dinsdag 28 februari 2012

Je peux (pas)

The human body, thus says the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, knóws things. It possesses knowledge of the world around. According to him, the body is always focused on its surroundings, and our body is originally involved in the world, in the sense that it coincides with the world. For example if you play piano, your body temporarily coïncides with the instrument. My body knows many things about the world of which I, as a thinking being, am not aware.

Merleau-Ponty calls this knowledge of the senses and limbs ‘the silent thinking’ and he sometimes refers to it as the feeling of ‘I can’ (‘Je peux’). With that last phrase he takes a position opposite René Descartes for whom not the body but the mind is fundamental, summarized by Descartes in the formula ‘I think’ (‘cogito’). Merleau-Ponty argues that beneath the conscious knowledge of the I-think the more original layer of the I-can lies hidden: a physical knowledge of the world around you.

Why can I only partially agree with this idea? Not because I, like Descartes, assign primacy to thinking, for I have no problems in accepting the idea that we humans are through our bodies physically positioned in the world. But why does he say I-can? And why does he speak of coinciding-with? In my experience, my situatedness at least as often is a case of I-can-not. And my coinciding-with is at least as often a matter of colliding-with.

Take skating, for an example. The I-can was definitely not my first experience with the irons under my feet. And that’s still not the case when after some time I stand on the ice again. Only sustained winters like we had just now enable me to experience the I-can to some degree, by properly pushing off and using my weight. Apparently in my case quite a bit of I-think is needed as well before I arrive at I-can.

My spontaneous movements sometimes seem to be exactly the wrong ones. Whether it concerns skating, writing, football or playing an instrument, the I-can-not is there as often as the I-can. Awkward, wooden, a bit like Levinas describes when he writes about the unfolding of human action “as on an ill-paved road, jolted about by instants each of which is a beginning all over again. The job does not flow, does not catch on, is discontinuous – a discontinuousness which is perhaps the very nature of a ‘job’”.

Indeed, I notice around me that there are people for whom – unlike for me – the I-can is the most obvious and primary experience. They have a kind of immediate contact with themselves, with the ice, with the ball, with the violin. Would Merleau-Ponty have been like that?

My objection to the absence of the I-can-not does not, in my view, affect Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical point, which remains fully erect. With the latter’s rejection of a free-floating spirit I completely agree, as with his emphasis on our embeddedness in the world and on the entwinement of body and spirit. But from that last position I end up as often at the I-can-not as at the I-can. And in the I-can-not a bit of the I-think is badly needed.

Also see Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic