Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the Mind-Body Problem

Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the Mind-Body Problem

The mind-body problem in philosophy, roughly defined as the question of the metaphysical nature and interaction between conscious and bodily being, has reached a fever pitch in the 21st century. The conscious agent of experience finds himself the inhabitant of a cultural world increasingly devoid of reference to anything like the "soul" conceived in the classical sense as embodied, perceptive self-awareness. Such a concept, which inevitably makes room for something like spiritual being, has been squeezed out of the middle between a certain kind of naturalism, on the one hand, according to which the human soul is completely reducible to biological-evolutionary drives, and a technologist vision, on the other hand, wherein consciousness melds completely with artificial intelligence and brain-computer interface. These extremes, in fact, represent but one dominant metaphysical paradigm whose mainstay is the notion that the whole of conscious and bodily being is a unified and unifying code of inner laws or bio-technological structures which, as such, can be manipulated for whatever purpose. In turn, those who wish to retain some vestige of the traditional soul, perhaps so as to safeguard the human person from the worst excesses of the biotech regime are predictably castigated as dogmatists who uncritically posit some reality conveniently unavailable to scientific verification.

The reductionists have not themselves, however, avoided dogmatism. If the brain-computer interface receives impulses and signals it can codify into instructions for machine activity, this is not evidence of the ultimate materiality of mind as much as it is the attempt to translate all material into conscious being. It is merely in that respect the infinite extension of the Cartesian cogito. But the problem remains as to the precise point of interaction between conscious and material being; the terms of the discussion have merely been shifted, i.e. away from the language of mind towards that of the brain. This does not dispel the underlying occasionalism of a series of moments wherein consciousness is continually posited and repeated in the interface. The reality of such an interface no more answers the question of what consciousness truly is than a hand moving a paintbrush explains the reality of art. In these cases, consciousness and art must themselves be presupposed as realities if we are to understand the significance of the activities supposedly giving rise to them.

Biological reductionism fares no better on this score. If conscious being is purely the result of pre-conscious drives, then consciousness must be continuous with these drives as their reflexive expression in the biological organism. If, as Hans Jonas argued, there is not to be an unbridgeable chasm between conscious awareness and its underlying biological drives, then on naturalist terms, consciousness is merely epiphenomenal. This translates into a hard biological determinism according to which the organism "unfolds" through an interaction with its environment that bypasses consciousness all-together. (In other words, we may think we are making independent decisions but are in fact completely determined by the interaction between our environment and underlying drives.) Aside from the problem of the impossibility of consistently adhering to this notion as an explanation of human behaviour, there is the deeper conundrum of the reality of the drives themselves. Again, the terms of the ontological problem have been shifted without the problem itself ever truly being resolved. Within the organism-environment "interface" there is, in each moment, something resembling a decision, or a series of such reflexive moments constituting the unfolding of biological life. It remains unclear as to what these ultimately are; to simply reiterate their utterly material character is to insist on a dogma that sheds no real light on the problem as to the inner relationship of materiality to itself. Bare materiality turned inwardly on itself is nothing besides an infinite regress; as such the concept has precisely no explanatory power.

Is there a philosophical approach to the mind-body problem that can admit the (inevitable) duality of the phenomenon without having to posit extraneous entities or hopelessly attempt to explain one pole in terms of the other? Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological approach - perhaps best summarized in his Phenomenology of Perception (published in 1945 as Phénoménologie de la perception) - is precisely that. Merleau-Ponty's work represents an ingenious sharpening of the Platonic-Aristotelian legacy of thought on the soul through the interpretive lens of phenomenology.

