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Philosophie, Religionsphilosophie


Edgar, Orion


Things Seen and Unseen. The Logic of Incarnation in Merleau-Ponty’s Metaphysics of Flesh.


Cambridge: James Clarke (Lutterworth) 2016. 274 S. Kart. £ 22,75. ISBN 978-0-2271-7594-1.


Johanne Stubbe Teglbjærg Kristensen

In Things Seen and Unseen, Orion Edgar, a priest in the Church of England, aims to explicate Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ontology and show how it »points towards a metaphysical completion ground-ed in the logic of the Catholic tradition« (1). According to E., the thought of Merleau-Ponty »does not by any means require a Christian commitment to make sense,« but on the other hand it is »informed by an essential strand of the Christian tradition, namely its incarnationalism,« which gives it significance for Christian thought, and »demands a theological interpretation.« (3) Concretely, E. wishes to explicate Merleau-Ponty’s ontology as overcoming conceptual dualisms without falling into monism, and as seeking to liberate the thinker »by identifying the common source of their elements in an intertwining, that is, in a chiasmatically structured prior whole from which we make analytic abstraction.« (1) Because human thinking is enslaved by dualisms, incapable of breaking free, to think the new ontology must be to live it. According to E., this transformative movement of life can be found in Christian praxis (5.234).
Apart from the introduction and conclusion, the book has three parts: the first on »Perception,« the second entitled »The Crossing,« and the third on »Ontology«. In the first part of the book, E. lays what he calls the groundwork for an account of perception as our primary access to the world and the expression of a so-called perceptual faith, which »crucially cannot be reduced to purely intellectual, conceptual content, but is rather already engaged with the world« (41). This faith does not refer to philosophy, but to the philosopher himself, i. e., in some sense to life as it is lived and per- ceived. To enrich Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception, E. explores taste, eating, hunger, and desire, and points to a new paradigm of perception in light of the act of eating, which exposes the fundamental dimension of reversible perception as an existential dimension of depth (13). This focus on eating as »a kind of hidden, sub-terranean theme for philosophy« does not call into question the traditional philosophical conception of vision as the central and pre-eminent sense (45); rather, as E.’s reading of Hume and Spinoza (in contrast to Descartes and Kant) shows, it points to touch and taste as senses in direct contact with their object. E. reflects on perver-sions of hunger, and the fact that taste experiences can change through pregnancy (57–60.63–66); even in these cases, however, he finds a unity of independence and dependence of subject and object. The following pages spell this out in numerous ways, which often seem almost repetitious. This is especially the case in the second part’s single chapter »The Old Ontology« (77). In this chapter, E. clarifies questions for his new, alternative ontology by contrasting it to the old Cartesian ontology, which makes reflection (i. e. consciousness) the foundation rather than the medium of metaphysics, thereby externalizing itself in a geometrized nature and a God outside the world (78–79). The third part of the book, »Ontol-ogy,« accordingly opens with E.’s attempt to develop an alternative ontology from the perspective of the reversibility of vision: »vision is attached to movement and determined by action; it is not a purely passive process« (107). Vision is intertwined with the world in depth, which also implies the three dimensions of time, transcendence, and meaning (129).
This makes depth the fundamental dimension of perceptive intertwining, which according to E. makes the perceiver »an agent located in the thickness of the world«; hence »theology can once again be brought back to its roots by philosophy« (152). E. explores this notion of multidimensional depth by appeal to the notion of institution, drawing especially on Merleau-Ponty’s writings on Christianity and on nature. He explains how Merleau-Ponty criticized the Catholic theology of his time – sometimes taking it to represent Christianity as a whole – for objective and explanatory (and conservative) thinking, presenting instead the notion of insti tution (as an alternative to tradition). With numerous quotes, E. demonstrates Merleau-Ponty’s critical, constructive, and humble engagement with theology, calling it a »logic of imminence de-manded by ›incarnational‹ thought« (162). This logic is an ontological structure, albeit not an abstract structure, but one that is »insti-tuted, that has real historical depth« (169). E. explicates this notion of institution as an alternative to the problem of constitution and the logic of representation, namely, as a solution to and explana-tion of the paradox of the philosophy of consciousness (idealism etc.) (170.187–188). In the last chapter, E. draws out »the sacra-mental implications« of this ontology. First, he takes up the no-tion of sacrament as mysterion (»visible sign of in-visible truth«) and seeks an understanding that on the one hand expresses an »everyday sacramentality, the denial of a rupture between matter and meaning,« yet on the other does not fall into »lazy pan-sacra mentalism«, since if everything is a sign, nothing is (203–204). According to E., the incarnation of Christ is the primary Christian sacrament, and this suggests a different kind of God than one outside the world (210). E. argues that »the title of The Visible and the Invisible« is an allusion to the formula of the Nicene Creed,« and he refers to Merleau-Ponty’s reflection on perception by means of the metaphor of transubstantiation, where he calls sensation »literally, a communion« (211). This implies a rejection of the concept of analogy as an adequate description of the relation between the sensible and the intelligible, and consequently calls for a different conception of God, i. e., not the Kantian ens realissimum, but ra-ther Aquinas’ ipsum esse subsistens (216). Thus E. brings Merleau-Ponty back to the scholastic thinking that he was so critical of, including his view of creation as participation (general incarna-tion), and of incarnation (specific incarnation of Christ) as the communication of this participation (224–225). Finally, E. argues for a felix culpa making communication and transformation possible, and very briefly considers the implications of this for a triune conception of God (228.232). Consequently, E. concludes: »I read Merleau-Ponty as claiming that the incarnation of the Son of God on which Christianity reflects gives us a symbol to think through what it is to be human« (241). Thus Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is »uniquely consistent with elements of Christian practice,« even though it does not »imply an approval of all the contents of Chris-tian belief« (242).
With this conclusion, E. seems to expose methodological challenges in his approach. To me as a Lutheran, female reader, it is problematic to speak of Christianity almost without any confessional differentiation. E. refers to many different theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Gorringe, Inge, McGabe, Millbank, Ward, Soskice etc.), but there is no consideration of why he has chosen them in particular, or the differences between them. By contrast, the secondary sources to Merleau-Ponty seem rather well chosen (e. g. Saint Aubert, Barbaras, Noë, Toadvine, Johnson), and are often enriched with interesting remarks, especially in relation to the phenomenological discussion on incarnation. It remains surprising that E. writes on the notion of incarnation without relating it to the broader topic of Christology, or to theology as a discipline contrasted with philosophy. In this regard, E.’s reference to Renaud Barbara’s critique of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology becomes even more important than E. himself seems aware of. E. quotes Barbaras: »Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is not a philosophy of the flesh but a philosophy of the incarnation, as the insertion of consciousness in the world, that is, a philosophy of consciousness.« (196) For Barbaras, incarnation means the insertion of transcendence into nature. This amounts to a philosophy of consciousness that not only restates Cartesianism, but confuses finitude and negativity, and thus implies no resurrection or redemption (232). E. explicitly argues for the exact opposite ontology, and says that incarnation is the »flowering of what is contained within the depths of nature.« This reader, however, is not fully convinced that such »flowering« presents a genuine alterna-tive to »the insertion of divinity in the world« (247).