In his courses on the concept of nature, Merleau-Ponty discusses the ontological implications of biology and explores the limits and peculiarities of the preformationism and epigenesis theses. He refuses both explanations, finding that they are partial and introduces a third hypothesis that describes the genesis and structure of life as the emergence of a fold in the unique being of flesh. From this position, he draws a metaphysical gesture that closes the structure of genesis and erases the condition of possibility for life. Biodeconstruction questions this predetermined carnal matrix and points out the differential relation between life and death as the general condition of life.
This paper discusses the ontological implications of Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the living being and biology, particularly in the courses on the concept of nature he gave at the Collège de France in the 1950s. In his attempt to define the organism, Merleau-Ponty deals with embryology and points out the limits and the peculiarities of the preformationism and epigenesis theses. My hypothesis is that Merleau-Ponty adopts an ambiguous attitude towards epigenesis. H criticizes preformationism, according to which the future determinations of the living being are already encased, and prefers the epigenesist hypothesis to it. However, in his last course on nature (1959–60), Merleau-Ponty refuses both explanations because they are partial, and he introduces a third thesis that attempts to overcome the bifurcation represented by the alternatives of encasement and epigenesis. According to him, these alternatives are complementary, since they are two aspects of the same process in which life arises as the fold (le pli) of the unique being of flesh.
In this reading, I suggest that the attempt to close the horizon and to think the relation to the world from the inside of such a closure is precisely what drives Merleau-Ponty to elaborate the notion of flesh (chair) and of the flesh of the world (chair du monde). Nevertheless, the field he tries to circumscribe within this carnal horizon is not homogeneous and continuous; effectively, it remains a differential relation of life and death or life death that resists and pierces the presumed all-encompassing structure of a pervasive horizontality (Horizonthaftigkeit) that Merleau-Ponty defines throughout his entire œuvre. He denies this ultra-structure of life and consequently ends up reaffirming the homogeneity, closeness, and indivision of what I call here (not without risks) the metonym for the infrastructure of his philosophy, namely, the world of flesh.
In contrast to recent readings of the development of epigenetics and biological theories as the key for re-reading Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body or flesh, I suggest that the closed horizon of this carnal generality reintroduces the idea of the genesis of life as predetermination and self-explanation of the all-encompassing living and carnal being.1 Therefore, Merleau-Ponty repeats the metaphysical gesture of preformation that closes the structure of the genesis of life and erases the condition of possibility for life.
With his close reading of Derrida’s 1975 seminar, La Vie La Mort, which was devoted to the question of life and death, Francesco Vitale inaugurates the field of biodeconstruction by considering the Derridean interest in biology and the scriptural model of life that biologists import from cybernetics in order to rethink the genesis and structure of the living (Biodeconstruction 2). The implementation of the notion of arche-writing, which Derrida had already articulated in Of Grammatology and in “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” then lead to a deconstructive relation of life and death in a manner that would overcome their dichotomous opposition.2
If we consider différance as “the irreducible and structural condition of the life of the living, before the supposed opposition of life and death,” as Vitale suggests in his essay “Living On: The Absolute Performative” (133) and if life could be considered as the matrix of deconstruction, then the notion of life implied by Merleau-Ponty produces the annihilation of the differential dynamics of the trace and represents the radical attempt to preserve life and condemn it to death.
Phenomenology of Life (Sciences)
As anticipated, Merleau-Ponty refers to biology to account for how the living can be preserved from death. Even if this is not the originary aim of Merleau-Ponty’s discourse, it becomes its effect. Therefore, I suggest considering his philosophy of nature and life as an autoimmune reaction to the textual matrix of the living being. Thus my argument deals with the twofold representation that the notion of life assumes in Merleau-Ponty’s work. On the one hand, he pursues the general attitude of phenomenology, which is a philosophy of life. On the other hand, he engages with the scientific research of his epoch and primarily deals with Gestalt psychology, neurobiology, and physiology. Even if what is considered exemplary in biological investigations is very different today, it is interesting to point out the metaphysical presuppositions that still operate via Merleau-Ponty’s account of life and living.
Derrida defines phenomenology as a philosophy of life, since beginning with Husserl’s Logical Investigations, the concept of life has been depicted as immediate self-presence, namely as the “living presence” of self-consciousness. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida claims:
phenomenology, the metaphysics of presence in the form of ideality, is also a philosophy of life. It is a philosophy of life, not only because at its center death is recognized as but an empirical and extrinsic signification, a worldly accident, but because the source of sense in general is always determined as the act of living, as the act of a living being, as Lebendigkeit. But the unity of living, the focus of Lebendigkeit which diffracts its light in all the fundamental concepts of phenomenology (Leben, Erlebnis, lebendige Gegenwart, Geistigkeit, etc.), escapes the transcendental reduction and, as unity of worldly life, even opens up the way for it.(10)
The aim of connecting transcendental life and empirical life orients the philosophical trajectory of Merleau-Ponty, whose search for unity is attested to in the essay “Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man,”3 as well as in his 1958–59 lectures, titled “Philosophy Today.” In these lectures, Merleau-Ponty announces the need for a renewed ontology of nature in modern sciences. From this perspective, the human being would be considered not merely as consciousness, since consciousness does not transcendentally constitute the “world.” On the contrary, according to him, the human being as a living organism comprehends and grasps itself through the flesh by means of the reversibility that occurs in perception.
