RETURN TO THE SENTIENT
A link to the ontology of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty
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.
Rilke, Duino Elegy, The Eighth Elegy
Rilke's poem, says Heidegger is "The song that sings of this different relation of living beings and of man to the Open". Indeed, these words hold the clue to understand Heidegger's later philosophy regarding the relational aspects of being. The meaning of Open and Gaze progresses in a dialectic manner disclosing the dynamic character of being, and its significance to language, truth, poetry, nature and animals. As a metaphor, "Open" has the connotation of communion with beings. It refers to a portal where animals can escape from traps and cages into a free world. Open also signifies the opening of oneself to life, and a way for man to return to his primordial dwelling. The other word, "Gaze" serves as a point of contact between man and the world. Gazing is equivalent to a "phenomenological seeing" of that which lies in front of us. Truth and being, the essential elements in Heidegger's ontology, are always given together as one gazes into the light of their manifestation. For Merleau-Ponty, to gaze is "to enter a universe of beings" and to co-inhabit their "abodes".
This essay is not an attempt to explicate the whole spectrum of the ontology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, but to explore their ideas, namely, man's relatedness to being as a pathway to deliver "that which is" into a palpable existence, in addition to their criticism of the unreasonable thinking of the conventional philosophy which demands the sensory world to conform to reason, thereby omitting the peculiarity of individual being.
Phenomenology was first developed by Edmund Husserl who was a mathematician influenced by Gottlob Frege in the early 1900'. He later became critical of Frege's scientism, a theory that only logic and mathematics can determine an objective truth. Husserl thought such method limits philosophy as it predetermines its outcome. Instead, he thought that the grounding of truth is located in the intentional act of consciousness without relying on any presupposition. Husserl's phenomenology, as a method of perceiving "what is given in experience", legitimizes the whole range of human experiences. In particular, he was interested in the internal time consciousness. Phenomenology, as a new school of thought in continental philosophy, has been applied to other fields as well such as psychology, sociology and literature.
Husserl introduced the idea of "Lebenswelt" meaning "The life's world", an idea that originates 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, art and science and the world at large. This new approach to knowledge was intended to dissolve the empirical division, the subject and object dichotomy. In Husserl's view, an object is not an isolated entity, it involves a gestalt relation with the world. But Husserl was more concerned with the intentional activities of consciousness yet unable to form a connection to the real world, hence his method could easily falling into a form of solipsism. Having studied Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-ponty, both decided to move away from his transcendental orientation. Rather, they viewed phenomenology as a way to understand the emergence of being and its vital involvement with the real world.
The Greek word "phainomenon" links to the word "light" and "Speech", that language has the power to reveal the light which is the essential character of truth. In this sense, phenomenology, as a way of seeing, allows "that which is" to manifest itself. Merleau-Ponty, a close colleague of Sartre, developed an ontology of the Flesh by adopting phenomenology as a pre-conceptual approach to the question of being. He maintains:
"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. One may well ask how this creation is possible and if it does not recapture in things a pre-existing Reason. The answer is that the only pre-existing logos is the world itself."
What he meant is that the idea of being, no longer a transcendental entity, is located in the sensuous embodiment with the world.
Ontology by Way of Deconstruction
Western philosophy, in Heidegger's view, has been a history of forgetting being. The concept of being, from Aristotle, Kant to the contemporary analytic philosophy, 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 idea "The great chain of Being". It is 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. But Heidegger, who gave classes on Aristotle, disagreed with such assumption of being. In commenting on the western view of being, he says: "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)."
To ask the question "What is Being?", Heidegger thought that one must first trace the question back through the history of being. Most importantly, to locate the un-thought region of Western metaphysics, where one can uncover the original manner of "openness to being" in the Pre-Socratics. In "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking", Heidegger states:
"For every attempt to gain insight into the supposed task of thinking finds itself moved to review the whole history of philosophy".
The Greek word "onto" means "being or that which is". Ontology is the study of being or the logos, meaning the way of reality. The function of language for the early Greeks was to form a rapport with "That which is". This is the reason why Heidegger resorts to etymology as a clearing in order to access a deeper insight. It was not his intention to abolish metaphysics but to retrieve what had been forgotten, the potent meaning of being. As Otto Poggeler suggests, Heidegger's thinking must be understood as "a way into the neighborhood of being"
The notion of being evolves as Heidegger deconstructs traditional metaphysics. The ontological "what is" gradually obtained a more sentient character of "that which is". In the heart of Heidegger's deconstruction was a critic of human centric stance of ordering the natural world.
