For Merleau-Ponty, any encounter with an Other is preceded by a pre-cognitive, pre-linguistic encounter with otherness in the form of anonymous others whom we encounter as a part of an objectively shared word. No longer there simply for me, the world and the things found therein immediately point us to their use value by others. Moreover, when these others appear, our objectively apprehended world gets sucked into their sphere of influence, and we loose our center. As Merleau-Ponty describes:
"Round about the perceived body a vortex forms, towards which my world is drawn and, so to speak, sucked in: to this extent, it is no longer merely mine, and no longer merely present, it is present to x, to that other manifestation of behaviour which begins to take shape in it. Already the other body has ceased to be a mere fragment of the world, and become the theatre of a certain process of elaboration, and, as it were, a certain ‘view’ of the world. There is taking place over there a certain manipulation of things hitherto my property. Someone is making use of my familiar objects. But who can it be? (411-12)
The other is a theater for the elaboration of a drama not of our own making. The mere existence of an Other takes us outside of our bodies and ourselves. As we are drawn into their world of concern, we forget ourselves and our concerns. We come to be out there in the world, and as Merleau-Ponty suggests, the world comes to inhabit us. in other words, the other doesn't just present us with the data of other consciousnesses like ours existing in the world, but the other affects us and acts upon us, as if love stricken.
The other is first of all perceived as a body, but this is no mere object. The lived body of subjects is characterized by the reversibility of being both object and subject simultaneously. (For example, think of how you can simultaneously grasp your own hand, and be both grasping and grasped.) A special kind of object, the lived body of the other exhibits behaviors much like our own. More specifically, it can leave marks and traces as vestiges, and produces the space in which it moves by shaping its environment. In a somewhat cryptic but very suggestive passage, Merleau-Ponty writes:
"The very first of all cultural objects, and the one by which all the rest exist, is the body of the other person as the vehicle of a form of behaviour. Whether it be a question of vestiges or the body of another person, we need to know how an object in space can become the eloquent relic of an existence; how, conversely, an intention, a thought or a project can detach themselves from the personal subject and become visible out- side him in the shape of his body, and in the environment which he builds for himself." (406)
As a cultural artifact (which means that it is produced through cultural means), the body of the other can be interpreted or read for its significance. The simplest way to understand this is to take the example of the athlete or the dancer, off of whose bodies we can read the athleticism and poise produced through the way they use their bodies. Their bodies are an expression of their life’s work. Or we may read the calloused worker's hands to mean that they world work with their hands. Even the lack of marks and traces says something about the other....
Furthermore, bodily attitudes communicate something about our psychological state - for example, if we are feeling defeated, we slump in our frames; when we are excited, our bodies exude with energy. If we are pricked, our facial expression and bodily wincing can communicate that sharp, sudden experience of pain. So bodies, like inert objects, can be “read” for the significance that they communicate against a cultural backdrop. In fact, our bodies may communicate and know what we have not (or cannot) consciously register, even against our wishes.
Finally, Merleau-Ponty here suggests that the environment in which we find ourselves and others is produced, in part, through the Other's activities in and through that space. We are not just sucked into a psychological vortex when we encounter others, but the vortex may well be physical, around a whirl of activity not our own. It is as if our bodies are pencils that leave marks and traces, and that shape the space we inhabit.
Our Encounter With Primordial Otherness Structures Our Subjectivities
Prior to conscious thought, prior to an exchange with a particular Other, the human world is there for us. There is no human world that does not always already include others, and it would be very difficult to imagine a meaningful world devoid of others. This is where Merleau-ponty makes his biggest move: primordial otherness structures my subjectivity because the other comes across as completing a system (or lifeworld, as Husserl would put it). Merleau-Ponty re-narrates the encounter with otherness as follows:
“I say that it is another, a second self, and this I know in the first place because this living body has the same structure as mine. I experience my own body as the power of adopting certain forms of behaviour and a certain world, and I am given to myself merely as a certain hold upon the world; now, it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of deal- ing with the world. Henceforth, as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously." (411-12)
Much like I recognize that all the parts of my body arranged in working order make up the unity I call my body, the hereto anonymous other forms a part of the unity of the world in which I find myself, and is in fact a necessary condition for my coming to consciousness as a subject.
In this way, Merleau-Ponty gets back behind Husserl's lifeworld to suggest a prior encounter with otherness as a condition for the possibility for subjectivity. We are not first of all distinct from this world and others, but form a unity with them from which we later come to separate out our own individual subjective sense of self. Any encounter with a specific Other has as its backdrop a primordial encounter with, or connection to otherness. (In Merleau-Ponty, a background is that against which interpretations can be made.)
