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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 134-135
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Merleau-Ponty's Last Vision:
A Proposal for the Completion of 'The Visible and the Invisible
Douglas Low. Merleau-Ponty's Last Vision: A Proposal for the Completion of 'The Visible and the Invisible.' Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Pp. xv + 124. Cloth, $75.00. Paper, $19.95.
Low sets himself an impossible task, that of completing the uncompleted work of a philosopher whose untimely decease prevented him from doing so himself. What he does succeed in providing is a systematic commentary and a rich integration of Merleau-Ponty's later philosophy. This task itself is important since it is believed by many that Merleau-Ponty's premature death prevented the completion of a book that would have altered the philosophical scene of Paris in the 1960s, and that, moreover, even in its incomplete form, speaks to pressing contemporary philosophical debates on such issues as mind/body dualism, and our relation to nature.
The main focus of Low's reading is Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of language, which Low appropriately situates as a mediation between a modernist philosophy of presence and a postmodern Derridean approach to language as the constant deferral of meaning. Language is not the repository for ideal essences, nor do existents have an immediate [End Page 134] coincidence or fusion with things or the world. Indeed, the strength of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy is that he begins with an understanding of human action as meaningfully orientated; to move in the world is to interpretatively encounter it. As Low points out, "an ontological priority [is] granted to the body and the world upon which it opens, for together in lived experience they sustain a field of stable meanings, meanings that are then sublimated in the bodily gesture called speech" (22). Low differs from most Merleau-Ponty scholars in his assumption that there is no significant break between the earlier Phenomenology of Perception, where Merleau-Ponty carefully worked out his descriptions of embodied perception, and the later work that lays out the ontology. Indeed, one accomplishment of Low's book is to show how they fit together, explaining how the insights of the first work are necessary for grounding the ontology Merleau-Ponty began to work out in the later one.
Low's book is divided into two sections. The first section, "The Visible and Nature," focuses on how we encounter the world, concluding with a helpful summary and assessment of Merleau-Ponty's ontology. Drawing upon the late essay "Eye and Mind," Low lays out Merleau-Ponty's ontology through his intuition that modern art, unlike the representational focus of Renaissance art, reveals our contact with the world as a "system of exchanges between the sensing and the sensible" (56). Perceiving the artwork is not an intellectual computation of a second-order representation of the world; rather, we see according to the work. It is a bodily process that reveals a reversibility between the viewer and the world. The second section, "The Invisible and Logos," focuses on how these encounters are sublimated or taken up in language. Language is, for Merleau-Ponty, first speech since it relies upon a speaker to take it up, "to sustain and modify it." Signs, gestures, and meaning are folded into one another. As embodied beings, we literally grasp meaning (89).
This book would be of enormous benefit to scholars embarking on a reading of Merleau-Ponty's works, and it is one I highly recommend for that purpose. Although it is not original in its interpretations, its value lies in its gathering and integration of complex themes that provide an important introduction to Merleau-Ponty's late philosophy. The book maps out, moreover, a chronology of these themes and the specifics of where to find them; it also shows how the fragments fit together, indicating directions in which they might lead. His writing style is accessible without being simplistic. By interweaving his interpretations with long quotes from...