November 15, 2005

Research Notes: Merleau–Ponty, the philosopher as perpetual beginner

I have just read the first two chapters of The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by Eric Matthews. Of greatest interest is the conception of the "phenomenological reduction" (and by implication, the purpose of philosophy), which is not really a reduction at all, but more like a phenomenological refocussing on detail, context and engagement with the messy reality of the world.

So far it has dealt well with the historical context, including a high-level overview of the differences between the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Husserl and Hegel. These are all philosophers whom one would expect to see in the same sentence. But something marks out Merleau-Ponty as being very much different. Matthews states that the purpose of philosophy for Merleau-Ponty:

…is not a discovery of transcendent or eternal truths, but the adoption of an attitude of wonder, of being a "perpetual beginner". p.41

As Matthews explains, Husserl may have turned towards this position in his later work. However, much of phenomenology aims in the other direction: either epistemological of ontological transcendence. Even when trying to return to the world, it is only to recast the world as something other than its complexity.

Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is entirely different. It shares with Nietzsche a liking for a child-like openness, a highly rational position of naivety and innocence. That's also the same ethos that sees Deleuze and Guattari talk of playing with circuits and concepts like a child plays with toys.

I suspect that this is not simply a result of Merleau-Ponty's work on psychology and pedagogy. This philosophy, like that of Deleuze and Guattari, is for a very different purpose. It is, as they say, an itinerant or nomadic philosophy. One that equips us to deal with change.

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