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Time and Ambiguity: Reassessing Merleau-Ponty on Sartrean Freedom
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Time and Ambiguity:
Reassessing Merleau-Ponty on Sartrean Freedom

Merleau-Ponty disagreed with Sartre about freedom, from the Phenomenology of Perception to his last manuscripts, published as The Visible and the Invisible. Even their more famous political dispute was, in Beauvoir's words, a "carbon copy" of this ontological dispute.1 Despite the visibility of this link between politics and metaphysics, discussions of Merleau-Ponty and Sartre rarely see another important link between their conflict over freedom and their conflict over fundamental ontology. This essay explains that link. At the risk of spoiling the suspense, let me state its thesis at the outset: the disagreement over freedom springs from a disagreement about the nature of temporality, and beneath that, about the proper place and understanding of ambiguity in human existence. In fact, these latter disagreements are the fundamental ones; the disagreement over freedom is only their consequence.

1. Sartrean Freedom

Merleau-Ponty obviously never lived to see the changes Sartre's theories underwent in The Critique of Dialectical Reason, and although he discusses some of Sartre's political writings (most notably in Adventures of the Dialectic), from the Phenomenology to The Visible and the Invisible, his criticisms of freedom generally focus on the ontology of Being and Nothingness. This limits his critique, and Beauvoir rightly took Merleau-Ponty to task for ignoring Saint Genet and other texts Sartre wrote after Being and Nothingness.2 While Sartre's The Communists and Peace, a central target of Merleau-Ponty's Adventures of the Dialectic, is not philosophical like Being and Nothingness, Merleau-Ponty does ignore its tendency to move in the direction [End Page 207] of The Critique of Dialectical Reason and develop a more ambiguous concept of freedom. Merleau-Ponty thus interprets Sartre's attempts in the early 1950s to understand a complex social formation like the revolutionary proletariat through the ontological lens of Being and Nothingness. As a consequence, Merleau-Ponty rightly sees that such an ontology will not do the work Sartre requires of it in these later works, but wrongly assumes that Sartre is working with the same ontology.3 Beauvoir does not help the situation by largely defending The Communists and Peace with passages from Being and Nothingness. Nor does Sartre really aid his case by writing to Merleau-Ponty, in a letter dating from the time of the controversy, that despite changes necessary to the ideas of Being and Nothingness, "all the theses of Being and Nothingness seem to me just as true [in 1953] as in 1943."4

In light of these facts, and because Merleau-Ponty's criticisms of Sartrean freedom are directed almost exclusively at the ontology of Being and Nothingness, I will mostly focus on Being and Nothingness. I also remain with this text because I do not intend to defend Sartre, and any decent defense of Sartre will have to do more than merely mention the later works like Saint Genet and The Communists and Peace. (Indeed, I do not intend to defend Merleau-Ponty either, but in the interest of honesty, my sympathies do lie with him.)

As it happens, simply understanding Sartre's theory of freedom, even within the confines of Being and Nothingness, is no easy task. This may be because Sartre has two concepts of freedom at work in this text.5 The primary freedom, the one that Sartre says we have in all places and at all times, the one that is our nature without being a nature, Sartre calls "freedom of choice" or original choice. The literature on Sartre often calls it "ontological freedom." Second to this freedom, Sartre describes a practical or situated freedom and calls it "freedom of obtaining."6 The former, [End Page 208] ontological freedom, is our nihilating opening onto the world that produces time, differentiation, and sense. Dagfinn Føllesdal assimilates this freedom to Husserlian Sinngebung, the act by which there is meaning for a consciousness. Whether this characterization goes too far can be debated, but certainly Sartre thinks that the character and differentiation of our world arrives through our questioning and disclosing consciousness. However, Sartre certainly does not think that we simply make up the world...