Philosophical Questions 5: The Approach to What is Far-Off as Far-Off

Since I am on a Merleau-Ponty spree…

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.

Our discussion…announces to us another paradox of philosophy, which distinguishes it from every problem of cognition and forbids us to speak in philosophy of a solution:  as an approach to what is far-off as far-off, it is also a question put to what does not speak.  It asks of our experience of the world what the world is before it is a thing one speaks of and which is taken for granted, before it has been reduced to a set of manageable, disposable significations; it directs this question to our mute life, it addresses itself to that compound of the world and of ourselves that precedes reflection, because the examination of the significations themselves would give us the world reduced to our idealizations and our syntax.  But in addition, what it finds in thus returning to the sources, it says.  It is itself a human construction, and the effort, in the best of cases, will take its place among the artefacts and products of culture, as an instance of them.  If this paradox is not an impossibility, and if philosophy can speak, it is because language is not only the depository of fixed and acquired significations, because its cumulative power itself results from a power of anticipation or prepossession, because one speaks not only of what one knows, so as to set out a display of it—but also because one does not know, in order to know it—and because language in forming itself expresses, at least laterally, an ontogenesis of which it is a part.  But from this it follows that the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon Being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin.  Hence it is a question whether philosophy as reconquest of brute or wild being can be accompanied by the resources of elegant language, or whether it would not be necessary for philosophy to use language in a way that takes from it its power of immediate or direct signification in order to equal it with what it wishes all the same to say.  (The Visible and the Invisible, 101-2)

For the purposes of my fitful reflections on Philosophical Questions, I really needed only the first paragraph above.  But the second paragraph is so deliciously rich I could not resist adding it—and, I note, the second is also part of Merleau-Ponty’s response to the apparent plight of philosophy he describes in a passage I quoted earlier this week (The “Work” of the Philosopher).  Quoting that passage, as I did, without continuation, creates a somewhat misleading impression:  but it is true that Merleau-Ponty takes the ability of philosophy to speak as a problem (perhaps the problem), and his reason for so doing is well described in that earlier quotation.  The other fascinating feature of the second paragraph is its intended self-application to Merleau-Ponty’s language,  its way of shedding light on the prolonged enigma of Merleau-Ponty’s prose. I will comment on this passage soon, as well as returning to finish up with comments on an earlier passage from Rush Rhees.

One other quick thought:  Merleau-Ponty’s contrast between two uses of language in the second paragraph, one “elegant” the other “charged with philosophy”, relates quite closely to F. R. Leavis contrast between the Augustan and the “exploratory-creative” use of language.  It is too bad Leavis so underestimated the interest of philosophers in the problems that most mattered to him.  Understandable, but too bad.

Merleau-Ponty on the “Work” of the Philosopher

The philosopher speaks, but this is a weakness in him, and an inexplicable weakness: he should keep silent, coincide in silence, and rejoin in Being a philosophy that is there ready-made. But yet everything comes to pass as though he wished to put into words a certain silence he harkens to within himself. His entire “work” is this absurd effort. He wrote in order to state his contact with Being; he did not state it, and could not state it, since it is silence. Then he recommences… (From The Visible and the Invisible)

Opening My New Talk

Here’s a draft of the opening paragraph of my new talk on Merleau-Ponty’s lecture, “In Praise of Philosophy”.  The paragraph is meant to be a compendium of the topics the talk addresses, as well as a hat tip to Stanley Cavell.

I find that I am always educating myself in front of others. There is, I suppose, an effrontery in this: I admit I feel ashamed somewhat in so doing. And I realize you may wonder what I take myself to be doing, since, “Surely,” you might mutter, “he ought to tell us something he knows or takes himself to know, something he has learnt, not something he is learning”. But I confess I understand philosophy to be a matter of educating oneself, of coming into knowledge, and not a matter of having knowledge that is then simply or complicatedly imparted. At least since Socrates, philosophy has countenanced a distinction between loving wisdom and being wise, and has chosen the first as the better part, or at least as its, as philosophy’s, part. A philosopher is someone who is crucially concerned with his own becoming—and in particular with his own becoming-a-knower. Thus is ignorance always internal to philosophy, and the recognition of his own inner disorder internal to any philosopher’s sense of himself as a philosopher. I write this out of my own inner disorder, my own ignorance of what to say about philosophy. —Can I speak for philosophy?

Merleau-Ponty on Perception

Nothing is more foreign to perception therefore than the idea of a universe which would produce in us representations which are distinct from it by means of a causal action. To speak Kantian language, the realism of naïve consciousness is an empirical realism—the assurance of an external experience in which there is no doubt about escaping ‘states of consciousness’ and acceding to solid objects—and not a transcendental realism which, as a philosophical thesis, would posit these objects as the ungraspable causes of ‘representations’ which alone are given.

