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Return to the Sentient

RETURN TO THE SENTIENT-EXPLORING THE ONTOLOGY OF    

                         HEIDEGGER AND MERLEAU-PONTY                

 

                                              Mira Fong 房曼琪

With all its eyes the natural world looks out into the Open. Only our eyes are turned backward, and surround plant, animal, child like traps, as they emerge into their freedom. We know what is really out there only from the animal's gaze.

Duino Elegy, The Eighth Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

The Phenomenology of Open and Gaze

Rilke's poem, says Marin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the most influential thinkers of our time, is "The song that sings of this different relation of living beings and of man to the Open." Indeed, the poem holds the key to understand Heidegger's later philosophy (after Being and Time). The metaphors of open and gaze have multiple implications in relation to truth and beings. Open denotes the activity of truth as self unfolding, as well as the terrain of beings. Open, in contrast to captivity, is where animals escape from man's conceptual trapping. The word also suggests that the being of an animal is the open in contrast to the self-closure of Dasein (human being). The other word "gaze", serves as the point of contact and is the way of "phenomenological seeing". Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French phenomenologist and a contemporary of Sartre, interprets "gaze" is a state when one engages the region of beings; that is to say, being and world co-arise through gazing.

The problem with conventional philosophy is that it concerns mainly the human subject, unwilling to acknowledge the presence and our relations with other beings. In response to such ambivalence, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty endeavored to re-appropriate man's place in ontology. Although both had limited discussions regarding animal issues, they did open a pathway to deliver "that which is" into a palpable existence through the method of phenomenology. This essay is to explore the inherent sentient characters of being figured in their writings. Works cited here are selected from various authors to  make my point, that is, to build a gentle and caring relation with the nonhumans. Also included are cautionary statements on technocrat culture and humanism (which endorses man's superiority) issued by Heidegger in his post war writings: The Way to Language (that man is not the master of language, it is the language that speaks man), What calls for Thinking? (what is it that entrusts thinking to us), Letter on Humanism (a critique) and Building Dwelling thinking (to redefine man's place in the world).

What makes the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty so significant is that it is not just an enquiry of being from the essentialist' stand point; it helps us to understand the inner working and the existential mode of things. For instance, the idea of "perception", as they insist, is much more complex than being rendered for merely epistemological function, it illuminates a collaborative and reciprocal interplay between beings. The rigorous investigation, conducted by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, regarding the way we think, speak, listen, touch and how we treat other beings, suggests an ethical dimension; in particular, Heidegger's advice that man must let go of his control and set beings free into their own essence.   

Phenomenology, a method modified by both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, was first developed by Edmund Husserl, a mathematician influenced by Gottlob Frege in the early 1900'. But he became critical of the reductive orientation of Frege's scientism that only logic and mathematics can determine an objective truth. Husserl thought that such method is limited as it predetermines the outcome. Instead, he proposed that the grounding of truth is located in the intentional act of consciousness without relying on any presupposition. Unlike the scientific method which subjects the phenomenal world under scrutiny, the phenomenological approach seeks to return to the things themselves through a method that simply describes things that appear in one's subjective consciousness. Hence, Husserl's phenomenology legitimizes the entire range of human experience in the internal time consciousness.

The idea, Lebenswelt, meaning The life's world, introduced by Husserl, has its origin from the German Romantic movement, a revolt against mechanistic materialism. The life's world refers to the sum total of one's experience including the activities of philosophy, psychology, arts, science and existence at large. His approach to the theory of knowledge was intended to dissolve the subject/object dichotomy; an object is not an isolated entity but elicits a gestalt relations. But Husserl was mainly dealing with the phenomenal reality on the mental plane thus missing out the connection with the real, hence easily falling into a form of solipsism. Having studied Husserl, both Heidegger and Merleau-ponty decided to move away from his transcendental orientation and applied phenomenology as a way of perceiving "what is given in one's experience". 

 The Greek word phainomenon links to the word "light" and "Speech". Phenomenology, as a way of seeing, allows "that which is" to manifest itself through the natural light. Merleau-Ponty  also applies phenomenology in constructing his ontology as a pre-conceptual approach to being, specifically, "It is to return to things themselves, to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks...philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth but like art, the act of bringing truth into being." The subject of Being, though has been regarded as a transcendental entity in metaphysics, is now unveiled in its sensuous embodiment.  

Ontology by Way of Deconstruction

Western philosophy, in Heidegger's view, has been a history of forgetting being. From Aristotle, Kant to the contemporary analytic philosophy, being has been subjected to a deductive treatment. Thinking means a matter of judgment according to a set of pre-determined concepts such as Descartes' innate ideas. Aristotle did extensive researches on animal lives and developed the theory, The great chain of Being, a hierarchical construction of nature in which animals are arranged into eleven grades according to their ability to reason, of which humans are on the top. Heidegger, who gave classes on Aristotle, disagreed: "Plato had a directive to think of Beings as idea, Kant had the directive to think of beings as the transcendental character of objectness as position (being posited)." In Letter to Humanism, one finds a strong critique of humanism by Heidegger: "It does not ask about the relation of Being to the essence of man, because of its metaphysical origin, humanism, impedes the question by neither recognizing nor understanding it". This statement affirms Heidegger's revolutionary task, to deconstruct the entire metaphysical structure grounded on anthropocentrism as he considers such mentality impedes the recognition of beings. 

