Sunday, October 5, 2014

Merleau-Ponty: The inside and ouside of feeling and thinking

Philosophers have always proposed solutions for the “problem of the world”: is there really a world outside us and how can we be so sure? The reason I immigrated to France in 1996 is because I found the most beautiful, elegant and attractive solutions for this fascinating problem in the works of French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Here is a very short account of how Merleau-Ponty solves the problem of the world.

His philosophy is a reaction to the work of the father of modern philosophy, the French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes divided the realm of being in two categories: three dimensional objects (matter) and spiritual objects (mind). The idea is simple: there’s a three dimensional material world that exists outside my mind that can cause perceptions of it in my mind.

Merleau-Ponty however sees this theory not as an answer but rather as a reformulation of the problem: how can mind and matter communicate if they belong to completely different realities? His answer: mind and object can only influence each other if they don’t exist as independent entities but belong to the same world. But how can object and mind - body and soul - belong to one and the same reality?

For Merleau-Ponty the answer lies in the peculiar structure of the body. For him the body is not just a “mechanical” Cartesian thing that causes perceptions in the mind, but a living paradox that is always in between perceiving and being perceived:

“If my left hand touches my right hand, and if I then suddenly try to touch this touching activity of my left hand with my right hand, this perception always fails at the last moment: the moment I touch my left hand with my right hand, I stop touching my right hand with my left hand”.

Philosophy is not just about communicating ideas but also about how to communicate them. This passage in Le Visible et l'Invisible (1964) struck me by its beauty and finesse.

In other words: my left hand (the toucher) can feel my right hand (the touched) but only at the price of becoming a touched hand itself too! While Descartes considered thoughts and perceptions as mental things inside the mind, Merleau-Ponty understood that the mind can only touch objects if it partly “sacrifices” its mental nature by becoming a tangible being itself too. Touching is possible because it doesn't happen in the mind but in living flesh, which is touching and being tangible at the same time.

The beauty of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is that it also applies to seeing and even thinking. Like touching, thinking is not a process that happens inside a mind but an adventure that needs the exteriority of (spoken) words to happen. That’s why we experience thinking as “looking for words”: we don't put words on thoughts already available in our mind but on the contrary we actually discover our thoughts in the available words!

The poet knows how to use this material aspect of words to send our mind off in directions it would not be able to find inside itself. Why? Because the inside of the mind is empty, even non-existent.

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

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