return to religion-online

A Process View of the Flesh: Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty

by William S. Hamrick

William S. Hamrick is Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He is editor of Phenomenology in Practice and Theory Martinus Nijhof 1985). and author of An Existential Phenomenology of Law Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Kluwer 1987),plus a number of articles in Continental Thought. He is also Associate Editor of the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 117-129, Vol. 28, Number 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1999. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was one of the most gifted and original 20th-century French philosophers. His phenomenology of perception and the body led him to explore widely, and deeply, history, political life, art, language, and the social sciences. Before his untimely death, he began to work out an ontology of Nature which he left behind in the form of an unfinished manuscript and working notes which were to be published posthumously as Le Visible et l’.

Some years ago, those of us who first wrote about deep similarities in the writings of Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty were limited to three scanty types of evidence. First, there was one thin reference to Whitehead’s view that nature is "process" ("passage") in the last paragraph of his 1956-1957 lecture course at the College de France, titled "The Concept of Nature" (TL 87), and Merleau-Ponty promised to pursue that theme in his next course. Second, both thinkers framed their philosophies as reactions against the intellectual heritage of classical modern science and philosophy, Galilean-Cartesian physics, and Cartesian mind-body dualisms. This heritage, passing through Newton and Laplace, Comte and 19th-century positivism generally, had a reach long and powerful enough to be a viable option even in the 20th-century contexts in which Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty found themselves writing. Indeed, it was in just such a circumstance that Merleau-Ponty cited Whitehead’s view of nature as "process."

Third, the texts also showed common positive, though not uncriticized, influences through Bergson and the American pragmatists -- chiefly, in Whitehead’s case, John Dewey.1 As a result of these positive influences, the texts displayed identical concerns for recovering the concreteness of experience, reinterpreting the body achieving a new understanding of space and time, and elucidating the immediacy of experience as a justification for philosophy itself.

With hardly any direct textual attribution, therefore, the task we faced many years ago of trying to bring Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty into a single, stereoscopic vision remained largely speculative. Happily, this is no longer the case. The 1995 publication of expanded and annotated notes from Merleau-Ponty’s courses at the College de France, 1956-1960, contains a 13-page essay titled "The Idea of Nature for Whitehead." The latter’s texts on which Merleau-Ponty relies for this part of his lecture course were Science and the Modern World, The Function of Reason, and The Concept of Nature. He also based his lecture on Jean Wahl’s Vers le concret, the long middle chapter, part of which deals with Whitehead.

Within the narrow limits of this short paper, I will briefly summarize the main themes of the Whitehead essay to show what Merleau-Ponty found valuable in the Whiteheadian texts that he knew. I will then discuss the direction Merleau-Ponty’s thought took after the 1956-1957 lectures, especially in terms of his unfinished manuscript, The Visible and the Invisible. Finally, I will argue that much, if not all, of what Merleau-Ponty struggled to clarify, and even sometimes to express, can be explained within Whitehead’s mature process metaphysics with which Merleau-Ponty apparently remained unfamiliar.

What Merleau-Ponty found valuable in Whitehead’s view of nature runs as follows. First, he agreed with Whitehead’s rejection of a Laplacian concept of space and time. Whitehead was right, he thought, to reject the "simple location" of allegedly discrete quanta of matter existing only in external relations with each other (N 154) in favor of overlapping, encroaching, non-serial relations between instances of process (N 157). Correlatively, Whitehead was also right to hold that all temporal minima are instances of process and have temporal thickness, duration, instead of comprising a series of "flash points" (CN 173, cited at N 154), or atomistic instants.

Whitehead was likewise correct, on Merleau-Ponty’s view, to find in nature an "internal activity" (CN 54). Though this activity remained obscure for Merleau-Ponty he at least found it valuable that Whitehead had not conceived it in terms of an idealistic passage from Nature to Spirit (N 155). For both thinkers, nature is not a machine and the spiritual its resident "ghost:’ as Gilbert Ryle once characterized it.