Merleau-Ponty questions the role of biology and theories of living organisms in the context of the foundation of an ontology of life that would be able to explain the living body (Leib or corps propre) as the conjunction of nature and reason. Therefore, in his notes on nature, Merleau-Ponty states that biology reveals something about the embodiment of consciousness, thus acquiring a fundamental ontological meaning. He concludes: “Biology, as it deals with life, necessary deals with the incarnation of consciousness, with this first Einfühlung, according to which the human body would become Leib” (Notes 38).4 He points out an ontology of nature that is a “universal ontology,” proceeding through a notion of teleology he borrows from Husserl. As he notes on the last page of “The Philosopher and His Shadow”: “that ‘teleology’ Husserl speaks about which is written and thought about in parentheses—that jointing and framing of Being which is being realized through man” (181).
Inscribed in this theoretical framework is Merleau-Ponty’s interest in the sciences. Beginning with his first book, The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty aimed at indicating a third way, different from mechanistic and idealistic thinking.5 In his investigation of the relation between consciousness and nature, he deals extensively with psychology and biology.6 He pursues this project of the definition of an ontology of nature, and thus of life, commenting on Husserl’s “Addendum (Beilage) XXIII of The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology,” in which Husserl claims that biology is the science closest to transcendental phenomenology based on its methodology as well as its tasks:
Biology’s proximity to the sources of evidence (Quellen der Evidenz) grants it such a proximity to the depths of the things themselves (Tiefen der Sachen), that its access to transcendental philosophy should be the easiest and with it the access to the true a priori to which the world of living beings refers, in its greatest and most constant generalities which cannot be captured without question in their a priori nature (as unconditionally universal and necessary).(7)
Therefore, as Husserl points out in his Addendum XXIII of the Crisis, on the one hand, biology is a regional ontology as all sciences, thus determined in its objects and scopes by regional types. On the other hand, biology seems to deserve a peculiar place, because conscious biology tends towards philosophy and has an ontological scope, it does not teach us only about local region of being.7 In his 1958–59 lectures, Merleau-Ponty translates and comments on Husserl’s “Addendum XXIII” and it is possible to deduce that the Husserlian account of biology informs the project of Merleau-Ponty, who aims at describing the intertwinement of transcendental and biological life in the living body. In fact, Merleau-Ponty claims that because of its contact with the depth of things, biology is almost philosophy and life has a universal meaning, revealing the inner structure of Being itself.
Embryology and Behavior
Merleau-Ponty deals with the epistemological and ontological status of biology, and the problem of “life,” at the beginning of his 1957 lecture, “The Concept of Nature,” where he refers to the classic formulations of the apparently irreducible alternative of mechanism and finalism, which he intends to overcome or exceed. The presumed antithesis of mechanism and finalism has been surpassed by a chiasmatic or dialectical relation; in fact, Merleau-Ponty notes that “biology ceases to be substantialist to become dialectical. The whole problem is currently to know what the word ‘dialectical’ means” (Nature 139).
Merleau-Ponty’s reference to the conceptualization of a dialectical relation of the living being to its world and the resulting image of the chiasmic relation it inspires is confirmed or merely reinforced by his interest in the work of contemporary scientists.8 At first instance, his work reflects the scientific approach of the Gestalt psychologists, as well as of biologists such as G. E. Coghill, Jakob von Uexküll, and especially Kurt Goldstein, who defends a dialectical relation of the living with the Umwelt and a holistic conception of organic form against the reductive models of mechanistic biological functioning. Goldstein proposes the adequacy of the organism to its environmental conditions, namely, the circularity and dialectical nature of its relation, which can be interrupted only by pathological behaviors.9 According to Merleau-Ponty, any notion of life sciences has a fundamental and primordial relation to the experience of the living being:
the organism itself measures the action of things upon it and itself delimits its milieu by a circular process which is without analogy in the physical world. The relations of the organic individual and its milieu are truly dialectical relations, therefore, and this dialectic brings about the appearance of new relations which cannot be compared to those of a physical system and its entourage or even understood when the organism is reduced to the image which anatomy and the physical sciences give of it.
Merleau-Ponty suggests a definition of the living being and body that does not mean to uphold any vitalism (even though he arrives at a theoretical position particularly close to it); instead, he argues that the mechanistic explanation of the relation of the body to the world has to be refused, because the living body is the bearer of a motor—and thus pre-reflexive—intentionality that produces “acts which are addressed to a certain milieu, present or virtual” (Merleau-Ponty, Structure 151).
In the first part of his 1957–58 course The Concept of Nature, subtitled “Animality, the Human Body, and the Passage to Culture,” Merleau-Ponty examines the work of the psychologist Arnold Gesell, among others. Merleau-Ponty insists on Gesell’s hypothesis concerning the unity of body and behavior in order to clarify his own ontology. According to Gesell, behavior is part of the body’s structure, and the body is the incarnation of and place for the concrete emergence of behaviors, hence body and behavior cannot be alienated from one another. Therefore, the omnipresent “enigma of form” in nature is the main issue for science, as Gesell suggests (Gesell and Amatruda 193).
Merleau-Ponty discusses the emergent character of behavior pointed out by Gesell, according to which it does not descend into the organism or originate from a source that resides outside of the body. Merleau-Ponty writes, “Form or totality: here is thus the character of the living being” (Nature 150). Indeed, the living being is not a body-machine that accidentally moves or passively receives some input from the world; quite the contrary, Merleau-Ponty explains the very morphological structure of the body and of embryological development, which is regularly led by the tendency to equilibrium and optimization. For that reason, any organism is the coalescence of mechanism and life, necessity and spontaneity, which may reflect Gesell’s influence on Merleau-Ponty’s elaboration of the notion of chiasm.
Merleau-Ponty intervenes in the debate between vitalism and mechanism to point out the becoming of biological conceptuality. He deals with two concrete examples: the notion of behavior and those of information and communication. Concerning cybernetics and the preservation of information, Merleau-Ponty claims that
a quantity of information has been placed in circulation; it deteriorates here and there, but on the whole it is maintained, and in any case it is not invented; the whole can, at most, be reestablished. From here, it is easy to see how cybernetics tends to become a theory of the living and of language.
Afterwards, he deals with “the positive value of cybernetics,” namely the invitation to consider the living being as situated consciousness or as a field of behaviors. From this standpoint, the subject ceases to be an absolute, surveying (survolant) consciousness and discovers herself as “an apparatus of organizing perspectives,” thus as the bearer of an incarnated sense. Therefore, cybernetics
invites us to discover an animality in the subject, an apparatus of organizing perspectives. […] animality is the logos of the sensible world: an incorporated meaning. This is at bottom what cybernetics seeks, and this is what explains its curiosity for automata. If we are interested in automata, it is because we see there the articulation of the body and objects. We have the impression of a body that manipulates objects, of the constitution of the behavior of the body that responds to a situation.
Apropos of the notion of behavior, Merleau-Ponty finds that the concept of Gestalt allows for the communication and fusion of mechanism and vitalism, as well as for the presumed antithesis of the innate and the acquired, which are no longer considered as distinct. Merleau-Ponty refers to the study of the embryologist G. E. Coghill, who, in his book Anatomy and the Problem of Behavior, describes some factual aspects of behavior that are similar to the phenomenological notion of the “I can,” which Husserl notably adopts in Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy and in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.10 In his study of the axolotl lizard, Coghill finds that the axolotl manifests a process of development that is proper to its inner disposition, namely, to its potentiality as a maturing organism.11
In this framework, the morphological account of the organism that Coghill proposes—and that Merleau-Ponty receives in order to overcome the idea of organism as a machine—presupposes the idea of the living being as a form or totality. At the same time, this notion of behavior reveals an “endogenous character”:
it is something that is ahead of functioning, which carries a reference to the future, which is beyond the immediate possibles and cannot immediately realize all that it already sketches out. In virtue of its endogenous initiative, the organism traces out what its future life will be; it sketches out its milieu (Umwelt); it contains a project in reference to the whole of its life.(Merleau-Ponty, Nature 151)
The question that Merleau-Ponty poses concerns the nature of this reference and the meta-temporal or spatial character of the living being. In this regard, the analysis of the axolotl reveals the ambiguities involved in Merleau-Ponty’s position concerning the difference between biological theories of preformationism and of epigenesis.
Epigenesis vs. Preformationism
Preformation or epigenesis? is the question that German biologist Oscar Hertwig poses in his 1894 book, Zeit- und Streitfragen der Biologie. Präformation oder Epigenese?, echoing the results of the scientific evidence produced by the experimental analyses of contemporary embryologists.12 The same question resonates almost a century later in Merleau-Ponty’s work, when he refuses the traditional preformationist account, according to which the development and growth of the living being are already predetermined in the original germ.13 From this standpoint, becoming “living” is a mere quantitative enlargement. This thesis was first developed at the end of the seventeenth century when scientists like Swammerdam and Hartsoeker defined the presence of the whole mature form of the living in germinal cells.14 These accounts inaugurated the twofold declination of preformationism in the spermism and ovism debate.
In his Essai de Dioptrique (1694), Nicolas Hartsoeker, pursuing (and competing with) the work of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who produced the first observations of animalcules engendered in the semen, exposed a theoretical model of preformationism. Hartsoeker suggests the hypothesis of the adult living being as the mere duplication of a homunculus, or as a preformed individual, as the development of the miniature contained in the sperm head (230). In contrast, ovism proposes the continuity of development in light of the full presence of the mature form in the egg. For example, in The Book of Nature, or, the Natural History of Insects (1758), Swammerdam criticizes the epigenetic approach of William Harvey and focuses on insects, finding in insects the perfect case of encasement of the mature bodily parts in their eggs and then in the structure of the nymphs (12). Notwithstanding mutual divergences, the hypotheses of spermism and ovism ground the ontotheological conception of creation as a unique act and the conception of development as explication without becoming, namely, without rupture or intervention from the outside of the egg or the spermatozoon.15
Epigenesist theories, on the contrary, advance the hypothesis of an undifferentiated germ from which the embryo develops into its full form and becomes a mature organism. This development is the result of its relation to the environment, which produces the gradual formation of the different organs of the body. The eighteenth-century German embryologist Kaspar Friedrich Wolff observed that in both animals and plants specialization of organs arises from unspecialized tissue, consequently discrediting the hypothesis of preformation.16 Merleau-Ponty deals with biology and reflects upon the preformationist/epigenesist debate in order to define his ontology of the sensible and the life of the flesh. In relation to the abovementioned debate, he points out the intertwining of living beings and nature, questioning Cartesian dualism and any form of bifurcation within nature.