Socratic Irony, Good and Bad

In his talk, “In Praise of Philosophy”, Merleau-Ponty begins his discussion of Socrates’ irony by considering his behavior at the trial:

What can one do if he neither pleads his cause nor challenges to combat?  One can speak in such a way as to make freedom show itself in and through the various respects and considerations, and to unlock hate by a smile–a lesson for our philosophy which has lost both its smile and its sense of tragedy.  This is what is called irony.  The irony of Socrates is a distant but true relation with others.  It expresses the fundamental fact that each of us is only himself inescapably, and nevertheless recognizes himself in the other.  It is an attempt to open up both of us for freedom.  As is true of tragedy, both the adversaries are justified, and the true irony uses a double-meaning which is founded on these facts.  There is therefore no self-conceit.  As Hegel well says, it is naive.  The story of Socrates is not to say less in order to win an advantage in showing great mental power, or in suggesting some esoteric knowledge.  “Whenever I convince anyone of his ignorance,” the Apology says with melancholy, “my listeners imagine that I know everything that he does not know.”  Socrates does not know any more than they know.  He knows only that there is no absolute knowledge, and that it is by this absence that we are open to the truth.

To this good irony Hegel opposes a romantic irony which is equivocal, tricky, and self-conceited.  It relies on the power which we can use, if we wish, to give any kind of meaning to anything whatsoever.  It levels things down:  it plays with them and permits anything.  The irony of Socrates is not this kind of madness.  Or at least if there are traces of bad irony in it, it is Socrates himself who teaches us to correct Socrates…Sometimes it is clear that he yields to the giddiness of insolence and spitefulness, to self-magnification and the aristocratic spirit.  He was left with no other resource than himself.  As Hegel says again, he appeared “at the time of the decadence of the Athenian democracy; he drew away from the externally existent and retired into himself to seek the just and the good.”  But in the last analysis it was precisely this he was self-prohibited from doing, since he thought that one cannot be just all alone and indeed, that in being just all alone he ceases to be just.  If it is truly the City that he is defending, it is not merely the City in him but that actual City existing around him…It was therefore necessary to give the tribunal its chance of understanding.  In so far as we live with others, no judgment we make on them is possible with leaves us out, and which places them at a distance.

For me, this is a Janus passage: it retrospects Reading “RM” 10 (as well as another recent post) and prospects Reading “RM” 11 (or it will, when I produce 11).  –But for now I want to think about it just for Socrates’s sake.  Montaigne I set aside.  What interests me in the passage now is the contrast between good and bad irony.  I agree that there is such a contrast and I agree in the main with Merleau-Ponty’s Hegelian understanding of it.  Noting the contrast is important in reckoning with Socrates.  (It is therefore important in teaching Socrates, as I now am.  Students tend to react most strongly to the traces of bad irony in Socrates’ (good) irony and thus to treat his irony as (unalloyed) bad irony.  Merleau-Ponty’s description helps me sympathize with the students when they react that way, without yielding to their reaction.)  Socrates’ good irony hugs his ignorance, without crossing out that ignorance, rendering it merely apparent.  As I have said in previous posts, Socrates targets double ignorance–thinking that you know when you do not know–and having that target makes irony all but unavoidable.  Unlike simple ignorance–not knowing–double ignorance is not-knowing entombed in pride (self-conceit), coldly obstructed from the truth.  Socrates’ good irony aims to disinter a person’s simple ignorance, and to bring a person to acknowledge that simple ignorance.  Socrates’ good irony is, as Merleau-Ponty notes, a distant but true relation with others:  distant–because if he comes too close he aggravates their pride, risks losing himself or approbates himself against their freedom; true–because genuinely hopeful and genuinely humble.  Available, as I am now habitually putting it.  Sometimes Socrates fails because he cannot maintain distance or maintain truth, and then he either misses irony altogether or he slips into some degree of bad irony.  Good irony is Socrates’ way of making himself available to others without trespassing upon their freedom; it is also a way of targeting their pride, the pride that not only makes them unavailable to others, but makes them unhandy to themselves.  Pride creates only the freedom to fall.

(A puzzle in Merleau-Ponty’s passage is its use of ‘distant’ and ‘distance’.  Socrates’ irony is a “distant but true relation with others”, but Socrates will make no judgment on others that “places them at a distance”.  I solve the puzzle this way:  Socrates’ good irony does not place him at a judgmental distance from others.  It is not a standing over and above them.  In other words, Socrates can count himself among those he lives with, making no judgment on them that leaves him out, and which places them at a distance, even while his way of living among them is to maintain a distant but true relation to them.  In fact, his ironic distance even aids his refusal to place others at a judgmental distance from himself:  think of judgmental distance as a false relation to others.)

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