Merleau-Ponty also rejects the separation between man and beings. Furthermore, he thought that the formulation of categorical 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.
In essence, the ontology of both thinkers is to reverse the antagonistic view towards other beings by intimating beings. All beings are co-arising from the same Earth dwelling, in order to meet and be met, as expressed 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" published in 1927. Why Dasein? Because man is part of the world and the constituting consciousness of the world, who is the only being asks question of Being. Heidegger was primarily concerned with the concrete analysis of Dasein and its temporal characters. Dasein is involved with projects and is always looking to the future. Dasein's facticity includes personal projects, social, political and cultural involvement. Most significantly, Dasein is finite, a being towards death. But in the thirties, Heidegger's thinking switched from Dasein's existentiality to the enquiry of Being (Sein) as the central theme of his ontology.
But what is Being if Heidegger would not allow the access to its meaning by either a readymade concept or a representation (a mental picture)? Being, for Heidegger, has the notion of "origin (der ursprung)", it denotes the first emergence of being from the hidden. Heidegger's ontology harkens back to the way the early Greeks, their direct relation with being. A being could be a tree, an eagle, a horse, a poem or a person. Heidegger claims that: "The ground of beings has since ancient times been called Being, das Ereignis". Being as ereignis means "lit up", it is the way of truth when being reveals itself into the open.
Being is not a substance behind the world of appearance nor a transcendent reality, it is simply a presence. One must keep in mind that the meaning of being evolves as Heidegger extends his enquiry into the natural world in that Being refers to Nature, Earth and animal being. Classical ontology studies the essence of being conceptually but resisted concretizing "that which is" in relation to existence. Whereas the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty explore the living characters of beings thus rescued them from the hollow abstractions and distillation. In response to the question of what being implies, Heidegger's answer is:
"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".
Being, as all encompassing, simply means "that which exists concretely".
The irreducible nature of being bears similarity to Taoism. Heidegger worked with a Chinese scholar to translate the Taoist text "Tao Te Ching" in 1946, and probably thought that the illusiveness of Tao is interchangeable with his notion of Being. For instance, the way of Tao is described 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, nourishes and sustains 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."
In Chinese philosophy, "Tao" refers to a natural course of all existence (the visible) and non-existence (invisible). Tao symbolizes the cosmic vessel that sustains all beings. Similar to the Taoist view, Heidegger advises man to give up his will power and "To let them (beings) be what they are". From the stellar sphere to the earth body, Tao gathers all beings in the hidden and releases them into venturing as they take shapes, "to meet and be met."
Either Being or Tao is not a pure concept, it involves a reciprocal relation with all existence. Between heaven and earth, the Tao encompasses all the myriad beings of Nature. Tao as the great being, has many names, the moon path that circles around the earth, the cycles of the seasons, scents of the dead and the new born, fermenting fruits in the fall, a swelling river from the melting snow. In "The Thinker as Poet", he describes an experience, a profound rapport with Nature as if he were summoned by beings. He writes:
"When on 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 early 20th century, Bertrand Russell asserted that only an ideal language could provide absolute clarity and reliable truth. But such knowledge could not address moral issues, value judgment, political rights, arts, the realm of unconsciousness and human emotions. Heidegger rejects their formalization of truth in accord with scientific reasoning by providing his own view. He asks: "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".
What grants our thinking? According to Heidegger, it is simultaneously linked to the presencing of being. He explains:
"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."
What he suggests is that truth is not about correctness of a mental judgment which puts beings in distant, but rather to build a relation with beings.
The Greek word for truth is Aletheia which means the presence of what is present in unconcealment. It refers to a state when Being emerges as self-revealing, arising from the hidden. For Heidegger, the way to locate the meaning of a word is to get to the etymology of the word, particularly its Greek root. "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 poetic manner found in the writings of Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles and Heraclitus. The ontology of Parmenides was divided into "the way of Truth" and "The Way of Seeming". Truth is being unconceals itself whereas false is when being conceals itself. Heidegger adopts their views and perceives truth as:"truth happens in the temple's standing where it is." In fact, he himself gave several lectures on Parmenides and Heraclitus in the 1940' and early 50'.
