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 page.

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

Trần Đức Thảo

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 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 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?
Research Articles

Fashioning the Word-Tool: Insights into Language from Phenomenology and Yogic Mantra Meditation

How does a word come to have the meaning it has for us? This question poses a unique challenge to phenomenologists, because our foundational experiences of language are buried in early childhood and are normally inaccessible to our conscious adult experience. For this reason, I turned to an unusual of language to help fill in the picture of the phenomenology of language: the experience of japa mantra practitioners. Japa mantra is the practice of repeating a mantra over and over. I studied the first-person reports of japa meditators, as well as the instructions for japa practice from expert teachers in the Indian yogic tradition. What I found were rich descriptions of the processes through which japa practitioners forge associations between their mantras and the embodied visual, emotional, and conceptual content that accompanies them. These insights complement the phenomenology of language genesis, and suggest the processes that might be at work in all language acquisition and transformation. I was also able to use insights from the phenomenology of language to propose a novel position in an age-old debate in Indian philosophy concerning whether or not mantras are “linguistic” and “meaningful.” I argued that the temporal nature of language is such that the boundary between the linguistic and the non-linguistic, between sense and nonsense, may itself be vague. If mantra is a phenomenon that inhabits this grey area, then the question as to whether mantras should count as meaningful uses of language may itself need to be reformulated.

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

See also my paper on the phenomenology and neuroscience of language experience and processing, and another on experience and language in chimpanzees and humans.

Click here to return to the main research page.

“Fashioning the Word-Tool: The Instrumental Character of the Word in Yogic Mantra Meditation and Phenomenology.” 2020. Philosophy East and West. DOI: 10.1353/pew.0.0196.