Read: Galen Johnson reviews Rajiv Kaushik’s “Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism”

Published in the latest issue of Research in Phenomenology: Galen A. Johnson (University of Rhode Island; former General Secretary of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle) reviews Rajiv Kaushik’s (Brock University; Conference Director of the 41st Meeting of the IMPC) latest monograph, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrix Ontology.

The Matrixed Ontology and Primordial Symbolism

Review: Rajiv Kaushik. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. Albany: SUNY Press, 2019, 201pp.

Rajiv Kaushik’s most recent book, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology, advances the work and thought of his previous two, Art and Institution: Aesthetics in the Late Works of Merleau-Ponty and Art, Language, and Figure in Merleau-Ponty: Excursions in Hyper-Dialectic.1 In his own words, the new work “is more foundational to the other two since it deals directly with divergence as the symbolic form … a symbolic matrix that would be the ontological limit of both language and world” (xxii). Kaushik writes that Merleau-Ponty offers an invitation for philosophy to “catch a glimpse of its symbolic formation” (xxviii), and the result Kaushik has achieved is much more than a glimpse. It is monumental, an entire restructuring of the “received” interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy.

The received “standard” readings of Merleau-Ponty stress perception, lived-body, lived space and time, gesture, speech, and intersubjectivity as major themes. Such readings left his philosophy vulnerable to critics who found too much subjectivity, continuity, cohesion, unity, and sense making, closing off experiences of rupture and unpredictability that philosophers such as Alain Badiou, Lyotard, and others call an “event.” Commentators missed or diminished other gravitational ideas discovered by Merleau-Ponty about institution, matrices, passivity, and symbolism in part through no fault of their own since much about these ideas is found only in more course lectures and course notes.2 By anchoring here, Kaushik’s reading brings Merleau-Ponty’s thought into close proximity to Heraclitus, Freud, and Proust, with Husserl as a steadying influence. The dialogue Kaushik creates between Merleau-Ponty and Heraclitus based upon the Heraclitus Seminar of Heidegger and Fink together with the examination of Merleau-Ponty’s overall position regarding the “unity of opposites” has been long overdue, as well as his exegesis in the same context of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of light-dark and sleeping-waking from the Passivity lectures.

To begin, let me refer to a different book Kaushik has co-published in the same year titled Merleau-Ponty and Contemporary Philosophy.3 This work includes an Epilogue that must have been difficult to procure, a statement from Jean-Luc Nancy titled: “Merleau-Ponty: An Attempt at a Response.” Nancy recounts that he came from an intellectual generation subsequent to “the Sixties” for whom Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and The Structure of Behavior were on the required reading list. This rendered the study of “perception” foreclosed for him as “the effect of the author Merleau-Ponty whom one was once required to study.”4 It was when Nancy discovered Deleuze, Althusser, and Derrida, especially Derrida, that he experienced “the feeling of listening to the music of the present.”5 Nevertheless, he writes that Merleau-Ponty’s lecture notes on passivity both surprised and interested him since passivity implies non-presence and is “one of the ways of naming a displacement of the ‘metaphysics of presence’.”6 I hope it will not be a misdirection to say we should keep an eye on Nancy – and Derrida (divergence, différance) – when we are studying Kaushik’s Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology, for Kaushik has made the Passivity lectures (1954–1955)7 the textual centerpiece of his new book, around which Merleau-Ponty’s other works, especially the late writings, revolve and circulate.

Kaushik has begun his book with a summative introduction and outline of chapters that gives the reader a guide to what is a very challenging book, a book that forces the reader to re-read. Each of the chapters could stand on its own as an independent work, rich in scholarship where we find not only discussions of the founding giants of phenomenology such as Husserl, Fink, and Heidegger, but also its second generation of thinkers such as Sartre, Ricoeur, and Lyotard, as well as Derrida and Nancy already mentioned. The ancient Greeks, Homer, Heraclitus and Plato, are prominent as well. Kaushik has a reason for giving Merleau-Ponty prominence of place among such philosophical giants: each of these “engage in some transformation of the philosophical method or other” (xxiii). Kaushik’s writing is also conversant with a whole array of leading contemporary interpreters of Merleau-Ponty.8 Artists also play decisive roles at turns of the argument: Paul Klee, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, and Stendhal.

