A Western Problem? Merleau-Ponty on Intersubjectivity

  • Rudi Visker
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 155)


My title is, as a reader familiar with The Visible and the Invisible will have recognized, a quote. It comes at the end of the November 1959 Working Notewhich is entitled “I — the other, an inadequate formula”. This formula is inadequate, Merleau-Ponty suggests, because it formulates “a Western problem” (VI 221).‘Western’is italicized here, which means that it was underlined in Merleau-Ponty’s manuscript. And one of the reasons why I put a question mark behind that quote in my title is because I wonder what that underlining means. What goes through our mind when we hear that a certain problem is a Western problem? Since we hear this so often and more and more so, we should reflect on this, especially since it is not sure that the way we — today, almost 40 years later and in a different historical setting — hear such statements is the way in which Merleau-Ponty intended us to hear his italics. It is too soon to make wild guesses about what Merleau-Ponty meant when he underlined‘Western’and we will have to come back to that as we go on unpacking this Working Note. But for now, let me just confess that this little word‘Western’doesn’t sit easily with me and that I cannot but sense a certain discomfort when reading this or similar passages in The Visible and the Invisible and elsewhere. And since I am confessing, I might as well add that it is not just this word‘Western’which makes me feel uneasy and that there are other words, or better: a certain atmosphere which I associate rightly or wrongly with this philosophy, which seems to overdetermine the discomfort which I sensed, a bit to my surprise, as I was rereading these pages which for such a long time had inspired me and taught me so much.


