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Merleau-Ponty and Derrida: Intertwining Embodiment and Alterity (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 2, April 2007
pp. 339-340 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0028

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This is an impressively intelligent, subtle, and knowledgeable interpretive study jointly of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida in the integrality of the work of each. One can say 'jointly' because, rather than just a comparison, Reynolds' study finds in the work of each thinker resources of analysis, focus, and critical thrust that serve to help set ways in which to question and clarify the thought of the other in discerning both its strengths and its limits (or, indeed, limitations). In this way, Reynolds builds a case for both a clear and (no doubt, by many) unexpected convergence between them, even while he finds that Merleau-Ponty provides ways to overcome the seeming intractability of the aporias that he finds evident in Derrida's work in the later decades of his life.

The book divides into two sections, one on Merleau-Ponty—"Part 1: Embodiment"—the other on Derrida—"Part 2: The Other"—but in actuality, each section engages with both philosophers. Astutely, that very division announces the main features in terms of which Merleau-Ponty and Derrida converge as well as diverge, with both sections featuring both issues: embodiment and alterity.

Reynolds' summary of Merleau-Ponty's basic phenomenology of corporeal being-in-the-world, as well as of his later work on the "visible and the invisible" (chapters 1 and 3) is very good, as is his sketching out Derrida's "deconstructional" analysis (chapter 2 and passim). And the convergence-contrast begins to be laid out almost from the beginning. Merleau-Ponty offers a way beyond mind-body or individual-world dualism that is a kind of paradigm for the means for overcoming other dualisms, such as that, most particularly, of self and other. Derrida offers extraordinarily sharp disclosures of oppositions where most, whether in philosophy or ordinary life, might see differences that are at least in principle—and especially, Reynolds will add, "in practice"—resolvable (chapter 4 and passim). And this resolvability in practice—through the capacities of being as embodiment especially in "habituation"—is what inclines Reynolds to see the advantage Merleau-Ponty offers.

In the course of arguing this advantage, Reynolds does a fine job of tracing out both the force of Derrida's focus on alterity (chapter 7) and Merleau-Ponty's "chiasmic" play of difference, ambiguity, and reversibility (chapters 5 and 6)—all of which keeps vivid the mutuality of interpretive and critical effect in Reynolds' joint study, including the final chapter 8.

Reynolds' study is largely drawn from work on Merleau-Ponty in the English-speaking world and does not engage, e.g., with the writings of Renaud Barbaras This is to be regretted, in that Reynolds argues Merleau-Ponty's advantage because Merleau-Ponty offers a positive phenomenologico-ontological philosophy of human bodily being in the world. Derrida, in contrast, seems to eschew any such doctrine-seeming elaboration; he engages with texts, or with the problematics that can be addressed from within texts, e.g., those of Levinas. And Derrida's point in all this is to disclose the non-definitive, paradox-bound and différance-generated conceptualities within which proposals for resolving issues inevitably develop—hence, the need for a fluid adjustment to the resultant variable and incessant play of differences.

The validity of Reynolds' finding that Merleau-Ponty's thought offers a robust positivity—even in maintaining a "chiasmic" play of alterity within its principles—would be proportionate to the extent that Derrida aims to offer some positivity in his own thought, rather than simply engage internally in the differential play of non-definitive conceptual material. So it is, because Merleau-Ponty's thinking remains phenomenological—i.e., grounding its work in some form of evident engagement with "things themselves"—that it offers the resolution Derrida may seem to exclude by the relentlessness of the aporetic conceptual situations he discloses. If, then, Derrida wants to assert some positivity—or provisional constancy, or hold of relevance for the necessity to decide practically in life's situations—Reynolds, in effect, recommends that Derrida's work needs the all-embracing fundamental component (or complement) of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology and ontology of the corporeal character of human being in the world, however...



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