Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Agency, Ownness and Otherness from Stein to Merleau-Ponty

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Agency, Ownness and Otherness from Stein to Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt

In his explication of our essentially embodied being in the world in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty's references to the work of Edith Stein are conspicuous by their rarity, though he is closer to her philosophically than to her near contemporary Max Scheler, who gets much more attention. So far as I am aware, Stein is only referred to twice and in passing. Her Habilitation thesis is cited in relation to hearing and in the course of a discussion of how the pre-constituted perceptual object gives rise to the event of knowledge that will transform it. Through an ambiguity in its initial sense, the object solicits attention as something to be determined further. Appealing in some way to our human interests, it is the motive and not the cause of the event.1 Merleau-Ponty goes on to refer to motivation as one of those fluid concepts that must be formulated if we are to return to phenomena. In our being solicited by them we find a type of operative reason that orients the flow of appearances without being explicitly posited through any of them. However the sole source cited in this last passage is a work by Edmund Husserl.2

My aim in this essay is to show that Stein's influence on Merleau-Ponty is predominantly by way of her early work On The Problem of Empathy.3 In the main her influence is difficult to disentangle from that of Husserl, so failure to acknowledge a debt is not usually an issue. But some of her reformulations of and additions to Husserl's ideas are taken up recognisably in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of embodiment, and the latter should have cited her more extensively. I begin by running through Stein's accounts of bodily ownership and embodied willing and acting, followed by her view of how the ownness of every conscious life (as a single pole of awareness) is a condition of explicit self-consciousness and empathic experience. I then seek to show how her contributions are developed further by Merleau-Ponty, most notably where he outlines and reworks the representation, decision and implementation model of action. Stein could also have been mentioned where he affirms that consciousness must be a single and unique cohesion of life. His position here is close to Stein as well as Husserl and differs from that of Scheler, whom Stein criticises sharply. I do not devote attention to her extensive reworking of Ideas II, since its significance for Merleau-Ponty's work cannot be gauged with sufficient accuracy prior to the publication of Husserl's original drafts.

I

In On The Problem of Empathy, Stein's keen understanding and nuanced reworking of Husserl's phenomenology of embodiment is evident straight off. Whenever I touch one part of my lived body by another this is also a being touched, and so also with the things I touch. To feel a tabletop or a piece of silk is also to feel oneself feeling it. There is a bodily reflexivity in touching that is usually localised. But even if I close my eyes and stretch out my limbs without any feeling of prominence, as perhaps I might do floating in the warm summer sea, my body is passively present with me. Such an affiliation or belonging could never be constituted by the outer perception of objects outside my skin or at a distance. A living body perceived outwardly can very well have a particular orientation and be actually unique, but would never be my living body, which is always here with me and as a whole. This is why the distance to my extremities is not the same as my distance from outer things. Bodily space and outer space are radically different in their givenness, and only in fantasy can I slip out of my living body and look at my profile from the outside.4

This body of mine is for my conscious doings or actions as well as being with me. No less important than my permanently felt living flesh is my capacity to spontaneously move in certain ways towards certain outcomes. If my body were to do this by itself alone, it would escape from the consciously embodied 'I' and no longer appear as mine. …

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