Chiasmi International 2

Nicoletta Grillo

The Philosopher and Psychology
Conference organized by the Merleau-Ponty Circle USA in Wrexham
From July 29th to August 1st, 1999

 The quantity and variety of the themes addressed at the last conference of the twentieth century organized by the "Merleau-Ponty Circle" corresponded fully to the possibilities suggested by the title selected, Merleau-Ponty, Mind and Body: Philosophical Contributions to Psychology. Indeed, more than forty speakers succeeded one another in the rooms of the North East Wales Institute in Wrexham, to analyze the ways and means opened by Merleau-Ponty's works in the fields of aesthetics, phenomenology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and especially, psychology.
    As James Morley, the Conference Director, explained in his brief introduction to the conference, the question "which psychology can arise from Merleau-Ponty's philosophy?" acted as a guiding thread throughout the wide diversity of works presented at the conference. On the basis of such a questioning, a lot of the presentations were characterized by their pragmatic content, which priviledged the impact of certain Merleau-Pontian concepts - in particular, the notion of intersubjectivity, understood as "Flesh" and "Reversibility" - on both the theory and practice of the psychotherapist. This choice then lead, in numerous cases, to interpreting Merleau-Ponty's "Flesh" as a forgotten, yet always present, dimension of human beings's communication between themselves and with the world.
     It was precisely the case with the controversial presentation by Petruska Clarkson, from the Physis Institute in London, whose hypothesis is that the substance of the theories that found the diverse psychotherapeutic approaches are equivalent; she also insisted, however, on the empathic relation between the therapist and her patient, which precisely borrows its value from the notion of "Flesh": deep relationship which, according to Clarkson, establishes itself beyond the differences between individuals, and allows to cure their wounds.
    Also largely disputed was the presentation by Martin Dillon, from Binghamton University, who drew on the Merleau-Pontian "flesh" for his sociological reflection on normativity in the sphere of sexuality: starting from the principle that the norms accepted by convention contrast with what emerges from the "carnal knowledge" of the individual, Dillon insisted on the necessity of revising the norms that are at the basis of sexual education, in order to priviledge the development of personal maturation.
    In the perspective of Gestalt psychotherapy, Des Kennedy, from the Wirral Gestalt Therapy, recalled the insistence with which The Phenomenology of Perception focuses on the opening of the subject to the world and, indirectly, on the fact that the patient is unique. Amedeo Giorgi, from the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco, focused on the question of the contribution Merleau-Ponty brought to psychology, from an epistemological point of view: it is precisely the contributions of the French philosopher, Giorgi recalled, which can help the psychologist when the latter wants to contest the objectivist paradigm of the real, which has left its imprint on the theoretical model of psychology itself. The psychologist, he insisted, is confronted with significant phenomena whose motivations he must understand, rather than look for its causes; Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology thus suggests to psychology that it understand a subject engaged in the world.
    The work of Shaun Gallagher, from Canisius College in Buffalo, and Jonathan Cole, from Southampton University, was very stimulating; they exposed the case of a subject suffering from "désafférentiation", which is an interruption of the sensitive impulses due to the destruction of afferent nervous routes, who thanks to a long and complex therapy, recovered the capacity to move his limbs (without however recovering the perception of them), on the condition that he maintains a constant visual control of them. Although it did not imply a direct reference to Merleau-Ponty, the discussion of the case touched on certain crucial theoretical points, even in the thought of the French philosopher: thanks to a certain amount of experiments, researchers in fact discovered that the subject concerned, although he was able to move around and grab objects only while observing his limbs, was nevertheless able to gesticulate completely naturally. From those observations, the two speakers then supposed that the sphere of gestuality lies very close, or even belongs to, the sphere of language, in a way similar to what Merleau-Ponty himself suggests in his reflections on linguistic expression.
    A parallel between medical inquiries and Merleau-Ponty's thought were later developped by the German Thomas Fuchs, from the University Clinic of Heidelberg. He proposed an interpretation of the different conceptions of perception in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, by relating them to schizophrenia, and with two particular forms in which the latter can be manifested: as alienation of the perceived world, characterized by a feeling of irreality, or on the contrary as total empathy with the world, which thereby acquires multiple significations and cannot be "held at a distance" any longer; this latter situation may be compared to the descriptions Merleau-Ponty gives, according to which the perception and recognition of objects are produced thanks to the intimate link between body and world, the latter being therefore accessible "from the inside".
    John Heaton, from the Philadelphia Association (London), started out with the analysis of several schizophrenia cases, too, in order to ask, primarily: "what may psychotherapeutic practice learn from Merleau-Ponty?" and propose a parallel between the French philosopher's theory of language and Wittgenstein's, based on the centrality of movement, which holds the "immanence of signification".
    Talia Welsh (Stony Brook) then inquired about the impact of Merleau-Ponty's theories on therapeutic practice, but psychoanalytic practice this time: underlying the way in which the discovery of the Freudian unconscious played an important role in Merleau-Ponty abandoning the traditional notion of consciousness, Welsh showed how the reflections of the French philosopher on the flesh cannot for that matter be considered applicable to the psychoanalytic practice of Freudian obedience.
    Kurt Dauer Keller, from the Danish University of Aalborg, focused on the relationship between the body and the world; intentionality is indeed this spontaneous response of the body to the world, within which the genesis of sense happens: to perceive forms is to perceive them on a background "before thematizing them in a subject-object perspective". But the relationship between the body proper and the world, with a particular focus on the role of emotion and habit, was also the object of Kym Maclaren's (Penn State) reflections - who analyzed the contributions of Merleau-Ponty, William James and Sartre to the examination of the creative side of emotion. Along similar lines, Gail Weiss, from George Washington University, proposed an analysis of habit by also making reference to Deleuze and Bourdieu, in order to underline once again the social dimension of the relation between body and world in Merleau-Ponty, but more particularly the capacity of creation and innovation of corporeality, when the latter is understood as an open system of exchange.
    More critical, Beata Stawarska, from the university of Leuven, examined the problem of intersubjectivity by asking whether the constitution of the body were not continually in process, rather than achieved once and for all, as Merleau-Ponty seems to suggest in his descriptions of "the mirror stage" in children. According to Stawarska, the philosopher did not grant enough importance to the role of the other, closing up the phase of self constitution onto a kind of "solipcism".
   By taking into consideration the later works, such as Eye and Mind, The Visible and the Invisible, as well as the notes to the last courses, Alexi Kukuljevic, from Seattle University, and Jenny Slatman, from the university of Amsterdam, looked to follow the tracks of the "psychoanalysis of nature" that Merleau-Ponty aimed at. For Kukuljevic, the unconscious is the primordial "yes" to life, the originary opening which never gives itself as pure positivity, but rather now as invisible, now as a retreat, whereas dreams, with their "overdetermination", represent the "double" of the opening of the body to the world. Slatman focused especially on the theory of expression that may be inferred from a "psychoanalysis of nature", insisting that the unconscious is a moment of intentionality itself, which must in turn be understood as the articulation of nature and logos: the body is indeed opening to the world, libidinal dimension capable of sublimating itself in art and language.
     Art, language and poetry were also at the heart of the presentations by Elke de Rijke, from the university of Antwerp, who, in re-reading Merleau-Ponty's writings on Paul Valéry and Claude Simon, retraced the conception of poetry which, according to him, emerges from those writings, by showing that the poetic spoken word (parole) is the medium between the objective language "of the thing" and the emotional language of "the subject". Another speaker who concerned himself with the aesthetic theme, in the twofold sense of a reflection about the sphere of art, as well as about that of perception, was Andrea Pinotti, from L'Università degli Studi in Milano. Starting with Merleau-Ponty's strong criticisms toward Berenson about "the tactile value of painting", which is affirmed by the art critique and negated by the philosopher, Pinotti - following Dufrenne who, in L'oeil et l'oreille, underlines the superiority of vision over all other senses in Merleau-Ponty's thought - emphasized the way in which, in this latter conception but also in Berenson's, an essentially visual conception of imagination is emphasized.
   Be that as it may, few of the speakers actually tried to shed some light upon the most problematic knots of Merleau-Ponty's thought. As has been said already, it is rather the conception of the "flesh" in all its least subversive and most tranquilizing senses, which was topical, as transformed into a model of interpretation to describe the relationships between human beings, into an explicative notion more likely to disarm doubts than provoke interrogations.


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