Mira Fong
"With all its eyes the natural world looks out into the Open. Only our eyes
are turned backward, and surround plant, animal, child like traps, as they
emerge into their freedom. We know what is really out there only from the
animal's gaze."
Duino Elegy, The Eighth Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Phenomenology of the Open
Rilke's poem, says Marin Heidegger (1889-1976), a German thinker in the
continental tradition, is "The song that sings of this different relation of
living beings and of man to the Open." In contrast to man's conceptual
trapping, the word "open" refers to the world of free beings. The other word
"gaze" serves as a point of contact, a "phenomenological seeing". MerleauPonty (1908-1961), a French phenomenologist and a contemporary of
Sartre, interprets "gaze" as a state when one engages the region of beings.
As a phenomenologist, his philosophy dissolves the conceptual division
between the subject and the object. For Heidegger, the obscure characters
of Being provides multiple interpretations. Being as coming to present
suggests a state of occurrence.
This essay contains two parts and a conclusion. Part one discusses
Heidegger's later thought. Part two concerns with the sentient ontology of
Merleau-Ponty . Both thinkers explore the notion of being as the a priori of
their philosophy. Also included is Heidegger's critique of Humanism that
endorses man's sovereignty of the beings as expressed in The Way to
Language (that man is not the master of language, it is the language that
speaks man), in What calls for Thinking? (it is that which entrusts
thinking to us), and finally in Letter on Humanism and Building Dwelling
thinking (to appropriate man's place on the planet). Heidegger is one of the
very few thinkers that attempts to deconstruct the entire metaphysical
structure grounded on anthropocentrism. In Letter to Humanism, one
finds a strong criticism, "It does not ask about the relation of Being to the
essence of man, because of its metaphysical origin, humanism, impedes
the question by neither recognizing nor understanding it."
Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty endeavor to invite beings into the open
and propose a way of knowing in oppose to the conventional theory of
correspondence (between the representation and the external entities),
inference and calculative reasoning. For instance, the idea of perception, as
they argue, is more complex than simply rendering as a merely
epistemological function. The work of both thinkers in regarding to man's
relation with beings suggests an ethical dimension. For instance, Heidegger
advices that man must let go of his control and set beings free into their
own essence.
Phenomenology, modified by both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, was first
developed by Edmund Husserl, a mathematician influenced by Gottlob
Frege in the late 19th century. He later became critical of Frege's scientism
which holds that only the modals of logic and mathematics are qualified as
formal truths. Husserl thought that such method has limitation as it
predetermines the outcome. He proposed that the grounding of truth is
located in the intentional act of consciousness (noesis). Unlike the scientific
method which treats the phenomenal world as object of investigation,
Husserl's phenomenology, influenced by both Descartes (the primacy of
first person experience) and Kant (based on an a priori foundation), seeks a
new foundation of knowledge based on intersubjectivity. Husserl proclaims
that phenomenology is to return to the things themselves, thus legitimizes
the entire range of human experience, be it real or imagined. One simply
describes that which appears in consciousness (noema) without any
assertion. His idea, the life world (lebenswelt), refers to the sum total of
one's experience including the activities of philosophy, psychology, arts and
The problem of Husserl's phenomenology is that it deals with the
phenomenal reality on a mental plane that could become a kind of
solipsism by focusing on the noematic content of consciousness. He himself
remained a rationalist and was mainly concerned with the foundation of
necessary truth (eidetic intuition). Having studied Husserl's work, both
Heidegger and Merleau-ponty decided to move away from his
transcendental orientation and applied phenomenology as a way of
perceiving "what is given in one's experience". One intuits and corresponds
with Being in a manner of relatedness. Phenomenology for the two thinkers
implies a Gestalt approach to that which is occurring with an original
openness to Being. "Phainomenon" in Greeks links to the word "light",
meaning "that which shows itself from itself"; this view provides Heidegger
with a new pathway of thinking and is the bedrock of his phenomenology.
Part I Heidegger
1. Ontology by Way of Deconstruction
The Greek word "onto" means "being or that which is". It is the study of
being, the logos, or the reality. For the Greek sages, the notion of being
implies forming a rapport with "that which is" and was considered as the
way of truth. Heidegger's task was to hark back to the practice of the
classical Greeks as philosophy at that time was the enquiry of the mystery
of Being. In contrast, modern philosophy seeks scientific validation
according to technical-theoretical exactness of concepts. Beings as merely
entities are subjected to investigation.