A phenomenology of perception does not presume to explain the origin of bodily or conscious being with reference to a prior causality, as though these aspects of our existence could be traced back to the very moment of their inception. Rather, phenomenology is a descriptive project whose aim is to bring into view conceptually the structure of the immediately given. That is to say, phenomenology is the act of disclosing this "given" phenomenon (i.e. of reflexive existence that perceives the world) according to the manner in which it is given. It holds in view the very existence that we ourselves are and attempts to elucidate its structure. This of course means that the act of phenomenological disclosure is not some free-floating "objective" picture of a prior, independent "reality", but is in itself a way of exploring existence precisely as it is lived. As such, phenomenology orients one to existence creatively, as though it were an unfinished project to be guided still into further insights. Any phenomenological "resolution" of the mind-body problem would not, then, take the form of some new scientific, metaphysical or practical theory that explains their interaction; rather, it would begin from this very interaction itself and the entire world of variegated meaning - social, linguistic, historical, scientific, etc. - taken as a whole. The very origin of meaning as such is the source from which the analysis proceeds and whose structures it attempts to sketch out.

I argue in this essay that, not only does Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological analysis of what I am calling embodied consciousness restore the integrity of philosophical inquiry into mind and body, but it also provides powerful critical resources for a renewed sense of ethics amid our bio-technological world of the 21st century.

Against Empiricism and Intellectualism

Merleau-Ponty turns traditional approaches to the philosophical analysis of perception on their head. Perception, he argues, is not the object to be pieced together or reconstructed by way of a scientific analysis of underlying facts and causes so much as it is the irreducible, bodily origin and motive of both our pre-scientific and scientific understanding of things or objects. As this transcendental, unifying act, perception cannot be the object of scientific analysis, as though we could, in the vein of empiricism, somehow reach behind it and find its supposedly originating elements as they are in themselves.

Neither, however, does perception find its origin in an absolute subjectivity through whom everything is constituted, as it were, for itself. The latter, intellectualist model offers only an inversion of empiricism without challenging the underlying ontological assumption they both share, i.e. that the world consists of ready-made objects reconstituted in perception from a combination of sensory data and cognitive processes. Where empiricism begins from the "facts" of sense-data and finds in perception their cognitive reconstruction, intellectualism reverses the order of priority by starting from cognitive activity and finding on that basis the origin of objective facts about the world. One loses contact with the world of actual things and their meanings; the other loses sight of their indeterminacy, as though it had them in full grasp from the outset. The Platonic problem of knowledge as presented in Meno cannot here find a response: "Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching." (PP, 28; see also Meno, 80e)

But what reason does Merleau-Ponty give us to reject the core assumption of a ready-made world? The reason cannot come from "science" if by this we mean some appeal to a still-deeper cause of experience. It must come from the phenomena themselves as they are disclosed and as one encounters them. We begin from the "datum" of the immediately given field of perception.

As I pay attention to this field, I find myself immersed in a world of meanings. Even the level of immediate sensory perception is fraught with meaning. The computer at which I sit and type in this very moment occupies the forefront of my field of vision. Yet, as I type upon it, I notice other colours and textures in the periphery - the red cover of the book lying to my left, the white of the table, the softness of the white paper relative to it, etc. These sights shade off at the very edges of my vision into perceptions that are not clearly of things. Yet, if I turn my head toward one of the objects in my peripheral vision, that object and those surrounding it will become clearly recognizable to me as the things they are. Still, a moment of recognition will occur. I turn my head to the left, fix my eyes on a patch of brownish-grey, and instantly come to see that colour differently in the very moment I recognize it to be the storage bin on my basement floor.

In each case, there is nothing akin to a pure sensation. Every quality I recognize is the quality of something. It is not just that the white of the paper and that of the table are different shades; it is as though they belong to a different order of meaning than one wherein the sheer colours are contrasted. If I were, for example, to contrast the same shades of white without their associated objects (e.g. streaks of paint), they would not appear to me the same as they do in this moment. They would not have the same meaning, i.e. as the bright but soft white of the paper contrasted with the dull yet hard white of the table. My sensory awareness of the colour is available to me only because my perception has first been plunged into its object. To wit, as I turned my head toward the periphery of my visual field, the brownish-grey suddenly became the storage bin. I could no longer un-see this phenomenon. The colour itself became multi-faceted in its different shades and tonalities just as the object in question differentiated itself from the background in my field of vision. To be sure, I can cease to attend to the storage bin as the thing it is so as to focus abstractly on the colour sensation; however, it is phenomenally apparent that the sensation is nothing besides my interaction with the object in question.