Accordingly, for Merleau-Ponty "‘process’ is what is given. . . . There is no Nature at an instant all reality implies ‘an advance of nature’ (moving on)" (N 155, citing CN 54). In this creative advance, an object is "only an abbreviated way to note that there has been an ensemble of relationships" (N 158), in which, as he thinks Whitehead correctly argued, there is no bifurcation of primary and secondary qualities (N 158). This means that "we can only understand the nature of Being through our ‘self-awareness"’ (citing CN 16), "in perception in its aborning state" (N 158).

Three important consequences follow, Merleau-Ponty tells us. First, "The unity of events, their inherence in each other, appears here as the correlative of their insertion in the unity of the thinking being" (N 159). Second, as against Laplace, the mind is not a neutral observer outside nature. Rather, as Whitehead said, "Its awareness shares in the passage of Nature" (N 159. citing CN 67).2 Furthermore, nature is an "operative presence’ (N 163, citing CN 73), precisely because of the inseparability of creator and creature. By the same token, the course of nature cannot be "‘the history of matter’. . . the fortunes of matter in the adventure of nature"’(N 157, citing CN 16).3 Third, the passage of nature and our "inherence in the Whole" (N 159) create a unity of the body and nature, and bind observers together by creating a groundwork of intersubjectivity. What is true for me in this regard is true for everyone: "There is a sort of reciprocity between Nature and me insofar as I am a sensing being. I am a part of Nature and function as any given event of Nature: I am, through my body, part of Nature, and the parts of nature admit between them relations of the same type as those that my body has with Nature" (N 159).

Furthermore, knowledge and causality appear as twin aspects of this same relationship. For Merleau-Ponty Whitehead’s texts show that Hume’s weakness in this regard consisted of his having stuck to immediacy and as "not having grasped this kind of infrastructure, behind the immediate, of which our body gives us the feeling" (N 159). The "push of duration" -- the creative advance of all of nature, ourselves included -- is not a mere attribute of nature, but rather is essential to it and thus present in all its manifestations. It is, therefore, "as much generality as individuality" (N 159); its being has, like a wave, a global rather than a fragmented character (N 163).

Merleau-Ponty also thinks that Whitehead’s criticisms of simple location lead him to appreciate the ontological value of perception in terms of the "immanence" and "transcendence" of nature (N 159). By "immanence" he means the fact that nothing mediates our contact with it, that representational thinking is therefore not primary and that we perceive and understand nature from within its process as events of that process. By "transcendence" Merleau-Ponty means that nature always exceeds our grasp and is in fact indifferent to it. Nature "is complete in any of its appearances, but is not exhausted by any of them" (N 160), and nature not perceived serves as "a sort of source-existence" (N 164). Moreover, the immanence and transcendence of nature are, for Whitehead, closely linked: "‘There is no way to stop Nature in order to look at it’ [citing CN 14-15]. . . . Nature is always new in each perception, but it is never without a past. Nature is something which goes on, which is never grasped at its beginning, although to us appearing always new" (N 160).

Merleau-Ponty also benefits from Whitehead’s descriptions of nature as a process to criticize (again) Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of the plenitude of the en sui. As against Sartre, there is no full and complete matter existing in a present state, such that time, memory, and potentiality are imported from a separate and distinct consciousness. All these things are inherent in the nature which embraces us. Merleau-Ponty rejects the tradition from Augustine to Bergson which makes time the essence of subjectivity as against matter, and as measured by instants (N 160). Rather, for Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead shows us that nature is individuated as a temporal Gestalt -- a concrete unity of past, present, and future -- and the "natural passage of time, the pulsation of time which is not a pulsation of the subject, but of Nature. . . . is inscribed in our body as sensorality" (N 162).4 The present is a mélange of past and future, and if we could speak of the passage of nature in itself, it would be a "memory of the world" (N 163, referring to CN 73). Our knowledge of this past would not constitute it as an origin of its sense, but rather would only re-constitute it (N 163) by cooperating in the emergence of its inherent, but latent, sense. This is a natural time in which we participate because "Whitehead always maintained the idea of a ‘concrescence’ [VC 154] of Nature in itself which is taken up by life. Time brings about the ‘self-enjoyment’ of the organism. The movement through which a bit of matter coils up on itself prolongs the ‘passage of Nature"’ (N 162) and establishes its unity: "The unity of Nature, according to Whitehead, is founded on this, that all nature is ‘concrescence"’ (N 165).

