History as Chiasm, Chiasm as History

By Busk, Larry Alan | Philosophy Today, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

History as Chiasm, Chiasm as History


Busk, Larry Alan, Philosophy Today


[W]e give history its sense [sens] but not without history offering us that sense. ... There is an exchange between generalized existence and individual existence; both receive and both give.-Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception'

This paper connects Merleau-Ponty's conception of chiasm with his philosophy of history.2 I argue that history gives us an exemplary form of a chiastic relation and that Merleau-Ponty presages his later ontology of flesh when he investigates the paradox of thinking history.3 In brief, the paradox is this: history takes on significance only in light of a given reflection on it (just as the world is disclosed only by means of a given body). At the same time, "the given reflection" is overlaid and shot through with historical meaning and is nothing but the result of a historical inheritance (just as the body is bound up with the world and is nothing apart from it). History is both the object and the subject of its interpretation, both what is known and what knows. MerleauPonty's conception of chiasm hinges on this kind of reversibility-the seeing body refers to and constitutes the seen body, and the latter refers to and constitutes the former. History too discloses a chiastic reversibility, insofar as that which is thought (history) is always already referring to that which is thinking (a historical subject) and insofar as the latter cannot be understood without the former. To touch is to touch the outside (the object) and the inside (the touching) in a circular movement that always defers complete coincidence; to think history is to think that which is external to oneself and that which one is, in a comparable simultaneity or circularity.

I would like to begin by discussing a passage from the essay "The Discovery of History," written in 1956:

"Discoveries" in philosophy are always at the same time "inventions." When philosophers formed the concept of history, this "realization" was a shaping and not the simple notation of a prior fact. Humanity would not live history if someone had not one day spoken of history. . . . However, it was at a certain moment, in a certain historical context that history was first spoken of. It is in reality-history that the consciousness of history makes it appearance; it is not born out of nothing. As Marx says, it is the product of its own product. Truth is not ready-made in things, and yet, by a "retrograde movement," it presents itself to us as existing prior to our act of knowledge. We encounter reality: that is the cause and effect of the knowledge we have of it. This circle is the definition of history, and it is up to the philosopher to learn to live with it.4

When philosophy discovered history, then, it also "invented" it. But this was the paradoxical kind of invention whereby what is invented is understood as having also invented the inventor. At the moment when history becomes a category of thought it also emerges as the condition for the possibility of thought. It does not enter the scene strictly as a result of a gifted philosopher's intuition of its significance, but because a myriad of historical forces have enabled or perhaps demanded its appearance; one only thinks history as a result of history. Yet for all this we must still say that history is not "lived" until someone, "one day," speaks of it as such-that is, not as a list of things that happened in the past, but as a field that constitutes and forms the horizon of our present meanings.5 History depends on our thinking it, but our thinking it depends simultaneously on history.6 This is one of the few definitions Merleau-Ponty ever gives of history: the "circle" of cause and effect, constituted and constituting.

This notion of circularity is also a persistent theme in Adventures of the Dialectic, where history is "not only an object in front of us, far from us, beyond our reach; it is also our awakening as subjects."7 The first decisive moment is the recognition that one is not only a spectator of the play that is history, but also a performer with a role given its character by all that preceded it. …

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