All of this is to say that perception takes on the structure of anticipation and realization, or in the language of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, intentionality and fulfillment. This means that qualities are already inherently meaningful; every colour, texture, scent, noise, etc. is bound up with the anticipation of an object whose full significance remains as yet indeterminate. The greyish-brownish patch, for example, is the expression of an intention - a way of being intrinsic to the relationship of the perceiver to the thing perceived - whose fulfillment (or not) comes with the recognition (or not) of the bin: "Ah, yes, I thought that was the bin sitting there." To say that I intended to find the bin sitting in the place where I anticipated it to be is no to say that I had an idea in my mind from which activity arose. Nor is it to say that my bio-chemical make-up caused in me the "reflex" of a thought. An intention in the phenomenological sense is an ontological relation, not between ready-made aspects of a given set of realities, but between aspects established by one and the same event of the creation or emergence of meaning. With the "event" of my having perceived the storage bin, for instance, arose my grasp of something meaningful for me along with the thing to be grasped as it is. Because the intention aims towards an object, it anticipates something to be had as it is in itself. Because it can be fulfilled (or not), it has also the structure of a self-recognition, i.e. as a kind of relation to one's own act of grasping or finding, as though one constituted oneself (as one is for itself) through his acts of perceiving.  

 Intentionality has to do, then, with the claim made upon me by objects of perception, and the corresponding claims I make upon these objects. I recognize in the computer upon which I type, for example, not sensory elements patched together, but a thing available for my use. As Heidegger might have put it, the computer is there for me to involve in the project that concerns me, i.e. typing an essay on phenomenology. Indeed, the computer is already taken up into this project. It has become an element of the world, exposed to me as the very thing that it is (i.e. the "in-itself") by way of its involvement in my activities. Yet, by the same token, through my use of the computer I find myself having been called upon in a certain way. As the computer becomes recognizable to me in my field of experience - for instance, as I switch on the light and see it sitting there on the table - it lays claim to me. The fact that I recognize the object sitting there - "There's my computer!" - means that I am compelled to respond to it in a certain way. In this moment, it cannot not be my computer. Of course, I could respond to the object as though it were not what it is. I could use it as a paperweight or break it with a hammer. But that is beside the point, as I would still understand the object to be my computer. I come to recognize my own possibilities for action (i.e. the "for-itself") through my perception of the computer.

Merleau-Ponty's major contribution to this analysis of the intentional structure of perception has to do with his identification of the living body as its absolute locus. Following Aristotle's analysis of the bodily medium of thought in de Anima, Merleau-Ponty contends in Phenomenology of Perception that the lived body is in fact the origin of my consciousness of myself and other things and people. (See esp. De Anima, 421a 20-6)  That is not to say, however, that consciousness reduces to bio-chemical processes considered in abstraction from the perceptual unfolding of actual meaning. In fact, the lived body in Merleau-Ponty's sense is not an inert "thing" somehow inhabited by or generative of conscious awareness. Rather, it is conscious awareness in all its facets and a participation in the unfolding of layers of meaning comprising its world, from the lowest forms of sensory stimuli to the cultural and historical aspects of human life. The body as lived exists for itself in the sense that it is conscious openness to meaning. Yet, if it is to be that, it must thereby experience itself in its bodily interactions within the world. It must be originarily both in- and for-itself. The lived body is, so to speak, a hand touching itself, a sort of conscious embodiment which forms its own image of itself as something within the world which is nevertheless not an object among other objects.

In what follows, I will give a brief summary of the first section of Phenomenology of Perception wherein Merleau-Ponty articulates what it means in the phenomenological sense for one to be a living body.  

Conscious Embodiment

What does it mean when I say that I have a body? To what do I refer? I can look at my hands as they type upon the keyboard. The fingers move up and down precisely in tandem with their striking the keys. I do not need to think about the specific keys I wish to strike. I am not some kind of inner "mind" controlling the movement of my fingers. At this very moment, my entire existence is thrown into the act of tying. The fingers, coordinated with the rest of my bodily functions, including the fixity of my vision on the screen, are the expression of this intention, the object of which (i.e. the act of writing) I immediately grasp. The bodily activity cannot be separated out from the act of writing, as though there were somehow an antecedent layer of purely bio-mechanical function upon which "conscious" activity is superimposed. Rather, my bodily being is the express unity of my existence as I am for myself. That is to say, to be embodied is to be entirely exposed to a world of objects through which I nevertheless find and relate to myself. It is at once and already to be wholly and entirely conscious.

The conscious, lived body is not, therefore, an object among other objects. To be sure, I can relate to parts of my bodily organism as though they were the objects of analysis. I can fix my gaze upon the typing fingers; I can take hold of one of my hands and feel the contours of the skin and flesh. However, I cannot grasp in one hand the act of grasping itself. As Merleau-Ponty notes, if one clasps his hands together, he can alternate between them the perspectives of grasping and being grasped. (PP, 93) At one instant, the left hand is felt by the right; at the next instant, it is the right hand that now feels the left. In no case, however, could I ever get "behind" the conscious act of grasping itself and experience myself as something like a pure mind projecting its experiences into a body, on the one hand, or a mere complex of sensations, on the other. My body discloses to me the irreducibility of my situation in being as one for whom the world is meaningful. This is the undeniable a priori situation from which all analysis must proceed. Because bodily being is already a conscious, lived situation, I have no choice but to analyze it from itself.

We have noticed that bodily being, as conscious, is inherently open to meaning. It is no longer a question of "statistically" coordinating bits of observation about organic functioning with reports of cognitive awareness. Through his observation of the psycho-somatic impairment experienced by a trauma patient - Schneider - Merleau-Ponty infers in Phenomenology of Perception that there is in fact no one-to-one correlation of mechanical-organic function to sensory or conscious awareness. What there is instead is strength or weakness in one's consciousness of an entire field of perceptual meaning given the relative health of bodily structures. The structures are always inextricably coordinated in a single act of conscious grasping, despite the fact that some will predominate over others, depending on the nature of the act itself. To return to our previous example of the clasping hands, we note, for instance, that my immediate awareness of how one or the other hand feels involves not only the tactile sense. In a way, I also "feel" the hands in my vision as I anticipate their contours from their look. Touching and seeing are not here two separate activities somehow coordinated within me; instead, they are facets of one and the same bodily concentration through which an element of the world is disclosed to me as something meaningful (i.e. "my hand"). Tactile and visual senses are shot through with each other and are integrated into the comportment of my entire body towards the thing grasped.

What, exactly, is this comportment, and how then can we speak of a "body" at all, if by the latter we mean something more than just a biological organism? Comportment, in the first case, is a manner of existing as entirely exposed to a world around oneself. The bodily organism is the limit or threshold of this exposure, i.e. of my transcendence of myself towards objects of significance for me. This means, of course, that some things can be taken up into my bodily comportment as aids in this intentional "reach" towards significant aims. The computer on which I type, for example, is not the aim of my activity of typing. Rather, it is a means that facilitates it. In this moment, my organic body and the keyboard form a systematic whole through which the meaningful reality of the writing is currently unfolding. The example of the musician is perhaps more intuitive: as Caleb, my son, practices his guitar in the next room, he throws himself bodily into the activity, i.e. of plucking the strings and strumming the chords. The guitar has been taken up into his bodily being as an extension of it, through which the reality of the music can be reached. Of course, within the intentional relation of the playing and being-played-upon, the guitar also lays a certain kind of claim upon my son's attention. As something of significance "in itself", the guitar has for a time become the object through which Caleb is exposed to the music as it takes form.

