Selections from The Prose of the World by M. Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The prose of the world

Tr. by J. O'Neil . Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press1973 [1969]

The argument


How could language [refer to what has never yet been seen] if what is new were not composed of old elements already experienced? (p. 3) 

towards recapturing experience by building on Saussurian linguistics and other formalisms--as well as recapturing linguistics for experience.

The straw argument

The algorithm, the project of a universal language, is a revolt against language in its existing state and a refusal to depend upon the confusions of everyday language. (p. 5).

the revolt against simple positivisms and correspondence theories of language

The paradox

We understand what is said to us because we know in advance the meaning of the words spoken to us. (p.8)

One of the effects of language is to efface itself to the extent that its expression comes across... The perfection of language lies in its capacity to pass unnoticed (p.9-10)

The developing argument: the power of language

Therein [the capacity to pass unnoticed] lies the virtue of language. ... The perfection of language lies in its capacity to pass unnoticed... We may say that there are two languages, First there is language after the fact, or language as an institution. which effaces itself in order to yield the meaning which it conveys Second, there it the language which creates itself  in its expressive acts, which sweeps me on from the signs toward meaning--le langage parlé et le langage parlant. (p. 10)

The need to distinguish between le language parlé (possibly "sedimented language" but also "language that has been spoken") and le langage parlant (possibly "speech" but also "language that is speaking")--do note the absence of subject

the dangerous (disabling) power of language to hide itself is also its (enabling) power to move humanity (p.17)

language that is noticed as it propels, projects

language as institution and as creation in experiments that move signs towards meaning

Once I have acquired language, I can easily delude myself into believing that I could have understood it by myself, because it has transformed me and made me capable of understanding it. (p.13)

Philosophy is not the passage from a confused world to a universe of closed significations. On the contrary philosophy begins with the awareness of a world which consumes and destroys our established significations but also renews and purifies them. To say that self-sufficient thought always refer to a thought enmeshed in language is not to say that thought is alienated or that language cuts thought off from truth and certainty. we must understand that language is not an impediment to consciousness and that there is no difference, for consciousness, between self-transcendence and self-expression. In its live ... state, language is the gesture of renewal. and recovery which unites me with myself and others. We must learn to reflect on consciousness in the hazards of language and as quite impossible without its opposite. (p.17)

The substratum of this system is ... an "I" endowed with a body which reveals its thoughts sometimes to attribute them to itself and at other times to impute them to someone else. (p. 18)

Language continually reminds me that the "incomparable monster" which I am when silent can, through speech, be brought into the presence of another myself. (p. 19)

Even when each word, according to the dictionary has a great number of meanings, we go straight to the one which fits a given sentence. (p. 22)

The developing argument: the reality of language as historical product and configuration

Saussure has inaugurated a linguistics of speech, which would reveal in it at each moment an order, a system, a totality without which communication... would be impossible. (p.23)

There is an "I speak" which ends doubt about language in the same way that the "I think" terminated universal doubt. Everything I say about language presupposes it, but that does not invalidate what I says; it only shows that language is not an object. (p. 24)

Now, that's not the common view of Saussure in the English speaking world: a wonderful artifact of what may not be a mistranslation!

One can continue to believe that all these facts of linguistic usage involve are contaminations disorders, accidents that nothing in the world can escape... But... the clarity of language is not behind it in a universal grammar we may carry upon our person; it is before language, in what the infinitesimal gestures of any scrawling or the paper or each vocal inflection reveals to the horizon as their meaning. For speech, understood in this way, the idea of a  finished expression is chimerical.  Such an idea is what we call successful communication. (p. 28)

Successful communication occurs only if the listener, instead of following the verbal chain link by link, on his own account resumes the linguistic gesticulations and carries it further. (p. 28-29)

note the amazing echoes of these passages of G.H. Mead on the conversation of gestures, the "i", the me, and meaning in the completion of the act.

"The man I love" is no less eloquent to the English than l'homme que j'aime. "From the sole fact that one understands a linguistic complex... this series of terms is the adequate expression of the thought." (Saussure, 1949: 197). Thus we must disabuse ourselves of the habit of "under-standing" [sous-entendre] the relative pronoun. That is speaking French in English. Nothing is under-stood in the  English phrase, the moment it is comprehended--or rather, in any language at all there is nothing but understandings. (p. 29)

The argument: making differences in speech through language

A language is less a sum of signs (words, grammatical and syntactic forms) than a methodical means of differentiating signs from one another and thereby constructing a linguistic universe of which we later say--once it is precise enough to crystallize a significative intention and to have it reborn in another--that it expresses a world of thought, as it gives it its existence in the world and only takes away "a little of the renewable action and independent existence from the transitive character of internal phenomena. (p.31)

How are we to understand this fruitful moment of language when an accident is transformed into a reason ... The way it happens is too indecisive for one to imagine some spirit of language or some decree on the part of speaking subjects... But it is also too systematic ... for one to be able to reduce it to a sum of partial changes... (p. 34)

