The Ambiguity of History
Sartre's discussion of bad faith struck a resonant chord among intellectuals in Western Europe during the postwar period. It was as if, after the shocks sustained during the war, after the nightmare of the concentration camps and the atomic bomb, after the collapse of a compromised liberalism, after the disintegration of Soviet socialism in the Stalinist state—after all this, life itself stood naked. Existence had to recapture a sense of purpose.
Existentialism spoke directly to this mood. It portrayed modern man as homeless, cast into a degrading culture that stifled the particular to encourage the average. In such circumstances, the aim of individuation was felt to require something more than a guarantee of legal rights and the advent of social planning; individuation, the professed aim of bourgeois society, appeared now as a fragile accomplishment, ravaged by mass culture, the imperatives of largescale organization, and the totalitarian state. By addressing such problems, however abstractly, existentialism joined one of the key issues of any genuinely radical social theory—the issue, as Marx might have put it, of the conditions of unalienated self-expression.
Without parallel in Marxism , however, was the suggestion, contained in the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, that man was something other than the being of potential enlightenment portrayed by rationalism. The individual, thrown back on his own resources, bereft of a transcendent order, and unable to assent, without qualifications, to any set of normative prescriptions, suddenly faced the world alone, only to find in it not the promised land of autonomy and freedom but instead an abyss of uncertain existence. Cast adrift without goals in a world apparently without aim,
Existentialism here afforded insight into the crisis, widely felt, in man's contemporary condition. In addition, existentialism and phenomenology professed to offer an alternative basis for philosophical insight, beyond positivism as well as rationalism. When applied to Marxism , existential phenomenology promised to direct the theory back to its premise in the interaction of real individuals, and to provide a new framework for reconsidering Marx's hopes for individuation.
The most fruitful application of existentialism to Marxism occurred in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Unlike Sartre, Merleau-Ponty embraced Marxism virtually from the outset of his career. But rather than gravitating closer to the theory's orbit as he amplified his own philosophy, he eventually elaborated an independent position, skeptical of Marxism both as theory and practice. Yet his very independence facilitated a critical outlook toward the dilemmas of Marxism , which he came to consider insuperable. Simultaneously, his own philosophy, enriched by his contact with Marxism , produced the rudiments of an original phenomenology of the social world, focusing on institutions as the intersubjective nexus of meaningful existence. In contrast to Sartre's existentialism, Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology emphasized the unity of consciousness with the empirical world and man's inherent sociability.
From Behavior to Perception:
The Affinity of Consciousness and Nature
In the introduction to his first book, The Structure of Behavior , Merieau-Ponty expressed his desire to elucidate the relations of "consciousness and nature, organic, psychological or even social." By interpreting the findings of gestalt psychology within a phenomenological framework, he concluded that neither a mechanistic nor idealistic approach could adequately account for the phenomenon of behavior.
Through his study of behavior, Merieau-Ponty hoped to demarcate a primordial locus of meaning bonding consciousness, via the
body, to the world. The philosophical inventory of behavior revealed meaningful action before the advent of self-conscious reflection. The truth of naturalism and realism thus turned out to be a philosophy of significant "structures." It was on this basis that he approached the study of perception.
The centerpiece of Merleau-Ponty's career, and the effective foundation for much of his subsequent work, is his second book, Phenomenology of Perception , published in 1945. The implications and dilemmas of his brand of Marxism cannot be fully appreciated without a preliminary account of the philosophy he elaborated there.
In the Phenomenology of Perception , as in the Structure of Behavior before it, Merleau-Ponty argued that empiricism, behaviorism, and neo-Kantian rationalism all failed to account adequately for important phenomena, in this case phenomena of perception. Empiricism was wed to a stimulus-response model, taking as its fundamental unit atomic sense-data; but the holistic patterning of perception described by gestalt psychologists contradicted the atomism of the empiricist model. Rationalism, on the other hand, approached perception as if it were the lucid construct of consciousness; this account, however, also distorted our experience, which always afforded the possibility of perceptual error—perception was not the logical result of a series of judgments. Rationalism thus mistakenly enriched perception by elevating it to the level of self-consciousness, while empiricism falsely impoverished perception by reducing it to an empty passivity.
