The Visible and the Invisible, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The Visible and the Invisible (1964) contains the unfinished manuscript and working notes of the book Merleau-Ponty was writing when he died. The text is devoted to a critical examination of Kantian, Husserlian, Bergsonian, and Sartrean method, followed by the extraordinary “The Intertwining–The Chiasm,” that reveals the central pattern of Merleau-Ponty’s own thought. The working notes for the book provide the reader with a truly exciting insight into the mind of the philosopher at work as he refines and develops new pivotal concepts.
read the entire book: HERE
[m]: Ontology has been dominated since Descartes by the subject-object dichotomy (res cogitans and res extensa) and despite many valiant attempts has been completely incapable of twisting free of this schema. This gives rise to a whole host of philosophical and infrastructural problems. Here M-P generates significant insights and philosophical advances for the praxis of ontography – not the least of which is his insistence of “the priority of being over thought.” These working notes are invaluable to the student of phenomenology and philosophies of life/death.
A description by Taylor Carman (Columbia University):
Merleau-Ponty spent the years just prior to his death in 1961 extending, rethinking, and in some cases revising ideas that had been at the center of his philosophical work since the 1930s. Early and late, he always tried to break down traditional dualisms, above all those of sensibility and understanding, activity and passivity, inner and outer, mind and body.
Merleau-Ponty’s final, unfinished work, The Visible and the Invisible, carries that reconciling project to new depths, and indeed new extremes, to include the past and the present, and the body and its surrounding environment. In a famously self-critical note from 1959, he confesses, “The problems posed in Ph.P. [Phenomenology of Perception] are insoluble because I start there from the ‘consciousness’-‘object’ distinction.” In the last phase of his thinking he therefore strives ever more resolutely to free himself from the received view of intentionality as subjectivity standing over against and external to objects radically heterogeneous with it, and as occupying a specious present sharply distinct from past and future moments in a linear temporality. Body and world, like past and present, he now insists, are “interwoven” in such a way that seemingly neat conceptual distinctions between them are bound to distort and misrepresent the phenomena as we actually live and understand them in preconceptual, prereflective, prearticulate ways.
Grasping the essential ambiguity of the phenomena moreover demands that we forsake the rigorous aspirations of traditional metaphysics and epistemology in favor of what Merleau-Ponty calls the “nonphilosophy” of post-Hegelian thinkers like Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. The grand aspirations of systematic philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, that is, must give way to a new kind of concrete, descriptive, perhaps merely evocative inquiry situated essentially if uneasily between the empirical and the transcendental, or in Heideggerian terms, the ontic and the ontological. Such a conception of philosophy and its object runs a considerable risk of obscurity, not to say obscurantism, and indeed Merleau-Ponty’s late notes often seem to tread a fine line between depth and emptiness. Recurring images of “chiasm” and the “intertwining” of body and world, and of past and present, work powerfully as metaphors, but they also cry out for some lucid, demystifying philosophical interpretation.
SOME KEY STATEMENTS:
- “For us the essential is to know precisely what the being of the world means. To correlative idea of a being of representation, of a being for the consciousness, of a being for man: these, along with the being of the world, are all notions that we have to rethink with regard to our experience of the world. We have to reformulate the skeptical arguments outside of every ontological preconception and reformulate them precisely so as to know what world-being, thing-being, imaginary being, and conscious being are.” (Pg. 6-7)\
- “No doubt, it is not entirely my body that perceives. I know only that it can prevent me from perceiving, that I cannot perceive without its permission; the moment perception comes my body effaces itself before it and never does the perception grasp the body in the act of perceiving.” (Pg. 9)
- “Our purpose is not to oppose to the facts objective science coordinates a group of facts that ‘escapes’ it—whether one calls them ‘psychism’ or ‘subjective facts’ or ‘interior facts’—but to show that the being-object and the being-subject conceived by opposition to it and relative to it do not form the alternative, that the perceived world is beneath or beyond their antinomy, that the failure of ‘objective’ psychology is… to be understood not as a victory of the ‘interior’ over the ‘exterior’ and of the ‘mental’ over the ‘material,’ but as a call for the revision of our ontology, for the re-examinations of the notions of ‘subject’ and object.’” (Pg. 22-23)
- “Because perception gives us faith in a world, in a system of natural facts rigorously bound together and continuous, we have believed that this system could incorporate all things into itself, even the perception that has initiated us into it. Today we no longer believe nature to be a continuous system of this kind; a fortiori we are far removed from thinking that the islets of ‘psychism’ that here and there float over it are secretly connected to one another through the continuous ground of nature. We have then imposed upon us the task of understanding whether, and in what sense, what is not nature forms a ‘world,’ and first what a ‘world’ is, and finally, if world there is, what can be the relations between the visible world and the invisible world.” (Pg. 26-27)