For a mode of speech to be understood, it must be a matter of course it must be generally accepted. This ultimately presupposes that a mode of speech has its analogue in other forms of speech based on the same pattern, But at the same time it should not be habitual to the point of becoming indistinguishable. It must still strike someone who hears it used, and its whole power of expression derives from its not being identical with its competitors.
    To express one is, therefore, a paradoxical enterprise, since it presupposes that there is a fund of kindred expressions already established. and thoroughly evident, and that from this fluid the form used should detach itself and remain new enough to arouse attention. (p. 35)

For something to be said, it must not be said absolutely, (p. 36)

It is as essential to language that the logic of its construction never be of a kind that can be put into concepts as it is to truth never to be possessed, but only transparent through the clouded logic of a system of expression which bears the trace of a past and the seeds of another future.
    We must be sure that all this does not invalidate the fact of expression and proves nothing against the truth of what is expressed ... (Footnote: no limits to language, no structure of language... these limits and values exist: quite simply, they are of a perceptual order: there is a Gestalt of language, in the living present there is something of the expressed and non-expressed, there is work to do. In the end language must signify something and not always be language about language. But signification and the sign belong to the perceptual order, not to the order of pure spirit.) (p. 37)

Indeed, while I am speaking, I do, of course, say something, and I rightly claim to go from the things said to the things themselves. It is with similar right that, over and above the half-silences and the understandings of speech, I claim to make myself understood and to introduce a difference between what has been said and what has never been said. (p. 38)

This last statement is the crucial development over Saussure (and indeed over Derrida): "difference" (differance) is not something only internal to the working of langue (langage parlé) but also to the actual practice of speaking (langage parlant). As against Hymes and all the others who demonstrated that there are structuring orders in conversation, Merleau-Ponty insists that any actual act of speaking is not so much "new" (in the sense of "creative") as different from one could have expected would be said if speech was only a matter of language speaking itself from no particular "center." I take Merleau-Ponty to prefigure the more powerful version of bricolage that focuses on the continual activity of all actors as they reorder the ordered elements they must use.

The power of language lies neither in that future of knowledge toward. which it moves nor in that mythical past from which it has emerged: it lies entirely in its present, in so far as its success in ordering the would-be key words to make them say more than they have ever said, and transcends itself as a product of the past, thus giving as the illusion of going beyond all speech to this themselves, because in effect we go beyond all given language... The marvel that a finite number of signs, forms, and words should give rise to an indefinite number of uses, or that other and identical marvel that (p. 41)

... man perceives another man in the world as a part of the spectacle, and thus everything the other does already has the same sense as what I do, because his actions (inasmuch as I am the spectator of it) is aimed at the same objects with which I deal. The first speech was not established in a world without communication, since it emerged from forms of conduct that were already common and take root in a sensible world which had already ceased to be a private world. (p. 42).

There is here a hint of what was so much more elaborated in American pragmatism and its development from Pearce, through G.H. Mead to C. Arensberg in anthropology: communication is primordial rather than derivative from already made-up individuals and it involves three positions. In this case the three are two persons and the objects that they are both aiming at.

To say that no sign signifies by itself, that language always refer back to language because at any moment only a few signs are received, is also to say that language is expressive as much through what is between words as through the words themselves, and through what it does not say as much as what it says, just as the painter paints as much by what he traces, by the blanks he leaves, or by the brush marks he does not make. (p. 43)

If this had been taken seriously when it was published, much of the pessimimism and nihilism fostered by Derrida (and Geertz) would not have had any take over the social sciences. Language does refer to language but speaking is its own proof.

Speech does not choose only one sign for one already defined signification, the way one searches for a hammer to drive in a nail or pincers to pull one out. It gropes around an intention to signify which has at its disposal no text to guide it, far it is just being written. And if we want to grasp speech in its most authentic operation in order to do it full justice, we must evoke all those words that could have some in tie place that have been omitted to feel the different way they would have impinged on and rattled the chain of language, to know at what point this particular speech was the only one possible. (p. 45)

"saying" (which may or may not be "speaking") must not be reduced to "having spoken" and not to "will have been spoken"--that is what is said is not planned according to some internal speech (intention, motivation, etc.). What will have been said emerges in the saying, and then, or course, it is said and interpretation (new text over a pre-text) or the meting of consequences can proceed.

These are the passages that I am tempted to read as another statement of what G.H. Mead attempted to do when he talked about the "I"

It is said that the exact recording of a conversation which had seemed brilliant later gives the impression of indigence. The truth lies here. The conversation reproduced exactly is no longer what it was while we were living it... The conversation no longer exists. It does not ramify in all directions--it is, flattened out in the single dimension of sound. Instead of summoning our whole being, it does no more than touch us lightly by ear. (p. 65)

March 22, 2016 [2000]