Merleau-Ponty's Developmental Ontology

Merleau-Ponty's Developmental Ontology

by David Morris


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Merleau-Ponty's Developmental Ontology shows how the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from its very beginnings, seeks to find sense or meaning within nature, and how this quest calls for and develops into a radically new ontology. 

David Morris first gives an illuminating analysis of sense, showing how it requires understanding nature as engendering new norms. He then presents innovative studies of Merleau-Ponty's The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, revealing how these early works are oriented by the problem of sense and already lead to difficulties about nature, temporality, and ontology that preoccupy Merleau-Ponty's later work. Morris shows how resolving these difficulties requires seeking sense through its appearance in nature, prior to experience—ultimately leading to radically new concepts of nature, time, and philosophy.

Merleau-Ponty's Developmental Ontology makes key issues in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy clear and accessible to a broad audience while also advancing original philosophical conclusions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810137929
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 10/15/2018
Series: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy Series
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

DAVID MORRIS is a professor of philosophy at Concordia University. He is the author of The Sense of Space. 

Read an Excerpt


Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Sense

The natural "thing," the organism, the behavior of others and my own behavior exist only by their sense; but this sense which springs forth in them is not yet a Kantian object; the intentional life which constitutes them is not yet a representation; and the "comprehension" which gives access to them is not yet an intellection.

— Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behaviour, 224/241

What we have discovered through the study of motricity is, in short, a new sense of the word "sense."

— Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 148/182

Beneath all of these meanings of the word sens, we find the same fundamental notion of a being who is oriented or polarized toward what he is not.

— Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 454/493

The Ontology of Sense: An Initial Orientation

We typically think of meaning as something definite, fully determinate, something that could be possessed as fully present or positively given, as, for example, a thought or idea that could be symbolized or analyzed in terms of a kind of semantic unit or atom. This concept of meaning as ontologically localized within relatively delimited things is amplified by our technologies, which tempt us to conflate meaning with words there on the page or information there on the computer.

Merleau-Ponty's pursuit of sense radically challenges this concept of meaning and leads him to discover a deep connection between sense and temporality. For Merleau-Ponty, this connection already erupts in his first book, The Structure of Behaviour, which seeks to understand the relation between consciousness and nature and concludes that "[the] natural 'thing,' the organism, the behavior of others and my own behavior exist only by their sense" (SB 224/241, the first epigraph above). That is (as detailed in chapter 2 below), the key to the nature-consciousness relation would be understanding natural things, especially organisms, in terms of sense: as a meaning manifest within things, a meaning established and oriented by the way things themselves move. The problem that troubles Structure is that such a sense precisely does not fit within nature, if we conceive nature as a linear, causal system. In such a linear system all differences are borne within delimited loci that are determinate in and of themselves, and causally related "by nature," such that differences are in principle assignable in advance, for all time. This "for all time," and the location of differences in delimited loci that are determinate in abstraction, precisely undermines the sorts of differences that matter for sense. The meaningful differences that matter for sense (as shown below) would make a difference in their own way, according to their own norms, levels, or dimensions. This requires differences that arise within the time of movements that orient themselves.

In Structure this difficulty leads Merleau-Ponty to observe that sense could not be located in an already and transparently ordered time and space (SB 125/136, discussed in the next chapter). This already anticipates his later point that sense cannot be something wholly given in and via a readymade world; it rather involves an operation that institutes new orders and dimensions of difference that could not be given transparently, in advance, via a pure activity that deploys resources already available "for all time." The Phenomenology of Perception, which tackles Structure's central problem by turning to the perceiver as the site of sense, amplifies Structure's temporal point in discovering "a new sense of the word 'sense'" (PhP 182) — a sense that arises in a movement of expression that in turn is rooted in a past that "could never have been a present" (PhP 289). Sense arises in temporally open-ended fields, not within spatially or temporally delimited loci given for all time. Merleau-Ponty's later works deepen these points by detailing how sense arises within movement, institution, and passivity. As he puts it in the passivity lectures, "we never have closed significations ... we have only open significations and situations whose sense is in genesis" (IP 134/179).

In his works, Merleau-Ponty thereby describes temporality as the proper medium or fabric of sense: sense is always manifest in a temporality that straddles past, present, and future. But he complements this with the deeper ontological point that temporality is the very being and operation of sense: sense is not merely manifest in time, it is of temporality, in the way that the lived body is not in space, but of it, as he puts it in the Phenomenology (175). The very being of sense arises in and as a stretching in and over time. We must, then, learn to think of the being of sense not (for example) as a material composition of given parts, symbols, information, and so on, but as a composing of times that stretch over past-present-future. Meaning can no more be a thing or unit given here-now, than can a life or lifetime.

