PHILOSOPHY 630: MERLEAU-PONTY AND DERRIDA

Protocol 3/8/04

Chad Kautzer

 

Consciousness and self-consciousness

 

  • Self-knowledge is not the same as self-consciousness (or Selbstbewusstsein in German), and the distinction is important when we attempt to trace the intellectual history of consciousness (and self-consciousness) as a concept. In broad brushstrokes, the theoretical progression appears to begin with the “soul” and develop through “self-knowledge” until we reach modern conceptions of conscience. Note the Greek term eudaimonia, which means a good conscience or guardian spirit. “Little demon’ is a derivative. To have eudaimon is to have good conscience and/or to flourish.

 

  • A notion of consciousness is clear in Hegel (see his Phenomenology Sec. 632 and following), Fichte, and Kant, but does a philosopher such as Descartes possess such an idea? Bacon speaks of man as interpreter; can there be interpretation without consciousness? Descartes’ argument is logical, physiological, and even autobiographical. [Note Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of physiological treatments of the body/consciousness question in Phenomenology of Perception, pages 118-126. For example, see where he writes: “We cannot relate certain movements to bodily mechanism and others to consciousness. The body and consciousness are not mutually limiting, they can be only parallel. Any physiological explanation becomes generalized into mechanistic physiology, any achievement of self-awareness into intellectualist psychology, and mechanistic physiology or intellectualist psychology bring behavior down to the same uniform level and wipe out the distinction between abstract and concrete movement…” (124).]

 

  • The unconscious or Unbewusstsein, of course, plays a large role in Freud’s theory and is somatic to a degree. Hegel and Kant lack this somatic (or embodied) formulation. Sartre argues that there we experience a pre-consciousness (or unreflective consciousness). The example given in class was running to catch a bus: you’re not conscious of every step or even any of them. Merleau-Ponty is not interested in this phenomenon. He rejects the idea that there is pre-consciousness: there is not calculating without embodiment. Decisions cannot be made apart from the body; we may make anticipatory gestures, but our consciousness does not precede our spatial presence (as we enter a room, for example).

 

  • Many traditional (analytic) theorist/philosophers find the language of “embodiment” to be disconcerting. They’re not sure what to do with it. The division becomes more acute in the discussion of language.

 

Language and embodiment

 

 

 

Ferdinand de Saussure’s disctinction:

 

1. langue (language)

2. parole (speaking)

3. langage (a kind of speaking – a disciplinary idiom, for example) 

 

 

Concerning the third of de Saussure’s distinctions, see “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”: “Writers must not underestimate the painter’s labor and study, that effort is so like an effort of thought and which allows us to speak of a language of painting” (55). This “language of painting” is a langage, an idiom of a particular practice. As such, it is subject to diachronic change.

 

See “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”: “Sometimes Malraux speaks as if “sense data” had never varied throughout the centuries, and as if the classical perspective had been imperative whenever painting referred to sense data. Yet it is clear that the classical perspective is only one of the ways that man has invented for projecting the perceived world before him, and not the copy of that world” (48). Speaking is embodied for Merleau-Ponty and thus subject to change.

 

See “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”: “For the phonemic oppositions—contemporaneous with the first attempts at communication—appear and are developed without relation to the child’s babbling. His babbling is often repressed by the oppositions, and in any case retains only a marginal existence without its materials being integrated to the new system of true speech” (40).

 

The child is working on speaking. The child is tending toward speech. There are certain sounds that are encouraged, so the child tends toward the words that are encouraged, while the ones that don’t fit are eventually marginalized and lost. It is, of course, expressions that are encouraged as well.

 

As was evident in de Saussure’s work, there is always something happening that encourages the play of differences: a movement, an energy. We are still, in fact, learning words. Language cannot be static as Merleau-Ponty says Malraux believes it to be. The new word is a word “I can do.” The play of difference continues. See “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”: “A language sometimes remains a long time pregnant with transformations which are to come; and the enumeration of the means of expression in a language does not have any meaning, since those which fall into disuse continue to lead a diminished life in the language and since the place of those which are to replace them is sometimes already marked out—even if only in the form of a gap, a need, a tendency” (41). These gaps, needs, and tendencies make possible transformation. We can also read the needs Merleau-Ponty refers to here as political.

 

See also “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”: “But meaning does not actually dwell in the verbal chain or distinguish itself from the chain in this way. Since the sign has meaning only in so far as it is profiled against other signs, its meaning is entirely involved in language. Speech always comes into play against a background of speech; it is always only a fold in the immense fabric of language. To understand it, we do not have to consult some inner lexicon which gives us the pure thoughts covered up by words or forms we are perceiving; we only have to lend ourselves to its life, to its movement of differentiation and articulation, and to its eloquence” (42).

 

For Husserl, meaning is given in an intentional act, which can be considered independently. Husserl distinguishes 1) meaning giving from, 2) the meaning given in speech. The former her refers to as noetic and the latter as noematic. He writes: “The method of phenomenological reduction (to pure “phenomenon,” the purely psychical) accordingly consists (1) in the methodological and rigourously consistent epoche of every objective positing in the psychic sphere, both of the individual phenomenon and of the whole psychic filed in general; and (2) in the methodologically practiced seizing and describing of the multiple “appearances” as appearances of their objective units as units of component meanings accruing to them each time in their appearances. With this is shown a two-fold direction—the noetic and noematic of phenomenological description” (“Phenomenology”, Shorter Works, 24-25). For Merleau-Ponty, however, meaning is embodied in speech and all embodiment is already a matter or language. You cannot separate the noetic from the noematic. See last paragraph of Page 42:

 

For the speaker no less and for the listener, language is definitely something other than a technique for ciphering or deciphering ready-made significations. Before there can be such ready-made signification, language must first make significations exist as guideposts by establishing them at the intersection of linguistic gestures as that which, by common consent, the gestures reveal. Our analyses of thought give us the impression that before it finds the words which express it, it is already a sort of ideal text that our sentences attempt to translate. But the author himself has no text to which he can compare his writing, and no language prior to language. His speech satisfies him only because it reaches an equilibrium whose conditions his speech itself defines and attains a state of perfection which has no model.

 

There is a kind of equilibrium in speaking—with gestures, words, etc. Language is a kind of readjusting. Speaking is like the unsettled or disturbed water within a glass, which tends toward stillness (or meaning). There may even be an equilibrium to speech that we don’t understand (as in the case of hearing a truly foreign language). Meaning is given in an act.

 

See also “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”: “At the very moment language fills our mind up to the top without leaving the smallest place for thought not taken into its vibration, and exactly to the extent that we abandon ourselves to it, it passes beyond the “signs” toward their meaning… Language does not presuppose its table of correspondence; it unveils its secrets itself” (43). That is to say, we’re not necessarily aware of signs, but forgetting them to use them, they assist us in reaching beyond – toward meaning.

 

Every speaking is full of thought. Main thesis (?): “Now if we rid our minds of the idea that our language is the translation or cipher or an original text, we shall see that the idea or complete expression is nonsensical, and that all language is indirect or allusive—that is, if you wish, silence” (43).

 

When I speak/agree, the combination of words don’t make the point. Every expression has sedimentation. The idea of a complete expression = no ambiguity, nothing left out. This is nonsensical because it can’t happen. Meaning is never univocal, but rather equivocal and ambiguous. Indirect language is part of style. The said and not-said constitute style. 

 

See the last paragraph of page 75 on the “spontaneity of language.” Expression is tied to history. Speaking, meaning, language, style and history are all ultimately ways of saying embodiment as indirect language. But remember that there are always things not fully there.

 

On to Derrida!