Friday, July 18, 2008

the animal world, the human world, and the philosopher's fallacy

This is starting to look like a theme.

Today I spent some time with Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, tracking down the role of silence in his account of speech and expression. In this chapter, he performs his usual trick of interpreting as the imposition of a dualism two competing accounts of a human phenomenon (meaningful speech in this case). He presents on one hand, what he boils down to the mechanistic, causal account of speech as an objective phenomenon (neurological, biological, behavioristic), and on the other hand, a purely subjective phenomenon (a meaningful and internal process of the thinking soul). Then he shows that the phenomenon itself, the lived experience of our meaningfully speaking to one another, is accounted for by neither, and hence that speech, like all other human phenomena, is "ambiguous."

Along the way, Merleau-Ponty also addresses the human world as such as a world of meaningful interactions and conduct, rather than a world of causal relations or of thoughts, and expresses this ambiguous situation as follows:

Everything is both manufactured and natural in man, as it were, in the sense that there is not a word, not a form of behavior which does not owe something to purely biological being - and which at the same time does not elude the simplicity of animal life, and cause forms of vital behavior to deviate from their pre-ordained direction, through a sort of leakage and through a genius for ambiguity which might serve to define man. (p 189)

Speech is one of the ways in which human being transcends the given, the mechanical, the determined, but speech is also conditioned by the given, the mechanical, and the determined. In short, you can't speak unless you've got the brain, mouth, teeth, larynx, diaphragm, but you also can't speak unless you've got something to speak about, something to express. In this way, he says, we both transcend but do not elude "the simplicity of animal life."

In my opinion, Merleau-Ponty is not one of the worst offenders among philosophers who dismiss or ignore the animal world, or the animal in the human. But he is clearly stating that all human phenomena, to be human, cannot be reducible to the animal. That means animal life hasn't the expressive or transcendent character human life has.

The key significance of this distinction, and of the phenomenon of speech, is that

speech implants the idea of truth in us as the presumptive limit of its effort... Even if this is pushing the principle beyond its limits and reducing things to the absurd, even if a linguistic meaning can never be delivered of its inherence in some word or other, the fact remains that the expressive process in the case of speech can be indefinitely reiterated, that it is possible to speak about speech whereas it is impossible to paint about painting, and finally that every philosopher has dreamed of a form of discourse which would supersede all others, whereas the painter or the musician does not hope to exhaust all possible painting or music. Thus there is a privileged position accorded to Reason. But if we want to understand it clearly, we must begin by putting thought back among the phenomena of expression. (p 190)

First off, I think he's dead wrong about the impossibility of painting about painting. There are some obvious cases in modern art, but in a deeper way, isn't all painting also an essay on the possibility of painting, and in that sense a painting about painting? (That is, if it's the capacity for self-reflection and being-for-itself that he's concerned about - and he is, he says so - then painting seems clearly to engage in that project, thank you very much.) He's also wrong about "every philosopher" hoping to exhaust the expressive power of speech by uttering some final truth. No doubt many do, but it's a strained reading of many, and couldn't be more incorrect regarding, say, Nietzsche.

That said, there's two big chocolate chips of truth in this cookie:

(1) The obvious self-reflectiveness of speech, unique among human expressive activity, is how it is that Reason is accorded its privilege. This is tautologous, it seems to me, but not emptily so. Reason is here defined, or at least delimited, by its expression in speech; that is, Reason is here understood as rational speech. So this notion could be re-stated: Because we speak about the world and our experience of it, and because we speak in particularly structured ways, those structured ways of speaking are our constant template for speaking sensibly. (All kinds of Kant stuff happening here that I won't go into for the moment, except to say that the content of this tautology is different for Merleau-Ponty than it is for Kant.)

The phenomenon of Reason has to be explained in terms of Reason being a product of speech, not (only?) a presupposition or precondition. Hence, we can't understand Reason or speech without going back to their origin in expressivity - the meaningfully lived interrelations of self-others-world.

(2) Speech, if it projects us in the direction of truth, leads us into the temptation to consider truth as a final attainment one of us might someday reach. Our utterances never reach truth in that sense, and the principle of that pursuit may itself be absurd. This is because our utterances are always conditioned by the beings that we are: neither purely animal nor purely rational, neither biological beings nor spiritual beings. Consequently, our speech, like all our expressions, says more than it should say, more than it is at liberty to say, and less than it wants to say, less than it apparently says.

Now if this is how it is for us as animals of words - animals of expressions, of lived interrelations of self-others-world - then why in principle would it not be so for animals of other expressions? I think that implicit in this account of the human phenomenon of speech is a blurring or erasing of the line demarcating the human from the non-human realms of lived experience. There simply seems to be no distinction fast enough to separate forms of expression absolutely, unless we slip back into relying on the rationalistic, dualistic notion of consciousness as mental stuff.

I'm going to go talk to my cats now.

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