Dear Merleau-Ponty (h2so4 14)

Dear Monsieur Merleau-Ponty:

Why is it that I am oftentimes uncertain as to whether an outing I have been asked to attend is a “date” or simply a “platonic” meeting? Also, a related question: How is it that I have at times been fooled,by what I took to be certain evidence—unhidden cues—into thinking my “date” intended one kind of meeting when he intended another?

    —Heidi

Dear Heidi:

The methods of proof and cognition invented by a thought already established in the world, and the concepts of object and subject it introduces, do not enable us to understand what I have called the perceptual faith, precisely because it is a faith,that is, an adherence that knows itself to be beyond proofs, not “necessary,” interwoven with incredulity, at each instantmenaced by non-faith. Belief and incredulity are here so closely bound up that we always find one in the other, and in particular a germ of non-truth in the truth: the certitude I have of being connected up with the world by my lookalready promises me a pseudo-world of phantasms if I let it wander. Both are at all times possible.

It is said that to cover one’s eyes so as not to see a danger is not to believe in things, to believe only in a private world; but this is rather to believe that what is for us is absolutely, that a world we have succeeded in seeing as without danger is without danger. It is therefore a sign of the greatest degree of belief that our vision goes “to the things themselves.” Perhaps this experience teaches us better than any other what the perceptual essence of the world is: not affirmation and negation of the same thing in the same respect, positive and negative judgment, or, as we said a moment ago, belief and incredulity—which would be impossible; beneath affirmation and negation, beneath judgment (those critical opinions), it is our experience, prior to every opinion, of inhabiting the world by ourbodies, of inhabiting the truth by our whole selves, without there being any need to choose nor even to distinguish between the assurance of seeing and the assurance of seeing the true, because in principle they are the same thing—faith, therefore, and not knowledge, since the world is here not separated from our hold on it, since, rather than affirmed, it is taken for granted, rather than disclosed, it is non-dissimulated, non-refuted. “I see what is true.”

If philosophy is to appropriate to itself and to understand this initial openness upon the world which does not exclude a possible occultation, it cannot be content with describing it; it must tell us how there is openness without occultation of the world beingexcluded, how the occultation remains at each instant possible even though we be naturally endowed with light. The philosopher must understand how it is that these two possibilities, which the perceptual faith keeps side by side within itself, do notnullify one another.

Keep this in mind whenever you essay to “read” by the light of another mind.

Yours,

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Dear Monsieur Merleau-Ponty:

OK, but how can I tell when I’m on a date?

—Heidi

Dear Heidi:

The philosopher does not have to consider as inexistent what was seen or felt, and replace them, according to the words of Descartes, with the “thought of seeing and feeling,” which for its part is consideredunshakable only because it presumes nothing about what effectively is, that is, only because it entrenches itself in the apparition to the thought of what is thought—from which it is indeed inexpugnable. (To the dictionaries themselves!)To reduce perception to the thought of perceiving, under the pretext that immanence alone is sure, is to take outan insurance against doubt whose premiums are more onerous than the loss for which it is to indemnify us, for it is to forego comprehending the effective world and move to a type of certitude that will never restore to us the “there is” of the world. Either the doubt is only a state of rending and obscurity, in which case it teaches me nothing—or if it teaches me something, it is because it is deliberate,militant, systematic, and then it is an act, and then, even if subsequently its own existence imposes itself upon me as a limit to the doubt, as a something that is not nothing, this something is of the order of acts, within which I amhenceforth confined.

The illusion of illusions is to think that we have never been certain of anything but our own acts, that from the beginning perception has been an inspection of the mind, and that reflection is only the perception returning to itself, the conversion from the knowing ofthe thing to a knowing of oneself of which the thing was made, the emergence of a “binding” that was the bond itself. We think we prove this Cartesian “spirituality,” this identity of space with the mind, by saying that it is obvious that the “far-off” object is far-off only by virtue of its relation to other objects “further off” or “less distant”—which relation belongs properly to neither of them and is the immediate presence of the mind to all; the doctrinefinally replaces our belongingness to the world with a view of the world from above. But it gets its apparent evidence only from a very naive postulate according to which it is always the same thing I think when the gaze ofattention is displaced and looks back from itself to what conditions it. This is a massive conviction drawn from external experience, where I have indeed the assurance that the things under my eyes remain the same while I approach them to better inspect them, but this is because the functioning of my body as a possibility for a changing point of view, a “seeing apparatus,” assures me that I amapproaching the same thing I saw a moment ago further off. It is the perceptual life of my body that here sustains and guarantees the perceptual explicitation—not vice versa—and far from it itself being a cognition of intra-mundane or inter-objective relations between my body and the exterior things, it is presupposed in every notion of an object, and it is this life that accomplishes the primary openness to the world.

To clarify: my conviction that I see the thing itself does not result from the perceptual exploration, it is not a word to designate the proximal vision; on the contrary it is what gives me the notion of the “best” point of observation, and of the “thing itself.”Having therefore learned through perceptual experience what it is to “see well” the thing, that to do so one must and one can approach it, and that the new data thus acquired are determinations of the same thing, we transfer this certitude to the interior—to the work of reflection after the fact—and in this way we come to think that to reflect on perception is to disclose the true subject. But, rather, I would assert that there was a thing perceived and an openness upon this thing which the reflection has neutralized and transformed into perception-reflected-on and thing-perceived-within-a-perception-reflected on. And that the functioning of reflection, like the functioning of the exploring body, makes use of powers obscure to me, spans the cycle of duration that separates the brute perception from the reflective examination, and during this time maintains the permanence of the perceived and the permanence of the perception under the gaze of the mind only because my mental inspection and my attitudes prolong the “I can” of my sensorial and corporeal exploration. To found the latter on the former, and the de facto perception on the essence of perception such as it appears to reflection is to forget the reflection itself as a distinct act of recovery.

