The Elemental Past

in Research in Phenomenology
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In a 1951 debate that marked the beginnings of the analytic-continental divide, Maurice Merleau-Ponty sided with Georges Bataille in rejecting A. J. Ayer’s claim that “the sun existed before human beings.” This rejection is already anticipated in a controversial passage from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, where he claims that “there is no world without an Existence that bears its structure.” I defend Merleau-Ponty’s counterintuitive position against naturalistic and anti-subjectivist critics by arguing that the world emerges in the exchange between perceiver and perceived. A deeper challenge is posed, however, by Quentin Meillassoux, who argues that the “correlationism” of contemporary philosophy rules out any account of the “ancestral” time that antedates all subjectivity. Against Meillassoux, and taking an encounter with fossils as my guide, I hold that the past prior to subjectivity can only be approached phenomenologically. The paradoxical character of this immemorial past, as a memory of the world rather than of the subject, opens the way toward a phenomenology of the “elemental” past. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of the absolute past of nature and the anonymity of the body, as well as Levinas’ account of the elements at the end of the world, I argue that our own materiality and organic lives participate in the differential rhythms of the elements, opening us to a memory of the world that binds the cosmic past and the apocalyptic future.

The Elemental Past

in Research in Phenomenology



Georges Bataille“Le conséquences du non-savoir,” in Oeuvres complètesvol. 8 (Paris: Gallimard1976) 190; translated by Annette Michelson as “Un-knowing and Its Consequences” in October 36 (1986): 80. An alternative translation by Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall appeared as “The Consequences of Nonknowledge” in Georges Bataille The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge ed. Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2001) 111.


Bataille“Le conséquences du non-savoir” 191 190; “Un-knowing and its Consequences” 81 80; “The Consequences of Nonknowledge” 112 111.


Andreas Vrahimis“Was There a Sun Before Men Existed? A.J. Ayer and French Philosophy in the Fifties,” Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy 1 no. 9 (2012) 11. See also Simon Critchley Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press 2001) 36.


Bataille“Le conséquences du non-savoir” 191; “Un-knowing and its Consequences” 80; “The Consequences of Nonknowledge” 111–12.


Quentin MeillassouxAprès la finitude (Paris: Éditions de Seuil2006); translated by Ray Brassier as After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum 2008); hereafter cited as af with French preceding English pagination.


Maurice Merleau-PontyPhénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard1945) 494; translated by Donald Landes as Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge 2012) 456; hereafter cited as pp with French preceding English pagination.


Graham HarmanGuerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court2005) 52–53.


Merleau-PontyLe Visible et l’invisible (Paris: Gallimard1964) 296 163; translated by Alphonso Lingis as The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1968) 243 123; hereafter cited as VI with French preceding English pagination.


Baldwin“Editor’s Introduction” 20.


Bataille“Le conséquences du non-savoir” 191; “Un-knowing and its Consequences” 81; “The Consequences of Nonknowledge” 112.


Edmund HusserlDie Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff1962) §34; translated by David Carr as The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1970) §34.


Edmund Husserl“Grundlegende Untersuchungen zum phänmenologischen Ursprung der Räumlichkeit der Natur,” in Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserled. Marvin Farber (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press 1940) 305–25; translated by Fred Kersten and Leonard Lawlor as “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature: The Originary Ark the Earth Does Not Move” in Merleau-Ponty Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology ed. Leonard Lawlor and Bettina Bergo (Evanston: Northwestern University Press2002) 117–31.


Jacques DerridaLa voix et le phénomène (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France1967) 83; translated by David Allison as Speech and Phenomena (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1973) 75. See also Leonard Lawlor The Challenge of Bergsonism (London: Continuum 2003) 28.


See Ted Toadvine“Natural Time and Immemorial Nature,” Philosophy Today 53 (2009): 214–21.


Merleau-PontyL’Institution La passivité (Tours: Belin2003) 172; translated by Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey as Institution and Passivity (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 2010) 129; hereafter cited as ip with French preceding English pagination.


See John SallisForce of Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press2000) and Logic of Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2012).


Martin HeideggerSein und Zeit (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag1963) 419; translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson as Being and Time (San Francisco: Harper & Row 1962) 471–72 quoted in Sallis Force of Imagination 195.


SallisForce of Imagination194.


Paul ClaudelArt Poétique (Paris: Mercure de France1929) 34–35; translated by Renee Spodheim as Poetic Art (New York: Philosophical Library 1948) 20–21.


Arthur HolmesThe Age of the Earth (London: Harper & Brothers1913).


Merleau-PontyLa Nature (Paris: Éditions de Seuil1995) 159–62; translated by Robert Vallier as Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 2003) 117–19; hereafter cited as N with French preceding English pagination.


Merleau-Ponty“Le primat de la perception et ses conséquences philosophique,” Bulletin de la société française de philosophie 49 (1947): 126; translated as “The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences” in The Primacy of Perception ed. James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1964) 18–19.


Merleau-PontyLa Structure du comportement (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France1942) 224; translated by Alden Fisher as The Structure of Behavior (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 1983) 207–8; hereafter cited as sb with French preceding English pagination.


See chap. 1 of Ted ToadvineMerleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press2009).


Gary Brent MadisonThe Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (Athens: Ohio University Press1981) 158–59.


Ted Toadvine“Le temps des voix animales,” Chiasmi International 15 (2013): 269–82.


Emmanuel LevinasDe l’existence à l’existant (Paris: Fontaine1947) 94; translated by Alphonso Lingis as Existence and Existents (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 2001) 52; hereafter cited as ee with French preceding English pagination.


Heidegger“The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry Language Thoughttrans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row1971) 41.


See Kenneth McNamaraThe Star-Crossed Stone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2011) especially the Introduction and first two chapters. All of the examples cited in this paragraph are discussed by McNamara.


ClaudelArt Poétique57; Poetic Art 35.

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