric Principle,’’(17) of “one sole sensible world, open to participation by all, which is given to each,”(18) of a “global voluminosity” and a “primordial topology,’’(19) and of the anonymous unity of this visible (and invisible) world.(20) He writes of “a nexus of history and transcendental geology, this very time that is space, this very space that is time which I will have rediscovered by my analysis of the visible and the flesh,”(21) but without calling it by name. In another luminous passage he writes of “the prepossession of a totality which is there before one knows how and why, whose realizations are never what we would have imagined them to be, and which nonetheless fulfills a secret expectation within us, since we believe in it tirelessly.(22) But again, this totality remains anonymous.
I suspect that Merleau-Ponty had to write in this way because what was anonymous then did not finally lose its perceptual anonymity until a decade after his death, when the first clear photographs of the Earth viewed from space were developed, and our eyes caught sight of something so beautiful and so fragile that it has been known to bring a slight reordering of the senses. It is a picture of something midway between matter and spirit, an image for what Merleau-Ponty had written of as the “existential eternity—the eternal body.”(23) Of course, in one sense such images of the Earth present the ultimate pensée de survol, that nonsituated “high-altitude thought” of which Merleau-Ponty was so critical (and indeed these images have become the worst kind of platitude in recent years, used in globalizing advertisements for everything from automobiles to detergents). But we should not be tricked into thinking that he would have brushed them aside on that account. For this philosopher of perception, such photographs (and their proliferation in the world) would undoubtedly have been disturbing indeed, but decisive, like catching sight of oneself in the mirror for the first time.
In any case, it is enough here to recognize (1) that Merleau-Ponty sensed that there was a unity to the visible-invisible world that had not yet been described in philosophy, that there was a unique ontological structure, a topology of Being that was waiting to be realized, and (2) that whatever this unrealized Being is, we are in its depths, and of it, like a fish in the sea, and that therefore it must be disclosed from inside. These points are clear from his published notes, where, for example, in a note from February 1960, he writes of his project as “an ontology from within.”(24)
It suffices for us for the moment to note that he who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it, unless …he is one of the visibles, capable, by a singular reversal, of seeing them—he who is one of them.(25)
Do a psychoanalysis of Nature: it is the flesh, the mother.(26)
In the book on which he was working at the time of his death, published posthumously, with working notes, as The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty makes a significant terminological shift. He refers much less often to the body—whether to the “lived-body,” upon which he had previously focused, or to the “objective body,” from which it had been distinguished—and begins to speak more in terms of “the Flesh.” Indeed he no longer seems to maintain the previously useful separation of the “lived-body” from the “objective body”; rather, he is now intent on disclosing, beneath these two perspectives, the mystery of their nondistinction for truly primordial perception. The singular “objective body,” had lingered quietly in Merleau-Ponty’s writings—a residual concept, and a minor concession to the natural sciences, that was necessary as long as the rest of sensible or “objective” nature remained unattended to in his work, as long as nonhuman nature remained the mute and inert background for our human experience. However, with the shift from the “lived-body” to the “Flesh”—which is both “my flesh” and “the Flesh of the world”—Merleau-Ponty inaugurates a sweeping resuscitation of nature, both human and nonhuman.
