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Chiasmi International

Volume 15, 2013

Existence, Diacritics, Animality

Don Beith
Pages 201-218

Merleau-Ponty and the Institution of Animate Form
The Generative Origins of Animal Perception and Movement

From his earliest work in The Structure of Behavior, Maurice Merleau-Ponty abrogates accounts of organic form that posit the organism as either passively ordered by the environment which precedes it, or as actively constituting its environment. I argue that Merleau-Ponty first develops what I term a genetic concept of form, in which the organism-environment relationship unfolds developmentally. This account of genetic form, however, requires a further concept of generative form to overcome the conceptual distinction between constituting activity and constituted passivity. I contend that rather than pre-existing its own development ideally, in a genetic or developmental blueprint, or environmentally, in given causes, that instead form emerges expressively and dynamically. To develop the concept of generative form I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s lecture courses Institution and Nature, while drawing from examples in animal motorperceptual development and inter-bodily communication. In doing so, I contend that this idea of generativity requires for us to think of organisms as passive, though not as passively constituted by a nature in-itself, but rather as passively instituted by a natural sense that orients the possibilities of organic development without itself existing as an already realized form of life. I argue that the notion of generative form offers an approach to thinking of species differences not as essential differences in kind, but as elaborations of a natural generativity that precedes and grounds individual animate forms.

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