To ask the question "What is Being?" is to explore the un-thought region of Western metaphysics. Heidegger thought that in order to access the original "openness to being", one must first trace the question back through the history of being. In The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking, he remarks: "For every attempt to gain insight into the supposed task of thinking finds itself moved to review the whole history of philosophy." Because the history of metaphysics was based on human subjectivity, meaning to put human in the power center and at the same time, keeps other beings in distance. In the heart of Heidegger's deconstruction was a protest of man's ordering of the natural world. In addition, Heidegger's postwar writings were attempts to revert the trend of philosophy that seeks validation from science that emphasizing "technical -theoretical exactness of concepts". Rather, he thought, philosophy is a task to explore the possibility of thinking and "to belong and listen to Being". Ontology serves as an opening where the question of Being can become accessible. The Greek word "onto" means "being or that which is". It is the study of being or the logos, the way of reality. For the early Greeks, the study of being means to form a rapport with "that which is". Heidegger resorts to etymology as a "clearing" in order to retrieve the original meaning of the word, through which the ontological "what is" can be revealed.

Merleau-Ponty  aims to revive the sensory dimension of being, he also rejects the separation between man and beings. He argues that the formulation of knowledge, such as Kant's pure concepts of time and space, actually intercepts the dynamic flow of time preventing one enters a vital and reciprocal "relations" with beings. In ancient time, the inner meaning of time is "Ek-stase" which has to do with the mystical experience where beings are animated. Essentially, the ontology of both thinkers is to reverse man's antagonistic relations with beings; each being is capable of communicating and has its own expressions that are full of meanings. Such a view is poetically presented in Rilke's Book of Hours:

I know that nothing has ever been real, without my beholding it. 

All becoming has needed me, my looking ripens things,

And they come toward me, to meet and be met .  

 

From Dasein to That Which Is

 

For Husserl, phenomenology is a rigorous science of studying human consciousness. His approach was later revised by Heidegger for the purpose of investigating man's existential conditions. Dasein, as human being, is the subject of Heidegger's major work Being and Time (1927). Why Dasein? Because man is part of the world and the constituting consciousness of the world, the only being that asks question of Being. Heidegger was interested in Dasein's temporal characters such as its involvement with projects and the future. Dasein's facticity is reflected by personal projects and social involvement. Furthermore, Dasein is finite, a being-towards-death. For Heidegger, Being and Time was a preliminary preparation in order to further investigate the question of Being. By the thirties, Heidegger's inquiry did transition from dasein to mitsein (being with), the encountering with other beings. Being(Sein), for Heidegger, is not a readymade concept, nor a representation (a mental picture); it is rather mysterious and has the notion of "origin (der ursprung)", the first emergence of being from the hidden. Otto Poggeler advices readers that Heidegger's thinking must be understood as "a way into the neighborhood of being".

Heidegger's work harkens back to the way the classical Greeks, their direct relations with Being, in that ontology was about the way of truth. In response to the question of what Being implies, Heidegger gives his answer: "An investigation into Being really ought to be able to inquire about the Being of any being-an elephant in the jungles of India or the chemical process of combustion on Mars-any being at all." All entities are considered as beings, trees, mountains, rivers, animals, people, a poem or a sonnet. Being is this sense, is the ground of beings:"The ground of beings has since ancient times been called Being, das Ereignis." Being as ereignis means "lit up", it is when being reveals itself into the open. Being is not a substance, a transcendent reality such as Plato's Form or Hegel's Absolute Spirit, it is a self unfolding presence. Traditional ontology studies the essence of being conceptually but resisted its concretizing. In contrast, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, both explore the sentient character of beings thus rescued them from hollow abstractions and distillation.

 

Heidegger worked with a Chinese scholar on the translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1946. The illusiveness of Tao bears similarity to his notion of Being. For instance, the way of Tao is elucidated in chapter twenty-five of  Tao Te Ching: "Tao is quiet and elusive. It is invisible, the prior force of  regeneration, ever moving in the cycles of growth. As mother nature, Tao is encompassing, it nourishes all living beings. Ever flowing, day and night. Tao pervades all existence and returns to itself.  It is the way of Nature, between heaven and earth, therefore, it is the way of man." Tao, as the Being of beings, is the cosmic vessel that sustains all beings. Heidegger advises man to give up his will to power and "let beings be", such is the essential character of Tao. As Heidegger understood, the great Being, like the Tao, gathers all beings in the hidden and releases them into venturing, "to meet and be met." Being, takes shapes in all things, the moon path that circles around the earth, wild animals wander in forests, fermenting fruits in the autumn sun, an overflowing river from the melting snow... In The Thinker as Poet, Heidegger describes a similar experience: "When on a summer's day, the butterfly settles on the flower, wings closed, sways with it in the meadow breeze...all our heart's courage is the echoing response to the first call of Being which gathers our thinking into the play of the world."