The need for a nondualistic explanation increases Merleau-Ponty’s interest in genesis, embryology, and the theory of evolution as well; however, developing his analyses on embryological studies, Merleau-Ponty adopts an ambiguous attitude. On the one hand, he denies the possibility of a pre-inscription of life’s evolution and growth in the embryo, and on the other hand, he announces an inextricable continuity of the adult form and the embryonic stage. In fact, Merleau-Ponty argues that even if the future is not contained in the original potentiality of the living being, it is not accidental that it would follow and add to the present: “The future would come from the present itself. They would continue each other” (Nature 152). Commenting on Coghill’s research on the axolotl, Merleau-Ponty adds:
If we read in the first movement the act of swimming, we fall in the retrospective illusion that makes us project what is yet to come into the past, or to double the sensible world with an intellectual world without first understanding. If I suppose an entelechy with the axolotl, a perfection in the midst of becoming, we can speak of hidden qualities, of a swimming power. In any case, this vitalism is contradicted by the facts. All these ideas suppose preformation, yet modern embryology defends the thesis of epigenesis.(Nature 152; my italics)
In this regard, Merleau-Ponty seems to dismiss any residual preformationism in theories of ontogenesis, for example, in the embryological research of Gesell and Coghill, who risk adopting the legacy of preformationist theories elaborated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I refer here to the ontotheological presuppositions that have already been recognized by Derrida’s essay “Force and Signification” in 1963, in which he claims the following:
By preformationism we indeed mean preformationism: the well-known biological doctrine, opposed to epigenesis, according to which the totality of hereditary characteristics is enveloped in the germ, and is already in action in reduced dimensions that nevertheless respect the forms and proportions of the future adult. A theory of encasement was at the center of preformationism which today makes us smile. But what are we smiling at? At the adult in miniature, doubtless, but also at the attributing of something more than finality to natural life—providence in action and art conscious of its works.(26)
In this essay, Derrida comments on French structuralism and hints at the analogy between literary and biological scripture. He comments on the biological presuppositions of literary criticism, since the latter is grounded in the idea of a structural prefiguration and invariance that is at the core of the encasement theory. The aesthetic of encasement is the translation of biological notions and a metaphysical representation of the book as “simultaneously present in all its parts”; therefore, the structuralist attitude of reading “always presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book” as a totalizing form (28).17 The book contains all its possible determinations in full presence, just as the adult living being would already be present in miniature in its germinal form.
Even if this theory produces smiles for contemporary scientists, Derrida admits that some presuppositions or remainders of preformation and its teleological structure still haunt philosophical and scientific discourses. This attitude emerges, for example, when Merleau-Ponty comments on embryology and evolutionist theories. Even if Merleau-Ponty points to the essential epigenesist regulation of the life of the living, it seems that the solution that epigenesis offers does not arrest his research. He initially contests the classic formulation of preformation:
Against the idea of preformation (fitting together of seeds) simple unfolding, for the idea of epigenesis: intervention of something in surplus which is not given in the actual (the determined) of a non-actual. But these negations are to be elaborated. Does this mean the intervention of another positive factor? Passage from the aspatial to the metaspatial? From the inactual to another activity? From the inactual to the possible as another actual?
However, even if he claims that the future development of an organism is not folded as potentiality at the beginning of its organic life, Merleau-Ponty refers to “the imminence of the future” and admits the essential continuistic principle that orients the becoming of life (Nature 155).
At first glance, Merleau-Ponty argues that his aim “does not consist in transforming a mechanical preformation into a metaphysical preformation,” and he tries to think a finalism without teleology (Nature 183). In fact, commenting on Hans Driesch’s The Science and Philosophy of the Organism, Merleau-Ponty defines a philosophy of entelechy that is the negative side of potentiality and of the gap that would avoid a step back into preformationism.18 Rejecting Driesch’s finalistic theory, Merleau-Ponty claims that “the future of the organism is not folded back in potential in the beginning of its organic life, as in a nutshell in its beginning. The diverse parts of the animal are not interior to each other” (Nature 155). He simultaneously declares the need to avoid the error of establishing the entelechy of becoming and of establishing the mastery of a regulative principle. From this perspective, Merleau-Ponty equates this latency or potentiality with the condition of possibility for evolution and, consequently, with epigenesis, when he affirms: “We can say of the animal that each moment of its history is empty of what will follow, an emptiness which will be filled later. Each present moment is supported by a future larger than any future. To consider the organism in a given minute, we observe that there is the future in every present” (Nature 155).
A careful reading will confirm that the notions of epigenesis and latency that he adopts are still informed by the metaphysical hypotheses at work in preformationist theories. In this context is inscribed the following quotation:
Genesis truly understood must show a relation to the whole, that is, to conform to transcendental genesis and even to its successive form demanded by this. Keep in mind this bifurcation:
• Actualism of spatiotemporal fragmentary facts-fitting together, evolution.
