Phenomenology, Part 2

Last post, I very briefly introduced you to the thought of Edmund Husserl, specifically relating to his philosophy concerning the natural sciences in order to illustrate to you the kind of reason why many “rationalists,” particularly atheists, scorn not just continental philosophy but the discipline as a whole. I will now follow the same formula for Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, but hopefully, will leave you with a very different conclusion.

The first point to make about Merleau-Ponty, and in fact for his relevance to us, is that his philosophy in Phenomenology of Perception in particular is based in a basic refutation of Descartes’ dualism. In the latter’s famous claim of “I think, I am,” from the Meditations, the subject’s knowledge of itself is its basis for understanding all of the other things around it, as based upon the sense. It is an essentially egotistical view, as everything comes through our biased lens and thus gives us a sense of power over the things around us. Merleau-Ponty takes the opposing view to this, arguing that in fact we cannot have any true understanding of those things that are not us, for they are “transcendent… I do not possess them… they are transcendent to the extent that I am ignorant of what they are, and blindly assert their bare existence” (Phenomenology of Perception, 168). We can certainly see that there are things in the world around us, living and otherwise, but we can never truly know anything of their “factual existence.” It is precisely because we perceive the world around us in this manner that we cannot understand that which is not us, because then it is us who ascribes meaning and information to the world. No human being has or will ever be able to fully comprehend the ashtray that Merleau-Ponty speaks of, because it is viewable from a myriad of angles; never in one of those do we see all of its sides, or every burned-in mark from discarded cigarettes.

This line of reasoning follows to matters relating to ourselves as well. In discussing those strongest of feelings, love and will, which always seem the most true and authentic to us, Merleau-Ponty complicates the matter by investigating feelings that are found to be illusory. If these feelings are genuine, then how are we to explain that I lost the romantic intentions I had towards the beautiful woman I met at the bar after a few months of dating, for no discernible reason? It is, the philosopher says, because when I seemed to fall in love with her, I was not, nor am I at any time, fully in possession of an understanding of myself. In falling for the woman, I left my true self behind, and became enraptured by some aspects of her; her smile, her hair, her quick wit, but only aspects nonetheless; it was not true love because I did not love her entire being, and was only able to realize my misstep when I returned to my true self and was able to cast an eye back over my conduct; only in this way can we know ourselves.

This is not, however, to be an argument for doubt, for an existence so steeped in a need for authenticity that it keeps us from going into the world and experiencing life; instead, Merleau-Ponty states that “My love, hated, and will are not certain as mere thoughts about loving, hating and willing; on the contrary the whole certainty is owed to that of the acts of love, hatred or will of which I am quite sure because I perform them” (181). Our inner thoughts about the world around us cannot serve fully as rationales for living because we cannot be perceived by ourselves; we make our own realities, and only through doing can we find ourselves. By doing, we are able to relate ourselves to the world, and here is where understanding, and Merleau-Ponty’s argument comes to its conclusion: instead of Descartes “I think, I am,” we should instead say “I am, I think,” for perception can only exist if we are beings in our worlds.

This is a MASSIVE conclusion, one that goes against centuries of philosophical background that essentially took the cogito to be gospel. Why is it important? Because in the years since, science has proven Merleau-Ponty’s assertion; neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error (which should be, I think, required reading for EVERYONE), presents evidence for the refutation of the cogito based upon empirical studies of human behavior. His studies of emotion have been accepted and are now taught, and his book is considered a classic 50 years after Merleau-Ponty published his argument. Even though the latter was certainly hostile to the scientific establishment (thought not necessarily the practice of science itself), he was way ahead of the labs in this arena.

My point is, please do not give in to the hubbub and lazy talk of philosophy being for dreamers and impractical types. Yes, some philosophers are scary in that they speak foreign languages and get mistranslated, but that’s not a reason to write them off, as I think I have demonstrated here.

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