Coincidentally, one can find the voice of Parmenides, his invocation 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.
There is a parallel between the
state of truth as the self-illumination and the experience of "suchness" in
Zen Buddhism, and both requires a receptive manner. Likewise, the way of
being resembles the natural path of Tao, both transcend language and
thoughts as described in Tao Te Ching: "The Tao can be spoken is not the Tao
itself" (Tao as the logos or the way). The quiet awareness of Zen is itself
an opening to what is. One may conclude that the way of truth, either
according to Parmenides or the meditative practice of the East, is a
transformation of consciousness.
Language Speaks Man
Linguistic philosophy investigates speech activities as propositions and statements. Richard Kearney, author of "Modern Movements in European Philosophy", explains the reason why he objects such treatment of language. He argues:
"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." He was thinking of liberating language from science.
During the 1920's and 1930's, logical positivism, an early stage of linguistic philosophy, aimed to make logic, mathematics and physics as the model of knowledge. In response, Heidegger set out to deconstruct (de-building) the rational and utilitarian practice of language. He asks:"In what way does language occur as language?". He thought that the question of language is the same as the question of truth. He was not interested in the structure and use of language, but rather, its dimensional manifestation. He describes:
"Language is the primal dimension within which man's essence is first able to correspond at all to Being and its claim."
Because language has the power to inaugurates things and world into man's consciousness.
Jacques Derrida, whose Deconstructionism involves a free play of language as an endless "differance" of meaning, proclaims that deconstruction began with Heidegger. Heidegger often plays out his ideas in a dialectic process which is intended to disrupt the habit of thinking, particularly in exploring the way of language. In the essay "Language", Heidegger introduces the word "dif-ference" as a method of paradoxical reasoning. This method, originated from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, demonstrates that meaning is unstable and is already contained in its opposite. It is precisely this dilemma that enables us to access the full meaning of language. For Heidegger, dif-ference, as an operative principle, deconstructs concepts that are in a binary opposition, at the same time, establishes a bonding. Dif-ference, as a threshold, binds world and things and bids the unnamed beings into nearness. This explains why Heidegger proclaims that it is language that grants the world, because he says: "Language is a bidding, calling the unnamed into the presence."
Parmenides, a major philosopher of the early Greek, had thought that listening to the words of truth is the same as thinking and being. Language and the silence of listening are both take place in stillness. Heidegger endorses such view, he adds: "It is language that needs and uses the speaking in order to sound as the peal of stillness for our listening". Here, the speaking is the language that speaks man. It entails a reversal of which speaking becomes listening. Hermeneutically, listening means to let aletheia take the initiative because being discloses itself only when man gives up the speaking. Aletheia is not definable, it is a presencing in the silence of language. It is a meditation in that one's senses are open to faraway things, the careful steps of a baby fawn into a deep woods, a falling leaf carried by the autumn wind, a flower opening its soft petals and a night owl with its gaze turning toward you as the moon rises. Here, man and the world join together as they are absorbed into the peal of silence.
Poetry, the Heart of Kinship
Heidegger prefers poetry over semantic interpretation because the poetic expression is a form of hermeneutics which has the power to change one's perspectives. In his view, the essence of poetic language is unconcealment. Poetry opens to the life world from its roots. Unlike the technical language that strives to represent entity by approaching from its externality, poetic language befriends beings and responds to their silent tolling with deep listening. He elaborates: "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. He explains:
"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."
As technology makes its close association with science and commerce, it also alters our sense of place and time. The task of poetry, according to Heidegger, is to bid man to return to his earth dwelling. Poetry can create a communal spirit and bring people together, an idea inspired by the Homeric poems as epic poems were intended to bring people together.
To counter the condition of man's straying away from his true belonging, Heidegger offers the idea of dwelling. His essay "Building dwelling Thinking" is specifically written for the modern technological man who is ever searching anew for material things. The meaning of dwelling is to call for man's return to his proper locality on Earth. The etymological meaning of dwelling, explicated by David Farrell Krell, provides us a deeper understanding. He writes:
"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". For Heidegger, to dwell signifies the way we human beings are on the earth."
In other words, all existence is a dwelling on Earth. As a verb, dwelling means becoming home, to make man to make home on earth.
