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.

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