• Recourse to ideality, to other possible facts, richer than the actual, conceived as another actual = epigenesis = appeal to another preformation (Ruyer, Driesch).
Define a Being of the in-between, an interbeing.
Merleau-Ponty argues that the solution to the dichotomy of Neo-Darwinist and Idealist conceptions of life and evolution resides in the in-between of contingency and entelechy, the horizontal and vertical dimensions. Merleau-Ponty therefore attempts to merge the two dichotomous positions in an ontology that would overcome their partiality. In his comments on Driesch there emerges a conception of embryogenesis that points to this unification of perspective: “Embryology since Driesch seems to us to have been moving in this direction in refusing to opt either for preformation or epigenesis, rather taking both notions as ‘complementary’ and describing embryogenesis as a ‘flux of determination’” (Themes 126).
Merleau-Ponty faces the challenge of an ontology situated between mere chance and absolute idea, and his notion of behavior seems to respond to its aim because it allows for the expression of the intertwining of actuality and potentiality in a dialectical circularity, namely, the “the suturing of organism-milieu, organism-organism”:
Darwinism: One dimension of the actual—the rest is impossible. Idealism: Another dimension; there is the possible. Us: They are right against each other … Problem: to place something between chance and the idea, between the interior and the exterior. This something is the suturing organism-milieu, organism-organism. In this suture, something happens which is not an actual fact—a jointure which is the articulation of the vertical order on the horizontal order. The idea of Being as dimensionality, the above dimensions of which are only the realization and abstract aspects. Place the two orders in this ontological milieu.
The ontological dimensionality is then thought by Merleau-Ponty as “flux” or “progressive determination,” as coupling and suture of a preformed being and a “being by epigenesis = negation of the precedent” (240). In the passage of his lecture devoted to the relation between actuality and inactuality in evolution and development, Merleau-Ponty defines the morphogenetic possibilities of living beings in terms of possible destiny or prospective potency (prospektive Potenz). Consequently, Merleau-Ponty conceives ontogenesis and phylogenesis, development and evolution, as the uninterrupted movement of self-differentiation and the emergence of forms within the sameness of the world of flesh. According to Merleau-Ponty, life is teleologically oriented toward a constitution by auto-differentiation, in which the possible modification or evolution of the living being exceeds its actual structure and “is governed by a principle of order that would have a global character” or a formal cause (Nature 182). He therefore suggests that the organization of the living and of development is oriented by an entelechy that is already inscribed in the fold of the flesh.
Merleau-Ponty’s biological research fluctuates between opposing positions in this argument and engenders a confusion of epigenetic and predeterminationist perspectives. He ends this confusion by appealing to the ontological and overarching dimension of the “interbeing” or being in-between (entre-deux), that is, a being of flesh. Merleau-Ponty thereby reiterates the ontotheological gesture that underlies any idea of predetermination, specifically the understanding of the genesis of the living as explication without becoming, as differentiation internal to the homogeneous and closed horizon of the flesh of the world.
The flesh is thus the ontological substructure that allows Merleau-Ponty to explain the biological determination of living beings as well as the genetic movement of science from a primordial layer of pre-objectivity. In his lectures on nature, Merleau-Ponty points out the ontological problem that underlies the question of natural being and resolves the duality into this elemental substrate, which he describes as the “pre-empirical architectonic, the preobjective, the pivots, hinges, and structures of organisms and species” (Nature 207).
This argument clearly emerges when he devotes attention to the human body, namely to the “proper subject” of his lectures, to explain the all-encompassing and pre-objective nature of flesh (208).19 In effect, the human body is the “interbeing” that manifests the point of emergence, in nature, of the fold and the place of “a kind of reflection,” that constitutes what Merleau-Ponty calls a “theory of flesh” (209). In The Visible and the Invisible he argues that “the body unites us directly with the things through its own ontogenesis, by welding to one another the two outlines of which it is made, its two laps: the sensible mass it is and the mass of the sensible wherein it is born by segregation” (136).
In effect, Merleau-Ponty describes the sensible “reflection” of the human being in terms of constitutive reversibility and draws on the biological metaphor of dehiscence to illustrate the emergence of life and subjectivity from the all-encompassing intercorporeality of flesh, which extends further than any singular body. He claims that “a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two, and because between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we must say that the things pass into us as well as we into the things” (Visible 123).
Indeed, his notion of flesh is the result of the postulated transubstantiation of the sensing in the sensed and of its assimilation in perceptual relation. In this context, the figure of touching and touched hands is paradigmatic of the originary contact with the sensible in the very moment of its introjection by means of the living body and his hand. Merleau-Ponty discovers in the body the primordial reflection that points to its implication in a common carnal being: “this hiatus between my right hand touched and my right hand touching ... between one moment of my tactile life and the following one, is not an ontological void, a non-being: it is spanned [enjambé] by the total being of my body, and by that of the world” (Visible 148; italics mine). The matrix of his notion of “flesh of the world” is already in this statement; it is precisely this character of enfolding, coupling, or intertwining that defines the total being of the world, which is made of flesh. In fact, in his working notes for The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes the flesh of the world as
segregation, dimensionality, continuation, latency, encroachment … That means that my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is a perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world (the felt [senti] at the same time the culmination of subjectivity and the culmination of materiality), they are in a relation of transgression or of overlapping.(248–249)
According to Merleau-Ponty, the flesh of the body and the world gather in the undividedness “of this sensible Being that I am and all the rest which feels itself (se sent) in me” (255). This idea of an all-encompassing and homogeneous flesh comes to light in his last published text, “Eye and Mind,” in which he appears engaged in the description of an enveloping/enveloped carnal being:
my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff as the body.(163; my italics)
Hence, perception is caught by things in the world and, accordingly in reverse, it manifests the originary “undividedness [l’indivision]” of the living being and its environment (163).20 This general theory of flesh allows Merleau-Ponty to designate a relation of the living being with nature as a fundamental and radical enfoldment or overlapping. In this context, biology would question the objectivity of nature and acquire an ontological relevance, since it shows that the organism “is the macroscopic ‘envelopment-phenomenon’ that we do not engender from elements, that invests the local-instantaneity, that is not to be sought behind, but rather between the elements,” or in the “element” of flesh (Merleau-Ponty, Nature 213).