The book is divided into five chapters with a separate conclusion that draws out some implications for a political philosophy based on symbolism that would be different than a politics of metaphor. I will raise some questions about these political implications near the end of this review. Kaushik presents the notion of “the matrixed ontology” in the Introduction in terms of “matrix events” that Merleau-Ponty often speaks of in the Institution course lectures. A matrixed ontology shifts the meaning of the transcendental field away from the intentionality and constitution of objects and world by a self-conscious subject toward institution, divergence, and difference. Kaushik writes:

A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology – that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent (xii).

This means the transcendental field is now reconceived in a way that displaces and replaces Erlebnisse with an anonymous, silent écart (divergence) that allows beings to appear. By turning toward a philosophy of institution (Urstiftung), matrix events come to prominence. Examples discussed by Merleau-Ponty include the Industrial Revolution, the invention of planimetric perspective, and Paul Klee’s line (xiii). Kaushik points out that Merleau-Ponty’s formulations of institution are wider in scope than Husserl’s and “include evolutionary and natural institutions, such as puberty, menstruation, and animal morphology” as biochemical transformations (xvi). In comparison with Merleau-Ponty, Husserl’s notion of institution found in a work such as The Crisis of European Sciences, is nearly entirely a temporal notion limited to human creations such as Euclidean geometry, omitting more exterior and natural institutions and the spatial element that also informs them.

Matrix events bear a double temporal sense: when instituted, such a past remains within ongoing, present instituting actions and creations but are repressed or “forgotten.” Thus, a matrix event is unavailable to complete reflection, displays a kind of “primordial passivity,” and becomes a “symbolic matrix” that Kaushik interprets as a “symbolic form” (xvii). He points out that the first reference to a matrix in Merleau-Ponty’s institution lectures is a symbolic “displacement” that exists between the human and the animal, according to Freud. The life of animality has an “echo” in humans, and inversely there are human behaviors in the animal such as the amorous parading about by the animal echoed in elective love and falling in love.9 Such displacements or symbolic forms are both closed and open, that is, both given but also opaque and unpredictable. A symbolic form such as planimetric perspective in Renaissance painting parallels developments in philosophy, and this enables Kaushik to introduce the idea of philosophy itself as a symbolic form. Kaushik cites Merleau-Ponty’s text:

The parallel [of Renaissance painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic form (xviii).10

This parallel between theoretical developments in Renaissance painting and philosophy anticipates the view Merleau-Ponty would later express in Eye and Mind that “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.”11

Kaushik agrees there is no thorough, consistent analysis of an ontological symbolism found in Merleau-Ponty’s works, but he finds suggestions of it in his references to elements, and “element” becomes the final term in Kaushik’s rereading of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology: matrix and matrix event, symbolism, element. In the famous passage in The Visible and the Invisible that introduces the notion of Flesh, Merleau-Ponty calls it an “element” of Being.12 To elucidate, Kaushik leans on a Working Note of The Visible and the Invisible (November, 1959): “Perception is not first a perception of things, but a presentation of elements (water, air …) of rays of the world, of things which are dimensions, which are worlds, I slip on these ‘elements’ and here I am in the world, I slip from the ‘subjective’ to Being” (xxii).13 In the preceding discussion Merleau-Ponty clarifies that each of the senses is a “world,” which means that it is absolutely incommunicable for the other senses, yet is open upon the world of the other senses. For example, a color, yellow, is the color of a thing and yet, as soon as it becomes the color of illumination (colour d’éclairage) as the dominant color of a field, it ceases to be merely a yellow thing and takes on an ontological function and represents all things. In such a way, particularity and universality are not opposites or contradictories. As Kaushik puts it: “These divergences of the sensible would be the most basic kind of symbolic form; they would be symbolic formation itself” (xxv, my emphasis). Thus, the elements are not themselves phenomenal though they are “within the phenomenon,” they have no specific locale and remain “unsignified within significations” (xxii). They are an inexpressible silence necessary for phenomena to appear. Merleau-Ponty wrote: “In a sense, the whole of philosophy, as Husserl says, consists in restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning, and expression of experience by experience, which in particular clarifies the special domain of language.”14

Speaking and thinking are expressions of “the world of silence.”15 At the end of Chapter 1, Kaushik cites Merleau-Ponty’s statement: “We shall have to follow more closely this transition from the mute world to the speaking world,” and adds this remarkable citation from Leonard Lawlor: “Perhaps if he had had the time, he [Merleau-Ponty] would have felt compelled to change the title of this book one more time; perhaps he would have felt compelled to change it from The Visible and the Invisible to something like Ousia and Grammé.”16

The element to which Kaushik devotes singular and sustained attention is that of light – fire, fire-light, and kindling. He considers Merleau-Ponty the eminent philosopher of vision in the twentieth century, and references to light abound in his writings (56). Moreover, here the intersections between the thought of Merleau-Ponty and Nancy come to the forefront of our attention since Nancy also has much to say about light, in particular his essay, “Lux Lumen Splendor” (59). Kaushik points out there are two differing ways in which light is thematized in Western philosophy: lumen and lux. The former is a geometric conception of light in terms of lines, reflection, and refraction, while the latter emphasizes the experiential apprehension of light by vision. Both Merleau-Ponty and Nancy are concerned principally with lux, and here Kaushik says “apprehension” rather than perception for one of the most important points about light is that light itself is not observable, it remains background or “atmosphere” that renders vision possible, i.e., light as Visibility. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty speaks of a lamp moving around a bust thereby illuminating it, and here he speaks in terms of “lighting,” for what is given to perception is “the complex of changing light and color,” a “logic of lighting” in which the surface of the bust is lit up against other darkened surfaces where light is diffuse and in shadows. Thus, here we find a necessary polarity, that is, to speak not only of light itself, rather the unity of opposites, light – dark. Kaushik comments:

This means that for him [Merleau-Ponty], illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark – that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. The refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both the phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light (64–65).17

Though “texture” is a term most often associated with touch, here “texture of light,” I would say, expresses that rhythm of lighting and shadows, softness or harshness, we could add coolness or warmth, that are also given in touch and are part of the communicability of the senses. Therefore, it is no accident that Merleau-Ponty’s discussions of painting in Eye and Mind as part of his late ontology employ the element of fire as spark and the lighting of fire that inspires the painter (65).18 Such passages in Merleau-Ponty’s texts, Kaushik argues, are “radicalizations of Heraclitean opposites and of Heraclitus’s first principle of fire” (66). In Heraclitus’s Fragment B217, the term he deploys is “kindling,” as he describes the cosmos as a self-made thing that “kindles itself” and “extinguishes itself” in measures (66). Moreover, unlike Heidegger who likens “kindling” to sun-fire, Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the spark or incitement of fire is “an emphasis on a locality of light that situates itself concretely and secretly between our vision and what we see.” Kaushik comes, therefore, to a surprising conclusion: “Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, the earth and not the sun is the place to begin a metaphysics of light” (66). This is wholly consistent with the stress both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty place upon earth as our home body and “ark.” In his earlier Art and Institution, Kaushik dwells upon earth as the Ur-Arché with a carnal Urhistorie,19 and although he does not use the word element there, he could clearly do so, in particular based upon Husserl’s fragment known as “Overthrow of the Copernican Theory” with its famous assertion that “the earth does not move,” as well as Merleau-Ponty’s related commentary in “The Philosopher and His Shadow.”20

