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Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics and Primordial Percipience

Lecturer: Anya Daly

Originally Taught: Summer School 2014

Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on aesthetics appear regularly throughout many of his philosophical works and his aesthetic thought is given sustained treatment in the three essays: Cézanne’s Doubt (1945), Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence (1952) and Eye and Mind (1961). Each of these essays represents an important development in his thinking and as with his other works he elaborates his ideas in dialogue and dispute with particular thinkers. Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with these thinkers continues to serve the central aim of his philosophical project -- to establish a non-dualist, non-monist ontology. The aesthetic writings are thus parallel to the more general philosophy and serve to test the general ideas within the aesthetic domain. In these three essays the philosophical issues are pursued through the lens of the aesthetic, which according to Merleau-Ponty, is uniquely placed to reveal the intertwining he proposes obtains between self, other and world. His entire philosophical approach to the human situation is in a sense aesthetic, in that all relations are he proposes essentially expressive.

What is of particular interest for our exploration is that Merleau-Ponty locates aesthetics at the heart of what are generally considered the more philosophically central domains of ontology and epistemology, rather than being merely adjunct to these. Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic interrogations show that the opposition between interiority and exteriority is misconceived and that we live in an interworld in which internal relations obtain between self, other and world. This course tracks the progression of Merleau-Ponty’s thought from the more phenomenological essay Cézanne’s Doubt, to the essay Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence which reflects the influences of structuralism and to the final essay of which Sartre claimed “Eye and Mind says all if one knows how to decipher it”.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1: General introduction to phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty’s place in the tradition, and the role that aesthetics plays in Merleau-Ponty’s project.

Phenomenology as a philosophical tradition: Its origins, what were the key questions it sought to address? Key figures in the tradition - Methodology - Current status

My analysis begins positioning Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics in relation to a seminal moment in the history of the philosophy of art – Plato’s infamous banishment of the mimetic poets from his ideal state and the denigration of art in general. Why is this important? Dualist framework applied not only to metaphysics, ontology and epistemology but also to aesthetics.

Recommended Reading:

  • Gallagher, Shaun. (2012) Phenomenology, New York : Palgrave Macmillan
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (1962) 1st Edition, London: Routledge Kegan Paul
  • _______ The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (1962) reprint – (2006) London: Routledge Kegan Paul
  • Zahavi, Dan. (2002) “Merleau-Ponty on Husserl : A reappraisal” - in Merleau-Ponty’s Reading of Husserl, T.Toadvine & L.Embree (eds), Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht

Lecture 2: : Cézanne’s Doubt

  • In Cezanne’s Doubt, Merleau-Ponty’s examination of the phenomenology of the creative process through a close analysis of perception and embodiment.

Cezanne’s Doubt focuses on the work of Paul Cezanne (1839 - 1906) and the life of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519). Both of these artists, according to Merleau-Ponty illustrate and affirm pivotal aspects of his phenomenological project; firstly, the centrality of perception and the body, that which is neither pure subject nor mere object, in all epistemological and artistic endeavours; secondly, the claim that the phenomenal world is the real world and so appearances rather than concealing in fact disclose the real; thirdly, the necessity of the other - the artwork must express, communicate to an-other to be successful; and fourthly, the direct correlation between the life of the artist and the artwork. This particular life called for this particular work to be done. It must be stressed that the thoughts expressed in this essay coincide with the period when Merleau-Ponty was working on The Phenomenology of Perception (1945). Just as he later recognised the need to re-vision his approach in general, he also revised his aesthetic analyses so that they were not only more inclusive but also better able to support his ontological project.

Recommended Reading:

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Cézanne’s Doubt”, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader : Philosophy and Painting, Ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans.ed. Michael B.Smith, (1993) Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Lecture 3: Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence

In Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence, written seven years after Cezanne’s Doubt, Merleau-Ponty approaches aesthetic issues from a more structuralist perspective. This second essay begins with a discussion of Saussure’s thought on signs and then moves on to address issues presented in Malraux’s writings in The Voices of Silence and Sartre’s essay What is Literature? The phenomenological concerns of perception shift to analyses of expression, the body-subject makes way for style, a manner of being flesh, and these point the way to the later more explicitly ontologically focussed Eye and Mind.

Recommended Reading:

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader : Philosophy and Painting, Ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans.ed. Michael B.Smith, (1993) Evanston: Northwestern University Press
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1948) “What is Literature?” Paris: Gallimard, trans. 1967 Methuen & Co Ltd

Lecture 4: Eye and Mind

In this last aesthetic work, Merleau-Ponty’s provocateur is Heidegger. This essay begins by contrasting the approaches of science and art, and proposes that through painting, which approaches the world “innocently”, ontological grounds are able to be uncovered. Eye and Mind is in fact the first sustained exploration of his re-visioned ontology. Merleau-Ponty proposes that the artistic endeavour not only offers immediate bodily access to things but also offers us an understanding of the “internal animation of the world” and “the fission of Being from the inside” (The Visible and the Invisible: 1964). This essay completes the project began in Cezanne’s Doubt. Merleau-Ponty hoped that this ontology could achieve what he felt the earlier formulations could not accomplish due to their still remaining subtly caught in the dualism of object and consciousness.

Recommended Reading:

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind”, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader : Philosophy and Painting, Ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans.ed. Michael B.Smith, (1993) Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Lecture 5: The Interworld – aesthetics, phenomenology and neuroscience

Within the development of Aesthetics, these essays are highly significant in that they serve as a bridge from Modern Art and all its variations to Post-Modern Art. Typical themes of postmodernism, such as hyperdialectic, erasure, trace and signature, can be found in the aesthetic reflections of Merleau-Ponty. However, postmodern interpretations of these themes have often failed to fully grasp the import Merleau-Ponty attached to them and consequently have been drawn back into dualism or an absolute relativism. What is, moreover, of particular interest for our discussion is that Merleau-Ponty locates aesthetics at the heart of what are generally considered the more philosophically central domains of ontology and epistemology, rather than being merely adjunct to these. Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic theory shows that the opposition between interiority and exteriority is misconceived and that we live in an interworld in which internal relations obtain between self, other and world.

In recent years phenomenology has found interesting empirical support for its claims in the neurosciences - notably, claims regarding perception, embodiment and social cognition. One of the discoveries which has relevance to this course, is that that of the mirror neuron system. Vittorio Gallese, who first discovered mirror neurons with his colleague Giacomo Rizzolatti, has proposed that our aesthetic sensibilities are informed by our capacities to simulate the various contents of an art work. This simulationist account is challenged by Shaun Gallagher who has advanced an interactionist account. These two accounts will be critically examined.

Recommended Reading:

Level of difficulty:  Introductory