A way to capture and anticipate this ontological point is via issues that Merleau-Ponty flags with his term écart, which is often translated as divergence, and I usually translate as disparity. Descriptively, meaning involves differences that make a difference in their own way, according to their own norms, levels, or dimensions: meaning entails standards of meaning. Ontologically, each event of meaning then requires the appearance of a difference that is determinate by virtue of a norm. The difference and its norm cannot be ontologically disjoint, otherwise we lapse into, for example, a dualism or idealism that appeals to norms beyond givens, which make a sense within being impossible. But the difference and the norm also cannot be reduced to the same ontological level, otherwise we lapse into, for example, a materialism and nominalism that challenges the reality of norms and thereby sense. Consider Wittgenstein's point that the bar of silver which serves as the standard that defines the length of the meter could not itself be that standard just by virtue of its material, and that this bar is not quite measurable as meeting that standard or not. Nonetheless, we could imagine taking up the bar as doubled or disparate with itself: taking up the bar-as-standard, and comparing it with itself, to indicate that the bar-as-material is one meter long. This peculiar, comparative double-take on the bar helps illustrate the disparity at issue here: the bar-as-material is a meter long in not differing in length from the bar-as-standard, as setting the meter norm. Sense, a meaning in being, entails a disparity within being, through which both a difference and its norm are given. For sense to be within being, the difference and norm can be given only as diverging and disparate from one another within being, in the manner of a peculiar bar that could itself (without our outside take on it) doubly manifest its own girth and a standard by virtue of which its girth stands as a meter. To anticipate, organisms are like this so far as they, for example, set the bar by virtue of which they themselves are living.

Note the double sense of from in the discussion of differences and norms "diverging from each other": the difference and norm diverge away from one another, and the diverging of each one issues out of (from) the other. This is an instance of a chiasmic relation, in which terms are determinate only in cross-linking into and away from one another. (The term chiasm warrants a brief introduction. Etymologically, it refers to the cross shape of the Greek letter Chi, X. Merleau-Ponty partly draws on its usage in anatomy, especially the optical chiasm, wherein nerves from the left and right eyes cross together and thence diverge back toward the brain, supporting the complex interplay that is crucial to binocular vision. But he is also referring to the rhetorical chiasmus, wherein a series of words is followed by a grammatical or semantic reversal of that series, with the overall meaning depending on an X-like cross-linked divergence of words through their reversal. For Merleau-Ponty, a chiasmus thus manifests in figural form a key point about sense and linguistic structure, namely, the intimate and reversible écart between: the sense of word order, the order of word-sense. It is worth noting that this sort of chiasmatic relation, and the connection between écart, norms, and levels of sense, as well as the ontological consequences, is already at stake in what is perhaps Merleau-Ponty's earliest usage of the term écart, in MSME.)

In English, the term disparity is better than divergence in capturing this chiasmic aspect of écart, since a disparity concerns a tension between disparate terms; disparity is also better at flagging the normative or comparative aspects at issue in meaning. It is also easier, in English, to use the term disparity to name a kind of difference between two terms: it easily takes an article ("the disparity in wages was huge"), whereas that sort of grammar does not commonly attach to divergence. Divergence is better, though, at capturing the dynamic of this movement.

Ontologically, what disparity indicates is a sort of paradoxical insufficiency, in which things have their sense not because they have the resource to fully bear and present this sense within themselves, but because they lack the resource to be fully present and determinate, and because they can, in this lack or passivity, be disparate with or within themselves, doubling or splitting into given differences and the latitude of movement that can orient this difference, and give it a norm. If meaning depends on this sort of lack, it can never be fully given as determinate, which complements the above point that sense cannot be ontologically localized but disperses over temporality. Note that this also means that norms can never be fully given as determinate, they are inherently labile: sense involves norms without normativity. Also note that disparity is a signature characteristic of many of the key concepts in Merleau-Ponty's ontology, through which he understands the genesis of norms: the figure/ground relation; expression; institution; and the invisible of the visible.

This book shows how ontological disparity is fundamental to sense and that this disparity of sense entails a being that is never fully present or coincident with itself, that harbors an inborn not, a negative-in-being — a being that could not have been given for all time and that requires developmental ontology. The rest of this chapter explains in more detail these concepts of sense, disparity, and temporality, and their connection. It does so by distilling results about sense learned from Merleau-Ponty, to present them in a new way that is accessible to a broad readership. This distillation lets me, in the next two chapters, give a relatively compressed treatment of these points about sense and ontology in Merleau-Ponty's own texts. Together, the first three chapters open the way to the ontological problems underlying sense in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy.

Meaning, Difference, and Norms

Conceptual connections between sense, temporality, and ontological disparity can be drawn out by analyzing meaning as a phenomenon of difference. Love is not hate, and someone indifferent to this difference does not encounter love as meaningful.

