Merleau-Ponty Underwrites Wittgenstein?

From The Visible and the Invisible:

We need only take language…in the living or nascent state, with all its references, those behind it, which connect it to the mute things it interpellates, and those it sends before itself and which make up the world of things said–with its movement, its subtleties, its reversals, its life, which expresses and multiplies tenfold the life of the bare things.  Language is a life, is our life and the life of the bare things.  Not that language takes possession of life and reserves it for itself:  what would there be to say if there existed nothing but things said?  it is the error of the semantic philosophies to close up language as if it spoke only of itself:  language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave.  But because he has experienced within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech as the bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that, born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but–if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and foliation–the most valuable witness to Being, that it does not interrupt an immediation that would be perfect without it, that the vision itself, the thought itself, are, as has been said, “structured as language,” are articulation before the letter, apparition of something where there was nothing or something else…Philosophy itself is language, rests on language; but this does not disqualify it from speaking of language, nor from speaking of the pre-language and of the mute world which doubles them:  on the contrary, philosophy is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things, called forth by the voices of silence, and continues an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being.

7 responses

  1. You remember that marvelous conference in Cambridge, October of 2010. Someone at the podium made great use of (the idea of, the torment of) “being chafed by our own skin.” Afterward Naomi Scheman who was sitting a row ahead turned round and held her hands out like a supplicant: “Yes, own skin is a scourge. But it is also the site of every intimacy we have ever known!”

    So too language. (Joyce Carol Oates: “In love there are two things — bodies and words.” And here I’m thinking of love broadly. Love of the world . . . )

  2. Heck, I’ll give it try. Why not? I should caution, however, that I have not read the book.

    I begin with M-P’s implied distinction between “the great mute land” and “the world of things said,” and with the question, how do these two dimensions relate to one another? I think M-P wants to argue – if I can modifying a well-known phrase – that the “said world” would be meaningless unless it referred to the “mute land,” and that the mute land would be dark unless it was illumined by the said world. (Compare this, perhaps, with Heidegger’s distinction between “earth” and “world.”) The said world interrupts the silence of the mute land, drawing it into our variegated discursive practices. The effect of this assimilation, we are told, is that the said world “expresses and multiplies tenfold the life of the bare things.” Multiplication of life aside, this phrase seems also to say that the bare things, before they become enhanced or amplified by words, already enjoy a life of their own. We should pause to ask, what can “life” mean in this context? Not biological life alone, surely. It must also include the infinite realm of inanimate things subsisting “out there” in the great silence. Think of a rock, think of the sun. How can these be said to live? It seems clear that M-P is using “life” as a metaphor for significance, from simple meanings (rock, sun) to complex associations (“the rock of ages,” “The sun is but a morning star”). Perhaps we could say that anything fully “lives” only when it is “enlivened” by the world of significance, perhaps especially in our use of metaphor and personification, when even the inert is imbued with personhood: “You great star, what would be your happiness had you not those for whom you shine?” “What is lived,” says M-P, “is lived-spoken.” The said world would appear, then, to be coextensive with language; but as it turns out, this is not true. Language, in M-P’s usage, extends beyond language in the ordinary sense, and consequently beyond the said world. The mute land, M-P claims, is streaming with pre-linguistic meanings that are “articulated before the letter.” It is literally a mute language. In other words, the mute land with its bare things has a tacit intelligibility which must pre-exist language in order that utterance may occur at all. This intelligibility comprises all that to which the said world ultimately refers, “behind” itself. One gets the impression, however, that this ur-articulation is dimmed down and liminal almost to vanishing. (Is this M-P’s “invisible”?) The mute land becomes resonant, illumined, and fully alive only with the advent of saying. (Is this M-P’s “visible”?) Perhaps this unspoken yet “articulated” land is of a piece with our “bare” bodily immersion in it (Phenomenology of Perception?). In any case, the mute yet articulate land seems to fully include us as part of it. Its great silence, as far as speaking and hearing words are concerned, is the very silence from which words themselves spring and toward which they flow. We might even say that the mute land is the dimension in which we share a common being with mute things, before our utterance supervenes on them. It is this deep commonality at the unspoken level of the mute land’s articulations that defeats any danger that reality will fracture into ontologically disjunct and epistemically estranged halves – the mute land over against the said world, that old conundrum. I think it’s possible that M-P’s use of the same word (‘language’) for these two very different forms of intelligibility (mute vs. spoken) may be his way of emphasizing the unity of the said world with the mute land, their ultimate affinity. For M-P, the muteness of things is the very muteness in which the said world itself originates (unless, that is, we’re to imagine two mutenesses uncomprehendingly facing each another across an unbridgeable gulf). Nestled within “the great mute land which we never leave,” to quote M-P, is both the deep need to speak and the deep need to be spoken, but perhaps not yet discriminated as two needs. Indeed, at that level, perhaps they ARE one? Perhaps the shared silence in the domain of non-verbal meanings is the invisible ground that ultimately makes “the great mute land” and “the world of things said” a living whole. Both dimensions, while apparently distinct – and always subject to violent intellectual divorce – are so held together in original silence that nothing can finally sunder them.

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