These reflections upon the element of fire provide the link and transition to sleeping and waking-dreaming, for dreams are described as “kindling” and likened to candle light in the conversation between Fink and Heidegger from their Heraclitus seminar.21 These rich reflections cannot be entered into fully here, only some key points as signposts. One such is that Heraclitus’ opposition is not directly between waking and dreaming “but between waking-dreaming and sleep” (67, 71). Waking perception is not free and clear from dream, which goes together with Merleau-Ponty’s concern for articulating the linkages between the fictive and the real in the Passivity lectures, and exploring the “imaginary texture of the real” in Eye and Mind.22 A second key point stresses divergence: “To sleep is neither immediate presence to the world nor pure absence. It is being in the divergence [c’est être à l’écart].”23 Kaushik repeats this latter phrase several times and emphasizes it. To sleep is to dwell in the divergence of being, and “being in the divergence” is to dwell in a “primordial symbolism” that leads us toward a “primordial ontology” (72). Such an ontology was anticipated in an important passage from Phenomenology of Perception about falling to sleep as if my mouth and breathing “were connected to some great lung outside of myself which alternately calls forth and forces back my breath. A certain rhythm of respiration” (72). This means we do not cause ourselves to sleep, for the will to sleep prevents sleep (as every insomniac knows only too well), rather I “lend myself to sleep” and the body awaits sleep such that “sleep produces itself.” As well, sleep does not aim at a significance “because it is difference.” The “lung of being” is an anticipation of “being in divergence,” the place of sleep and the place of primordial symbolism found in the dream.

The Passivity lectures add a distinction between “light sleep” and “heavy sleep:” the former holds onto place and personal identity somewhat, but the latter no longer knows either place or who I am, and “significance gives way to situation” (72). “A man who sleeps,” Merleau-Ponty states, “is nowhere, in no span of time, possible everywhere and at all times” (73). This is paradoxical, for the sleeping body continues to be present in a particular locality and time, yet it becomes the “dedifferentiated body,” such that there is “a compromise between active body and dedifferentiated body.”24 Kaushik concludes: “there is no direct phenomenology of sleep … but this does not mean there is no phenomenology of sleep” (74). It does mean both that the phenomenology of sleep is indirect and that it becomes “the phenomenology of a symbolic limit to thought” (79). In other words, “being in the divergence,” primordial symbolism and primordial ontology are daring limit notions.

If philosophy is now necessarily intermingled with symbolism, what is its method and what are its possible outcomes? To study the symbolic as a limit to thought, philosophy would, first, become a “psychoanalysis of thought” (xxvii), and here Merleau-Ponty’s notes on Freud become of prime significance. The Passivity lectures make a contrast between Merleau-Ponty’s thinking about dreams and that of Freud and Sartre. Whereas Sartre believed the dream to be a plunge into non-being akin to his analysis of the imagination, and Freud believes the dream symbol is deceitful for it is in some measure repressed, Merleau-Ponty understands dreaming consciousness as “impressional:” “dreams impress themselves on consciousness and in fact present themselves as inaccessible to reflection” (85). This is an “oneiric symbolism” that is both concrete and associated with passivity, yet is productive and proliferative (89). Kaushik finds the following passage from Merleau-Ponty’s “La philosophie aujourd’hui” [“Philosophy Today”] to be crucial:

There is only one complete psychology: it is philosophy, that is to say Psyche confined to the auto-revelation of Being (hence, reference to the Psyche of Heraclitus). If philosophy is true psychology, psychology is an incipient philosophy: But this is not only true of Psyche; the body as bearer of Psyche returns to being where all things are together (91).25

The phrases here, “the auto-revelation of Being” and the “return to being where all things are together,” make us wonder whether phenomenology “endeavors to be present at the event where sense comes into being” (91).26 And there are certainly plenty of passages in Merleau-Ponty that support such an endeavor, Kaushik admits, including the reference to “the voice of no one” and “the very voice of things” that Merleau-Ponty took from Valéry’s poem, La Pythie (The Pythoness) and incorporated into the end of the “The Intertwining – The Chiasm” chapter of The Visible and the Invisible. However, Kaushik opts to read such passages as implicating a limit of expression and philosophical expression, rather than the thought of “something lying in wait of expression” (93). This limit is to be understood in Merleau-Ponty’s thought in terms of the figure of depth, and the depths of ourselves (psyche), Kaushik says: “this psyche limits and gives shape to those things (forming them) while remaining always in the hazards of those things and intervallic” (93), which is to say a psyche for whom there is an interval, space of time, or delay27 between events. To elaborate all too briefly, in the Introduction to Signs, Merleau-Ponty cites Valéry’s phrase, “the body of the spirit” and finds that “Valéry was right to call this speaking power in which expression premeditates itself the ‘animal of words.’”28 This phrase is Merleau-Ponty’s way of reading Valéry’s notion of the implex, which is the unconscious “not only of words, but of events, of symbolic emblems” (89).29 Here Kaushik finds another resonance with the thought of Nancy, who wrote that Freud’s most fascinating and decisive statement is found in a posthumous note: “Psyche ist ausgedehnt: weiss nichts davon” [“The psyche’s extended; knows nothing about it”] (94). Nancy comments: “The ‘psyche,’ in other words, is body.” So it is “the body, or bodies, that we try to touch through thought.”30

These reflections and discoveries lead directly to the question of the language of philosophical expression. Here is Kaushik: “What language, Merleau-Ponty asks, would disclose all this. What language could possibly reveal the ontogenesis of language that no language could ever be about? The answer is: none, Or, rather, none in particular. Merleau-Ponty suggests that the eloquent and philosophical have to be written into one another” (103). Kaushik points to this text in the Passivity lectures in which Merleau-Ponty names the method for the understanding of dreams, therefore for philosophical expression, a “hermeneutical reverie:” Merleau-Ponty wrote: “Method proper to the understanding of dreams: reverie over dreams, hermeneutical reverie…. It is the system of echoes which also constitutes the oneirism of wakefulness (cf. Blanchot’s unspeaking speech)” (99).31 Kaushik argues this explains Merleau-Ponty’s direct borrowing from literature in his late writings: from Valéry, “implex” and “chiasma,” from Claude Simon, “the flesh of the world,” from Malraux, “coherent deformation.” Above all, hermeneutic reverie brings to the fore the role of Proust in the formation of Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology. Kaushik is careful about this, he does not claim that the art of literature just is philosophy nor that Proust “offers a method phenomenology should follow” (105). And he hedges against saying openly that Proust should be considered a philosopher.32 What he does argue is that the literary phrases that mark Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology “open lines of previously impossible conceptual analyses” (105). In other words, philosophy “matrixed with” literature is the endeavor to illuminate the oneiric-poetic dimensions of language and Being.

Here in his last chapter discussing poetic language as the “eloquent language” needed by philosophy, Kaushik makes an unexpected turn, at least to this reader: he argues that hermeneutic reverie does not “prize” metaphor above all and those who posit an “originary metaphoricity” of Being, such as found in Renaud Barbaras’s interpretation of Merleau-Ponty,33 are making an important mistake. Kaushik’s argument is too multi-layered to enter into fully in the space we have remaining. In brief, he argues a metaphorical ontology collapses the difference between being and non-being and also collapses the difference between ontology and the language that expresses it (108). As well, it creates a false dichotomy between scientific language that supposedly “veils ontology and the poetic [that] is ontology” (110). Merleau-Ponty is quite clear on the issue, Kaushik believes, for he wrote: “There is no metaphor between the visible and the invisible” (109).34 To raise a question about this statement, I would suggest that Merleau-Ponty’s aim here is not a rejection of metaphor, rather a rejection of a dualistic interpretation of the meaning of metaphor that compartmentalizes and separates the visible and invisible, then must seek a bridge or transfer between them. The same seems true of Heidegger’s critique of metaphor in The Principle of Reason.35 Emmanuel de Saint Aubert states: “Heidegger’s target is not metaphor per se, but its dualistic theorization.”36 It is significant, in my opinion, that when Kaushik is criticizing metaphor, he takes the definition of metaphor from Aristotle’s Poetics, which very clearly portrays metaphor as a transfer that creates resemblance between separate terms. In counterpoint, Saint Aubert cites a passage from Merleau-Ponty’s lecture course, “Cartesian Ontology and Ontology Today,” in which Merleau-Ponty states he was attempting to find a philosophical word more appropriate to the paradoxes of our condition: “A word that offers an ‘intelligible mouthful,’37 bearing an ‘essence common to real and imaginary,’ ‘bearing meaning, not as an idea of the intelligence,’ ‘but meaning as metaphor.’”38 And for me, the locus classicus on this matter comes from The Visible and the Invisible which says the philosopher seeks “a manner of making the things themselves speak … through the occult trading of the metaphor – where what counts is no longer the manifest meaning of each word and each image, but the lateral relations, the kinships that are implicated in their transfers and exchanges.”39 And a chapter later, he adds: “to speak of the world’s ‘style’ is in our view to form a metaphor.”40

