Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Advent of Sense

Barbaras offers a critique of Merleau-Ponty's concept of existence, first as it appears in The Structure of Behavior, then in Phenomenology of Perception. I need to quote at length before commenting on Barbaras' criticisms.

. . .Merleau-Ponty must show in a descending movement that if the notion of form grounds a critique of naturalism, it allows us just as much, and for the same reasons, to call intellectualism into question. The meaningful relation of the organism to its environment is still a relation to a reality, to a transcendence, and is not therefore based on a consciousness transparent to itself; it is not based on an act of knowledge. The study of behavior reveals what Merleau-Ponty calls an existence, a being-in-the-world, a tacit relation to a presence rather than a possession of something in a representation. The Structure of Behavior therefore concludes: "The natural 'thing,' the organism, the behaviors of others and my own behavior exist not only by their sense; but this sense which springs forth in them is not yet a Kantian object; the intentional life which constitutes them is not yet a representation; and the 'understanding' which gives access to them is not yet an intellection" (SC 241/225).

(The Being of the Phenomenon (hereafter Being), pp. 4-5, my bold)

Let's push aside the question of whether my philodendron relates to a transcendence (whatever that means) in the same way as organism that are typically thought to behave, which happens to coincide with the class of organisms that typically display motility, such the amoeba, the anole lizard or the elephant who sees itself in mirrors, and also the question of whether organisms ever meaningfully relate to irrealities, or relate without meaning (or form)–we are after all not really doing biology at this juncture, though we are on the verge of Barbaras' cosmobiology–so we can focus on the idea of consciousness which Barbaras seems to believe ought to have been jettisoned early on in the development of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. Consciousnesses transparent to themselves are not the only kind of consciousnesses, and transparency is not the only imaginable mode of a reflexive relation of consciousness. (I realize an idea of the cogito is being implicitly criticized, fairly or unfairly; the criticism is itself an idea offered in a specific form and it will be tested.) Furthermore, a preintellectual or prerepresentational intentional life is not completely at odds with knowledge or acts of knowledge. Merleau-Ponty doesn't say as much. Why should he? He proposes another kind of "understanding," but he still conceives of it as understanding, a praktognosis he will go on to say in Phenomenology. In fact we might think that understanding is the inflected form of "understanding," once the latter concept has been established in our thinking, without then really doing away with either or being stuck with some antiquated (and derivative, ever problematic) notion of existence which witholds more than it emancipates.

Before carrying on let's look at another passage dealing with Merleau-Ponty's concept of existence as presented in Phenomenology. Barbaras notes that the concept of existence is omnipresent in Phenomenology but disappears in later works.

Existence designates the movement by which the body, which is irreducible, as we have seen, to a pure object, gives sense. In fact, "the human body is defined in terms of its property of appropriating, in an indefinite series of discontinuous acts, meaningful kernels which overcome and transfigure its natural abilities" (PHP 226/193). Existence is thus "this open and indefinite power of meaning–that is, simultaneously of grasping and communicating a sense–by which man transcends himself toward a new behavior or toward others, or toward his own thought, across his body and his speech" (PHP 226/194). The central intention of Phenomenology of Perception is this power of escape, this sense always already at work, which is not distinguished from its own accomplishment, and which, in this way, cannot be opposed to the factical foundation from which it would emerge. But by grasping this power by means of the notion of existence, Merleau-Ponty does not allow himself in Phenomenology of Perception to understand what he has discovered, for existence is conceived as human existence, that is, as the subject of the movement of transcendence rather than as the very advent of sense. It is finally "man" who "transcends himself toward a new behavior." Existence is grasped as man's facticity, even though the experience to which it refers leads us to overcome the frontal relation of man to being, to overcome the duality of subject and object. Prisoner of a dualist framework, Merleau-Ponty can therefore describe it only in a negative way: it coincides neither with the passivity of the anthropological subject situated in the objective world nor with the pure activity of the constituting subject. But existence is still really that of a subject, or rather is the subject itself, so that the fullness of the experience to which it refers cannot be attained. The notion of pre-personal consciousness, which is a term synonymous with existence, crystallizes the ambiguity. Even though Merleau-Ponty discovers an experience that is no longer personal, an experience in which the category of the person finds itself contested, he grasps it still on the basis of the personal subject, as a negation that is already its affirmation.

(pp. 8-9, Barbaras' emphasis, my bold)

I don't believe Barbaras has adequately established that for Merleau-Ponty human existence, much less existence, equates to the subject, though it is of course attestable. (One should give Merleau-Ponty a chance to explain what he means by "subject," and how he is intending us to understand the concept, for it is not after all transparent.) Additionally, it would be helpful to have an exact citation to Merleau-Ponty's discovery of prepersonal consciousness, because, off the top of my head, that could mean a few things other than what Barbaras' interpretation would have us believe. Prepersonal consciousness could be imminently personal, for instance, pregnant with the who, or with the existence through-sound, or with the sense-giving subject.