Poetry, for the Romantics, has the magic to transform man's soul and even the whole society. Heidegger's turn to the poetic language comes from a deep sentiment with the German poets such as Goethe, Schiller, Novalis and Holderlin. They were regarded as seers and visionary of their time. In the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution (during the 1800'), the Romantic poetry sought to revive man's spiritual connection with Nature. They defied the reliance on the law of science which confines natural beings to the Newtonian law. In contrast, they glorified the transformative power of imagination as the supreme power of understanding. Poets and artists of the movement found refuges in the tranquil landscape away from urban environment. They were fascinated by the mythical landscape of Greece and also drawn to Schelling's philosophy because it contains all the Romantic themes, such as individual freedom, the pursuit of self knowledge and the spontaneous connection with Nature and animals as they are the giver of meanings to man. Hence, they named Schelling "The prince of the Romantics".
Poets are the troubadours wandering in the realm of beings. They sing myriad songs of the earth, the birds and the beasts. The realm of ontology is full of happenings, rich with meanings only a poet can decipher. This is why Heidegger preferred poetry over speculative language. Albert Hofstadter, who translated Heidegger's "Poetry, Language , Thought", offers his view:
"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."
The World's Night, the Enframing of Beings
Upon witnessing the growing power of technology along with the cold war crisis after World War II, Heidegger turned his "eagle mind" to address the destructive aspect of technology, especially in its connection to Rationalism which has deep roots in physical Science. He criticizes:
"It endangers not only man's own being but also other beings." furthermore, "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."
In his essay on the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin, Heidegger mourns for the loss of the brotherly light of beings and man's enchantment with the world as the days are darkened by the shadows of machines. Technology, the new tyrant on Earth, strip-mines the very meaning of things. The world's night refers to a destitute state, a new form of nihilism. There is a sense of groundlessness that prevails over man's existence. He comments:
"This day is the world's night, rearranged into merely technological day. This day is the shortest day. It threatens a single endless winter. Not only does protection now withhold itself from man, but the integration of the whole of what is remains now in darkness."
The word "science" in Greeks means enquiry. Originally, science means a passion for discovery. Today's sciences are often motivated by profitability. When technology is propelled by the demand of productivity, the question about human relation with Nature is even more urgent. Based on his critical observation, 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 his lectures, "The Enframing", was published with 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. Techne is actually a dimension of human being, however, it also manifests itself in the invention of technologies. Heidegger describes the essence of technology is " enframing (ge-stell)". It converts living things into a "standing reserve (bestand)". Nature and all its beings are ordered to stand by or on call for a further ordering and for easy manipulation and control. One such example is the motorized operation of factory farming where animals are kept as inventory. Technology shrinks living beings into commodity and the entire natural world is made to submit to man's endless demands.
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 transformed itself into a mode excess. As a result, it covers over the truth of Being, blocking its original opening. Such outcome has a causal connection with the metaphysical system that began with Plato. Thus Heidegger concludes that the modern day technology is in fact the completion of Western philosophy. His reason is:
"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."
The technological man is a modern version of the Cartesian man who is cut off from the real world, absorbed in mechanical production and material consumptions. Heidegger attributes this problem to a human centric mentality which glorifies man's infinite power, a stance endorsed by most philosophers including Nietzsche, whose idea, " Ubermensch, the Higher Man", represents man's will to power, the ultimate fulfillment and triumph of human species
Above all, the problem of technology has to do with its mechanistic treatment of nature. Today, science and technology are advancing in a lightning speed. Man's relation with beings is at a crossroad. Man can choose either to be in the company of cold machines or the warmth of the living beings. Realistically, man can no longer go back to a tribal culture. What Heidegger argues is that technological invention and application should not be taken as a dominant activities and that eventually, man will come to term with his own alienation and begin to restore his natural connection with beings. Bruce V. Foltz clarified Heidegger's view in his book "Inhabiting the Earth":
"Heidegger sees technology as bound up with the very texture of Western thought; rather than prescribing a retreat from it, he argues that it is only through our coming to terms with technology that the horizon of what he calls a "new beginning" can emerge. "
The Great Reversal
Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose metaphysical dualism splits reality and being into two kinds of substances, the mind as the cogito substance and the body, a mere biological entity with spatial extension which is controlled by the law of motion. He also thought that man has reason and intelligence, whereas animals are automata, their sensory faculties are governed by a mechanical law. Thus, animal can be experimented with and dissected, their screams of pain are merely the sound of machines. Descartes' theory justified the physical science and the study of anatomy at that time. But his dualistic division of beings is refuted by Merleau-Ponty. In his main work "The phenomenology of Perception" published in 1945, Merleau-Ponty endeavored to reverse Descartes' "I think therefore I am" to a theory in which the body is the cogito. Instead of attributing the thinking mind as the cogito, Merleau-Ponty designates the body as the primary locus of perception. In other words, the cogito is located in the body and is always intertwined with other bodies. This was his way of breaking out of the Cartesian solipsism where reality and thoughts are sealed inside a mind separated from the living world. The new ontology seeks its meaning in the concrete and finite world that precedes conceptualization.
