The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology

Review of Metaphysics 58 (4):875-876 (2005)


The first half of Barbaras’s book, which is as lucidly analytical as it is ambitiously interpretive, is an uncovering of the unjustified Husserlian transcendental “objectivism,” Sartrean dialectic, and Cartesian dualism that dominate the early period of Merleau-Ponty’s thought. According to Barbaras, the Phenomenology of Perception is overburdened with the critique of the intellectualist and realist framework of nonphenomenological theories of perception. Merleau-Ponty’s development must be understood as transcending the residue of his former intellectualist point of view deriving from a phenomenological theory of consciousness. His achievement in his later work is to have uncovered the “unthought” in Husserl’s phenomenology of perception, which is precisely the articulation of intersubjectivity that transcends the insular, solipsistic body. What Barbaras traces in comprehensive detail is a teleology that is directed toward an ontological turn based on the primacy of the flesh as that which manifests meaning in the world of perceptual and linguistic sense, even though, as he admits, “We do not have any one text that gathers together the final state of his philosophy”. Nonetheless, according to the teleological reading incited by the later working note according to which the results of Phenomenology of Perception need to be brought to ontological explicitation, Barbaras takes as the basis of the critique the idea that the early work is based on the consciousness-object distinction, later to be overcome in the notions of intertwining and chiasm. Merleau-Ponty later overcomes this separation by disclosing that genesis of the ideality of expressible meaning is based in the perceptible domain itself, but that in turn the perceivable is not to be reduced to the expressible. Through the investigation of expression the being of a “wild world” can be located beyond the earlier opposition between fact and essence, an inheritance of Husserl’s thought the overthrow of which signals the turn toward the Being of the world as rooted in the intertwining of the perceived and expressed sense in speech. Visual perception is conceived simultaneously as “silent logos,” speech, and expression, and ontologically speaking, as the world itself. This entails a radical extension of phenomenality to include that which is invisible in speech and sense.

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