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Merleau-Ponty, Ecology and Biosemiotics

Maurita Harney
Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship
Swinburne University of Technology, Australia

Paper presented to the Twenty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle; Conference Theme: Ecology. September 2002, Saint Louis, Missouri.

In his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty shifts the locus of intentionality from Husserlian consciousness to the body-subject. With this shift, Merleau-Ponty effectively shakes off the legacy of the Cartesian-derived dualisms, most notably the oppositions of mind and matter, of subject and object, of culture and nature, and of human versus natural reality. This move to embodied intentionality means that intentionality is no longer the "mark of the mental" in Brentano's words (1874; 1973), but must now be seen as somehow grounded in biological processes -- processes that are shared by human and non-humans alike. In dissolving the dualism that marks humans off from other living things, Merleau-Ponty effectively paves the way for a philosophical ecology. His later transition from "the body" to "flesh of the world" in The Visible and the Invisible marks a further move in this direction, reinforcing the idea that intentionality can now be generalised to all living organisms, and through this to the whole of nature. In this way, Merleau-Ponty sets the scene for a philosophical ecology –- something which he did not fully develop himself, but which now presents itself as an important project for scholars like those represented in this collection.

My own contribution to such a project is to suggest how we might conceptualise ecological relations in the light of Merleau-Ponty's insights. More specifically, I want to consider the kind of ontological framework that might be appropriate for this task. The sources of Merleau-Ponty's incipient philosophical ecology in his Phenomenology of Perception include first, the methodological orientation that he establishes through his account of the body-subject and his rejection of those approaches which stem from the "objectivist-scientific" view of the body; second, his notion of the habitual body; and third, his account of the reciprocity between subject and lived world, or between organism and environment, by way of the notions of attunement and affordance.

In his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty establishes the uniqueness of the body's role as the subject of perception. My perception of an object such as a cube requires not a set of interposed representations, but a "body-subject" capable of moving around objects. To know the object of perception is to know my possibilities for action. The uniqueness of the body's role as the subject of experiences is borne of a particular perspective on the body –- what Merleau-Ponty terms le corps propre -- the subjectivised or phenomenal body as I experience it. Merleau-Ponty contrasts this with le corps objectif, the objectified body or the body as studied by science, that is, from the "objectivist-scientific" perspective. This perspective finds expression in those philosophical approaches that Merleau-Ponty seeks to discredit –- empiricism which seeks explanations of embodied action in terms of causal determinants, and intellectualism which offers explanations in terms of mental representations and which ultimately requires the postulation of a disembodied mind. Both empiricism and intellectualism, although superficially opposed, stem from the same "objectivist-scientific" perspective which in turn is a product of a restrictive Cartesian ontology -– one which conceptualises the human subject as a dualism of mind and body and, as a consequence of this, separates humans from the rest of nature. It is important to note, however, that Merleau-Ponty does not repudiate scientific approaches as false -– it is rather the insufficiency of these approaches to account for our experience as embodied subjects in the world that prompts his criticism.

The emphasis given to the unique role of the body in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of perception is not to be regarded as a way of privileging the human subject, and thereby a commitment to a dualism of humans versus nature. On the contrary, his emphasis on le corps propre serves to establish an approach which yields a continuity between humans and the rest of nature. There is no inconsistency here between the uniqueness of body-subject and those other sections of the work where Merleau-Ponty talks of the human subject as an "organism", implying shared biological processes, and where it is the similarities with other animals and living things rather than the differences that are emphasized.

The idea of biologically-based intentionality is perhaps best understood by way of the notion of the "habitual body" which Merleau-Ponty introduces in response to the problem of "the phantom limb." The problem is to explain the condition whereby people who have suffered the amputation of a limb often report the experience of sensations or pains "in" the missing limb, including a sense of the limb's retaining the position it was in at the time of the amputation. Reductionist explanations are inadequate to account for this phenomenon: The causal explanations of empiricists are unsuccessful: Physiological factors alone can't account for the condition -- anaesthesia doesn't remove it, so there must be some dependence on psychological factors. But psychological factors cannot be the sole cause either, because severing the nerves to the brain does remove the condition, indicating that physiological factors play some part in the explanation. Intellectualist accounts, which attempt to explain the experience in terms of a "refusal" to accept mutilation also contain an element of truth, but fail to be fully adequate as an explanation because they presume a deliberate act of decision originating ultimately in a disembodied mind. Neither line of explanation can fully account for what Merleau-Ponty calls "the ambivalent presence" (PP 81) of the limb because both are "imprisoned in the categories of the objective world" (PP 80). Merleau-Ponty's resolution of this problem is to reject the underlying dualism of psychological and physiological which creates this prison. Instead, he proposes a distinction which is only possible if we adopt the perspective of le corps propre. This is the distinction between two modes of experiencing embodiment –- the habitual body and the non-habitual body. The habitual body is the body as I have become accustomed to it –- the body that moves around the world, encounters objects, or anticipates movements and resistances. It is purposive movement but there are no conscious acts of deliberation. The non-habitual body is the mutilated body, which I have now, and which has not yet become "habituated". The experience of the phantom limb is the persistence of the habitual body, which maintains its practical involvement in the world. "The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them…" (PP 81-82).

Habituation can take the form of a kind of "stored intentionality" which manifests itself as a kind of "skillful coping" (Dreyfus 1996 [34]) in the world. It is a way of explaining how we engage in undeliberated skills or actions in making our way around the world. Merleau-Ponty calls it "motor significance" indicating that the habitual actions are meaningful and not mere reflex movements, whilst at the same time suggesting that the significance is biologically "embedded", and not the result of mental representations: "The cultivation of a habit is indeed the grasping of a significance, but it is the motor grasping of a motor significance" (PP 143). He gives examples of the woman with a tall feather in her hat being able to negotiate doorways, the blind man's use of his stick, the experienced driver's ability to negotiate small parking spaces, etc. To get used to a hat, a car, or a stick, is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own bodies…" (PP 143). Merleau-Ponty's account of the habitual body then, affirms that our relationship to our environment is meaningful, but meaning itself can be "embodied" or incorporated into our bodies as a result of habit.

The body is not just the passive recipient of stimuli from an external world. Rather, it is attuned to the world. Even perception in the case of a minor reflex action is intentional or meaningful, and this means that "reflex actions are never themselves blind processes: they adjust themselves to a 'direction' of the situation, and express our orientation towards a 'behavioural setting', just as much as the action of the 'geographical setting' on us" (PP 79). Attunement or the idea of an orientation to a setting is a biological phenomenon that is common to human and non-human organisms in their interaction with their environment. For example, "when an insect's leg is severed, it substitutes it with a free one; however, no such substitution occurs when the leg is tied to another because the tied leg continues to count in the insect's scheme of things, and because the current of activity which flows toward the world still passes through it" (PP 78).

The attunement of the organism to the world is reciprocated by the action of the world (the "geographical setting") on us. The world or environment is not something inert, passive, something waiting to be acted upon. The world as correlate of my actions presents itself as somehow receptive, or configured to receive, or afford those actions. Merleau-Ponty describes a tailor who has the lost the capacity for identifying parts of his body by pointing to them, but he nonetheless retains "concrete" perceptual abilities -– he can continue to cut cloth, sew, etc. For such a person, the world is "the piece of leather to be cut up; it is the lining 'to be sewn'…" (PP 106).

The idea that the world enters into a kind of communicative or reciprocal relation with the perceiver is a case of what ecological psychologist James Gibson (1977) calls affordance. It means that the world that we operate in is not neutral with respect to our actions, but is in some way complementary to those actions. There is a kind of "fit" between the action and its object -– for example, between cutting up cloth and cloth-to-be-cut-up, between catching a tennis ball and the ball as something-for-catching. As described by Hubert Dreyfus: "...the characteristics of the human world, e.g., what affords walking on, squeezing through, reaching, etc. are correlative to our bodily capacities and acquired skills" (1996, [3]). Another variant of this idea of a reciprocity between the action (or the potential for action) and its correlate in the world appears in Merleau-Ponty's later work, The Visible and the Invisible. Here Merleau-Ponty reminds us of the reciprocity in perceiving and touching – that the perceiver is also the perceived and that to touch is also to be touched. The point here is that intentionality becomes 'globalised' to the world of which I am part: "… I am experiencing the world; yet when I attend closely to the carnal nature of this phenomenon, I recognise that I can just as well say that I am being experienced by the world" (Abrams 1996 100n).

Consistent with an ecological approach then, Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of the embodied subject is one that implies a continuity rather than contrast between humans and other living organisms. Generalising from my experience as an embodied subject acting in a world, we can say that the relationship between organism and environment is more like a reciprocal, communicative interaction than the action-reaction of a subject and an inert, passive world.

If we are to develop a philosophical ecology from Merleau-Ponty's insights relating to the idea of an embodied subject "intervolved with" a world, then we must reject explanations which reduce embodied action to a set of processes conceptualised in terms of the "objectivist-scientific" attitude. The case of the phantom limb shows the insufficiency of approaches which presume ultimately a view of the human subject as a duality of mind and body; the discussion of embodied action within a world shows the inadequacy of approaches which divide humans from the rest of nature. This means that we need to reject the restrictive Cartesian-derived dyadic ontology which is responsible for this perspective and its shortcomings. It prompts the suggestion that we should look instead at a richer ontology if we are to develop a philosophical ecology. In this respect, the field of inquiry known as biosemiotics might offer some insights. Biosemiotics claims to provide a non-reductionist explanation of the meaningful interactions between organism and environment, and although it is radically different from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological approach, I believe it might nonetheless provide some insights into the kind of ontological framework that is appropriate for the full development of an ecological philosophy.

Biosemiotics is the name given to the study of biological processes understood as semiosis or sign processes. Its main inspiration is the philosophy of C.S.Peirce whose triadic ontology as expressed in his theory of signs has given rise to a new 'paradigm' known as semiotics (Sharov 1997; Hoffmeyer & Emmeche 1991). The semiotic paradigm serves as an alternative framework to what Merleau-Ponty would call the "objectivist-scientific" framework for viewing biological processes. Although the focus of the pioneering work in biosemiotics was on animal communicative behaviour – the subject matter of ethology -– a number of recent developments have explored a semiotic interpretation of the concepts and processes in the fields of molecular biology and evolutionary biology. The belief here [is that] our understanding of biological concepts can be enhanced when these are interpreted within a richer ontology than that provided by conventional scientific theories (Emmeche 1991; Hoffmeyer 1997a).

A semiotic approach to the study of biological processes is one which is premised on the idea that life generally consists in semiosis. That is to say, all living organisms engage in processes of signification and communication by means of signs. "In the biosemiotic conception the life sphere is permeated by sign processes (semiosis) and signification. Whatever an organism senses also means something to it – food, escape, sexual reproduction, etc., and all organisms are thus born into a semiosphere, i.e., a world of meaning and communication: sounds, odours, movements, colors, electric fields, waves of any kind, chemical signals, touch, etc." (Hoffmeyer 1998a, 82). Ethology (the study of animal behaviour) provides rich resource base for the semiotician. The pheromone emission of insects, dances of bees, and mating rituals, are all ways in which organisms communicate with one another using signs. These examples which involve the use of signs to communicate messages between members of species are said to be exosemiotic. Signs that communicate messages can sometimes be internal to an organism -– for example the camouflage of butterflies, the song of birds, and threat behaviour in baboons. These sign processes form the subject matter of endosemiotics, another sub-branch of this field of inquiry. Endosemiotics include sign processes, which are operative at the cellular and sub-cellular (molecular) levels. An individual cell comprises millions of 'receptors' capable of recognising specific signal molecules in the cell environment. These receptors "function as communication channels through which our cells, tissues and organs are persistently communicating with each other all around the body" (Hoffmeyer 1997b). The text-book vocabulary of microbiology is highly suggestive of a semiotic model of biological processes – we hear of cells "recognising", "interpreting", "selecting", "sending messages", etc. What is significant about this language is the implication that biological communication is consists not just in a transfer of information (as conventional information theory describes it) but in an exchange of meanings.

Two important sources of biosemiotics are the idea that communication involves the exchange of meanings (rather than, say, the transfer of information), and Jakob von Uexkull's notion of the Umwelt which is the organism's environment -- not the "mere" environment that an outsider might observe but the environment as perceived and experienced by the organism. It is the description of the environment as meaningful to the organism in a way similar to that which emerges from Merleau-Ponty's account of attunement.

The key theoretical concept of biosemiotics, however, is the notion of the sign, which is the vehicle of signification and communication. Specifically, it is a notion of sign and sign-processes (semiosis) provided by American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). For Peirce, the sign is analyzed as the triadic relation of a sign vehicle (sometimes called a representamen), which stands to somebody or some context (the interpretant) for some object. So, a footprint can be a sign vehicle which stands for something -– an animal which has passed by. However, it can only function as a sign if it is interpreted as such –- in this case, by someone observing that footprint as a sign. Without an interpretant the footprint is just a physical mark along with any other in the sand. Semiotics is the study of signs or, more accurately, of semiosis, which is the process by which, signs are generated and communicated. Peirce believed that "the universe is perfused by signs, if not entirely composed of them" (CP5.448 fn) and this is the motivation for applying his theory of signs to life generally through the development of biosemiotics.

The sign relation is irreducibly triadic. This defining feature of the sign is explained by reference to Peirce's theory of categories, and an understanding of this theory helps to elucidate some of the essential features of this theory of signs. In the manner of Aristotle and Kant before him, C.S. Peirce laid the foundations of his philosophy by listing a set of categories -– a "table of conceptions drawn from the logical analysis of thought and regarded as applicable to being."(CP 1.300) These are presented both as logical as well as phenomenological conceptions.

Firstness comprises qualities of phenomena such as red, bitter, tedious, etc. Phenomenologically it is what is experienced as feeling. "It is not an event or a happening or a coming to pass…" It is a-temporal and "pre-reflexive" or "pre-theoretic" in the sense that it is experienced without theorisation as to its external cause or even the actuality of its existence. It is the category of possibility.

Secondness is experienced as "struggle and resistance". In exerting effort in putting my shoulder to the door, secondness is experienced as the resistance against that effort. It is a direct encounter with otherness. It is not mere possibility –- it is "brute actuality". Whereas firstness comprises quality –- something monadic, secondness comprises relation -- it is dyadic.

Thirdness consists of what we call laws or thoughts i.e., representations. It is exhibited when we relate two things by means of a third which is the thought or the representation or the generalisation or law. This law is often embedded in habit. For example, it is habit which mediates subsequent recognition of objects as being similar to those I have encountered previously.

The sign is a classic exemplar of thirdness. Suppose, looking at the horizon, I see smoke and I take this as a sign that there is a fire in the vicinity. Here, the relation between the sign vehicle (smoke) and its object (fire) is mediated by a third term, the interpretant (my thought of the fire). The sign relation here is said to be irreducibly triadic. It cannot be reduced to two dyadic, causal relations, one between object and sign, and the other between sign and interpretant. The first of these ("fire causes smoke") tells us nothing about the smoke as meaning or signifying something. The second reduces the role of the sign to something which is only dyadically or causally related to the interpretant ("smoke causes my thought of fire"), but this is insufficient to convey the idea that signs are vehicles of signification or meaning: Signs are meaningful not because they act causally on us like environmental stimuli, but because they are taken by us to mean something.

But this is not to deny that causal relations exist in the physical world – in our example, the dyadic relation between fire and smoke. This relation constitutes the "ground" of the sign. The "ground" of the sign becomes for Peirce the basis for another three-fold classification signs corresponding to his three categories. An iconic sign stands for its object by virtue of some similarity or likeness: for example, a map, a picture, a drawing. An indexical sign stands for its object by means of an existential or causal relationship, for example, smoke; a weather vane; a thermometer; footprints; animal droppings. A symbolic sign stands for its object by virtue of convention, habit, or rule, for example, a life-saver flag; the word "cat". All language is symbolic.

The fact that we do not repudiate the causal relation between fire and smoke, but rather acknowledge it as the ground of the sign, shows how we can still admit the validity of external causal relations, or of what Merleau-Ponty would call the "objectivist-scientific" attitude without reducing sign relations to it. The triadic ontology of the sign relation does not necessitate the repudiation of established laws of nature that the objectivist attitude insists on.

In biosemiotics, these classifications relating to 'ground' play an important role in the analysis of signs that are part of nature. Plants exhibit primarily indexical signs, for example a plant's interaction with sunlight. Animals display both indexical and iconic signs. For example, the footprint of a bear exhibits both a relation of similarity (iconic), as well as a causal (indexical) relation to the animal's paw which left the imprint. Humans exhibit all three, the symbolic signs being constituted primarily by language (Sebeok 1991, 104). However, extending semiosis to all living things prompts questions about the status of the interpretant including questions about agency in relation to meaning and interpretation.

