Anya Daly (2016). Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity. Palgrave Mcmillan. 312 pp. ISBN: 9781137527431. $95.00. (Hardback)
Along the lines of Douglas Low (2012), Renaud Barbaras (2004), Donald Lands (2013), and others, Anya Daly’s recent book introduces Merleau-Ponty’s practical philosophy. Daly’s goal is to unfold Merleau-Ponty’s implicit ethics stemming from his relational ontology. The content of this volume is particularly useful for those who are interested in studying the connection between phenomenology, neuroscience, and ethics. My only concern about Daly’s project is whether it is successful in making Merleau-Ponty’s implicit ethics explicit enough. I will explain the reasons for my concern after a short overview of the book.
In general, Daly’s intentions are very clear and well explained. In particular, I found the introduction to be a very useful tool in understanding, 1) the motives behind the construction of the book, 2) how Merleau-Ponty’s ethics relate to other schools of ethics, and 3) the methodology used by the author.
First, Daly mentions the questions that inspired the book: “What constitutes an ethical subject? What is the real nature of my responsibility for others and our shared world? If their well-being is inherently linked to my own, can I afford to be indifferent, negligent, or destructive? How would an ethics of internal relations motivate action (…)?” (p. 3). All of these questions are addressed in the nine chapters of the volume.
Second, Daly explains Merleau-Ponty’s ethics as it relates to the main schools of ethics, and what his ethics would add to them. Different from that of a deontological ethic, which tends to put the absolute ought at the summit of any ethical hierarchy and which sometimes is blind toward anything that is smaller than that ought, Merleau-Ponty’s ethics are relational, according to Daly. This means that Merleau-Ponty’s ethics would not allow for atrocities performed in the name of a higher good, but would always favor the relational quality of the goodness to its universal purity. Daly gives the example of religious wars (pp. 6–10) that are accomplished under the principles of a deontological ethic. Merleau-Ponty’s ethics would not drift in such a direction because they are ontologically based on interrelation, meaning that the highest good can be considered as such only if it is consistent with another person’s good. Different from consequentialism, such ethics are capable of overcoming the impasse represented by the question: “How do we measure happiness for the largest number of people?” Questions like these, involve a never ending intersubjective search of meanings for which any strict and closed categorization would seem inconclusive. In addition, and against the objection that is commonly associated with that of virtue ethics, for which we ask why we choose a set of virtues, Merleau-Ponty’s ethics would offer a valid alternative, because they provide an ongoing search into meanings so that no fixed set of virtues is preferred over another.
Third, Daly presents the methodology she intends to use for the book. However, the method is not altogether convincing. At some places she replaces the word method with “lenses” (p. 12). In contrast to a method, she does not use lenses as actual tools to guide us through the understanding of Merleau-Ponty’s ethics. Rather, the lenses, that is, phenomenology, neuroscience, and Buddhism, are used only to compare and strengthen the theoretical ground of the layers already unfolded by the analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s own strategy. Conceptually, phenomenology seems to be the strongest lens, because it blends more easily with the overall content of the chapters. The connection of Merleau-Ponty’s ethics to neuroscience is certainly enriching and necessary, because it provides a physiological foundation for his ontology of relation. The third, Buddhism, is maybe the most original, but unfortunately the least developed and justified. Daly explains the continuity between Merleau-Ponty’s thought in relation to Buddhism; for example, comparing Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility thesis and Nargajuna’s tetralemma, according to which things are interdependent and interrelated (p. 209). Unfortunately, she dedicates only a few pages to this point at the very end of the book.
In terms of organizing the chapters, Daly informs us that she intends to follow Merleau-Ponty’s own strategy, which can be synthesized as follows: Morality is an experience and as such it stems from the perception of others (p. 17). Such a possibility constitutes the foundation for a morality including the self and the Other while overcoming the paradox of an alter ego. This paradox can be solved by realizing that the Other and the I share a life that is similar in terms of everything, since we both live human lives in a human body. One’s own perspective is within the field of another (p. 18). While we reflect on our own perspective we learn about others’ perspectives and it is in this sense that Merleau-Ponty’s ethics can be universalized.
