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Integral PluralismBeyond Culture Wars$

Fred Dallmayr

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813125718

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813125718.001.0001

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(p.167) Appendix A Return of the Repressed

(p.167) Appendix A Return of the Repressed

Merleau-Ponty Redivivus

Integral Pluralism
University Press of Kentucky

Psychoanalysts speak of the “return of the repressed,” meaning the unexpected upsurge of memories or experiences sidelined for a long time. This sidelining and its overturn are not limited to individual psychic states but extend deep into culture. Bach’s compositions, for example, were eclipsed for nearly two hundred years until rescued from oblivion by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. In less dramatic fashion, similar reversals happen in literary and philosophical contexts. A prominent example in recent times is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose work (following his death in 1961) was sidelined for almost half a century by successive waves of structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and antihumanism. In his case, it is true, the sidelining did not amount to complete erasure; in fact, many so-called postmodern thinkers freely appropriated his ideas, usually without crediting their source. Indications are that the practice of overt neglect is coming to an end. According to two distinguished writers on the subject, interest in and scholarship on Merleau-Ponty is now “expanding at an extraordinary rate.”1 Diana Coole’s book illustrates this renewed upsurge of interest—an upsurge that is liable to salvage some of his best insights after the spell of postmodern “anti-humanism.”2

For Coole, Merleau-Ponty’s writings anticipated many arguments of later structuralism and poststructuralism, but without going to the extreme of celebrating the “death of the subject” or the erasure of human experience—a celebration bound to expunge political agency and social responsibility. As she writes, the main reason for rereading (p.168) Merleau-Ponty is “not that he was already a poststructuralist, but that he was trying to integrate elements now associated with poststructuralism with other traditions that maintain a more robust sense of politics, experience, and agency.” The basic task for her today is “to excavate a politics after poststructuralism,” a politics that does not “dissolve the political and agentic into the ethical, the aesthetic, or the discursive” (11). In Coole’s account, both structuralism and poststructuralism— despite their advances over “philosophies of the subject”—tended to neglect “agent’s practical motivations and experiences,” a neglect that demonstrated the “lamentable deficit of their anti-humanism” (199). It was Merleau-Ponty’s goal (or at least his persistent attempt) to dislodge capacities for agency from “subjectivity” and hence to rid agency “of its subjectivist pedigree and locate it instead in the perceiving body” (175). In contrast to many interpreters, Coole does not discern a basic break or rupture in his thought that neatly distinguishes between “his early and his late work,” between “his humanism and anti-humanism,” or simply between “phenomenology and structuralism.” Instead, she insists on a certain continuity whereby “the early work stakes out a route for overcoming subjectivism and the later writings simply continue this project” in the direction of a steady “deepening of inquiry” on the levels of self-interrogation and world interrogation (182, 185).

Coole’s book is divided into three main parts, with the first part highlighting the basic issues or problems triggering Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, the second part delineating his phenomenological approach, and the last part exploring his later turn to “ontology” under such labels as “chiasm” and “flesh of the world.” Coole’s starting point is important. In contrast to abstract theorists picking logical puzzles at random, Merleau-Ponty was deeply enmeshed in the agonies of his time, especially in what he perceived as the dilemmas or the “crisis” features of Western modernity. Crucial among these features for him was modern “rationalism” deriving from Descartes—a rationalism that split experience into subject and object, consciousness and “extended matter,” and that basically granted to the former primacy or mastery over the latter. In struggling with this perceived crisis, Merleau-Ponty was, of course, in the company of a host of other thinkers, including Max Weber, some Western Marxists, and the founders of the Frankfurt School. The opening chapters instructively discuss his affinities with, as well as his differences from, his contemporaries. One (p.169) of the distinctive marks from early on was his focus on the “lifeworld” as generative matrix of thought (a notion derived from Husserl). In Coole’s words, his main approach was “to challenge the primacy of reason with the primacy of perception,” a perception anchored in the lifeworld. From the angle of this matrix, he challenged both Western “liberal” and Soviet-style “communist” regimes as being “equally implicated in modern rationalism,” since both “oscillate between (abstract) Kantian moralism and Cartesian positivism” (33–34). In this context, Coole discusses some early (and more overtly political) writings such as Humanism and Terror and Adventures of the Dialectic. In these writings, she notes, liberalism is identified as “a form of idealism that rips principles from their material context while reducing politics to an impotent moralism” or “humanism” (51). At the same time, orthodox communism is critiqued as a dogmatic and vulgar materialism foreclosing “processes of interrogation” and reducing dialectics to a “massive positivity” (69, 75).

