Merleau-Ponty's Critique of Modernism and Postmodernism

By Low, Douglas | Philosophy Today, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Merleau-Ponty's Critique of Modernism and Postmodernism


Low, Douglas, Philosophy Today


As is now well known, Maurice Merleau-- Ponty's philosophy frequently argued on two fronts, against various forms of continental rationalism and against various types of tabula rosa empiricism. And even though his criticisms are often recognized as dismantling both rationalist and empiricist forms of Modernism, since they both begin with an already intellectually defined world, his untimely death in 1961 cut short his nascent criticisms of what is now labeled Postmodernism.1 What I hope to do in this essay is show how Merleau-Ponty's arguments against Modernism, in particular against its various forms of rationalism, can be used against various forms of Postmodernism, in particular Derrida's philosophy of Deconstruction. This, of course, will involve presenting aspects of MerleauPonty's own rather remarkable theory of lived embodiment. I will conclude with a few briefly drawn consequences for political theory.

Merleau-Ponty's primary argument against the rationalists, specifically Descartes, Kant, and at times even Husserl, is that they falsify experience by intellectually constructing it rather than by simply describing it as it is lived through.2 More specifically, he charges the rationalists with reducing the experience of seeing to a "thought of seeing," to a reflective, intellectual representation of seeing, which makes perception into an act or thing represented rather than lived through as a process. Furthermore, Merleau-Ponty argues that reflection follows perception, that it comes second. By its very nature it re-flects something more primary. Rationalist reflection therefore is disingenuous because it forgets that it begins with the prereflective. Moreover, even when it admits that it begins with the prereflective, it simply states that it is the ladder that is pulled up after it is climbed, that rational thought contains all it needs to account for all experience, including its own beginning (VI 34-35). Descartes, for example, begins with experience but moves toward the clear and distinct ideas grasped by an isolated rational consciousness. Likewise, Kant and Husserl begin with experience, but Kant moves to the formal conditions that make it possible, and Husserl moves toward its reflective and essential constitution. MerleauPonty claims that this intellectual constitution of experience is also disingenuous because the necessarily backward reflection on the constituted experience is not the same as its forward constitution (VI 33). The nature of the experiences are fundamentally different; and, of course, they are separated by time, for the prereflective temporally slips away from the reflective and cannot be fully grasped by it. This shows that the transcendental ego cannot constitute time, that it is subject to it, that it is caught in its flow. The present moment of lived through experience is not fully present to a constituting consciousness because it gradually shades into the past and towards a future. Husserl himself admits that there is always something left over that is actually living the present experience, that cannot be made an object of reflective concern or essential analysis.3 The reflective experience always experiences the prereflective as occurring prior to it. Therefore there can be no complete presence of self to self. Self-presence occurs only across an absence or delay. I am aware of my prereflective consciousness only as it slips ahead of me into the world. Moreover, if prereflective consciousness is primarily perceptual, and the perceptual is primarily the body's openness upon the world, then it is lived through bodily perception that remains prior to reflection and that escapes being represented as an object in reflective intellectual consciousness. Lived through bodily perception always remains in front of or prior to the reflection, which subsequently cannot grasp the perception as an intellectual object without distorting it as a process that is lived through. Reflective intellectual consciousness does not contain all that it needs to account for experience. …

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