- Paperback: 306 pages
- Publisher: Northwestern University Press; 2nd edition (January 21, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 081011528X
- ISBN-13: 978-0810115286
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,709,706 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What I like about Dillon's account is his focus on Merleau-Ponty's ontology. Merleau-Ponty was a phenomenological philosopher. Phenomenology started as a method of descriptive psychology - metaphysical questions were supposed to be "bracketed", and the phenomenologist was supposed to limit themselves to describing the world simply as it appeared. No phenomenologist ever actually followed through with that program though - none of them were genuinely capable of bracketing all metaphysical questions. Husserl, far from simply "bracketing" scientific realism in favor of pure description, wound up supporting a form of transcendental idealism, Heidegger used phenomenology to develop a theory of Being, and Merleau-Ponty used his phenomenological analysis of perception to deconstruct the primary categories of Western ontology.
In other words, Merleau-Ponty is not simply describing perception in the Phenomenology of Perception. In fact, Merleau-Ponty's interest in perception opens onto wider ontological issues. Perception is the point where the traditional ontological categories of subject and object breakdown and Merleau-Ponty uses his analysis of perception to critique the entire structure of Western ontology. Dillon is well aware of this and makes Merleau-Ponty's ontology the primary focus of his study. Dillon believes that Merleau-Ponty is the only philosopher in the Western tradition to develop a genuinely non-dual ontology and his philosophy provides the only way out of our current metaphysical conundrums (conundrums revolving around the relation between the mind and the brain, etc).
I can contrast Dillon's perspective with the perspective of Taylor Carman in his introductory book on Merleau-Ponty. Late in the book Carman argues that Andy Clark's program has little do with with phenomenology because he is interested in the "mind-body" problem. Carman argues that this is not a "phenomenological question at all, but a metaphysical problem" (227). Carman dismisses this problem because phenomenology is purely descriptive and the solution to this problem has "no direct echo in experience" (227). I reject this idea of phenomenology. If phenomenology is nothing but description than it is no better than sitting and describing the shadows as they dance in Plato's cave while the scientists solve all the real problems.
I think Merleau-Ponty would reject the mind-body problem, but not because phenomenology has no ontological implications, or is pure description. He would reject it because a proper analysis of perception reveals that there is no pure mind divorced from the body and the body itself is not utterly different from consciousness. Merleau-Ponty would reject the problem because it begins from the premise that the mind is something totally different from matter, and matter is something totally different from consciousness, and the question is: how does one give rise to the other or how are they related? The body, for Merleau-Ponty is not pure consciousness and it is not pure matter. It is something in between and this is precisely the mediation that is necessary to resolve the problem.
Dillon understands this. Dillon understands that Merleau-Ponty is not simply rejecting ontological problems in favor of "pure description". Dillon focuses on Merleau-Ponty's thesis about the "primacy of phenomena". Phenomena are the "middle category" between subject and object that are capable of mediating the contradiction. Dillon presents this in terms of Meno's paradox: if phenomena were simply immanent qualia caused by utterly transcendent objects then we would be totally cut off from the world in-itself. In other words, we would not know reality at all, so how could we even inquire about it? If, on the other hand, phenomena were simply the results of transcendental constitution then we could never find anything in phenomena that we did not put there. If we already know everything we could possibly learn by inquiring, why would we need to inquire?
Phenomena must be both immanent and transcendent. Dillon approaches Merleau-Ponty's ontology as a resolution to this epistemological question. This has some drawbacks. For one thing, Dillon fails to engage with a lot of the work in the epistemology of science that has been done over the last 50 years. The epistemology that Dillon seems to me to be working with is broadly Humean. We only have access to the world through our individual sense perception, therefore, the laws of science can only be external regularities that we discover in our experience and cannot tell us anything about the external world - this conclusion would follow if the objects of our perception were purely immanent and if scientists built their theories of the external world by searching for regularities in their own individual experience, but this is not the case. Dillon is arguing that, in order to avoid this problem, we have to assume that perception actually reaches the external world, and that the objects of perception are in some sense transcendent.
But I don't think this is actually necessary to get out of the epistemological problem Dillon has posed because I do not think that this is how science actually "knows". It does not search for regularities in individual experience, and it does not find merely external relations in the world, it finds intelligible relations through experimentation, formulation of hypotheses, hypothesis testing, induction and abduction, etc. (Roy Bhaskar has some very interesting things to say on these issues). Now, I am not saying that I disagree with Dillon's claim that the objects of perception are in some sense both transcendent and immanent or that we have access to the world through perception. But, I think by pursuing the specific line of argument he pursues in this book - centering around Meno's paradox - he leaves the empiricists and scientific realists an easy way out.
Merleau-Ponty himself pursues a different form of argumentation. Merleau-Ponty does not focus his attack on epistemological issues. His primary argument is: objective thought - by which he means, thought that posits an in-itself composed of parts that are related through purely external relations and linear causality - is incapable of making sense of perception. Dillon is actually good at elucidating Merleau-Ponty's critique of the empiricist notion of purely external relations but his main line of argument does not follow the details of Merleau-Ponty's analysis of perception - instead he develops his own line of argument based on broadly Merleau-Pontyan theses (which is what good scholars do, so I am not knocking him for that). Merleau-Ponty's arguments are based on a ton of examples - a lot of them drawn from the Gestalt psychologists and the literature on pathological perception - that are supposed to show the inadequacies of objective thought and, by extension, the inadequacy of the ontology it is based on. I think Merleau-Ponty's own line of argumentation is ultimately stronger than Dillon's.
That does not negate the value of Dillon's book though. It is still an excellent resource for anyone interested in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. I think you could make the argument that, if you only have time to read one book on Merleau-Ponty, this would be a good choice. Hopefully you have time to read more than one book on Merleau-Ponty but, however long or short your reading list might be, this book should definitely be on it.
Far from being a "bipolar" text, this book offers an intricate examination of the historical progression and ultimate failure of bipolar/reductionist thought in the western tradition, be it mind vs. body dualism, immanence vs. transcendence, or linguistic realism vs. conventionalism. Dillon demonstrates convincingly how polarizing (and ultimately second-order) constructions of reality ultimately betray the underlying ontological reality which they were designed to explain by rendering truth and judgment valuation impossible. He then goes on to explain why he believes that the thought of Merleau-Ponty, grounded on the ontological primacy of the phenomena, avoids this reifying of second-order abstractions that create ontological polarization and collapse reality into exclusive spheres of immanence or transcendence.
Moreover, contrary to what was said in the past review, Merleau-Ponty is never deified in the book as someone who "fell from the sky one day to solve all of our philosophical problems". Dillon has obvious disagreements with aspects of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy (read "The Body In Its Sexual Being" from M-P's Phenomenology of Perception and then Dillon's Beyond Romance for one example) that are not presented in this work due to its nature as a secondary text on Merleau-Ponty's ontology, published at a time when such a topic was rarely discussed. Still, this book never even approaches presenting Merleau-Ponty in such a god-like portrait; rather Dillon simply but methodically presents the case that Merleau-Ponty, unlike Sartre among others, offers a true phenomenological ontology grounded on the primacy of the phenomena that (if considered seriously) presents a real and unavoidable challenge to polarizing/reductionist ontological theories, including those that came to the fore after Merleau-Ponty's death in the "linguistic turn".
As the reviewer from the Moon says: "if good philosophy is what you want, it's rarely so bipolar."