Merleau-Ponty felt that a new philosophy could arise from this impasse. By attempting a fresh description of the phenomenon of perception, a description unprejudiced by previous accounts, he sought to formulate a philosophical alternative to rationalism and empiricism (which in his account closely resembled the materialist epistemology endorsed by Plekhanov and Lenin). The key to this new philosophy lay in his interpretation of the close interplay in perception between the body and the cogtto , terms which both empiricism and rationalism had tended to segregate. By linking the body and the cogito in his interpretations of such clinical phenomena as the perception of a "phantom limb" (the belief, for example, that an amputated leg still exists), Merleau-Ponty hoped to unravel the genesis of the "transcendental unity" of perception, a unity which
idealism had placed at the foundation of consciousness. Cases like that of the phantom limb revealed the persistence of an holistic perception of the body, a perception anterior to rational judgment and emended only with difficulty (despite the evidence, say, of a missing limb).
It was this holistic perception of the body—the "phenomenal body," as subjectively experienced by the individual, in contrast with the body as objectively dissected by science—which anchored the individual in a world: "Consciousness must be faced with its own unreflective life in things and awakened to its own history, which it was forgetting." The body was man's vehicle of "being in the world"; through his body, the individual became committed to a coherent structure of perceptual and behavioral dispositions.
Because these dispositions were assumed holistically, the individual's bodily perceptions could not be explained purely mechanistically. Yet the description of perception also revealed that it was the body, not consciousness by itself, which introduced coherence into perception. The foundations of the subject's contact with a world therefore lay not in external stimuli, as empiricism had it, nor in consciousness by itself, as rationalism had it, but rather in the familiarity with a world that the body itself spontaneously instituted. Such familiarity was never accomplished once and for all, as an absolute acquisition; instead, the orientation of the body evolved across time, relying on a prospective anticipation of worldly order as well as a retrospective synthesis that motivated this anticipation. Moreover, a person's bodily presence in the world at every turn suggested ambiguity rather than finality, an openness rather than the faits accomplis of rational intellection. Belief in a natural world appeared as man's original existential commitment, engendered by perception and behavior, but without any other transcendental grounds.
The Embodied Cogito and Intersubjectivity
Although Merleau-Ponty retained the notion of the cogito , he radically reinterpreted this Cartesian (and Husserlian) concept. For him, the true subject of perception was not consciousness as such, but "existence, or being in the world through a body." Conscious-
ness, implicated in the world by its corporeal incarnation, comprised "nothing but a network of intentions," enmeshed in a past and future, a physical, ideological, and moral situation. Thrust by behavior and perception into a "pre-objective presence" to the world, the cogito possessed a world prior to self-conscious judgment. The incarnate cogito could be distinguished, not by the "I think" of Descartes and Husserl, but rather by an "I can." "This new cogito, because it is anterior to revealed truth and error, makes both possible."
The embodied cogito described in the Phenomenology of Perception did not subsist like an inanimate thing; its environment did not consist of a static collection of objects. Instead, as existentially reinterpreted, it actively oriented itself. The new cogito , like the phenomenal body, was thus distinguished by its involvement in a task and situation, rather than by any formal, a priori predicates. Because this incarnate cogito existed through action, it could never coincide with itself; it always remained suspended between what it had and what it tried to have, between what it was and what it intended to be. The existential subject authentically discovered itself not through an identity posited in reflection but rather through acting. But the act was never pure, and always remained grounded in an antecedent world: consciousness was thus inextricably involved in circumstances.
Indeed, Merleau-Ponty's emphasis on the body set him apart from Sartre, who in Being and Nothingness had focused on the for-itself of consciousness. Merleau-Ponty in fact argued that Sartre's fateful dualism between the in-itself and for-itself did not rend the subject's original insertion in a world, before the advent of explicit conceptual judgment.
"The thing presents itself to the person who perceives it as a thing in itself, and thus poses the problem of a genuine in-itself-for-us ." This initial identification of the subject with a world signaled the individual as a "captive or natural spirit," anchored in the world by his sentient incarnation. For the body, the natural world did not appear a threatening and massive objectivity; rather, the natural world became the "horizon of all horizons, the style of all possible styles, which guarantees for my experience a given, not a willed, unity underlying all the disruptions of my personal and historical life. Its counterpart within me is the given, general and pre-personal
existence of my sensory functions in which we have discovered the definition of the body."
