Communication and the Prose of the World: The Question of Language in Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer

  • James Risser
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 129)


In the course of his writings from the Phenomenology of Perception to his working notes of 1961, one could justifiably say that Merleau-Ponty was concerned with the theme of language.’ Of course one does not find this concern expressed by a systematic development of the theme. In fact, it would appear that quite the opposite is true: the work on language in The Prose of the World, for example, is abandoned for a yet to be thought more encompassing work on truth, or — to look at the same matter from a different perspective — an account of communication in literary experience is replaced by an account of the structure of being in which language now receives its determination. Nevertheless, one can still detect within the horizon of the theme a certain continuity, especially from 1947 on.’ Already in the lecture course on Language and Communication given at the University of Lyon in 1947, Merleau-Ponty makes it clear that the question of language is not about fixed structures, as if language functions merely as a technique for deciphering ready-made significations. The question of language, in other words, is not captured by a scientistic linguistics, for it fails to take into consideration what language is for a speaking subject. In The Prose of the World, written in the early 1950s, Merleau-Ponty extends this critique, pointing directly at those who would attempt to find in language a field of pure signification. The field of pure signification stands outside experience and the sphere of expression, and thus stands outside the real foundation of language found in the order of speaking. For Merleau-Ponty language arises in the order of speaking as such in which we “rediscover the concrete universality of a given language, which can be different from itself without openly denying itself.”3 No matter what other turns in thought occur for Merleau-Ponty on the question of language, he never abandons this essential insight. The question of language remains for Merleau-Ponty a question of what I want to call the vibrancy of speaking.


Real Foundation Pure Signification Philosophical Hermeneutic Greek Thought Essential Insight 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Merleau-Ponty’s principal essays on language are as follows: “Language and Communication,” an unpublished text from 1947–48; “Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language” (1949), published in the Bulletin de Psychologie in 1964; “On the Phenomenology of Language” (1951) and “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” (1952), both published in Signs; “The Prose of the World” (1950–52); “An Unpublished Text by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: A Prospectus of his Work” (1953), published in the Primacy of Perception; Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952–1960; The Visible and the Invisible (1959–61). For a complete account of these writings see Hugh Silverman, Merleau-Ponty and the Interrogation of Language,“ Research in Phenomenology, Vol. X (1980), 122–141.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    It could be argued that language is not simply an important theme in the later writing, but in fact is Merleau-Ponty’s central preoccupation insofar as it is regarded as the privileged model of the whole of our experience of meaning. This is the position taken by James Edie. See his Speaking and Meaning (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World,trans. by John O’Neill (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 39–40. Hereafter PW.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    One could attribute this commonality to Heidegger as a common source for both thinkers. But one should not give this common source an undo importance which would detract from seeing the independent thinking in both Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Text and Interpretation” in Hermeneutik II, Gesammelte Werke, Band 2 (Ttibingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1986), p. 336. English translation appears as “Text and Interpretation” in Dialogue & Deconstruction: The Gadamer—Derrida Encounter, ed. Diane Michelfelder & Richard Palmer (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 26. Hereafter in English translation TI.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    . The connection between the word ‘communication’ and hermeneutics is most obvious in the German language where Verständnis, which is a root variation of Verstehen (understanding) can mean ‘understanding’, ‘comprehension’, ‘communication’, ‘intelligence’. For Gadamer the event of agreement in understanding which is in play between people is a Verständigungsgeschehen. Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Gadamer, “Philosophy and Literature,” trans. Anthony J. Steinbock, Man and World, Vol. 18, (1985), 247.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    In The Visible and the Invisible,Merleau-Ponty writes: “In a sense the whole of philosophy, as Husserl says, consists in restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning, an expression of experience by experience, which in particular clarifies the special domain of language. And in a sense, as Valéry said, language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, the forests.” The Visible and the Invisible,trans. by Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 155. Hereafter VI.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Thought, Merleau-Ponty writes, “signifies outside itself through a message which does not carry it and conveys it unequivocally only to another mind, which can read the message because it attaches the same signification to the same sign, whether by habit, by human convention, or by divine institution” (PW 7).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Merleau-Ponty, “The Metaphysical in Man” in Sense and Non-sense,trans. by Hubert and Patricia Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 87. This essay, written in 1947, marks Merleau-Ponty’s first reference to Saussure. For a thorough discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s relation to Saussure, see Stephen Watson, “Merleau-Ponty’s Involvement with Saussure” in Continental Philosophy in America, ed. by John Sallis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    In “The Problem of Speech” in Themes from the Lecture at the Collège de France 1952–1960, Merleau-Ponty writes: “The well-known definition of the sign as `diacritical, oppositive, and negative’ means that language is present in the speaking subject as a system of intervals between signs and significations, and that, as a unity, the act of speech simultaneously operates the differentiation of these two orders.” Themes from the Lectures,trans. by John O’Neill (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    In the opening paragraph of “On the Phenomenology of Language,” a paper presented at the first Colloque international de phénoménologie in Brussels in 1951, Merleau-Ponty claims that the problem of language “provides us with our best basis for questioning phenomenology and recommencing Husserl’s efforts instead of simply repeating what he said.” Signs, trans. by Richard McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 84. Hereafter S.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. by David Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 67.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Gadamer, Wahrheit and Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1960), 2nd and revised edition, 1965, p. 434. English translation by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989), p. 458. Hereafter WM and TM respectively.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Merleau-Ponty’s description of dialogue is remarkably similar to Gadamer’s own description. In The Prose of the World, Merleau-Ponty writes: “Between myself as speech and the other as speech, or more generally myself as expression and the other as expression, there is no longer that alternation which makes a rivalry of the relation between minds. I am not active only when speaking; rather, I precede my thought in the listener. I am not passive while I am listening; rather I speak according to… what the other is saying. Speaking is not just my own initiative, listening is not submitting to the initiative of the other, because as speaking subjects we are continuing,we are resuming a common effort more ancient than we are, upon which we are grafted to one another, and which is the manifestation, the growth of truth.” (PW 143–44) Compare this passage with Gadamer’s description of dialogue in Truth and Method, pp. 362–379. The last sentence of the section summarizes Gadamer’s point: “To reach an understanding in dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were” (WM 360, TM 379).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Merleau-Ponty makes an almost identical assertion in The Prose of the World: “We should consider speech before it has been pronounced, against the ground of silence which precedes it, which never ceases to accompany it, and without which it would say nothing.” (PW 45–6)Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    This notion that silence can be tied to la langue can be found in Speaking and Meaning. See p. 102ff.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See “An Unpublished Text,” The Primacy of Preception, ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 8.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    This phrase is taken from The Visible and the Invisible. In the section “Interrogation and Intuition” Merleau-Ponty writes: “[W]e are experiences, that is, thoughts that feel behind themselves the weight of the space, the time, the very Being they think… [that] have about themselves a time and space that exist by piling up, by proliferation, by encroachment, by promiscuity — a perpetual pregnancy, perpetual parturition, generativity and generality, brute essence and brute existence, which are the nodes and antinodes of the same ontological vibration” (VI 115).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See note 8 above.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    In his essay “On the Contribution of Poetry to the Search for Truth” Gadamer writes:“… what appears in the mirror [of the poetic word] is not the world, nor this or that thing in the world, but rather this nearness or familiarity itself in which we stand for a while…. This is not a romantic theory, but a straightforward description of the fact that language gives us our access to a world in which certain special forms of human experience arise….” The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 115.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    For Gadamer, the model for this self-presentation is play (Spiel). Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See Patrick Burke, “Listening at the Abyss” in Ontology and Alterity, ed. Galen Johnson and Michael Smith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), pp. 81–97.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • James Risser

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations