- Series: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: Northwestern University Press; 1 edition (July 16, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0810125994
- ISBN-13: 978-0810125995
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,511,755 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) 1st Edition
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About the Author
Ted Toadvine is an assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. He is managing editor of the journal Environmental Philosophy, and serves as secretary of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy. His most recent collection, The Merleau-Ponty Reader (coedited with Leonard Lawlor), is also available from Northwestern.
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What I found especially compelling about Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of nature, and Toadvine's presentation of it, was Merleau-Ponty's effort to understand human beings as a part of nature and to think nature from the standpoint of our human situation within nature rather than from a God's eye view (which is, of course, essential for any philosopher claiming to be a phenomenological philosopher) while at the same time respecting nature's transcendence in relation to our human understanding and ways of relating with nature. Taking seriously human beings inherence in nature can easily lead down a skeptical path exemplified by a quote from E.O. Wilson. Wilson begins with a dualism between reality outside our heads and a reality inside our heads which is constructed (or distorted) by the idiosyncrasies of human evolution (quoted pg11). The goal of science is precisely to undo this distortion. But once we start down this path it is impossible to stop. As Nietzsche argued, science itself can be conceived as an evolutionary adaptation based on what he considered necessary errors (concepts like substance, identity, cause and effect which are essential for the scientific enterprise are necessary errors based on evolutionary exigencies according to Nietzsche). One may disagree with Nietzsche on this point but it is hard to figure out where exactly to draw the line once you start down this path. If our ordinary understanding of reality is distorted by idiosyncrasies of human evolution why wouldn't this be true of science as well? The solution does not, of course, lie in denying human beings a place in nature or attributing to them some transcendent principle which somehow escapes an inherence in nature and the twisted paths of human evolution (such as reason). Rather we must accept Wilson's contribution as valid but we must carry it forward to the end, to its logical conclusion. Toadvine (and presumably Merleau-Ponty) believe that the phenomenological approach to this problem is the correct way of carrying Wilson's effort to its logical end (and of avoiding skepticism). We must begin from human beings inherence in the world, rather than attempting to adopt a position outside it, in order to describe (rather than explain) our inherence in nature and our modes of access to it (pg12).
Our relation to nature is conditioned not only by our evolutionary history but also by our historical and cultural inheritance as well. Merleau-Ponty's great insight, I think, is that these mediations are not screens which shield true reality from us but are rather a part of Being's own self-expression. This is what it means to carry Wilson's project to the end. We must conceive even human reflection as inherent in nature or the radicalization of a tendency already present in non-human nature (this is what Merleau-Ponty attempts to do in his late ontology which is based on the reflexivity of Being). In a sense Merleau-Ponty takes a path exactly opposite to that of E.O. Wilson. Wilson believes in a notion of being which is self-identical and exterior to the mind which is then distorted by evolutionary mediations (Merleau-Ponty would add cultural mediations as well). Wilson's goal is to correct these mediations in order to achieve a more accurate picture of reality in itself. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, does not believe that Being is inherently self-identical but rather "an event of originary non-difference of which the divergence between touching and touched is an exemplar" (pg125). According to Toadvine, "it is precisely the 'failure' of identity that opens sense as a movement of expression" (pg127). The evolutionary and cultural mediations are not screens but rather the conditions for our own expressions of nature which are themselves a part of nature, or a part of Being's own reflexivity. Toadvine expresses this point when he writes, "Because the disclosure of the real as such requires creative expression, the only possible 'return' to nature is by way of an appropriation that goes beyond it" (pg70). This is a more radical way of thinking man's inherence in nature than Wilson provides since Wilson still exempts science from the idiosyncrasies of evolutionary history (unjustifiably in my opinion).
Merleau-Ponty will attempt to think the origin of human intelligence (and hence of science and the entire world of truth) from within the vital dialectics of the organism (its lived world and relation to the environment). In so doing Merleau-Ponty will attempt to retain a place for human beings uniqueness while at the same time maintaining a continuity between human being and nature. It is sometimes difficult to work out the implicit philosophy of science of Merleau-Ponty's notion of expressive cognition (or its implications for the work of someone like E.O. Wilson) because Merleau-Ponty usually treats art as the paradigmatic example of what he means by expressive cognition. Merleau-Ponty believes the work of Cezanne, for example, is an attempt to express nature in its 'brute inhumanity' which can paradoxically only be achieved "by way of a creative appropriation of the conventions and traditions of painting" (pg14). It is clear, in this case, that the culturally inherited conventions and traditions of painting are not a screen which will necessarily distort Cezanne's picture of nature in itself but are rather the conditions for Cezanne's expression (again, it is less clear how this would work in science where the norms governing 'true' scientific discourse are different than they are in art, but I do not think Merleau-Ponty believes there is a radical difference between art and science; at least not as radical as is often assumed, but this is something I am not entirely sure about).
Toadvine is also able to illuminate the problem of the transcendence of nature that arose in Merleau-Ponty's work Phenomenology of Perception and the way in which this problem drove Merleau-Ponty to his later formulations and his rethinking of the very grounds of phenomenology. In the Phenomenology of Perception Merelau-Ponty argues that nature is the correlate of the body; nature is fundamentally involved in a dialogue with the human body. But this raises the question of the transcendence of nature. How is it possible for nature ever to exceed the limits of human perception? How can there be anything in nature which resists our understanding if nature is nothing but the partner in a reciprocal dialogue with the human being? It also raises a problem about our reflective access to our unreflective life, or the bodies silent dialogue with nature. These problems are not unrelated and Merleau-Ponty's expressive theory of cognition is fundamental in solving the second problem. Merleau-Ponty argues that the goal of our reflection should not be to return to a pre-reflective state, or undivided unity, with nature. This is neither possible nor desirable. Rather we must carry reflection to an even more radical reflection in order to think the unreflected conditions of reflection. Merleau-Ponty discovers an immemorial past at the heart of reflection which can never be fully overcome. Merleau-Ponty believes that we reach this point by carrying the phenomenological reduction to its natural conclusion and this ultimately leads Merleau-Ponty to discover the ontological foundations of phenomenology itself (again, phenomenology is rooted in the reflexivity of Being itself rather than being the act of a pure cogito which would somehow exist outside of nature). This also winds up solving the second problem since the transcendence of nature consists precisely in the unthought which is the ever present condition of thought and which it is ultimately impossible to eradicate or to absorb into thought.
Despite its relatively short length there is a great deal more in this book than what I have been able to summarize. There is a particularly illuminating discussion of the relation between human beings and animals which I found particularly interesting because of the way in which Merleau-Ponty was able to admit a qualitative difference between different life-forms while denying any hierarchization of life-forms which invariably place human beings at the top (in fact the qualitative differences between life-forms is precisely the reason that it is impossible to construct a hierarchy of life-forms). The chapter on animality is actually one of the most interesting chapters in the book which, due to time and space, I am unable to summarize here. I should also point out that one of the primary goals of this work is to bring Merleau-Ponty's philosophy into dialogue with current discussions taking place within environmental philosophy. This was a very interesting (and important) aspect of this book but since I am not really very familiar with environmental philosophy I have chosen not to summarize this aspect of Toadvine's work.
In summary, for anyone with even a basic interest in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy this book is a must read. It is the only book I know of which focuses on Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of nature which is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and fruitful aspects of his thought. It is also an excellent general summary of Merleau-Ponty's development and helped me to better understand the motivations which led to Merleau-Ponty's most important reformulations of his own thought. If you love Merleau-Ponty (like I do) then this book definitely belongs in your library. It will be one of the secondary sources on Merleau-Ponty that you return to over and over.
a)If Toadvine's intention is to persuade readers that M-P offers a more adequate ontology than that derived from either realism or constructivism, are we left only with compounded paradoxes and are those really an advance in our thinking?
b)As he is unable to locate within M-P any suggestions of practical consequences for environmental policies or more general ethical principles, is this discussion anything more than cheerleading for ontology?
Rereading carefully the preceding chapters changed my mind. Toadvine is honestly modest about any results. He affirms that M-P offers new terms for understanding the relation of nature and human nature. Those new terms appear to this reader to be distinctions without a difference, which seems to be exactly the point that M-P makes for the nature/human nature condition. M-P's phrase is, "the non-difference that is not an identity." If you can imagine explanations for such a unity-in-difference, that is what you will find here.
The undeniable value of this work is its selection of material from M-P's long struggle to explore human perception. Toadvine locates the selected material in M-P's developing thought and the philosophical ethos in which he labored.
While Toadvine expressly denies that aestheticism can adequately identify M-P's ideas, the passages that recite M-P's response to post-impressionist art sing with a significance that is unforgettable The promise is that nature does its own singing and that human nature's singing is of the same song in a different key.
Perhaps my enthusiasm derives, also, from knowing before reading this study that Heidegger is legitimately criticized for lacking any developed philosophy of nature. Added to that is the view of some phenomenologists that M-P moved in H's direction as his work matured. Consequently the promise of a philosophy of nature by M-P would seem to be a confluence of two of the 20th Century's outstanding philosophers, where their labors might even be complementary if not serendipitous.
Yet if their distinctions do not provoke any differences, at least none that can be claimed to be "richer in contingencies" as H promised, I can only hope I am being taught rather than teased. I know of no one who is a better teacher than those two giants.
So far I can see very promising possibilities for issues that until M-P led to cul-de-sacs. Only time will tell.