Volume 16, 2014
Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
L’insaisissable présence du présent. La précession du présent sur soi-même comme temporalité de notre époque
Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy seems devoted to a fundamental task, knowing how to grasp what he calls a “mutation within the relations of man and Being.” Such a mutation concerns, in the first instance, Merleau-Ponty’s time, knowing the era in which he lives and writes: it is a mutation that is given in history, and thus generated by historical events. At the same time, this mutation has to do with the very essence of time, as the ontological counterpart of being itself. It is, in this later instance, a mutation of the temporality of being: of an intimate being, the being of self, of the unconscious; but also of a communal and shared being—assumed universal—the being of history.
An oblique reflection on a temporality thus conceived emerges in his course notes, “Institution in Personal and Public History.” Temporality, here considered as the transcendental of institution, the condition of its possibility, reveals itself as antichronological and anti-metaphysical: it escapes the linearity of successive presents, the retrograde movement of the real (which has characterized Western philosophy since Plato), the dialectical movement of history according to Hegel.
Indirectly, Merleau-Ponty develops a complex temporal figure—from the structural point of view—where “the past […] takes on the outline of a preparation or premeditation of a present that exceeds it in meaning although it recognizes itself in it.” The past is thus not a former present, but—as mythical past—it is simultaneously in the present itself.
This revolution of the temporality of being also affects our time. From the ontological discontinuity emphasized by Merleau-Ponty, the mutation within the relations of man and being happening today seems to be characterized by the loss of all dimensions of time: there is only a present, which, nevertheless, is never present. This is true first of all from a personal point of view: desire no longer pursues its fulfillment—although imaginary and impossible—in the mythical horizon of the past, but rather looks for enjoyment, just as impossible and imaginary, in an elusive present that always exceeds us. This desertification of time also reveals itself in history, where, with and after the postmodern, the present seems to stand out as the only possible temporal dimension, depriving history of its sense and its universality.
It seems to us that the philosophy of the later Merleau-Ponty prefigures, or, at least, allows us to think, this subsequent mutation. This is a minor figure, but the subject of significant studies, such as that of “precession,” that can help us not only to understand, but also to re-signify, this mythical present and never present that haunts our time.