Keeping Your Distance: More on Merleau-Ponty (Philosophical Questions 6)

Just as we do not speak for the sake of speaking but speak to someone of something or of someone, and in this initiative of speaking an aiming at the world and at the others is involved upon which is suspended all that which we say; so also the lexical signification and even the pure significations which are deliberately reconstructed, such as those of geometry, aim at a universe of brute being and of coexistence, toward which we were already thrown when we spoke and thought, and which, for its part, by principle does not admit the procedure of objectifying or reflective approximation, since it is at a distance, by way of horizon, latent or dissimulated.  It is that universe that philosophy aims at, that is, as we say, the object of philosophy—but here never will the lacuna be filled in, the unknown transformed into the known; the “object” of philosophy will never come to fill in the philosophical question, since this obturation would take from it the depth and distance that are essential to it. The effective, present, ultimate and primary beings, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them, as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being—to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its astonishment.  It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no. (The Visible and the Invisible)

In one of the essays in Signs, MMP says this about seeing:  “Seeing is that strange way of rendering ourselves present while keeping our distance…”  In his lecture, “In Praise of Philosophy”, he talks of philosophy as the Utopia of possession at a distance.  And he goes on from the long passage I have quoted above to talk of philosophy as a way of encountering what is far-off as far-off.  Has any philosopher ever made vision more definitive of philosophy than MMP?  When MMP thinks about philosophical questions and answers, he thinks in terms of seeing and of what is seen.  Distance is central:  “To possess ourselves we must begin by abandoning ourselves; to see the world we must first withdraw from it.”  But the distance must be a tethered distance:  it is a distance from something that is a way of rendering ourselves present to it, even while we remain distanced:   “A being which is in principle at a distance, in regard to which distance is a bond but with which there can be no question of coincidence.”  Given this, and given his conception of philosophy as interrogative, it is perhaps unsurprising that MMP comes to understand seeing itself as interrogative.  But if seeing is asking, how is the asking answered?  By having its astonishment confirmed.  And that means…what?  It means, I take it, that interrogative seeing reveals things as they thing and unthing, glidingly form and unform themselves, but in a way that is beneath, before, any yes or no, anything that would seem like a standard answer to a standard question.  (Interrogative seeing chips the sediment of traditon and habit and knowingness off things, the sediment that works like sand in the gears of things, keeping them frozen or relatively frozen, unable or nearly unable to glide.)  But since what I interrogatively see is of this sort, I can get it no nearer to me, and I cannot treat it as itself an answer to any traditional philosophical question.  I witness the instructive spontaneity of and in things, but that spontaneity neither confirms nor disconfirms standard philosophical questions, although it can, I take it, render those standard questions null or reveal them as sedimented and sedimenting.  Or, to put the matter differently, when we ask the standard questions, but not in the standard way, when the questions themselves become open-natured orientings upon Being, then the questions, while still not answered, create a free space; and, in that free space, there is

the disclosure of a Being that is not posited because it has no need to be, because it is silently behind all our affirmations, negations, and even behind all formulated questions, not that it is a matter of forgetting them in its silence, not that it is a matter of imprisoning it in our chatter, but because philosophy is the reconversion of silence and speech into one another…

Indeed, so understood, philosophy would seem impossible–it would be the rendering commensurate, first one way and then another, of two incommensurates; yes, it would seem impossible; except that the re-commensuration, the reconversion, happens on MMP’s pages, in a hard-won language that speaks silences and silences speech.

More anon.

4 responses

  1. A good question or worry. I take it that ‘literal’ may not be the best word here, at least if not properly situated. Both what I think MMP would call habituated seeing and what he would call interrogative seeing have claim to the title of literal seeing. After all, if you will allow me to play a little with the metaphors, the sedimentation presented to habituated seeing is not an illusion; it is, in fact, an object of sight–call this literal seeing above the yes and no. But interrogative seeing sees through the sedimentation (rendering it transparent, but not invisible) to what is unsedimented or anyway less sedimented–call this literal seeing beneath the yes and no. (Treat this as just a suggestion.)

    Thanks for the link!

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