Finally, for Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead does not provide any positive "definitive clarification" of what nature is. It is neither merely an object of thought nor subject, and for the same reasons "its opacity and envelopment it is an obscure principle" (N 162). Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty does believe that Whitehead has taken a decisive step in providing that positive content. "The task of a philosophy of Nature," Merleau-Ponty’s last paragraph tells us, "would be to describe all the modes of process, without grouping them under certain tides borrowed from substance thinking. Man is a mode as well as animal cells. There is no limit to the proliferation of categories, but there are types of ‘concrescence’ which pass by shading off from one to another" (N 165). And Merleau-Ponty concludes by observing that Whitehead has avoided the twin dangers of mechanism and vitalism while maintaining that "life is not substance" (N 165).

It is clear that Merleau-Ponty’s writings after his 1956-1951 course on the concept of nature bear the imprint of his reflections on Whitehead. In those last four years of his life, he abandoned his earlier phenomenological method -- many of the results of which were already consistent with Whitehead’s mature process metaphysics (WMP, WPP) -- in favor of an ontology of nature which incorporates much of what he valued in Whitehead’s earlier texts, such as The Concept of Nature and The Function of Reason.

The earlier phenomenology stressed the lived-body (le corps propre) as against the objective body studied in the sciences, and a body-consciousness as opposed to a non-corporeal Cartesian cogito. By contrast, Merleau-Ponty’s later works -- particularly Eye and Mind, certain essays in Signs, and especially The Visible and the Invisible -- abandon these distinctions as primary "The problems posed in Ph.P. [Phénoménologie de la perception]," he writes, "are insoluble because I start there from the ‘consciousness’-‘object’ distinction" (VIV 200).

What was insoluble was explaining the relationship between the objective and lived bodies, how "a given fact of the ‘objective’ order (a given cerebral lesion)" could wreak havoc in one’s life-world (VIV 200). The earlier phenomenology was also unable to explain (he believed) the relation between consciousness and body, even the lived body; and the origin of the idea and its connection with perception. That is, phenomenology in his view was an attempt to describe the phenomena as they appear to us in order to understand their essential meanings. It began with the immediacy of experience, but it did not end there because philosophy (phenomenology) consisted of reflections on that immediacy This implies, then, a level of ideality distinct from its perceptual origins. But Merleau-Ponty considered that his earlier work never did succeed in explaining the origin of the idea and the connection between perception and idea -- between what the later work titled Eye and Mind and The Visible and the Invisible. Thus his last writings began to sketch an ontology of nature which would reintegrate all these dualities in something more primary.

That primary something Merleau-Ponty called, with evident allusion to Levi-Strauss, "wild" or "brute" (uncultivated, uncivilized Being (VIV 13). He also described it as "flesh" (la chair), or simply as "Nature." Flesh is not a fact or collection of facts, a mental representation, or the locus of an intersection of body and mind. It is, rather, "the formative medium of the object and the subject" (VIV 147). It is an "element" which echoes Whitehead’s view of the global, rather than fragmented, character of nature -- the unity of the general push of the creative advance of the universe -- and the unity of causality and knowledge. Flesh is "the concrete emblem of a general manner of being" (VIV 147). As such,

It is this Visibility, this generality of the Sensible in itself, this anonymity innate to Myself . . . and one knows there is no name in traditional philosophy to designate it. . . . [F]lesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term ‘element,’ in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being. (VIV 139)

The fundamental il y a, the "there is," for Merleau-Ponty, is flesh: that of my body and that of the world. The main difference between these two elemental modes of being is 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 a pregnancy of possibles. . . . It is by the flesh of the world that in the last analysis one can understand the lived body (corps propre) -- The flesh of the world is of the Being-seen, i.e., is a Being that is eminently percipi, and it is by it that we can understand the percipere: this perceived that we call my body applying itself to the rest of the perceived. . . all this is finally possible and means something only because there is Being. (VIV 250)5

Furthermore, the notion of pregnancy here, together with descriptions of Nature as events (VI 200, 208), converges on Merleau-Ponty’s preference in La Nature for a Whiteheadian potentiality in nature as against Sartre’s full and complete en sui, and also reinforces Merleau-Ponty’s appreciation of Whitehead’s term "concrescence."

