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Research Articles

In Search of Lost Speech: Merleau-Ponty between Nature and Language

Title: “In Search of Lost Speech: From Language to Nature in Merleau-Ponty’s Collège de France Courses.” Humana.Mente.

Abstract: This paper tracks the development of Merleau-Ponty’s inquiries into language through the themes of institution, symbolism, and nature in his Collège de France lectures of 1953-1960. It seeks to show the continuity of Merleau-Ponty’s inquiries over this period. The Problem of Speech course (1953-1954) constitutes his last extended treatment of speech, language, and expression, and it leaves many questions unanswered. Nonetheless, a careful study of the course reveals that the inquiries that follow into institution and symbolism, and later into nature, do not mark a sharp rupture with his earlier thought. Rather, the later investigations are required by those into language and expression to clarify the underlying functions that support them. Ultimately, the themes of language and nature will be deeply interwoven in Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, with institution and symbolism serving as important mediating concepts.

This paper was published open access. You can download it for free at the publisher’s site (here).

Though this paper is very narrow in scope and will be of interest primarily to Merleau-Ponty scholars, it is part of a broader ongoing project to connect the meaning we find in nature with the meaning we make in culture and language. Stay tuned for more – including a book! – soon.

Research Articles

Translation and Presentation of Tran Duc Thao’s “On Indochina” (1946)

When we think of the Parisian existentialism and phenomenology of the mid-twentieth century, images of Camus, Beauvoir, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty writing and conversing in smoky Left Bank cafes and jazz bars come to mind. Unfortunately, few will include the Vietnamese phenomenologist Trần Đức Thảo in that milieu, though he was an important contributor to both popular and academic philosophical and political discussions in late-40s and early-50s France. The reasons for Thảo’s erasure from the mainstream histories of the time are many: he fell out with Sartre, the most influential figure in those circles at the time, after the pair’s attempt to collaborate on a book ended acrimoniously; he chose to return to Vietnam in 1951 to support Vietnamese independence during the height of France’s colonial war in Indochina; and while Sartre delivered “Existentialism Is a Humanism” to a packed audience eager to pick up on the latest intellectual fashion, Thao sat in a Paris jail cell where he was being held as a “threat to the security of the French state.”

It was from that jail cell in 1945 that Thảo penned “On Indochina.” It was published in the February 1946 edition of Merleau-Ponty’s and Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes. In “On Indochina,” Thao carefully applies the tools of Husserlian phenomenology, adapted for a non-specialist audience, to help elucidate the misunderstanding between French and Vietnamese in Indochina and to critique the injustices perpetrated there by French colonialism. The essay was a plea to the French government and people to leave Vietnam in peace – a plea that tragically fell on deaf ears. Later in 1946, shortly after the publication of “On Indochina, French troops arrived in Vietnam to begin the First Indochina War and set off three decades of brutal warfare in the region.

“On Indochina” and Thảo’s other writings in Les Temps Modernes influenced later, more famous decolonial thinkers such as Fanon and Césaire. It is one of the first examples of what is now termed “critical phenomenology.” This is the first English translation of any of Thảo’s political writings.

Read this paper online at the publisher’s site, or at my academia.edu page.

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“On Indochina.” 2021. Études Phénoménologiques. DOI: 10.2143/EPH.5.0.3288747

Trần Đức Thảo

General Audience

On the Same Wavelength: The Motivations at the Core of Human Uniqueness

In his memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – author of the novella The Little Prince (1943) – relates the tale of his friend and fellow pilot Henri Guillaumet. The two men flew for the French airmail service in its early days. One winter, while on duty in South America, Guillaumet was en route from Chile to Argentina when a current drew his plane into low cloud and storm amid the peaks of the Andes. He circled for hours in a vain search for a breach in the clouds through which he might safely escape. He eventually ran out of fuel and was forced to down his aircraft in the frozen heart of the mountains. A rescue mission consisting solely of Saint-Exupéry and another pilot plied the world’s longest mountain range tirelessly for days in search of Guillaumet. But looking for a sign of him in that vast labyrinth of snow and ice was like looking for a diamond in the sands of the Sahara. The locals offered condolences, but no hope: ‘The Andes never give up a man in winter,’ they said with downcast eyes.