If I had to choose between existence and the very advent of sense I would choose existence. However, I'm not sure I have to choose. In what essential way is the very advent of sense not existential? We need to hear more from the anti-existential ontologist before we decide this point. For the moment, let's take a peek at Merleau-Ponty's thoughts on communication (which has perhaps been glossed over), on the existential meaning of words beneath the conceptual meanings of words, a "primordial" silence and the act that breaks the silence, simultaneously an expression and a grasping of a sense. He says:

What I communicate with primarily is not 'representations' or thought, but a speaking subject, with a certain style of being and with the 'world' at which he directs his aim. Just as the sense-giving intention which has set in motion the other person's speech is not an explicit thought, but a certain lack which is asking to be made good, so my taking up this intention is not a process of thinking on my part, but a synchronizing change of my own existence, a transformation of my being.

(Phenomenology, p. 183-184)

"I communicate with . . . a speaking subject." This is not an equation, but neither is it properly prepersonal (though logically one might think a preperson is implied). As I interpret it, nonetheless, it is precisely a with. Even if it is intended to simply state that the speaking subject is the instrument of an ego's communication, the with holds the meaning of a togetherness. Communication–synkairoticized, perhaps, with the advent of sense, a transfiguration and a trajectory–is existential through and through. What reason have we been given for thinking otherwise? Primordial silence, by which the body is refered to, its taking up of meaning prior to representation? But the body is enigmatic, which is far from saying that the body can never be understood. It secretes in itself a "significance" (p. 197, the quotes are Merleau-Ponty's). Our idea of "sense-giving" should have been transformed by Merleau-Ponty's analysis of the body as expression; the idea of significance has been challenged. The "disclosure of an immanent or incipient significance in the living body extends, as we shall see, to the whole sensible world, and our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other 'objects' the miracle of expression" (ibid., Merleau-Ponty's quotes, my bold.) It is Merleau-Ponty who has problematized the object and by implication its other pole, the subject. Barbaras would hardly disagree. Incipience, however, rather than contestation, is the key to Merleau-Ponty's thinking here. To the extent that Merleau-Ponty did abandon existence, there might be other explanations for that besides the concept being superseded by the development of a superior ontology. That said, Barbaras' reading is certainly meritorious and thought-provoking.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:11 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maine de Biran : He concluded that Condillac's notion of passive receptivity as the one source of conscious experience was an error of method - in short, that the mechanical mode of viewing consciousness as formed by external influence was fallacious and deceptive.
For it he proposed to substitute the genetic method, whereby human conscious experience might be exhibited as growing or developing from its essential basis in connection with external conditions.
The essential basis he finds in the real consciousness, of self as an active striving power, and the stages of its development, corresponding to what one may call the relative importance of the external conditions and the reflective clearness of self-consciousness he designates as the affective, the perceptive and the reflective. In connexion with this Biran treats most of the obscure problems which arise in dealing with conscious experience, such as the mode by which the organism is cognized, the mode by which the organism is distinguished from extra-organic things, and the nature of those general ideas by which the relations of things are known to us - cause, power, force, etc.
'In the second stage — the philosophy of will — 1804-18, to avoid materialism and fatalism, he embraced the doctrine of immediate apperception, showing that man [and all 'semovient persons] knows himself and exterior things by the resistance to his effort. On reflecting he remarks the voluntary effort which differentiates his internal from his external experience, thus learning to distinguish between the ego and the non-ego.' (Catholic Encyclopedia). That which resists are efforts....('foreign' resistances as Crocco puts it).

An amoeba and elephant might display motility in v. diff ways? (it's not about size).

Mariela likes to point out that automobiles (vehicles) are not semovient - and amoeba may well be purely reactive, or merely continue causal series. For the AGNT only the initation of causal series a novo constitutes real 'self-moving'.
And for this one has to distinguish btwn empsyched and non-empsyched beings. According to this school of 'biology' semovience requires an 'electroneurobiological' organ = a brain, however small... There are reasons for this postulate! need a brain to be empsyched (something to do with overlapping 'fields' - the brain's electrical field and another field.....
But hey you know all this and I'm repeating myself - happy easter!

Ps check this out:

You can guess who sent it

April 12, 2009 2:22 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I'd like to think of myself as being in pursuit of a genetic method of exploring thought--but I'm easily distracted--marginal things like protozoa and whatnot. Anyway, I simply must read Biran for myself. In the meantime Barbaras is rather stimulating. Going to eat some jambalaya. Yum.

April 12, 2009 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm getting distracted by a 700p novel 'A fraction of the whole' by the Australian newcomer Steve Toltz. Also getting distracted by acting as a foster family for an abandoned dog.

Another element in this story is Xavier Zubiri and his concept of noergy :

'In this way, before the new speed becomes so fast that it completely blocks the resolution of sensory notices (as occurs during sleep), the regional sensory output fades “into inattention” around other features kept in one’s attentional focus, without loss of its availability for semoviently-steerable attention. In other words this fading sensory “complement,” which surrounds what one is attending to, loses affective prominence or force of imposition (Zubiri’s noergy) because of the slight speeding up of the mentioned carriers in the brain areas that generate the voluntarily neglected sensory features. This mechanical “reddening” (more on this designation in a moment) is why inattention is a step toward sleep, another crucial observation. It is probably linked with ketamine’s mimicking schizophrenias as a step toward its acting as an anesthetic; anesthetics as well as oneirogens, substances that increase dreaming time such as those in the leaves of Salvia divinorum, must act by way of altering the field-coupled neurodynamics. This mechanical “reddening” also prevents recalling the experiences lived under it, another topic discussed soon. Focusing attention thus consists in selecting (“esemplastically,” a term that denotes the action featured, e. g., in selecting one or rather another finger to move), in some regions of brain volume, a limited sector of brain states that continue inducing optimal braking to the causal-action carriers where one is circumstanced to. (Szirko).

Zubiri's critique of classical metaphysics
Probably the most innovative aspect of Zubiri's metaphysical system is his critique of classical metaphysics, and particularly of the notion of reality as "subject" in the Aristotelian sense, that is, a reality that is somehow autonomous apart from its context. Zubiri reconceives reality as an interconnected structure of "notes", which structure is "in its own right" to a certain degree (a property Zubiri refers to as "substantivity", in contrast with the classical notion of "substantiality"). The notes themselves are reality's ways of "giving-of-itself" in being, so in this respect reality is actually prior to being rather than being identifiable with being. Thus, Zubiri can criticise the "logification of intellect" that identifies what is intellectively known with being, which in turn leads to the "entification of reality" (identification of reality with being). This critique spans the entire history of philosophy, from Parmenides to the medieval scholastics all the way to Hegel and Heidegger (who himself was one of Zubiri's philosophical mentors, along with Edmund Husserl).

The possibilities for applying Zubiri's metaphysics in a theological context are quite diverse, owing to its ability to adapt classical metaphysical formulations of theology into Zubiri's own terms. Zubiri himself applied such adaptations to the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, and the Real Presence of the Eucharist, as well as other diverse theological subjects. Of note is the intrinsic compatibility of Zubiri's notion of reality as prior to being with the earlier patristic notion that God Himself is beyond being. Thus, Zubiri's system has significant potential for reconciling what appear to be inherent contradictions between Eastern and Western theology, such as the debate over the so-called "essence-energies distinction" and the filioque. Unfortunately, the application of Zubiri's work in the theological sphere has been relatively limited apart from Ignacio Ellacuría's work in liberation theology.

'"Maybe you may help me
to remember if he was Tom
Sawyer or either Huckleberry
Finn who got so wonderfully
amazed when the latest
technology - a balloon flight ­
revealed to him that the united
States do not differ in color,
as maps unfaithfully portray
them. This important intuition
(I fuzzingly credit it to Mark
Twain but may be mistaken)
is the essential point to
penetrate Zubiri’s anthropology
as well as his difference with
our tradition - and also the
touchstone to probe Jung’s.
Don Xavier’s thought stemmed
from the same cultural sources
that our neurobiological
tradition but he kept a greater
loyalty to the Peripatetic
view of minds as penetrable.
This on the Twain’s picture
is like to seeing the contiguous
States as not essentially
different in certain feature
that prevents full exchanges,
whether the map color or
cadacualtez for minds. The
issue in fact comes from certain
remark by Aristotle in his
peri psyjees, but let me now
skip over it. Such penetrability
allowed don Xavier to speak at
once of a crab’s and a dog’s
sentience, while in fact the dog senses and the crab doesn't.

April 12, 2009 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


'Eclose: originate, emerge (having not been there before)'
(Mariela) Yes, this is the definition which I referred you to when you wrote me that this was not an English word and I replied indicating the page 720 of the Merriam-Webster. But the addition of 'having not been there before' is extremely grievous in anthropology, as it embarks one into the Platonic view of a pre-existent steerperson entering any ship at hand. Eclosion in anthropology is the acquisition of actuality by an existentiality whose circumstantiation is constitutive; while in quantum scenarios is simply the popping out of a particle whose circumstantiation instead is not constitutive, thus gathering the original Roman meaning of 'existence' (as in 'horseflies are existing out of dung').

April 13, 2009 12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well that's it for easter, the problem with reading and distraction is imho the questions I ask - not that I ask that many - but the questions eliminate a lot of stuff

April 13, 2009 12:39 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"Eclosion in anthropology is the acquisition of actuality by an existentiality whose circumstantiation is constitutive; while in quantum scenarios is simply the popping out of a particle whose circumstantiation instead is not constitutive, thus gathering the original Roman meaning of 'existence' (as in 'horseflies are existing out of dung')"

Ah hah.

I had run across Zubiri way back when but then I forgot about him. Thanks for the reminder. In fact I often feel as if reality were prior to being, in an anthropological kind of way. . .

April 13, 2009 2:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Before the truth, the gods put sweating.' (Hesiod). 'A Rehearsal of some already posted notions.'

Couldn't resist pasting this exchange btwn Mariela and Herbert Muller on the K Jaspers Forum. Mariela seems to overcome her idiosyncratic english and have fun - altho she stopped having these internetludes at about that time. It's quite useful for the definitions.

April 13, 2009 2:15 PM  

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