As a number of commentators have suggested, it is likely that Merleau-Ponty’s move from the lived-body to the Flesh constitutes less a break than a logical continuation of his earlier stylistic move to de-intellectualize transcendence in The Phenomenology of Perception.(27) In the language and argumentation of that earlier work, Merleau-Ponty managed to shift subjectivity from the human intellect to the body-subject. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty follows through on that first shift by dislodging transcendence as a particular attribute of the human body and returning it to the sensuous world of which this body is but a single expression. Merleau-Ponty accomplishes this by describing the intertwining of the invisible with the visible—by demonstrating that the invisible universe of thought and reflection is both provoked and supported by the enigmatic depth of the visible, sensible environment:
…the visible is pregnant with the invisible,…to comprehend fully the visible relations one must go unto the relation of the visible with the invisible.(28)
Thus, the invisible, the region of thought and ideality, is always inspired by invisibles that are there from the first perception—the hidden presence of the distances, the secret life of the Wind which we can feel and breathe but cannot see, the interior depths of things, and, in general, all the invisible lines of force that constantly influence our perceptions. The invisible shape of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, or the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts. For Merleau-Ponty our own reflections are supported by the play of light and its reflections; the mind, the whole life of thought and reason is a prolongation and expansion, through us, of the shifting, polymorphic, invisible natures of the perceptual world. In the words of Paul Elouard, “there is another world, but it is in this one.”(29) Or as Merleau-Ponty himself writes in one note, all the “invisibles,” including that of thought, are “necessarily enveloped in the Visible and are but modalities of the same transcendence.”(30) The “flesh” is the name Merleau-Ponty gives to this sensible-in-transcendence, this inherence of the sentient in the sensible and the sensible in the sentient, to this ubiquitous element which is not the objective matter we assign to the physicists nor the immaterial mind we entrust to the psychologists because it is older than they, the source of those abstractions:
There is a body of the mind, and a mind of the body….The essential notion for such a philosophy is that of the flesh, which is not the objective body, nor the body thought by the soul as its own (Descartes), [but] which is the sensible in the twofold sense of [that which is sensed and that which senses](31)
The “flesh” is the animate element which Merleau-Ponty has discovered, through his exploration of pre-objective perception, to be the common tissue between himself and the world:
The visible can thus fill me and occupy me because I who see it do not see it from the depths of nothingness, but from the midst of itself; I the seer am also visible. What makes the weight, the thickness, the flesh of each color, of each sound, of each tactile texture, of the present, and of the world is the fact that he who grasps them feels himself emerge from them by a sort of coiling up or redoubling, fundamentally homogenous with them; he feels that he is the sensible itself coming to itself….(32)
With this terminological move from the “body” to the common “flesh” Merleau-Ponty dislodges creativity or self-transcendence as a particular attribute of the human body and returns transcendence to the carnal world of which this body is an internal expression.(33) If we now consider the world to which Merleau-Ponty’s work refers to be this world—that is, the Earth—this move from the “body” to the communal “flesh” suggests that for a genuine perception the human body is radically interior to the “lebenswelt”—the life-space, or biosphere—of a worldbody which is itself in transcendence, self-creative, even—with us—alive:
One can say that we perceive the things themselves, that we are the world that thinks itself or that the world is at the heart of our flesh. In any case, once a body-world relationship is recognized, there is a ramification of my body and a ramification of the world and a correspondence between its inside and my outside, between my inside and its outside.(34)
Here Merleau-Ponty’s investigations anticipated recent work in the sciences and converge with new findings in biology, psychology, and global ecology. I will here mention only one of these developments. The “Gaia hypothesis” was first proposed in the mid-nineteen-seventies by scientists striving to account for the actual stability of the Earth’s atmosphere in the face of a chemical composition recently discovered to be very far from equilibrium. Geochemist James Lovelock and microbial biologist Lynn Margulis have hypothesized that the Earth’s atmosphere is being metabolically generated and sensitively maintained by all of the organic life on the planet’s surface acting collectively, as a single global physiology. The Gaia hypothesis (named for the mother of the Gods in Greek mythology, she whose name is at the root of such words as "geology" and "geography") provides a ready explanation, as well, for the newly recognized evidence that the Earth’s surface temperature has remained virtually constant over the last three and a half billion years despite an increase in the Sun’s heat of at least thirty percent during the same period. The hypothesis, in short, maintains that the Earth’s biosphere is a coherent, living entity regulating its temperature and internal composition much as one’s own body metabolically maintains its own internal temperature and balances the chemical composition of its bloodstream.(35) The sensible world that surrounds us must, it would seem, be recognized as a sensitive physiology in its own right.(36)
But let us turn back to Merleau-Ponty, whose work on the “ontology from within” was cut short more than two decades before these developments. There is another, equally important implication of Merleau-Ponty’s move from the lived-body to the flesh, for by shifting transcendence, which had been thought to be an exclusively human domain, to the whole of the world of which we humans are but a part, Merleau-Ponty dissolves the traditional division between the human animal and all other organisms of the Earth. The human sentience is indeed unique, but if we follow closely Merleau-Ponty’s final writings we will begin to suspect that there are other sentient entities in the biosphere—indeed, that each species, by virtue of its own carnal structure has its own unique sentience or “chiasm” with the flesh of the world.(37)
