Merleau-Ponty, the Ethics of Ambiguity, and the Dialectics of Virtue

  • Stephen Watson
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 129)


It would be something of an understatement, granted developments in recent continental thought, to claim that the research program inaugurated by Edmund Husserl did not, and probably on its own terms in principle could not, provide an ethics. On the other hand when this claim has been merely asserted the result has often seemed an all but ideological or rhetorical matter. Granted the complexity of this history — not only with respect to internal challenges to philosophy raised by such figures as Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud — but also the complex and critical issues which pivot around the concept of `consciousness’, the complications that attend such polemics are, if not outright unavoidable, then at least understandable. Add to this the fact that the very figures around whose work these challenges arose in the end refused ultimately to separate their work from that of Husserl, and things become even murkier perhaps.’


Dialectical Materialism Transcendental Logic Intentional Reference Indeterminate Identity Moral Substance 
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  1. 1.
    Compare in this regard Heidegger’s “My Way to Phenomenology” in On Time and Being, tr. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) or recent remarks of Levinas for example in the debate to be found in Autrement que savoir, introd. by Pierre Jean Labarriere and with contributions by Guy Petitdemange and Jacques Rolland (Paris: Editions Osiris, 1988), ch. III.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For further discussion of this issue see my “On the Agon of Phenomenology: Intentional Idioms and Justification,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Winter, 1986.Google Scholar
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    Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception cites Scheler’s 1926 edition.Google Scholar
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    By comparison, one can point similarly to Hermann Weyl’s transformation of Husserl’s account of evidence in his Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Sciences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) — most of which dates from the twenties. Justification here too became both “subjective-absolute” while at the same time “objective-relative,” a distinction which, Weyl claimed, is “one of the most fundamental epistemological insights which can be gleaned from science” (116).Google Scholar
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  7. 7.
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    Ibid., p. 406.Google Scholar
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    See Emmanuel Levinas, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology,tr. André Orianne (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 158.Google Scholar
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    G. W. F. Hegel, Natural Law,tr. T. M. Knox (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975). This issue (as well its text) were likewise part of Kojève’s famous lectures of the thirties. See Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, tr. James H. Nichols Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969). Compare Scheler’s own affirmation of Hegel’s critique in F: 185.Google Scholar
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    The same complex logic concerning ambiguity, the relations between overdetermination and ’underdetermination’ or ’indetermination’ appears in Sartre’s Introduction to Les Temps Modernes (Vol. 1, No. 1, 1945). It is precisely this complexity which distinguishes both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty from earlier existentialist (Kierkegaardian) versions of ambiguity. And yet, as will be seen, in large part, what was at stake between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre concerned the implications of this logic.Google Scholar
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    See Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, tr. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Citadel, 1948) and “Merleau-Ponty and Pseudo-Sartreanism,” tr. Veronique Zaytzeff, International Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XXI, 1989.Google Scholar
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    For further discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s evolution and critical alteration with respect to his itinerary, see my “Pre-texts: Language, Perception, and the Cogito in Merleau-Ponty’s Thought,” in Merleau-Ponty: Perception, Structure,Language, ed. John Sallis (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981).Google Scholar
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    For further discussion of this text and its account of the rational, see my “Cancellations: Merleau-Ponty’s Standing Between Husserl and Hegel,” Research in Phenomenology,Vol. XVII, 1987.Google Scholar
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    Hegel, Philosophy of Right,tr. T. M. Knox (Oxford University Press, 1952), 151–5, p. 108f.Google Scholar
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    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, interview with Madeleine Chapsal, Les écrivains en personne (Paris: Union Générale d’Editions, 1973). Compare Hegel’s similar reading of Machiavelli’s Prince: This book has been thrown away in disgust, as replete with the maxims of the most revolting tyranny; but nothing worse can be urged against it than that the writer, having the profound consciousness of the necessity of a State, has here exhibited the principles on which alone states could be founded in the circumstances of the times... (ones in which) an indomitable contempt for principle and an utter depravity of morals, were thoroughly engrained in them. See G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, tr. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 403.Google Scholar
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    Claude Lefort, “La Politique et la Pensèe de la Politique,” Les Lettres Nouvelles,No. 32, Feb. 1963, pp. 68–9. The Phenomenology had in fact already articulated the “existential project” of political action as “une vie vers un but déterminé — indéterminé dont elle n’ a aucune représentation” PhP: 446/509.Google Scholar
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    Leo Strauss, “Niccolo Machiavelli,” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 210.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

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  • Stephen Watson

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