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Essence and Existence

Two weeks ago I posted about MP’s view of the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger. (See post here.) The issue there was in what context to read MP’s claim that “all of Sein und Zeit springs from an indication in Husserl.” I claimed that what he really meant was that Heidegger’s methodology, though not necessarily his philosophical views, spring from Husserl. And I also claimed that “spring from” (est sorti de) really means “develops out of.” At least that’s what I intended to be saying there. The idea was that MP is not claiming, as some people propose, that Husserl already thought of everything Heidegger said. He’s claiming, instead, that if you give a “strong” reading of Husserl, then you can see that his late works ought to push him in the direction of the hermeneutic methodology that Heidegger employs in Being and Time; and they ought to do this whether Husserl understood it or not. This way of understanding MP’s view of the relation between Husserl and Heidegger sits well, I believe, with the interpretive principles he lays down in his essay on Husserl, “The Philosopher and his Shadow” (published in Signs.) In this post and the next I would like to discuss two more reasons for thinking this is the right way to understand what MP is up to in the Preface.

The first issue has to do with MP’s reading of Husserl’s notion of essence (Wesen). All the way back in the first paragraph of the Preface, MP writes, Mais la phénoménologie, c’est aussi une philosophie qui replace les essences dans l’existence et ne pense pas qu’on puisse comprendre l’homme et le monde autrement qu’à partir de leur “facticité.” Smith translates the first part of this as follows: “But phenomenology is also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence…” In my notes to this passage in my translation I wonder whether replace could mean “substitute” instead of “put back into,” since it’s not obvious what tradition phenomenology would be recovering if it “put essences back into existence.” (Bert suggests the Aristotelian tradition. Possible.) In any case, an astute reader notices that if MP meant “substitute” he’d have said remplacer instead of replacer. It’s possible that the very earliest printings took away the “m”, and that this was a mistake propagated in all the later editions. But I doubt it. I’ve got access to a printing from 1949 and it clearly says replacer. So I’m left wondering what the point of this sentence is.

Then it occurred to me. The principle meaning of replacer is to put back into, as in remettre; but a strong secondary, and figurative, reading assimilates it to ranger, to arrange or put into context. So, for instance, Robert suggests Replacer une chose dans son contexte. Replacer une histoire dans son cadre, dans son époque. On this reading we should render the phrase as follows: “But phenomenology is also a philosphy that puts essences into the context of existence.” That’s the way I propose to translate it.

Why does this make a difference? I think it completely turns around the interpretation of the sentence. On Smith’s translation we have a set of independent, self-standing essences, those items that Husserl discovered by turning towards the self in the phenomenological reduction, and phenomenology somehow puts those items back into existence. In effect, phenomenology essentializes existence. On the new reading, however, it’s just the opposite. Instead of putting essences into existence, we understand essence in the context of existence. In effect, we existentialize essences instead of essentializing existence. That means that essences are no longer independent, self-standing items that are discovered by a radical turn to the self of the sort proposed in the traditional version of the phenomenological reduction. Rather, they are already imbued with existence, with facticity, from the very start. This coheres with other things that MP says about the reduction (“the most important lesson of the reduction is that it can never be completed,” for example), and even makes better sense of the reference to facticity at the end of the sentence we’re translating. So it seems to me that this makes a crucial difference, and that Smith has got the translation exactly backwards.

Now, the question remains to what extent MP thought this account of essences, and of the reduction more generally, was one to which Husserl himself would assent. I believe he thinks that Husserl would reject this interpretation explicitly, and that he leaves us a very subtle clue that he thinks this in one of the footnotes to the Preface. I’ll discuss this issue in my next post.


Is it possible that the meaning is fairly straightforward? ie for the sentence, “Mais la phénoménologie, c’est aussi une philosophie qui replace les essences dans l’existence et ne pense pas qu’on puisse comprendre l’homme et le monde autrement qu’à partir de leur “facticité.â€? Thus, the English could be: “But phenomenology, it is a philosophy that replaces the essences in existence and does not think that one can understand man and the world other than by departing from their facticity.” In this reading, MP would be interpreted to have meant, simply, that phenomenology puts the essences back into existence, and departs from a reliance on scientifically defined and measured “facts”. The contrast in the sentence seems to be between essences and facticity. And if that is the case, that would argue against the interpretation, at least for this sentence, that MP is suggesting that essences have a facticity of their own (your suggestion, that the essences “are already imbued with existence, with facticity, from the very start”). He may well have thought that, and he may well have articulated that elsewhere, but this sentence seems to suggest a tension and a comparison between essences and facticity, which would be confounded by a translation that suggests that the essences have their own facticity. (My innocence of the philosophical subtleties here may render all of this irrelevent, but it seems to me that the straightforward interpretation of this sentence may be the correct one, at least for this sentence - leaving your larger point open for application in other parts of the text.)

I think you’re right, Tom, that the contrast is between essences and facticity. But I think that goes in my direction rather than the direction you suggest. That’s because facticity is a special word in phenomenology that doesn’t mean scientifically defined and measured “facts;” indeed, it stands in contrast to these kinds of objective facts. Facticity refers instead to the ‘facts’ of human existence, ‘facts’ that can’t be measured scientifically, like your understanding of yourself in your identity as father, or in your role as chair of the meeting. That’s your facticity, something that you and I have, but that hammers and tables and other mere objects don’t. So to say that there’s a contrast between ‘essence’ and ‘facticity’ is to say that essences don’t normally take these kinds of ‘facts of existence’ into account. And that’s certainly true as a matter of philosophical history. But the thing about phenomenology, it seems to me MP is saying, is that it puts essences back into this context of existence, it helps us to understand essences as factical rather than factual.

Also, I’m pretty sure that à partir de means “taking off from,” or “beginning from.” It means “departing from” only in the sense that the train “departs from the station;” it takes the station as its point of departure. It doesn’t mean “departing from” in the sense of “parting ways.”

Sean, your suggestion about “à partir de” makes perfect sense for a french-speaking person, since in french it very often means something like “from the perspective/standpoint of…”, or “in light of…”, or “in the context of…” (their facticity).

Which supports what you said about the task of existential phenomenology being to consider essences in the perspective/within the context of the existence with which they are originarily imbued.

Thanks, Sean and Olivier, for the clarification on “a partir de”. I will be getting a better French dictionary, so I may have a better chance of getting the French more right. But on “facticity”, there seems to be a different problem, which may be more general. I understand from an off-blog exchange that some others, even with more knowledge of French and phenomenology than I have, have had difficulty understanding what “facticity” means, when used by MP. To help such folks, especially since there may be a lot of them, you might want to consider keeping a running list of terms that can be problematic, especially for non-experts, and then addressing them, either in comments that go along with the text or in a glossary — or both. I like the idea of a selective glossary, since it would make it easy for readers to browse through it and get the gist of the basic terms — though it may be tough to get it right and to take into account the subtleties, the uses in different contexts, etc. And there may be lots of such terms. Still, something like that could be helpful.

Tom: I think the idea of a glossary is a really good one. Indeed, the editor at Routledge has already asked whether I’d be interested in putting one in, and I agreed to it enthusiastically. Merleau-Ponty isn’t as fond of neo-logisms as Heidegger is, but he does inherit some of the ones that Heidegger invented (indeed, “facticity” is one of them). It’s certainly a goal of mine that people without much background in philosophy should be able to get a sense of what Merleau-Ponty is up to by reading this translation, and a glossary will be essential for that. It’s a bit unfortunate, I think. As far as I’m concerned obscurantism should be avoided at all costs. But the Continent in the 20th century was not a friend to this view.

In my view, the “re” in “replace” is crucial to Merleau-Ponty’s point. I take it that the “Mais” at the beginning of the sentence is crucial. The flow seems to be: we could say (or it is usually said) that phenomenology is a study of essences, and all of its problems centre on defining essences. But it is a study that “replace les essence dans l’existence.” To solve the problem of what is being restored, put back, etc., I do not think we have to ask: what positive position are we going back to when we do this? I say this for the following reason. True, Aristotle might be a candidate, but (if I am getting things right) really the essence/existence distinction first takes on its philosophical weight with Aquinas, who invests two Latin words for being with a technical meaning that distinguishes between what it is to be a thing (essence), and being that thing (existence). To the extent that Aristotle didn’t quite draw that distinction, or didn’t draw it in terms of kinds of being, it cannot rightly be said that Aristotle put essences into existence, etc.—that wasn’t even an issue for him; essences couldn’t have been abstract for him because form and matter are inseparable and relative terms (cf. MP’s points at the end of Structure). We instead have to be asking: who are we going against? We can clearly say we’re going against philosophy that supposes abstract essences in the rationalist manner.

Maybe this sense of “but phenomenology goes back against a division that in the first place enables the concept of abstract essences” could be captured by saying: “But phenomenology is also a philosophy that puts essences back in place, in the context of existence.” Or “But phenomenology is also a philosophy that places essences back in the context of existence.” What I am trying to capture here is the sense of replace as putting an item that’s fallen off the shelf back in its original place. “on l’a replacé dans sa position initiale,” “it was put back in its original position,” is one of the examples my dictionary gives.

David is right that the “mais� is crucial. Indeed, this conjunction occurs four times in the first paragraph of the Preface – it is thus key to the sense of what Merleau-Ponty is doing there. As I read it, he is simply elaborating the rationale behind the question Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie? The reason this question needs to be asked, and why non-phenomenological philosophers like Brunschvicg did in fact seek a clarification from Merleau-Ponty, was because even at that time there were competing and incompatible claims as to the meaning of “phenomenology�: according to some it’s a transcendental foundationalism, according to others it’s an existential hermeneutics. In this context, Merleau-Ponty was under pressure to parry the objection that ‘phenomenology’ was just a voguish label without definable philosophical content. In a nutshell, this is the point of the Preface. But all he is doing in the first paragraph is posing the problem by laying out the main received views of phenomenology, and highlighting their basic incompatibility. An important upshot of this is that he is not yet presenting any of his own specific views, even in phrases of the form “phenomenology is…�

However, it is also crucial that Merleau-Ponty refuses to map the polarity of the received views concerning phenomenology onto the distinction between Husserl and Heidegger (with neither of whom he straightforwardly agrees, although circa 1945 he is vastly more interested in Husserl). It’s historically true that this polarity has much to do with this distinction. But what Merleau-Ponty insisted on was that philosophically the “contradiction� in question originates in Husserl – that’s part of the significance of his claim that Sein und Zeit stems from Husserl’s account of the Lebenswelt. For Merleau-Ponty, the confusing (but not confused!) situation of phenomenology is to be seen as an expression of the “contradiction� within the Husserlian project itself between its Cartesian and Lebenswelt tendencies. This theoretical contradiction is ultimately trumped by the insuperable existential “contradiction� discussed in particular at the end of Part Two. Of interest here is that in the well-known footnote there, Merleau-Ponty used the verb replacer in his argument that Husserl was mistaken to propose a second reduction beyond that to the Lebenswelt – that is, in his rejection of the idea that “les structures du monde vécu doivent être à leur tour replacées dans le flux transcendantal d’une constitution universelle […].� Colin Smith rendered “replacées� as “reinstated,� although he dropped the “à leur tour.�

What may be of consequence for our reading of the opening paragraph, (if it’s true that what Merleau-Ponty is laying out there is the tension within Husserl’s work), is that the verb “replacer,� inasmuch as it has a dynamic sense, pertains to the practice of phenomenological reduction (the common re- prefix is no coincidence). This is why, were there a second stage of reduction, matters would be “replacées� “in their turn�. In the first paragraph, the underlying point of the phrase “replace les essences dans l’existence,� has to do with the first reduction to the Lebenswelt – the contrast implied by the re- prefix is with the natural (scientific) attitude, not with the philosophical tradition. Together with the preceding sentence, Merleau-Ponty is simply saying that phenomenology is an eidetic science that is also committed to the primacy of facticity. Given that the reductive movement does not actually move the phenomena – i.e., it doesn’t put anything (back) anywhere – but is rather a fundamental reorientation of attention toward the phenomena, the sense of the sentence could, I think, be captured perfectly well if the verb merely expressed this result. For example: “But phenomenology is also a philosophy that locates essences in existence, and does not think that man and the world can be understood otherwise than on the basis of their ‘facticity’.�

To use “locateâ€? is admittedly somewhat free (“relocate” would be more direct, but clumsy), and I have no particular commitment to it. But given the point of the paragraph, and the fact that the sentence does not express the considered view of Merleau-Ponty, this rendering works as well as any other I’ve read.

Sean, I just had a gestalt shift when rereading your initial entry here. You say “In effect, we existentialize essences instead of essentializing existence.” I have always read both the French and Smith’s translation as saying that. When we put essences back into existence we are existentializing essences—MP couldn’t mean anything other than that, I think. It is only now that I see that Smith’s translation could afford the sense that by putting essences into existence we are somehow essentializing existence, as it were injecting a dose of essences into existence. I hadn’t, until just this moment, been able to see that Smith’s sentence could be read this way. I’d agree that the translation should head off this view.

David: Gestalt shifts are terrific! I’m so glad I had a hand in instigating one!

It looks like we agree both about what MP is saying in this sentence - that phenomenology existentializes essences - and about why Smith’s translation is misleading - because the most natural reading of it has phenomenology essentializing existence. We may still disagree about what MP thinks Husserl would say explicitly about phenomenology (rather than what his unthought would require him to say), but if that’s so then it’s a topic for the post on Augustine. I’ll rest content with our agreement here.

Sean, thanks for all of this. One qualification, though: I haven’t in the past found Smith’s translation misleading, because of the thrust of the surrounding sentences—but with the Gestalt shift I can see how it could be misleading. Yes, the Husserl question is still open; my sense is that MP thinks Husserl himself was led to relocate essences in the context of existence, even if MP might think that this would not be obvious to someone reading Husserl on first glance, someone going with the things usually said about phenomenology.

Dear Dr. Morris,

Glad to read your postings on the subject. Yesterday, I was surfing the SUNY PRESS site, and found the info. about your latest book, ‘The Sense of Space’—the book chapters out line an excellent theme for the study on perception, body, and embodiment wrt ‘Space.’ I am looking forward to getting the paper-back version of your book.

With regards, Arun Tripathi Technikphilosophie TU Dresden, Germany

David Morris,

The essence / existence distinction comes out of Islamic kalem (theological)concerns about the extensibility of the category of things and existence. ‘Thing’ may be a genus that includes existants and non-existants, or it may only be extensible with existant things. The question raises problems for the Islamic account of the creation of the world. This was taken up by Al-Farabi, and then by his great ‘student’ Avicenna who formalized the problem/distinction as that between the thing-ness of a thing (i.e. it’s quiddity, or essence —what it is), and its existence —that it is. Aquinas takes his cue from Al-Farabi and Avicenna. FYI. Cheers.

Existentializing essences would seem more consistent with Heidegger’s development of Husserl. Recall that Heidegger was addressing the oblivion of being - alienation from essence or the ground from essences arose.

The objective of epoche strategy was to critique our deviation in order to restore essence to its rightful place/existential condition and remedy its restricted, eviscerated status as an abstraction.

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