Why then, one might ask, do we not read much more about the flesh of other animals in the pages of The Visible and the Invisible? I would answer first that, given the interrupted nature of Merleau-Ponty’s text, this absence is not crucial. Since a new recognition of other animals follows directly from his thesis, such a recognition would eventually have emerged. It is clear, nevertheless, especially from our own reluctance to affirm this implication of Merleau-Ponty’s work, that to confront and accept this implication twenty-five years ago was to move against the accumulated bias of the entire Western philosophical tradition—a literate tradition that has its origins in the exaltation of a divine ideality beyond the sensory world, a tradition that continues, in the scientific age, as an exaltation of the divine human existent over and above the “mute” and “chaotic” world of nature. It is a tradition that has been formulated almost exclusively by male scholars working within those havens of literacy—the academy and the city— that have been increasingly removed from all contact with the wild and coherent diversity of nonhuman nature. As a result, it is hardly surprising that Merleau-Ponty himself had difficulty accepting the most subversive implication of his phenomenology. It is his reticence on this point—the fact that his thought never quite leaves the city—that is the real stumbling block of his unfinished work.(38)
Let us examine this point more closely. In his course on Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, Merleau-Ponty asserts that his progenitor, Husserl, was unable to abandon the Cartesian conception of a pure transcendental consciousness, the Cartesian cogito which Husserl returns to or “recalls each time we would believe him to be on the verge of a solution.”(39) In a similar way we may now discern that Merleau-Ponty, having dropped the Cartesian postulate of a pure consciousness in favor of an embodied subjectivity (which he sometimes calls intercorporeality), found himself caught within the more tacit Cartesian assumption of a massive difference between the human body, which for Descartes was open to the intervention of the soul, and all other animal bodies, which for Descartes were closed mechanisms incapable of any awareness.(40) In Merleau-Ponty’s final writings we witness him on the threshold of opening his own rich conception of an embodied intersubjectivity to include the incarnate subjectivity of other animals, although never explicitly crossing this threshold— at least not in the fragments we have. Merleau-Ponty comes upon this deep Cartesian opposition between humans and other animals, begins to dismantle it, but at the time of his death had not yet stepped through this opposition into a genuinely ecological intercorporeality.
Or had he? In his final working note—the note from which I have taken the plan for this paper—Merleau-Ponty writes that his discoveries
must be presented without any compromise with humanism, nor with naturalism [that is, the naturalism of the “natural” sciences], nor finally with theology.(41)
Humanism is the key word here. To accept no compromise with humanism was difficult for Merleau-Ponty, for he was, in many ways, a committed humanist, and we can witness him grappling with this compromise throughout his late notes. But then in that same instruction to himself he writes:
Precisely what has to be done is to show that philosophy can no longer think according to this cleavage: God, man, creatures….(42)
This is a powerful statement. From this last note it seems clear that Merleau-Ponty knew that he was out to heal the deep wound between humans and the other animals. However, his recalcitrant humanism was letting this happen only very slowly in his writings.
A single example may serve to illustrate Merleau-Ponty’s dilemma. In a note from May 1960 he writes that
the flesh of the world is not self-sensing (se sentir) as is my flesh—it is sensible and not sentient—I call it flesh. nonetheless, in order to say…that it is absolutely not an object
He then goes on to assert that it is only
by the flesh of the world that in the last analysis we can understand the lived body.(43)
Here we are left with an immense and ultimately untenable gap between the flesh of the world which is “sensible and not sentient” and my flesh which is “selfsensing.” It is Merleau-Ponty’s recalcitrant humanism that strives to maintain this distinction at the same time that his emerging ecological realism is struggling to assert the primacy of the world’s flesh: “it is by the flesh of the world that in the last analysis we can understand the lived body.” But it is simply because he is neglecting to consider other animals at this juncture that Merleau-Ponty is still able to assert that the flesh of the world is not self-sensing, for clearly other animals are a part of the perceived flesh of the world, and yet they have their own senses; following Merleau-Ponty’s thesis of the reversibility of the sensing and the sensed, they are clearly self-sensing. As soon as we pay attention to other organisms we are forced to say that the flesh of the world is both perceived and perceiving. It is only by recognizing the senses of other animals that we can begin to fill up the mysterious gap Merleau-Ponty leaves in this quote. Or, to put it another way, only by recognizing the full presence of other animals will we find our own place within Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. (Plants, as well, will come to assert their place, but our concern is first with the animals because they are our link, animal that we are, to the rest of the Flesh.) In this regard, it is essential that we discern that Merleau-Ponty’s thought does not represent the perpetuation of an abstract anthropocentrism, but rather the slow and cautious overcoming of that arrogance. It is only by listening, in the depths of his philosophical discourse, to the gradual evocation of a densely intertwined organic reality, that we will fully understand how it is that the flesh of the world is “absolutely not an object.”
