Augustine and phenomenology
Ok, ok. I’m sure the suspense is killing you. I promised in my last post that I would reveal a surprising and amazing fact about the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, as MP understood it. And I’ve left the issue hanging for almost a week now. So here it is…
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this revelation is that it turns on the interpretation of a passage from Augustine. Augustine does not figure in any major way in either Husserl’s or Merleau-Ponty’s work. But in the Preface to PoP Merleau-Ponty, perhaps surprisingly, references a passage from Augustine’s early work De Vera Religione. The passage, in context, reads as follows: noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi. in interiore homine habitat ueritas. Roughly, this translates as, “Do not wish to go outside (foras), return into yourself. Truth dwells in the inner man.” Merleau-Ponty’s point in referring to this passage is to deny its truth. Indeed, he says, “Truth does not ‘inhabit’ only the ‘inner man.’ Or more accurately, there is no inner man; man is in the world, it is within the world that he knows himself” (p. v). The point here seems to be to deny any kind of Augustinean return to the subject, on the grounds that our experience is not a purely subjective one, but is rather one that already involves us in a world. This is part and parcel of Heidegger’s denial that any kind of Cartesian subjectivity characterizes us, and is consistent with Heidegger’s idea that we are being-in-the-world, a unitary phenomenon that doesn’t distinguish between a radically subjective inner realm and a radically objective outer world towards which the subject is intentionally directed. Merleau-Ponty is using Augustine, in other words, as a foil. Augustine’s conception of the inner man is phenomenologically bereft, on Merleau-Ponty’s account.
But why choose Augustine to make this point? Augustine’s account of the inner man is not the fully developed Cartesian account of subjectivity, even if it is an ancestor of that aspect of Cartesianism. (Note: I say “Cartesianism” to avoid exegetical issues about whether Descartes himself was actually a Cartesian in this sense. Whether he was or not, he was certainly understood to be so by the tradition, and that is what matters for our purposes here.) In any case, Augustine’s view seems peculiarly abstruse. Even Heidegger, who certainly knew his Church Fathers, didn’t spend much time attacking Augustine on this issue. So the footnote to Augustine seems to stick out like a sore thumb, begging for explanation.
And boy is there an explanation. Merleau-Ponty, as it turns out, is not the only phenomenologist to refer to this passage in Augustine. Husserl cites it too. And not just anywhere: this passage occurs as the final sentence to the Cartesian Meditations, a manuscript still unpublished at the time Merleau-Ponty was writing, but one he had definitely read and which he cites regularly by name in PoP. Merleau-Ponty is not just picking a random passage from Augustine, in other words; he is picking the very passage that Husserl himself referred to in characterizing his most developed phenomenological view. For this reason it seems to me clear that MP isn’t just citing Augustine, but is citing Husserl’s treatment of Augustine as it occurs in Cartesian Meditations. He is offering an explicit invitation, in other words, subtle but undeniable, an invitation for the reader to compare his own (i.e., Merleau-Ponty’s) account of the meaning of this passage with the account that Husserl earlier gave. By seeing how each philosopher situates himself with respect to Augustine, we can see what MP understands to be the relationship between his phenomenological views and those of Husserl.
So what do we find? Well, unlike MP, who denies that there is any truth to Augustine’s notion of the inner man, Husserl is much more sanguine. Indeed, he takes his phenomenological method, centered as it is on the loss of the world through the phenomenological epoché, to give new meaning to Augustine’s account of interiority. “I must lose the world by epoché,” he writes, “in order to regain it by a universal self-examination” (157). Thus, Augustine’s claim that truth dwells in the inner man is for Husserl not the claim that I will find God by reflection, but rather the claim that by “losing the world,” as one does in the epoché, one can focus solely on the inner realm; in this way, one can truly describe the phenomena of lived experience, according to Husserl.
The difference, then, is dramatic. On the one hand we have Husserl’s idea that the inner man is that to which one returns in order to do phenomenology properly; on the other hand we have Merleau-Ponty’s idea that there is no inner man, man is always in the world. These accounts could not be more different. And it seems to me that by referencing the passage from Husserl (without, by the way, letting the reader know that the passage occurs in Husserl!) Merleau-Ponty is explaining to the careful reader something about his interpretation of Husserl’s method. He is saying that he knows that Husserl would disagree, and indeed that he did disagree explicitly, with Merleau-Ponty’s radical Heideggerean idea that we are being-in-the-world.
Does this mean that Merleau-Ponty was being dishonest? After all, what could he have meant when he said that all of Sein und Zeit springs from an indication in Husserl? And especially what could he have meant in saying this if he knew that Husserl wouldn’t have thought it himself? But there is no dishonesty here. For the point is that MP feels he understands Husserl’s method better than even Husserl did. Indeed, the very core of Merleau-Ponty’s interpretive principle, as he says in his essay on Husserl, “The Philosopher and his Shadow,” is that great philosophers, like great artists, are often the least good at knowing the general direction in which their philosophy points. So even if it is true that Husserl believed explicitly in the realm of the inner man, divorced from the world, as the realm of true experience, that is no challenge to the claim that Husserl’s phenomenological method - when understood in its most genuine and authentic sense - has no room for such a realm. MP takes himself, and took Heidegger, to be carrying the implications of Husserl’s method to their logical conclusion, a conclusion that, as it happens, was diametrically opposed to what Husserl explicitly took himself to doing. That, it seems to me, is the importance of the reference to Augustine.
Who’d have thought?