Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Coping with Nonconceptualism? on Merleau-Ponty and Mcdowell

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Coping with Nonconceptualism? on Merleau-Ponty and Mcdowell

Article excerpt

Does Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology matter to recent debates concerning nonconceptual content? Prima facie the answer might be no; the debate has been largely a matter for analytic philosophers, often following the basic terms set out in Gareth Evans's The Varieties of Reference and John McDowell's ensuing critique of Evans in Mind and World.1 But despite its analytic roots, for some this debate provides fertile ground for combining Continental and Anglo-American philosophy. In particular, several scholars, including Charles Taylor and Hubert Dreyfus, have argued that existential phenomenology, of the type found in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, supports Evans's idea that mere is a nonconceptual component to human experience. Merleau-Ponty is thus also used to argue against McDowell.

It is not clear, however, that Merleau-Ponty's work has been presented correctly in the debate. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is pertinent to contemporary concerns, but it is (qualifiedly) wrong to put Merleau-Ponty with the supporters of nonconceptual content. Or so this essay will contend. While Merleau-Ponty would most likely disagree with McDowell on many issues, such points of disagreement are not realiy conveyed by the recent literature, and that literature also misses certain aspects of Merleau-Ponty's work that display an affinity with McDowell's aims. Ultimately, using Merleau-Ponty to make arguments in favor of nonconceptual content runs counter to the general aims of his phenomenology.

To frame the argument, I will briefly present an overview of the nonconceptualist position, with an eye to providing context for evaluating Merleau-Ponty's potential contribution. Then I will examine the most prominent arguments for interpreting Phenomenology of Perception as contributing to the nonconceptualist side. Following this it will be shown that those arguments misconstrue the differences between Merleau-Ponty and McDowell by understating and overstating, respectively, the rationalism present in their views, and by missing the role that intersubjectivity, language, and culture play in the works of both.

Evans and the Basis of Nonconceptualism

One initial way to link Merleau-Ponty to the debate over nonconceptual content (which is noted in the introduction to the recent Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty) is to draw a line from Merleau-Ponty to Gareth Evans through Charles Taylor.2 Evans played a crucial role in introducing the notion of nonconceptual perceptual content back into contemporary philosophy. And in the middle of his most influential discussion of nonconceptual content, he draws crucial insights on perception from Taylor's essay "The VaUdity of Transcendental Arguments."3 Taylor, in turn, takes Merleau-Ponty's conception of "embothed agency" to be central to his arguments.4 So it seems that Merleau-Ponty played an indirect role in bringing about the current debate over nonconceptual content.

In the portion of The Varieties of Reference that contains the Taylor/Merleau-Ponty connection, Evans argues that there is an "information-link between subject and object, which provides the subject with (nonconceptual) information about the states and doings of the [perceived] object."5 This information is not necessarily part of conscious experience, nor is it necessarily thought about. It may become "the input to a thinking, concept-applying, and reasoning system" but it is important to note that such a conceptual system stands separately from the information system which provides the inputs.6 As Evans put it:

I am not requiring that the content of conscious experience itself be conceptual content. All I am requiring for conscious experience is that the subject exercise some concepts - have some thoughts - and that the content of those thoughts should depend systematically upon the informational properties of the input.7

So perception presents us with information that provides a kind of raw material to be conceptualized through our thinking and reasoning activities. …

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