Notes on a visceral ethics: Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal compassion.

by Arran James

This post isn’t really a post. It’s more a set of notes. I’m only posting them in case anyone finds them useful or can point me directions that might flesh out the nascent thoughts expressed.

Yesterday I attended a fascinating and exciting research seminar at Dundee University. The talk was given by Dermot Moran, a renowned expert on phenomenology, and was on the topic of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of flesh and the idea of the chiasm. Specifically, Moran compellingly argued that the perceived “epistemic break”, if you will, between an early and a late Merleau-Ponty is not justifiable. In fact, close reading of the text shows that there is a profound continuity between the author of the Phenomenology of Perception and the author of The Visible and the Invisible. I admit, this is an idea I am very receptive to from the outset as my first exposure to Merleau-Ponty was with the essay ‘Eye and Mind’. At any rate, there are three outcomes from Moran’s talk and a brief conversation with him that followed it that are important to me:

1) Merleau-Ponty is enacting an unarticulated return to Hellenistic philosophy, and espeically the Stoics. This is important for my own “transcorporealism” because I ground an embodied realism in Stoic materialism. Moran was more than receptive to my suggestion that Merleau-Ponty is enacting such a return and even offered some pointers as to how he might search for evidence. For me, the evidence is already in the texts of the respective parties… notably in the commitment to existence being bodily, and to be a weaving. The essential up shot here is a continued sense of encouragement.

2) A sense that Merleau-Ponty is also giving us a ground for a thought of genericity. The pre-personal is a kind of generic, transindividuality that can ground collective efforts. [James Williams seemed to be suggesting MP isn’t revolutionary enough, but is this a serious problem in a historical situation where we don’t know what revolution would consist of?]

3) Against my suspicions, Levinas is probably not a very good line to think the ethics of ontological vulnerability. This comes to me from a quote Moran used on a slide that he left up throughout the Q&A session. I spent much of this session looking at that slide, gazing up at Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that there is a

Fundamental polymorphism by reason of which I do not have to constitute the other in face of the Ego: he is already there and the Ego is conquered from him…There is the vertical or carnal universe..the I-other problem is a Western problem. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964. The Visible and the Invisible– Working notes. p. 221).

The full quote is dense (what does it mean to call the carnal vertical? that it stands up-right? that the carnal doesn’t constitute a “horizon” [Heidegger] but is the condition of “the horizontal”?). At any rate, these words seem chosen specifically as if to rebut Levinas. Against Levinasian ethical experience as infinite, as a hostage-taking, as a traumatic rending of the subject form itself, Merleau-Ponty’s “visceral ethics”, and here I’m purposely playing on the proximity and distance of viscera to virtue, is a way of being being sensibly responsive to being, a kind of empathy of flesh for flesh, a finite cosmopolitanism of finite bodies, that does not take on an exclusively passive receptivity (as it does for Levinas). Merleau-Ponty stands as a materialist Schopenhauer. In this sense, Schopenhauer states that when a suffering being suffers

I nevertheless feel it with him, feel it as my own, and not within me, but in another person… But this presupposes that to a certain extent I have identified myself with the other man, and in consequence the barrier between the ego and the non–ego is for the moment abolished…. (On the Basis of Morality, § 18). This linkage between Merleau-Ponty and Schopenhauer is probably worth exploring.

This also helps form a corrective to my own tendency to introject the voice of Epictetus. For Epictetus we may have empathy with the sufferer but it is our duty to stop short of being ensnared by her suffering. Here I think of couples where one of them is depressed. The non-depressed partner can come to feel the depression of the depressed partner to such a degree that they are no longer empathising but actually inside the same affective climate. The point isn’t to follow Epictetus all the way in his Socratic intellectualism, such is impossible (and I think this impossibility is actually the basis of Stoic ethics…essentially a coping-with-affect, with emotional and psychological vulnerabilities), but to agree with him that in empathy we must guard ourselves against collapse, or what nurses call “compassion fatigue”. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, I think in his 1987 The Shadow of the Object, tells us he believes the analyst should be an object for the analysand, should enter his affective world, should be used by her. Bollas is quick to strongly urge that analysts don’t mistake this for making a complete identification with and being captured inside the gravity of the analysand’s emotional potency. For Merleau-Ponty all of this is a question of carnality, there might be a sense then that if we pay attention it all just happens. We might still require a dose of Epictetan intellectualism to keep us from fatigue. After all, the world is a world of suffering. If we empathised infinitely, we’d be back in the land of Levinas and the idealist Josiah Royce. We would be crushed by our obligations, unable to meet any of them. That isn’t the world we live in.

Edit to add: Epictetus on Socrates

How, then, shall I become affectionate [φιλόστοργος]?—As one who is noble, as one who is fortunate; for reason never accepts that one be wretched, or that one depend on something else, or even blame either god or human being. Thus be affectionate so as to maintain these things; if, however, by virtue of this natural affection [φιλοστοργίαν], whatever it is you call by that name, you are going to be a slave and miserable, it does not profit you to be affectionate. And what keeps you from loving [φιλει̃ν] someone as a mortal, as one who may leave you? Did not Socrates love [ε̉φίλει] his own children? Yes, but as a free man, as one who remembers that it is necessary first to be a friend to the gods. (Discourse 3. 24. 58-60)

As I say, I don’t think this state is achievable. Yet it is a kind of regulative idea (as it is for most Stoics, aside from Epictetus). There is a recognition of the exquisite and the imperilling nature of our affectivity. It is not that affect is good or bad, for the stoic it has to be morally indifferent until I take up an attitude towards it, until I wrestle with it, until I accept it and then learn to cope with it. There is a maturity to this concept of love that we rarely find in contemporary life, and a level of understanding of the emotions that is rarely attributed to the stoics who are, all too often and all too readily, presented as cold, detached cognitivists. This is fundamentally wrong.