The music is a metaphysical reality that takes shape through bodily being. As reality, it is necessarily shared. I can hear the music in the next room over. My body begins to sway to it as I am taken up into its rhythm. I do not first think about the music and then consider how I can move in response to it. Neither is the music some phantasm I construe from air vibrations. It is the reality of an unfolding order or harmony to which I find myself compelled to respond, bodily. Because I have heard the tune before, I anticipate the final note in and through my hearing of each in succession. I also hold the initial note in conscious awareness as that through which I may anticipate the final one. Through each note, the music piece appears to me as a whole, though it must unfold temporally in a series in whose initial moment is in fact contained the entirety, as though the beginning were to appear in full only at the end.

We in fact notice that every aim towards objects or things "in themselves" adopts this temporal structure. There is no inert thing simply "there" in an eternal present. Instead, there are things whose significances appeal to me in the form of a call or claim upon my attention. In other words, things have significance only in the context of the world in which they appear to me or for me. My own bodily processes - especially the ones over which I have no direct control, i.e. heart beating, even breathing - alert me to the fact that there is indeed an "impersonal" facet of the world of objects which remains aloof to my aims of personal use. (I cannot control my heart beat.) However, these functions belong to me only insofar as they are taken up into the organic unity of my bodily being as a whole. This mode of being always finds itself directed towards things of use or significance in light of its particular aims. For this reason, even the impersonal facets of my conscious awareness and bodily being which do not belong explicitly to my self-referential or personal identity, insofar as they belong to my awareness, are still taken up into that deeper unity of myself that is an active, bodily opening onto the world. For, if there are to be things at all, they must be recognized as such. My grasp of a thing is, for this reason, more than the immediately present appropriation of an object of use; it a kind of unfolding in time of an entire complex of meaning through which the thing makes sense as a thing.

I participate in this bodily unfolding of meaning through the habits I cultivate. Even my ability to grasp the things around me - a coffee mug, a pencil, etc. - is possible only on the basis of the habits I have formed in perceiving and taking up such and such as this or that particular thing. Perception, then, is not to be separated from the understanding, as though there were some immediate sensory data upon which the mind superimposes significance. Neither is the understanding to be regarded, in the first instance, as thinking in the sense of rational deliberation. To understand something is immediately to grasp its significance within a referential context whose facets are experienced bodily. The mug of coffee on the table is something I can drink from; it is also an object I must be careful not to burn my hands on, as the coffee it contains is fresh. There would be no such complex of meaning open to me were it not for the fact that I have habituated myself to the world in a certain way.  

Because things show up to me only in and through this temporal horizon of my self-transcendence into the world towards things, we can come to see that there are no separate orders of perception between, e.g., the natural and cultural. It is not as though I first perceive natural things and then add to them cultural significances. Rather, my awareness of things through bodily-sensory habit is already imbued with significances that are structurally intersubjective. Merleau-Ponty devotes an entire chapter to the way in which sexuality or Eros is diffused throughout our grasp of meaning (his ingenious synthesis of Plato and Freud). He also argues that even the spoken word is a kind of bodily gesture, for that reason already shot through with meaning. Words are not vessels or fortune cookies to be cracked open so as to reveal an inner message. Languages are "but several ways for the human body to sing the world's praises and in the last resort to live it." (PP, 187) In conversation, two or more persons are open to one and the same intentional reality, and each thereby improvises on the meaning in accordance with an emergent theme. What we ordinarily speak of as our "cultural" facets of experience of the world, i.e. language, norms, etc., are in fact wider aspects of one and the same reality unfolded in and through my bodily, habitual being in the world.

Language itself is nothing entirely distinct from this way of being. My habitual use of the thing, for example the coffee mug on my table, takes shape in a world that has been disclosed to me in language. That is not just to say that the object (i.e. the mug) and the action (i.e. my drinking the coffee) can be named and thereby referred in their significance to wider spheres of meaning. More importantly, it is to say that my naming of the activity is already a form of bodily comportment through which I have anticipated the action in question. Quite often, it is only the mere mention of coffee that instills in me a desire, even a craving (yes, I'm addicted!) for the tasty drink. It is as though the language itself is as much of a gesture through which I can anticipate the having of coffee as, say, my act of smelling the grinding beans or hearing the gurgling of the percolator. All are ways of comporting myself bodily to the object. Nevertheless, through its habitual use language has the added quality of settling into the background of my awareness of the world, ready to be called upon as a way of relating to things, or even to occur to me in a moment of recognition. Often, the word recalls me to the identity of a thing whose use and function has escaped me. Language also draws me into a participation in a particular way of being in the world expressed by others. It enables me, not just to picture what is being said, but in a certain respect to inhabit it together with the speaker.