Looked at in this way, a great deal of The Visible and the Invisible isalready about other species, whether or not Merleau-Ponty was aware of their influence. No thinker can really move from his/her bodily self-awareness to the intersubjectivity of human culture, and thence to the global transcendence that is “the flesh of the world,” without coming upon myriad experiences of otherness, other subjectivities that are not human, and other intersubjectivities. Indeed, the immediate perceptual world, which we commonly forget in favor of the human culture it supports, is secretly made up of these others; of the staring eyes of cats, or the raucous cries of birds who fly in patterns we have yet to decipher, and the constant though secret presence of the insects we brush from the page or who buzz around our heads, all of whom make it impossible for us to speak of the sensible world as an object—the multitude of these nonhuman and therefore background speakings, gestures, glances, and traces which impel us to write of the transcendencies and the “invisibility” of the visible world, often without our being able to say just why. It is likely that Merleau-Ponty, had he continued writing or had he written this text a few years later and witnessed the growing cultural respect for the nonhuman world as both active and interactive, would have had much less difficulty describing his experience of the “invisible” nature of the visible world and the reversibility between humanity and being.
But Merleau-Ponty did not live to read Rachel Carson’s revelations about pesticides and the natural world, or the more recent disclosures about animal vivisection and the infliction of animal pain and terror on a grand scale that goes on within contemporary agribusiness and the cosmetics industry—the violent pain and death that unfolds throughout the technological world in its forgetfulness of what he called “Wild Being.” It is possible that these disclosures would have been as unsettling to his thought, and as crucial for his rethinking of philosophy, as were the revelations concerning Stalin’s purges when these were disclosed in Europe.(44) They would have accelerated his recognition of the nonhuman others and have helped him to welcome these wild, mysterious perceptions into an ontology that was already waiting for them.
It is the body which points out, and which speaks; so much we have learnt in this chapter….This disclosure of an immanent or incipient significance in the /living body extends, as we shall see, to the whole sensible world, and our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression .(45)
…that the things have us, and that it is not we who have the things….That it is being that speaks within us and not we who speak of being.(46)
In The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty carefully demonstrated that silent or pre-reflective perception unfolds as a reciprocal exchange between the body and the world. Further, he showed that this constant exchange, with its native openness and indeterminacy, is nevertheless highly articulate, already informed by a profound logos. These disclosures carried the implication that perception, this ongoing reciprocity, is the very ground and support of that more explicit reciprocity we call “language.”(47) Merleau-Ponty’s continued focus upon the gestural genesis of language, and upon active speech as the axis of all language and thought—a focus which, as James Edie has written, distinguishes Merleau-Ponty from all other philosophers “from Plato on down”(48) —further served to ground language in the deep world of immediate perception, in the visible, tangible, audible world that envelops us, and of which we are a part.
In a more recent paper Edie maintains that Merleau-Ponty had no place, in his philosophy of language, for a depth linguistic structure such as that which Noam Chomsky has discovered in the years since Merleau-Ponty’s death.(49) Now it is true that Merleau-Ponty did not discern any surface and deep structure in the fashion of Chomsky’s investigations, but I believe that this is because he was in the midst of uncovering a more primordial structural depth within language — one which has yet to be understood by other linguists and philosophers. It is that dimension in language correlative to the actual depth of the perceptual world, the deep structure of the sensory landscape.