The word deconstruction correlates to the German word "destruktion". The
term was used by Heidegger in his critique of Western metaphysics. He
claims that philosophy since Plato has been a history of forgetting being
and the question of being has since lapsed into oblivion. From Aristotle,
Kant to the contemporary analytic philosophy, the Being of beings (things
that have existence) has been subjected to a deductive treatment. Thinking
is a matter of judgment according to a set of pre-determined concepts such
as Descartes' innate ideas. Aristotle did extensive research on animal lives
and developed the theory of "The great chain of Being" in his metaphysics.
It is a hierarchical arrangement of beings according to their ability to
reason, of which humans are on the top. Heidegger, who has had taught
classes on Aristotle, disagreed, "Plato had a directive to think of Beings as
idea, Kant had the directive to think of beings as the transcendental
character of objectness as position (being posited)." Being is neither a
substance nor a transcendent reality such as Plato's Form or Hegel's
Absolute Spirit. To ask the question "what is Being?" one must enter a pretheoretical and pre-representational mode of thinking. It's like a hidden
path that leads to a clearing of the un-thought region of philosophy.
Historically, metaphysics put man in the power center and kept beings in
distance. Heidegger's mission is to deconstruct the entire philosophical
In response to the question "what Being is?" Heidegger answers, "An
investigation into Being really ought to be able to inquire about the Being
of any being-an elephant in the jungles of India or the chemical process of
combustion on Mars-any being at all." All entities are beings such as trees,
mountains, rivers, animals, people, a poem or a sonnet. Being, in this sense,
refers to the ground of beings, "The ground of beings has since ancient
times been called Being, das Ereignis." Being as ereignis means "lit up"
when being reveals itself into the open.
2. From Dasein to That Which Is
The nature of consciousness if always about one's relation with the world.
Early on, Heidegger's focus was to overcome the subject/object dichotomy
in his investigation of man's existential conditions. The analysis of Dasein
(human being) is the central theme of his major work, Being and Time
(1927). By the thirties, his inquiry had moved on from Dasein to Mitsein
(being with). The notion of Being (Sein), Heidegger argues, is not just an
abstract concept or a representation (a mental picture). The means in
which he uses in ontology is hermeneutics. It was a method primarily used
by Wilhelm Dilthey, a German historian and hermeneutic philosopher.
Dilthey's method "the hermeneutic circle" refers to a way of interpreting the
whole text and its individual parts through a circular process of cross
references. Inspired by Dilthey, Heidegger formulates a new paradigm of
articulation through which the elusive character of being becomes
accessible. In addition, Heidegger goes into etymology as way to retrieve
the original meaning of Being. For example, "being" is associated with the
Greek word "origin" (der ursprung) meaning the first emergence of being
from the hidden.
As a logos, the Being of beings gathers into one including the opposites,
similar to Hegel's version of cosmology. Being is ineffable, like the Tao. In
1946, Heidegger worked with a Chinese scholar in the translation of Tao Te
Ching. He found the meaning of Tao, as described in chapter twenty-five of
Tao Te Ching, bears the same connotation of Being, "Tao is quiet and
elusive. It is invisible, the prior force of regeneration, ever moving in the
cycles of growth. As mother nature, Tao is encompassing. It nourishes all
living beings. Ever flowing, day and night, the Tao pervades all existence
and returns to itself." Tao, as the Being of beings, gathers all beings in the
hidden and releases them into venturing. The moon path that circles
around the earth; wild animals wander in forests and fruits fermenting in
the autumn sun, an overflowing river from the melting snow...
3. Unconcealment, the Encountering of Truth
Philosophers of the early centuries were polymaths. They were preoccupied
with the science of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Descartes. During the
age of Enlightenment, Kant organized knowledge into a framework of
categories. In the beginning of 20th century, Bertrand Russell attempted to
formulate an ideal language as a way of establishing reliable truth.
Heidegger rejects such criterion. Truth is not to be found in the rigid
structure of logical statements, nor by fixing beings in a controlled study for
accuracy. Rather, the character of truth is its indeterminacy, a view was
later elaborated by several postmodern thinkers. Heidegger asks, "How
does truth happen?" His answer is, "truth is about the way of truth...It is
what was brought into unconcealedness and held therein." The Greek
word for truth is "Aletheia" or unconcealment. Truth is an activity, a
happening in a pre-reflective state when Being emerges as self-revealing.
