Merleau-Ponty on Truth, Language, and Value

By Low, Douglas | Philosophy Today, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Merleau-Ponty on Truth, Language, and Value


Low, Douglas, Philosophy Today


Bernard Waldenfels superb essay "Verite a Faire: Merleau-Ponty's Question Concerning Truth" permits us to conceive of MerleauPonty's theory of truth in a succinct and, I believe, accurate fashion.' Merleau- Ponty's works are notoriously complex, multifaceted, and even oblique, with various important insights often scattered over many pages and often even over several feature length works. Waldenfels therefore serves the scholarly community well by pulling together MerleauPonty's frequently profound yet dispersed insights, in this case on truth. In this essay I hope to take full advantage of Waldenfels' analysis, yet I will also attempt to extend it by adding aspects of Merleau-Ponty's insights into the nature of truth not mentioned by Waldenfels, particularly with respect to Merleau-Ponty's account of reason, and I will attempt to extend it by showing how Merleau-Ponty's theory of truth can be used to understand an ethical theory that lies dormant and only implied in Merleau-Ponty's writings.

From the perspective of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy generally, the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth, as they are traditionally conceived, are both intellectual, abstract constructions that do not put us in contact with lived perceptual meaning. Correspondence places a representation in an external relationship to a thing. This representation and what it relates is true when it matches the things and their relationships to one another, false when it does not. Truth here involves an external relationship of thing (representation) to thing (thing in-itself).2 Truth as coherence, on the other hand, obtains when one concept is logically consistent with other concepts, false when it is not. Truth here involves an internal relationship of meaning or of ideas.3

Notice here that the Western philosophical tradition has separated content or matter (discrete things or units in external relationships) and form or mind (ideas expressing internal relationships of meaning). In a life-long professional effort, Merleau-Ponty attempts to over come this dichotomy (and many others) and here integrates form and content in the lived through perceptual event. As I perceive a physical structure drawn on a piece of paper before me (say the famous gestalt duck/rabbit), I actively organize the object as a duck or a rabbit. These different organizations occur at the level of perception and not at the level of abstract judgment, as they do in the traditional theories. Lived perception is thus already meaningful, and it is meaningful in a way that goes beyond the external relationships of the lines to one another. There is certainly something there for the embodied observer to relate, but these lines, which stand only in an external relationships to one another, are now related meaningfully, and in different ways by the perceiver, either as a duck or as a rabbit. Merleau-Ponty refers to this experience as a "sensible idea," where the parts of the perceptual field are related meaningfully, "going beyond" the merely physically given, yet they are related in a concrete way, in a way that cannot simply be derived from abstract ideas, that cannot simply be a manifestation of the internal relations of formal abstractions.4

For Merleau-Ponty, then, lived through perceptual consciousness is embodied and actively engaged in the world. Embodied consciousness receives information from the world yet simultaneously organizes it. Where the active, interested body and the patterned world meet and intersect, there meaning is formed. This meaning is therefore born as a perceptual gestalt, as a perceptual pattern or variable norm, for the optimal perception delivers a balance of richness and clarity.5 There is thus a mute meaning at the perceptual level, a perceptual pattern that is meaningful but not yet spoken.6 Truth, then, will involve bringing this lived through perceptual sense to full expression in language. We will possess truth when a statement makes sense of the perceptual sense, when, as Waldenfels says, it "hits the point" or "hits the mark," by bringing this sense to a full expression or meaning. …

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