The distinctive qualities of Merleau-Ponty’s approach emerge more clearly in the book’s second part titled “In Pursuit of the Inter-world.” Coole turns here to Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Husserl and his move from transcendental to “genetic” phenomenology, a move expected to yield “a new type of reflection” able to tackle the problems of modernity (98). Special attention is given to Phenomenology of Perception and related writings that are said to proceed “in an increasingly anti-humanist direction” by making little or no reference to a constitutive ego (103). Contrary to one of Michel Foucault’s allegations, Merleau-Ponty at this point no longer practiced “a philosophy of self-certainty and a metaphysics of presence” (104); distancing himself from a “subjectivist, humanist, and idealist philosophy,” his phenomenology steadily acquired “dialectical, posthumanist, yet existentialist” overtones (107). In Coole’s reading, what prompted this change was, at least in part, his encounter with Gestalt theory, Weberian sociology, and facets of structuralism (especially Saussure and Marcel Mauss). Gestalt theory in particular, she notes, was a way to reach the “interworld,” for in application to social life, Gestalt means “the particular way in which men … co-exist” (127). Another influence at this point was Machiavelli (freed from Machiavellian opportunism), a thinker who allowed Merleau-Ponty to glimpse “an ambiguous interworld where collective life is swept along in a maelstrom of conflict and (p.170) cooperation and politics operates on several more or less opaque and precognitive levels” (154). On the basis of these encounters, Merleau-Ponty came to define the political philosopher as an engaged intellectual involved in a “concrete politics of change where responsibility has to be accepted for choices and commitments made.” In a similar way, the political actor was seen as practicing an “active/passive agency, of construction and learning, of intervention and listening,” in a process oriented toward “indefinite verification” (147, 149).

The concluding part turns to Merleau-Ponty’s later work under the title “Politics of the Body, the Flesh of the Political.” The immediately preceding chapter already introduced some of the key themes under the labels of “negativity,” “agency,” and “ontology.” Regarding negativity, Merleau-Ponty breaks with Sartre’s notion of a radical non-being or “nothingness,” conceiving it instead as a “chiasm” or decentering “shift” (écart). In Coole’s words, this shift is “not an ontological void” but only a “hiatus,” a “dehiscence that opens my body in two”; as such, it is a “productive difference, not a fatal lack,” “a passivity that bears an activity” (174). Seen in this manner, the shift brings into view a new, no longer subject-centered agency in which negativity and action are joined in “immanent generativity” (177). Such generativity, in turn, is anchored in a recessed negative-positive “ontology” (largely indebted to Heidegger), where “Being” refers to a “becoming, self-disclosing truth” and ultimately points to the lifeworld as generative matrix (161–162). Given the increasing use of the terms “flesh” or “flesh of the world” in his later writings, Merleau-Ponty’s ontology has been the target of critical feminist readings (by Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, and others), and these readings are the topic of one of the concluding chapters. The final chapter returns to the book’s central aim: the recovery of political agency after the interlude of antihu-manism. Crucial guideposts here are Merleau-Ponty’s development of a “thick theory of intersubjectivity” and his portrayal of the “flesh of the political” as a “field of forces,” where flesh and force field are closely intertwined. Both the phenomenology of flesh as humanly experienced and the aspect of the force field, she comments, are needed to convey “this interlacing,” which is “chiasm” (237).

Coole’s book is clearly important in the present intellectual situation: the aftermath of structuralism and poststructuralism. Without dismissing the needed deflation of “subjectivity” and a self-centered (p.171) humanism, the text opens the road to a renewal of politics and political agency—an agency operating (if one wishes) in the “middle voice,” in the écart between passivity and activity, between receptivity and innovative praxis. Coole demonstrates admirably the many contributions Merleau-Ponty’s work can make to this renewal, especially through his elaborations on the “interworld” and the ontology of the “flesh.” Along the way, she offers some insightful comments on his relations with distinguished contemporaries. Particularly valuable are her observations on the importance of Heidegger’s legacy. Merleau-Ponty, she notes, followed Heidegger’s lead by infusing existence with temporality and by attempting to rethink humanity “from the non-anthropological perspective of Being.” At the same time, he departed from that legacy by maintaining closer contact with worldly experience and concrete politics (182, 252). Given Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the lifeworld, his approach seems to resemble that of Habermas, but not on closer inspection. “Even in modernity,” Coole states, “Merleau-Ponty’s lifeworld is outrun to a considerably lesser extent than Habermas’s, largely because it is anchored in embodied, perceptual processes rather than in [purely] linguistic, communicative practices” (143). Above all, the phenomenologist was never willing to reduce the lifeworld to a realm of unreflective and “unmediated certainty.” Also insightful and instructive are the book’s comments on Merleau-Ponty’s relation to Sartre, especially the Sartre of Being and Nothingness. As indicated before, consciousness for Sartre was a rupture, an emblem for pure negativity or nothingness. In contrast, without abandoning the negative, Merleau-Ponty treated it as an enabling potency, as “the productive condition of reversibility” (174). As we read in The Visible and the Invisible, the écart is “not a void” but is “filled precisely by the flesh as the place of emergence of a vision, a passivity that bears an activity.”3

Given Merleau-Ponty’s double move—his embrace and transgression of antihumanism—his relation to the generation of structuralists and poststructuralists is particularly significant. Tension clearly prevails between the phenomenologist and Foucault in his more structuralist-epistemological phase, which tended to erase the “subject” in favor of anonymous forces and a “genealogy” of power. However, as Coole notes, Foucault himself became increasingly aware of “the difficulties inherent in maintaining a politics without relatively (p.172) efficacious agents or an account of intersubjectivity.” She can rely here on the testimony of Gilles Deleuze, to the effect that the later Foucault “came to understand subjectivation in terms of folding” and that his main mentors at that point were “undoubtedly Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger” (230, 232). More complicated is the relation to Deleuze himself, given the latter’s more resolute antihumanism, evident in his stress on “nonhuman forces of the cosmos” and an impersonal force field “without a subject” (237). The relation is rendered even more strained by Deleuze’s radical rejection of negativity and his embrace of an apparently seamless “immanence” inhabited only by “positive” forces. Can such a seamless immanence even be thought without reference to a difference from or with that immanence? Moreover, does reliance on anonymous force fields not imply an ascent to that “aerial view” or “view from nowhere,” which Merleau-Ponty consistently criticized? Noticing the tension, Coole suggests an avenue of reconciliation. Clearly, she states, Deleuze’s rejection of the negative seems to put him “on a collision course with Merleau-Ponty as well as Sartre.” Yet, on inspection, his concerns were similar to those Merleau-Ponty expressed when critiquing an “embalmed dialectic.” Thus, despite Deleuze’s dismissal of the intentionality implicit (for him) in the notion of “flesh,” Coole submits that “his invocation of the ‘being of the problematic’ is strikingly reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty’s later ontology” (170).