Merleau-Ponty puts it most clearly in the following quote:
"Between my consciousness and my body as I experience it, between this phenomenal body of mine and that of another as I see it from the outside, there exists an internal relation which causes the other to appear as the completion of the system. The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake." (410)
And later he will add this:
“In reality, the other is not shut up inside my perspective of the world, because this perspective itself has no definite limits, because it slips spontaneously into the other’s, and because both are brought together in the one single world in which we all participate as anonymous subjects of perception." (411)
The word “imbricated” is often used to describe this situation, and this phenomenological description is meant to give a new starting point from which to overcome the problem of solipsism - of a subject that is shut up in itself, and the reality of whose world is in question precisely because it cannot be verified. Husserl preserves the subject/object inside/outside division intact in his account, a strategic solipsim he adopts in over to overcome it, but arguably his transcendental subject is never able to fully overcome the split. Merleau-Ponty overcomes the mind/body subject/object split by denying it outright, arguing that the body/self is simultaneously subject and object, and that “the world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside of myself.” (474)
Quotes Source: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge) 2005.
This week's thinkPhilosophy podcast episode was on "The Provocations of Existentialism," wherein we returned to Sartre's existentialist ideas and brought Sartre's ideas into contact with those of previous thinkers with whom we have engaged - namely Beauvoir and Appiah. This blog post is a written meditation on this podcast session, but before we get started, an apology:
After I posted the podcast session I realized that it was not only too long, but that I did engage in some rambling, so I went back and cut a tangential discussion on Kant and some other random parts. I wanted to shorten and make the main issues clearer. Unfortunately, I accidentally left in one mention of Kant that will seem rather random to listeners - please ignore this mention of Kant, and carry on!
Okay, now to the matter at hand: Why is Existentialism provocative?
In "Existentialism Is A Humanism," Sartre is most obviously provoking the religious (Catholic) French majority, including theist Existentialists, by repeatedly asserting Atheism at the heart of his Existentialism. Second, he is also provoking humanists not only by making a claim to being a humanist, but by redefining what lies at the heart of humanism - the belief in a common, underlying human nature as the basis for moral judgement. For Sartre, there is no such human nature that can be assumed, but any such agreement or commonality is an achievement of mankind and history. No doubt, Sartre's essay does continue to aggravate theists on the right and secular, liberal humanists.
But Sartre's Existentialism is and should be personally provocative to each and every one of us. How is this? Recall that the basic tenet of existentialism is that "existence precedes essence" and how this is explained: we are compelled to make choices in a situation where we cannot know the outcome or consequences in advance, and in making choices and acting in the world (or even if we do not!), we are not only choosing for ourselves, but for all of humanity.
It is at this point that existentialism should begin to make us uncomfortable. In a world where we have been taught to resolve our differences by saying "you have your way and i have mine, and we can simply agree to disagree," Sartre is peace wrecker. In choosing our ways and acting as we see fit, we foreclose other possibilities that are available to us, and in doing this we are judging between options as to what is best. That is, as Sartre makes very clear, we legislate for the world in which we wish to live with the affirmation and negations entailed in our choices and actions. This is no small matter.
This means that if you work at a soul sucking job but you rationalize it by saying that it gives you the comforts and security of a steady paycheck, you are legislating for, and creating a world in which it is okay for humans to spend the majority of their lives at work that is meaningless -- or worse, contraindicated by their values, interests, or otherwise harmful to the self, others, or the environment. You are choosing comfort and security in life over freedom, and in Hegel's terms, you are choosing and advocating for a "slave" mentality to predominate.
What does it mean to take responsibility in this situation? Existentialism cannot tell us what to do, but it can tell us to examine our choices and actions; and it also tells us that an appreciation of the contradictions of our lives will cause us to feel anxious. Feeling existential angst doesn't mean there is something wrong with us, but it means there is something right in our orientation. Sartre doesn't pull his punches, and it is at this point that you might decide it's okay to "shoot the messenger," as they say.
Recall also that he describes the despair generated by our human situation: we cannot know in advance that our choices are good or right. To take an example from our personal lives, this means that a person that you trust and love may end up betraying your trust and spitting on your devotion. This is so common that it is a wonder any of us ever trust and love one another. Given this, how can we trust ourselves to make good judgements, about a personal matter or otherwise? We cannot, and thus the despair we feel conditions our very existence.
The bottom line is that the world is largely indifferent to your success or failures. There is no one to care except that you care and it’s your life. And by extension, others who care about you care because you care. If you don’t care, no one else will nor can you expect anyone else to care. And that is the rub: it is your life.