In a close reading of On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, in which Merleau-Ponty is explicitly evoked, Derrida explains that the absolute reciprocity and connection of flesh with itself becomes the genetic scheme sustaining the pure auto-affection of the world, “sentant-sensible” (Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind” 163). In effect, Derrida comments on the proximity in the auto-affective relation that would cover the spacing (espacement) in a melted flesh of the world:
By making flesh ubiquitous, one runs the risk of vitalizing, psychologizing, spiritualizing, interiorizing, or even reappropriating everything, in the very places where one might still speak of the nonproperness or alterity of flesh.
In the wake of Derrida’s analysis, I suggest that Merleau-Ponty’s attempt at the ontological rehabilitation of the sensible leads to a carnal monism, an all-encompassing and self-affected carnal world that erases the condition of possibility of experience and life in general, thus removing the differential relation of life and death as a structural condition for perception and life.21
Merleau-Ponty merely translates the continuistic model of genesis, generation, and reproduction in the ontology of flesh, as the discourse grounded in the all-encompassing principle “that we have previously called flesh, and one knows there is no name in traditional philosophy to designate it. The flesh is not matter, in the sense of corpuscles of being which would add up or continue on one another to form beings … The flesh is in this sense an ‘element’ of Being” (Visible 139). The flesh is the original dimension of con-fusion governed by chiasmatic reversibility, “which is the ultimate truth” (155).22 A reversibility of the living flesh that, in its very notion, does not contemplate death, chance, contingency, interruption, or dispersion of the postulated originary unity or of the flesh of the world. Effectively, it leads to the homogeneity, closeness, and undividedness of life and living beings, therefore to an absolute self-protection that closes life in itself.
In fact, Merleau-Ponty points out a common horizon within which there is not any space for something unexpected and casual because the horizon comprehends all possible evolution and transformation of living beings. Therefore, if not present, they are in the background, in the anonymous and latent stratum of experience, and, for this reason, they are in principle already present. He repeats the same gesture of biological ontology that he contests. Even if the living being opens to the world, it is in a circuit that remains predetermined.
As a result, Merleau-Pontian confusion differs from Derridean discourse about the differential structure of the living, which attempts to assure life in its purity and pure self-affectedness. Derrida suggests that “the reappropriation or the absolute reflection of self-presence” led to the notion of “pure life or pure death: [which] is always, infinitely, the same thing” (On Touching 291). From this standpoint, the vivification of the world through the conceptualization of the carnal being could not be considered as a mere theoretical naivety. In contrast, Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysical gesture reveals the desire of a supposedly pure, immanent, and absolutely auto-immune life, which is exactly the negation of life as such and its condemnation to death.
Merleau-Ponty’s clarification of the idea of flesh represents the attempt to immunize life from death, the repetition of the metaphysical gesture that opposes and hierarchizes in a simple dichotomy pure life and pure death. According to his metaphysical conception of life and to the movement of a desire for the pure presence of life, phenomenological discourse in general—and Merleau-Pontian discourse in particular—would produce the infinitization of finitude, which attempts to protect and immunize life and experience. Despite this, it has the opposite effect, precisely because it is haunted by a desire for the appropriation and assimilation of the condition of possibility for life itself.
The auto-affection to which Merleau-Ponty refers is not a pure structure, since, as Derrida has clarified, the universal structure of experience, as another name for life, does not refer to uncontaminated living, but rather to a differential relation of life and death. The sign, in the discursive domain, as well as the body, in the perceptive sphere, testifies to the original dispossession of life and pure feeling (as feeling oneself feel) in relation to the supplement of death, which is the transcendental condition for the self-affection:
it had already begun to undermine and shape ‘living’ speech, exposing it to the death within the sign. But the supplementary sign does not expose to death by affecting a self-presence that is already possible. Auto-affection constitutes the same (auto) as it divides the same. Privation of presence is the condition of experience, that is to say, of presence.(Derrida, Of Grammatology 166)
In contrast to the metaphysical desire for the pure immunity of life, Derrida elaborates the definition of “autoimmunity.” In “Above All, No Journalists!,” he claims that “in it, the living organism destroys the conditions of its own protection. Such auto-immunization is a terrifying biological possibility: a body destroys its proper defenses or organizes in itself ... the destructive forces that will attack its immunitary reactions” (67).23
Unlike Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of absolute living flesh, the condition of possibility for life implies a constitutive and transcendental violence of the self against itself, namely the complication of life and death in a differential relation of life death. The perspective that biodeconstruction opens offers the resources for a vigilance against all discourses that are grounded in and feed off of the metaphysical illusion of a pure and infinite life without death. This emerges from Derrida, as highlighted in Vitale’s reading of his work:
The irreducible co-implication of life and death structures the living in such a way that the living must relate to the other in order to be itself but, in so doing, it must destroy its own immunitarian defenses, that is, it must suppress the immunitarian defenses of the organs that preside over the relation to alterity in view of the survival in the environment and of reproduction.
