Merleau-Ponty on Seeing

From The Philosopher’s Magazine, an article on Merleau-Ponty by Dermot Moran (h/t However Fallible)

Seeing has always been the privileged sense for philosophers, the sense that most closely approximates to the transparency of thought, the sense that seems best equipped to render the object as it really is, the sense that inserts a distance between us and the world so that we think we are removed from tampering with the seen. Sight doesn’t manipulate things; it is the detached, neutral observer. It is objectivity itself. Seeing is believing.

Seeing seems always to escape from the body outwards into the visible. We don’t have any sense that we create the visible, yet we ourselves are visible within this sphere of visibility: “my seeing body subtends my visible body, and all the visibles with it,” the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty says in The Visible and the Invisible. Seeing’s invisibility to itself is what makes it approximate to thought, to transform itself into “insight” to capture itself as “reflection”. We are always seeing; seeing can stand for consciousness as a whole. Our seeing reaches into sleep. We see even in our dreams. We need to pay careful attention to all the different kinds of seeing – staring, glaring, looking, glancing, gazing, inspecting. There is a rich plurality to the practice of seeing. Continue reading


New Michel Henry Translation: On Kandinsky

Seeing the Invisible


Michel Henry was one of the leading French philosophers of the twentieth century. His numerous works of philosophy are all organized around the theme of life. In contrast to the scientific understanding of life as a biological process, Henry’s philosophy develops a conception of life as an immediate feeling of one’s own living.

Seeing the Invisible marks Henry’s most sustained engagement in the field of aesthetics. Through an analysis of the life and works of Wassily Kandinsky, Henry uncovers the philosophical significance of Kandinsky’s revolution in painting: that abstract art reveals the invisible essence of life. Henry shows that Kandinsky separates color and line from the constraints of visible form and, in so doing, conveys the invisible intensity of life. More than just a study of art history, this book presents Kandinsky as an artist who is engaged in the project of painting the invisible and thus offers invaluable methodological clues for Henry’s own phenomenology of the invisible.

More information here.

  • Imprint: Continuum
  • Pub. date: 15 Jun 2009
  • ISBN: 9781847064479
  • 160 Pages, paperback $21.95

Phenomenology and Literature

The Romanian Society for Phenomenology and Humanities has recently published Studia Phaenomenologica vol. VIII/2008, “Phenomenology and Literature.” From Delia Popa’s introduction:

Is there a relationship between phenomenology and literature? The question is a legitimate and problematic one, if we take into account both that which properly pertains to the literary sphere and that which pertains to phenomenology, as well as the complexity of attempts to define the practices associated to either. Without engaging into the intricacies of literary theory and meta-phenomenological research, one needs merely to mention Husserlian phenomenology’s claims to scientific rigour and the importance of poetic inspiration within literature to grasp the distance that separates them. Because of this, their dialogue is condemned to remain a frail bridge, joining two mountains which conceal from each other the volcanic spark of their vitality. Continue reading

“Diagrams will never be the Same:” Book Review

A strange book is reviewed in the NDPR:

Frederik Stjernfelt, Diagrammatology: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Phenomenology, Ontology and Semiotics, Springer, 2007, 507pp., $189.00 (hbk), ISBN 9781402056512.

Reviewed by Valeria Giardino, Institut Jean Nicod (CNRS-EHESS-ENS), Paris

Diagrammatology is the product of a very ambitious project: the development of a semiotics based on iconical realism. The book is divided into two parts. The first is devoted to the articulation of the basic tenets of such a realism; the second presents three possible domains of application: biosemiotics, picture theory and literary theory. The issue investigated in the first part and, indeed, the central theme of the book is Peirce’s doctrine of ‘diagrammatical reasoning’, which mainly includes diagrammatic construction, observation and manipulation. This leads to the introduction of the notion of continuity as discussed by Peirce in his mature work. Stjernfelt tries to show that continuity is indeed at the base of Peirce’s attempt at providing a philosophical architecture in which to embed his sign theory.

In Chapter 1, Peirce’s system is introduced, going back to his interest in the philosophy of mathematics and the role of the continuum in Cantorian set theory, and moving to a metaphysical concept of continuity. According to Stjernfelt, it is possible to consider the whole of Peirce’s system through the lens of this concept. First, in semiotics continuity provides an account for general concepts and the relationship between extensional and real reference which is characterised by vagueness and indistinctness. Moreover, in ontology, objects and events are embedded in a horizon continuum of potentiality. Continuity would also be behind the pragmatist notion of truth as that to which the scientific community will converge in the long run, and implies the pragmatist’s fallibilism due to its inherent and ineradicable imprecision. Most of all, continuity is central for drawing general conclusions from a diagram, since diagrams, in all cases, involve a moment of observation, which is, according to Stjernfelt, a process necessarily infused with continuity. Perception and knowledge rely on continuous generality, and it is the very continuity of the sheet upon which a diagram is drawn that becomes a matter of central importance. Stjernfelt then analyses the triads and the trichotomies that populate Peirce’s philosophy, and discusses his theory of iconicity, including a presentation (and rejection) of both Goodman’s and Eco’s criticisms of the theory. In Stjernfelt’s interpretation, the icon for Peirce has a non trivial and operational definition: an icon is a sign which can be manipulated in order to learn more about its object than is explicitly present in the sign. Continue reading

CFP: “Back to the Things Themselves! Edges and the In-Between.”

A Call for Papers:

PhaenEx 3, no. 2 [Fall/Winter 2008] Special Topics Issue:
“Back to the Things Themselves! Edges and the In-Between.”

This special topics issue of PhaenEx invites papers that explore the phenomena of the in-between and edges in relation to one another, or as phenomena in their own right.

The editors are explicitly interested in the application of phenomenology’s insights, not only in standard (@ 20-30 pp) papers but also briefer sketches, musings or reflections so long as they further phenomenological consideration of the themes of this special issue.

Please note that our “general criteria” for publishing work for this special issue are as follows:

1) The argument itself is generated from a phenomenological description of whatever in-between/edges you are using. While bringing in theory is great (as a bouncing off point, as a foil, as background, to set up the intellectual debate, etc), we really want people to try to NOT rely on it to discern the meaning of the phenomenon. Rather, whatever thesis/arguments are reached should stem from a description of the things themselves. (In other words, if you took away all the textual refs, would there still be an argument of sorts? This is a sort of litmus test).

2) The paper draws some sort of conclusion about the in-between/edges themselves as phenomena, rather than only describing an example of the in-between/edges. (For example, some papers have discovered that the inbetween is a fecund space for the development of certain ethical relations, or a space of creativity, desedimentation, or works as an ontological operator of relations, pushes phenomenology to its own methodological limits, etc.) We are looking for at least something that will teach something about the so-called “nature” of the in-between and/or edges, that was disclosed through a description of
whatever “thing itself” you are describing.


An Object-Oriented Philosophy?

In The Visible and The Invisible, Merleau-Ponty comments:

The flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term “element,” in the sense it was used to speak of water, air earth and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being. The flesh is in this sense an “element” of Being (139).

A while back, I noted in passing, Graham Harman’s objection to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in Guerrilla Metaphysics, in short, too much emphasis on qualities without objects and the mechanics of human access, not enough of an account of object to object interaction, or ultimately what becomes vicarious causation. Such an object oriented philosophy introduces a strange kind of realism, Harman writes:

Once we give up the notion that specific objects are merely “ontic,” that philosophy should deal only with the conditions of possibility of objects or of human access to them, everything changes. From that moment on, every aspect of our experience, from the simplest motion of dogs and waiters to our dealings with ruined glass, wire and cardboard in a garbage dump, begins to bear witness to a genuine metaphysical event. While these normal cases of perception must differ from allure, one feature they share is that both contend with distinct objects. We never occupy a formless sensory medium, but only a landscape of determinate things, even if these things seduce us with a full arsenal of what seem like kaleidoscopic surface-effects (179-180). Continue reading

Boring Notes on Merleau-Ponty: Time and Subjectivity (plus Lemons)

I recently finished reading Lemon, a rather strange, but entertaining novel that details the rise and fall of a love affair between a man named Wendell and a lemon. There are obvious psychological interpretations one could wield here about projection, possession, obsession, fetish and so on, but that’s the less interesting route. There is a very funny sequence when he and the lemon visit his parents:

Do you talk to it? whispers his mother.

-Yes I do. But not condescendingly. Not like to a dog.

-Does it talk back to you?

-Mom, it’s a lemon.

-Is it a talking lemon?

-It speaks yes in a way to me, but not out loud. I’m not insane.

For some reason I kept thinking of Merleau-Ponty while I was reading Lemon. Continue reading