Existentialism will either make you feel heavy and distrustful of yourself and others, or it will free you to live your life in the spirit of experimentation and in a mode of authentic self-reflection.
Sartre and Appiah
This essay is also provocative if you bring it into an encounter with Antony Appiah’s essay "But Would That Still Be Me?" They are actually talking about similar things, but they are also on different planets - that is, from the perspective of Sartre, Appiah’s question doesn’t even make sense. Remember that Appiah is looking for an underlying essence, that which perdures across significant personal change. He asks: would it still be me my sex, gender, race, or ethnicity were to change?
But for the existentialist, there is no essence to be sought prior to our living, choosing, and acting in the world. So whatever sex Appiah is assigned at birth, whatever gender he ends up adopting, these are not meaningful except in so far as they are chosen by, and become meaningful for him.
Sartre would probably say to Appiah: there is no essential identity prior to your existence; whatever "sex" (or the other categories) is, it is nothing outside of the world of human relations through which it acquires meaning. No one but us cares about human differences like sex, gender, race, and ethnicity, so these are human facts, not only or even primarily biological facts.
We can also give a critique of Sartre coming from the Appiah piece because Sartre uses “man” in the generalized sense that implies universality, but what if replaced that “man” in Sartre’s essay with “woman,” would it still be the same essay? Probably not, especially as we are not used to reading "woman" as a universal subject. Notice how immediately the assumed universality of Sartre's "man" is put into question as well.
What if we were to bring race and ethnicity in to the account? "Man" is not racially marked in Sartre’s account, so this means that it’s an unmarked man, which is to say an unproblematically “white” man to who Sartre addresses himself. Is this a problem for Sartre and Existentialism? Is this "man" every man, or does it refer to a very particular conception of masculinity that is premised on a "manly man's" will to power articulated as a domination of other men, women, children, animals, and nature?
Sartre and Beauvoir
When Beauvoir asserts that "one is not born but becomes a woman," she is reformulating the existential dictum that existence precedes essence. Contrary to popular belief, woman's being cannot be reduced to a biological essence or a feminine mystique. Her existence is also given meaning by the choices and actions she takes in the world, and it is in this sense that it is women's responsibility to think through women's existence in and through women's experiences - a task hereto undone. But Beauvoir's analysis in The Second Sex does also offer a critique of Sartre's assumption of "man" as the subject of existentialism:
Beauvoir points out that whereas "man" (the concept) carries a positive or neutral charge, the concept of woman is the negation of the concept of man. Where man is rational, woman is emotional; where man is strong, woman is the weaker sex; whereas man is transcendent, woman is defined by immanence. It is this latter comparison that is most problematic for Sartre's explanation of existentialism as a humanism.
Recall that, in the end, Sartre redefines finds the basis for humanism not with a common human nature, but with a common human situation, of man's existence in the Heideggerian sense of a temporal ek-stasis. We have examined Sartre's use of the Aristotelian concept of "essence," but we have yet to fully articulate his use of the Heideggerian conception of "existence," the second term in existentialism's basic tenet (existence precedes essence).
To this end, we will turn to examine "Part Four" of Heidegger's Being and Time in next week's podcast, so tune in next Tuesday March 10 for a continuing discussion!
In this week's podcast episode, we explored Jean-Paul Sartre's gem of an essay, "Existentialism Is A Humanism." In this essay, Sartre answers his critics on the political left and the religious right by explaining how existentialism does not lead to quietism, is optimistic rather than pessimistic, and does not reduce man to a solitary, solipsistic being. He explains the most basic tenet of existentialism: existence precedes essence. Along the way, he explicates the three moods that permeate existence - anguish (or existential angst), abandonment, and despair. In the end, we also took a closer look at his comments on intersubjectivity and man's self-surpassing. Below is a review of the content of this podcast, after which I want to make some further comments on the provocations of Existentialism.
Sartre’s “Existentialism Is A Humanism"
Sartre’s essay "Existentialism Is A Humanism" is based on a lecture that he delivered in Paris in October of 1945, right on the heals of the end of World War II. Much to his chagrin, it has become the most widely read of his works, as it provides readers with a great introduction to Existentialism. In it, we find Sartre answering his critics’ charges that:
Sartre begins his defense by making a distinction between theist and atheist existentialists, saying that some of the confusion about existentialism stems from confusing these. Atheist Existentialism, of which he is a representative, originates from the French reading of Heidegger’s Existential Phenomenology in Being and Time. (Other French readings of Heidegger will emerge, such as with Derrida’s poststructuralist account, or with Levinas’ account of the Other, but more on this in later podcasts and blogposts.) Sartre’s Existentialism takes it’s point of departure from the non-existence of any authority superior to mankind, i.e. God. But all existentialists agree on the basic tenet of existentialism that existence precedes essence. In order to understand the meaning of this, Sartre will need to school us on the artisanal model below.
