Thursday, August 04, 2005

Merleau-Ponty on Malebranche's Cogito

In 1947-1948 Maurice Merleau-Ponty lectured on Malebranche, Biran, and Bergson on mind-body union. Several of his students kept their notes from those lectures. They were collated by Andrew Bjelland Jr. and Patrick Burke, and translated into English by Paul Milan as The Incarnate Subject: Malebranche, Biran, and Bergson on the Union of Body and Soul. The lectures, even in the limited form we have them, are quite interesting. For instance, Merleau-Ponty argues that all the major themes examined by phenomenology with regard to mind-body union were already discussed, at least to some degree, by Malebranche. This is a fascinating argument, and (allowing for my limited acquaintance with the phenomenology of mind-body union) I think quite right. Even setting aside this, Merleau-Ponty recognizes a number of issues (particularly related to Malebranche's use of theology) that are too often neglected. I highly recommend them. (I'm not sufficiently familiar with Merleau-Ponty's own work, but according to the Introduction, Merleau-Ponty criticizes Malebranche in The Visible and the Invisible, arguing that Malebranche gives a profound phenomenological analysis of the human condition without God but muddles it up with a theological rationalism (p. 19).) Here is a passage (recall that they are based on the collation of several students' notes, and were not written up by Merleau-Ponty himself) on the Malebranchist Cogito:

[T]here is a tripartite division in the Cogito: (i) consciousness of myself: I am in touch with myself obscurely; (ii) knowledge of ideas considered by me; (iii) knowledge of God, without ideas. God is not, strictly speaking, proved except by a proof of simple sight of him. The Malebranchist Cogito includes, simultaneously, the three experiences of myself, of ideas, and of God. The complete Cogito is the vision in God. (p. 39)

As an interpretation of Malebranche, I think this is quite right, and the last sentence is insightful in an important way. He goes on to say somewhat later:

There is, in Malebranche, the deliberate intention to introduce the unreflected into philosophy. The very fact that Descartes's Cogito was discovered on a certain date, that it was late in coming, that it needs to be taught, proves that the reflecting self cannot be considered as myself. Moreover, I consider my body as a part of myself: if I had an idea of the soul, this would not be so, and I would not have to offer this body as a victim to God. "If you were to see clearly what you are," says the Word [], ""you could no longer be linked so closely with your body. You would not longer look upon it as a part of yourself." This is tantamount to saying that our bodies are taken legitimately for us.

Malebranche deals with our natural attitude. I am naturally oriented toward the world, ignorant of myself. I know only by experience that I can think about the past; my memory is not known to me through the direct grasp of an operation. My reference to the past is not my doing. I receive it: certain memories are given to me. I am not then a mind which dominates and unfolds time, but a mind possessing certain powers, the nature of which it does nto understand. I never know what I am worth, if I am just or unjust. Hence ther eis an aspect by which I am truly given to myself, and not a principle of myself. There is no clarity for me which does not imply obscurity, and this obscurity is myself. If my soul were known by the idea of it, I would need to have a second soul to have the idea of the first. It is essential for a consciousness to be obscure to itself if it is to be faced with an illuminating idea. (pp. 40-41)

I'm not quite sure about the last two sentences, but, that aside, this is a very insightful and, I think, largely correct interpretation of Malebranche on self-knowledge. I hope that eventually my lectures get to the point where this much insight can shine even through notes taken by the students.

[Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Incarnate Subject: Malebranche, Maine de Biran, and Bergson on the Union of Body and Soul. Bjelland and Burke, eds. Milan, tr. Humanity Books (Amherst, NY: 2001).]

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