"Unconcealment" has its archaeological origin from the mystical ritual of
the ancient Greeks. The way one receives truth was by entering into the
underworld where truth was revealed by the spirit. The experience of the
presencing of truth described by the Greeks as a state of ecstasy (ek-stasis).
It literally means, "when one is besides oneself" or "to make room for truth
to happen". Such a state was recorded in the poetic writings of Xenophanes,
Parmenides, Empedocles and Heraclitus. For instance, Parmenides, an
early Greek philosopher, differentiates between "the way of Truth" and
"The Way of Seeming". Their views had asserted great influence on
Heidegger. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he gave several lectures on
Parmenides and Heraclitus, they echoed an esoteric view of the sages that
"truth happens in the temple's standing where it is".
4. When Speaking Becomes Listening
Linguistic philosophy investigates speech activities as propositions and
statements. During the 1920s and 1930s, logical positivism aimed to make
logic, mathematics and physics as the ideal model of knowledge. Richard
Kearney, author of Modern Movements in European Philosophy, gives his
reasons as to why he objects such treatment of languages, "Language has
become a matter of propositional logic concerned with the representation
and classification of the world. " This is the reason as to why Heidegger
opposes linguistic philosophy. His view of language takes a different turn.
Instead, he asks, "In what way does language occur as language?".
Besides the usual application of language, he thought that language is a
vehicle to access Being and to inaugurate things and world into man's
Parmenides had thought that listening to the words of truth is the same as
thinking and being. For Heidegger, speaking and listening both take place
in stillness, "It is language that needs and uses the speaking in order to
sound as the peal of stillness for our listening." One experiences Aletheia
when the speaking becomes the listening. In the peal of silence, one's
senses open to faraway things; a fawn quietly steps into a deep woods; a
falling leaf carried by the autumn wind or a flower opens its petals in early
spring... Heidegger favors poetry over semantic interpretation. He gives
these reasons, "Poetry is a form of primordial hermeneutic text that
reveals the word as an opening, it offers to us the experience of being."
Unlike the common usage of language that aims to represent things from its
externality, poetry opens to the life world from its roots, it is the essence of
language. The early Romantics were fascinated by the mythical landscape of
Greece. They believed that poetry has the power to transform man's soul or
even the whole society.
Similar to Hegel's vision of the "World Spirit" (Weltgeist), the notion of
Being veiled behind Heidegger's mythical language, is the spirit of the early
Romantics. His appreciation of poetry was influenced by the German
romantic poets such as Goethe, Schiller, Novalis and Holderlin. In the
backdrop of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th c, poets sought to revive
man's spiritual connection with Nature. They defied scientific rules that
restrict beings within the Newtonian physics. Poets are the troubadours
wandering in the realm of beings. They sing myriad songs of the earth and
the beasts. Albert Hofstadter, who translated Heidegger's Poetry,
Language , Thought, gives his remark, "Translating Heidegger is
essentially akin to translating poetry, for it is the poetry of truth and
being that he has been composing all his life."
5. What is Called Thinking?
Heidegger asks: "What does it mean by thinking? What is the task of
thinking?" These questions convey a skeptic view regarding the theory of
knowledge and the intellectual tradition of the West. From 1951 to 1952,
Heidegger gave a lecture course on "What is Called Thinking?" (Was Heisst
Denken) which was also a critique of the scientific method based on
instrumental or calculative rationality. In order to free the mind from
theoretical inhibition, Heidegger re-appropriates thinking from an
aggressive to a receptive mode. He writes, "The question 'What calls for
thinking?' asks for what wants to be thought about in an preeminent
sense; it does not just give us something to think about, nor only itself, but
it first gives thought and thinking to us."
The question, "What calls us to think?" has to do with the activity of
thinking as letting (seinlassen), "to let itself be claimed by being". It
suggests a manner that we need to cultivate amidst the current
environmental crisis. Thinking as intimation with beings is the only way to
save the Earth. The hierarchical thinking has everything to do with the
demise of beings. Thinking in manner of objectifying beings is responsible
for the industrial practice of "enframing". Since this lecture was delivered
right after the war, it could suggest an attempt of the thinker to get to the
root of man's destructiveness. Heidegger argues that there is a causal
connection between the deductive and calculative thinking and man's
assault on beings. For Heidegger, Parmenides and Heraclitus, are the two
preeminent thinkers of Being. They belong together in thinking the true by
embodying of mythos. Thinking for the sages is to summon the presentness
of what is present.
Thinking, described by Heidegger, is also an adventure, to think what was
un-thought. It's like coming to a clearing in the woods. It opens the entire
realm of beings where one experiences a state of "harmonia", of belonging
together. The German word "an-denken" means "to think on" as well as "to
remember". The act of thinking also has to do with thanking. According to
Richard Kearney, "The thinking which Heidegger counsels is a nonobjectifying, non-systematic, non-calculative receptivity which enters the
play of Being by giving thanks..." To answer to the question "what is called
thinking?" is to cultivate a sensibility and an appreciation of the living
world. For Dasein who lives in angst, thinking as thanking is a self
6. Dwelling within the Fourfold Constellation
Heidegger's 1951 lecture, Building dwelling Thinking, was a cultural
critique of the modern technological man. Dwelling (bauen) suggests a
proper way in which humans are on the earth. The etymology of dwelling
according to David Farrell Krell, "Dwelling or Wohnen in German means
to reside or to stay, to dwell at peace, to be content; it is related to words
that mean to grow accustomed to, or feel at home in a place. It is also tied
to the German word for "delight." His translation enables the readers to
understand Heidegger's notion of dwelling. It is connected to a primal
constellation, the "Fourfold" (Das Geviert), that is, earth, sky, divinity and
mortals. Each element is inseparable from the whole. Heidegger's Fourfold
theory is intended to deconstruct a human-centric world view. The four
elements are inseparable, "on the earth' already means 'under the
sky' is the serving bearer, blossoming and fruiting, spreading out
in rock and water, rising up into plant and animals." To extend his view
further, the fourfold metaphor is quite significant when referring to the
ecological connectedness.
One of the four elements, divinity, serves as an ontological anchoring of a
mythical origin. Nevertheless, Heidegger's concern for preserving Nature is
obvious when he points out the root meaning of dwelling (man's way on the
Earth) is to cherish, to protect and to preserve. Dwelling, as the sheltering
Earth, holds the key premise of environmental ethics. However, dwelling
has no specific locality since it also functions as a verb meaning "becoming
home or to make man to dwell humbly on Earth". The inner working of the
Earth within the Fourfold is essentially identical to the way of the Tao (the
path) as illustrated in Heidegger, Ethics, and Animals (1992) by Professor
Bruce V. Foltz. He explains, "Earth for Heidegger is not just, or even
primarily a planet in cosmic space..Earth is for each entity that element
from which it emerges into appearance, and into which it continually
withdraws. ..the earth is what bears and gives rise to what comes to light
only by remaining intrinsically dark itself. Earth is that which shelters
and supports."
7. The World's Night, the Enframing of Beings
The ambiguous notion of Being seems to be more accessible when
Heidegger addresses the threat of modern technology. In the context of
environmental ethics, Being implies the concrete existence of the Earth,
humans and fellow beings. In December 1949, Heidegger gave four lecture
courses to examine the essence of technology. His analysis discloses the
paradoxical potential of Being (seems referring to human being here) as
both unconcealment and a danger of enframing. One of these lectures, The
Enframing, was published under the title, The Question Concerning
Technology. It is an analysis of the essence of technology which has nothing
to do with modern technology. Beneath Heidegger's investigation is a
warning to the Homo Sapiens and an effort to reclaim justice for the Earth
The word "technology" derives from the Greek word "techne", meaning the
manner of making something appear such as in the creative process of art.
According to Heidegger, Techne as a "bring-in-forth" has its origin in the
essence of being. It means to bring something into illumination. However,
as a creative force, techne also implies an inherent danger. It can manifest
itself as a "setting upon" (stell). Heidegger explains, "The coming to
presence of technology, Enframing, as the danger within Being, is Being
itself". As such, techne could cover over the truth of Being and block its
original opening. Implicitly, the notion, enframing, reveals a deep seated
instinct in our species, that is, the will to power which is the engine of
modern technology.
The central premise of this lecture course mainly concerns with the way
humans engage with the world through machination (machenshaft). As
such, it threatens the Earth as sentient beings are regarded as useful
materials. In his investigation, Heidegger argues that there is a causal
connection between science such as physics and the metaphysical system.
"Science" in Greek means "enquiry", a passion for discovery. Today's
science and technology are instruments to empower man's domination over
beings. It is in fact, Heidegger contends, the completion of Western
philosophy, "In the age of Greek philosophy, a decisive characteristic of
philosophy appears: the development of sciences within the field that
philosophy opened up. The development of the sciences is at the same time
their separation from philosophy and the establishment of their
independence. This process belongs to the completion of philosophy."
As the mode of "challenging-forth", enframing represents the threat of
Technology. The natural world, the harboring place of all beings, is
subjugated by the will of man. Heidegger laments, "The whole earth as a
world market, but also, as will to will, trades in the nature of Being and
thus subjects all beings to the trade of a calculation that dominates most
tenaciously...". Further, "Not only are living things technically
objectivated in stock-breeding and exploitation... At the bottom, the
essence of life is supposed to yield itself to technical production." The mode
of enframing as such converts living entities into a "standing reserve"
(bestand). Beings are ordered to stand by for a further ordering such as the
"motorized" operation of extracting resources and the animal agriculture
where animals are kept in concentration camps as stocks and inventories.
The technological man is trapped in the instrumental aspect of techne and a
destructive cycle of production and consumption. Amidst the
environmental crisis, it's up to all of us to choose, either to be in the
company of impersonal machines or a warm relation with fellow beings.
In his essay on the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin, Heidegger mourns for the
loss of the brotherly light of beings, and the days are darkened by the
shadows of machines. It is a kind of death, "This day is the world's night,
rearranged into merely technological day." Here the world's night refers to
a destitute state, a nihilism that pervades the modern world. So what then
one should do? "One must stand in the storm" and resist the negative
power of enframing, Heidegger insists. Despite the fact that the destining of
techne has its inherent danger, but the essence of technology "will never
allow itself to be mastered" . Heidegger believes that man is not fated for
destruction; the danger of enframing (or enslave beings) can transform
itself into a saving mode by recalling the original state of being, "the
bringing forth of the true into the beautiful ". The hope for man, according
to the thinker, is to return to the "open", because, "All revealing comes out
of the open, goes into the open, and brings into the open...Freedom is that
which conceals in a way that opens to light." Here, the open corresponds
to Rilke's Elegy as quoted in the beginning of this essay. For the poet,
freedom and openness is the way of sentient beings.
8. And the Animals Go There
Friedrick Holderlin (1770-1843), a colleague of Hegel and Schelling of the
German Romantic Movement, viewed Nature as the source of his spiritual
inspiration,"The world of Nature is a world which is consciousness' own
encompassing object, soaked with value and replete with nourishment."
The poet had profound influence on Heidegger's thinking in uncovering the
meaning of Being and the way of truth. They both thought that it is the
living Nature (phusis) that gives rise to all beings. Holderlin privileges
poetry over philosophy because poetry could grasp the whole of reality. In
1942, Heidegger gave a course on Holderlin's poem Der Ister (The Danube
River) as he felt a great affinity with the poet and shared the same longing
for the classical world of the Greeks. Der Ister, as seen by Heidegger, is the
bearer of Being. It symbolizes the journey of the Danube river as well as
dwelling outside of man's ordinance. The poem tells the generosity of the
river as it provides sustenance to all. The final section depicts man's
homecoming by following the footsteps of animals to the river:
And the animals go there
During Summer, to drink,
Then human will go there too.
This one, however, is called the Ister.
But what He does, the river, no one knows."
Part II Maurice Merleau-Ponty
1. The Great Reversal
Modern philosophy begins with Descartes whose metaphysical dualism
splits the reality into two kinds of irreconcilable substances, the mind or the
cogito, represents an immaterial substance, and the body, a biological
entity with spatial extension governed by the law of motion. Descartes'
division of mind and body is fiercely refuted by Merleau-Ponty. In his
magus Opus, The phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty proclaims
that the body is the cogito, the primary locus of knowing, "Perception is not
mental cognition, it is to render oneself present to something through the
body." His notion of cogito, a reversal of Descartes' "I think therefore I
am", is located in the body. It intertwines with the sensory organs of other
bodies. This was his basic argument to break out of the Cartesian solipsism
where reality is sealed inside a solitary mind.
In the early thirties, Merleau-Ponty incorporated Husserl's
phenomenology, the study of the intentional act of consciousness, into the
study of man's experience of a lived world (Lebenswelt). Merleau-Ponty
rejects the Positivist's definition of truth. Reason is not the absolute
measure of true knowledge because it is out of touch with the whole of
human experience. Not that he denies the value and function of science and
reason but their method needs to be contained in its own respective field.
His essay, The Theory of The Body is Already A Theory of Perception,
stresses the embodied perception and designates the body as the primordial
habitation of consciousness. Being is not in isolation but interweaving with
the world and beings. One could say that Merleau-Ponty has succeeded in
turning the Cartesian doubt, the suspicion of beings, to a trusting
towardness. His reversal of Descartes' dualism overturns a mechanistic
view of Western philosophy in which beings are taken out of their natural
habitats, thus intercepts the continuum between man and fellow beings.
Unlike Heidegger's notion of being appears to be mysterious, MerleauPonty's is animated with flesh and blood.
2. Perception, an Invitation
Phenomenology is the study of mental act that involves the perceptual field
of "life world". Merleau-Ponty explores the dynamics of perception of the
life world experientially and thereby opens up a whole new cognitive
process. Perception concerns with the world which precedes conceptual
thinking. It is not an isolated experience but a relational event. In
Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty describes the world of
perceptual field is open and infinite, "It is simply an expansion of my field
of presence without any outrunning of the latter's essential structure, and
the body remains in it but at no time becomes an object in it." Perception is
not a collection of sensory inputs; it is itself "the open". The central premise
of his work is to revive the sensory dimension of being. He argues that the
formulation of knowledge, such as Kant's pure concept of time and space,
intercepts the dynamic flow of time and prevents a vital relation with being.
In contrast to abstract speculation which sets us apart from beings,
Merleau-Ponty thought that to perceive is to transcend the demarcation of
a subject/object dichotomy. The phenomenology of perception involves an
inter-subjectivity. Hence, there is no objective way to qualify truth. The
sensuous way of knowing is always connected to the fluid presence of other
bodies. Similar to Heidegger's view, perception is an act of invitation, to
summon the light of being. Merleau-Ponty also incorporates the notion
"gaze" into his theory of the perceptual field. The trees and grass grow as
they gaze into the sky, animals gaze the open landscape as they wander in
the wild. To perceive is to relate in a concrete manner with ears, eyes and
limbs as beings cannot be encapsulated into mere formulas and theories. In
order to understand the inner working of the living world, man needs to
give up his control of knowledge and beings.
3. The Metamorphosis of Carnal Intertwining
Merleau-Ponty mainly concerns with the formation of the embodied and
participatory character of Being. In Primacy of Perception (1952), he
declares that the perceiving mind is incarnated and imbedded in the vital
body. The facticity of the body is not just an entity with spatial extension
but involves inter-corporeity. He observes, "the presence of the world is
precisely the presence of its flesh to my flesh." The idea of the flesh (la
chair) was discussed extensively in his unfinished book The Visible and the
Invisible. Flesh has multiple applications. It refers to the primordial
substance-Being that precedes particular beings. It also refers the
connective tissue that gives shapes and sentient features to being. Flesh, as
logos, enjoins worlds and finds its corporeal fulfillment.
Implicitly, flesh alludes to a kinship of man and animals as elaborated in
Elizabeth Behnke's research paper Merleau-Ponty's Concept of Nature. In
reference to the notion of inter-corporeity, she writes, "For Merleau-Ponty,
the human-animal relation is not a hierarchic one characterized by the
addition of rationality to a mechanistically conceived animal body, but a
lateral relation of kinship among living beings ..." Further, "As MerleauPonty points out, the animals themselves are visible to one another, not
only mirroring one another in a "specular" inter-corporeity, but attuned
to the communicative dimension of their mutual visibility." In essence,
flesh denotes a shared world, a view held by Merleau-Ponty, "Flesh is a
realm, a habitat shared by all beings." As an indiscernible zone, flesh blurs
the anthropocentric division between human and the nonhumans thus
allowing both as participants of the world. Further, flesh, as the gathering
of beings, alludes to the Earth itself with the connotation of generosity.
Between 1956-1960, Merleau-Ponty gave several lectures under the title
The Concept of Nature in which he directly addressed the nonhuman
others and their corporeal presence on the Earth. This was perhaps a
welcome of "wild beings" into the forbidden realm of ontology that has been
entrenched in a hierarchical thinking for several thousand years.
In contrast to Sartre's existential analysis of the human conditions,
Merleau-Ponty's ontology focuses man's vital connection with beings which
is beautifully described by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous. He
writes, "The sensible world is described as active, animate and in some
curious manner, alive: it is not I, when sleep, who breathes, but "some
great lung outside myself with alternately calls forth and forces back my
breath." Therein lies Merleau-Ponty's version of inter-corporeity. What he
anticipates is a kind of ontological metamorphosis, "It is precisely my body
which perceives the body of another, and discovers in that other body, a
miraculous prolongation of my own my body and other's
are one whole being and is already situated in the inter-subjective world."
The expression of the body, such as its gestures and vocal uttering,
according to Merleau-Ponty, is an open language rooted in the bio/physical
world. The language of the body intuits and responses to the intention of
others. It is very much like the way animals and children intuit the world
without being mediated by language. Nature as the great Being participates
in an ongoing dialogue with all the living. For Merleau-Ponty, Nature is
independent, free from man's epistemological and technological enframing.
Conclusion- Man is Not the Lord of Beings
Although human beings have the ability to use language to form conceptual
relation with the world and can anticipate suffering and death in advance,
but this does not support man's god-like status on the planet. William
Barrett remarks, "The emphasis of later Heidegger is not upon man as the
active center of Being, but upon Being itself as that which perpetually
claims man...Man is not the lord of Being, a creature who transforms and
bulldozes the world of nature, rather, he is the shepherd of Being."
Heidegger opposes the way living beings are made to conform to a value
ordering according to their utility, "Its value is determined by its usefulness
and serviceability." His argument is, in fact, the central premise of
bioethics. Humanism, refers the rational capacity of our species, has been
operated as an instrument of discrimination, thereby creating an abyss
between humans and the nonhuman others.
The work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty expresses a renewal of the
Romantic spirit that celebrates and commemorates the natural world. For
the poet, Shelly, a being can manifest itself as the full heart of a skylark. The
same for Keats, it is the nightingale that sings the voice of the earth.
Wordsworth's poem, of animal tranquility, marvels the little hedgerow
birds; their facial expressions and bodily movements bespeak a peaceful
composure. Perhaps someday man would allow the "wood path" (Holzweg,
one of Heidegger's essays) of animals to take the lead, so we can experience
the boundless and unfathomable "open" in "all time" as Rilke envisioned in
his Duino Elegy:
If the animal moving towards us so securely
In a different direction had our kind of consciousness
It would wrench us around and drag us along its path
But it feels its life as boundless, unfathomable
And without regard to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze
And where we see the future, it sees all time
And itself within all time, forever healed.
Although, Being is the subject of discussion in this essay, nevertheless, a
being as having consciousness and a will of its own is pregnant with
meanings that can only be claimed by sentient beings. They are visible and
palpable, roaming free outside the realm of myth as well as the intellectual
category of ontology. To be is to feel the pulsating Earth, to ride with the
eagle swirling high above, to enjoin the leaping coyotes across the desert
plain and the uncoiling of a snake out of its winter sleep, or listen to the
great whales as they recite their epic poems to their young.
As expressed in the poem, Der Ister, "But what He does, the river, no one
knows." The river itself is an "open" but what the river does is unknown to
man's grasping for meaning. My own conclusion at the end is that the
acquisition of knowledge as in science and metaphysics reflects an
arrogance of thinking. It is, in fact, an intrusion to "what is". To ask "What
is being?" is to reflect on the question itself; so the restless mind can return
to the great silence and let beings be.
December 2012
Works Cited:
1. Martin Heidegger, Basic Writing. Edited by David Farrell Krell, 1977
2. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other
Essays. Translated by William Lovitt, 1977
3. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert
Hofstadter, 2001
4. Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking, 1976
5. Bruce V. Foltz, Inhabiting the Earth-Heidegger, Environmental Ethics
and the Metaphysics of Nature, 1995
6. Bruce V. Foltz, Heidegger, Ethics, and Animals, 1992
7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by
Colin Smith, 2002
8. Elizabeth A. Behnke, Merleau-Ponty's Concept of Nature, 1999
9. Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1982
10. Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours. Translated by Anita Barrows and
Joanna Macy, 1996
11. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1995
12. Richard Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, 1994
13. Tao Te Ching, chapter 25

THE SENTIENT-The ontology of Heidegger and Merleau