This connection between meaning and difference is a well-known feature of Saussure's diacritical conception of language, in which meaning does not reside in any one positively given term, but threads through an entire network of differences: a word's meaning, like its dictionary definition, manifests in endlessly traversing from one word to another. When Merleau-Ponty encounters Saussure (in 1947–48), he quickly recognizes this diacritical concept as powerfully echoing key aspects of his own concept of sense.

Instead of working through Saussure, let us see how meaning itself appears as a phenomenon of difference, and how that leads to non-givenness. Gregory Bateson gives a very insightful formula that guides this effort, namely, that information and meaning involve "differences that make a difference," a formula that Evan Thompson (2007, 57) helpfully connects both to Merleau-Ponty and to his own study of meaning in life. What, phenomenologically speaking, is involved in such differences? What makes them "make a difference," such that they figure as meaningful?

Returning to love helps us begin to answer. The sort of erotic love that might dawn at a certain moment of my life is not the same as the love I feel for my family, the affection I feel for my friend, and so on. In-deed, the onset of this meaning is often experienced as an upheaval in the meaningful fabric of one's life. This is why Merleau-Ponty often turns to love in key discussions of sense (mostly via Proust and Freud),although he finds something similarly powerful in children learning their first words, and other cases of what he calls primary (creative) expression.

Crucially, in such upheavals the dawning of new meaning is not the addition of a positively given difference to and within an already settled framework of meaningful differences: it rather involves a global reorganization of all differences. To give a perceptual analogy, acquiring a new meaning would be akin to a typical human, who sees colors via receptors sensitive to red, green, and blue light, suddenly acquiring receptors sensitive to a fourth color. Such a tetrachromat (and there are a few, although they are born with this ability) would not merely see new colors, but a new world of color in which old colors no longer look the same. The old colors and their differences could not themselves specify this new color world. As Merleau-Ponty would put it, new colors and new meanings change the dimensions of our experience, reorganizing the ways all differences matter.

Our initial point (via Saussure) was that meaning is not carried by positively given terms, but by differences across them. This leaves open the view that the differences are, however, given in a positive way, for example, fully specified by positive terms and their linkages. But if already given positive terms and links across them immediately and wholly specified the differences that matter for meaning, it would be hard to see how there is room for a new, global reorganization of such differences, as in the upheaval of erotic love. We would be left with questions: How is it that the new differences were not already operative by virtue of already given positive terms? And if they were already operative, how are they really new? And what triggered their coming into operation, since new meaning could not already be given in the past? (Erotic love, e.g., could not already have been there as such.) Moreover, the given differences that would do this are themselves changed by the new differential organization, and would already need to have changed to support this new organization — new meaning is in fact given through its future (it is not until I experience erotic love that I grasp how filial love is different from it). On the other hand, it is precisely already felt meaningful differences that motivate our learning new meaning (it is precisely filial love, friendly love, etc., that eventually motivate this new love that is not yet happening, a logic that Merleau-Ponty traces in his discussion of pre-maturation and puberty in IP).

In terms of the color analogy, it is as if the colors we already see motivate a revision of color perception. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty argues that this is the way that color vision develops: we do not acquire new receptors, but see differently with ones we already have. Cases of new meaning thus manifest the (well-known) Merleau-Pontian paradox of expression (Waldenfels 2000a; Landes 2013a), in which already operative meaningful differences can lead to global reorganizations and new differences — even though the operative differences do not already contain these new differences.

Instead of appealing to expression, let us take this analysis as a clue that helps us understand what is behind such a paradox and why it is necessary to meaning. The clue is that the paradox leads to conceptual incoherence only if we try to conceptualize meaningful difference as positively given, as positive differences between terms, or something else, already given. To understand why we should not do this, and key issues in the ontology of sense, let us turn to the phenomenon of meaningful difference itself — not just the terms, but the differences between them — so as to grasp what it takes for such difference to appear as enabling meaning. And let us do so by turning away from familiar human and linguistic phenomena, to more general phenomena of meaning in life, so as to disrupt presuppositions that this familiarity invites.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations for Works by Merleau-Ponty xiii

Introduction: Sense, Development, and the Phenomenology of Nature 3

1 Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Sense 35

2 Sense and the Problem of Nature in The Structure of Behaviour 57

3 Sense and the Ontology of Temporality in Phenomenology of Perception 79

4 Phenomenology of Nature and Life as Phenomenal Field: Embryology and a Methodology for Sense 118

5 The Negative-in-Being (I): Immunology and the Place of Sense 155

6 The Negative-in-Being (II): Genetics and the Temporality of Sense 177

7 Developmental Ontology: Deep Temporality and Sense In Nature 198

Notes 247

References 267

Index of Works by Merleau-Ponty 283

General Index 285

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