Unconcealment, the Happening of Truth

Philosophers of early centuries were polymaths, preoccupied with the science of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Descartes. During the age of Enlightenment, Kant organized knowledge into a framework of categories. In the beginning of 20th century, Bertrand Russell attempted to formulate an ideal language in order to establish reliable truth. Heidegger rejects such criterion. Truth is not to be found within the rigid structure of logical statements, nor by fixing beings in controlled studies for accurate measurement. For Heidegger, the basic character of truth is its indeterminacy. He raises the question: "How does truth happen?" and his answer is: "truth is about the way of truth...It is what was brought into unconcealedness and held therein."  Moreover: "Truth is the clearing that first grants Being and thinking, and their presencing to and for each other. The quiet heart of the clearing is the place of stillness from which alone the possibility of the belonging together of Being and thinking, that is, presence and apprehending, can arise at all." Here, truth is seen as a way of entering a respectful and attentive relation with beings and let them speak for themselves.

The way to locate the meaning of a word, for Heidegger, is to get to the etymology of the word. The Greek word for truth is Aletheia, meaning self unconcealment. Truth is an activity, a happening in a pre-reflective state when Being emerges as self-revealing, arises from the hidden. "Unconcealment" has its archaeological origin from the mystical ritual of the ancient Greek; the way one receives truth by going into an underworld and to wait for truth to be revealed by the spirit. The experience of the presencing of truth described by the Greeks as a state of ecstasy (ek-stasis), it literally means: "when one is besides oneself" or "to make room for truth to happen". Such state was recorded in the poetic writings of Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles and Heraclitus. For instance, the ontology of Parmenides was divided into "the way of Truth" and "The Way of Seeming". Heidegger gave several lectures on Parmenides and Heraclitus in the 1940' and early 50' and was influenced by their esoteric views that truth is revealed by the gods; in fact, he made this statement: "truth happens in the temple's standing where it is". To simply put, truth is being unconceals itself whereas false is when being conceals itself. One can also find the poetic expression regarding Heidegger's notion of truth in Rilke's Book of Hours: 

I want to unfold, let no place in me hold itself closed,

For where I am closed, I am false,

I want to stay clear in your sight.

 

For both Rilke and Heidegger, it is being that grants us the way to truth; there can be no separation between being and truth; being can either conceal or reveal itself and is free from man's validation:"Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are." says Heidegger.

 

When Speaking Becomes Listening

Linguistic philosophy investigates speech activities as propositions and statements. During the 1920's  and 1930's, logical positivism, an early stage of linguistic philosophy, aimed to make logic, mathematics and physics as the ideal model of knowledge. Richard Kearney, author of Modern Movements in European Philosophy, gives reasons as to why he objects such treatment of languages: "Language has become a matter of propositional logic concerned with the representation and classification of the world. Words were used impersonally to define or map reality as a collection of  objects 'present-at-hand'. And in the process language was tailored to the requirements of a one-dimensional objectivisation." Heidegger's investigation of language took a different turn, rather, he asks:"In what way does language occur as language?"; besides its utilitarian function, Heidegger thought that language, in a primal dimension, can access Being, it has the power to inaugurates things and world into man's consciousness.

Jacques Derrida proclaims that deconstruction began with Heidegger. In the essay Language, Heidegger introduces the word "dif-ference" as a method of reasoning which has its origin from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who demonstrated that meaning is unstable and is obtained through its opposite. Dif-ference, as an operative principle, deconstructs concept derived from a binary opposition, at the same time, establishes a bonding. Dif-ference, according to Heidegger, functions as a threshold that binds world and things through language, that is to say: "Language is a bidding, calling the unnamed into the presence." Clearly, for Heidegger, the most potent way to approach language and Being is through poetry as such practice was common in ancient cultures such as in China, India, Egypt and Greece.   

Parmenides, a major philosopher of the early Greek, had thought that listening to the words of truth is the same as thinking and being. For Heidegger, speaking and listening,  both take place in stillness:"It is language that needs and uses the speaking in order to sound as the peal of stillness for our listening." Speaking implies that language speaks man; Aletheia, the self unfolding of truth, happens when the speaking becomes the listening. In the peal of silence, one's senses open to faraway things, the careful steps of a  fawn into a deep woods, a falling leaf carried by the autumn wind, a flower opens its soft petals in early spring...

