Sunday, August 7, 2011

Merleau-Ponty and a Critique of Science

That Merleau-Ponty, among the continental philosophers, was uniquely hospitable to science is a commonplace observation in commentary on his work.  The case for Merleau-Ponty’s porosity to scientific insight can be made by recourse to the footnotes and bibliographies that accompany his major works: completed books, published essays, as well as work set aside or left incomplete at the time of his early death.  Indeed one can argue that the earlier phenomenological work builds upon scientific insights more that the later ontological turn in his work[i].  For instance, “Phenomenology of Perception” (1945) is dense with reference to psychology, physiology, and neurological studies, whereas “The Visible and Invisible” (unpublished at the time of his death in 1961) does not refer to scientific literature (with the exception of some infrequent and glancing references to some major European scientists, for example, Eddington[ii]), building its arguments in dialogue with his own previous work, other philosophers, and with literature.  That being said, his lecture course on Nature shows that even relatively late in his too brief career, he was willing to maintain a connection with the major scientists of his time when the topic called for it.  That lecture course: a meditation of the significance of Nature, a problematic term in many disciplines, balances its account of the philosophical interest in nature in Bergson, Descartes, Kant etc. with a lively account of contemporary theories in biology (in particular, he makes good use of work of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, ethologists who later won the Nobel prize in Medicine for their work in setting the foundations of modern behavioral biology).   Although the lecture notes on Nature complicates a claim that the mature Merleau-Ponty had, in his later career, tempered his regard for scientific resources, nevertheless in his final published essay Eye and Mind starts with a succinct and forceful critique of science. 

Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.  It makes it own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals.  Science is and always has been that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our use.[iii]

To underscore Merleau-Ponty’s critique, I will observe that it seemingly expresses a two-fold concern.  On the one hand, the practice of science takes the practitioner out of a directly lived relationship with “things”.  In order to interrogate beings science manipulates them.  Science proceeds mainly by means of experimentation; that is, by manipulations designed to interrogate beings and thereby to coax these beings to reveal, through their “transformations”, information that confirms, informs, or changes very specific (limited) models of that thing.   In its manipulative praxis, science typically fails to encounter the real world.   It may encounter bits of the world, isolating fragments (subatomic particles, organs, elements, isolated fragments, species isolated from ecosystems in experimental systems, or laboratory microcosms, and so forth).  In order to accomplish its “admirable” task, it furthermore, regards things as objects – without value, by truncating its relations with the lived wholes to which they belong.   Secondly, science is concerned with the ultimate use of the things; despite its lifeless remove from the real world it assumes that all objects have a use-value.   To add to this, extrapolating somewhat from Merleau-Ponty’s critique and adding to it a certain Heideggerian tone, one can argue that science proceeds with a certain lifeless brutality, forcing beings to declare themselves, its pull them out of their concealment, demanding that they reveal themselves as they are in their truncated nakedness, and that they answer questions regarding their usefulness.  

If one responded to this critique, not by defending the practice of science (recalling that Merleau-Ponty’s designation of science as “admirably active, ingenious, and bold” is not guile on his part, having observed that he has made extensive use of scientific insights in his work), but by asking what a scientific practice that eschews a thinking “which looks on from above” might look like, we might return science to “the “there is” which underlies [scientific thinking]; to the site, the soil of the sensible and opened world such as it is in our life and for our body…”[iv].  Why might one be interested in such a return?  The result, Merleau-Ponty claims, may be that “science’s agile and improvisatory thought will learn to ground itself upon things themselves and upon itself, and will once more become philosophy…”[v]  If becoming (once more) a philosophy seems to scientists to be an imperialistic encroachment upon their terrain, Merleau-Ponty reiterates this theme, but this time as an appeal for holism, elsewhere:
Thus science began by excluding all the predicates that come to the things from our encounter with them.  The exclusion is however only provisional: when it will have learned to invest it, science will little by little reintroduce what it first put aside as subjective; but it will integrate it as a particular case of the relations and objects that define the world for science.  Then the world will close in over itself, and, except for what within us thinks and build science, that impartial spectator that inhabits us, we will have become parts or moments of the Great Object.[vi]    

In posts to follow, I would like to provide some comment on the prospects in one discipline, namely, ecology, for a deepening of its practice (in some ways, as I will show, to return to an earlier practice), in a manner that gets its closer to the what “breath of nature” (to use a term from Alexander von Humboldt’s lexicon).  Ecologists, at least those with more humanistic interests, have in recent years shown a lively engagement with Merleau-Ponty’s thought.   That is, those humanistic environmental scholars, many of them with philosophical training, have seen the potential significance of this thought for (re)thinking the connection between humans and their environing world.   I am particularly interested in an exchange between two such ecophenemological scholars which illustrates what are the significant point of convergence and divergence in their accounts of a Merleau-Pontian approach to ecology. However, my main interest will be to examine how Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy may shape the future of the practice of science; that is, I will ask how might he be taken up by scientists in the efforts to report on, and explain the phenomena of nature?  In particular, I speculate that for science both phenomenological Merleau-Ponty (crudely, the early writing) and ontological Merleau-Ponty (especially in The Visible and Invisible) may influence the way in which perception, experience, and the knowledge of the environment materializes.  Can the evulsive style of the experiment be replaced, or at the very least can be supplemented by, a methodology in which the ecologist “takes his body with him”[vii].

[i] David Farrell Krell referred to the “bath” that Merleau-Ponty took in science to write “The Phenomenology of Perception” and contrasted to the paucity of reference to science in “The Visible and the Invisible” which seems to be dominated by philosophical and literary reference [Seminar comment April 2010].
[ii] Louis de Broglie  (1892 – 1987), French physicist, VI p17; Arthur Stanley Eddington 1882 –1944, the British Astrophysicist. VI p25
[iii] M Merleau-Ponty “Eye and Mind” in The Primacy of Perception.  (Northwestern University Press. 1964), 159.
[iv] Eye and Mind, 160
[v] Ibid., 161.
[vi] M. Merleau Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1968), 15.
[vii] Ibid. 162; the quote is from Valéry.

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