Now the point is not to set forth dueling “proof” texts, rather to understand and deepen what Merleau-Ponty means by metaphor, and here Kaushik seems to me to have it right, although he attributes it to the “positive symbol,” “to think passivity not as perfect inaction or action but wild [my emphasis] in the sense it only happens through what is different from it” (85). The hermeneutic reverie, whether it be in Freud or Proust, in metaphor or symbol, seeks the wild, what is untamed in language, its promiscuity, proliferation, the piling up of unpredictable differences. Kaushik himself shifts to a different understanding of metaphor beyond Aristotle and beyond dualism when he turns to “finding a hermeneutical reverie with Proust,” and here he cites Miguel de Beistegui’s Proust as Philosopher: “The distinctiveness of metaphor lies in its ability to present or schematize difference: metaphor is the sensible figure of difference, the poetic schema” (112).41

In his Conclusion, Kaushik reveals there is an ideological or political reason behind his critique of a metaphorical ontology. Mentioning Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Benjamin, Kaushik submits for consideration that “the ontology of metaphor is implied in the so-called post-truth politics of today in which facts are spontaneous and simplistically alternate to one another” (128). Kaushik had foreshadowed this implication earlier saying that the hermeneutical reverie of philosophy is “critical philosophy insofar as it is concerned with the limits of thought” understood “not ideologically but as in a reverie … non-ideological ontology” (108). Here we encounter the practical scope and seriousness of Kaushik’s theoretical concerns, and we are led to ask whether an ontology of metaphor aligns itself with our post-truth political climate in a way that an ontology of symbolism resists. Kaushik mentions Nietzsche and thereby seems implicitly to reference Nietzsche’s nihilistic view of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors … illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are … to be truthful means using the customary metaphors – in moral terms: the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie herdlike in a style obligatory for all.”42 He also mentions Benjamin who urged us “to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred percent for images.”43 Here we need more time, a seminar perhaps, to differentiate and disentangle these threads: symbol, metaphor, image. It seems to me, though Merleau-Ponty did not expel metaphor from ontological discourse, he was clearly aware that there are metaphors that create and perpetuate illusions, and that there are also ones that become idols of the cave.44 Moreover, Kaushik is surely correct when he writes profoundly that Merleau-Ponty “does not have a poetics or an ontology that is not political” (128). The question is whether a philosophy of symbolism preserves the openness, promiscuity, and play of primordial divergence in a way that metaphor closes off. I can see a way in which there may be, in an ontology of symbolism, a firmer recognition of the silence and the “un-thought” in Being rather than the risk of some ultimate word or ultimate truth that dogmatizes and hollows out thought. The last section of the conclusion, “Politics, History, and Elements,” points in such a direction. It concludes that phenomenology comes to an un-thought at its start and finish, thus gives us “quasi-concepts” or “fragmented thoughts” in virtue of the primordial symbolism that could never itself come to light, “philosophies in the dark.” This brings to mind the statement of Paul Klee: “Art plays in the dark with ultimate things and yet it reaches them.”45 For philosophy, possibly for art too, it seems Kaushik consents to playing with ultimate things, but dissents from any pretention of reaching them.

There is much in Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism I have been unable to cover. Yet in the touches discussed here, it is emphatically clear that Rajiv Kaushik has given us many “intelligible mouthfuls” in the phrase of Claudel, thereby creating one of the most original books in recent studies of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. It casts light on relatively unknown or unaccented themes that disclose a “new” Merleau-Ponty, philosopher of the event, symbol, and elements. These themes courageously plunge into the depths of the most challenging ontological knots, such as the positive symbol and “positive negation.” These in themselves are worthy of further consideration, and since he has also given us what seems to me a very enticing and open conclusion regarding the political and post-truth, a topic utterly vital to our times, we can all be eager to read and hear more from Rajiv Kaushik.


