Merleau-Ponty: From Perspective to Chiasm, the Epistemic Rigour of an Analogy

Traduction anglaise de l’article paru en français dans Chiasmi, n°13.
ABSTRACT: I wish to reconsider Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the chiasm from the perspective of its status: is it a cognitively valueless metaphor because it was analogically and arbitrarily transferred from one domain to another? Or, is it a sound concept that can be subjected to experimentation and improvement? If the latter, what is the nature of chiasm? Is it descriptive? Heuristic? Is it even logical? Is the question even worth asking, given that it is not only the most orthodox positivists who may see in this transfer mere poetic licence? Indeed, many among Merleau-Ponty’s commentators are in lockstep with the many criticisms of his supposedly “literary” style, and consider the chiasm to be a metaphor. I will first examine the function and role of the chiasm in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in order to determine its precise status. I will then be able to show how this notion sheds light on the main thrust of Merleau-Ponty's thought: that deep structures underlie all the apparently unrelated elements of his philosophy, i.e., that chiasm produces a counter-model of perspective and a new category of relation.



Jacques Bouveresse, in Prodiges et vertiges de l’analogie, denounces concept transference from one field of knowledge (e.g., mathematics or physics) to another (e.g., philosophy).[1] For him, Continental philosophy of the last half century has continually confused “metaphor” with “concept,” and “analogy” with “rigorous relation.” This confusion has led the discipline to “connections which, from a cognitive point of view, hardly go beyond the level of the simple association of ideas.” (PV, 37) Is the transference of notions from one field of knowledge to another really as arbitrary as Bouveresse suggests? Has the migration of concepts not given rise to fecund discoveries, not to mention paradigm changes both in various fields of knowledge and in our actual lives? For example, the invention of “perspective” has spread from painting to architecture, from architecture to mathematics, and from mathematics to philosophy, transformed and enriched by the multiple spaces it passed through. Are metaphor (as transposition) and analogy (as association) devoid of cognitive content and epistemic rigour?

In this article, I will describe one of the numerous transferences performed by philosophy in the course of its history and test its meaning and rigour. I will examine the introduction of the notion of chiasm in philosophy, which accounts for its recent popularity in various human sciences—history of art, psychology, sociology, etc. This introduction has often been criticized in terms similar to those of Bouveresse: chiasm is seen as metaphorical, born of an ill-controlled transfer from one field to another.

The chiasm first appeared as a figure of rhetoric that consists of placing two groups of words in reversed order, thereby inducing a crossing or parallel of ABBA form (e.g., “the power of representation, the representation of power,” an example borrowed from Louis Marin, who made great use of this structure in his studies of painting).[2] Given little respect in treatises of classical rhetoric, this cross-shaped structure was, however, overabundantly used by the Romantics, particularly French Romantics[3] such as Victor Hugo, who used it as one of the main rhetorical devices in his poetical evocations and descriptions. Beyond rhetoric, the term “chiasm” was used in some treatises of physiology to describe the interlacing or intertwining of, for example, two nerves. In philosophy, the chiasm was elevated to a “philosophical concept” by Merleau-Ponty. We might even say that the chiasm is the nodal concept of his philosophy, encapsulating both its aspect and its content. This is attested to by the fact that, in every review of Merleau-Pontian vocabulary, the chiasm is central.[4] Its importance is also reflected in the choice of title—Chiasmi—of a review entirely devoted to Meleau-Ponty’s thinking, thereby making the term emblematic of the thinker. Finally, it is enforced in the numerous current evocations of the chiasm in Merleau-Ponty’s work.[5]

I wish to take up the discussion of the notion of chiasm in terms of its status: is it a mere metaphor devoid of cognitive value, because it has been analogically and arbitrarily transferred from one field to another? Or is it a rigorous concept that can be subjected to experimentation, reuse, and improvement? If the latter, what is the nature of this concept: Is it descriptive? Heuristic? Is it even logical? The question is all the more pertinent as it is not only the most orthodox disciples of analytical philosophy, such as Bouveresse, who may well see in this concept of transference mere poetic licence. Indeed, the most highly regarded commentators on Merleau-Ponty, like his critics, see the chiasm as a literary metaphor. Some reproach the philosopher for using it. Even Saint-Aubert, usually a scrupulous defender of Merleau-Ponty, denounces “the equivocity”[6] of the notion of encroachment—the chiasm occupying pride of place among its possible figure or modalities. Others glorify its literary allure, as does Matos-Diaz; he hails, in Merleau-Ponty’s recourse to the chiasm, what he sees as the legitimate fusion of art and philosophy.[7] In either case, we cannot help but notice that the philosopher’s central notion is hardly considered to be a concept provided with definite cognitive content, univocal definition, and rigour.

I will therefore first examine the function of this concept in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, and will then review its extension before attempting to determine its status: is the chiasm a metaphor or a concept? Is its function poetic or epistemic? It is only at the end of this study that I will be able to show how this notion may enlighten us as to Merleau-Ponty’s leading concern: to produce a counter-model of Renaissance perspective and to promote a new category of relation, a concern that unifies all the apparently disjointed facets of his philosophy.


1. The Function of the Notion of Chiasm in Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy

I.1. The Nature of the Transference

First with the notions of encroachment and intertwining, then with that of reversibility, and finally with that of the chiasm, Merleau-Ponty undeniably imports notions from one field to another. It appears worth noting, however, that if there is transference with “chiasm,” it is, seemingly paradoxically, less a transference from rhetoric or physiology to philosophy than a transference from mathematics to philosophy. Indeed, if it is argued that the notion of chiasm appears late in Merleau-Ponty’s work and de facto explicitly relates to the rhetorical figure (in Valéry)[8] and to its biological use (optics), its use and its extension are the result of an initial transference of mathematical notions to philosophy. First, it is the notions of encroachment and intertwining, then that of reversibility that will gradually give Merleau-Ponty the idea of a category that joins various fields, making them reversible in the sense that, by inversion, having one means finding the other. True, the term “chiasm” does not appear as such in Phenomenology of Perception. It is nevertheless implicit in several of the analyses, notably in that of sensation, where Merleau-Ponty conceptualizes the reversibility of the sensing and the sensed, of their identities and their opposition. From that point on, the chiasm, although appearing later in his work, clarifies and deepens the notion of encroachment, of the Husserlian “ineinander,” of the intertwining formed by the relation between the sensing and the sensed. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty turns the chiasm into a pure and simple synonym of intertwining, then of reversibility: “The chiasm, reversibility, is the idea that every perception is doubled with a counter perception (Kant’s real opposition), is an act with two faces, one does not know who speaks and who listens.”[9] Thus the chiasm is used as a figure of space—as an exact synonym of intertwining and reversibility[10]—rather than as an ABBA figure of rhetoric. It is the pattern of reversibility par excellence and, hence, is one of the particular modalities of the notion of “proximity” as a spatial idea of being “one next to the other,” then “one with the other,” and even partly “one in the other” as opposed to the notion of “being one outside of the other or one facing the other,” which designates the classical distribution of what is on the side of the subject (i.e., what is the sensation)  and what is on the side of the object (i.e., the sensible). The chiasm as a figure of proximity leading to intertwining is thus originally linked to an attempt at rethinking space. This rethinking started as early as Phenomenology of Perception, in which Merleau-Ponty considers space, more than time[11], to be a central problem. He will further find in topology—when studying it more seriously a few years later—the concepts of which he already had some clear understanding from his reading of Cassirer and Panofsky (to which we will return later) and also of other art historians such as Francastel. He will make use of those concepts more and more from the end of the 1950s on. Yet, it is well-known that the topological concepts, which Merleau-Ponty will employ more and more as his work develops, are first and foremost mathematical concepts, aiming to conceive of more concrete relations than those defined by space in Euclidian geometry.[12] From a strict mathematical standpoint, the real development of topological questions is above all due to Poincaré, who deemed topology to be the most useful type of mathematics, as it deals not with measures but with concrete forms effectively perceived by the common consciousness, e.g., the intuitive notion of proximity so central in topology, from Poincaré to the Bourbaki group. Through these notions, which may have seemed (this is at least what Cassirer will think) more intuitive than quantitative, mathematical topology focused on accounting for the world in which we live effectively, concretely, sensibly[13] rather than for the world as a geometrically structured expanse.[14] It is this that excited Merleau-Ponty’s hopes: by referring explicitly to the new mathematical discoveries, he saw a possible redefinition of Cartesian space.

The initial conclusion to be drawn from this initial analysis is that the idea of using, first, intertwining and reversibility and, then, the chiasm as philosophical concepts was born of a meditation on the limits of the Euclidean space and an interest in the mathematical notions of proximity, whose main figures become, for Merleau-Ponty, encroachment as intertwining, and reversibility. Therefore, we have a double transference: transference from an optical notion (intertwining of nerves) and then, by association, transference from a figure of rhetoric to the field of philosophy. However, this transference is predicated on a more fundamental one: that from mathematical notions to philosophy. Merleau-Ponty sincerely believed that the most recent research in mathematics and physics could help him achieve his own philosophical aim. In this regard, beginning with the Structure of Behaviour, he welcomes “[t]he re-introduction of the most unexpected perceptual structures into modern science.”[15] Then, in Phenomenology of Perception, the unifying theme of his reflection upon Euclidean space is the recent inventions in non-Euclidean geometry.[16] This attitude, far from being an expression of poetic licence, is evidence of a rather “positivistic” leaning in the classical, neutral sense in which mathematics is explicitly considered as a paradigm that allows us to understand what is to be understood. Paradoxically, Merleau-Ponty seems to want to go beyond Euclidean space, borrowing his tools from the extension of Leibniz’s analysis situs[17], in order that intelligibility may reach even farther towards the concrete, the intuitive, the day-to-day world. Thus, this initial conclusion on the transference from one field to another does not seem to agree with Bouveresse, nor with the general condemnation of metaphorical transference from one field to another. Merleau-Ponty’s attitude consists simply—and very conventionally if we consider the history of philosophy—of producing more intelligibility within a previously neglected field: the concrete space of our day-to-day world, as opposed to the abstract space of geometry. He achieves this thanks to the various concepts and instruments that science—“new” mathematics and physics—makes available to him. This will be confirmed as we look further into the function of the chiasm as a redefinition of Cartesian space.


I.2. The Conquest of the Sensible Based on a Reading of The Dioptrics

Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is almost exclusively dedicated to rethinking the relation to the world that Descartes had created, in which a sovereign and independent subject scrutinizes, masters and dominates an object offered to his eyes. Man became a spectator of objects—the position he has occupied since the Renaissance, placing himself in front of a figurative painting that he scrutinizes and holds in his gaze. The desire to relinquish the Cartesian schema is derived from a concern to describe the substructures of consciousness in more depth, i.e., the desire to enlarge the field of our intelligibility by rigorously analyzing this desire per se. What used to be relegated to the hazy field of sensation, of the living world, of the world pre-existing language will henceforth be decipherable through philosophy. Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s desire to go beyond Cartesian dualism has nothing to do with that of later deconstructionists such as Derrida, who, following Heidegger, set out to denounce, by definition, any philosophical apprehension judged to be metaphysical and “violent.” That is the reason why Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of Descartes is less “destructive” than “improving,” in that he strives to complete or amend the Cartesian project, at least as far as the relation to space is concerned.

Let us look in more detail at Merleau-Ponty’s criticism following his reading of The Dioptrics. He does not destroy, but develops a dimension that is unthought but nevertheless implied by the Cartesian project. The Dioptrics, Merleau-Ponty explains, is dedicated to phenomena of vision and, more generally, to light; nevertheless, Descartes’ goal is not to describe these phenomena per se, nor to determine what they really are: “Here there is no concern to cling to vision.”[18] Descartes means to produce “artificial organs” that can improve our vision. The technical and hands-on purpose determines the nature and the method of inquiry as well as the way in which vision and light will be apprehended, as there will be “no questioning of light, of vision. We do not live in light. We give no thought to that phenomenon.”[19] Rather, Descartes endeavours to determine the way light acts on our eye, the way it is in contact with it, in order to modify it. Hence, Descartes, true to the method defined in the Regulae, constructs a model intended to master the phenomenon. The Cartesian reflection therefore distances itself from the field of the lived experience of vision and light to provide a translation of these phenomena into artificial “figures” or “models.” The models are quasi-fictional, as he earlier pointed out bluntly at the beginning of World. To build his model of vision, Descartes postulates an analogy between vision and touch. Just as the blind “see with their hands” thanks to their canes, so through contact with the eye light can be thought and the phenomenon of vision defined. Merleau-Ponty thus notes that Descartes “eliminates action at a distance and relieves us of that ubiquity which is the whole problem of vision (as well as its peculiar virtue).” (EM, 7)

For Merleau-Ponty, this overly simple conception of vision also explains how Descartes multiplies the stages that, little by little, distance us from the sensible until the latter eventually disappears. This is evidenced by the famous figure of the man looking, through the eye of a dead animal, at the process by which we pass from the figure (nature) to the sensation (the eye experiencing contact with the ray of light)—in other words, the process by which we pass from the language of quantity and figure to its translation into qualitative and sensory signs. The establishment is indeed that of a “spectacle” that multiplies the intermediate stages or screens: our eye looks at the man who looks at the eye of the animal that looks at the object. The multiplying of screens aims at distancing the sensible until it disappears as sensible and appears as a figure. But it is not this paradigmatic example that Merleau-Ponty advances to analyze the “spectacularization” of the world and the dismissal of the sensible, but rather the example of line engraving favoured by Descartes. The relation between an object and the image of the object is a relation of dissimilarity, so that we literally end up with what Merleau-Ponty calls a perception without an object.

In this regard, Merleau-Ponty notes that Descartes compares the process of transcription/translation of the figure into sensation to a language whose relation with what it signifies is intrinsically arbitrary. The image is as it is only because, like the sign, it does not resemble what it designates. The image “excites our thought” to “conceive,” as do signs and words “which in no way resemble the things they signify.” (EM, 8) Thus line engraving is an “occasional cause” and not an image resembling the object represented; it is an arbitrary sign, not a mimesis. Reality is no longer the sensible offered by sensation, but rather the length and breadth of figures, geometric projections of algebraic relations, untouched by irregularity, depth, or obscurity. As the purpose of the explanation is to modify reality, i.e., to create artificial visual organs such as lenses, it yields not an understanding of the sensible but a dismissal of reality. Hence, the figure, the only reality, renders the sensible entirely unreal.[20]

Yet, Merleau-Ponty does not reject this conception of space so much as he grants it less importance. Indeed, he believes that it was necessary to be able to think, beyond narrowly empirical considerations, of an idealized space partes extra partes and outside of the subject: “Descartes was right in liberating space: his mistake was to erect it into a positive being, beyond all points of view, all latency and depth, devoid of any real thickness.” (EM, 10) Therefore, Merleau-Ponty does not intend to undermine this conception of space, which he presents, in this text, as a systematization as well as a consequence of research on perspective conducted since the Quattrocento; his intention is to limit it, to confine it to a given field of validity, to raise again and differently the question of spatiality. Rather than a criticism of Descartes, Merleau-Ponty shows that, at the very moment he suggests the idea of space partes extra partes, Descartes implies an “other” spatiality that cannot be reduced to the construction of figures (“that dimension…that Descartes opened up and so quickly closed again” [EM, 12][21]). He shows how all such analyses of The Dioptrics presuppose a position of the spectator’s body and, hence, a situation different from that of pure, disembodied vision. The spectator, however external he may be, is capable of determining “where the parts of [his] body are,” of “transferring its attention from there to all the points of space that lie along the prolongation of [his] bodily members.” (EM, 11) This is why the body effectively appears as “the place” from which objects are defined as being “there”—at that point in space and not at another. The body is the fixed point, the “here” that makes it possible to locate the different “theres” of exterior bodies. Merleau-Ponty states that Descartes understood, in spite of his dualism, that the soul thinks with its body and from it, and that “…space, or exterior distance, is also stipulated within the natural pact that unites them.” (ibid.) Therefore, Merleau-Ponty uses Cartesianism to demonstrate the necessity, not of transcending it, but of extending its limits. One has to return to another level to conceive of vision “of which we can have no idea except in the exercise of it, and which introduces, between space and thought, the autonomous order of the composite of soul and body.” (EM, 11) The inadequacy of his theory of vision is indicated by Descartes himself: vision is not only the act of a disembodied mind that decodes the signs of a world lying before it, but is an act of a moving body; and it is in relation to its position that space unfolds: vision is “knowledge by position or situation.” (EM, 12) Descartes’ analyses show, transparently, the need to extend their limits. One must now recover the sensible, understand its reality at its proper level, namely at the level of the body moving in the world that surrounds it:

