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«Investigaciones Fenomenológicas, vol. Monográfico 4/I (2013): Razón y vida, 351-360. e-ISSN: 1885-1088 THE MELODY OF LIFE. MERLEAU-PONTY, READER ...»

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Investigaciones Fenomenológicas, vol. Monográfico 4/I (2013): Razón y vida, 351-360.

e-ISSN: 1885-1088





Luís António Umbelino

Associação Portuguesa de Filosofia Fenomenológica (APFFEN)/

Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal

luis.um@megamail.pt Abstract: This paper aims to meditate on the Resumen: Este artículo trata de meditar acerca importance of Jacob von Uexküll’s notion of de la importancia de la noción de Umwelt de Umwelt in Merleau-Ponty’s research of an onto- Uexküll en la búsqueda de un camino ontophenomenological path - that is to say, in Mer- fenomenológico por parte de Merleau-Ponty, es leau-Ponty’s putting to the test of some of the decir, en la puesta a prueba de ciertas tesis y thesis and presuppositions that were at the presupuestos que estaban presentes en el heart of both La structure du Comportement núcleo tanto de La structure du Comportement and the Phénoménologie de la perception. As como de Phénoménologie de la perception.

Merleau-Ponty is looking for a way to develop Siendo así que Merleau-Ponty persigue enconand overcome the results of an investigation trar un camino para desarrollar y superar los based on the point of view of consciousness, resultados de una investigación basada en el this notion of Umwelt will become – namely in punto de vista de la conciencia, esta noción de the three lecture courses on the concept of Umwelt llegará a ser –especialmente en las Nature, delivered by Merleau-Ponty in the late lecciones de los tres cursos sobre el concepto 1950s at the Collège de France – more and de Nature, impartidos por Merleau-Ponty a more decisive. finales de los años 50 en el Collège de France– cada vez más decisiva.

Key Words: Umwelt, Perception, Nature. Palabras clave: Umwelt, percepción, naturaleza.

1. INTRODUCTION In the three lecture courses on the concept of Nature1, delivered by Merleau-Ponty in the late 1950s at the Collège de France, we can find a line of reLe concept de Nature" (1956–1957); “Le concept de nature, l’animalité, le corps humain, passage à la culture" (1957–1958); “le concept de nature, natu

–  –  –

search that intends to test, in a radical way, some of the presuppositions that were at the heart of both La structure du Comportement and the Phénoménologie de la perception. Merleau-Ponty is looking for a way to develop – to overcome – the results of an investigation based on the point of view of consciousness. And, in this regard, it’s very interesting to note that an analysis of the relations between the living organisms and their environment, as biological sciences conceive of it, appears in Merleau-Ponty’s notes as crucial to the development – and putting to the test – of some of his first phenomenological thesis.

The results of those sciences will became more and more instructive and challenging to Merleau-Ponty, and the dialogue with the works of several scientists in the fields of zoology, embryology, or ethology, more and more decisive.

Among the authors studied by Merleau-Ponty in this context we find the name of Jacob von Uexküll, whose notion of Umwelt is going to play, in our opinion, a central role in Merleau-Ponty’s research of an onto-phenomenological path. This is what will interest us here.


In one of Merleau-Ponty’s working notes on the concept of nature we can read the following claim: “the body is not just thing, but relation to an Umwelt […]2. This is an important statement: first of all because it underlines the fact that to be-in-the-word as a body is not just to be localized in a measurable point in space, but to be active, to be in connection to a space of involvement, that is to say, to have a familiar link to a milieu of belonging; second of all because it stresses out that this type of relation is confirmed by animal behaviour, in the sense that what presents itself in the relations between the organism and its Umwelt constitutes the environment as having dimensions that are inherently significant; finally because it allows us to think that human bodily relations to an umwelt are the basis for getting a sens (let us keep the French word to mark the concept) of the word – a sens thus inseparable from moving, bodily being in the word.