If man's body opened him to a world, then the cogito could no longer be radically divorced from the body; it confronted the world only via the body. The unity of mind and body worked both ways. Just as consciousness encountered a world through the body, so a world—and other people—encountered consciousness through the body: "That expressive instrument called a face can carry an existence, as my own existence is carried by my body. . . . " Another person's body appeared not as a mute object, but rather as a "manifestation of behavior." In contrast to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty refused to treat the existence of other people as problematic, let alone threatening. To be sure, "I am necessarily destined never to experience the presence of another person to himself. Yet each other person does exist for me as an unchallengeable style or setting of coexistence, and my life has a social atmosphere."
Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of subjectivity flowed from his comprehension of the body and cogito . "Insofar as, when I reflect on the essence of subjectivity, I find it bound up with that of the body and that of the world, this is because my existence as subjectivity is merely one with my existence as a body and with the existence of the world, and because the subject that I am, when taken concretely, is inseparable from this body and this world." Although he installed subjectivity at the heart of his philosophy, that subjectivity always implied, and was implicated in, objectivity. The individual, through his body, formed part of the objective world, just as consciousness, through bodily action, transformed that objective world. Similarly, through his body and acts, the individual was open to an intersubjective world of shared understanding. While objective perceptions arose at the level of private experience, the subject for the most part valued and evaluated his perceptions in terms of the world shared perceptually with other subjects. Moreover, the individual, through his body and acts, necessarily exposed himself to the perception of others: their interpretation of his behavior and validation of his perceptions in turn helped found the individual's sense of self, as well as his understanding of the world. "Solipsism," argued Merleau-Ponty, "would be strictly true only of someone who managed to be tacitly aware of his existence without being or doing anything."
The social realm consequently assumed a central position within
his thought. "We must . . . rediscover, after the natural world, the social world, not as an object or sum of objects, but as a permanent field or dimension of existence: I may well turn away from it, but not cease to be situated relatively to it. Our relationship to the social is, like our relationship to the world, deeper than any express perception or judgement."
Merleau-Ponty's investigations of perception thus ended by charting a philosophical alternative to empiricism and rationalism, a philosophy of intersubjectivity tracing the affinity of consciousness and nature, mind and body, self and society. By returning to the existence each individual lived, and describing it with a minimum of presuppositions, his existential phenomenology attempted to mediate the antinomies of the philosophical tradition.
Situated vs. Absolute Freedom
Despite a common background in existential phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre derived fundamentally different outlooks on man from their early investigations. These differences were most firmly drawn by Merleau-Ponty in his discussion of freedom at the close of the Phenomenology of Perception .
Sartre, it will be recalled, had asserted a kind of absolute freedom for the conscious human being. It was this claim that Merleau-Ponty disputed. To be sure, he never doubted man's experience of freedom: freedom indeed appeared to him as a phenomenologically verified certainty. The phenomenal subject always maintained a "power of placing in abeyance" the determinants of its existence. and "this suffices to insure our freedom from determinism." But such a freedom could never be divorced from the individual's insertion in a world; instead, the concept of freedom only made sense in conjunction with this insertion. If freedom were everywhere, as seemed to be the case in Sartre's Being and Nothingness , then freedom in effect would be nowhere: as an omnipresent endowment, freedom lost its field of application, and thus its traditional significance and critical import. "Free action, in order to be discernible, has to stand out from a background of life from which it is entirely, or almost entirely, absent."
While Sartre properly emphasized the subject's freedom, he distorted the scope of this freedom by rendering it absolute. The subject, argued Merleau-Ponty, always faced a previously established situation, an environment and world not of its own making. Its life, as intersubjectively open, acquired a social atmosphere which it did not itself constitute. Social roles pressed upon the individual as plausible courses for his life to take. Certain modes of behavior became habitual. Probably , this world, these habits, a familiar comportment: probably these would not change overnight. It was unlikely that an individual would suddenly choose to be something radically other than what he had already become. The Sartre of Being and Nothingness underestimated the weight of this realm of relative constraint and habitual inertia. Here as elsewhere, charged Merleau-Ponty, Sartre remained beholden to rationalist dualisms. "The rationalist's dilemma: either the free act is possible, or it is not—either the event originates in me or is imposed on me from outside—does not apply to our relations with the world and with our past. Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open, which implies both that it calls up specially favored modes of resolution, and also that it is powerless to bring one into being by itself."
