Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Joyful Rhythm: Emotion, Expression, and the Birth of Meaning in Merleau-Ponty

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Joyful Rhythm: Emotion, Expression, and the Birth of Meaning in Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt

Recently a fair amount of attention has been paid to the concept of expression in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy. As a number of authors have pointed out, this concept plays an important role not only in Merleau-Ponty's theory of language, but also in his discussions of art, history, and even truth.1 One of the best treatments can be found in Lawrence Hass's book Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy. Hass deals almost exclusively with expression as a mode of language, however, leaving us with an incomplete picture. Other commentators have dealt with the topic in a similar way. As we shall see, an understanding of the crucial role of emotion in expression is essential if we are to comprehend how expression (in the sense that Merleau-Ponty uses this word) is possible. Hass for the most part only looks at Merleau-Ponty's discussion of expression in the unfinished text The Prose of the World. I hope to show that a full understanding of this work is only possible on the basis of an acquaintance with Merleau-Ponty's explication of expression in Phenomenology of Perception.2

Crucial to Merleau-Ponty's theory of language (and this is something that remains consistent between Phenomenology of Perception and his later works such as The Prose of the World) is his distinction between sedimented language (la langage) and expressive speech (la parole).

We may say that there are two languages. First, there is language after the fact, or language as an institution, which effaces itself in order to yield the meaning which it conveys. Second, there is the language which creates itself in its expressive acts, which sweep me on from the signs toward meaning-sedimented language and speech.3

Sedimented language resembles somewhat the synchronic face of language in Saussure's synchronic/diachronic distinction. It is language as already constituted, with meanings (of words, phrases, and sentences) bearing more or less stable and direct reference to objects and states of affairs. Sedimented language is an institution, a vast reservoir of ready-made meanings upon which we draw to make our thoughts known to others.4 Language thus understood may accurately be said to be representational in function.5

However, Merleau-Ponty argues that this begs the question of how the words and configurations of words received their meaning in the first place. How is it that a word comes to represent an idea?6 Simple cases such as "tree" or "chair" are amenable to the interpretation that we simply agree to designate the class of objects by this sound. However, many words do not designate simple objects that we can point to in the world. What of abstract concepts such as "democracy" or "patriarchy"? And what of verbs such as "teach" or adjectives such as "blue"?7 Cases such as these show us that words do not and cannot receive their meaning from objects in the world, because the word itself defines the class of objects which it stands for. "Democracy" names an idea that did not exist before someone decided to group a set of related social practices together under this heading. This is true not only in the case of complex abstractions such as this one, but also the simple cases which first misled us that meaning is a simple case of reference. How is a "tree" different from a "bush"? How do we distinguish between a "chair" and a "couch" or a "love seat"? Even in the simplest cases, word meaning owes its existence to a decisive act which so to speak cleaves off a portion of the world and gives it an identity distinct from the rest. In this way we can understand Saussure's otherwise counter-intuitive notion that the words of a language possess their meaning not by virtue of reference to their objects, but by differentiation from the other words of the same language.8

The act of naming something which has not been named before, of creating an idea, is what Merleau-Ponty calls speech (la parole).

Speech is the operation through which a certain arrangement of already available signs and significations alters and then transfigures each of them, so that in the end a new signification is secreted. …

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