“Last week’s lecture involved taking an empirical anthropological excursion into the hinterland of the origins of consciousness. In this last lecture I wish to return to the home counties of philosophical Anthropology.
Jean Paul Sartre once arrived at a café in Paris and looked for his friend Pierre only to conclude that he was not there! Now there have been philosophical accounts of nature that insist that there cannot be any negation in nature. There is only a lack of something if a consciousness lacks something. Only a conscious being could know that Pierre was not in the café. For Descartes and for Kant, when we are in relation to the natural world in itself we are in relation to a three dimensional homogenous extension in space which cannot be understood by the mind. But in one of his Meditations Descartes begins to talk about the space of a lived human body. He begins to talk of the unity of the body in relation to the soul. But in other places he adopts the point of view of the pure natural observer and talks of the human body as if it is a machine. When he does so he points to a place in space, which is responsible for the unity of the body and the soul: the pineal gland in the brain. It is not easy to derive a humanistic position from the philosophy of Descartes, or even meet the demands of common sense. The problem being eluded to here, ladies and gentlemen, is the problem of the nature of living organised beings, a problem that appears to demand a Copernican revolution in which the unity or finality of the body and the soul does not conflict with the pure operation of natural, physical causality. This unity can be exemplified only if consciousness results from the phenomenon of language and if, furthermore language is transformed by consciousness. Kant’s Copernican revolution took us back to the human being as the home of such unity and finality. The human being, according to Kant, surpasses or transforms nature with its freedom to both change and oppose nature. Bergson, another French philosopher claims that there are two contradictory orders in reality, what he calls the physic-mathematical which consists in the constancy of certain laws where the same causes lead to the same effects: and the vital order in which the same results can be attained even when the conditions are different. This is the idea of finality and unity in a nutshell. Julian Jaynes has a magnificent example of this in one of his interviews. A man is knocked down by a car and killed: during his autopsy it is discovered that his limbic system was radically deformed, probably from birth. On physic-mathematical principles this man should have been a violent monster at odds with everything human. On investigation it turned out that he had led a perfectly normal life as a family man and insurance salesmen—these are the kinds of relations between facts we find in the human vital order. Jean Paul Sartre would have said “The damaged limbic system is not there”: he might even have called it a pool of nothingness which he thought was, together with negation, the defining feature of consciousness. Merleau-Ponty in a series of lectures on Nature makes the point that the two orders of matter and life are positive and continuous and not discrete orders which leaves us with the dilemma of what to call the continuity. Merleau-Ponty calls it Nature, Sartre calls it Being. The idea that there could absolutely be nothing, must be an impossible idea, and this must be the defining limit of both Being and Nothingness, the title of Sartre’s greatest work. Heidegger discussed this in relation to a question “Why must there be something rather than nothing?” There can only be something and we can only think something. To say that something is not there is to say that something else is. Pierre may not be there where he promised to be and the café is where it should be. This also suggests that History would not exist were it not for negation. A historical event must surely be something which is not happening now…”
A History Major raised their hand:
“And yet we do sometimes say of important events that are happening now “This will be a historical event.”
“Yes and the “will be” in your formulation demonstrates this point: we need to move on in time so the event will be a past event before it can be considered a historical event. But we can see from the “Pierre is not in the café” example that at least insofar as the material reality of the café is concerned not everything is possible. It is not possible for Pierre to be there in the café when he is clearly not. All this sounds very abstract but is actually a demonstration of the role of reason in knowledge of reality. We naively believe in reality and the above are the arguments for our so -called naïve belief. The above are the theoretical reasons for believing that Pierre is not in the cafe. We also have practical reasons for performing the actions we do and some of these fall into the category of “the ought” and some fall into the category of “the is”. If I think to myself Pierre ought to be here in the café and I take action in going to fetch him, then I make it true that Pierre is in the café. Husserl inspired both Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s existentialism. The Kantian world of ideal concepts and idealizations rests on what Husserl calls the life-world, which has an aesthetic, perceptive character. If we are to know what motion is, for example, we must have an experience of it. It is this experience that is the source of all science and philosophy. Merleau-Ponty extends this thinking and argues that the living body is at the source of all experience. He claims that the body does not use theoretical or practical knowledge but rather is an awareness of a power to do certain things. The body appears on the boundary between fully fledged thought about reality, and that reality itself: that is, it appears in my visual field alongside other things but is also the “field” in which my gestures, sensations, and perceptions are located. The lived body, Merleau-Ponty argues, is not the meeting point of a myriad of causal agencies the sum of which create the whole but rather encapsulates a meaning or what Sartre called a “synthetic totality” which it is the task of Phenomenology to unfold.
The body speaks and spoken language is not using a set of signs corresponding to a set of ideas but is rather a unique whole in which each word gathers its signification in a system of differences in meaning. Different gestures have of course different meanings and Merleau-Ponty’s idea is that language is more of an active gestural phenomenon than a passive representational or epistemological matter. The way in which we know what we are doing is very different to the way in which we know that the grass is green (knowing what one is doing is amongst other things a non-observational form of awareness), although even in this latter epistemological example of the grass being green, the linguistic, gestural meanings of the words will be a component in the final analysis of its meaning.
Earlier in the lecture series, I referred to the History of Psychology and its adolescent aspiration to become an observational-experimental science aiming at establishing quantitative relationships between variables. I spoke about how impossible it was to apply such a method to humans in experimental situations. Let me demonstrate my meaning in more detail. Experiments with dogs and rats rapidly became a subject of mirth when the experimenter’s futile attempts to generalize the results obtained to human beings resulted in absurd claims. Some experimenters were driven higher up the evolutionary scale in order to demonstrate the efficacy of experimental science. Wolfgang Koehler embraced the scientific method and performed a set of rigorous experiments on apes in order to determine their problem-solving abilities: partially in homage to Darwin and his claim that the higher mental processes could be found in the higher primates. Koehler discovered very rapidly that solely attending to the measurable aspect of the behavior observed, is insufficient for a complete description of the phenomena he was observing. He was forced to use so-called “anthropomorphic” terms such as “the ape solved the problem” and “the ape found the solution by chance”. In other words, he used terms that are qualitatively distinct and belong to the domain of the human vital order. His experiments whatever else they proved, demonstrated that the life of an animal, could not be reduced to pure quantitative experimental observations. Koffka, a fellow animal experimenter agreed that the experiments needed to include a “phenomenological component” which could help to clarify the “functional characteristics” of the behavior under observation. This qualitative knowledge describes what is observable by all and is objective in virtue of being inter-subjectively valid. Merleau-Ponty, in a similar spirit, claims that the scientific inductive method should not be used to study a language. Science purportedly studies the facts in order to verify some theoretical hypothesis that transcends the meaning of these facts. Only a phenomenological method, more synthetically inclined, asking prior questions concerning the meaning of the facts, can explicate such meaning. This is the method used by Psychologists such as Goldstein in his studies of aphasia and agnosia. Here we find no mass testing of subjects but rather use of the case study method where one subject is exhaustively analyzed by a synthesis of facts and assumptions. Goldstein’s experiments are of interest to the phenomenological investigation into language because they demonstrate that aphasia, for example, is not the loss of a word, nor the loss of the idea, but is rather the loss of that holistic capacity which renders the word appropriate for expression: it is the loss of what he refers to as the “categorical attitude” which is a very similar idea to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of language having a fundamentally gestural significance. Both researchers believe that language has an active signifying power rather than passively picturing reality.
With these thoughts in mind let us now turn to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of language development in childhood: Babbling is the first sign of this language capacity during the first few months of life. At first it seems purely spontaneous but soon the infant imitates sounds, without of course grasping the significance of what it is imitating. Prior to this event, the infant has probably learned the efficacy of sound when it learns that it’s instinctive crying consistently brings the attention necessary to relieve its distress and the attention it begins to enjoy. In imitative babbling, the child eventually as a result of a “contagion-effect”, is trying to speak. At 4 months the child lingers on some sounds and modulates them trying to find the accent of the language. At 8 months the child repeats words that are spoken to him with the expectation that he should repeat them. At 12 months the child utters a large number of pseudowords and varies them. Gregoire noted that his child at this age spoke his first word when a train passed in front of their house. It appeared to him that this was meant as a word-sentence and translated an affective state within the child. Helen Keller testified to the importance of her first word-sign and some psychologists claim this to be a revolutionary change in the attitude of the child to the world: the child has learned that everything has a name and that words have meanings, This, however, does not account for the long period of stagnation after the first word and the difference there is between these first words and the adult words. We should remember Helen Keller had already learned some language prior to being afflicted with her partial deaf/dumb/blindness syndrome. The research results appear to be equivocal but agree that up to 5 years the child does not as such seek dialogue as much as talk to himself, as Piaget pointed out, but only a phenomenological investigation of this long process of imitation in the first 6 years of life would help explain how progress is made. Guillaume claims that before imitating others the child imitates the behavior or the acts of others. Imitation of the behavior of others presupposes that the child grasps the meaning of the body of others as a source of meaningful behavior: it also presupposes that he grasps his own body as a source or power capable of engaging in behavior with meaning. In this imitative stage the child grasps himself as “: “another other”: in other words, other people are the centre of his attention and interest. His self is lived but not thematically grasped: the child is egocentric in the sense of not being aware of the meaning of his self. The evidence adduced for this comes from the development of language: the confusion of pronouns, the predominance of other people’s names over his own: the delayed appearance of his own name which is used much later than the names of those around him. Piaget points to how conversations between children of this age generally are monologues even if they “seem” to be answering one another, clinical studies show they are ignoring each other’s reactions and merely engaging publicly in a monologue. Piaget’s view here is that there is no thematic grasp of the distinction between self and others. The child believes that his thoughts and sentiments are universal. The child is more possessed by language than a possessor of it. It is only after 7 years that genuine dialogue enters into his repertoire of behavior. Merleau-Ponty wonders whether Piaget has fully understood the way in which we communicate in the language and therefore proposes that we turn to psychological investigations into the disturbance of language and its development in order to understand the nature of language better. He maintains that the child is engaging in a kind of dialogue of learning, what Wittgenstein would call the form of life of the world of discourse and the language games that occur in that world. Piaget and much psychological research, whilst providing much valuable insight into the investigation into the life of the child, is too Kantian in approach, Merleau-Ponty argues. A truly phenomenological and existential investigation would explore the intimate relationship between thought and language. Thought, in the speaking subject is not, in his opinion, a representation of speech. This is a passage from Merleau-Ponty’s work, “The Phenomenology of Perception”:
“The orator does not think before speaking, nor even while speaking: his speech is his thought. In the same way, the listener does not form concepts on the basis of signs. The orator’s thought is empty while he is speaking and, when a text is read to us, provided that it is read with expression, we have no thought marginal to the text itself, for the words fully occupy our mind and exactly fulfill our expectations, and we feel the necessity of the speech. Although we are unable to predict its course, we are possessed by it. The end of the speech or text will be the lifting of the spell. It is at this stage that thoughts on the speech or text will be able to arise…The speaking subject does not think of the sense of what he is saying, nor does he visualize the words which he is using.”
Language forms a field of action or gestures endowed with a certain style around me as a consequence of the linguistic powers of a body. The word is an instrumentality of a certain kind in a field of instrumentalities: I can only represent the word by uttering it as the artist represents what his work is about by creating it. Our body takes up a “linguistic attitude”. Our relation to others is a relation to speaking subjects who articulate the form of their being in the world. There is a reciprocity of intentions and gestures involved in this process. “It is”, as Merleau-Ponty says, “as if his intentions inhabited my body and mine his”. This is what is involved in the presence of human bodies in the shared space of the linguistic meanings of words.
The point of this anthropological reflection on the nature of language is of course a partial response to Sartre’s idea of consciousness which can, if misunderstood cause as many problems as Descartes “I am certain I am thinking” argument, the grounds for which were given as my being unable to doubt that I am thinking. “I am thinking” or “I am conscious”, is of course not an empirical proposition but in Kantian terminology a proposition in Transcendental Logic which has no negation that makes sense. In Wittgenstein’s format, these statements are so-called “grammatical propositions” which cannot be sensibly denied if one is using a language as it ought to be used. Merleau-Ponty talks above about the linguistic powers of a “body” and probably means by this to indicate the whole person and not just his body. It is, however, more Aristotelian and Wittgensteinian to speak of a body adopting a certain attitude in the act of expressing itself in a world of already constituted significant meanings determined by rules of the language we speak. It is more Cartesian to speak of a mind thinking thoughts or a consciousness becoming conscious of itself.”
Robert raised his hand:
“But there surely must be a sense in which I am aware of the rules which will guide my choice of words and if I am, what kind of thought or consciousness is this?”
“It is not a propositional or theoretical awareness of the kind, “I think” but rather a kind of awareness which manifests itself practically in the form “I can…follow the rules of language…”
“At which level are the rules operating? Are the rules operating at the level of words? If so we are heading for logical atomism again, or at the level of sentences? We still seem to be in the hands of the logicians and their truth tables, that is, we still seem to be in the hands of those who believe the world is a totality of facts. On this kind of view rules will just be facts”
“Quite. According to Merleau-Ponty, meaning is constituted not by words having particular meanings that together are summated in some kind of strange linguistic thought operation. Rather every sign in language is defined by its different practical use in comparison with other signs. The awareness of this synchronic system of differences is supposed to be a holistic matter, but I must admit to not quite seeing Merleau-Ponty’s position clearly here. All I can offer is the reflection that “the whole” Merleau-Ponty is thinking of is in some respects Platonic and in some respects anti-Platonic. In his work “The “Prose of the World”, he points out that the project of the ideal theoretical language has been jettisoned. Science and Logic cannot reduce the expressive creative act of saying something to the sedimented result of what is said. On the other hand, there is a clear similarity to Plato when Merleau-Ponty talks about someone coming to give me the news of the death of a relative in a catastrophe. I would not understand this news, it is argued, unless I already understood what death and catastrophes are, unless, that is, I understood what the words refer to. It seems I must understand language before I can be using or comprehending its use. Of course, there are difficulties relating to how one can, if this is the case, ever learn a language. I personally think these difficulties can be resolved in the way that Aristotle resolves the difficulty of how we come to understand the principle of a thing. We have a number of experiences of the same things, which form memories. Somehow we abstract from the differences of these things and the principle is formed in our thought.”
Sophia coughed to draw attention and asked:
“And yet surely your account does not abolish logic. It must still be the case that if all men are mortal and if Socrates is a man, then he must be mortal. I am wondering how we might have abstracted from the differences between mortal and immortal things in order to arrive at the principle “all men are mortal”? Would we have had to possess an idea of some living immortal thing like God or the gods?”
“I can see where you are going with this. You are going to follow up by asking how we acquired the idea of God or the gods. But remember in Aristotle’s chain of being, the immortal could be the non-mortal, i.e. physical rocks and ocean waves do not fall into the category of the mortal. If I am going to abstract from the differences between mortal and non- mortal things I can anthropomorphize the physical world or alternatively I can “physicalize” the organic world: this latter alternative will explain materialism and reductionism, for example, the reduction of life to its elements of carbon, hydrogen oxygen nitrogen, etc…”
Sophia raised her hand indicating a follow-up question:
“…yes, but the problem is if our idea of God is of an infinite being how can I abstract from the differences between him and finite living beings. The infinite by definition must be beyond experience…”
“..there would have to occur a move in the other direction, namely, an anthropomorphism of the idea of God and the abstraction process has to work with the vaguely determined concept of “non-mortal”
Sophia nodded. Glynn was writing furiously in his notebook. A clock from a clock tower nearby rang out the hour and everyone began dispersing to various venues.