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Fact and Idea

In “Sociologie et philosophie” Maurice Merleau-Ponty attacks the notion that sociological facts are merely given — that they “owe nothing” to the social experience that brings them about. It is from this notion, he believes, that people proceed to maintain that the bare facts should be kept separate from mere ideas.

At its base, this belief about the immediate givenness of facts denies that as objects facts must become present for us through our lived experience. It maintains that facts simply are. We can call this stance “objectivism,” following Merleau-Ponty. Objectivism reflects a sort of willful amnesia about the basic nature of objects, facts or otherwise. For, in order for something to be a fact it must not only veridically apply to an actual start of affairs, but also must potentially be made the object of a judging consciousness able to verify it as such. Objectivism may grant the former condition, but it seems it cannot grant the latter without tangling questions of fact up with questions of judgment. Notwithstanding its inability to grant this as a condition of the possibility of facticity, objectivism tacitly assumes it: for, in order for a fact to be possible it must at once veridically apply to a state of affairs and potentially be so judged by a subject. If the first condition fails, the fact simply isn’t true; if the second condition fails, we have no way of knowing whether or not it is a fact, which is as good as it not being so. The limit conditions for facticity then seem to carry with them a fundamental notion of subjective judgment: there is no fact outside of potential subjective judgment.

Just as it is possible to lose the necessary subjective component in fact if we turn naively to the objective, it is possible to get caught up in a morass of ideas that have no veridical basis in the world. Philosophers, theorists, thinkers in general can make the mistake of losing sight of the characteristics of the lived world in their fancy for ideas. This is the mirror of objectivism: where objectivism incorrectly assumes that facts are untethered from (potential) lived experience, the idea-fetish loses itself in notions that do not grow organically out of the potentialities of the actual world. Or that are plainly and simply untrue. Both are results of forgetting that ideas and facts both arise from our apprehension of the world; that just as objectivity is subject to the limits of subjective experience, so are the possible veridical conceptions bounded by the qualities of the actual world. Notions and ideas that do not grow out of this common apprehension, our common lived experience, or cannot potentially be assimilated to it will be unintelligible to us.

Merleau-Ponty gives kinship an example of how we assimilate foreign concepts through those we’ve assembled through experience. We do not simply encounter kinship within a strange culture as a given. If we are to grasp it, we have to link it to the understanding of kinship we already possess. We make an analogy from this new thing to something we already understand: that becomes like this. And so, even if the basic unit of kinship in another culture is unlike our own we have to know the other-kinship in terms of the familiar. And so, we take up the fact of other-kinship, in all of its scintillating strangeness, and unite it by its similarity to what we know: clan-relations are said to be like nuclear-family-relations. In time, of course, as we begin to become familiar with an other-kinship, we may begin to understand it on its own terms, and draw out its distinguishing qualities; but that, of course, requires close acquaintance gained through experience.

It seems that this close acquaintance with the concrete world is necessary for both science and philosophy. Facts and ideas both must be recognized as what they are — the achievements of (inter)subjective acts within the bounds of the common world. Otherwise they cease to be extensions of human capacity and become hindrances to it.

According to Merleau-Ponty, it was one of Husserl’s principle merits that he saw both fact and idea as the products of our mediate relation to the world through language, which is shorthand for acts that can meaningfully be shared between subjects and not for an exhaustive list of all possible sentences in a given tongue. By recognizing the necessary role of language in our relation to the world, we see that each historical particular — each object, fact or idea, that appears to us as we experience the world — must  obtain its determinate shape at least in part in virtue of its “linguistic essence.” But language itself is not an absolute thing, and also is bounded and shaped by the conditions of its speakers; what it can convey and comprehend traces the currents of the history it makes meaningful.

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4 Responses

  1. If I were to start reading Merleau-Ponty, where would you suggest beginning? I suppose the answer would be - at the beginning. But I don’t know if I’ve read enough Heidegger or Husserl to take him up yet.

    I like the clan - kin - nuclear family analysis. Is that all in “Sociologie et philosophie”?

  2. You know, I dunno. I’m reading Adventures of the Dialectic right now, and I like it, but I’m pretty familiar with Husserl. I think Phenomenology of Perception is a good place to start — it’s where people are supposed to start — but then I haven’t read it! I got the collection of essays that had “Sociologie et Philosophie” in it because I wanted to read him in the original without wading through a whole book.

    I’m pretty sure that all the kin stuff comes from that essay, I may have embellished it a bit with other stuff I’ve read from anthropology texts (I wrote this post off of notes that have been sitting on my desk for about a month so I dunno exactly what came from where!).

  3. Also, the class I might take on M-P in the fall covers the Phenomenology of Perception and the Visible and the Invisible, so maybe those are his most discussed works. If you want to get into M-P, though, you should probably read a bit on what phenomenology is; there’s a couple excellent essays on Husserl, his method, and his historical milieu in a collection called the New Husserl. The first two in the book, by Dieter Lohmar. I dunno how good your German is, but I suspect you might be able to find the originals online if you look. I don’t read German, though so I dunno.

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Continuing the Discussion

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