Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Meet M. Merleau-Ponty

I attended a talk at Penn by Sean Kelly, who was visiting from Princeton. He is a philosopher working on (among other things) issues in perceptual experience and how they relate to bodily action. In a follow-up, I intend to post a comment on the content of the paper he presented, but here I want to relate a fairly unique experience I had at the talk.

About halfway through, I had a strange “rush” of some combination of relief and gratitude as Kelly began to relate his views to Merleau-Ponty and read quotes from the Phenomenology of Perception. Now, I hadn’t reviewed Kelly’s work prior to the talk – if I had, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But here is a young philosopher, working comfortably within up-to-date analytic philosophy (and keeping up with developments in cognitive science), who is making use of expertise on Merleau-Ponty and Continental phenomenology more broadly. This struck me as a rare and noteworthy thing.

In an earlier phase of my interest in philosophy, I focused on Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. I was interested in the way that these philosophers took on the subject-object divide which runs through the traditional problems in philosophy. Then, during the 1990’s, spurred by the expansion of new books and articles on the subject of consciousness, I began to go back and start finding and reading some of the relevant works in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of mind and related areas.

Obviously, many others have noted the divide between the analytic and Continental traditions, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to do justice to the topic, but the depth of separation always seemed to me to be unfortunate. A recent issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (vol.11 No.10-11, 2004) focused on work inspired by the Continental tradition. In an editorial introduction, it was suggested that recent work in consciousness which passed over this tradition was guilty of “re-invention of the wheel”. Maybe so.

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