“Existence Precedes Essence” Leading To Abandonment, Angst, and Despair
What it means for something to exist is normally taken from an artisanal model found in Aristotle’s Physics:
Following Heidegger’s most basic critique of Aristotle, according to which this understanding of being reduces being to things and embodies a technological view of the world in terms of production, Sartre will assert that unlike things produced in the world, there is no pre-given essence or end of man. That there is no God means that man is forlorn, abandoned to himself and his own freedom with no higher authority to justify his actions and choices. This sense of abandonment also leads to anguish (or existential angst) and despair. Below is a gloss of these three “moods” that permeate our human existence:
Despite the negative resonance of these moods, Existentialism is a rather optimistic philosophy. How is that? Because it gives man the power to create meaning for himself, and the permission to create, with others, man’s “nature” as a history of man’s best ideas and achievements. Sartre has also shown how his brand of existentialism does not lead to quietism, but is the greatest of encouragements to take ones’ choices and actions seriously, and to act on the basis of one’s convictions. It is action that defines man’s life, a direct contradiction of the quietist, apathetic person who lets others do what he sees himself as powerless to achieve. But it is the last charge that is most difficult to answer:
Intersubjectivity, and Sartre's Rejection of the Cartesian Cogito
The last charge against Existentialism is the most serious, and it proceeds from an unnamed kind of critic - that is, from other philosophers. That charge, you will recall, is that Existentialism takes man in isolation, that it is a “subjectivism.” Sartre answers this charge by pointing out that the subject taken up by existentialism is not the solipsistic, Cartesian subject, but the Hegelian subject that embodies within it’s own perspective a recognition of the Other, and the world that comes along with this recognition. Near the end of the essay, he writes:
Man’s subjectivity is one that includes within it the recognition of the Other, and through the other of an external world. Moreover, for the existentialist subject the problematic that frames his human existence is not Descartes’ question of “what can I know with certainty" (or, epistemology), but that of how action in the world defines my existence, and by extension, that of human kind.
Man' s Self-Surpassing
At this point, you may ask yourself: Has Sartre answered the question implied in the title of his essay: How is Exitentialism (or how could it be considered) a humanism. And this is where, I believe, things get a little scandalous. We find Sartre redefining the very meaning of humanism out from under the humanists themselves:
“But there is another sense of the word [humanism], of which the fundamental meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation (sic), that man can realize himself as truly human.”
According to traditional humanism, underneath all of our differences there lies a shared human “nature” that allows us to uphold common values and ideals. You don’t need God to tell you not to kill other men, if you can put yourself in another’s shoes and realize that you yourself value your life and would not wish to be killed. Human rights are based on just such a secular understanding of humanism.
But the other sense of humanism to which Sartre points here is arguably a much more radical view, and that is the idea of a shared human condition or situation. This situation is what Heidegger describes as being thrown in the world, what he describes as the ex-tasis and temporality of Being. But in order to understand this, we must turn to Being and Time.
Tune in on March 10th, 2015 for the first part of thinkPhilosophy podcast episode on Hediegger's Being and Time. Next week, on March 3rd, we'll expand this discussion with as session on "The Provocations of Existentialism."
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Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) is a seminal text for both feminist philosophy and second wave feminism. In her "Introduction: What Is A Woman?," Beauvoir provides us with a philosophical framework for understanding women's political, economic, and social subjugation as a class. This is the subject of the latest thinkPhilosophy podcast session (take a listen here), which I elaborate upon below.
Everywhere Beauvoir turns, she notes that there is great controversy surrounding women in society: Women are disappearing; they aren't what they used to be; women have lost their way. Instead of engaging in these debates, Beauvoir attempts to get under the assumptions animating them by asking after theconcept of woman. There are two kinds of answers that are commonly given to the question and Beauvoir will show us why neither is sound.
The most common answer to the question, "What is a woman?," is that "woman is womb," a reduction of women to her biological capacity for reproduction. Beauvoir argues against this particular answer because, if true, then being a woman is a matter of kind, not of degree. If woman is womb, then you either have a womb/are a woman, or you are not. There would be no room for judgements over the quality or degree of women in society, and no controversy or need to investigate the matter.