Space is not what it was in the Dioptrics, a network of relations between objects such as would be seen by a third party, witnessing my vision, or by a geometer looking over it and reconstructing it from outside. It is, rather, a space reckoned starting from me as the null point or degree zero of spatiality. I do not see it according to its exterior envelope; I live it from the inside; I am immersed in it. (EM, 12)

What does this analysis tell us? It reveals the consistency and the purpose of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking: the sensible, deprived of its reality by Cartesian thinking, has to regain intelligibility. We have to extend our understanding to fields that so far have been ignored: the concrete world and how one’s own body is related to other bodies, just as other bodies are interrelated. This purpose requires the extension, not the destruction, of the limits of Euclidean geometry and of physics based on the figures which Descartes developed.[22] This extension demands tools of a different sort but of no lesser rationality, such as the topological concepts—proximity, then by extension  intertwining, and reversibility—with which the mathematics of the concrete world provides us, concepts of which Descartes had some intuition. It seems that even Merleau-Ponty’s most acute commentators do not take seriously his desire to find the seeds of his own theory in Descartes. Saint-Aubert attributes it to a psychological, therefore incidental, particularity. It results, he explains, in “the usual strategy of the art of the devious counter-example: let us recognize ourselves in him who seemed the most opposed to us so as to establish the validity of our theses all the better.”[23] (LE, ??, my translation) It gives little importance to the time-consuming task of unearthing, at the very heart of The Dioptrics, the necessity of extending, broadening, and eventually completing it.

Similarly, in his important and decisive chapter devoted to Merleau-Ponty’s “topology of reflection,” Matos-Diaz does not mention the analogy with mathematical concepts, but rather insists on the power of the literary metaphors and the reference to Cézanne. In both cases, Merleau-Ponty’s genuinely rationalistic trust in science (here, mathematics; elsewhere, psychology) and in the explanatory potency of philosophy is belittled or ignored. It is not a matter of “destroying” or “deconstructing” philosophy but quite the opposite. It is a matter of extending its field of relevance by forging appropriate concepts. Yet, these very concepts—proximity, intertwining, reversibility, crossing—take on further meaning with reference to mathematics. This confirms our initial conclusion: Merleau-Ponty shows himself to be a conventional rationalist (like Descartes, Leibniz, and even Helmholtz), as he expects mathematics to provide him with tools to enable him to conceive of the sensible space he has undertaken to conquer, drawing from what Descartes discarded, stating: “All the inquiries we believed closed have been reopened.” (EM, 12)

So, what should be concluded from this inquiry into the function of the chiasm and encroachment if not that we are nowhere near equivocation and metaphor, at least from the standpoint of the author. True, there is transference of a notion from one field to another; but this transference is quite common in philosophy, as in physics. Does Descartes not wish to study vision with “two or three comparisons” as starting points? Moreover, such migration of concepts between the most seemingly unrelated fields—mathematics, philosophy, and rhetoric—can be found at the very beginning of philosophy in ancient Greece, where, as A. G. Wersinger writes, “topological schemas were [equally] resorted to to represent logic: Aristotle used the figure of the knot and the chain when talking about aporia and reasoning but Plato also, as I showed in Cercles nœuds réseau, rhétorique et mathématique in Timée.”[24]

Merleau-Ponty’s concern is therefore to extend the field of intelligibility on the foundation of concepts found in other sciences (here, mathematical topology, but elsewhere Piagian cognitive psychology or, for other fields, psycho-pathological studies). His hybridization and migration of notions returns the sensible, initially dismissed by Descartes, to philosophical understanding and to ontic reality. It follows that the function of transference is, on the one hand, heuristic: to find the appropriate tools to think of space by means of the most recent regional “scientific” research. On the other hand, it is descriptive: to manage, by gradually refining these concepts—from proximity to intertwining, from intertwining to reversibility, and from the latter to the chiasm—to describe as accurately as possible what is at stake in our relation to concrete space.

Once we understand why the concept of the chiasm has been introduced into philosophy and once its function has been accounted for, we still have to understand its extension; for, as Saint-Aubert regretfully states, Merleau-Ponty ends up applying the figures taken from the field of topology, such as encroachment, to everything and

sometimes hovers near the margins of equivocity. It is all the more dangerous since the very meaning of encroachment tends to make previously separate fields overlap and blurs the boundaries between them. And when this figure, as it is the case in Merleau-Ponty’s work, becomes overgeneralized, it comes close to a new chasm: it risks destroying itself by want of boundaries to transgress. (LE, 20; my translation)


2. Overgeneralization?

II.1. The Process of Extension to All Fields

Let us try to grasp the logic of this extension. Encroachment, intertwining, reversibility, and chiasm are, as commentators have pointed out, notions used to understand the body, first in itself, then in relation to the Cartesian construction of the world. Merleau-Ponty intends to go, not beyond the man of The Dioptrics, a disembodied spectator who transcribes a message by deciphering its code, but “back to the working, actual body — not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.” (EM, 2) The physical body, the lived body is intertwining. In this regard, Merleau-Ponty will demonstrate that vision and mobilityare linked to an original experience and cannot be dissociated as two distinct and independent operations. One calls to the other and intersects it: vision implies movement and movement implies vision, because eyes themselves move, just like the rest of the body, to connect with visible things visually. Thus, vision and mobilityinfringe on each other and intertwine in the sensible experience. The concern to extend the Cartesian position of the spectator exterior to the world is here obvious, as vision is no longer pure, theoretical vision, comparable to the attitude of a geographer contemplating his maps; rather it is inscribed in the world, contained and intertwined. This is why vision is no longer an appropriation of the visible, control of the real, but an opening to the world. Similarly, the world is no longer independent, in front of me, as in classical representationalism, in which two independent entities (res cogitans and res extensa) face each other. However, if there is an encroachment of vision on movement and of movement on vision, no coincidence can be found within this relation. In this sense, the gap that separates vision and movement is integral to their relation and their crossing. The term “chiasm,” which is synonymous with intertwining, as intertwining is with encroachment, is consequently used with a definite purpose: to express identity within difference and even within opposition. Each of the terms, opposed to or different from the other, is itself valid only in its relation to the other (reversibility and crossing). This intertwining of vision and movement comprises the fundamental experience by which the body “can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the ‘other side’ of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself.” (EM, 3) This unveiling reveals a relation, not between two entities, but one that constitutes the very identity of the opposites.