Thus, in the first two chapters the author uses Merleau-Ponty’s argument of analogy to explain how we gain an epistemological access to ourselves. The language of the body represents the first entrance to the Other’s mind. The meaning of language is not set to verbal language but also to pre-verbal language, that our body is capable of conveying through gesture, for example. In chapters three and four, Daly is using the reversibility thesis, according to which the relationship between the percipient and her object is interdependent and foundational of a being that acquires a meaningful sense for us. She proves how we can normally pass from visible to invisible and vice versa, in our quest for the constitution of sense. In chapter five, she defends Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility thesis against the objections raised by Le Fort (1987) and Levinas (1961). This defense is crucial in the attempt to prove how “self, other and world are inherently relational” (p. 139) and ethical, because this relationality is intersubjectively grounded in the mutual recognition of the same values in “a dialectic reciprocity” (p. 145). In that sense, Merleau-Ponty’s ethics would represent an alternative to Levinas’ theistic approach, because the foundational values are intersubjectively recognized, that is, the responsibility between self and other is bi-directional (p. 167).
Daly’s theoretical basis allows the author to progress to the second half of the book, where she explains how this relational ontology can be justified on a physiological basis. Hence, Chapter 6 is dedicated to a review of the contemporary literature in which phenomenology, neuroscience, and psychology are related. Among others, she expounds the theses of Shaun Gallagher (1996), Natalie Depraz (2004), Francisco Valera (1991), and Dan Zahavi (2007), setting up the goal of providing an account of the validity of the theoretical foundations utilizing Merleau-Ponty’s ethics.
In the remaining chapters, Daly discusses Merleau-Ponty’s theory of intersubjectivity and empathy as the key to achieve an explicit picture of his ethics. The intentional arc, described by Merleau-Ponty, draws a line that explains the profound continuity between body and mind. Because of this continuity, the ownership of my agency can be gained by shifting the focus of my attention—now on my mind, now on others (p. 195). The Other is apprehended to the extent in which the world is engaged. This shows how Merleau-Ponty’s ethics focus on conscious corporeality and incarnated consciousness, which is ontologically foundational for the intersubjective perceptual process by which human behaviors, choices, and morals stem. Through empathy and narrative competence, we can achieve awareness about the criteria that move our actions in the world, a world that can never be considered solipsistic and fully constituted, because its being is continuously fed by human beings.
From what has been said, an interesting ethics emerge in which a theoretical foundation is nicely explained and proved by the author. What leaves me concerned (as I mentioned in the beginning), is the potential lack of a complete unfolding of the ethics. A few questions remain suspended after reading the book: How are these ethics capable of providing the criteria to favor one action over another, or guide a person to the right decision? If it is true that we are ontologically interconnected, how do we come to prefer one choice over another? Should we pay attention to the immediate consequences a particular action has on our immediate neighbor? If so, how would that differ from just another version of consequentialism? Or, should we focus on the awareness and responsibility that we should take in relation to the ought that move our flesh and that of the other? In this case, how would these ethics be dissimilar from a deontological ethic? Or finally, would the intersubjective range of values be a systemic one based on the intersubjective web to which one belongs? If so, how would such ethics practically overcome the problems relating to a virtue ethic? What would be its imperative?
Even though I understand the narrative and argumentative strategy utilized by Daly, and I also agree with her choice of such a strategy, yet, I look forward to reading another volume dedicated to a phenomenological description of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the ethical act and its layers.
Depraz, N. (2004). Where is the phenomenology of attention that Husserl intended to perform? Continental Philosophy Review, 37, 5–20.
Le Fort, C. (1990). Flesh and otherness. In G. A. Johnson, and M. Smith (Eds.) Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Zahavi, D. (2007). Expression and Empathy. In M. Ratcliffe, and D. Hutto Folk Psychology Reassessed. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.