Raoul Frauenfelder is Honorary Fellow of Aesthetics at the University of Salerno (Italy). He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Palermo (Italy), where he worked on Derrida’s relation to phenomenology. His main publication Tra le mani la carne (Mimesis, 2017) focuses on a critical reading of the metaphorical touch that sustains Merleau-Ponty’s ontology.
3. See Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man”: “The crisis of science in general, of the sciences of man, and of philosophy leads to an irrationalism. Reason itself appears to be the contingent product of certain external conditions. From the beginning of his career, Husserl recognized that the problem was to give a new account of how all three—philosophy, science, and the sciences of man—might be possible. It was necessary once again to think them through to their foundations [namely of their genesis]” (44).
4. Translations of Notes are mine, unless otherwise noted.
5. In this regard, Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on nature could be read in continuity with the analyses on the Gestaltpsychologie that he developed in The Structure of Behavior (completed in 1938 and published in 1942) and, still earlier, in his projects on the nature of perception in 1933 and 1934. See “Study Project on the Nature of Perception (1933)” and “The Nature of Perception (1934).” These projects anticipated some concerns extensively expressed in Phenomenology of Perception.
6. In the Introduction to The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty deals with biology and claims that “the discussions concerning mechanism and vitalism remain open”; however, a few pages later, he adds: “The object of biology is to grasp that which makes a living being a living being, that is, not—according to the realist postulate common to both mechanism and vitalism—the superposition of elementary reflexes or the intervention of a ‘vital force’, but an indecomposable structure of behavior” (46).
7. Husserl engages in the distinction of natural sciences and phenomenology in the Logical Investigations (1900–1901), the Crisis (1936/1954), and Ideas, vol. 2 (1952). See also Husserl, “Addendum XXIII of The Crisis” 6–9. For Merleau-Ponty translation and comment on Husserl’s “Addendum,” see Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours 66–91 and 379–389.
8. Even if the psychology that has instructed and inspired Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reflection on the notion of life and the relation of the living being with its own environment is regarded critically, the metaphysical presuppositions that sustain and orient the biological approach to the issue of preformation and epigenesis remain; for that very reason this metaphysical ground has to be questioned and solicited by a biodeconstructive theory.
9. See Goldstein, Organism: “The attainment of biological knowledge we are seeking is essentially akin to this phenomenon – to the capacity of the organism to become adequate to its environmental conditions. This is a fundamental biological process by virtue of which the actualization of organisms is made possible” (307–308).
11. Merleau-Ponty refers to the studies of the axolotl that George Coghill published in 1929. Coghill’s work describes the neuromuscular system development in the embryos of the axolotl lizard (Amblystoma punctatum). Observing the embryonic development and especially the evolution of its movement patterns, Coghill noticed that when a change in the environment occurs an axolotl in a larval stage develops into the adult form of a common salamander. Noting the similarity between his own understanding of the development of behavior and that of Gestalt theorists, Coghill proposes a definition of behavior as a complex and unitary structure, against an atomistic and mere mechanistic conception. In fact, behavior appears to Coghill as a principle that emerges as a totality and that is immanent to the living being. Commenting on Coghill’s hypothesis, Merleau-Ponty writes, “Hence the organicist idea supported by Coghill, according to which, inasmuch as we analyze the organisms piecemeal, we find opposed only physicochemical phenomena, but when we rise to the consideration of the whole of the organism, the totality is no longer describable in physiological terms; it appears as emergent. How are we to understand this relation of totality of parts as a result? What status must we give totality? Such is the philosophical question that Coghill’s experiments pose, a question which is at the center of this course on the idea of nature and maybe the whole of philosophy” (Nature 145).
12. See Hertwig The Biological Problem of Today: Preformation or Epigenesis?
13. In the background of the definition of preformationism is the work of Nicolas Malebranche. While he never used the word “encasement” (emboîtement), which marks the path of preformation, he gestures there in The Search after Truth when claims, “We may say that all plants are in a smaller form in their germs. By examining the germ of a tulip bulb with a simple magnifying glass or even with the naked eye, we discover very easily the different parts of the tulip. It does not seem unreasonable to say that there are infinite trees inside one single germ, since the germ contains not only the tree but also its seed, that is to say, another germ, and Nature only makes these little trees develop. We can also think of animals in this way. We can see in the germ of a fresh egg that has not yet been incubated a small chick that may be entirely formed … Perhaps all the bodies of men and animals born until the end of times were created at the creation of the world, which is to say that the females of the first animals may have been created containing all the animals of the same species that they have begotten and that are to be begotten in the future” (27).