By starting to show, as he does in his final chapter on “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,”(50) how thought and speech take form upon the infrastructure of a living perception already engaged in the world, Merleau-Ponty carefully demonstrates that language has its real genesis not inside the human physiology but, with perception, in the depth—the play between the expressive, sensing body and the expressive physiognomies and geographies of a living world. If we follow Merleau-Ponty’s argument and agree that language is founded not inside us but in front of us, in the depths of the expressive world which engages us through all our senses, then we would not hunt for the secret of language inside the human physiology. We would not hunt, as Chomsky has suggested, for the ultimate seed of language within the human DNA,(51) for this is merely to postpone a recognition that we feel is inevitable. For if the sensible world itself is the deep body of language, then this language can no longer be conceived as a power that resides within the human species, at least no more than it adheres to the roar of a waterfall, or even to the wind in the leaves. If language is born of our carnal participation in a world that already speaks to us at the most immediate level of sensory experience, then language does not belong to humankind but to the sensible world of which we are but a part. That, I believe, is how we must read Merleau-Ponty’s parting note on language: “Logos…as what is realized in man, but nowise as his property .”(52) If we set this insight alongside what we have already found regarding the Visible and Nature—(1) that man, or woman, is entirely included within the visible, sensible world, and (2) that the sensible world which we are within and of, and which we may suspect is this Earth, is itself sensitive and alive, constituted by multiple forms of embodied awareness besides our own—then some interesting conclusions emerge. We begin to recognize, for instance, that our language has been contributed to, and is still sustained by, many rhythms, sounds, and traces besides those of our single species.
Since its inauguration in the Athenian polis, European philosophy has tended to construe language as that power which humans possess and other species do not. From Aristotle to Descartes, from Aquinas to Chomsky, “language” has been claimed as the exclusive and distinguishing property of humankind; man alone has privileged access to the Logos. Yet this exclusivity rests upon a neglect of the experiencing body, a forgetting of the gestural, carnal resonance that informs even our most rarefied discourse. In this way, it has fostered an abstract notion of language as a disembodied, purely formal set of grammatical and syntactic relations.
At least one contemporary linguist has called this entire tradition into question. Harvey Sarles, in his book Language and Human Nature, asks, “Is language disembodied, or just our theories about language?”(53) Sarles argues forcefully that the assumption that language is a purely human property, while providing a metaphysical justification for the human domination of nonhuman nature, nevertheless makes it impossible for us to comprehend the nature of our own discourse. Sarles asserts that
to define language as uniquely human also tends to define the nature of animal communication so as to preclude the notion that it is comparable to human language.(54)
However, Sarles claims
Each ongoing species has a truth, a logic, a science, knowledge about the world in which it lives. To take man outside of nature, to aggrandize the human mind, is to simplify other species and, I am convinced, to oversimplify ourselves, to constrict our thinking and observation about ourselves into narrow, ancient visions of human nature, constructed for other problems in other times.(55)
Independent of Merleau-Ponty, yet entirely congruent with Merleau-Ponty’s investigations twenty years earlier, Sarles outlines the basis for a more genuine linguistics grounded in a recognition of the “knowing body,”(56) or elsewhere, the “body-as-expression in interaction.”(57)
Any such Merleau-Pontian approach to language—any approach, that is, that discloses language’s gestural, soundful basis in bodily receptivity and response to an expressive, living world—opens us toward an understanding of the subtle relationship between language and landscape. If it is this breathing body that speaks, writes, and thinks—if it is not an immaterial ego but rather this sensible, sensitive body that dwells and moves within language—then language is at no point a structure of wholly abstract, ideal, or mathematical relations. For it is haunted by all those carnal things and styles to which our senses give us access. Language that has its real genesis in the deep world of untamed perception is language that is born as a call for and response to a gesturing, sounding, speaking landscape—a world of thunderous rumblings, of chattering brooks, of flapping, flying. screeching things, of roars and sighing winds…. That is why Merleau-Ponty could write, in the last complete lines of The Visible and the Invisible, that
language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests….(58)
It is even possible that this language we speak is the voice of the living Earth itself, singing through the human form. For the vitality, the coherence, and the diversity of the various languages we speak may well correspond to the vitality, coherence, and diversity of Earth’s biosphere—not to any complexity of our species considered apart from that matrix.