Perception, in short, is the exposure to meaning. It is bodily, precisely in the sense that, "the human body is defined in terms of its property of appropriating, in an indefinite series of discontinuous acts, significant cores which transcend and transfigure its natural powers." (PP, 193) This way of existing is always ambiguous at root, at once wholly natural yet other than "bare" nature, wholly embodied yet always in surplus of itself as personal and cultural freedom. It is, in short, the horizonal opening onto an infinite plenitude of meaning which, nevertheless, can take only a finite, incarnate form.

Bio-technology and Ethics

We have seen that body and mind, according to Merleau-Ponty, are not distinguishable entities, one causally explicable in terms of the other. Rather, they can at best be described as facets of one and the same vitalism. We can see, then, how Merleau-Ponty retrieves the Platonic-Aristotelian legacy of the soul as a kind of self-referential opening in and of being which exists only bodily, despite its always being somehow in excess of its sheer material aspects. The soul is not, as the still-dominant Cartesian framework would have it, an entity somehow attached to its material vehicle. As I argued in the introduction to this essay, our current bio-technological paradigm does not truly overcome this framework, as it merely extends the essence of soul over all material being, which it construes as infinite. As it turns out, Descartes' idea of the infinite, i.e. of a self-causing divine source, is nothing besides the sheer arbitrariness of the material infinite. It follows for the archons of bio-technological engineering that this terrifying abyss must be also the source of a "will" that can be further algorithmically attuned to itself. The reduction of personal beings to functions of the infinite so construed is in fact the completion of the Cartesian metaphysical project.

Perhaps this is all we are. No merely "scientific" argument could demonstrate the matter either way. However, as Merleau-Ponty, following Plato, observes, there is no way in which we could ever extricate ourselves from the necessity of taking on some metaphysical view. That is to say, it is impossible not to find oneself already having adopted some view as to what it all means. It does not necessarily need to be an explicit idea or doctrine. Metaphysics begins at the level of our pre-understanding as a kind of groping, felt articulation of a world wherein things make sense as wholes in light of shifting and transforming complexes of meaning which themselves are meaningful only in terms of an absolute limit. Plato's form of the good is an exemplary case. The fact that I trust the cosmos is shot through with order and purpose - which makes it "good" - means that I can make sense of familiar things and people in my immediate context as well as the relatively unfamiliar. Metaphysics has thereby arrived on the scene well before any explicit theorizing about the nature or meaning of essences or eidetic objects.

The proper response to an evil metaphysics is, therefore, a good one. But, if one can only "inhabit" a metaphysics by its existential enactment, how could one compare the relative value of one construal of being with another? How could one truly know that an alternative frame of reference is in fact evil, if such "knowledge" could only make sense within the very frame of reference opposed to it? Is this not question-begging from the outset? In fact, we are not talking about hermetically-sealed systems or Wittgensteinian language games. For one, though our age is perhaps dominated by the Cartesian construal of being, it is arguably impossible, at least in the terms we have inherited in our Western languages and traditions, to imagine human life without recourse to the older idea of transcendence, i.e. as the overarching order "in" all things which is somehow also beyond them. This intuition cannot be eradicated, though it can perhaps be retrieved in alternative ways. Already, then, at the heart of our own historical-cultural inheritance lies a kind of ambivalence which we "westernized" individuals and communities are all more or less capable of experiencing. In one current of metaphysical meaning runs the counter-current of the other. We are left, then, with the necessity of a decision as to which possibility of meaning accords best with our experience of both nature and our deepest traditions of cultural wisdom.

