W for World
McKeever / 24 Giugno 2022

Two of the most important words in the Phenomenology of Perception of Merleau-Ponty are “world” (monde) and “meaning” (sens).  This post will not focus on the long analyses that this author offers on each term but rather on the way he understands the relationship between these two terms. In his thought world and meaning are co-relative, almost synonymous: there is no world without meaning and no meaning without the world.             In common usage the term “world” is employed to talk about quite a range of different realities: the planet Earth, the ensemble of all that is, a sector of culture (the world of cinema) and so on. In general, the term has a spatial connotation, that is to say the world is a space in which something is located or in which something happens.  Merleau-Ponty speaks of the naïve conception of the world as being like a big box in which are to be found objects, people, villages, clouds… Understood in this way the world is thought of as something objective, concrete and real. It is a ready-made world, a fait accompli.             From the beginning, phenomenology strongly contested this way of thinking about the world. The main problem…

S for science
McKeever / 3 Giugno 2022

            In a central public square in Louvain, Belgium, there is an unusual work of art which consists of an enormous needle, on the point of which is impaled an insect. This figure was produced by Jan Fabre in 2004 to mark 575 years of the KU Leuven University Libraries. Our guide explained that the artist wished to bring out the limitations of modern science. By pinning down an insect, a scientist has the possibility of analysing it in all kinds of ways, some of which may indeed be of service to modern science and culture in general. Through investigation the scientist acquires forms of knowledge about the insect which can then be applied in different spheres of life. What the artist wished to dramatically denounce are the many forms of knowledge that are lost when we take this approach to insects, to any given reality or indeed to reality as a whole. What is lost? The life of the insect! Not primarily in the sense that the insect is killed but in the sense that the scientist using this method loses all access to the flashing, buzzing, flying insect and to the human experience of observing such a living…

L for language
McKeever / 29 Aprile 2022

«…language , in one who talks, does not translate a mature thought but rather accomplishes it». Maurice Merleau-Ponty             It is well known that for a good part of the 20th century language was a key theme in what is often called “analytical philosophy”, as perhaps best symbolized in the figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Less well known is the fact that language is often a key theme in what is known as “continental philosophy”, particularly in existentialism and phenomenology. This division has by now been somewhat overcome: a contemporary philosopher such as Claude Romano is extremely attentive to both these traditions (see particularly, Au cœur de la raison, la phénoménologie).             The purpose of this brief contribution is to comment on just one aspect of the theme of language in the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The aspect in question concerns the relationship between thinking and talking/writing. In everyday spontaneous conversation and discussion we tend to speak of thinking and talking as two separate, consecutive activities. While preparing a lecture, for instance, I may understand myself as first walking around the garden thinking and then going to my office and writing down what I have been thinking. Merleau-Ponty strongly denounces this…

O for Other
McKeever / 17 Marzo 2022

            Aristotle tells us that one way of understanding a given term is to understand its opposite. What is the opposite of “other”? A dictionary might indicate “same”. In phenomenology, this seemingly banal distinction has taken on momentous proportions, mostly thanks to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).             A key theme in the thought of Levinas is our radical incapacity to make space for the other, for what is not the same as us. He strongly denounces this chronic tendency to totalize the self. The totalitarianism of the Nazis, for instance, (which he encountered indirectly through the killing of some members of his family) is for him but the ultimate outward expression of a much more banal form of totalitarianism that dominates human life.             Let us take a simple example. Two women are in the cancer ward of a hospital: Jean: How are you today, love? Ann: Not too well. My left arm is really painful. It feels as if it is burning. Jean: I know all about that. You have no idea how sore my foot was last night… What is depicted on a nano scale in this scene occurs daily, hourly, on a micro, meso and…

P for Phenomenology
McKeever / 18 Febbraio 2022

            The limited purpose of this brief blog is to explain a major ambiguity in common understandings of the term “phenomenology”. It is not uncommon to read such phrases as “A phenomenology of globalization” or “The phenomenon of racism” or again “A phenomenological approach to inflation”. In such phrases, phenomenology is taken to be almost a synonym of description and indeed the texts that follow are usually just that, a mere description of the specific reality under study. There is nothing in the grammar and semantics of the English language that prohibits such an understanding of “phenomenology” and its variants. Given, however, that “phenomenology” is the name of a still relatively new and very revolutionary branch of philosophy, the least that can be said is that to understand phenomenology as the mere description of realities, in the manner of an artist or a would-be “neutral observer”, risks creating confusion.             This ambiguity, and consequent confusion, is at least partly to be explained by the fact that phenomenology, as a branch of philosophy, does indeed involve description. The form of description practised in phenomenology is the description not of the given reality in itself but of the human experience of this…

I for intersubjectivity
McKeever / 14 Gennaio 2022

            At first sight it might seem strange to discuss I for intersubjectivity before discussing S for subject (which we will do in due course). The fact is that intersubjectivity arrives not just alphabetically before subjectivity but is also ontologically prior: no one ever became a subject on her own.             In order to understand why this is so we need to begin with the crucial phenomenological critique of the “subject-object” model of knowing. This model, which is at the basis of the empirical sciences and thus also of modernity in general, has been shown (by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas and many others) to be extremely reductive in nature. It greatly underestimates the complexity of what it means to be a subject, what it means to be an object and what it means for the two to be in relation to each other (in a world).             If all this is true of subjectivity, it is not difficult to imagine how much greater is the complexity when we think of intersubjectivity (not forgetting the chronological order mentioned above). These same thinkers were quite perplexed at the very possibility of intersubjectivity. They took “solipsism” and “ego-ology” very seriously. If I and…

C for Consciousness
McKeever / 17 Dicembre 2021

“To begin with, we put the proposition: pure phenomenology is the science of pure consciousness.” Few terms in phenomenology are as complex as “consciousness”. In what follows we will attempt to introduce the reader to this complexity by offering a brief gloss on the above statement by the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). The first word that warrants attention here is “science”. Husserl was a mathematician by formation, but early in his career he became conscious (!) of the limitations of the epistemology that was operative in the empirical sciences. He did not deny the legitimacy of this epistemology in so far as it goes, but was convinced that it did not go far enough. In other words he believed that there was much more to human knowledge than the empirical sciences were revealing. And so he undertook the monumental task of constructing a new, precise science (phenomenology) that would overcome these limitations. In order to understand phenomenology we need to pay close attention to a second word in the above quotation: “begin”. Husserl was convinced that the empirical sciences begin far too late, taking for granted much that warrants critical examination. So phenomenology can be understood as a…

B for Body
McKeever / 11 Novembre 2021

           The French philosopher Gilles Deleuse (1925-1995) made a recording – available in French on Youtube – called L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuse in which he offers philosophical comments on terms beginning with a,b,c,d etc.             Inspired by this idea, I intend to do the same thing with a number of terms used in phenomenology.  These brief comments are designed for those who are curious about this relatively new branch of knowledge but who have not had occasion to study it.             We will begin with B for Body.  One phenomenologist who has concentrated considerable attention on the body is also French, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).  What is his main insight into the body?  Maybe this could be expressed by saying that, for him, the body is not a mere object in the world but an openness or an opening to the world (the term “opening”, if taken as a verb, has the advantage of bringing out the dynamic nature of this contact).              When we say that the body is not a mere object we acknowledge that in a certain,  limited, sense the body is indeed also an object: if placed in a bath it will displace a certain amount of water…