In any case, we can now hypothesize, following this unique philosopher, a fundamental dynamic behind the ecological and psychological crisis in which human culture now finds itself. As long as humankind continues to use language strictly for our own ends, as if it belongs to our species alone, we will continue to find ourselves estranged from our actions. If as Merleau-Ponty’s work indicates it is not merely this body but the whole visible, sensual world that is the deep flesh of language, then surely our very words will continue to tie our selves, our families, and our nations into knots until we free our voice to return to the real world that supports it—until we allow it to respond to the voice of the threatened rainforests, the whales, the rivers, the birds, and indeed to speak for the living, untamed Earth which is its home. The real Logos, after Merleau-Ponty, is Eco-logos.
Can this rending characteristic of reflection come to an end? There would be needed a silence that envelops the speech anew….this silence will not be the contrary of language.(59)
What then does Merleau-Ponty bring to the new field of ecology? He brings it a clarified epistemology, and the language of perceptual experience. His work suggests a rigorous way to approach and to speak of the myriad ecosystems without positing our immediate selves outside of them. Unlike the language of information processing and systems theory, Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal phenomenology provides a way to describe and to disclose the living fields of interaction from our experienced place within them.
The convergence of Merleau-Ponty’s aims with those of a genuine philosophical ecology cannot be too greatly stressed. I have shown the equivalence between the dimensions of the “world” he discloses and the actual Earth. His Lebenswelt is identical to the biosphere of a truly rigorous ecology. He anticipated, I believe, that his perceptual analyses would lead to a clarified description of other embodied forms, other presences which move at rhythms altogether foreign to our own. In one note he writes:
…it would be necessary in principle to disclose the ‘organic history’ under the historicity of truth….in reality all the particular analyses concerning Nature, life, the human body, and language will make us progressively enter into the Lebenswelt and the ‘wild’ being, and as I go I should not hold myself back from entering into their positive description, nor even into the analysis of the diverse temporalities.(60)
Finally, Merleau-Ponty points directly to an Eco-logos by repeatedly referring to the autonomous “Lebenswelt Logos,” to that “perceptual logic” which reigns underneath all our categories and “sustains them from behind”:
…the sensible world is this perceptual logic…and this logic is neither produced by our psychophysical constitution, nor produced by our categorial equipment but lifted from a world whose inner framework our categories, our constitution, our ‘subjectivity’ render explicit.(61)
It is this mute perceptual logic, recovered in language, that gives birth to ecology. Until today’s fledgling ecological science addresses itself to the experience of perception it will remain uncertain of its motives, and unable to find its voice.
(1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
(2) Ibid., p. 130.
(3) Ibid., p. 219.
(4) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1962).
(5) Ibid., p. 256.
(6) Ibid., pp. 230-233.
(7) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," trans. Carleton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception , ed. James Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964).
(8) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p.231.
(9) Ibid. p. 130.
(10) This common visual experience of the horizon, so rarely attended to, is, I believe, the primary source of Merleau-Ponty’s unique metaphor of the two leaves in "The Intertwining-The Chiasm" and in his working notes: "Insertion of the world between the two leaves of my body; insertion of my body between the two leaves of each thing and of the world" (The Visible and the Invisible, p. 264). Merleau-Ponty is here affirming Husserl’s assertion that, phenomenologically, the perceptual field or landscape has numerous "internal horizons" as well as the "external horizon" that envelops it.
(11) Ibid., p. 214.
(12) Ibid., p. 229
(13) Ibid., p. 13.
(14) Edmund Husserl, “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” in Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl. ed. M. Farber (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1940).
(15) Martin Heidegger, "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" in Basic Writings, ed. D. F. Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
(16) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p. Ivi.
(17) Ibid., p. 267.
(18) Ibid., p. 233.
(19) Ibid., p. 213.
(20) Ibid., p. 233.
(21) Ibid., p. 259.
(22) Ibid., p. 42.
(23) Ibid., p. 265.
(24) Ibid., p. 237.
