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Some thoughts on Merleau-Ponty, Hegel and existentialism

Published in Theory by Mark Murphy on May 16, 2013

Be your own hero (c) Norma Desmond

I’ve always had a soft spot for the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty; these reflections are based on a reading of his:

‘Hegel’s existentialism’ In Maurice Merleau-Ponty Sense and non-sense (1964) Evanston: Northwestern University Press (pp. 63-70).

It includes a useful account of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Apologies for the use of masculine terminology in the quotations …

In this essay, Merleau-Ponty is observing Hegel through the eyes of Jean Hyppolite, who presented a lecture on Hegel’s existentialism. Although not formulated as such, the question seems to be: what can the thought of Hegel add to existentialism? Or maybe, what can Hegel tell us about existentialism? The final lines of the article provide a clue to the answer:

A more complete definition of what is called existentialism than we get from talking of anxiety and the contradictions of the human condition might be found in the idea of a universality which men affirm or imply by the mere fact of their being and at the very moment of their opposition to each other, in the idea of a reason immanent in unreason, of a freedom which comes into being in the act of accepting limits and to which the least perception, the slightest movement of the body, the smallest action, bear incontestable witness.

Although it wouldn’t be fair to call this version of existentialism on the part of Merleau-Ponty an intersubjective existentialism (a contradiction?), as it seems to operate within the parameters of the philosophy of consciousness, of subject-object relations, it nevertheless does make a shift towards acknowledging the social nature of individual existence.

Merleau-Ponty points out in the essay that there are several Hegels, or several interpretations of Hegel, but here he follows Hyppolite’s interpretation, more or less. Based on this reading, Merleau-Ponty argues that Hegel’s thought

is existentialist in that it views man not as being from the start a consciousness in full possession of its own clear thoughts but as a life which is its own responsibility and which tries to understand itself.

Merleau-Ponty makes it clear that this interpretation is based on the Hegel of the Phenomenology of Mind, rather than the Hegel of the Philosophy of Right, or the Hegel who finds the universal in the Prussian state, or any state for that matter. In this reading, though, we still seem to have a more or less isolated individual acting on him/herself and the exterior world:

At the very period of history he starts from a subjective ‘certainty’, makes his actions conform to the directions of that certainty, and witnesses the surprising consequences of his first intention, discovering its objective ‘truth’. He then modifies his project, gets under way once more, again becomes aware of the abstract qualities of his new project, until subjective certainty finally equals objective truth and in the light of consciousness he becomes fully what he already obscurely was.

Later on in the paper we see a different account of the isolated individual, framed by a discussion of the master-slave dialectic that Hegel presented in the famous essay on ‘Lordship and bondage’. Consider the following passage from Merleau-Ponty on this question:

If each participant in the duel of consciousness, of fraternal enemies, succeeded in fatally wounding the other, nothing would be left; there would not even be a place for that hatred and that affirmation of self which is in principle behind the struggle. Thus, the man with the most exact awareness of the human condition is not the master … but the slave. The slave has been truly afraid, has given up trying to conquer by the sword, and he is the only one with experience of death because he alone has known the love of life. The master wants to exist for no one but himself, but in fact he seeks recognition of his mastery from someone and so is weak in his strength. The slave consents to exist only for others, but nevertheless it is he who chooses to go on living on these terms, and he therefore has strength in his weakness.

It is with the fear, the anxiety that accompanies the awareness of being in bondage that allows the slave to become transformed from a being-in-itself to a being-for-itself. However, it should be clear, even from Merleau-Ponty’s own passage above, that this relationship is an intersubjective one: both the master and slave are dependent on each other in their awareness of their own being. The master needs the recognition from the slave in order to actually exist as a master, while the slave’s transformation into a being-for-itself is dependent on an awareness of its position. This is a far cry from the lonely existential existence, an existence in which recognition plays a subordinate part, if any, in the individual’s awareness of their position in the world. On top of this, Merleau-Ponty seems to agree with Hyppolite who argues that Hegel stops being an existentialist with the occurrence of the being-for-itself. According to Merleau-Ponty it is at this juncture that, for Hegel,

history overcomes its contradictions and fulfils the promise of humanity.

I would presume this to be the promise of the universal, but regardless, it seems strange that Merleau-Ponty would read Hegel in this way and imply that such a reading would be beneficial to existentialism. As we saw in the quote given at the beginning of this post, he appears to say that Hegel can provide some social context for existentialism. Maybe the word should be societal rather than social, as the intersubjective element of everyday life, present in Hegel’s master and slave, seems to have been bypassed by Merleau-Ponty, in this case at least. This may have to do with the fact that the doctrine of existentialism and the notion of intersubjectivity are, in fact, incompatible.

 

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Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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