Merleau-Ponty engages one of the most difficult ideas of the essay very near its beginning. He writes of Montaigne:
Self-consciousness is his constant, the measure of all doctrines for him. It could be said that he never got over a certain wonder at himself which constitutes the whole substance of his works and wisdom. He never tired of experiencing the paradox of a conscious being.
Having written that, he turns directly to the task of differentiating Montaigne’s understanding of conscious being from Descartes’. Montaigne’s understanding is as follows:
At each instant, in love, in political life, in perception’s silent life, we adhere to something, make it our own, and yet withdraw from it and hold it at a distance, without which we would know nothing about it.
Merleau-Ponty terms this adherence and withdrawal, consciousness’ acceptance and alienation, consciousness’ bondage and freedom, “…one sole ambiguous act…” Descartes understands conscious being differently. For him, consciousness is not one sole ambiguous act, but rather a pure act: it does not adhere, accept or become bound. It is all withdrawal, alienation and freedom.
Montaigne does not know that resting place, that self-possession, which Cartesian understanding is to be. The world is not for him a system of objects the idea of which he has in his possession; the self is not for him the purity of an intellectual consciousness.
Later in the essay, Merleau-Ponty again contrasts Montaigne and Descartes:
Descartes will briefly confirm the soul and body’s union, and prefer to think them separate; for then they are clear to understanding. Montaigne’s realm, on the contrary, is the “mixture” of soul and body’; he is interested only in our factual condition, and his book endlessly describes this paradoxical fact that we are.
I take all of this differentiating to be internal to understanding Montaigne’s skepticism. But before I say anything more about that, and I will by and by, I want to say a little about the differentiating itself. What exactly is Merleau-Ponty describing, what sort of distinction is he drawing? The answer seems to me to be in the phrase “…one sole ambiguous act…” For Montaigne, as Merleau-Ponty reads him, to be conscious of something, say of a horse seen through the library window, is to be open to the world, to the horse, even adherent to the horse; the horse is a gift that we accept. There is no question that what we are conscious of is the horse. And, being conscious of the horse, there is a sense in which consciousness becomes the horse, incarnates itself in horseflesh. Yet, in the same act, consciousness withdraws into a kind of distance from the horse, alienates itself from the horse, is free of horseflesh, is utterly discarnate. But this is not to be decried: without the distance, the alienation, the freedom, we could not know the horse. “We are equally incapable of dwelling in ourselves and in things, and we are referred from them to ourselves and back again.” Although Merleau-Ponty puts this in a way that sounds as though it is successive acts, I take him to be describing one sole ambiguous act, and act in which we are all at once all in and all out. This is the paradox of conscious being. We are everything and nothing. We are Gods in nature; we are weeds by the wall. We are not these by turns, but simultaneously, our conscious being is at each moment one sole ambiguous act. Montaigne never got over a certain wonder at this, and no wonder. Montaigne’s consciousness is in one sole ambiguous act a becoming and a knowing; and each requires the other while also being capable (abstractly) of cancelling the other: to simply become would be to fail to know; to simply know would be to fail to become. By becoming, we are in a world; by knowing, we find ourselves in that world. But strangely, again paradoxically, our finding ourselves in the world requires that we not be where we are in the world. “To be conscious is, among other things, to be somewhere else.” Somewhere else, of course, contrasts with here, i.e with where I am.
For Descartes, consciousness dwells in itself; consciousness is a resting place. It possesses itself–but that is all it possesses, since its ideas are crucially creatures of itself. It is not tied to things, adherent to them. It remains pure, wholly self-involved. (This understanding of conscious being is in part responsible for Cartesianism being a gap-displaying method.) The world of Cartesian consciousness is a system of objects kept by God in the right sort of relation to its ideas. Cartesian consciousness is all light within; all darkness without. The Cartesian walks by reason and not by sight. He has the key to the world. Montaigne (like Pascal, according to Merleau-Ponty) understands himself as interested in a world he does not have the key to. For Montaigne, the world is a motley of things of things making an appeal to consciousness, and consciousness in response turns outside while it also faces inside. The lightness and darkness of Montaigne’s consciousness is a crazy plaid, thrown over inside and outside alike. Opacity is as much an inside thing as an outside thing.
As a result, achieving self-understanding cannot be circumspectly rotating the oculus mentis around its clean and well-lit place. It is rather self-questioning, a dialogue with self in which the being who answers is at least partly opaque to the being who asks, and the being who questions must wait for an answer, “…a questioning without which reason’s purity would be illusory and in the end impure…” Purifying reason requires self-questioning, not merely “visual” self-inspection. It happens over time, not all at once, and it never results in any final purity, but must be done again and again, day after day, as Socrates did it in the Agora, and once, outside Athens’ walls, under a tree with Phaedrus. “Phaedrus, my friend! Where have you been? And where are you going?”