As we recall from our analysis of Merleau-Ponty's thought, nature and tradition are not separable. They are not even wholly distinguishable. And metaphysics is as much a matter of the lived, bodily way of comporting oneself to the world as it is the "sediment" of available meanings to be found therein. If I am able to improvise on the meanings passed down to me through a tradition, to make them my own and thereby create something wholly new from them, then it must be the case that I find between this world and my own bodily being something tantamount to a "natural" fit. My self-transcendence towards meaningful relations as a freely existing being will find ample expression in this world. Conversely, my bodily being will be the site, if you will, of the formation of habits that embody and express a tradition in its manifold nature. I will find a biological reality sublimated into a cultural-traditional one which, nevertheless, retains and depends on the structures of the former. I will find, in other words, the basis for an ethics that cultivates both personal and bodily integrity. I

The alternative is an "ethics" of disintegration, an anti-ethics according to which my self-transcendence towards objects which grant me an ever-more comprehensive world of meaning amounts, in the end, to nothing more than an illusion. At every turn, this interpretation of "being" will be foisted on me. Yet, if the metaphysical "decision" in this direction is to be made, then I could ever only performatively carry it out as a kind of endless enforcement of dissonance. For example, I would inhabit a world wherein every intuition I had that told me one thing would be gradually colonized and displaced by some "expert" opinion or other. After all, if it has in the final analysis been decided that every one of my felt longings for the free, creative expression of being, every nudge towards greater comprehension through which I might discover something more of my personal being is at bottom only the welling up of impersonal power, then it would still be the case that these longings make an appeal to me, however faded, of another world, just as it is precisely Winston's erotic desire for Julia in Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four that alerts him to the possibility of a world and an existence that is otherwise than the one he has hitherto encountered. Winston's self-betrayal and his subsequent love for Big Brother is not, in the end, proof of the ultimate unreality of love. On the contrary, the reactionary nature of the state in Orwell's dystopian novel is suggestive of the continued possibility of the spontaneous emergence of creative expressions and their continued possibility of forming into habits that bring revolutionary transformation. The only permanent solution such a state could reach would be found in the annihilation of humanity, which is, of course, its utmost purpose.    

There is no argument against such an "ethics" save the performative one that retrieves the alternative of a Platonic-Aristotelian insistence on transcendence. This is not just the self-transcendence of the soul towards its fulfillment in and through the objects of its world which it grasps in the medium of desire. If these objects are the "triggers" of that intentionality which constitutes agents by drawing them desirously into their enjoyment, each intentional relation is, in turn, an opening onto still-greater possibilities of meaning.  Just as my son's grasping the guitar opens to him the possibility of his making music, so the activity of the music-making can be participated in and enjoyed with others, even as the advent of something divine.

Nevertheless, if intentionality is itself to have ontological integrity, it must sustain the relation of being in and for itself. It must be, quite paradoxically, an absolute relation. That is to say, my openness to meaning and the object of my intention must belong to one and the same event (or advent) of meaning as such. It must "be" in and through its spatial-temporal granting or unfolding yet somehow remain beyond it. We could refer here the good beyond being (epekeina tês ousias) in Plato's sense or Heidegger's "event" (das Ereignis) by which the full plenitude of being announces itself through its very concealment within its "gifts". (PLT, 176-7) Does the philosophy of transcendence remain at an impasse between absolute form and purely immanent structure? I would suggest, perhaps beyond both Plato and Heidegger, that we bring metaphysical speculation to bear on the implications of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of incarnate being for a theology of embodiment.

In any case, I have argued that Merleau-Ponty's work forms a key contribution to the phenomenological tradition, especially as it provides us with a philosophically powerful retrieval of the ancient notion of the ensouled being. It is precisely this sort of retrieval that is needed if we are to preserve and carry forward the most crucial inheritance of the western world in the face of a looming bio-technological totalitarianism.


Aristotle. (2001). De Anima. Translated by J.A. Smith. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: The Modern Library. 535-603.

Heidegger, Martin. (1971). Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstader. New York: HarperCollins. (PLT)

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (PP)

Plato. (1997). Meno. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Plato: Completed Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett. 870-97.

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