I find congenial the balanced judgment and evenhanded tenor pervading Coole’s book. Among many other places, this tenor is clearly evident in her discussion of feminist critiques that Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “flesh” is either male gendered or gender neutral. As she rightly maintains (203), if transferred to the ontological plane, gender differences tend to become “essentialized”—something most feminists surely want to avoid. The best one can do in this field is to both affirm and deny such differences in accordance with pragmatic objectives. My reservations about the book are limited and involve mostly matters of emphasis. I do not believe that Merleau-Ponty ever meant to “substitute force field for flesh,” as one passage suggests (238). A bit more pronounced are my qualms regarding the treatment of “exemplary action” or praxis. Coole associates such action perhaps too closely with political “leaders,” including both “liberal statesmen” and “Marxist revolutionaries.” As she writes, both types “exhibit the (p.173) particular qualities of living their times well and of trying continuously to clarify the lines of force and negativities of the present.” Borrowing a leaf from Max Weber, the leading figures are said to display “a vocation for politics” and to exhibit the qualities of “Weber’s charismatic politician” (149–150). Although perhaps in tune with some of Merleau-Ponty’s early inclinations (at the time of Adventures), these statements hardly reflect his subsequent seasoning and especially his later ontology of the “flesh.” Like the rest of us, he had plenty of sobering experiences with both liberal statesmen and revolutionaries. Above all, the statements fail to resonate with his persistent democratic leanings and with a politics carried on in the ordinary lifeworld.

An important dimension of Merleau-Ponty’s thought—but one too frequently neglected or sidelined—is its ethical sensibility. Coole’s text is diligent in rescuing this dimension from oblivion. Turning to one of his early essays (reprinted in Sense and Non-Sense), she obverses that Merleau-Ponty “confirms the intersubjective nature of ethical relations and associates them with an ethos of keeping promises, respecting others, communication, and generosity” (257n46). A distinctive (and appealing) feature of her book is its persistent emphasis on what she calls an “interrogative ethics.” As she writes at one point: “Interrogation is an originary structure of existence for Merleau-Ponty and enjoys ontological status. But … it also acquires normative significance inasmuch as an interrogative ethos emerges as a possible alternative to modernity’s rationalist way of being-in-the-world” (169). On one level, Merleau-Ponty’s ethical sensibility approximated him to Emmanuel Levinas, despite the latter’s frequent (often lopsided and unfair) attacks on his compatriot. One basic difference, however, resides in Levinas’s sharp separation between ethics and politics, between private and public domains. In the politico-ethical realm, Coole writes (correctly, I believe), “we can never rely upon simply personal responsibilities” because “our lives are commingled through and through in their interiority and exteriority,” and “we all inhabit the dense flesh of the world.” This realization leads her to an important point: “Rather than suggesting something like Levinas’s ethics of the gift, which is indifferent to reciprocity and predicated on the radical separation of self and other, Merleau-Ponty brings us back to a dialectical world whose exemplary ethico-political attitude I have labeled an interrogative ethos.” The broader import of this argument (p.174) is that “it is as crucial to avoid reducing politics to ethics as it is to separate them definitively” (247). This is surely one of the many salient lessons that Merleau-Ponty’s work, mediated through Coole’s reading, teaches us.


(1.) Lawrence Hass and Dorothea Olkowski, eds., Rereading Merleau-Ponty: Essays beyond the Continental-Analytical Divide (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2003), 13. See also Taylor Carman, Merleau-Ponty (New York: Routledge, 2008); Thomas Baldwin, ed., Reading Merleau-Ponty (London: Routledge, 2007); Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawler, eds., The Merleau-Ponty Reader (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2007); François-George Maugarlene, Retour à Merleau-Ponty (Paris: Grosset, 2007); James Hatley, Janice McLane, and Christian Diehm, eds., Interrogating Ethics: Embodying the Good in Merleau-Ponty (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006); Taylor Carman and Mark Hansen, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(2.) Diana Coole, Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics after Anti-Humanism (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). In the following text, page numbers in parentheses refer to this work.

(3.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 272. Compare in this context Diana Coole, Negativity and Politics: Dionysus and Dialectics from Kant to Post-structuralism (London: Routledge, 2000).