Volume 17, 1992
The Continuity Between Merleau-Ponty’s Early and Late Philosophy of Language
The primary concem of this essay is the similarity and difference between Merleau-Ponty’s early (Phenomenology of Perception) and late (The Visible and the lnvisible) philosophy of language. While some argue that Merleau-Ponty’s late work breaks with the earlier text and foreshadows poststructuralist and deconstructionist philosophy of language, I argue (with others) that there is no significant break in Merleau-Ponty’s thought. The similarities discovered between the early and late philosophy of language are 1.) that the body opens onto a world that is shared by all, 2.) that human gestures (of an individual and between individuals) interpenetrate and aim at the same world, and 3.) that the visual field that is already structured by the body/world interaction provides the basis for more abstract linguistic expression. The most fundamental difference discovered between these texts is that Merleau-Ponty abandons his earlier concept of the tacit cogito for the reflexivity of the body. Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to relate this reflexivity to language will also be discussed.
Since there is such confusion and debate about the continuity of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, especially with respect to his philosophy of language, I have cast the essay in the form of a comprehensive exposition. The detailed textual exposition serves two purposes. First, it provides a comprehensive essay length introduction to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language, and secondly, it reveals Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in his own words, thus reducing the possibility of misinterpretation.