For Peirce, signs are not produced as a result of human agency or mentality. In an important sense, signs have an autonomy. Semiosis, or the generation of interpretants, is not the work of an interpreter be it human or otherwise, but rather the work of the sign itself. Cognition is an instance of this, but it is not the source of semiosis. As Joseph Ransdell puts it: "semiosis… …(is) always due to the agency of the sign itself, rather than to the agency of an interpreter, human or otherwise…" (Ransdell 1992 [2]). So, meanings are not bestowed or created by the human mind. As Ransdell says, an interpreter's interpretation "is to be regarded as being primarily a perception or observation of the meaning exhibited by the sign itself…" (Ransdell 1992 [2])

Subsequent writers have avoided the mentalistic overtones of "interpretant" by speaking instead of a "system of interpretance" (Lemke 1999, 1). The autonomy thesis states that interpretants (or systems of interpretance) are generated by signs themselves, not by human agents. Even the rules that operate by way of habit are dispositions of the sign rather than transcendent laws. (Ransdell 1992[6]). The fact that it is the action of the sign which is the producer of meaning also implies that the sign can't be said to be governed by rules in the sense of falling under them. According to Ransdell, "the disposition of the sign to generate an interpretant is the rule" (1992 [6]).

Peirce's thesis of the autonomy of signs provides a semiotic equivalent to Merleau-Ponty's notion of the "habitual body" and associated notions of "stored intentionality". In biosemiotics, recognition of the autonomy of signs is important in enabling us to identify semiotic processes operating diachronically or genealogically between successive generations of species. As Sharov (1999, 2) puts it, producing offspring is a form of communication to future generations. Hoffmeyer's studies in evolutionary biology show how the organism's internal organisation can be seen to represent "a kind of 'frozen past' against which the (organism) measures present situations to decide for its further actions" (1998b, 5), the genome being an essential part of that 'frozen past': "The sign vehicle might for instance be the genome, the object might be the ontogenetic trajectory whereas the interpretant would be hidden in the cytoskeletal architecture of the fertilised egg (or the growing embryo)" (1998b, 5. See also Hoffmeyer & Emmeche 1991).

The autonomy of the sign means that semiotics can be extended to a study of the physical (non-living) natural world. According to Deely (1990, 87-91), a fossilized bone of an animal is a sign vehicle that points to the original animal, and the rock formation in which the bone is fossilized is the interpretant.

In detaching semiosis from mentality and human agency we don't thereby extricate it from the framework of communication theory. However communication is a universal phenomenon and not a product of human creation. Signs are the vehicles of communication which, in their "perfusion throughout the universe" serve as a locus of meaning or significance within the natural world.

As with Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, an important lesson from biosemiotics is confirmation that meaning or significance need not be tied to a theory of mind or cognition. The world or nature has the capacity to generate meanings in the form of signs, just as for Merleau-Ponty, it is the world (and not minds) which generates meaning in the form of "affording" the lining-to-be-sewn, the tennis-ball-to-be-caught, etc. As with Merleau-Ponty, there is no repudiation, either implicit or explicit, of established scientific laws. However, in neither the semiotic approach nor that of Merleau-Ponty can meaning or significance be reduced to sets of causal events in the physical world. This is so in the case of semiotics, because the process of semiosis (the generation of signs) can only be understood triadically and therefore non-reductively. "What we should learn from this analysis of intentionality, subjectivity, and self-awareness is not that these phenomena are forever beyond the horizon of science. Rather we should learn that the key to scientific understanding of the mental is embodied existence and not the fictitious idea of disembodied symbolic organisation which appeals to the aritmocentric minds of traditional scientists" (Hoffmeyer 1996, 2).

In the case of Merleau-Ponty, meaning expressed as intentionality is liberated from "the mental" and becomes instead a property of biological rather than mental processes. By this means, intentionality comes to be generalised to the natural world including all living things as a distinctive characteristic of the interactions that occur within nature. But "biological processes" here, cannot mean processes explicable by reductionist "objectivist-scientific" approaches. Biosemiotics provides a fruitful alternative to the latter, rejecting the restrictive dyadic ontology which gives rise to reductionist explanations, and suggesting instead that these processes can be explained in terms of communicative sign processes, understood as a triadic unity rather than as a dyadic relationship. Prior to his untimely death, Merleau-Ponty had entertained the idea that nature be conceptualised as a language. A broader conception of nature as a communication system consisting of signs or, more accurately, of sign-processes or semiosis may not be very far removed from that project.

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END OF:  Maurita Harney, "Merleau-Ponty, Ecololgy and Bioisemiotics"


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