Poetry, The Hermeneutics of Kinship

Heidegger prefers poetry over semantic interpretation because the essence of poetic language is unconcealment; poetry opens to the life world from its roots and "can free ourselves from the technical interpretation of thinking". Unlike technical language that aims to represent entity by approaching from its externality, poetry liberates and befriends beings; such is Heidegger's stance: "Poetry is a form of primordial hermeneutic text that reveals the word as an opening, it offers to us the experience of being." In his essay, Poetically Man Dwells, Heidegger differentiates between the poetic and the informational language:"The poet calls all the brightness of the sights of the sky and every sound of its courses and breezes into singing words and there make them shine and ring...he does not describe the mere appearance of sky and earth."

Poetry, for the Romantics, has the magic to transform man's soul and even the whole society. Poets and artists of the movement found refuges in the tranquil landscape away from urban environment and were fascinated by the mythical landscape of Greece. Heidegger's favoring of poetic language comes from a deep sentiment with the German romantic poets such as Goethe, Schiller, Novalis and Holderlin. In the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution (during the 1800'), poets sought to revive man's spiritual connection with Nature. They defied scientific rules which confine natural beings to the Newtonian law. Poets are the troubadours wandering in the realm of beings; they sing myriad songs of the earth and the beasts. Albert Hofstadter, who translated Heidegger's Poetry, Language , Thought, makes this remark: "Translating Heidegger is essentially akin to translating poetry, for it is the poetry of truth and being that he has been composing all his life." 

 

What Calls on Us to Think?

There is a persistent enquiry throughout Heidegger's writings, that is, what does it mean by thinking? or rather, what is the task of thinking? The question challenges one's habitual way of thinking in order to free itself from theoretical inhibition. The question was first addressed in his lecture course "What Calls for Thinking?" (1951-1952). Instead of being assertive, Heidegger appropriates thinking to a gesture of passivity:"The question 'What calls for thinking?' asks for what wants to be thought about in an preeminent sense; it does not just give us something to think about, nor only itself, but it first gives thought and thinking to us, it entrusts thought to us as our essential destiny, and thus first joins and appropriates us to thought." Thinking, thus, is a humble way of letting (seinlassen): "to let itself be claimed by being".

To think is to be attuned and also an attunement, that is, the way of responding to being as it emerges out of itself as "it demands for itself that it be tended and cared for." says Heidegger. More profoundly, it is to counter the fact that man's "being away", prevailed in absence. Heidegger points out that:"Man is history, or better, history is man. Man is enraptured in this transition and therefore prevails as absent." Here, transition alludes to man's inability to either remain or to leave his place, because dasein tends to throw itself into a time consciousness, either the having been or the future, thereby absent from the present. Thinking, is this respect, is for the solitary man "to call beings into nearness".

Furthermore, thinking, as mentioned before, is an adventure, to think what was un-thought. Heidegger thought that it's like coming to a clearing in the woods, it opens the entire realm of beings where one experiences a state of "harmonia" which implies a belonging together. The German word "an-denken", means to think on as well as to remember; in other words, the act of thinking is both remembering and thanking as Richard Kearney points out: "The thinking which Heidegger counsels is a non-objectifying, non-systematic, non-calculative receptivity which enters the play of Being by giving thanks..." Essentially, the answer to Heidegger's enquiry "what is called thinking?" has to do with expressing gratitude and humility. Ultimately, to think in such a way, for the unsettling dasein, is about transformation, to break out of the norm of  inauthenticity.   

Dwelling, within The Fourfold Oneness

 

Heidegger's 1951 lecture, Building dwelling Thinking, was specifically written as a critic of the modern technological man. The etymology of dwelling is made clear by David Farrell Krell: "Dwelling, or Wohnen in German, means to reside or to stay, to dwell at peace, to be content; it is related to words that mean to grow accustomed to, or feel at home in a place. It is also tied to the German word for "delight." On the one hand, the notion of dwelling reflects man's homelessness and the need to belong; on the other hand, it suggests a proper way in which humans are on the earth. Heidegger's vision of dwelling is incorporated into a primal structure, the "Fourfold (das Geviert)", that is, earth, sky, spirits and mortals through which beings are collected. The elements of mortals and spirits mainly concern with the human Dasein, an agent is capable of either befriending or subjugating other beings. The cosmology of the fourfold universe is intended to deconstruct a human-centric world view, at the same time, opens to all mortal beings, allowing them to claim their rightful dwelling on Earth. For Heidegger, these elements are inter-connected: "on the earth' already means 'under the sky'...earth is the serving bearer, blossoming and fruiting, spreading out in rock and water, rising up into plant and animals."  These words also reflect a deep concern for the environment.

 

As uninvolved spectators, our knowledge of the Earth relies mainly on scientific observation and technological survey. Professor Bruce V. Foltz in his essay Heidegger, Ethics, and Animals, departs from such stand point and provides us much insights on the meaning of the Earth: "Earth for Heidegger not just, or even primarily a planet in cosmic space..Earth is for each entity that element from which it emerges into appearance, and into which it continually withdraws. ..the earth is what bears and gives rise to what comes to light only by remaining intrinsically dark itself. Earth is that which shelters and supports."  Dwelling is not a building or specific locality but rather as a verb, it means becoming home, to make man to dwell humbly on Earth.  