  1. Rajiv Kaushik, Art and Institution: Aesthetics in the Late Works of Merleau-Ponty (London: Continuum, 2011); Art, Language, and Figure in Merleau-Ponty: Excursions in Hyper-Dialectic (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
  2. Kaushik explicitly mentions M.C. Dillon’s Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology as one such received reading he seeks to revise (xxii, 92). Cf. Martin C. Dillon, Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988). I certainly agree there has been a sea change in Merleau-Ponty studies since the 1980s and 1990s, and Dillon’s book is a locus classicus.
  3. Emmanuel Alloa, Frank Chouraqui, and Rajiv Kaushik, eds., Merleau-Ponty and Contemporary Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 2019).
  4. Ibid., 298, 300.
  5. Ibid., 298.
  6. Ibid., 300.
  7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity: Course Notes from the Collège de France (1954–1955), trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 18–19. French original: L’Intitution La Passivité : Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954–1955), (Paris: Éditions Belin, 2003).
  8. In addition to M.C. Dillon already mentioned, an incomplete list of Merleau-Ponty scholars Kaushik references includes: Renaud Barbaras, Mauro Carbone, Emmanuel de St. Aubert, Leonard Lawlor, Véronique Fóti, John Sallis, Glen Mazis, Emmanuel Alloa, and Keith Whitmoyer.
  9. Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 18–19/French original, 52–53.
  10. Ibid., 44/French original, 82. Merleau-Ponty argued that Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic form remains an “intellectualism” resulting from his distinction between the “community of being” and a “community of sense.” This distinction, he argues, places consciousness outside of being and did not go far enough to construe philosophy itself as a symbolic form. Cf. Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), 126–127. French original: Phénomologie de la perception (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1945), 145.
  11. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132. French original: L ’oeil et l’esprit (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 42.
  12. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 139/184.
  13. Ibid., 218/271.
  14. Ibid., 155/French original, 203.
  15. Ibid., 144/French original, 188.
  16. Leonard Lawlor, “Eliminating Some Confusion: The Relation of Being and Writing in Merleau-Ponty and Derrida,” in Écart and Différance: Seeing and Writing in Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, ed. M.C. Dillon (London: Humanities Press, 1997), 86. Also published as Chapter 3, Leonard Lawlor, Thinking Through French Philosophy: The Being of the Question (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 61. Of course Lawlor’s reference is to Derrida’s essay, “Ousia and Grammé: Note on a Note from Being and Time,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
  17. Within this passage, Kaushik makes an insertion to point out the same thought appears in Merleau-Ponty’s Nature lecture courses with regard to Schelling, and in “Philosophy and Non-Philosophy Since Hegel,” Merleau-Ponty describes light as “polysemic” [Vieldeutigkeit] (64). Kaushik finds Schelling to be of capital importance for Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of the elements.
  18. Kaushik cites two texts from Eye and Mind, both of which occur in Merleau-Ponty’s comments on Paul Klee: “… the spark is lit between sensing and sensible, lighting the fire that will not stop burning;” and, “In the immemorial depth of the visible, something moved, caught fire, and engulfed his body; everything he paints is in answer to this incitement” (65). Cf. Eye and Mind, 125/French original, 21; 147/French original, 86.
  19. Kaushik, Art and Institution, 46.
  20. Edmund Husserl, “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origins of the Spatiality of Nature,” known as “Overthrow of the Copernican Theory,” in which Husserl makes the famous claim that “the earth does not move” since it is our home body or “ark.” Cf. Husserl: Shorter Works, ed. Peter McCormick and Frederick Elliston, trans. Fred Kersten (Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 230. Cf. Merleau-Ponty’s commentary, “The Philosopher and His Shadow,” Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 180–181/227–228.
  21. Cf. Eugen Fink and Martin Heidegger, Heraclitus Seminar, trans. Charles H. Seibert (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 137–139. See in particular the section titled “The Dreamless Sleep: Sleep and Dream” in correlation with Heraclitus’ fragments 26, 99, 55.
  22. Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, 126, 138/24, 59.
  23. Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 148/196.