- “Philosophy believed that it could overcome the contradictions of the perceptual faith by suspending it in order to disclose the motives that support it… The procedure of reflection, as an appeal to ‘the interior,’ retreats back from the world, consigns the faith in the world to rank of things says, or ‘statements.’ But then we have the feeling that this ‘explication’ is a transformation without reconversion, that it rests upon itself, on the perceptual faith whose tenor it claims to give us and whose measure it claims to be: it is because first I believe in the world and in the things that I believe in the order and the connection of my thoughts. We are therefore led to seek, beneath the reflection itself, and as it were in front of the philosopher who reflects, the reasons for belief which he seeks within himself, in his thoughts, on the hither side of the world.” (Pg. 50-51)
- “The famous ontological problem, the ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ disappears along with the alternative: there is not something RATHER THAN NOTHING, the nothing could not TAKE THE PLACE of something or of being: nothingness inexists…and being is, and the exact adjusting of the one upon the other no longer leaves room for a question. Everything is obscure when one has not thought out the negative. For then what is called negation and what is called position appear as accomplices and even in a sort of equivalence… But one also understands that, seen from high enough, the amplitude of being will never exceed that to nothingness, nor the noise of the world in silence.” (Pg. 64)
- “we have come not only to rehabilitate negative thought as an original way of thinking, but also to formulate negatively… the principle of causality, and finally to conceive as negativity thought, which for Spinoza was the positive itself. Should it now be necessary to complete or rather to go beyond this reversal by saying that I am not capable of being for myself unless, at the center of myself, I am nothing at all, but that this central void must be borne by being, by a situation, a world, is never knowable except as the focus their perspectives indicate, and that is in this sense there is a priority of being over thought.” (Pg. 98)
- “The philosopher’s manner of questioning is therefore not that of cognition: being and the world are not for the philosopher unknowns such as are to be determined through their relation with known terms, where both known and unknown terms belong in advance to the same order of variables which an active thought seems to approximate as closely as possible. Nor is philosophy an awakening of conscience… It is that universe that philosophy aims at, that is, as we say, the object of philosophy—but here never will the lacuna be filled in, the unknown transformed into the known; the ‘object’ of philosophy will never come to fill in the philosophical question, since this obturation would take from it the depth and the distance that are essential to it. The effective, present, ultimate and primary being, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives…” (Pg. 101)
- “Philosophy is the perceptual faith questioning itself about itself. One can say of it, as of every faith, that it is a faith BECAUSE it is the possibility of doubt, and this indefatigable ranging over the things, which is our life, is also a continuous interrogation. It is not only philosophy, it is first the look that questions the things.” (Pg. 103)
- “It is this Visibility, this generality of the Sensible in itself, this anonymity innate to Myself that we have previously called flesh, and one knows there is no name in traditional philosophy to designate it. The flesh is not matter, in the sense of corpuscles of being which would add up to or continue on one another to form beings. Nor is the visible … some ‘psychic’ material that would be… brought into being by the things factually existing and acting on my factual body. In general, it is not a fact of a sum of facts ‘material’ or ‘spiritual.’” (Pg. 139)
- “Philosophy is itself only if it refuses for itself the facilities of a world with one sole entry as well as the facilities of a world with multiple entries, all accessible to the philosopher. Like the natural man, it abides at the point where the passage from the self into the world and into the other is effected, at the crossing of the avenues.” (Pg. 160)
Just a note to say that for me Merleau-Ponty is essential. Everything I know and think about is in various ways relatable with the work M-P was doing in this book. Without his work in general, and this book in particular, I wouldn’t have went so deep into Heidegger, and I would probably be still spinning my wheels with Hegel. M-P’s ‘ontology’ (or non-philosophy of the flesh) also allowed me to link everything I’m interested in philosophically to all that I learned from anthropology. Every thought, action, encounter between humans and nonhumans happens via the immanent corporeal “tissue that lines them, sustains them, nourishes them, and which for its part is not a thing, but a possibility, a latency, and a flesh of things.”
Read this book!
I so agree with Michael! I’ve been studying all of Merleau-Ponty’s works also secondary writings, starting years ago with Phenomenology of Perception (have just completed my fourth go-through). As others have found, a careful study of PhP reveals the many seeds in that work that flowered, or were set to bloom, in his unfinished “Chaism.” Far more than merely theoretical or academic, I find Merleau-Ponty immensely practical in that it radically reorients my experiencing of my own bodily being. Also recommend the work of philosopher Eugene Gendlin among those who carry Merleau-Ponty (and Heidegger, Dilthey, Wittgenstein) forward.
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