 

The World's Night, The Enframing of Beings

The word "science" in Greek means enquiry. Originally, science means a passion for discovery. Today's science and technology are put to the service of economy motivated by profitability. When technology is propelled by the demand of productivity, the question of man's relation with nature becomes even more critical as Heidegger protests: "Not only does it establish all things as producible in the process of production; it also delivers the products by means of the market. In self-assertive production, the humanness of man and the thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value which not only spans the whole earth as a world market, but also, as will to will, trades in the nature of Being and thus subjects all beings to the trade of a calculation that dominates most tenaciously..."

How does technology develop? What is its relation to nature?  In 1949, Heidegger gave four lectures concerning the essence and danger of technology. One of the lectures, The Enframing, was published under the title The Question Concerning Technology. According to Heidegger, the word "technology" derives from the Greek word "techne", meaning the manner of making something appear, such as the work of arts and crafts. Originally, techne is considered a dimension of human being; however, it also manifests itself in the invention of technologies. Although the inventiveness of techne originated from the essence of being as a destining of revealing, but Heidegger thought that the creative force of techne has been transformed itself into a mode excess. As a result, it covers over the truth of Being, blocking its original opening.

Heidegger further points out that there is a causal connection between science and the metaphysical system that began with Plato; the modern day technology is in fact the completion of Western philosophy: "In the age of Greek philosophy, a decisive characteristic of philosophy appears: the development of sciences within the field that philosophy opened up. The development of the sciences is at the same time their separation from philosophy and the establishment of their independence. This process belongs to the completion of philosophy." What Heidegger was saying is that it is the metaphysical will to power that led to the devastation of the natural world. He describes the essence of technology is "enframing (ge-stell)"; it converts living things into a "standing reserve (bestand)"; living beings are ordered to stand by for a further ordering. One such example is the motorized operation of factory farming where animals are kept as stocks and inventories.

Technology exploits beings as commodity and the entire natural world is made to submit to man's demands. In his essay on the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin, Heidegger mourns for the loss of  the brotherly light of beings and the days are darkened by the shadows of machines, it is, in fact, points to a kind of death. He laments:"This day is the world's night, rearranged into merely technological day."  In addition, "Not only are living things technically objectivated in stock-breeding and exploitation; the attack of atomic physics on the phenomena of living matter as such is in full swing. At the bottom, the essence of life is supposed to yield itself to technical production." Here, the world's night refers to a destitute state, a form of nihilism that pervades our existence. The technological man is,  in fact, a modern version of the Cartesian man caught in a destructive cycle of production and consumption. Today, man's relation with beings is in predicament; it's up to us to choose either to be in the company of cold machines that exploit or a warm and kind relation with fellow beings.

And The Animals Go There

Friedrick Holderlin (1770-1843), a colleague of Hegel and Schelling of the German Romantic Movement, and a thinker in his own right, viewed Nature as the source of his spiritual inspiration:"The world of Nature is a world which is consciousness's own encompassing object, soaked with value and replete with nourishment." The poet had great influence on Heidegger's thinking in uncovering the meaning of Being and the way to truth. They both thought that it is the living Nature (as phusis) that gives rise to all beings. Holderlin privileges poetry over philosophy because poetry could grasp the whole of reality. In 1942, Heidegger gave a course on the poem Der Ister (The Danube River) composed by Holderlin, as he felt a great affinity with the poet and shared the same longing for the classical period of the Greeks. The poem Der Ister, according to Heidegger, symbolizes the journey of the Danube river as well as a dwelling outside of man's ordinance. The poem portrays the generosity of the river as it provides sustenance for wild beings. The final section of the poem depicts man's homecoming by following the footsteps of animals to the river. Although the river itself is an open, but what the river does is forever unknown to man's grasping for meaning:   

And the animals go there

During Summer, to drink,

Then human will go there too.

This one, however, is called the Ister.

But what He does, the river, no one knows."

 

Merleau-Ponty's Great Reversal

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose metaphysical dualism splits the reality  into two kinds of irreconcilable substances, the mind, the cogito is an immaterial substance and the body, a biological entity with spatial extension governed by the law of motion. And he concludes that only humans are rational beings whereas animals are automata, their sensory responses are merely unconscious reflexes. Descartes' theory is intended to justify physical science and the study of anatomy at that time. But his dualistic division of being is fiercely refuted by Merleau-Ponty. In his main work The phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty endeavors to reverse Descartes' "I think therefore I am", in that the body is the cogito, the primary locus of knowing: "Perception is not mental cognition, it is to render oneself present to something through the body." The cogito, as he indicated, is located in the body, intertwines with the sensory organs of other bodies. This was his way of breaking out of the Cartesian solipsism where reality is sealed inside the mind.