Meanwhile, Guillaumet huddled in a snow trench beneath sacks of mail for two days and nights waiting out the storm. When the sky finally cleared, he knew that there was only one way out. He began a most unlikely and perilous descent on foot, with scant rations and no mountaineering equipment, through one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. Guillaumet trekked five days and four nights through the snow. And he survived. At his tearful reunion with Saint-Exupéry, Guillaumet – emaciated, devoured by frost, and barely able to speak – declared: ‘What I have done, I swear to you, no animal would ever have done.’ Saint-Exupéry would later write of that sentence that it was ‘the noblest ever spoken’, and that it ‘honours’ and ‘defines man’s place in the universe’.

What did he mean by that? How do Guillaumet’s deeds and words situate us with respect to nonhuman animals? Indeed, was it not precisely as an animal that Guillaumet returned to the living? He himself attested that his rational faculties had largely deserted him from famine and fatigue. The homecoming of Odysseus, one might think, was uniquely human, achieved through species-unique cunning and eloquence. But Guillaumet’s feat – was it not the brute, obstinate will to live, as evident in a simple bacterium as in a human being, that preserved Guillaumet and carried him onward when his properly human, rational faculties had left him?

(Continue reading at aeon.co.)

Research Articles

Horizons of the Word: Thoughts on the Experience of Speech

What is the meaning of a word or sentence? Every foundational theory in the philosophy of language must address this question. But I think many scientists and philosophers have been too quick to adopt abstract, theoretical conceptions of meaning. Before we come up with a general theory, I suggest, we should give a detailed descriptive account of our conscious experience of language. And we should carefully study empirical evidence about how the brain and body produce and process language. To elucidate the conscious, experiential aspect of language, I applied the concept of a horizon of experience. A horizon of experience includes the associated content that is dimly activated in experience, such as the perceptual experience of an object. When I see a soccer ball, it stimulates associated content bound up with my past experiences and habitual expectations about interacting with the ball: bodily sensations and motor imagery, or memories and imaginings of playing or watching the beautiful game. My original proposal in this paper is to suggest that a word does something similar: the word “ball” excites offline perceptual and motor anticipations of what it would be like to perceive or interact with a ball. This phenomenological account is corroborated by recent neuro- and behavioral linguistic research on language processing, which reveals the multimodal foundation of language in the brain. Hearing the word “ball,” we now know, differentially activates sensorimotor areas of the brain associated with interacting with a ball.

In addition to providing a phenomenological and empirical foundation for a general theory of meaning, this work is of interest to advocates of embodied and enactive approaches in the cognitive sciences. Some critics admit that embodied approaches provide compelling accounts of basic modes of cognition, such as perception and action. However, they object that such accounts don’t “scale up” to deal with higher modes of cognition, such as imagination, thought, and language use. By showing the foundations of language experience and processing in more basic modes of cognition, my account provides a partial response to such objections.

Read this paper online at the publisher’s site, or at my academia.edu page.

See also my paper on experience and language in chimpanzees and humans. I have also recently brought the phenomenology of language experience into contact with insights into language from yogic mantra meditation (click here for more on that project).

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“Horizons of the Word: Words and Tools in Perception and Action.” 2020. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. DOI: 10.1007/s11097-020-09655-5

Research Articles

The Surplus of Signification: Experience and Language in Humans and Chimpanzees

Much of my research focuses on the human language faculty. But when reflecting on language, a question never far from my mind is the following: What are the fundamental differences between language-using animals like us and other higher animals, so similar to us in so many respects, that do not use language? Research into animal cognition in recent decades has challenged our assumptions about human exceptionalism. Where our basic cognitive endowment is concerned, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that humans are tremendously different from, say, chimpanzees. And yet, when we look at our human cultural, technological, and linguistic form of life as a whole, there can be no doubt that it is unique within the animal kingdom. How should we explain these differences? The view of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty is corroborated by recent developmental and comparative psychology. Both propose that there is a perspectival character to human experience that is lacking in the experience of other higher animals. I offer an account of the genesis of uniquely human perspectival experience. I emphasize the role that species-unique motivations and affectivity play in driving this genesis. Along the way, I develop an alternative account of the continuity between life, mind, and culture to the one proposed by Merleau-Ponty and contemporary enactivists.

Read this paper at the publisher’s site, or at my academia.edu page.

See also my paper on the phenomenology and neuroscience of language experience and processing.

Click here to return to the main research page.

“The ‘Surplus of Signification’: Merleau-Ponty and Enactivism on the Continuity of Life, Mind, and Culture.” 2020. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy. DOI: 10.5195/jffp.2020.919.

Who’s more of a monkey, my nephew William or his best pal Mackenzie?