Likewise, Whitehead’s rejection of simple location is inscribed in the way that Merleau-Ponty comes to describe the relationship between the body and the world’s flesh, between body and soul, and between my body and those of others. Since my body and the world are made of the same flesh, "this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world ,reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world . . . . [T]hey are in a relation of transgression or of overlapping" (VIV 248). "Encroachment" (empiètement) and "overlapping" (enjambement) are the same words used in La Nature to describe Whitehead’s alternative to the Laplacian concept of nature. Likewise, "envelopment" is prominent in both the essay on Whitehead and in all of Merleau-Ponty’s last writings. "Pregnancy" the original and archetype of envelopment, denotes latency and possibility. Also, perception "envelops, palpates, espouses the visible things" (VIV 133). Perception does not stand in relation to the visible, nor touch to the tangible, nor hearing to the heard, as the pure negativity of a pour sui in contact (and continual conflict) with the pure positivity of an en sui. Rather, "A relation to Being is needed that would form itself within Being -- This at bottom is what Sartre was looking for" (VIV 215). And Merleau-Ponty finds it in envelopment: "We speak of ‘inspiration,’ and the word should be taken literally. There really is inspiration and expiration of Being, action and passion so slightly discernible that it becomes impossible to distinguish between what sees and what is seen; what paints and what is painted" (EM 167; see also VIV 138). Similarly. Whitehead asks: "Where does my body end and the external world begin?. . . . [T]he breath as it passes in and out of my lungs from my mouth and throat fluctuates in its bodily relationship. Undoubtedly the body is very vaguely distinguishable from external nature. It is in fact merely one among other natural objects" (MT 155, 156).

The denial of simple location also applies, therefore, to the relationships between mind and body. Or, to re-center the language of Merleau-Ponty’s early phenomenology, both the objective body and the lived-body become expressions of flesh. Their relationship is but one example of how "the visible is pregnant with the invisible. . . [which] is the solution of the problem of the ‘relations between the soul and the body"’ (VlV 216,233). Hence, Merleau-Ponty writes: "I take my starting point where Sartre ends, in the Being taken up by the for Itself. . . . For me it is structure or transcendence that explains, and being and nothingness (in Sartre’s sense) are its two abstract properties" (VIV 237).

Envelopment and the denial of simple location also underwrite Merleau-Ponty’s view that flesh is the groundwork of intersubjectivity, or intercorporeity. Seeing and being seen, speaking and being spoken to, touching and being touched, are all possible "only because we belong to the same system of being for itself and being for another; we are moments of the same syntax, we count in the same world, we belong to the same Being" (VIV 83). My experience of my own body and my experience of the other are only two sides of the same fleshly reality. The other’s sensorality is implied in one’s own because "to feel one’s body is also to feel its aspect for the other" (VIV 245). In this unitary syntax, the author tells us, there is a "surface of separation between me and the other which is also the place of our union . . . . (lit is the invisible hinge upon which my life and the life of others turn to rock into one another, the inner framework of intersubjectivity" (VIV 234).

Sartre considered that the "cardinal principle" of Merleau-Ponty’s last writings was the notion of envelopment (MPV 132), and the imagery of hinges typifies his articulation of envelopment as "intertwining" and "chiasm." Both terms evidence the trace of Whitehead’s views that nature is "an internal activity" (CN 54), that an object is an abbreviated way of stating an ensemble of relationships, that nature is an operative presence, that creator and creature are inseparable, and that, as Merleau-Ponty understands it, concrescence is a movement through which "a bit of matter coils up on itself [and] prolongs the ‘passage of Nature"’ (N 162) and establishes its unity The same imagery of coiling is used to describe the flesh in its chiasmatic nature – "the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible upon the touching body, which is attested in particular when the body sees itself touches itself seeing and touching the things" (VIV 146).