(25) Ibid., pp. 134-135.
(26) Ibid., p. 267.
(27) See, for instance, Gary Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981).
(28) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p. 216.
(29) Cited in Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the Wor/d (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 147.
(30) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p. 257.
(31) Ibid., p. 259 (translation amended).
(32) Ibid., p. 114.
(33) The issue is in fact far more subtle and complex than this admittedly surface analysis suggests. What is immediately evident, however is that in The Visible and the Invisible Merleau-Ponty supplements his earlier perspective—that of a body experiencing the world—with that of the world experiencing itself through the body. Here he places emphasis upon the mysterious truth that one’s hand can touch things only by virtue of the fact that the hand, itself, is a touchable thing, and is thus thoroughly a pan of the tactile landscape that it explores. Likewise the eye that sees things is itself visible, and so has its own place within the visible field that it sees. Clearly a pure mind could neither see nor touch things, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things, can touch, hear and taste things, only because, as bodies, we are ourselves a part of the sensible field and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes. Indeed, to see is at one and the same time to feel oneself seen; totouch the world is also to be touched by the world. Merleau-Ponty coins the term reversibility to express this double or reciprocal aspect inherent in all perception: surely I am experiencing the world; yet when I attend closely to the carnal nature of this phenomenon, I recognize that I can just as well say that I am being experienced by the world. The recognition of this second, inverted perspective, when added to the first, leads to the realization of reversibility: “I am part of a world that is experiencing itself,” or even, “I am the world experiencing itself through this body.”
(34) Ibid., p. 136.
(35) James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
(36) For a much more in-depth study of the relation between the Gaia hypothesis and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, see David Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia," in The Ecologist 15, 3 (1985), and "The Mechanical and the Organic: On the Influence of Metaphor in Science" in Scientists on Gaia, edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston (Boston: MIT Press, 1991).
(37) Chiasm is the term Merleau-Ponty selects to describe the blending, the reversible exchange between my flesh and the flesh of the world that occurs in the play of perception. This interweaving, this ongoing communion between divergent aspects of a single Flesh, is to be found at every level of experience; it exists already in the body’s own organization as the synaesthetic intertwining between one sense and another, and even within each sense, between the left and the right side of that sense—as in the "optic chiasm."
(38) That Merleau-Ponty’s thought was searching for roots beyond the confines of the city is attested by his increasing fascination with the painter’s relation to the natural landscape. See "Cezanne’s Doubt," in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert and Patricia Dreyfus (Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), and also "Eye and Mind," in The Primacy of Perception.
(39) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, trans Hugh Silverman and with a foreword by James Edie (Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 43.
(40) Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Laurence Lafleur (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 36-38.
(41) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit.. p.274
(42) Ibid., p. 274.
(43) Ibid., p. 250.
(44) See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror, trans. John O’Neill (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), and Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. Joseph Bien (Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1973)
(45) From the chapter on "The Body as Expression and Speech," in Merleau-Ponty, 1962, op. cit., p.197.
(46) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p. 194.
(48) See James Edie’s “Foreword” to Merleau-Ponty, 1973, op. cit., pp. XVII-XVIII.
(49) James Edie, “Merleau-Ponty: The Triumph of Dialectic over Structuralism,” a paper presented at a conference of the Merleau-Ponty circle at SUNY Binghamton, NY in 1982.
(50) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit.,pp. 130-155.
(51) Cited in Edie, 1982, op. cit. Note that Chomsky is the major contemporary proponent of the view that language belongs to the human species alone.
(52) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p 274.
(53) Harvey Sarles, Language and Human Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 228.
(54) Ibid., p 86.
(55) Ibid., p. 20.
(56) Ibid., p. 249.
(57) Ibid., p. 20. More recently, the bodily infrastructure of language has been forcefully demonstrated by the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. See especially their joint volume, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Lakoff’s excellent book, Women, Fire and Other Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). The research of these authors is definitive, I believe, in establishing the centrality of non-verbal perceptual and kinsethetic experience in the genesis and development of human language.
(58) Merleau-Ponty, 1968, op. cit., p. 155.
(59) Ibid., p. 179.
(60) Ibid., p. 167.
(61) Ibid., pp. 247-248.