Nature: reading Merleau-Ponty

Happy New Year. I’m back at work, and one of my projects is an article I’ve been working on for a while – a comparison of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida on the subject of nature. As I finish off sections I might post one or two here. But for the moment, let me post a couple of interpretations from the literature that are rather striking in their contrast:

“Despite his usual adherence to a merely privative naturalism, it seems to me that Merleau-Ponty holds fast to a more or less traditional humanistic prejudice: a basic and uncritical cognitivism about the human difference. At issue is a conception of the lives of animals, on the one hand as ‘pre-ordained’ by nature and a fundamentally contrasting view of the life of ‘man’, on the other, as a natural life radically or fundamentally transformed.

… Derrida’s (let’s say) reformed naturalism is pitted equally against the classical humanist’s conception of an objective oppositional duality between pure animal life, on the one hand, and human life as animal life transformed, on the other.” Simon Glendinning, In the Name of Phenomenology, 141-2 and 206.

And compare this with Veronique Fóti’s recent book:

“Although Merleau-Ponty does not explicitly address the issues of biologism and racism that Derrida brings to the fore [covered in a nice discusion of Heidegger and J. von Uexküll], his engagement with the ‘new biology’ and with animal life in its inherent expressivity may offer resources for taking a stand against the entrenched menace of these ideologies that can bypass the ‘humanist’ teleology that Derrida problematises,” Veronique Fóti, Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty, 79.

What Fóti makes nicely clear is how both Merleau-Ponty and Derrida are both opposed to Heidegger’s interpretation of the animal – even before they were aware of it. I take it that their alignment here comes out of their aiming to read the negativity appropriate to the being of an animal, and to do justice to its power of response. In both cases the conclusion is that signification suffuses animal life.

Glendinning is, in a way, correct. The account he’s discussion is that of expression in The Phenomenology of Perception, which Merleau-Ponty himself regarded as deficient in some important ways. Glendinning wants to tell a story about phenomenology and a particular kind of naturalism, and to foray into Merleau-Ponty post 1945 would make the story he wants to tell a bit more complicated.


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