The second kind of answer commonly given to our question identifies women with a feminine ideal - the "eternal feminine." But like a Platonic Form, femininity does not exist on earth except as embodied in imperfect women - it has no independent, real existence. If this is the case, if woman equals femininity, then logically speaking there are no real women, since no flesh and blood woman could ever achieve the ideal. Moreover, being a woman is not something that is finally achieved - as in waking up one morning realizing that one has accomplished the goal and if finished, moving on to other goals. As Beauvoir later writes, "one is not born, but becomes a woman," a quote we will examine in an upcoming podcast session and blog post.
[A note about language: Beauvoir here makes a distinction that is more easily made in English - that between sex and gender. Sex is identified with biology and gender with cultural norms, like the elusive feminine ideal. This sex/gender distinction will become the basis for most second wave feminist analyses and is key to understanding the modern feminist movement.]
Woman as Other
So if woman cannot be conceived of as womb and reduced to her reproductive function, nor as an essentialized femininity, then what is woman? Beauvoir asks her question anew, now that she has cleared the ground of common but mistaken approaches to the question. Her answer is that woman is Other with respect to man, but as to what kind of Other woman is, that is yet to be determined.
She is not like those subjugated economically by a rich and powerful minority, as is the case with the working class. Neither is she like a minority population subjugated by a majority, as is the case with racialized oppression. In fact, she is neither a clear minority nor majority, so her asymmetrical relation to man cannot be accounted for quantitatively. Unlike these others, women are not able to form a sense of themselves as a separate group with specific interests since they are not physically segregated, living in close quarters or in proximity to each other. They are spread out amongst men in society, and so are physically segregated from each other.
In fact, women are more likely to identify with the men of their class, race, or religion rather than identifying with other women of different classes, races, or religions. In what is a controversial moment of this introduction, Beauvoir says that women may even pleased with the role of the Other that is assigned to them from without, and that their dependence on men for everything means that it is difficult for women to imagine that their interests may lie elsewhere.
Woman's is Other in a more primordial, metaphysical sense than the examples above, where the origin of oppression can be traced back to a moment in history, to human events and actions - e.g., the rise of capitalism or the transatlantic slave trade. The origins of sexual difference fall outside of history, or are ahistorical, which point to this being difference in a metaphysical sense - a difference that structures reality and subjectivity itself.
According to Beauvoir's analysis, woman must be an Other in the sense described by Hegel in his master/slave dialectic: the concept of woman is constituted as the "slave" consciousness to man's "master" consciousness. I will explain this in more detail in the next podcast, which will be on Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), but here is the skinny: woman must come to realize man's dependence on her (that man/woman are co-constituted, asymmetrical differences) and come to make a counter claim. That is, when women assert that men are Other with respect to them, then a woman's standpoint will emerge to make women's economic, political, and social projects possible.
The power of this analysis has been proven by time, and it has also generated numerous critiques of Beauvoir and of feminism itself. Can you think of what critiques could be made of these ideas, so far? We will return to this text in a couple weeks, so stay tuned for more!
Like any other powerful texts, Beauvoir's The Second Sex is a platform from which liberal feminism, marxist/socialist feminism, radical feminism, continental feminism, and feminist schools begin. Liberal feminists see individualism, choice, and equality at the heart of Beauvoir's existential analysis. Marxist and Socialist feminists see an argument about women needing to come to consciousness as a class; Radical feminists hear an argument about sexuality being the key to women's oppression. And continental feminists read her as making an argument about sexual difference as primordial difference. In short, the roots of nearly all second wave feminist tendencies can be traced back to Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
This is a snippet of a lecture on Heidegger's "The Thing" that introduces Phenomenology. The motto of Phenomenology is "To the things themselves," meaning a return to the examination of what we know from the perspective of human experience. Taking it from here, I tell a short story about how Phenomenology makes it across to France and becomes Existential Phenomenology - or, as the French interpretation of Heidegger's works is more commonly known, Existentialism.
[Please Note, this is very short and does not go too much in depth, but I thought some of you might enjoy it anyways!]
Learn More Here:
First Introduction to Existential Phenomenology
Original Works In Existential Phenomenology: Heidegger, Sartre, Beuavoir, and Merleau-Ponty
Heidegger's Being and Time: A Revised Edition of the Stambaugh Translation (SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy)
Sartre's Being and Nothingness
Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness': A Reader's Guide
Sartre's Existentialism Is a Humanism
Simone de Beauvoir's The Ethics Of Ambiguity by de Beauvoir, Simone published by Citadel (2000)
Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception