Liberating Experience from the Vice of Structuralism: The Methods of Merleau-Ponty and Nagarjuna

By Levin, David Michael | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Liberating Experience from the Vice of Structuralism: The Methods of Merleau-Ponty and Nagarjuna


Levin, David Michael, Philosophy Today


The characteristics which have been assigned to the "real being" of things are the characteristics of non-being, of nothingness-the "real world" has been constructed out of the contradiction to the actual world: an apparent world indeed, in so far as it is no more than a moral-optical illusion.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

To divide the world into a "real" and an "apparent" world, whether in the manner of Christianity or in the manner of Kant . . . is only a suggestion of decadence-a symptom of declining life.

Ibid.

There is no "being" behind doing, effecting, becoming; the "doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed-the deed is everything.

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

For me, the heart of phenomenology is a methodologically formulated respect for the integrity and validity of our experience just as we live it.' And, as I understand the philosophy in Buddhism, there is in its thought and practice a kindred respect for experience as lived-and a no less rigorous methodology to achieve and secure our access to this experience.

In this essay, I propose to examine the phenomenological project that Merleau-Ponty undertakes in his Phenomenology of Perception4 and the later texts assembled under the title The Visible and the Invisible.5 I want, first of all, to examine his claim, in the Phenomenology of Perception, that the method of phenomenology is purely and strictly "descriptive." I shall argue that our reflection on the phenomenological character of experience, and in particular, on the relation between the implicit and explicit dimensions of experience, renders this claim at once problematic and counterproductive. We need to acknowledge, as Heidegger demonstrated, the hermeneutical character of phenomenological reflection and discourse. This is because the language of phenomenology is able to solicit the implicit meaningfulness of experience, bringing it forth in a way that lets ever new, or different dimensions, features, traits, qualities emerge, only in so far as it is hermeneutical. The point is that hermeneutics does not assume or impose a fixed and fully determinate experience; in particular, it does not assume that the implicit meaningfulness of our experience is underlying the explicit as a stratum of meaning ready-made and fully formed; rather, it draws on the implicit in a way that allows our experience to open, to change, to evolve, especially in relation to the process of its articulation.

So I shall argue, further, that the phenomenological fidelity of Merleau-Ponty's understanding of his method, as well as the fidelity of his way of practicing this method, are in effect subverted, quite contrary to his intentions and aspirations, by the persistence of a certain structuralism that continues to hold his thinking under its spell, even while he is able to see the betrayal of experience in the versions of structuralism implicit not only in objectivism but also in the philosophies of subjectivism. This persistent residue of structuralism in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is due to the fact that, at least in his early work, he continues to think of phenomenological method, following Husserl, as a method of description. The problem with this, briefly stated, is that thinking of the method as description constitutes, or leads to, a certain reification of experience, for it limits phenomenology to a static, or say timeless correspondence between a fixed state of experience and a form of articulation fixed, settled upon all at once and once and for all, rather than recognizing that the relation between experience and the language of its articulation is an ongoing process of hermeneutical disclosure, whereby (1) language forms the experience it is articulating in the process of articulating it and (2) experience continues to talk back to the words that have been used to render it articulate. This structuralism must be deconstructed, however, if phenomenology is to achieve its telos of respect for the hermeneutics, the unconcealment, of experience as lived-its fidelity, therefore, to the intricacies and complexities of our experience, and above all, to the hermeneutical unfolding of experience. …

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