Possessive Pronoun Cultural Idea Catholic Tradition Total Part Summer Semester 
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  1. 1.
    An early draft of the introduction and the first section of this text was read to the Merleau-Ponty Circle’s22nd Annual International Conference at Seattle University (Sept.’ 97).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    La Nature. Notes. Cours du Collège de France(ed. D. Séglard), Paris, Seuil, 1995. Abbreviated as N.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    M. Merleau-ponty, Notes de Cours au Collège de France1958–9 et 1960-61(ed. St. Ménasé), Paris, Gallimard (nrf), 1996, p. 360. Henceforth abbreviated as NdC.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    E.g. N 271,280; PP 354; PW 134,135; S 170; VI 118.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    E. Levinas, ‘Intersubjectivity: Notes on Merleau-Ponty’, in G.A. JOHNSON — M.B. SMITH (eds.), Ontology and Altenty in Merleau-Ponty,Evanston Ill., Northwestern U.P., 1990, p. 57.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Cf. M.C. Dillon’s interesting comments on possible misconceptions suggested by the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘element’ in his ‘Écart. Reply to Claude Lefort’s “Flesh and Otherness”’, in G.A. Johnson — M.B. SMITH (eds.),o.c., p. 25: “reversibility must be understood adverbially rather than substantially”.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    On Husserl’s Zuschauerwhich Merleau-Ponty interprets as another kpsmotheoros: NdC 368, VI 227. In this context, it is interesting to note that Merleau-Ponty understood Husserl’s famous “Philosophie als Wissenschaft, als ernstliche, strenge ja apodiktisch strenge Wissenschaft — der Traum ist ausgeträumt” as an announcement of a Kehreaway from’ strict’ and ‘impartial’’ science’, whereas it was in fact a cry of despair denouncing precisely the tendency to give up on that project (NdC 382; S 138; cf. E. Husserl, Krisis (Husserliana VI), Beilage XXVIII,p. 508 esp. lines 32 ff: “Aber die Zeiten sind vorüber, ist dergleichen allgemein herrschendeüberzeugung…”, — it is precisely against this doxathat Husserl offers the therapy of phenomenology as a rigorous science; the Crisisis about nothing but that).Google Scholar
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    E.g. M. Heidegger, Überden Humanismus,Frankfurt a.M., Vittorio Klostermann, 1981 (19491), p. 31 on the often misunderstood ‘essence of materialism’; ID., Hölderlins Hymne ‘Der Ister’(Freiburg lectures, summer semester 1942), GA 53, p. 66: “Es ist ein Grundirrtum zu meinen, weil die Maschine selbst aus Metallen und Stoffen bestehe, sei das Maschinenzeitalter ‘materialistisch’. Die neuzeitliche Maschinentechnik ist ‘Geist’ …”.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    This expression seems to have the status of a root-metaphor in Merleau-Ponty’s endology (e.g. VI 118,134,217,218) — although none of these references bears directly on the ego/alter egorelation, I think one can nonetheless safely apply the expression ‘total parts’ to this relation too.Google Scholar
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    One should not forget that ‘incompossibility’ for Merleau-Ponty is not contrary to ‘union’ — the “vertical world” that he seeks to uncover is synonymous to “the union of the incompossibles” (VI 228).Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    On this rapprochementof Kant and Merleau-Ponty, cf. the perspicacious remarks in R. BONAN’s outstanding Premières Leçons sur l’Esthétique de Merleau-Ponty,Paris, P.U.F. 1997, pp. 94-101.Google Scholar
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    M. Merleau-ponty, L’Oeil et l’Esprit,Paris, Gallimard (Folio Essais), 1964, p. 31 the English translation in PrP 167 has dropped this clause.Google Scholar
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    For a brief exposition of what this expression meant to the Catholic tradition, cf. J.-L. Chrétien, ‘Le corps mystique dans la théologie catholique’, in J.-C. Goddard — M. Labrune, Le corps,Paris, Vrin-Intégrale, 1992, pp. 90-106; and M.-D. Gasnier, ‘Trouver un corps. Éléments pour une pensée chrétienne du corps’, ibid.,pp. 71-90.I am, of course, in no way suggesting that Merleau-Ponty had as his secret agenda a sort of crypto-neo-Catholic ontology. But certain notions like ‘total parts’ or the ever present verb ‘participate’ (e.g. VI 137) and a number of the expressions that we shall note below, do seem to echo, perhaps unintentionally, the basic structure that was at stake in the notion of a corpus mysticum.One need only think of the well-known thesis that each parcel of the Holy Bread contained the whole of Christ, and that in the corresponding ecclesiastical community (which was since the 12th century referred to as ‘the Body of Christ’) Christ was present in and through each of its members, without of course being reducible to any one of them. In this context, it is worth noting, for example, that Merleau-Ponty calls ‘flesh’ in a crucial passage “a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of it”(VI 139/184, transi, corrected — the last ‘it’ refers to ‘flesh’, not to ‘being’).Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Cl. Lévi-Strauss, The Scope of Anthropology, in ID., Structural Anthropology Volume II,London, Allen Lane, 1977, p. 22. Henceforth quoted as SA.Google Scholar
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    Cl. Lévi-Strauss, The Effectiveness of Symbols, in ID., Structural Anthropology [Volume I],London, Allen Lane, 1969, p. 203.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    I adopt this phrase from an essay in which Levinas is obviously alluding to Merleau-Ponty’s Lévi-Strauss essay (E. LEVINAS, ‘Meaning and Sense’, in CPP, p. 88). My reasons for directing this remark to Lévi-Strauss rather than to Merleau-Ponty will become apparent below.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    One may wonder whether Merleau-Ponty’s protests against the notion of the infinite of the Cartesians who speak of it “as one speaks of some thing, which they demonstratein ‘objective philosophy’” (VI 169) could not equally well be directed against Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism.Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    J. Lacan, Écrits,Paris, Seuil, 1966, p. 94/2-henceforth quoted as E followed by the French pagination and after the solidus by the English pagination for essays included in Alan Sheridan’s partial translation (Écrits. A Selection,London, Routledge, 1989). For a brief but lucid exposition of the ‘mirror stage’: B. Ogilvie, Lacan. La formation du concept de sujet (1932–1949),Paris, P.U.F., 1987, pp. 96-119; Ph. Julien, Le retour à Freud de Jacques Lacan. L’application au miroir,Paris, E.P.E.L., 1990, pp. 43 ff.Google Scholar
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    Lacan, who knew his mythology, does not miss the opportunity to capitalize ‘Discord’ (E 95/4,149).Google Scholar
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    J. Lacan,’ some Reflections on the Ego’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis,1953 (XXXIV), p. 15.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    Ibid., p.16.Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    See above note 13 and section II on Leibniz. It cannot be denied that Merleau-Ponty’s text is full of images that point in this direction (e.g. VI 133: “two halves of an orange”; 134: “total parts” (see above note 16); VI 139: “commerce”; VI 148: “the zero of pressure between two solids that makes them adhereto one another”) — all of which basically are to contain the same danger: that of “an ontological void, a non-being” (ibid),in other terms: that of an invisible that would not be an invisible ‘of’ the visible without being either the de factoinvisible (e.g. VI 251) or the absoluteinvisible (e.g. VI 266) that Merleau-Ponty tends to see as its alternatives. As our discussion of Lacan made clear, and as I shall be suggesting below, one might wonder whether there is not something which escapes this set of alternatives and refuses to be domesticated by it. For a similar suspicion, cf. Cl. Lefort, ‘Flesh and Otherness’, in G.A. Johnson — M.B. Smith (eds.), o.c.,pp. 3–13 — although I am sympathetic to Lefort’s overall point of view and in particular share his suspicion that “the world that Merleau-Ponty attempted to explore [may have been] an already tamed world rather than that wild experience to which he hoped to give expression” (p. 11), I should like to stress that the argument I am in the course of developing rests on its own and should not be too quickly assimilated with Lefort’s even where it touches on points (like the proper name — cf. infra) which he is making too. There is, in fact, a lot to be learned from the replies which follow Lefort’s paper in that same volume and I hope to have profited from them.Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    Heidegger, as we now know, would agree: “Das Dasein als Monade braucht keine Fenster (…) weil die Monade, das Dasein, seinem eigenen Sein nach (der Transzendenz nach), schon draußen ist” (Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie(Marburg Lectures, summer semester 1927), GA 24, p. 427).Google Scholar
  24. 32.
    M. Merleau-ponty, Notes de Cours sur l’Origine de la Géométrie de Husserl. Suivi de Recherches sur la phénomenologie de Merleau-Ponty(éd. R. Barbarbas), Paris, P.U.F., 1998, p. 37 (and cf. ibid.,pp. 36, 73 for similar dismissals of relativism).Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    The fact that Merleau-Ponty, in the passage just quoted from the Working Notes,says of the universal what Claudel in the passage quoted from Signs,says of God, again seems to confirm that the parallel we have been suggesting between ‘flesh’ and the ‘mystical body’ of the Catholic tradition may not be entirely arbitrary. There seems at least a homology of structure between them, such that the sentence following this passage from Signsseems also to describe Merleau-Ponty’s own position: “Transcendence no longer hangs over man: he becomes, strangely, its privileged bearer” (S 71).Google Scholar
  26. 34.
    S. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1981.Google Scholar

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  • Rudi Visker

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