The individual sustained a psychological and historical structure, endowed with a certain style of existence, which had to be granted a certain persistence. To be sure, the individual's existence, like his perceptions, received meaning from his projects, from the goals he assigned himself. Yet although the subject gave direction and significance to his life, such projects generally remained merely lived, rather than explicitly thought. The individual thus existed within an inarticulate momentum, establishing probabilities and patterns of behavior. He always exercised his freedom within this temporal framework; antecedent circumstance as well as prospective ends suggested decisions and prompted acts. "The situation thus comes to the aid of decision, and in this exchange between the situation and the person who takes it up, it is impossible to determine precisely the 'share contributed by the situation' and the 'share contributed by freedom.'"
In Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, men faced a previously constituted world that nevertheless accommodated free action. This world acted upon the individual as surely as he acted upon it, in a perpet-
ual exchange. For Merleau-Ponty, there was "never determinism and never absolute choice," by the very nature of man's being in the world.
Through this account of freedom, the Phenomenology of Perception offered nothing less than a new empirical anthropology—and a much more compelling picture of being human than that provided by Sartre's philosophical anthropology. Merleau-Ponty's insistence on the life-world as the foundation of phenomenology went further than anything suggested by Husserl and gave his philosophy a strongly empirical bent; it also placed his thought beyond any a priori categorizations, such as Sartre's bifurcation of being into an in-itself and for-itself. His interpretation of phenomenology indeed spared his philosophy the idealist and rationalist overtones still present in the phenomenologies of Husserl as well as Sartre. While his thought here converged with Heidegger's, Merleau-Ponty avoided the ontological emphasis that characterized Being and Time . Rooted in experimental science, yet maintaining a poetic regard for the virtually ineffable primacy of subjective experience, his philosophy occupied a unique position within the phenomenological movement.
Merleau-Ponty's interest in Marxism developed early. References to philosophical issues in historical materialism occur in the Phenomenology of Perception as well as his first postwar writings on politics. Indeed, his phenomenology, with its accent on intersubjectivity and the natural world, was, superficially at least, more compatible with the Marxian theory than other brands of phenomenology, Sartre's included.
Ironically, Merleau-Ponty developed his Marxism along lines that could not always be reconciled with his phenomenology. In fact, the two principal sources of his interpretation of Marxism —Lukács's neo-Hegelian Marxism (as elaborated in History and Class Consciousness ) and Merleau-Ponty's own phenomenology of perception—were implicitly in conflict on a number of points.
On the one hand, his phenomenology of perception prompted him to view history as ambiguous and to approach man's insertion
in the social order as problematic. From this perspective, he raised doubts about the assumptions Marxism made about the rationality of human action; as a consequence, he was inclined to view the historical program of Marxism as a gamble rather than a forgone conclusion. He was finally led to reconsider the process of politicization, and to redescribe, in the Phenomenology of Perception , the acquisition of a critical "class consciousness."
On the other hand, though, Merleau-Ponty elaborated a form of Marxism derived from Lukacs, Hegel, the Husserl of the Crisis , and the young Marx—the Marx who, in his "Toward the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction," portrayed the proletariat as a material force for "the total redemption of humanity." From Lukács he added an understanding of the proletariat as the potentially unified subject-object of history, the demiurge of Absolute Knowledge appearing within human prehistory and transcending the fractured conditions of capitalism toward the future of communism; from Hegel, he borrowed the dialectic of mutual recognition, and placed its resolution at the end of history. When wed to Husserl's idea of an historical telos immanent to subjectivity, and to Marx's original depiction of the proletariat as the heart of human emancipation, these convergent strands in Merleau-Ponty's thought encouraged him to identify the proletariat with man's alienated essence, and to seek in proletarian politics a virtually apocalyptic class consciousness aiming at a more humane society, where men might treat each other as ends rather than means.
Such an essentialist vision of the proletariat and its historical mission contradicted the chief import of Merleau-Ponty's phenomennology of perception, with its emphasis on the contingency and open-ended nature of meaning: it also placed a burden of true consciousness upon the proletariat that his tentative recasting of the process of politicization in the final section of the Phenomenology of Perception should have warned him against.