Merleau-Ponty also rejects traditional Realism and Idealism, as well as the Positivist's definition of truth. He thought that their foundational philosophy has wedded to science, lacking resemblance to the real world. As for their question "whether the world is real?" His answer is: "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." Merleau-Ponty discovered Husserl's phenomenological method in the early thirties. He incorporated the method into his study of man's immediate experience of the lived world (Lebenswelt) through the intentional act of consciousness. Like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty rejects the idea that reason is the absolute measure of objective truth. He argues that a logician cannot tell us the truth about the world because his view lacks emotional meaning and signification. He thought that justice is needed to acknowledge all elements of human experience, particularly the sensual experience of man's interaction with the world. Not that he denies the value and function of science, but it needs to remain in its own field and best to leave the world of beings "opaque".
What Merleau-Ponty offers to us is a kind of ontological metamorphosis of beings. In his essay "The theory of the body is already a theory of perception", he describes the body is the primordial habitation of consciousness as well as the origination of our knowledge of the world. The facticity of the body is in its inter-woven with the world and things. He elaborates:
"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".
The point Merleau-Ponty tries to make is that beings are not isolated entities, but rather in a relation of mutual belonging. This is his way of converting the Cartesian doubt, the mistrust of beings, to a trusting relation, in that man and world choose each other.
Merleau-Ponty's great reversal of Descartes' dualism is revolutionary. It overturns a mechanistic view of Western philosophy in which beings are taken out of their natural places, creating a discontinuity between man and other living beings. In Merleau-Ponty's bio-ontology, the notion of body takes on a sentient nature. He says:"The body can symbolize existence because it realized it and is its actuality". The body is conscious being with an intention to connect, it articulates and resonates with other bodies. Each body is an opening for beings to touch and be touched. Unlike Heidegger's being appears to be obscure, Merleau-Ponty's notion of being is animated with flesh and blood as sentient beings.
The Perception of Inter-subjectivity
Phenomenology is the study of mental act which involves a perceptual field which directly links to the life world. Such method enables Merleau-Ponty to explore the dynamics of the actual happening of perception experientially. Thus opens a whole new perspective on human cognitive process because each perception is not limited to one single experience but a relational event. In his "Phenomenology of Perception", Merleau-Ponty describes:
"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."
Perception is not a demarcation of a subject/object dichotomy, rather, it is involved within a unified field of inter-subjectivity.
In "The Visible and the Invisible", Merleau-Ponty expresses his appreciation of Heidegger's work of recovering the meaning of Being and the idea of truth in accord with the early Greeks. He himself incorporated the notion "gaze" into his theory of perception. For Merleau-Ponty, there is no objective truth because perceptive experience is unique for each being and is always situated. In other words, perception is an engagement with the world through bodily senses such as the audio and visual apparatus input. Every perception is an act of sensing and gazing, to summon the light of being. Through the "gaze", a fresh landscape "opens" before our eyes. The trees and grass grow as they gaze into the sky, wild animals gaze the alternating light of the sun and the moon and live in harmony with one another, and humans behold the changing colors of seasons as they conduct their activities.
All beings have their perceptive ways of knowing and are mutually involved with one another through a sensible body. As Merleau-Ponty describes:
"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."
The sentient world is utterly conscious and active. Humans can rejoin the world by opening their perceptual fields to the gaze and voice of other earth bodies.
Merleau-Ponty's ontological formation of the embodied being is indeed significant. In "Primacy of Perception" published in 1952, he emphasized that the perceiving mind is an incarnated mind. It is imbedded in the vital body. Further, Merleau-Ponty introduced the idea of flesh as the locus of his ontology. It was discussed extensively in his unfinished book " The Visible and the Invisible". Flesh has multiple implications. Ontologically, flesh is both a primordial substance of Being preceding particular beings, and the connective tissue that gives shapes to sentient beings. The intertwining nature flesh serves to dissolve the division between transcendental idealism and empiricism. It enables the ontological Being to seek corporeal fulfillment.
