Monday, March 10, 2008

"Être à la vérité: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-2008," Basel University, March 11-15, 2008.

The question of truth was one of the fundamental philosophical questions which challenged the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty throughout his life. He developed his reflections on the (im)possibility of truth – starting with a critique of René Descartes’ body-soul-consciousness-separation – through a thorough reading of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, and Hegelian dialectics, as well as of different forms of ontology, especially modern ontology, including the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. On this background, his questioning of truth reflected not only the philosophical conception of truth, but also truth in the natural sciences as well as in art, music and literature. The naïve understanding of truth in être au monde (being towards the world) is the starting point for his reflection in all periods of his work. It might be merely a belief – as M. Merleau-Ponty says – that the world and other humans are given in perception, yet this belief grounds the philosophical doubt of perception and its truth. Although starting from perceptive certainty might be grounded in belief, it is possible to reflect on this starting point itself. M. Merleau-Ponty approaches perceptive certainty again and again from different perspectives and situates it in different contexts. In his first book, The Structure of Behaviour, he develops a holistic conception of behaviour based on Gestalt theoretical concepts. This approach links a double critique of realist and idealist research and philosophy. He conceives behaviour as being at the same time, both perceptible and internally structured by non-intellectual connections. In his second book, Phenomenology of Perception, M. Merleau-Ponty explicitly speaks of “perception as access to truth” (PP XI (French original) / XVII (English translation)). Reflection on perception is the privileged approach for clarifying the question of the truth of être au monde (being towards the world). In his unfinished book, The Prose of the World, he develops, through a dialectical relation of linguistic sense in literature and perceptive sense in art, a conception of sense which is not representational but structural. However, his thesis is based on a cultural and historical paradigm that renders the possibility and the status of formal truth a problem. As the question of truth concerns literature, art, music, history, culture, society, and politics, as well as the natural sciences and philosophy, including not only epistemology and logic, but also ontology and aesthetics, Maurice Merleau-Ponty has to relinquish his cultural and historical paradigm for a more fundamental approach. In his last book, The Visible and the Invisible, he provides a sketch of an indirect ontology which approaches truth by reflecting on the other (the world, the other human and the other of the self) as neither the same nor completely different. Être à la vérité (being towards truth) is necessarily grounded in être au monde (being towards the world) and être à l’autre (being towards the other). The question of truth – one of the fundamental questions of Western philosophy – is resituated in M. Merleau-Ponty’s work in a fundamental way. Accordingly, M. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is of decisive impact for philosophy at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. The fact of the growing importance of his philosophy, not only in France and Germany but also in the US and Asia, is therefore no surprise. This conference, celebrating his centenary, brings together different generations of renowned specialists of M. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy from different philosophical disciplines and several continents. For further information:

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