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A Unique Way of Existing: Merleau-Ponty and the Subject JERROLD SEIGEL "To understand" means to grasp the total intention .... the unique way of existing, that finds expression in the properties of the pebble, the glass, or the piece of wax, in all the deeds of a revolution, in all the thoughts of a philosopher.... Everything has a meaning; we find, beneath all its relationships, the same structure of being? Among the many recent French thinkers who have made the problems of human subjectivity central to their concerns, none was more deeply involved in the question than Maurice Merleau-Ponty. For him the nature of subjectivity was the central dilemma of philosophy, and his studies of behavior, perception , art, and metaphysics were all attempts to grapple with it.2 His special position within French intellectual life made his approach unusually manysided . Personally and intellectually close to both Sartre and L6vi-Strauss, he was the most vital link between the rival schools of existentialism and structuralism , and he mounted his intellectual project on a foundation constructed out of the phenomenological philosophy that inspired the first, but was attentive to--and at the end of his life increasingly reshaped bymthe structural linguistics so important to the second. Merleau-Ponty always insisted on the need to go beyond "subjectivist" Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ph~nom~nolog~ede la perception (Paris, 1945), xiii-xiv. I will cite this work below as PP, referring sometimes to the original French text and sometimes to the English translation, Phenomenology ofPerception, tr. Colin Smith, with revisions in 1962 and 1981 by Forrest Williams (London and New York, 1962, 1981). Where the French text is cited I have usually consulted the 1981 English version but give a slightly different reading. Other often-cited works of Merleau-Ponty will be referred to by the following abbreviations: SNS: Sense and Non-Sense, tr. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston, IL, 1964); HT: Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, tr. John O'Neill (Boston, 1969); AD: Adventures of the Dialectic, tr. Joseph Bien (Evanston, IL and London, 1974); VI: The Visibleand the Invisible, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL, 1968). All the abbreviations refer to these English versions except where noted. Gary B. Madison properly points out (but in a footnote) that Merleau-Ponty's whole career can be seen as a prolonged meditation on the subject-object problem. See Gary Brent Madison, La Phenomknologie de Merleau-Ponty. Une recherchedes limites de la conscience (1973), 36n. [455] 456 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 29:3 JULY 1991 perspectives (notably the Cartesian cogito and its reworking by Edmund Husserl) that established the ego in sovereign independence from a world to which it alone gave order and meaning; one thing that made him draw closer to structuralism in his last writings was the conviction that his own earlier efforts still left him entangled in subjectivism. It is tempting to read his career as a gradual but increasingly resolute abandonment of the subject-centered perspective posited by phenomenology and existentialism, in favor of those positions that encouraged many thinkers in the 196os and '7os to propose a "death of the subject." Thus the turn from phenomenology to structuralism would seem to be validated by the self-criticism Merleau-Ponty established within the phenomenological camp itself, and his career would demonstrate how phenomenology in postwar France retraced the earlier path that led from Husserl's positing of the subject as the starting point for all thought to Heidegger's attempt to locate thinking on a ground where subjectivity never achieved independence from primal Being.3 In this essay I want to suggest that precisely the opposite was the case. Merleau-Ponty always rejected views that made the subject sovereign over a scene it observed from some point outside; instead, he insisted, human consciousness arose within the world of lived experience, subjectivity emerged within the world of objects, and the philosopher's constant task was to bring thought back to those starting points, against every impulse or temptation to establish its separation or independence. And yet, such a philosophy threatened to unravel like Penelope's web, because it threatened to posit a new...


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