  24. Ibid., 148/196.
  25. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “La philosophie aujourd’hui” [Philosophy Today], in Notes de cours : 1958–1959 et 1960–1961 (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 88. The course notes remain untranslated and the English translation given here is by Keith Whitmoyer in his article, “The Sense of the Transcendental: Psyche in Heraclitus, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty,” Chiasmi International: Trilingual Studies Concerning Merleau-Ponty’s Thought, 18 (2016), 205.
  26. Whitmoyer, “The Sense of the Transcendental: Psyche in Heraclitus, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty,” 205.
  27. Cf. Keith Whitmoyer, The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Task of Thinking (United Kingdom: Bloomsbury, 2017), 2.
  28. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 18. French original: Signes (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1960), 26.
  29. Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 159/210–211.
  30. Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 21.
  31. Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 154/204. Hermeneutical reverie is found for the first time in Merleau-Ponty’s “Cézanne’s Doubt” and there it was already linked with psychoanalysis. Cf. Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” trans. Michael B. Smith, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, 75. French original: “Le doute de Cézanne,” in Sens et Non-Sens (Paris: Les Éditions Nagel, 1948, 1966), 43.
  32. It turns out that Merleau-Ponty answers the question of whether Proust is a philosopher with a qualified affirmative. In an excerpt from Merleau-Ponty’s yet unpublished lecture course of 1953–1954, La problème de la parole, published in Chiasmi International, Volume 21 (2019), and translated into English by Rajiv Kaushik, Merleau-Ponty’s course notes say this:
    “1) Proust as philosopher?
    Theory, for he is a philosopher: he says that he himself often ‘sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work’ … This is not a diversion from philosophy; it is his philosophy….
    Let us describe, then, this fundamental experience, which, when broadened, will become ‘his philosophy,’ and which is precisely the correlative experience of the silence of things and of the appearance of speech [la parole].” (45)
  33. Another important text that also speaks of ontological metaphoricity is the recent book by Glen A. Mazis, The Face of the World: Silence, Ethics, Imagination and Poetic Ontology (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016). Mazis writes: “Poetic metaphor is central to the ontology of the flesh for it expresses the promiscuity of being that comprises the flesh.” (290)
  34. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 221/271.
  35. Cf. Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 48. Paul Ricoeur also thinks that Heidegger’s frequent uses of metaphor mean his critique should be taken as a critique of the dualistic way in which metaphor has been predominantly understood since Aristotle. Cf. The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny (London: Routledge, 1978), 280.
  36. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, “Metaphoricity: Carnal Infrastructures and Ontological Horizons,” Chapter 5 in Galen A. Johnson, Mauro Carbone, and Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, Merleau-Ponty’s Poetic of the World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 125.
  37. Ibid., 155. Saint Aubert notes that Merleau-Ponty borrows the expression “intelligible mouthful” [bouchée intelligible] from Paul Claudel’s Art poétique.
  38. Merleau-Ponty, “Cartesian Ontology and Ontology Today,” in Notes de cours 1959–1961, 202.
  39. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 125/167. My emphasis.
  40. Ibid., 155/203.
  41. Cf. Miguel de Beistegui, Proust as Philosopher: The Art of Metaphor, trans. Dorothée Bonnigal Katz with Simon Sparks and Miguel de Beistegui (Abington: Routledge, 2013), 77.
  42. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 46–47.
  43. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 191.
  44. Cf. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, “Metaphoricity,” final section, “Twilight of the Idols: Metaphor and Mystique,” 154–158. An example of one such metaphorical illusion Merleau-Ponty criticizes is the “river of time,” which he counters in Phenomenology of Perception. One such idol Merleau-Ponty boldly confronts and Saint Aubert details is the God of explicative theology and Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds.”
  45. Paul Klee, “Creative Credo,” in Notebooks, Volume I, Paul Klee: The Thinking Eye (New York: George Wittenborn, 1961), 80.

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