The chiasm, reversibility, intertwining, all designate our relationships with Being "The chiasm, reversibility is the idea that every perception doubled with a counter-perception . . . is an act with two faces, one no longer knows who speaks and who listens. Speaking-listening, seeing-being seen, perceiving-being perceived. . . . Active = passive" (VIV 264-65). There is also a "double and crossed situating of the visible in the tangible and of the tangible in the visible" (VIV 134). Likewise, self and other cross over into each other’s existence. "The experience of my own body and the experience of the other," he writes, "are themselves the two sides of one same Being" (VIV 225). Soul and body also intertwine because "There is a body of the mind, and a mind of the body and a chiasm between them" (VIV 259). There is also a chiasm between thought and its object: "Being is the ‘place’ where the ‘modes of consciousness’ are inscribed as structurations of Being (a way of thinking oneself within a society is implied in its social structure), and where the structurations of Being are modes of consciousness" (VIV 253). There is equally an intertwining between the objective body and the lived-body-now, called "the two ‘sides’ of our body, the body as sensible and the body as sentient" (VIV 136) -- just as there is between the thing perceived and the perceiving, the flesh of the world and the body’s flesh (VIV 134, 136,215). We exist, in short, at the intersection of these various reversibilities, in the "between."

These intertwinings are not merely spatial, but are also temporal. Merleau-Ponty’s appreciation of Whitehead’s views of the immanence and transcendence of nature, temporal duration, the insertion of time in nature as opposed to reserving it for a disconnected realm of subjectivity and the Gestalt structure of present and past, all find a home in The Visible and the Invisible (see especially VIV 184-185,190-191,194-195). Time should be understood as chiasm, he writes (VIV 267), and this would allow us to see that "past and present are Ineinander, each enveloping-enveloped -- and that itself is the flesh" (VIV 268).

Perhaps the most philosophically important intertwining of the visible and the invisible, and what Merleau-Ponty terms the "most difficult" to understand, is that which surpasses the limits of his lecture on Whitehead. It is not relationships between the perceived and perceiving or between body and mind, as described above, but "the bond between the flesh and the idea, between the visible and the interior armature which it manifests and which it conceals" (VIV 149). At the level of the idea, the invisible is the interior meaning or sense of the visible, its "essence," which phenomenology had sought to describe. And some of those earlier phenomenological themes remain in Merleau-Ponty’s last writings. For example, as noted in his essay on White-head, the meanings of things are not the products of representational thinking. Nor are they of a constituting consciousness: "[T]he relation between a thought and its object, between the cogito and the cogitatum, contains neither the whole nor even the essential of our commerce with the world" (VIV 35). Or, as Whitehead put the same point more simply in Adventures of Ideas, "I contend that the notion of mere knowledge is a high abstraction" (AI 225-226).

Rather, as Merleau-Ponty noted in La Nature, the constitution of the sense of the world is a re-constitution of what presents itself to us as "already there," a co-operation with its appearing to let its meaning emerge through our bodily, perceptual complicity. Ideas are not the contrary of the visible, as Proust shows us well, but "its lining and its depth" (VlV 149). Every act of speaking is an incarnation, a word(s) made flesh. Or, as Religion in the Making tells us, "Expression is the one fundamental sacrament. It is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" (RM 127).6

The same relationship between ideas and the visible obtains in non-human nature as well: "As the nervure bears the leaf from within, from the depths of its flesh, the ideas are the texture of experience, its style, first mute, then uttered. Like every style, they are elaborated within the thickness of being" (VIV 119). Meaning is thus carnal and organic. It is invisible in the sense of being in-visible: "the visible is pregnant with the invisible" (V1V 216), the style of the thing displayed as its latency and possibility. This style, a Hegelian 1nhalt, or content, is a concrete universal which expresses "the unique manner of existing which gets expressed in the properties of the pebble, the glass or the bit of wax, in all the facts of a revolution, in all the thoughts of a philosopher" (PhP xviii).

Ideas are primordially known, thus, through the body’s sensibility and cannot be detached either from it or from the flesh of the world. Far from being intellectual acquisitions, such ideas possess us rather than the other way around because they impress themselves on our receptive flesh. Musical ideas, for example, are such that "The performer is no longer producing or reproducing the sonata: he feels himself; and the others feel him to be at the service of the sonata the sonata sings through him or cries out so suddenly that he must ‘dash on his bow’ to follow it" (VIV 151).

These fleshly ideas which articulate the style of a thing, its "unique manner of existing," comprise its verbal essence, its active way of being. Style is an ideality of the flesh that provides a thing with a non-conceptual, pre-predicative cohesion. The thing is not a collection of sensations, a la classical empiricisms, nor an intellectual construction, as in idealisms. Rather, its "unique manner of existing" holds sway over its field of presence by giving flesh "its axes, its depth, its dimensions" (VIV 152). Style provides "a system of equivalences, a Logos of lines, of lighting, of colors, of reliefs, of masses -- a conceptless presentation of universal Being" (EM 182). It is another way of saying what we saw him appreciate about Whitehead’s concept of nature, namely; its generality, and that nature "is complete in any of its appearances, but is not exhausted by any of them" (N 160).

The cohesion provided by the ideality of the flesh is the same type as exists between parts of my body and between my body and the world (VIV 152): it is a Gestalt, a figure-ground (horizons, field) structure. This Gestalt structure of the ideality of the flesh means that it is not detachable from its field of origin. As a result, perceptual experience reaches this ideality, as do "[l]iterature, music, [and] the passions" (VIV 149). But there is also, for Merleau-Ponty, pure ideality; such as science, which can be detached from its fleshly origins and be "erected into a second positivity" (VIV 149). What kind of relationship exists between pure ideality and the generalized, dimensional nature of the visible is not clear, even to the author. But however it is finally to be understood, pure ideality still has its origins in flesh. It "already streams forth along the articulations of the aesthesiological body, along the contours of the sensible things. . . . [P]ure ideality is not without flesh nor freed from horizon structures" (VIV 152, 153). For example, "We are in humanity as a horizon of Being, because the horizon is what surrounds us, no less than the things. . . . Like humanity (Menschheit) every concept is first a horizonal generality, a generality of style" (VIV 237).8

Philosophy itself reflects the same structures. On Merleau-Ponty’s view, it consists of interrogation in an unfinished world, in the middle of things. The interrogation takes place as part of the flux of nature, as noted above, not as "high-altitude thinking" (VIV 13) beyond the flux. It demands "a sort of hyper-reflection (sur-réflexcion) that would also take itself and the changes it introduces into the spectacle into account" (VIV 38).

For Merleau-Ponty; philosophical interrogation is open, humble, and inclusive of all relevant evidence. And although it would remain non-dogmatic in its claims, those claims would be consistent with those Whiteheadian insights which he defended in La Nature namely, the global, unfragmented character and unity of nature; the reinsertion of potentiality in nature, breaking down Cartesian (and, for Merleau-Ponty, Sartrian) dualisms, the rejection of simple location, both spatially and temporally; insisting on the internal activity of nature and the inseparability of creator and creature, rejecting the bifurcation of primary and secondary qualities, and explaining all the modes of natural process without appealing to substance language.

Beyond the Whiteheadian essay, however, it is tempting to wonder how Merleau-Ponty might have shaped his last work if he had known Whitehead’s mature process metaphysics. My view is that that metaphysics can explain all, or, at any rate, almost all, of Merleau-Ponty’s subsequent reflections on the flesh. It is not possible to prove that the philosophy of organism is the only metaphysics capable of explaining what Merleau-Ponty was struggling to express. I would argue, therefore, that the philosophy of organism is sufficient, even if nor necessary, to fulfill Merleau-Ponty’s desiderata of a philosophy of nature. At the same time, though, given the latter’s rejection of substance language, it is difficult to see how any non-process philosophy could suffice.

It is, of course, beyond the scope of this short paper to demonstrate the claims I have just made. I hope to do so, rather, in a future work which Whitehead announced, and which would satisfy both his and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical expectations. The title of that work will be A Critique of Pure Feeling. In closing here, something of the directions which that essay will take can be glimpsed in the following sketch of how Whitehead might explain the chiasm, and especially that of flesh and idea -- the visible and the invisible.

Whitehead’s analysis of the phases of concrescence shows clearly that and how every occasion of experience enacts the chiasm. In the first phase, positive physical prehensions --"feelings"--literally incorporate the past actual world in the becoming of the new act of concrescence: "Feelings are ‘vectors’; for they feel what is there and transform it into what is here" (PR 87). Feelings at this rudimentary, non-conscious level of causal efficacy actively receive past actual entities into the new concrescence. Their power and foundational role in experience account for Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of fleshly ideas such as those of music and literature possessing us, rather than the other way around. In addition, negative prehensions, those that exclude data, are equally vectors and display an active selectivity even in the origination of the new occasion of experience. The upshot for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the chiasm is that through the receptivity of feelings of causal efficacy, the new concrescence originates as the seen, touched, etc., and because those feelings and negative prehensions are active, the new occasion is likewise seeing, touching, and the like.

However, the data of experience must always lie in the past, if only in the immediate past, of the present occasion of experience. As Whitehead pointed out, perception of exact contemporaries is impossible because there is always a temporal divergence -- an instance of what Merleau-Ponty calls an "ecarf"-- between the perceiving and the perceived. And Merleau-Ponty agrees: the chiasmatic reversibility between seeing and the visible, touching and touched, hearing and being heard, is "always imminent and never realized in fact" (VIV 147). The effort to see my eyes seeing, to touch my hand touching, "always miscarries at the last moment: the moment I feel my left hand with my right hand, I correspondingly cease touching my right hand with my left hand" (VIV 9). This means, then, that the awareness of the chiasm always implies at least two distinguishable occasions of experience, one of which lies in the past of the other.

The internal, rather than external, relations between occasions of experience which feelings of causal efficacy bring into being create the solidarity of nature -- its global, unfragmented nature -- the denial of simple location, and the rejection of Cartesian (and other) dualisms. Moreover, these chiasmatic internal relations create a temporal as well as spatial unity of nature because, as noted in the previous paragraph, a present act of concresence originates as a response to its past which it takes up and aims at its future to which it bequeaths itself.

The chiasm enacted through physical feelings not only remains beneath the level of conscious experience, but also below that of clear, sharp sensory perception in feelings of presentational immediacy. The latter, of course, grow out of feelings of causal efficacy in the second phase of concresence. Feelings of causal efficacy give us, as Merleau-Ponty appreciated in Whitehead, the infrastructure behind the presentation of sense data. Thus, the chiasm which they enact is one of being rather than of conscious discrimination.

There is also for Whitehead a chiasm of what Merleau-Ponty meant by idea and the flesh. First, in terms of their origin in the second phase of concrescence, ideas emerge as data of conceptual feelings -- pried out of immanence in feelings of causal efficacy as the objects of feelings of conceptual reproduction and reversion. A low-level example of the latter is thirst, which is "an immediate physical feeling integrated with the conceptual prehension of its quenching" (PR 25). In subsequent phases of concrescence, ideas are objects of more complex comparative feelings which may or may not reach conscious apprehension. But at whatever phase, ideas are invisible -- grounded in and expressive of physical, organic processes.

Moreover, the perception of possibility in these kinds of feelings speaks to what Merleau-Ponty meant by the latency and possibility of the flesh -- indeed, why he referred to the world as flesh at all. For example, consider the awareness of conceptually reverted feelings -- simple comparative, or "propositional" feelings (PR 214). A proposition is a "contrast" (comparison) of a reverted conceptual feeling with physical feelings in the first phase of concrescence. The comparison links together the novel eternal object and past actual occasions which serve as the source of those physical feelings. The latter becomes the "logical subject" of the proposition, and the novel form the "predicative pattern" (PR 257). Propositions reveal latency and potentiality because they are felt as "might be’s." The predicative patterns are "tales that perhaps might be told about particular actualities" (PR 256), and their principal role in the creative process is to serve as "a lure for feeling" (PR 25).9

Since Merleau-Ponty uses the term "idea" to refer to any pattern of definiteness, ideas are also in-visible for Whitehead in all the ways in which form qualifies occasions of experience. This includes the objective form according to which feelings of causal efficacy prehend past actual occasions, the subjective form -- how the occasion prehends -- and the subjective aim of the present concrescence -- how it wants to be a datum for future becomings. All these instances of form fall under the "objective" species of eternal objects -- the mathematical "Platonic forms" -- or the "subjective" species: "an element in the definiteness of the subjective form of a feeling. It is a determinate way in which a feeling can feel. It is an emotion, or an intensity, or an adversion, or an aversion, or a pleasure, or a pain" (PR 291).

It is clear that this multiform in-visibility of ideality within the act of concrescence also satisfies Merleau-Ponty’s desiderata of the inseparability of creator and creature, potentiality and internal activity at the heart of nature, and avoiding the bifurcation of primary and secondary qualities. In the future, I will attempt to deepen the analysis of this in-visible ideality, for which this paper has only been a sketch, to reach another of Merleau-Ponty’s objectives. In the last paragraph of his "An Unpublished Text," written when he was a candidate for the Collège de France, he stated that

[t]here is a "good ambiguity" in the phenomenon of expression, a spontaneity which accomplishes what appeared to be impossible when we observed only the separate elements, a spontaneity which gathers together the plurality of monads, the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole. To establish this wonder would be metaphysics itself and would at the same time give us the principle of an ethics. (PrP 11)

That is what I want A Critique of Pure Feeling to achieve.

 

Notes

1. Despite all the noted affinities between Merleau-Ponty’s writings and those of Dewey, the former told Herbert Spiegelberg in a 1953 interview that he had never read Dewey (personal communication).

2. "Nature" is capitalized in Merleau-Ponty’s citation, though Whitehead did not.

3. As the editor points out, Merleau-Ponty paraphrases here CN 20, "The course of nature is conceived as being merely the fortunes of matter in its adventure through space."

4.Merleau-Ponty also makes the following intriguing, but unexplained, observation: "A duration is duration because it retains something of the passage of Nature, because it is execution of this process. In the same way, the generality of time, of a family of times, is derived from the fact that all these times are enveloped in a passage of Nature."

5.Compare Eye and Mind: "Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself, they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body" (EM 163).

6.1 am indebted to Jan van der Veken for this reference.

7. All of the themes of this paragraph, taken together with Whitehead’s concept of concrescence, converge dramatically in experiences such as hiking through tropical rain forests, as I recently had the enormous pleasure of doing. The stupefying variety of life created a vivid example of the fact that explication is literally an unfolding.

8. This Is the ontological completion of Merleau-Ponty’s earlier "thesis" of the "primacy of perception." according to ‘which, among other things, all higher levels of consciousness are rooted in perception and evidence perceptual structures. Furthermore, the problem of the relationship between the intellectual and the perceptual, reflection and the reflected-on, is transmuted here, but equally not solved.

9. There are two passages in The Visible and the Invisible which come very close to expressing what Whitehead means by propositions. In the first, he says "What is indefinable in the quale, in the color, is nothing else than a brief, peremptory manner of giving in one sole something, in one sole tone of being, visions past, visions to come, by whole clusters" (135). The second passage runs as follows: "[A] positive thought is what it is, but, precisely, is only what it is and accordingly cannot hold us. Already the mind’s volubility takes it elsewhere" (151).

 

References

EM Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind Translated by Carleton Dallery. In The Primary of Perception, edited by James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. Originally published as LŚil et l’Espirit. Paris: Gallimard, 1964.

MPV Jean-Paul Sartre. "Merleau-Ponty [I]." Translated by ‘William S. Hamrick, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 15(1984), 123-154. This was a previously unpublished manuscript, the initial version of the well known memorial article for Merleau-Ponty which appeared in the October1961 issue of Les Temps modernes and was reprinted in Situations IV.

N Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Nature, Notes, Cours du College of France, Ètabli et annoté par Dominique Séglard. Paris: Èditions du Scuil, 1995.

PhP Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962. Originally published as Phrnomenologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945.

PrP Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. "An Unpublished Essay" is translated by Arleen B. Dallery. Originally published as "Un Inedit de Maurice Merleau-Ponty." Review de Metaphysique et de Morak 67 (1962),401—409.

TL Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Themes from the Lectures at the college de France 1952- 1960. Translated by John O’Neill Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970. Originally published as Resumes de cours, College de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

VC Jean Wahl, Vers le concret Paris:J.Vrin,1932.

VIV Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by Claude Lefort. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968. Originally published as Le Visible et l’invisible Paris: Gallimard, 1964.

WMP William S. Hamrick "Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Some Moral Implications," Process Studies4 (1974), 235-251.

WPP William Gallagher, "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology A Third View," Process Studies 4 (1974), 263-274.


Viewed 10504 times.