Merleau-Ponty adopted Husserl's phenomenological method in the early thirties and incorporated into his study of man's experience of a lived world (Lebenswelt) which is through the intentional act of consciousness. He shared with Heidegger, the rejection of Realism and Idealism as well as the Positivist's definition of truth. He thought that their foundational philosophy has wedded to science: "They fail to understand what they are asking, since the world is not a sum of things (a collection of objects linked by causal relations) which might always be called into question, but the inexhaustible reservoir from which things are drawn." Like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty also confronts the idea that reason is the absolute measure of truth as such thinking is out of touch with the real world; rather, justice is needed to acknowledge all of human experience. Not that he denies the value and function of science and reason, but they need to be contained in its own field. In his essay, The theory of the body is already a theory of perception, Merlaeu-Ponty designates the body as the primordial habitation of consciousness. Beings are not isolated entities but inter-woven with the world and beings. One could say that Merleau-Ponty have succeeded in turning the Cartesian doubt, the suspicion of beings, to a trusting towardness.  

Merleau-Ponty's reversal of Descartes' dualism is truly revolutionary. It overturns a mechanistic view of the Western philosophy in which beings are taken out of their natural habitats, such system also intercepts the continuum between man and fellow beings. Unlike Heidegger's notion of being appears to be mysterious and obscure, Merleau-Ponty's is animated with flesh and blood and can articulate and resonate with other beings.

Perception, an Invitation

Phenomenology is the study of mental act which involves a perceptual field linking to the life world. Such method enables Merleau-Ponty to explore the dynamics of perception experientially, thereby opens up a whole new cognitive process. Perception is not an isolated mode of experience but a relational event. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty describes the world of perceptual field is an integral openness:"It is simply an expansion of my field of presence without any outrunning of the latter's essential structure, and the body remains in it but at no time becomes an object in it. The world is an open and infinite unity in which I have my place." In this sense, perception is not just a collection of sensory input, it is itself an open.

To perceive is to transcends the demarcation of a subject/object dichotomy as it involves  inter-subjectivity. This means that there is no objective way to qualify truth because the sensuous way of knowing is unique for each individual. our perceptual engagement is always affected by the fluid presence of other bodies as they are not external to us. In contrast to abstract speculation which sets us apart from beings, perception and its entire complex features, for Merleau-Ponty, simply means to become a part of. Poetically speaking, it is an act of invitation, to summon the light of being. He also incorporates the notion "gaze" into his theory of perception. The trees and grass grow as they gaze into the sky, animals gaze the open landscape as they wander in the wild.

To perceive is to relate, with ears, eyes and limbs, thus Merleau-Ponty comments:"The objects which haunts our dreams are always meaningful, our relation with things is not a distant one, each of them speaks to our body and to our life." It would be wrong to encapsulate beings into mere theories. Understanding the inner working of the living world, humans need to give up their control and rejoin fellow beings by opening their perceptual fields to other earth bodies. 

The Metamorphosis of Carnal Intertwining

Merleau-Ponty's work concerns mainly with the formation of the embodied and participatory characters of Being. In Primacy of Perception (1952), he emphasizes that the perceiving mind is incarnated and imbedded in the vital body, and the facticity of the body is not just an entity with spatial extension but involves a state of inter-corporeity. He observes:"the presence of the world is precisely the presence of its flesh to my flesh." The idea of the flesh (la chair) was discussed extensively in his unfinished book The Visible and the Invisible. Flesh has multiple applications; it refers to the primordial substance-Being that precedes particular beings. It is the connective tissue not only gives shapes and sentient features to being, but also enjoins worlds. Most importantly, it is through the notion of flesh that ontology finds its corporeal fulfillment.

In other respects, flesh alludes to a lateral relation of kinship between man and animals as Elizabeth Behnke, in her research paper Merleau-Ponty's Concept of Nature elaborates. With reference to Merleau-Ponty's notion of inter-corporeity, she writes: "For Merleau-Ponty the human-animal relation is not a hierarchic one characterized by the addition of rationality to a mechanistically conceived animal body, but a lateral relation of kinship among living beings ..." Further:"As Merleau-Ponty points out, the animals themselves are visible to one another, not only mirroring one another in a "specular" inter-corporeity, but attuned to the communicative dimension of their mutual visibility." This means that flesh denotes a shared world, as Merleau-Ponty remarks: "Flesh is a realm, a habitat shared by all beings."

As an indiscernible zone, flesh blurs the anthropocentric division between humans and fellow animals, thus allowing all sentient beings to be included in against the "all too human world view". In fact, flesh, as the gathering of beings, alludes to Earth itself with the connotation of generosity. Between 1956-1960, Merleau-Ponty gave several specific lectures under the title The Concept of Nature in which he directly addressed the nonhuman others and their corporeal presence on the Earth. This was perhaps an admission for "wild beings" to be equally cultivated in the forbidden soil of ontology that has been deeply entrenched in a hierarchical thinking for several thousand years.

