Current Research Project: The Birth Of Speech

My current research project is titled The Birth of Speech: Nature and Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Language. I am currently writing a number of articles and planning a monograph based on this project. The first article (“In Search of Lost Speech: From Language to Nature in Merleau-Ponty’s Collège de France Courses”) was published in August 2022.

The project is supported by a Faculty Direct Grant from Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Early Career Scheme Grant from the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong. Below is an abstract of the project.

The Birth of Speech:
Nature and Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Language

This project is an inquiry into language as both a natural phenomenon and a phenomenon that language users consciously experience. At the same time, it is an inquiry into the ultimate origins of linguistic meaning. I locate those origins in the human body and preverbal human interactions. I understand both these as uniquely evolved for the development and acquisition of conventional languages. My approach to this problem is based on Merleau-Ponty’s late, incomplete phenomenological ontology of nature. I provide both a historical reconstruction of the development of this problematic in his philosophy, and a systematic elaboration of his view as it was outlined in his late working notes. I see out his unfinished program in light of recent advances in Merleau-Ponty scholarship; phenomenology more broadly; and empirical research into life, mind, and language.

Recent Merleau-Ponty scholarship has largely targeted questions of nature, child development, and language as three separate areas of inquiry. As a result, many studies have failed to see the intimate interrelationships between these domains, specifically the natural foundations of language in the human body and its early lifespan development. The resulting interpretations view language as autonomous and foundational for the phenomenological project of understanding. While there is some truth in these proposals, their neglect of the foundational role of nature, the body, and development for language and linguistic meaning is a critical oversight. My project remedies this lacuna in the literature.

At the same time, Merleau-Ponty’s interdisciplinary phenomenology provides an original constructive and critical framework for interpreting a range of empirical findings from diverse sciences of life, mind, and language. It allows us to weave together these various researches into a composite picture of the symbolic animal, the human being, as it has evolved and as it develops in ontogeny. To that end, my project interprets and integrates findings from developmental psychology, neurolinguistics, evolutionary biology, gesture studies, and embodied cognitive science.