14. See Hartsoeker for the first definition of spermist theory, which began with the observation of human sperm through a microscope. Well known is his drawing of a sperm cell with a little person curled up inside the sperm head, a sketch that represents one of the most clear examples of preformationism. While Hartsoeker was one of the first spermists and a leading figure in this field, he soon recognized the failure of this theory. In fact, in 1722, he admitted that the possibility of regeneration makes any preformation theory untenable: “I deemed this experiment conclusive against those who claim that in the beginning God has created all plants, trees and animals that have already been and that will be in the centuries to come, as if he had encased them one in the other” (“Lettre” 195; cf. Gasking 86). On the contrary, Swammerdam defines epigenetic ideas as the result of an imperfect reason and elaborates a theory of reproduction ex ovo (Book 18). Swammerdam rejected the metamorphosis phenomenon because he hypothesized that the adult form of a butterfly would already be present in the chrysalides, thus consequently wholly present in the egg, analogous to seeds that would contain a plant visible to the naked eye. For some ambiguity in Swammerdam’s work about a specific contamination of his preformationist standpoint and some epigenesist theses, see Pinto-Correia 314–315.
15. On the intertwining of metaphysical, biological, and theological conceptions of life, see Vitale, “Life Death and Difference: Philosophies of Life between Hegel and Derrida”: “Given that preformationism was invented to legitimate, within the life sciences, the unity of Creation in line with Christian dogma and that, ultimately, this theory rests on Aristotle’s texts, it is possible to understand the complicated relations between Christian religion, philosophy, and biology that are at stake here and which are necessary to loosen in view of a deconstruction of the notion of life” (108).
16. In his doctoral thesis, Theoria Generationis, Wolff announces the presence of tissues in the adult living being that do not have any counterpart in the embryo and develops in each embryo de novo. See Wolff, Theoria Generationis par. 168, 242.
17. Moreover, Derrida refers to the theological concept of the “book” in relation to nature in Dissemination, when he comments on the issue posed by Novalis in his Encyclopedia: “the form of the total book as written book.” The encyclopedic project would be based on the analogy between the organicist conception of the biological body and the book as a “volumen” in which any moment has always been comprehended. Therefore, Novalis establishes a total overlap between nature and the volume in a conjunction/identity that he pretends would be given in advance. On the contrary, Derrida argues that the genetic production of a text, or a living being as text, leaves out a queue or tail, namely a supplement, that precludes the saturation of self-presence as thought in the paradigm of the encyclopedic circle. See Derrida, Dissemination 50–59.
18. In The Science and Philosophy of the Organism are collected the Gifford Lectures that Hans Driesch held in 1907, in which he attempts to reformulate the question concerning the relation between epigenesis and preformationism as follows: “Is the prospective potency of each embryonic part fully given by its prospective value in a certain definite case; is it, so to say, identical with it, or does the prospective potency contain more than the prospective value of an element in a certain case reveals?” (77). Despite his early proximity to epigenesist theories, Driesch, one of Haeckel’s pupils, refused the Darwinism of his master to promote a teleological conception of the living organism that is known as “neo-vitalism.” About Merleau-Ponty’s commentary of Driesch’s hypothesis see Morris, “The Time and Place of the Organism” 70–76.
19. In particular, Merleau-Ponty comments on the phenomenological definition of the living body proposed by Husserl in the second volume of Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy; see Merleau-Ponty, Nature 70–79.
20. See also Fóti: “Merleau-Ponty speaks rather of an ‘indivision’ (that is nondivision) between an animal and its surroundings and notes once again that the same indivision also underlies the formation of a sense organ which is no less ‘miraculous’ than mimicry. Indivision pertains, of course, to the ontological structure of flesh that he elaborates in The Visible and the Invisible; and his reflections on animal form and mimicry serve to concretize it” (84).
22. About the chiasm Merleau-Ponty writes: “the idea of chiasm, that is: every relation with being is simultaneously a taking and a being taken, the hold is held, it is inscribed and inscribed in the same being that it takes hold of” (Visible 266)
23. On this point, see the inspiring work of Michael Naas, who points out that “autoimmunity has to do with the way a living organism protects itself by attacking its own self-protection and destroying its own immune defenses, thereby making it vulnerable to what it might have otherwise resisted. This attack on or protection against one’s own mechanisms of self-protection is thus fatale—inevitable and always potentially deadly—though also, as in the case of immuno-depressants, essential to the organism's survival, essential to its acceptance of a graft or transplanted organ that will allow it to survive or live on. Indeed, without autoimmunity, without this breach in the immunitary and self-protective systems of the organism, there would be no possibility of a supplement that might destroy or save it, bring it to an end or allow it to live on. Without autoimmunity, the organism would have, in short, no future before it” (82, my italics).
24. Vitale further develops Derrida’s notion of autoimmunity, as it has been presented in “Faith and Knowledge,” The Animal That Therefore I Am, and his seminar La Vie La Mort, since he finds in Derrida’s reading of Freud the anticipation of the very recent biological theory of apoptosis or “cellular suicide,” according to which in the process of the constitution of a living being occurs a cellular differentiation that implies cellular death. In particular, some cells of the living organism send a “suicidal message” to other cells that respond by dying. See Vitale, Biologie et Déconstruction 149–153; Biodeconstruction 175–184. For a first and deeper definition of the theory of “cellular suicide,” see Ameisen.