In contrast to Sartre's existential analysis of human condition and freedom in order to counter the pervading nihilism of his time, Merleau-Ponty's ontology restores man's vital existence to an enchanting world which is beautifully described by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous:"The sensible world is described as active, animate and in some curious manner, alive: it is not I, when sleep, who breathes, but "some great lung outside myself with alternately calls forth and forces back my breath." Therein lies Merleau-Ponty's version of inter-corporeity. What Merleau-Ponty anticipates is a kind of ontological metamorphosis, the self manifestation of being in a continuous becoming, such a state reflects the dynamics of inter-subjectivity as he illustrates:"It is precisely my body which perceives the body of another, and discovers in that other body, a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions...so my body and other's are one whole being and is already situated in the inter-subjective world."  

In Merleau-Ponty's view, the expression of the body, such as its gestures and vocal uttering, is an open language rooted in the physical world. The language of the body intuits and responses to the intention of others. It's very much like the way animals and children intuit the world without being influenced by cultural signification. Nature is the great Being that participates in an ongoing dialogue with each earth being. For Merleau-Ponty, Nature is independent, free from man's epistemological and technological enframing. The knowledge that we have acquired about the world has significance only for humans, but it is not about the world itself. In defending Nature, he says: "The natural world presents itself as existing in itself, over and above its existence for me...we find ourselves in the presence of Nature which has need to be perceived in order to exist."

Selfhood, The Fundamental way of Animal Being

Generally speaking, the discussion of human-animal relation within the academic circle tends to focus on their distinctions. Derrida, whose main work is to deconstruct Logo-centrism, comments that the usage of the word "animal" fixates various individual beings into a rigid category. But actually, there is no such thing as "animal" but only specific being such as a bee, a fish, a bird, an elephant or a dog...etc. Although Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty didn't go far enough to directly address issues concerning animals, but they did recognize beings as animated and autonomous individuals, not entities operated by reflexivity devoid of sentiency. Heidegger, whose thinking has ventured into the forgotten region of beings, advices us that man needs to give up his arrogance and discrimination, instead, practice humility and receptivity in approaching beings: "If man is to find his way once again into the nearness of Being he must first learn to exist in the nameless...before he speaks man must let himself be claimed again by Being." In Merleau-Ponty's account, dasein is not just a being in-the-world, but a being in the embodied world of flesh, sharing the same finitude with all mortal creatures.  

 

According to professor William McNeill, Heidegger, in his 1929-30 Freiburg lecture courses, specifically acknowledge the sentient and autonomous characters of organism (a being with organs) by contrasting to the instrumental feature of a tool being. The capacity of an organism pertains to its potentiality, that is, its intrinsic tendency "to push forward and transposing itself into its own end" as McNeill puts it, further: "Capacity, as Heidegger now formulates it:"transposes itself into its own wherefore, and does so in advance with respect to itself." What implies here is that an organism  differs from an object in a fundamental way. In Heidegger's view, the autonomous character of a being is marked by its capacity for self-producing, self-regulating and self-renewing. A being or an organism, not only has a will for self-preserving but also capable of self-differentiation from others. In considering these self-like features of a being, McNeill thought that Heidegger did recognize the selfhood (selbstsein) of an animal "by way of analogy with our own selves" as Heidegger himself admitted. For  McNeill:"the term 'organism' is therefore no longer a name for this or that entity at all, but rather designates a particular and fundamental way of being." It is pretty clear that such argument would qualify all sentient beings as having the status of  selfhood.

 

 

Man is Not The Lord of Beings

Heidegger's postwar writings were both a poetic elucidation of the region of beings and a persuasion that urges man to let beings be. And yet, he wrote only fragments in direct reference to animals. Like most continental philosophers, his knowledge of animal studies such as animal communication, consciousness and intelligence was quite limited in the early 1950s. Heidegger thought that there is a difference in world formation between human and other animals, but he was critical of the human-centric behavior. Although human beings have the ability to use of language to form conceptual relation with the world and can anticipate suffering and death in advance, but this does not mean that man can assume a god-like status on this planet. This is further explained by William Barrett: "The emphasis of later Heidegger is not upon man as the active center of Being, but upon Being itself as that which perpetually claims man...Man is not the lord of Being, a creature who transforms and bulldozes the world of nature, rather, he is the shepherd of Being."

In many respects, Heidegger's central tenet, the Being of beings (Being as the gathering of beings), is pregnant with meanings relevant to concrete beings, but their tragic fate also causes great concern. One finds a rare criticism in his Letter to Humanism, it is an accusation regarding the demise of beings directly linked to the various terms associated with humanism: "Is the damage caused by all such terms still not sufficiently obvious?" Obviously, Heidegger was confronting the way living beings are made to conform to a value ordering according to their utility:"Its value is determined by its usefulness and serviceability...in fabricating equipment a human centric mentality." Although humanism implies the rational capacity of our species, but in practice, rational thinking has become an instrument of discrimination, creating an abyss between humans and the nonhuman others. Additionally, Heidegger realizes that there is a causal connection between Western metaphysics and modern science in that both have empowered man's domination over beings. Such a gesture of self-assertion was also observed by Goethe, a celebrated Romantic writer that influenced Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung. His comment on the limitation of science still rings true today:"With the whole of scientific law and experimental medicine, man is no wiser than he was as the spring of life has been smothered."

Following The Wood Path

 

The phenomenological approach provides an access to the potent meaning of ontology and the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty reflects a renewal of the Romantic spirit that celebrates and commemorates the living world. For the poet, Shelly, a being can manifest itself as the full heart of a skylark, the same for Keats, it is the nightingale that sings the voice of the earth. Wordsworth's poem on animal tranquility, marvels the little hedgerow birds, their facial expressions and bodily movements bespeak a peaceful composure. Perhaps someday man would allow the wood path (Holzweg, the title of Heidegger's essay) of animals to take the lead, so we can experience the boundless and unfathomable "open" in all time as Rilke envisioned in his Duino Elegy:

 

If the animal moving towards us so securely

In a different direction had our kind of consciousness

It would wrench us around and drag us along its path

But it feels its life as boundless, unfathomable

And without regard to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze 

And where we see the future, it sees all time

And itself within all time, forever healed.

 

To be is to be inside the great pulse of the Earth, to feel its deep veins that pulsate beneath the visible and the invisible. To ask "What is being?" is to respond to the call of wild beings, to ride with the flapping wings as a lone eagle swirls high above, to become the speed of leaping coyotes across the desert plain, and uncoiling of a snake out of its winter sleep, or listen to the great whales as they recite their epic poems to their young.

 

The return to the sentient world would require humans not to turn their eyes backward like traps to enframe fellow animals, it also points to a way for man to get out of the hostile jungle of machines. I like to end this essay with a poem by Rilke from Book of  Hours. It is both an apology of man's failing to safeguard Nature and an expression of indebtedness.     

 

Dear darkening ground

You've endured so patiently the walls we've built

Perhaps you'll give the cities one more hour before you become forest again

And water, and widening wilderness

In that hour of inconceivable terror

When you take back your name from all things

 

Works Cited:

 

1. Martin Heidegger, Basic Writing. Edited by David Farrell Krell, 1977

2. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.    

    Translated by William Lovitt, 1977

3. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert

    Hofstadter, 2001

4. Bruce V. Foltz, Inhabiting the Earth-Heidegger, Environmental Ethics and the 

    Metaphysics of Nature, 1995 

5. Bruce V. Foltz, Heidegger, Ethics, and Animals, 1992

6. William McNeill, Life Beyond the Organism: Animal Being in Heidegger's Freiburg

    Lectures, 1929-30. From Animal Others-On Ethics, Ontology, and Animal Life.

    Edited by H. Peter Steeves, 1999

7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith,  

    2002

8. Elizabeth A. Behnke, Merleau-Ponty's Concept of Nature, 1999

9. Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1982  

10. Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours. Translated by Anita Barrows and   

     Joanna Macy, 1996

11. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1995 

12. Richard Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, 1994

13. Tao Te Ching, chapter 25 :

有物混成,  先天地生  ,肅兮寥兮  ,獨立而不改  ,周行而不殆  ,可以為天下母,  吾不知其名, 字之日道, 吾強為之,  名日大, 大日逝  ,逝日遠  ,遠日反  ,道大, 天大  ,地大, 王亦大,  國中有四大,  而王居一焉,人法地, 地法天  ,天法道  ,道法自然 

後註:

這篇文章的主旨,是要進一步詮釋海德格的後期思想以及梅洛龐提的現象學,因為兩者

同樣致力於將實存觀念(the notion of being)具体化。其本體論主要是在解構人類中心論

 (Anthropocentrism),將人在地球上從新定位 (re-appropriation) ,為歐陸哲學引進真實

生命的相貌。海德格的思想源頭主要來自古西臘哲學 (pre-Socratic philosophy)。他後期

的理論放棄了對Dasein人的分析,轉向對普遍生命(the Being of beings)多元內含的沉思。

本文便是要從這面向來切入實存(beings)的真義,與地球上所有的生命作連結。梅洛龐提

的肉身觀念 (Flesh) 特具意義,為本體論開啟了一個生命共同體 ( a shared field of being)

的思考理路,將實存從抽象的思辯中釋放出來,化身為具有體性互動 (inter-corporeity)

的感知生命 (sentient beings)通過現象學方法來作哲學的光照(Clearing)

在西方,有關動物的議題一直是被排斥在傳統哲學之外,唯有浪漫主義,比如海德格曾開

課解釋霍德林 (Holderlin) 的詩 "多瑙河",表達了對萬有的尊重。海德格在晚年的思考與

寫作,也傾向詩的隱喻及象徵性,為了回復語言本有豐富的開放性(openness),以突破概

念上的約束,激發非抽象、對立性的靈思。因為我喜愛里爾克 Rilke 的詩,他亦是海德格

欣賞的詩人,便引用他的詩作起首和結尾。

Winter 2012

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