It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent. –Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert
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.
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.
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)