- Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics, Philosophy of Biology, and Ontology by Véronique Fóti
“The body expresses existence at every moment,” writes Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception. And while scholars of Merleau-Ponty from many fields are familiar with his notion of embodiment, the theme of expression, according to Fóti, has not received due attention. Motivated by “a growing sense that expression was not only a theme that meaningfully interlinked such disparate facets of Merleau-Ponty’s thought as aesthetics, the philosophy of biology (especially zoology), and ontology, but also that it constituted for him a central problematic in its own right” (5), Fóti proposes a study of expression that would take into account a broad range of Merleau-Ponty’s writings. Focusing mainly on essays and course notes from the mid to late-1950s (with a significant nod to the unfinished manuscript, The Visible and the Invisible), Fóti’s Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics, Philosophy of Biology, and Ontology, as the title indicates, is organized into three parts.
The first part, “Expression in Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetics,” dedicates a chapter to each of Merleau-Ponty’s seminal essays on artistic expression, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” and “Eye and Mind.” Part 2, “Expression in Animal Life,” investigates the expressivity of animal behavior and animal appearance by drawing upon Merleau-Ponty’s course notes collected in Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France. Part 3, “Expression in Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology,” is the briefest of the three sections, only 27 pages in length; however compact, it is this section that offers the most original reading of Merleau-Ponty’s work. In chapter 6, “The Role of Expression in Merleau-Ponty’s Dialogue with the Rationalists,” Fóti places Merleau-Ponty’s thought in relation to not only Descartes (Merleau-Ponty’s well-known interlocutor) but also Spinoza and Leibniz. In chapter 7, “The Irreducibility of Expression: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology and Its Wider Implications,” Fóti collects various artistic and biological threads from previous chapters in order to take an account of the role of expression within Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh.
It is perhaps appropriate that, in terms of length, the first part nearly outstrips parts 2 and 3 combined. It is appropriate because Fóti is herself an artist, a painter who regularly exhibits her work. She brings to her reading of Merleau-Ponty’s essays in painting, therefore, not only a unique artistic sensibility (which plays itself out productively, as well, in her reading of animal appearance in chapter 5) but also her extensive knowledge of works of art. It is this knowledge that supports Fóti as she assesses Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression in relation to examples of late twentieth-century and contemporary works of art. It is also this knowledge that leads Fóti to read Merleau-Ponty’s essays as if they were essays concerned with the work of art as an autonomous object; she critiques Merleau-Ponty for failing to sufficiently address actual artworks. Yet one could argue that to substitute the work of art (as expressive object) for the work-ing of art (as expressive movement) is to miss the temporal structure of expression; what is at issue here is the centrality of institution (Stiftung) in Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression. Indeed, it is institution that promises to tie together also the threads of biological maturation and behavior that Fóti explores in chapters 4 and 5. Fóti offers us tantalizing hints of the way that institution and expression are intertwined when she touches upon Merleau-Ponty’s course notes of 1954–55, Institution and Passivity, but of great help here would be the course notes of 1958–59 (“La philosophie aujourd’hui”) and 1960–61 (“L’ontologie cartésienne et l’ontologie d’aujourd’hui”), collected together under...