- Phenomenology or Deconstruction? The Question of Ontology in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricœur and Jean-Luc Nancy
Jacques Derrida famously argued that deconstruction is not a philosophy, a method, or a period with a beginning and end, but is constantly at work uncovering the metaphysics of presence operating in any philosophy. Given this ubiquity, Christopher Watkins sets out to find an interpretation of phenomenology that makes deconstruction irrelevant, and he claims to find this in the phenomenological ontologies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricœur, and Jean-Luc Nancy (p. 6). Watkin argues that, in place of the immediate intuition of self and other characterized as presence (which Watkin refers to as one of Derrida’s ‘worries’), Merleau-Ponty places self and world within an unanalysable Gestalt from which meaning emerges miraculously, and fact/essence dualism is eliminated (p. 18). We must ask if this notion, called ‘mutuality’, dodges Derrida’s critique of presence (pp. 19, 76). That is, does the Gestaltist conception of meaning irreducible to its parts, and of the world as a web of irreducible relations evade the twin questions of genesis and organization (pp. 26, 30)? The problem lies with the question of how there can be a continuum from this irreducible meaning to language, for Saussure’s diacritical conception of language is certainly not the invisible of the visible, but rather the signified of the signifier (pp. 47, 52, 57). Moreover, the implication that Husserl (Logical Investigations) construes meaning from immediate intuition misses the point of the epoché, which is to distinguish intentional acts from their objects. Perhaps, as articulated by Watkins, Ricœur’s what/who distinction comes the closest to evading the metaphysics of presence, although surely this was already developed by Hannah Arendt, who also reconciles identity and diversity in narrative in the context of natality and not merely being alive (life) (pp. 80–81). It seems that the themes of Ricœur and justice and the chapters on Nancy that begin with an account of the world of sense lost to mathematics and calculation both involve an unpaid debt to Arendt. Watkin writes that the book originated as a dissertation, and it does have many of the marks of one. Every chapter is an extended conversation with a number of commentators. Most chapters have over a hundred endnotes. The bibliography includes ‘further reading’, but most of the entries date from 2000 or earlier, eliminating more recent, insightful work. Women philosophers are included in the bibliography but their work is not directly addressed, even where it might have been fruitful. Feminist deconstructivists or phenomenologists are absent. Watkin’s project is enormously useful and it is to be hoped that he continues this exploration in a more inclusive manner. Watkin argues that every ontology requires presence, but is the phenomenological concept of sens truly one with the concept of presence? For sens is anterior to all signification and its absence would be ultimate. If they are not the same, then perhaps the limits of the deconstructive structure will direct us to new phenomenological ontologies, new conceptions of justice, and new types of community.