It is this experience by which the body splits into two, becoming both body-subject and body-object—primordial, an original experience that expresses our relation not only to our body but also to ourselves as subjects and to the external world in general. Let us consider this double extension. This experience of our body displays a circularity by which it reflects itself, becomes seeing and see-able, sensing and sensible—in Phenomenology of Perception. This encroachment of the body on itself exemplifies codetermination, in which the interconnection implies a fundamental gap between the two dimensions of the experience, which denies the possibility that the touching and the touched, for example, are one within a relation of identity. When my right hand touches my left hand, an “exchange” takes place between the two hands, while excluding possible perfect equivalence. Here we have a reciprocal relation in which one gives its reality to the other, excluding fusion and identity. Thus, what this experience of reversibility essentially reveals to us is that one’s relation to oneself is blurred. Reflection or reflexive relation to self cannot be of the same order as immediate access to the self (i.e., the transparency of the Cartesian system). The experience of reversibility implies an access to the self that is simultaneously distance, an apprehension of the self that reciprocally suggests a dispossession of the self. What is obtained is an intersecting structure of possession/dispossession. Any relation of the subject to himself thus implies some integral opacity through which he can connect with himself only thanks to the self’s distance from the self, which is the very origin of reflexivity. This is why Merleau-Ponty characterizes the subject in Eye and Mind as “a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt — a self, then, that is caught up in things….” (EM, 3)

Such a conclusion is obviously charged with implications for the relation of the “subject” to the exterior world. If the subject is already intrinsically visible and sensible to himself, the relation of this subject with the world can only be prolongation, the extension of this reversibility. Because it is itself visible, the body is a thing amongst the things of the world; nevertheless, it does not fuse with them. Here again the relation as both identity and opposition can be applied. Because the body “moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body.” (EM, 3)

We therefore have an extension of the notions used initially in the field of topology, from the body proper to the reflexive subject, then to the world in general—the world of objects and the world of others. The chiasm expresses my relation to the other: “Chiasm, instead of For the Other: that means that there is not only a me-other rivalry, but a co-functioning. We function as one unique body.” (VI, 215) Through these notions of encroachment, intertwining, chiasm, and reversibility, Merleau-Ponty attempts to subvert all the classical oppositions of modern metaphysics. He rejects the whole system of opposition of an independent subject and an object (or other subject) placed in front of him.

It follows that it is not only the Cartesian conception of space that is rejected but also the position of the subject in front of the world, introduced by perspective during the Quattrocento. Let us consider this fundamental point which will reveal the meaning of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of extension.


II.2. Intertwining as a “Counter-Model” to Perspective

Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of perspective belong to this field of thought. Perspective, he says, is a construction or invention of a world and not a transfer of our real perception. To prove it, he quite clearly relies on Panofsky’s analyses, which, in Eye and Mind, he envisages in relation to Descartes’ analyses. As Hubert Damisch indicates, Merleau-Ponty was one of the first to introduce Panofsky’s analyses in France. He dedicated Le langage indirect et les voix du silence (1950) to a criticism of Malraux’s position; as well, he delivered an analysis of Perspective as Symbolic Form in his 1954–55 lectures on the “institution.”[25] For Panofsky, perspective, mathematically conceived, is not the continuation or extension of the psycho-physiological experience of perception but an artificial, “symbolic” construction (perspectiva artificialis), which, Merleau-Ponty holds, aims at “developing a practically usable construction of the plane pictorial image.”[26] Perspective is therefore a “symbolic form” in Cassirer’s sense, from which Panofsky draws his inspiration in his studies of the history of art. Panofsky has shown the “abstract” and constructed character of perspective in relation to sensible, real space:

In order to guarantee a fully rational – that is, infinite unchanging and homogeneous – space, this ‘central perspective' makes two tacit but essential assumptions: first, that we see with a single and immobile eye and, second, that the planar cross-section of the visual pyramid can pass for an adequate reproduction of our optical image. In fact these two premises are rather bold abstractions from reality, if by ‘reality’ we mean the actual subjective optical impression. For the structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogeneous space – in short, a purely mathematical space – is quite unlike the structure of psychophysiological space.[27]

With perspective, objects become ordered in such a way as to fit on one plane; they make space appear as pre-existent to them, a homogeneous space, an ordered space whose slow development, from Lorenzi to Brunelleschi and P. della Francesca, was later theorized by Alberti as recourse to the principle of intersection and to the plan of the visual pyramid. Merleau-Ponty, drawing upon Panofsky’s analyses, takes up the idea of a historical construction and “symbolic”[28] establishment of space. Perspective has induced a general conception of relation: we are in front of and exterior to the world, we control it through our eyes, and the relation between the seeing subject and the object seen is a relation of exteriority (i.e., the two entities are independent and constituted before they are put in relation to each other) and of confrontation. In a nutshell, the invention of perspective has shaped not only our relation to space but also our way of thinking about the category of relation to every other—to space, thing, another person. How am I in the world? Am I face to face­—with space, with the object, with the other? The thinking underlying the chiasm therefore substitutes itself for the classical category of the relation induced by the position of perspective. This allows us to understand the generalizing character of this relation, as “generalizing” as was perspective, which has progressively shaped all our thinking about relation: first, relation to space; then, relation to the world; and then, relation to the other. Thus it is just as futile to reproach Merleau-Ponty for his extension or “overgeneralization” as to reproach perspective for shaping the very category of relation as a face-to-face between two distinct and independent entities (me and things, me and my body, me and the other) after having first been conceived of as a relation to space (by the painters of Quattrocento). Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Panofsky[29], too little mentioned in the studies of the former, thus proves of utmost importance. Panofsky is the missing link that allows us to understand Merleau-Ponty’s aims to illuminate intertwining and chiasm as encompassing categories. His purpose is to refashion our relation to the world, as perspective has informed the modern age. One decisive fact confirms this interpretation: Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of Cézanne. They have often been seen as representing an interest in painting and Merleu-Ponty’s progress in the field of aesthetics. This, in itself, is obviously not untrue; but it lessens, to my mind, the fundamentally epistemic scope of all his analyses of the painter. It means no less than substituting another relationship to the world for that inferred by the invention of Brunelleschi and ratified by the philosophical conceptions of Descartes and, later, of Kant. Only by taking into consideration Merleau-Ponty's reading of Panofsky, whom he first made known in France, can we understand the epistemological concern underlying his studies of Cézanne.[30] Let us examine this point using the chiasm, namely, to illuminate a new category of relation, the ultimate and unifying design of his analyses in the most varied fields—perception, painting, mathematics, psychology, etc.