As the ground of beings, flesh portrays the sustaining character of the Earth. In a course Merleau-Ponty gave between 1956-1960, he clarified: "Flesh is a realm, a habitat shared by all beings". What it implies is that Flesh, as an indiscernible zone between humans and other animals, can blur the conventional division. Merleau-Ponty's theory of flesh is the very first attempt to endorse sentient beings and the corporeal world as the subject of ontology. It acknowledges beings in a natural setting and helps connecting ontology to a greater world inhabited by equally sensible beings besides human beings. Unlike conventional metaphysics, living beings never got a fair hearing of their presence on Earth.
In contrast to Sartre's existential analysis of human being within the context of historical, cultural and political affairs, and inter-personal conflicts of self and others, Merleau-Ponty's ontology transcends human affairs. He aims to uncover man's being- in-the sentient world. It is beautifully described by David Abram, in his "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."
The expression of the body is like an open language and is rooted in Nature. It intuits the intention of other bodies, very much like the way animals and children intuit the world outside cultural signification. Nature is the great Being that participates in an ongoing dialogue with all earth beings. For Merleau-Ponty, Nature is independent, free from man's epistemological and technological grip. In defending Nature, he holds that:
"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''.
As a species, human kind prefers to live in a self-made world, walled off from other beings, bereft of genuine connection with the flesh of the Earth. But realistically, it is we humans need to collaborate with Nature for survival. In Merleau-Ponty's view, our knowledge and experience of the world have significance only for us, however, human existence is not complete without being touched and recognized by other beings.
And the Animals Go There
In 1942, Heidegger gave a course on the poem "Der Ister , The Danube River" by Friedrick Holderlin (1770-1843) who was a colleague of Hegel and Schelling. Heidegger felt a great affinity with Holderlin's poetry and shared the same nostalgia for the Pre-Socratic Greek, a time when human and animals were all connected, and Nature was regarded as the very source of life giving. Holderline, a thinker in his own right, who viewed Nature as the source of spiritual inspiration. He declared:
"The world of Nature is a world which is consciousness's own encompassing object, soaked with value and replete with nourishment."
Holderlin privileges poetry over philosophy because he thought poetry could grasp the whole of reality, hence it is the way of truth. His view of poetry became a chief interest for Heidegger which led to his further elaboration of poetry as a clearing of Being. Der Ister, according to Heidegger, symbolizes the journey of the river as well as a dwelling detached from human ordinance. The poem portrays the generosity of the river as it provides sustenance for all beings. The final part of the poem depicts man's homecoming by following the footsteps of wild animals to the river. Although what the river does is forever unknown to man's groping 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."
The celebration of the great Earth Being is the central theme of the Romantic Poetry. There is reason to believe that their notion of Earth is close to the idea of Gaia. The poem "Der Ister" can be made more revealing if we compare to the ancient Homeric Hymn "To Earth, Mother of All". Here, the opening stanza expresses a profound gratitude to the Mother Gaia:
Gaia, All-mother will I sing! Revered
Firm- grounded nourisher of everything on earth.
Whatever traverses holy earth or the seas
Or climbs the air enjoys your dispensation.
From you sprout fine fruits and offspring;
Lady, you have power to give mortal men life
Or take it. But happy those you care for in
Your heart; all is generously present to them.
Beneath Heidegger's acquiescent
reflection on the poem, is an persuasion that urges man to let beings be.
Man is the Shepherd of Beings
Heidegger wrote only fragments in direct reference to sentient beings, he thought that there is a difference in world formation between humans and other animals. Humans have the ability to use of language to form ontological relation with the world and can also anticipate suffering and death in advance. Nevertheless, the underlying implication of his central tenet, the Being of beings (Being as the gathering of beings), is pregnant with meaning relevant to concrete earthly beings.
In "The Origin of the Art Work of Art", Heidegger resonates with the painting "A pair of peasant shoes" by Van Gogh as it reflects the simple life of old world peasants and their close connection with the Earth, and he reveals a profound attunement with the rural landscape:
"From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome thread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes, there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by raw wind, on the leather lies the dampness and the richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent the silent call of the earth...".
There is also a sense of moral implication in his writings after his turn against the pervasive anthropocentric mentality as expressed in his words:" Man is not the lord of Beings, man is the shepherd of beings". Heidegger points out that there is a causal connection between Western metaphysics and modern technology that have led man to a wrong path. Today, science has succeeded in partner with technology in its control and manipulation of the natural world. Goethe's comment on the limitation of science still rings true today. He said:
"With the whole of scientific law and experimental medicine, man is no wiser than he was as the spring of life has been smothered".
Heidegger's postwar essays serve as a sustained criticism of man's self-estrangement from the natural world. Once, during one of his seminars, Heidegger held up a piece of tree bark and remarked: "There is more philosophy in this piece than there is in all the philosophy books ever written." His view is not very different from that of the present day environmental ethics. In his comment on the technological enframing of being, he laments:
"Its value is determined by its usefulness and serviceability...in fabricating equipment a human centric mentality."
To summarize, a brief recap of Heidegger's later thoughts as a defense of beings is necessary. Firstly, Heidegger thought that it is being that grants us the way to truth and there can be no separation between being and truth. Each being is a conscious self, can either conceal or reveal itself outside man's validation. He clarifies: "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." Secondly, he proposes that the way to language is through poetry because it is the language of the heart. It can form kinship with beings and to invite beings into a warm and brotherly light. Thirdly, He questions the conventional thinking which puts beings in distance, instead, thinking is to give thanks. The German word "an-denken", to think on, also means to remember. According to Heidegger, the act of thinking is both a remembering and thanking. Richard Kearney in "Modern Movements in European Philosophy" explains Heidegger's view that the most essential form of thinking is thanking. He states:
"The thinking which Heidegger counsels is a non-objectifying, non-systematic, non-calculative receptivity which enters the play of Being by giving thanks..."
He also thought that thinking is to think what was un-thought. It is like coming to a clearing in the woods, it opens the whole realm of beings that exists in a state of "harmonia".
Generally speaking, ethical discussions on the humans-animals relation within the academic circle (from Plato to Kant) tend to focus more on their distinctions. In contrast, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, with their complementary view on Being, endeavored to dissolve the demarcation of the two through the notion of inter-relatedness. Thus facilitated an empathetic towardness to beings. They both championed for the natural world by proposing an ontological openness to beings, the sky and Earth, the forests and animals.
The full implication of flesh elaborated by Merleau- Ponty bears resemblance of a natural philosophy which favors the concretization of beings. Metaphorically, being or flesh, in each case, implies a sentient consciousness of being. Such recognition of beings did exist in a time before a distinction was drawn between humans and non-human animals. Unfortunately, throughout history the word "animal" inherited a derogative connotation as inferior being. Derrida, whose main work is to deconstruct Logocentrism, asserts that the use of the word "animal" is to force each sentient being into a category which is the same as partaking in the violence that humans exercise toward other kinds. For instance, the slaughter houses and their industrial treatment of non-human beings. According to Derrida, there is no such thing as "animal" but only specific individual being such as a bee, a monkey, or a dog...etc.
It is the adventuring into "what once was here", the forgotten region of beings that sets ontology in motion, linking philosophy to what was un-thought. Precisely, it was the hermeneutic discourse of Heidegger along with Merleau-Ponty's metamorphosis of being that gave impetus to a new way of doing philosophy. Their work, as an effort to liberate Nature from a mechanical law, marks a renewal of the Romantic spirit which champions the truth of the heart and the commemoration of all living beings. 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.
Perhaps someday man would allow the wood path (Holzweg, the title of Heidegger's essay) of other beings to take the lead 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.
The beings of the non-human world have nothing to do with our utilitarian needs. Only a receptive and spacious mind can enter the tactile dimension of their world. Such state is described by Wordsworth in his poem about animal tranquility that how he marvels the little hedgerow birds, their facial expressions and bodily movements bespeak a peaceful composure.
To be is to be inside the great pulse of the earth, pulsating like deep veins that stretch into the realms of the visible and the invisible. To ask "What is being?" is to have a dialogue with the corporeal world and to respond to its calls by rejoining the chorus of beings, to ride with the flapping wings as a lone eagle swirl above a snowy peak, to feel 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 is perhaps the only way for man to get out of the jungle of machines. I shall end this piece with a poem by Rilke from his "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