In other words, we are catching sight of the necessity of another operation besides the conversion to reflection, more fundamental than it, of a sort of hyper- reflection that would also take itself and the changes itintroduces into the spectacle into account. It accordingly would not lose sight of the brute thing and the bruteperception and would not finally efface them, would not cut the organic bonds between the perception and the thing perceived with a hypothesis of inexistence. On thecontrary, it would set itself the task of thinking about them, of reflecting on the transcendence of the world as transcendence, speaking of it not according to the law of the word-meanings inherent in a given language, but with a perhaps difficult effort that uses the significations of words to express, beyond themselves, our mute contact with the things, when they are not yet things said. If therefore the reflection is not to presume upon what it finds and condemn itself to putting into the things what it will then pretend to find in them, it must suspend the faith in the world only so as to see it, only so as to read in it the route it has followed in becoming a world for us; it must seek in the world itself the secret of our perceptual bond with it.

In yet other words, you are thinking both too much and not enough.

My best to you,

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Dear Monsieur Merleau-Ponty:

Why do women wear white pumps?

    —Avia

Dear Avia,

What are pumps? Unless they are weapons or things otherwise threatening to those nearby, I can’t see why it would matter.

Yours,

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Dear Monsieur Merleau-Ponty:

What is your position on “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” or other liberal-political “solutions” to the problem of difference and disagreement about difference?

    —Anne Senhal

Dear Anne:

We might, and many do, think of the problem this way: if there is an other, by definition I cannot install myself in him, coincide with him, live his life: I live only my own. If there is an other, he is never in my eyes a For Itself, in the precise and given sense that I am “for myself.” Even if our relationship leads me to admit or even experience that “he too” thinks, that “he too” has a private landscape, I am not that thought as I am my own, I do not have that private landscape as I have my own. What I say of it is always derived from what I know of myself by myself: I might concede that if I inhabited that body I should have another solitude, comparable to that which I have, and always divergent perspectively from it. But the “if I inhabited” is not a hypothesis; it is a fiction or a myth. The other’s life, such as he lives it, is not for me an eventual experience or a possibility: it is a prohibited experience, an impossibility, and this is as it must be if the other is really the other. Every other interpretation, under the pretext of placing us—him and myself—in the same universe of thought, ruins the alterity of the other and hence marks the triumph of a disguised solipsism. Conversely, it is in making the other not only inaccessible but invisible for me that I guarantee his alterity and quit solipsism.

Yet we are not at the end of our troubles, and the labyrinth is still more difficult than we thought. For if we formulate what we have just said into theses—that is: the other can be for me, and hence can be only my being-seen, the other is the unknown incumbent of that zone of the not-mine which I am indeed obliged to mark out with dotted lines in being, since I feel myself seen—this agnosticism with regard to another’s being for himself, which appeared to guarantee his alterity, suddenly appears as the worst of infringements upon it. For he who states it implies that it is applicable to all those who hear him. He does not speak only of himself, of his own perspective, and for himself; he speaks for all. He says: the For Itself is alone..., or: the being for another is the death of the For Itself, or things of this kind—without specifying whether this concerns the being for itself such as he lives it or the being for itself such as those who hear him live it, etc. This singular that he permits himself—the For Itself, the For the Other—indicates that he means to speak in the name of all, whereas the description he uses contests this very power. Hence I only apparently confine myself to my own experience—to my being for myself and to my being for another—and only apparently respect the radical originality of the For Itself of another and his being for me, if I adhere to the thought above expounded.

Rather, from the sole fact that I open in the wall of my solipsism the breach through which the gaze of another passes, it is no longer a dichotomy that I am dealing with—that of the For Itself and the For the Other—it is a four-term system: my being for me, my being for the other, the for itself of another, and his being for me. This other, the void I wished to provide at the horizon of my universe, in order to lodge in it the author of my shame and the inconceivable image of me he forms, is not, whatever I may think, a void; it is not the simple or immediate negation of myself and my universe; there is an intersection of my universe with that of another.

It is necessary that there be a transition from the other to me and from me to the other precisely in order that I and the others not be posed dogmatically as universes equivalent by principle. It is necessary that we be for the others a system of For Itselfs, sensitive to one another, such that the one knows the other not only in what he suffers from him, but more generally as a witness, who can be challenged because he is also himself accused, because he is not a pure gaze upon pure being any more than I am,because his views and my are own are in advance inserted into a system of partial perspectives, referred to one same world in which we coexist and where our views intersect. For the other to be truly other, it is not necessary that he be a scourge, a continued threat of an absolute reversal of pro and con, or a judge himself elevated above all contestation. It is necessary and it suffices that he have the power to decenter me, to oppose his centering to my own, and he can do so only because we are not two nihilations installed in two universes of the In Itself, incomparable, but rather because we are two entries to the same Being (or world), each accessible to but one of us, but appearing to the other as practicable by right, because they both belong to the same Being.

Disguising indifference as sensitivity is the work examined and then discarded in paragraph one, and is what operates in your “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.”

Yours,

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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