II.3. Cézannian Epistemology

Merleau-Ponty, without a hint of ambiguity, draws attention to the relation between perspective and the Cartesian relation to the world: “Four centuries after the ‘solutions’ of the Renaissance and three centuries after Descartes, depth is still new, and it insists on being sought, not ‘once in a lifetime’ but all through life.” (EM, 13) Against this viewpoint he sets a painter’s thinking; as he points out, what is peculiar to Cézanne is that he kept looking for depth throughout his life. The Cézanne study thus seems to be a quasi-epistemological inquiry insofar as it revolves around verifying and extending analyses on depth and its importance in our relation to the world, which Merleau-Ponty had already developed at length in Phenomenology of Perception. If Cézanne arouses Merleau-Ponty’s interest, it is as a counter-example to Descartes, insofar as his painting means to reveal a spatiality different from the Cartesian, from the homogeneous space as a system that Panofsky described in discussing Renaissance painting. To this space, Cézanne opposes depth, which will become the dimension through which things are in relation. Restoring depth means disrupting the face-to-face relation that places the sovereign subject in opposition to the object, looking down from the exterior in an “all-encompassing” gaze. In this respect, Merleau-Ponty shows how the whole of Cézanne’s work can be conceived of as a meditation and variations on and against perspective. He tells us that Cézanne wants “to put intelligence, ideas, sciences, perspective, and tradition back in touch with the world of nature which they must comprehend.”[31] For him, Cézanne’s concern is clearly knowledge (“to put…sciences…back in touch”). Cézanne is understood to be the Husserlian painter par excellence, because he strives to restore the world of life, on which science has built. Cézanne’s purpose is clearly conceived as a counter-proposition to the abstract construction of a world without depth, as an attempt to return to the lived experience of natural perception. That is the very thing Descartes’ Dioptrics had branded as both unintelligible and unreal, given his thinking of the sign and the code: one might say Cézanne is a critic of Descartes, in that his paintings aim at restoring the genesis of the world, the birth of the sensible, which is negated by Cartesian science. Going beyond the constructed world, Cézanne attempts to return to our native, primary perception, to our initial intertwining with the world and in the world. Thus it is indeed as an epistemological project that Cézanne’s work is being interrogated here. As a counterpoint to the Cartesian vision of the world, his pictorial undertaking consists in recovering our “primary” perception underlying the abstract construction fashioned by centuries of “information” and, consequently, of cultural “deformation.” Cézanne used the chiasm, this “system of exchanges” (EM, 4), and Merleau-Ponty, like Descartes faced with the invention of perspective, takes up the painter’s attempt to reinstate chiasm as the truth of our relation to all things and, by extension, the truth of relation itself. Cézanne recovers the primordial expression that the first cave painting expressed, the prolongation of the child’s perception. For Merleau-Ponty, Piaget’s studies showed how the child’s relation to the world is initially a topological one.[32] We can appreciate here both the centrality of the meditation on Cézanne’s painting to Merleau-Ponty’s epistemological aims as well as the consistency of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. Initially derived from a meditation on topological concepts based on mathematical research, which were supposed to be more in touch with the concrete world, the chiasm as a figure of reversibility becomes the relation that Merleau-Ponty places in opposition to that induced by the scientific and abstract construction of the modern world. Through this relation, raised to the status of quasi-logical category, as it can be applied to numerous fields, Merleau-Ponty means to access this wild world, the world of our primary perception, the world the child experiences before he is informed by culture. The purpose of the chiasm is to replace perspective and the category of relation that its implementation induced: the face-to-face relation of two separate entities. “Take topological space as a model of being. The Euclidean space is the model for perspectival being, it is a space without transcendence, positive, a network of straight lines….” (VI, 210) The intertwining relation of the subject and the world is the truth of the substructures on which science was built and to which Husserl wanted to return. This shows that Merleau-Ponty chose to play Cézanne against Descartes and to turn the study of painting into an epistemological project, as the birth of perspective effectively did. The difference between Panofsky or Cassirer and Merleau-Ponty lies in the fact that the former consider our world as a construction and that any construction other than perspective is an elaboration or, itself, a construction of the world, i.e., “symbolic forms.” To this Kantian vision Merleau-Ponty opposes the world of the primary, the primordial, the infans, the primitive man. I detect a quasi-“naturalistic” concern in Merleau-Ponty’s undertaking, as what matters to him is to return to original space and, beyond that, to put forward a new category of relation.

These analyses demonstrate how, far from being an “overgeneralization,” the extension of the concepts of intertwining and encroachment, reversibility, and chiasm is proof of an epistemological consistency throughout the diversity of the fields explored: from Phenomenology of Perception which, in counter-position to Euclidean space, attempts to explore the succession of singular spaces[33], to mathematical topology, to Piaget’s studies on the topological space of the infans, to Descartes’ Dioptrics, to Panofsky’s study of perspective, to Merleau-Ponty’s meditation on Cézanne’s painting, we encounter the same concern again and again: to advance a category of relation better suited to describing our being in the primary world. This category of relation becomes a quasi-logical category in the sense that we witness the development of a new logic, just as Hegelian logic undertook to rebuild the categories of relation in quite a different way. Merleau-Ponty’s purpose is to conceive of a relation as an identity of opposites, not as an interface of two distinct entities. The extension of this category is therefore not in the least surprising; rather, it is the mark of the consistency of Merleau-Ponty’s project. As in Hegel, all fields are affected by this thinking of relation as identity within opposition, as opposition within identity, as crossing of opposites and reversibility. This thinking of relation will even be used by Merleau-Ponty as a tool to thematize the relation between the various fields of knowledge—history, mathematics, neurology, psychology, philosophy, etc.: If  philosophers, historians, scientists of all ilk enter a dialogue, Such a dialogue will take place thanks to the figure of encroachment, which, in fine, will be the very definition of philosophy[34] and will express its “relation” to all fields of knowledge.


3. The Crossing as a Definition of the Relation

III.1. The Theses Involved

What do we learn from this second stage in our analysis of the extension of the notions that chiasma sums up—encroachment, intertwining, and reversibility? First and foremost, it clearly demonstrates that the function of chiasm is to replace “the symbolic institution” of perspective. As a result, another category of relation is advanced, one as all-encompassing and general as relation had become when understood as a secondary interface between two entities initially separated from and external to each other—subject/space, subject/body, subject/world, subject/the other, as well as the relation of one discipline to any other[35], etc. To conceptualize identity within opposition, or opposition within identity is what the chiasm renders possible: “Negativity/chiasm…The negative exists only upon a ground of identity (identity of thing and of its reflection). Negative: the reverse side of identity…me-world chiasm”; or still “[t]he idea of chiasm, that is: every relation with being is simultaneously a taking and a being taken, the hold is held; it is inscribed and inscribed in the same being that it takes hold of.” (VI, 266) This ambition is therefore clearly gnoseologic: against a truncated relation—the perspective of Euclidian geometry that Descartes defines as relation to all things—Merleau-Ponty sets the “true” relation, more “primary” and authentic. His study of Cézanne continues this epistemic concern to restore our true relation to the world. Merleau-Ponty’s consistency proves complete: far from “overgeneralizing,” he advances a new category of relation, capable, in his eyes, of replacing the relation posed by modern philosophy, the relation of opposition or exteriority secondarily based on initial and constituted elements, a relation that the perspective of the Quattrocento developed and that has been “generalized” to all things by modern science and Descartes’ philosophy. The “overgeneralization” criticism  is itself contingent upon a “generalization” derived from our entering the world of perspective from the Renaissance onwards, and which Merleau-Ponty strives to leave.

Thus, at the end of this study on the functioning and the extension of the concept of chiasm, I come to a paradoxical argument, at least with respect to classical commentarism or to Merleau-Ponty’s disciples who, according to a French trend in phenomenology, have tended to group him with literary philosophers (“the phenomenology of writers”) rather than with scientific ones. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty proves here to be almost “positivist,” given his trust in regional sciences (first, mathematics, then psychology for topological concepts) and “naturalistic,” given his concern to recover a primary nature, buried deep in our actual bodies under layers of culture.


III.2. Merleau-Ponty, a “Positivist”?

We may consider him a positivist for, as we have seen in the course of this analysis, Merleau-Ponty believes that recent discoveries in mathematics can help him conceptualize space. He reads, among others, Cassirer on the mathematics of his time (including Poincaré and topology, non-Euclidian geometries, etc.). In a thorough study of The Dioptrics, he attempts to extend its theories by using the concepts of intertwining and encroachment to restore reality and intelligibility to the sensible, two qualities that Descartes had partially deprived it of. In this sense, his attitude seems quasi-“Leibnizian,” as he extends our field of intelligibility thanks to tools better suited than those provided by Euclidian geometry.[36]

Of course, Merleau-Ponty is not a “positivist” in the narrow definition that implies that only regional sciences are paradigms of truth (as Carnap holds for mathematics and physics, or Austin and Quine hold for linguistics and psychology) and that philosophy is nothing but the pathological ramblings of failed artists. In this regard, Merleau-Ponty is rather a classical “philosopher”: all science can help us, as philosophers, to create tools that can bring us closer to the reality that is there to be conceived. In this way, Piaget’s psychology shows us how the child’s space is initially a topological space. Poincaré’s mathematics provides us with proximity, which help us to come to terms with the changeability of the concrete world. Here, Merleau-Ponty is thinking of the communication between different fields of knowledge and their contributions to, i.e., encroachment upon, one another.

This concern, classically philosophical, rationalistic, even broadly “positivistic,” in the philosophical sense used by Descartes or Leibniz, distances Merleau-Ponty from phenomenology, which, in Husserl’s analysis of phenomenality, refuses recourse to regional sciences. Merleau-Ponty certainly means to recover “the world of life” that science has lost due to its construction. In this sense, he accepts the conclusions drawn by the Krisis. Husserl sees here the hold of narrowly positivistic or scientistic rationality that considers as true only what is determined by the shape of a quantifiable object, is attributable to a cause, is calculable according to laws, and that can eventually be manipulated (as the mathematized world of Galilean science and Cartesian philosophy can be). Husserl believes that, in this way, Descartes, through the generalization of the object of physio-mathematical science, has obscured or shrouded the meaning of the world. It is Decartes’ considered choice of a single form of rationality that brings about the crisis of meaning and knowledge, as this logos—measuring, staking out, dominating, and manipulating—relegates to non-sense whole sections of human experience, such as the “world of life.” For Husserl, however, the criticism of this rationality is contingent upon a wholly different world, that of pure phenomenality, which, because it radically differs from the world of science, of the psycho-physiological subject, will not use the limited tools of specialized science.[37] In contrast, Merleau-Ponty undertakes to conceptualize the “world of life,” using all the resources he can draw from regional sciences: mathematics, physics, psychology, psychoanalysis, history (of perspective and of painting), sociology, etc. Merleau-Ponty is undoubtedly, in the precise sense of the term, less a phenomenologist than is Levinas or, today, Marion. Let us sketch a short comparison of these authors: both Levinas and Marion undertake to advance a type of relation other than the purely metaphysical (i.e., Cartesian exteriority as a face-to-face relation of object to subject). In both cases we have the development, as in Merleau-Ponty, of a thinking of relation as primary, preceding and instituting the poles of identity: subject/world, subject/the other. Levinas does this through the elaboration of a primarily ethical relation that precedes and defines both subjects. Marion does it through his definition of love as an “intersecting phenomenon”: “Not only does the erotic phenomenon appear in common to him and me and without a single egoic pole, but it only appears in this intersection. Intersecting phenomenon.” [38] Love as intersection (in which we again find the idea of intertwining and crossing) effectively refers to a relation that, beyond subject and object, beyond the sum of two subjects, precedes and establishes the one and the other. There is therefore a common aim amongst these undertakings: to advance a relation as “crossing” that is different from the face-to-face relation.[39] However, while the undertakings may be identical, the approaches are radically different. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty, constantly referring to other sciences, effectively seems not to want to accept a strict division between phenomenology and regional sciences, while, paradoxically, Levinas and Marion prove more orthodox, as they undertake to describe appearance as appearance solely with the resources of phenomenological description, without making use of the numerous tools of regional sciences. This is also why Merleau-Ponty proves quasi-logically to be more naturalistic in his approach.


III.3. Merleau-Ponty, a “Naturalist”?

He is indeed a naturalist as his nodal concern is to arrive at what is more “primary,” through redefining the notion of relation. As I have shown elsewhere, the primary in Merleau-Ponty is clearly conceived as what comes first in time, initial lived experience, the past of the infans, of the primitive. This past, shrouded by culture, is the opposite of the concept that conceals, mutilates, and betrays. His recurring image of the primitive man who instinctively finds his bearings in the desert[40], his evocation of the cave painter, his study, via Piaget’s analysis, of the infans and his behaviours, reveal to what extent Merleau-Ponty’s concern is for the primary, clearly elaborated as a time before the fall into objectivization, before manipulation, before the loss of the body of the flesh engendered by the Cartesian mathematization of the world. True, some will say that the search for the primary is integral to the aim of phenomenology; some will claim that Husserl’s followers have, as François David Sebbah writes, “all, and each in a completely different way, a quite obvious desire to unearth a primary more primary than the Ego <..> a hither of the place where conscience can be controlled.”[41] Nevertheless, the primary can be given different meanings; and, in Husserl, nothing legitimizes referring it to the classical sense of origin.[42] But here again, if we briefly compare Merleau-Ponty’s and Levinas’ use of the term “primary,” a huge difference is clearly evident. For instance, in Levinas we find a “primary” defined as the invisible that any visible summons and demands. If we must assume “a hither side, a pre-original, a non-presentable, an invisible”[43], this original does not have “the status of origin,” for it does not have a temporal meaning; rather it is condition. Likewise, when Marion, in La croisée du visible, represents the relation of the invisible and the unseen through the model of perspective that allows the visible to appear without itself, however, being the object of seeing, he clearly interprets the unseen not in terms of time and history but in terms of principle or condition. Merleau-Ponty’s categories are “before” mathematization and “after” conceptualization, which shrouds and mutilates our first relation. Merleau-Ponty is consequently led to think the movement of history and culture to be a reminder of this buried primary[44]:

Philosophy is a reminding of this being. Science is not concerned with it because it conceives of the relationship of being and understanding as those of the geometrical and its projections, and forgets the being which surrounds and invests us, and could be called the topology of being. (S, 22)

Through philosophy, one tries to define “the first experience of the impalpable body of history,” the “primordial expression.” Art, particularly painting, is the “amplification” of this primary experience, which the first cave painting, a prolongation of the initial perception of the infans, expressed.[45] This naturalistic tendency, in the sense of trying to find the nature of man and his primary relation to the world, can be clearly seen in Merleau-Ponty’s relation to Cassirer and Panofsky. As mentioned, Merleau-Ponty carefully analyzes Panofsky’s arguments about the allegedly symbolic form of perspective. His point of departure from Panofsky and Cassirer is that, for him, the relation to space that he means to advance has nothing to do with construction of the subject, either in Cassirer’s Kantian version (i.e., all is construction) or in Panofsky’s particular conception of historicized transcendence (i.e., all is historical construction).The relation Merleau-Ponty attempts to clarify through the concepts of intertwining and chiasm is effectively a truth of our “primary” nature. As Hubert Damisch shows in L’origine de la perspective, if Merleau-Ponty dwells not on the influence that perception may have had on perspective but, rather, on the influence that perspective has had on perception, it is because of his corollary idea that there is a “brute” or “wild” perception.[46] Thus, we have three distinct lines of argument: first, that perspective is a symbolic and transcendental form (Cassirer); second, that it is a historically constructed, symbolic form (Panofsky); and, third, that it is a construction beyond which we have to go in order to attain brute perception, free of cultural work (Merleau-Ponty). Merleau-Ponty’s aim is to return to buried nature, in opposition to Cassirer’s and Panofsky’s concerns. For all these reasons, it is no exaggeration to speak of Merleau-Ponty’s “naturalism.”


IV. Conclusion

Where has this study taken us? I have studied the movement of concepts from one field to another and questioned the status of this transference. Through this analysis we have come to the opposite of Bouveresse’s position on the arbitrary use of analogy in philosophy. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty proves to be a very classical philosopher (like Descartes and Leibniz) insofar as he borrows his concepts from various fields of knowledge, and from various “regional sciences” (mathematical topology, psychology, history of perspective, etc.). This concept of transference, far from being arbitrary, is, on the contrary, the rigorous consequence of the leading concern of the philosopher: to define a category of relation that restores to the sensible its intelligibility of which Descartes had deprived it. Relation is no longer a secondary interface between two previously constituted entities (i.e., the relation of classical representationalism) but identity within opposition, a crossing that establishes the very elements it puts in relation. This conceptualization of relation makes it possible to open up all fields previously ignored by philosophy and thereby to extend its investigative range. Therefore, the extension of relation as crossing is in no way an “overgeneralization,” despite what Saint-Aubert states; rather it is akin, following the model of the Hegelian category of identity of difference and identity, to the implementation of a new logic—that of the sensible. This logic undertakes to offer a counter-model to perspective. This enquiry has also led me to discover a more unexpected determination of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy: a genuine trust in the possibility that “regional sciences” can provide tools for philosophy that further extend its intelligibility. This recourse to regional sciences not only distances Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology from one more “orthodox” but also confers upon it its specific character: that of a phenomenology that paradoxically appears positivistic and naturalistic. More generally, all these outcomes compel us to rethink the philosophical practice of the migration of concepts from one field to another with something other than indignation and condemnation.

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[1]Jacques Bouveresse, Prodiges et vertiges de l’analogie (Paris: Raisons d’agir, 1999). Hereafter referred to parenthetically in the text as PV. All translations of all texts for which another translator is not specified are mine. See in particular the chapter titled “les malheurs de Gödel ou l’art d’accommoder un théorème à la sauce préférée des philosophes.” Bouveresse, in this text, is not critical of Merleau-Ponty but of other less prestigious thinkers who, in some cases, do not even claim to be philosophers. Nevertheless, the main purpose of the book is twofold. He warns against transference from one field to another and often generalizes from these thinkers or essayists to “French philosophy” (e.g., “we know that logic is not given great importance in French philosophy” any more than is “empiricism,” 37). He then goes on to generalize to a certain form of “Continental” philosophy, always tinged with “literaristic” influences, which, for Bouveresse, are quite clearly derived from Heidegger’s phenomenology.

[2] For this use of the notion of chiasm by Louis Marin, see my article “Louis Marin philosophe? La signification à la croisée du langage et de la vision,” in La raison des effets, travailler avec Louis Marin (conference publication of the EHESS in 1997 and of the Cicada in 2001), (ed.) P. A. Fabre and B. Rougé (Paris: Presses de l’EHESS, 2010), 42–64.

[3] The form of the alexandrine, with two hemistiches of equal length, obviously lends itself easily to effects of symmetry and parallelism.

[4] See, to take a recent example, in France, the Dictionnaire Merleau-Ponty, by Pascal Dupond (Paris: Ellipses, 2008), one of a series of books that aim to present in brief the key concepts of an author. It devotes a very long entry to this term (among the twenty-six notions reviewed).

[5] Of course, it would be impossible to refer to all the studies that consider chiasm a fundamental notion. Nevertheless, see the introduction of Merleau-Ponty, Chiasm and Logos, Studia phaenomenologica, vol. III, no. 3–4 (2003), in which we are reminded right from the first lines that: “the chiasm is without a doubt the one figure that steers Merleau-Ponty’s discourse. Reversibility, intertwining, gap, dehiscence, are all chiasmatic inflections that one can feel in those deepest attempts to convert into meaning, into uttered logos.” P. 34.See also in this book the article by Renaud Barbaras “le problème du chiasme,” and his article “le chiasme du rythme, une révision merleau-pontienne de l’incarnation lacanienne,” in Chiasmi, vol. 5 (2004, 192-201). In English, see D. Olkowski, “Intertwining and Objectification,” Phaenex, vol. 1, no. 1 (2006), 62–73; J. Reynolds, “Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and the Alterity of the Other,” Symposium, vol. 6, no. 1  (2002), 63–78; and W. S. Hamrick, “A Process View of the Flesh : Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty,” Process Studies, Spring-Summer (1999), 117–29.

[6] Emmanuel de Saint-Aubert,  Du lien des êtres aux éléments de l’être (Paris: Vrin, 2004. I translate.), 20. Hereafter referred to parenthetically in the text as LE. Here Saint-Aubert speaks of a “drift,”of “overgeneralization” and emphasizes “that the philosopher sometimes hovers near the margins of equivocity.” For the complete quotation, see below.

[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Une poïétique du sensible (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2001), 87ff. In Usages contemporains de la phénoménologie (Paris: Sens et Tonka, 2008), François David Sebbah contrasts a “phenomenology of writers” with a more scientific phenomenology derived from Husserl. Merleau-Ponty has often been associated with this phenomenology of writers, and one might forget to quote the commentators who mention his “poetic usage” of language or  “metaphor,” whether meant as praise or not. It is this distinction between “phenomenology of scientists” and phenomenology of writers that I intend to question, at least insofar as Merleau-Ponty is concerned, as he is, as I will demonstrate, one of the most paradoxically “scientistic” (in the neutral sense of the term) phenomenologists ever.

[8] Merleau-Ponty quotes Valéry and his conception of “chiasmi” in The Man and His Adversity (September 1951, article in Oeuvres De Merleau-Ponty, Quarto Gallimard, 2010, 1377-1397), Translation by R. McCleary (Signs, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 284. Hereafter referred to parenthetically in the text as S.

[9] See the chapter titled “The Intertwining – The Chiasm” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes, (ed.) C. Lefort, (tr.) A. Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 264–65. Hereafter refered to parenthetically in the text as VI. In the Dictionnaire de Merleau-Ponty, previously cited, the terms of reversibility and chiasm are given as synonyms. The chiasm is the cross that does not literally refer to the figure that rhetoric strictly defines as ABBA. The term chiasm is also often used as a cross in space (Marin, Damisch), a painter’s technique. See for example, as evidence of this usage, an article in Communications, vol. 34 (1981) titled “le chiasme cézannien,” a structuralist study of semiology in painting.

[10] It goes without saying that the substitutive analogies we use to specify the notion of chiasm—intertwining, Ineinander, encroachment, reversibility (all of them linked to what Merleau-Ponty thinks “topology” is)—are all considered equivalent by Merleau-Ponty himself. See, besides the appositions already mentioned and among them, “the chiasm and the Ineinander” in notes inédites accompagnant la préparation de cours, 1961 ((ed. C. Lefort (from January 1959 to March 1961, following Le Visible et l’Invisible), and the substitution “encroachment and chiasm”: “This other side…is not linked to this entity by a foreign simultaneity but by a reciprocal encroachment which is also mutual calling, the exchange of two needs in the circulation of the chiasm,” in: working notes 1960, (ed.) C. Lefort (from January 1959 to March 1961, following Le Visible et l’Invisible, 313). Also, on topology, see the most famous working notes of October 1959, edited by C. Lefort and following Le visible et l’Invisible (Gallimard, Tel, 264), and for the direct link between “chiasm” and “topology,” see the preface to Signs. Please refer to my more precise commentary on this note, “Spatialiser nos concepts . La tentative de Merleau-Ponty”  Symposium, vol. 12, no. 1 (??? 2008), ??–??; and, last but not least, the first paper on the topic by Jean Petitot, “Topologie phénoménale : sur l’actualité scientifique de la phusis phénoménologique de Merleau-Ponty,” in Merleau-Ponty, le philosophe et son langage, Cahiers, no. 15 (Grenoble: Groupe de recherches sur la philosophie et le langage, 1993), 291–322.

[11] Two long chapters are devoted to space, whereas time is dealt with in only one short chapter. I have previously noted the importance of space in my article “L’espace chez Merleau-Ponty, problèmes et enjeux contemporains,” publication of the Beijing conference Merleau-Ponty contemporain, colloque pour le centenaire de sa naissance, September 5–6, 2008, in Reading Merleau-Ponty (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2011), 43–62. A French translation is available at [http://www.cerium.ca/contenu30.html?id_mot=468].

[12] Cassirer (then Kurt Lewin, Panofsky, and Francastel) thought of the topology as more “concrete” than Euclidian geometry. It was a commonplace in 1950. Merleau-Ponty was influenced by this reception of “new geometry.” About Merleau-Ponty and the “new geometry” as “topology,” see the very important aformentioned article by Jean Petitot.

[13] TN: “Sensibly” meaning “perceptible through the senses.”

[14] On the importance of topology and of Poincaré in 20th-century mathematics, see Ernst Cassirer, “Book I, Mathematics and Physics,” in The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History Since Hegel (New Edition), (tr.) C. W. Hendel and W. H. Woglom (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977). Merleau-Ponty, as we shall see, was acquainted with Cassirer’s theses on mathematical revolutions, which were widely known through various channels. Cassirer had particularly “publicized” what he deemed to be (resting on real statements by Poincaré) a proximity between the concrete world and topology. Kurt Lewin, much influenced by Cassirer, looked in the same way upon these breakthroughs in mathematics and topology, and made use of them as we know in his Gestalt psychology. Above all, the art historians most contributed to popularize this interpretation of topology. Francastel, following the German art historians, will even go about making contemporary art “a topological art” in his paper “Espace géométrique et espace esthétique” in Revue d’esthétique, January–March (1948). No doubt this is what most interested the phenomenologist willing to go back to the “world of life” and to go beyond the rupture between the concrete world and science, this rupture being, according to the Krisis, the source of the crisis of the European sciences. We could of course discuss whether or not this use of topology (which Merleau-Ponty also often calls “new geometry”) would have made Poincaré shudder (which is not even certain), but we think that this would have no more interest than to remind us that the problems of mathematics are not exactly the same as those of philosophy (see, on this obviously non-literally “mathematical” use, my book Le concept et le lieu (Paris: Cerf, 2008). Like perspective in the Renaissance, some notions cross their original field to become common goods to be interpreted and modified. As Merleau-Ponty posits “concrete universality” and not the “brain of the leech,” it is not surprising that he used all the tools from other sciences to gain access to it. What we find interesting here is that, rightly or wrongly, Merleau-Ponty thought that this constellation of concepts—united around the notion of proximity—could help him clarify his philosophy. With this crossing constellation, we really witness something similar to what Damisch describes about perspective in the Renaissance: mathematicians, architects, painters, theoricians of art, philosophers, take over the same notion which they modify according to the different fields of reception concerned.

[15] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, (tr.) A. Fisher (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963; London: Methuen, 1965), 145.

[16] Phenomenology of Perception, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, 2002),  391.

[17] Initially, topology is a development of Leibniz’s analysis situs. See Cassirer on Poincaré in Ernst Cassirer, Problèmes de la connaissance dans la Philosophie et la Science des Temps Modernes, (tr.) I. Thomas-Fogiel (Paris: Cerf, 1995).

[18] L’oeil et l’esprit, Folio, Essais, 1964, 7. Hereafter referred to parenthetically in text as EM.

[19] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours au Collège de France: 1958-1959 et 1960-1961 (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 176. My translation.

[20] On this analysis of the dismissal of the sensible by the code in The Dioptrics, see Jean-Luc Marion, Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981), 262ff.

[21] See also EM, 10: “Yet Descartes would not have been Descartes if he had thought to eliminate the enigma of vision”; and EM, 12: “All the inquiries we believed closed have been reopened.”

[22] We find as early as Phenomenology of Perception the source of this attitude of extension; Merleau-Ponty proving to be really coherent throughout his work. Indeed, he wrote there: “the alleged transparency of Euclidean geometry is one day revealed as operative for a certain period in the history of the human mind, and signifies simply that, for a time, men were able to take a homogeneous three-dimensional space as the ‘ground’ of their thoughts, and to assume unquestioningly what generalized science will consider as a contingent account of space.” (PP, 454) In this quotation can be seen the attitude we call “positivist,” which here simply signifies a trust in the latest developments of some science to help us move forward in our philosophical conquest of the space we live in.

[23] Le scenario cartésien, Paris, Vrin, 2005, p. 32 (LE).

[24] Anne Gabrièle Wersinger, “L’autoréfutation du sceptique vu de la scène antique,” Revue de métaphysique et de morale, vol. 1 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010), 43–67, here 43. My translation.

[25] L’institution, la passivité. Notes de cours au collège de France (1954-1955), Paris, Belin, 2003,, 45.

[26] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’institution. La passivité. Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954-1955) (Paris: Belin, 2003), 80. My translation.

[27] La perspective comme forme symbolique, Paris, Minuit, 1976, pp. 41 .

[28] The term is initially used by Cassirer, then taken up by Panofsky.

[29] In this regard, Panofsky’s is not mentioned once in Saint-Aubert’s three books (published by Vrin) which claim to be an exhaustive list of Merleau-Ponty’s influences.

[30] Merleau-Ponty associates Cezanne with topology several times and without a hint of ambiguity: “example of Cezanne for a whole quest, of everything at once. To study space for him is to study everything. Outcome: a topological space”  in: notes de lecture pour la préparation de L’oeil et l’esprit, Unpublished Manuscript, Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, Issue V, 174 pages, 157.

[31] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Nonsense (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 14.

[32] On Merleau-Ponty and Piaget, see Osborne Wiggins, “Merleau-Ponty and Piaget: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology,” Man and World, vol. 12 (1979), 21–34; Emmanuel de Saint-Aubert, Vers une ontologie indirecte (Paris: Vrin, 2006), Chapter 6; and my Concept et le lieu, Chapter 2, Part One.

[33] I have studied this point at length in my article “Spatialiser nos concepts, la tentative de Merleau-Ponty,” Symposium, vol. 12, no. 1 (2008), ??–??.

[34] For the definition of philosophy as chiasm and encroachment, see, among others, The Visible and the Invisible: “The true philosophy = apprehend what makes the leaving of oneself be a retiring into oneself, and vice versa” (VI, 199), and on the extension of the category to think the relations between various fields of knowledge and not only the relation to the proper body, see my chapter devoted to Merleau-Ponty in Le concept et le lieu, Chapter 2, Part One, 46–80.

[35] This is my thesis in Le concept et le lieu, Chapter 2.

[36] For Leibniz, the analysis situs is already the ancestor of topology.

[37] It is a distinction that leads us to suggest the term “positivist” and not simply rationalist. Indeed, Husserl is a rationalist but not a positivist in that he refuses all borrowing from the specialized sciences and in that he wishes to preserve the purity of the phenomenological field. He is followed in that position by phenomenologists such as Sartre and Marion. In contrast, Merleau-Ponty explicitly rests on the sciences and borrows numerous concepts (from psychology, physiology, physics, mathematics). He shows then genuine trust in those sciences and in their recent “discoveries.” Nevertheless, he is not a “scientist" in so far as he never claimed that philosophy had to dissolve itself in another science.

[38] Jean-Luc Marion, Le phénomène érotique (Paris: Livre de poche, 2003), 164.

[39] We think that reflection on a new category of relation or on other modes of relation is one of the tasks of contemporary philosophy. See the recent attempt by Michel Bitbol, in a completely different philosophical universe, De l’intérieur du monde, pour une philosophie et une science de la relation (Paris: Flammarion, 2011). The crossing category in Merleau-Ponty, by clearly opposing the face-to-face world of perspective, is a sign of the beginning of such an attempt.

[40] See above quotation: “…As primitive man in the desert is always able to take his bearings immediately without having to cast his mind back and add up distances covered and deviations made since setting off.” (PP, 334)

[41] François David Sebbah, L’épreuve de la limite (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001), 28. My translation.

[42] On this point, I refer to my “Daniel Arasse ou le pur plaisir de penser,” Figures de l’art, no. 16 (2009), 45–69, in which I analyze the two possible meanings of the term “primary” in Husserl’s work.

[43] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (Transl. A. Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1995), 259.

[44] One has to come back to the “brute,” “wild” being (VI, 212), the “pre-objective,” the world where the “vertical” being of before “our idealisation and our syntax.” (VI, 102)

[45] For all these expressions see S, 83–84.

[46] We must remember that Damisch is the pupil of Merleau-Ponty. According to Damisch, Merleau-Ponty’s project of return to the origin has numerous weaknesses: can we really say of a perception, which we strive to come back to through various conceptual means, that it is truly “brute” and “wild”? Can perception, which will happen after the deconstruction of perspective and which will have therefore required considerable effort of the mind, really be deemed to precede reason? Let us not forget, either, that one of the highest claims of perspective is to enable painting to express a truth never before attained, and therefore to truly reflect the perception of human vision. This questioning on the relation of perspective and perception is central in Damisch’s text on the origin of perspective and conditions Damisch’s criticism of his master. On Damisch’s relation to Merleau-Ponty, see my “Louis Marin philosophe?”




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