Thursday, August 11, 2011

Merleau-Ponty's critique of Hume

To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Merleau-Ponty's critique of Hume
Date: 8 April 2004 11:30

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your email of 25 March, with your first essay for the Associate program in response to the question, 'How much further does Merleau-Ponty go than Kant in rejecting the Humean view of experience?'

You asked me asked me to indicate what you might look at next.

After reading this essay, it seems to me that it would be particularly interesting to contrast Merleau-Ponty with the philosopher who inspired him - his teacher Husserl. One work in particular which would be good for filling in the gap between Kant and Merleau-Ponty is Husserl's 'Cartesian Meditations'. (There is a book on Husserl published by RKP which I can strongly recommend, by David Bell of Sheffield University.)

'Cartesian Meditations' is quite short, and very densely argued. A very different proposition from 'Phenomenology of Perception'. So you should take it slowly. One particular issue to look out for is the question of our knowledge of other minds. (One possible question might be to contrast Merleau-Ponty's account of how we know another person's mental state with the account given by Husserl in the 'Cartesian Meditations'.)

In your essay, you give a very clear and readable exposition of Hume, Kant and Merleau-Ponty. One thing you will need to do for the Associate, however, is provide textual references. Important points can be backed up by quoting from the original text.

It is vital to do this. Imagine a reader who has never heard of these three philosophers? How much help would your essay be in guiding them through the original texts, or even indicating where to look?

Also, suppose that a reader disagreed with your interpretation of one or more of these philosophers? How would you back up your claims? This is another reason for citing 'chapter and verse'.

Secondary texts can be quoted too. For example, if you find yourself in agreement with P.F. Strawson's interpretation of Kant's 'refutation of idealism' then you can mention this in a footnote. In this way you are offering your argument, your interpretation, but backing this up with the work of other scholars. Of course, there is scope to express disagreements, too.

It not necessary for the text to bristle with footnotes and references. It is a matter of striking a sensible balance. In an essay of 2000-2500 words, one would expect up to a dozen footnotes, and a bibliography of at least half a dozen works. (As a student, I hated footnotes and always used parentheses for references - but this can get rather messy.)

I found it hard to find things in your essay which I disagreed with. You say at one point, in expounding Kant, 'We apply concepts (which we can have a priori) to our sensory experience.' This is ambiguous. What you meant to say is, 'For Kant, it is possible to have a priori concepts as well as a posteriori concepts'. It could be read as saying that, for any given concept, it was possible to have this concept a priori. That was the only point where I was prompted to bring out the red pencil.

Of the three philosophers, I felt less secure (imagining that I had never heard of these philosophers before) in my understanding of Merleau-Ponty after reading your exposition, than I felt with the other two.

One way to approach this is to ask what is characteristic about Merleau-Ponty's response to Kant. Consider the following:

1. Hegel rejected Kant's claim that things-in-themselves are unknowable, and with it the phenomena/noumena distinction.

2. The point about perceiving wholes rather than synthesising them from their constituent elements - which comes from gestalt psychology - would be well understood by someone who had never heard of the movement known as 'phenomenology'.

3. The claim that we do not construct the world but find ourselves 'in' the world would be fully accepted, e.g. by a contemporary analytic philosopher (who might appeal, e.g. to Wittgenstein's private language argument).

What is the extra ingredient that makes the difference between Merleau-Ponty and other critics of Kant's approach? You say things - about the 'meaning' that our bodies, environment and the situations that we encounter have for us - that sound characteristically Merleau-Pontian. Yet I didn't have any sense of how we got there.

What gives Merleau-Ponty the right to argue from a description of our situation with which Kant would surely agree - that we are not consciously *aware* of any process of transcendental synthesis, that we find ourselves in the world in just the way that Merleau-Ponty describes - to the proposition that the situation as described is foundational, is the ultimate description of our relation to the world, rather than merely a description requiring further analysis in Kantian terms?

It could well turn out to be the case that the extra ingredient is the novel approach of phenomenology, as pioneered by Husserl. With this extra piece to the jigsaw, this might be a stronger, even more persuasive essay.

All the best,

Geoffrey