Now, if this is so, what Merleau-Ponty is also trying to say is that we must, first of all, return to the concept of Behavior and measure its importance once Merleau-Ponty, M., La nature, p. 270. We will be translating directly from the original French version.

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again. To do so, we must begin by going back to La structure du Comportement, were behavior was the answer, Merleau-Ponty thought, to finally approach in a new way - in the right way - the problem of the relations between conscience and nature3. In a “new way” because, according to Merleau-Ponty, the “old” concepts and frameworks by which traditional philosophy tried to explain reality, fail to account for the true meaning of its being4. The classical orientations of both idealism – declaring that nothing exists if it is not rational or a product of consciousness – and realism – sustaining that nothing other then objects is real –, when closed upon themselves and their own presuppositions, both fail to see the true meaning of reality. And, in a way, that is so because they reproduce a same approach to reality; even if one of those orientations talk about reality as a “thing”, and the other as an “idea”, both perspectives tend to make of reality something that can be totality apprehended, something fully accessible.

For Merleau-Ponty this kind of blind duality signals the major flaws of an inadequate way of facing reality, as its true meaning is shred between the excessive naturalism of an over-empirical science that understands life in terms of simple causal relations, and the delusions of vitalism in biology, or extreme mentalism in psychology, say. Closed over themselves these perspectives rapidly move away from the topos where that meaning (and the way of being) of reality can reveal itself: the relations between conscience and nature. That’s why Merleau-Ponty will try a new path. He wants to begin by scratch. And that’s why he acknowledges as the only suitable starting point the notion of “behavior” – a notion that “taken in itself” is “neutral” with respect to the classical distinctions between, for example, the physical and the mental in psychology, the mechanism and vitalism in biology, and between the empiricism and intellectualism in philosophy, thus offering “the opportunity of defining them anew”5.

But in order to use the notion of “behavior” in a productive sense, MerleauPonty also needs to rethink it, as some influential theories have neglected its true meaning. “Behaviorism” is one of those theories. In fact, as it focuses on Merleau-Ponty, M., La structure du comportement, (1942), Paris, P.U.F., Quadrige, 1990, p. 1, ss.

See Barbaras, R., “A Phenomenology of Life”, in Carman, T & Hansen, M. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 212.

Merleau-Ponty, M., La structure, p. 1-2 Investigaciones Fenomenológicas, vol. Monográfico 4/I (2013): Razón y Vida. 353 354 LUÍS ANTÓNIO UMBELINO the externally observable patterns of animal life, it becomes incapable of thinking behavior outside an atomistic and mechanical paradigm. The psychophysiological notions of “integration” or “coordination” are also not the right solution: because they take the organism to be a result of isolated parts6, they fail to see any constructive solution to the problem of Behavior. In behavior Merleau-Ponty finds altogether a different kind of evidence. Following some instructive thesis in contemporary biological sciences, he is convinced that behavior proves that no living organism can be understood if taken separately from all its attaches to the environment; and because of this, behavior forces us to critically destroy the classical theoretical frameworks that, as it continues to determine the way we look at life, keeps on making us believe that an organism is something like a “material mass partes extra partes”7, and life is the name for the causal coordination of an organism’s functions and organs.

According to Merleau-Ponty, on the contrary, what we understand to be a behavior is somewhat like a relational structure without breaks. In fact, we can say that any stimulus that acts on the organism is received, in a lived situation, as having a vital meaning and a general significance, and any reaction to that stimulus always depict the way an organism doubles an “immanent intelligibility”8 that crosses the whole of the milieu. In other words, any reaction of the organism is connected to the whole of the organism’s activity, and this activity is an effective correspondence – a co-response – to an involving space and time. That is to say that behavior can not be mistaken by a simple automatic reaction of an organ, or coordination of organs, to a determined external cause.

Far from that, behavior reveals the way of being a structural whole of a living organism; and, at the same time, it discloses in what way the being a whole of the organism finds its counterpart in a mutual relation with the whole of the environment. In a word, the way of being alive of the living organism is reciprocity to an Umwelt9.

In this sense, the living organism cannot be understood in an atomistic model, nor can it be apprehended in a vitalist context. In fact, what behavior really is can only be understood in the relations of the organism to the envi

–  –  –

ronment; that is to say, as “a form”10, a dynamic form; a form, moreover, that

- as B. Buchanan has already pointed out – executes a “higher” dialectical relation between an organism and its surroundings, uniting the two in an unprecedented way”11, in a way that by no means can be expressed in terms of cause and effect12. This is why, as R. Barbaras explains, we only arrive at the reality of the organism, or at “the organism as a real entity, when several events, in themselves devoid of meaning, appear as moments of a unity, manifestations of a vital behavior: we arrive at life when we ménage to find points of view from which ensembles acquire a common signification”13.


Too major conclusions can be drawn from what has been said on behavior:

first of all, behavior is something that only appears as mixture, mutuality, relation, therefore making us understand that the way of being real of behaviour is to be an act and not a set of “things”, or “ideas”, a movement and not a substance, an active form rather then something still. Secondly we must come to the conclusion that this act behaviour is, this mutuality, this relation that makes behaviour what it is, is not something we can objectively see as such: behaviour is “real qua phenomenon”14, and it is in this sense that we can see it as the announcement of a totality that links together. Now, what is also interesting here is that if we perceive the phenomenon of behaviour as some kind of global mutuality never objectively seen, thus we must conclude that the totality we are talking about must contribute for the being real of our perception as it is that capacity of following a presence never fully present - in other words, the totality behovior doubles as we perceive it as such, is, at the end, also a proof of our own belonging to that global mutuality.

Ibid., p. 138. See also, for example, p. 140: “L’expérience dans un organisme n’est pas l’enregistrement et la fixation de certaines mouvements réellement accomplis : elle monte des aptitudes, c’est-à-dire le pouvoir général de répondre à des situations d’un certain type par des réactions variées qui n’ont de commun que le sens. [...] Situation et réaction se relient intérieurement par leur participation commune à une structure où s’exprime le mode d’activité propre de l’organisme”.

Buchanan, B., Onto-Ethologies. The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze, State University of New York Press, 2008, p. 121 Merleau-Ponty, M., La structure, p. 140.

Barbaras, R., “A Phenomenology of Life”, p. 219.

Ibid., p. 219. See also, for example, Merleau-Ponty, M. La structure, pp. 169-170.

Investigaciones Fenomenológicas, vol. Monográfico 4/I (2013): Razón y Vida. 355 356 LUÍS ANTÓNIO UMBELINO This is why La structure du comportment demanded, at the end, a true phenomenology of perception 15 capable of exploring the radical conditions of making sense of the word - and of showing that those conditions begin in the active presence (and way of belonging) of the body in the word. But as Merleau-Ponty finishes his monumental Phénoménologie de la perception, one question haunts still the analyses as its own shadow - a question first raised by the concept of behavior and not fully answered by the Phénoménologie: how to understand that totality we perceive in behavior16?

This is one of the questions that we can find not only at the centre of the lecture courses on the concept of Nature, but also, from there on, in the centre of Merleau-Pony’s philosophy17. As we arrive to the working notes on the concept of Nature, is as if, for Merleau-Ponty, the time had came to face the shadow of “something not yet fully thought” operating along his first works.

And it’s very interesting to see that, as Merleau-Ponty gives form to the ontophenomenological explanation of all that remains implicit in those first works, the notion of behavior, as biological sciences conceive of it, once again is going to play an important role. It is in this context that, as he prepares for the classes at the Collège de France, Merleau-Ponty will return to the works and main concepts of an author he mentions once in La structure (as if already pointing out his importance): we are talking about Jakob von Uexküll.

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