While he eventually abandoned the essentialist concept of the proletariat, he did so not so much because he found the notion at odds with his own philosophy, as because he felt that the essentialist notion had been empirically discredited by the events of the postwar period. Such a result entailed a critique of Marxian politics as unrealistic; yet he provided few clues to what form a new political understanding might take. Merleau-Ponty's interpretation of Marxism therefore remained suspended between two fundamentally dif-
ferent ways of portraying society, history, and the possibilities for rational action they afforded. On one level, his oven Marxism can be identified with his fluctuating estimation of the proletariat and its ability to fulfill its rational humanistic mission; what, in Humanism and Terror , he had provisionally affirmed—the possibility of an authentically proletarian politics according to the essentialist model—he would eventually come to disavow in Adventures of the Dialectic .
But on another level, his early Marxism should be seen as promising a radical theory revised on the basis of his phenomenology of perception. This promise found its issue, not in Merleau-Ponty's overt Marxism , but rather in his mature discussions of language and the being of social institutions.
Where the "Hegelian" Merleau-Ponty portrayed the proletariat as the potential vessel of an Absolute human meaning, the "phenomenological" Merleau-Ponty described the proletariat as an inchoate yet coherent conjunction of individuals, each helping, however tacitly, to sustain a shared sense of community and purpose, the significance of which always remained open to new interpretations. The "Hegelian" Merleau-Ponty posited a rational end of history as a condition of moral coherence. The "phenomenological" Merleau-Ponty by contrast localized the ultimate rationale of history in individual action.
These particular agents of history were rarely creatures of explicit judgment, but they were rarely unreflective prisoners of fate either. What the Hegelian presumed, albeit with doubts—a conceivably univocal coherence governing all of human history—the phenomenologist undermined by anchoring history and meaning in the ineluctable amphibolies of human existence—equivocations and ambiguities perpetually clarified, but never surmounted.
From Perception to History
By tacitly according a paradigmatic status to his theory of perception, Merleau-Ponty minimized the distance between perception and history. In both areas, similar issues arose, such as the relation of consciousness to the objective world; such similarities enabled him to draw analogies between problems of historical understanding and the structure of human perception in general.
History, like perception, suggested a logic in contingency, a reason in unreason; historical forces, like perceptual figures, only came actively into focus through a human endeavor that, by actualizing them, defined them. Like perception, history could never be construed accurately as a mechanical play of mute factors, whether economic or geographic. History, as surely as perceptual objects, existed only in relation to the individuals that assumed it, with a more or less clear consciousness. More than a struggle of powers, history represented a play of meanings: both history and perception were irreducibly significant activities which established a meaningful world.
Merleau-Ponty depicted history as a field of transindividual meanings, a symbolic system—a vast repository of frequently contradictory significations. These generalized meanings, which comprised traditions of discourse, defined our situation as human beings; although we conferred significance upon a personal history, our historical environment itself embodied a significance of its own. represented in customs, habits, and explicit moral prescriptions. The interplay of particular and general meanings marked the individual's engagement in a social world. Where Sartre had remarked that man was condemned to freedom, Merleau-Ponty argued that man was condemned to meaning.
His emphasis on history as a symbolic system naturally aligned him with the antireductionist trend in Marxism . Repudiating a reduction of cultural to economic phenomena, or a reduction of history to a conflict of class interests, he found the essence of Marxism in its treatment of economic and cultural history as two indivisible moments of a single process. Similarly, labor, the central concept of Marxism , had to be viewed not merely as the production of riches, but also as "the activity by which man projects a human environment around himself and goes beyond the natural data of his life." The real subject of history was not man considered simply as a factor in production, but the whole man, man engaged in symbolic activities as well as manual labor, "man as creativity . . . trying to endow his life with form." Merleau-Ponty encountered such subjects during World War II in the French Resistance, which "offered the rare phenomenon of an historical action which remained personal." It was precisely this intersection of history with the personal that Merleau-Ponty fought to preserve within Marxism .
Like Sartre, Merleau-Ponty approached the social world from an ontological standpoint: What was the being of the social world? How did the individual participate in common tasks and relations, and how did the particular take shape through shared meanings and behavior? How did social structures inform individual behavior? Merleau-Ponty felt that the problem of the specific "existential modality" of the social world was "at one" with all other problems of transcendence: whether discussing the impingement of the natural world on perception, or the influence of the economic world on consciousness, the question remained: "How can I be open to phenomena which transcend me and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that I take them up and live them?"
Merleau-Ponty founded his original social philosophy on an interpretation of man as a "being in the world." This being was a creature of significant structures; the world man inhabited was meaningfully formed, not only by language and symbols, but also by perception and behavior. He used this image of man, in large part derived from Heidegger, to criticize rationalist accounts of consciousness as "constituting." More than a perpetually renewed constitutive act, the "me" of personhood had to be viewed as a relatively durable institution, "the field of my becoming" with a history of its own.
Although his work, larded with metaphors, remained characteristically oblique on this point—his thought is often more suggestive than substantial—he clearly hoped that his notion of the institution would surmount the difficulties surrounding the idealist concept of the constituting ego, particularly in its application to the social realm. Where the constituted objectivity of idealism, as a pure reflection of the ego's acts, rendered the existence of other transcendental egos suspect, "instituted objectivity," claimed Merleau-Ponty, arose precisely as a "hinge" between self and others, since its being qua institution resided in a mutuality of recognition.
This notion of "institution" had applications beyond the description of consciousness. In Merleau-Ponty's hands, the concept of the institution became a critical pivot for interpreting social reality. His definition of the term was broad. "Each institution is a symbolic system that the subject takes over and incorporates as a style of func-
tioning, as a global configuration, without having any need to conceive it at all. . . . One understands here by institution those events of an experience which endow it with durable dimensions, in relation to which a sequence of other experiences will have meaning, forming a comprehensible connection or history—in other words, those events which deposit a meaning in me, not by an appeal to survival and residue, but as an appeal to coherence, the requirement of a future."
Institutions, in short, provided contexts for coherent action. As meaningful structures, they prompted behavior not by external causation but rather by internal determination, by embodying norms and rules, by proffering roles. Neither thing nor ego, the institution represented a mixed milieu. While the norms of an institution afforded more or less compelling grounds for behavior, they in most cases did not necessitate behavior.
Both the Marxism of the young Marx and "Western Marxism " in 1923 lacked the means of expressing the inertia of the infrastructure. . . . In order to understand simultaneously the logic of history and its detours, its meaning and what opposes it, they had to understand its specific domain: the institution. The institution develops, not according to causal laws like those governing nature, but always in relation to what it signifies; not according to eternal ideas, but always by subsuming under its laws more or less fortuitous events and letting itself be changed by what they suggest. Torn by all these contingencies, repaired by the involuntary acts of men who are caught up in it but must live, this web can be called neither spirit nor matter, but only history. This order of "things" indicating "relations among persons," susceptible to all those weighty conditions that link it to the order of nature, yet open to all that personal life can invent, is, in modern language, the domain of symbolism. Marx's thought should have found its way out in it.
By implication at least. Merleau-Ponty here posited a sense of necessity tied to mutable norms rather than nature. While norms applied to an agent conventionally, and thus in a sense contingently, institutional norms nonetheless represented de facto compulsions, and thus embodied a certain necessity, a necessity effectuated by the continued observance of convention. If history always remained
open to transformation, if institutions could be modified, it was equally true that history carried the conventional weight of custom and habit—the inertia of institutions. It was this inertia that founded the social domain of what Marx had called "second nature."
Language assumed a paradigmatic position in Merleau-Ponty's account. In contrast to Sartre, who approached the phenomenon of sociability through the alienating gaze of other people, Merleau-Ponty portrayed language as the social institution par excellence; language comprised an open field of communication which accommodated self-expression. Equipped with its own rules and structure, language to be sure presented an institutional compulsion that the speaking subject of necessity submitted to; yet language also existed as individual speech, speech which could speak the as yet unspoken, speech that could sustain, re-create, and, in the case of poetry, overturn conventions as well as conform to them.
He drew a parallel between language and other social institutions. He even hinted that such parallels were relevant to Marxism : "The reciprocal relations between the will to express and the means of expression correspond to those between the productive forces and the forms of production." But usually he contented himself with remarking that "history is no more external to us than language." Like language, history comprised a more or less confining field of possibilities for expression, a field nevertheless open, within limits, to creative intervention.
A picture of society as a network of meaningful, rule-governed institutions emerged from Merleau-Ponty's account. The proper task of sociology and economics lay in disclosing the rules informing social and economic action and in tracing the implications and consequences of these rules.
This portrayal of society and the tasks of a social science augmented his views on human behavior. As social action, the individual's behavior proceeded in reference to institutionalized rules, norms, and principles; such rules supplied reasons for, and warranted interpretations of, behavior. But the institutional grounds of social action could not be treated mechanistically as natural causes of action: the individual's assumption (whether coerced or voluntary) of an institutional framework alone endowed institutional norms with any force in a person's life. Although such social inquiries as sociology and economics might have as their object rule-gov-
erned social action, they did not face an object distinguishable by inherent regularities. The regularities of social action were instead bound to time and place: institutional phenomena were never necessary in the sense of Newtonian physics or analytic logic.
At the same time, Merleau-Ponty used his concept of the institution to argue against the idealist view of consciousness as purifiable or somehow extractable from its contingent relationships. If existence could be described as a "permanent act" by which a person assumed empirical conditions for his own ends, then an individual's thoughts and actions always remained implicated in circumstances, both institutional and natural.
Merleau-Ponty called this perpetual involvement in a world the individual's "situation." A field of contact between agent and objects, a person's situation was articulated via a constant interchange of motives and decisions. "Motives," as Merleau-Ponty defined the term, denoted "the situation as fact," circumstances as they constrained and shaped action; "decision," on the other hand, denoted "the situation as undertaken," circumstances as mastered and transformed by action. As situated, the individual's free acts arose within the context of a unitary world. Neither a juxtaposed assortment of things, nor the intrusion of materiality on an ineffable spirit, a person's situation had to be interpreted as a coherent whole, encompassing social institutions and a personal history as well as nature.
Such a view approximated Marx's 1844 description of man as a sentient, suffering being, "a being," as Merleau-Ponty reinterpreted Marx, "with a natural and social situation, but one who is also open, active and able to establish his autonomy on the very ground of his dependence." The concepts of situation, motive, and decision thus complemented Merleau-Ponty's social philosophy of the institution: through such notions, he attempted to comprehend the individual's open-ended dependency, the hallmark of man's finitude, and the meaning of being in a world.
On Becoming a Proletarian
Merleau-Ponty's most provocative application of his phenomenology of social institutions occurred not in any of his avowedly political
texts but rather in the final pages of the Phenomenology of Perception . Here he hinted at what shape a phenomenologically revised neo-Marxian theory might assume. His account centered on a nondeterministic, nonessentialist understanding of social class—an understanding implicitly at variance with the neo-Hegelian notion of class Merleau-Ponty himself would deploy, almost contemporaneously, in Humanism and Terror .
In the Phenomenology , he argued that "one phenomenon releases another, not by means of some objective efficient cause, like those which link together natural events, but by the meaning which it holds out." The proper avenue for approaching human behavior was therefore meaningful interpretation rather than causal explanation. But "in order to understand an action, its horizon must be restored—not merely the perspective of the actor, but the 'objective' context." While he consistently denied any purely economic causality, Merleau-Ponty also denied that economic factors were irrelevant to interpreting historical acts. Economics simply did not comprise some independent realm of activity, carried on apart from a wider historical context of human existence. Indeed, precisely because economic acts opened onto a broader social horizon, and the individual, as existing in a social world, was already engaged in this realm, economic institutions helped articulate the subject's situation as surely as political, cultural, and personal institutions. "An existential conception of history does not deprive economic situations of their power of motivation ."
The Phenomenology of Perception elaborated the implications of "the existential modality of the social" for interpreting social relations. "What makes me a proletarian is not the economic system or society considered as systems of impersonal forces, but these institutions as I carry them within me and experience them; nor is it an intellectual operation devoid of motive, but my way of being in the world within this institutional framework." Where classical Marxism had spoken of objective interests, Merleau-Ponty talked of a shared situation. An individual's social situation was not constituted through a series of more or less explicit choices; nor was it thrust upon the individual as an inexorable fate. Rather, from the outset, subjects coexisted within a social setting, a coexistence traced out in cooperative tasks and familiar gestures as well as in shared concerns. The individual's existence "as a proletarian" was in the first instance
lived through as a common style and content of existence, not necessarily an explicit convergence of interests. Although the individual's existence was informed by tacit social projects, for the most part his social environment remained preconscious and unreflected.
Yet on the day an individual declared himself "a worker," this decision did not appear fortuitous, a radical upsurge of pure volition; on the contrary, "It is prepared by some molecular process, it matures in co-existence before bursting forth into words and being related to objective ends." An individual's social situation formed an ineluctable element in his meaningful comportment toward a world long before he explicitly assumed that situation. His free decision could affirm or repudiate his proletarian situation, but it could never annul it: the subject could never instantaneously become other. Similarly, to be a worker or a bourgeois was not only to be aware of being one or the other; more crucially, "it was to identify oneself as worker or bourgeois through an implicit or existential project which merges into our way of patterning the world and coexisting with other people." The privileged status of revolutionary situations resided in their ability to compel men to articulate decisions that would otherwise remain unspoken. "A revolutionary situation, or one of national danger, transforms those preconscious relationships with class and nation, hitherto merely lived through, into the definite taking of a stand; the tacit commitment becomes explicit."
The proletariat here appeared as a social collectivity bonded together through shared aspirations and fears as much as a common relation to the means of producing economic wealth. A commonality of existential situation characterized individuals from the same class; as a consequence, a social class appeared generally as a quasiconscious, amorphous yet hardly arbitrary conjunction of subjects. Their common hopes, fears, desires, and interests only became fully realized when shared situations were articulated by an explicitly sociopolitical awareness and action.
On this account, an individual who called himself a proletarian might take up a humanistic meaning of history as his own goal; still there were no factors compelling him to embrace such a universal meaning. The proletariat as a class lacked any necessary reason for embodying the essentialist claims made on its behalf by the Marx of 1843, the Lukács of 1923, and the Merleau-Ponty of 1947. Subjects
and their history did not come packaged with an inherent rationalist interest, nor did they reflexively accede to a determinism of objective events. Stripped of such supports, social theory could merely invite each individual to make historical reason triumph over barbaric contingency. In this endeavor there could be no empirical certainties, just as there could be no metaphysical charter. The vision of the rational end of history in a communist society where each individual respected every other became one perspective among several. Its plausibility was directly linked with the prospects for its realization.
Terrorism and the Logic of History
However pregnant Merleau-Ponty's social philosophy might seem, the fact remains that his Marxism by and large elaborated different concerns. To grasp the difficulties in his position, we must return to the immediate postwar period, when he was struggling to develop an independent perspective as the political editor of Les Temps modernes , a journal he had helped found with Sartre. Although his postwar essays on politics acclaimed Marxism —at least the Marxism of Marx—as the core social philosophy of the twentieth century, Merleau-Ponty maintained a studied distance from the French Communist Party. The philosophical dilemmas in his Marxism first became clear in 1947, with the publication of Humanism and Terror . In this muddled little tract, he mixed elements of his phenomenology with a portrait of the proletariat as the vessel for a truth of history—a truth which, once established, might give us an absolute yardstick for judging historical acts.
As its title indicates, Humanism and Terror addressed itself to the problem of political violence; by what standards could violence and terrorism be judged? From the outset, Merleau-Ponty rejected any neo-Kantian moral philosophy that would evaluate acts on the basis of intentions rather than consequences. Moreover, he felt strongly that any absolute condemnation of violence was unrealistic; violence has ruled all societies to date, and violence in some circumstances might even form a necessary precondition of justice. The question was therefore not the condemnation or approval of violence, but rather a discrimination between "progressive" and "regressive" vio-
lence. According to Merleau-Ponty, progressive violence tended to cancel itself out, by aiming at a more humane social order, while the regressive type sustained an exploitative regime in power. Throughout the book, he called revolutionary and "Marxist" violence progressive, because it putatively had a "future of humanism."
The argument of Humanism and Terror concerned the Moscow Trials and Arthur Koestler's fictional account of them in Darkness at Noon . But the more general problematic of the book involved the evaluation of historical acts as just or unjust, progressive or regressive. Merleau-Ponty's position on these matters proved paradoxical, and was fraught with problems.
Basically, he argued that although the meaning of history necessarily remains ambiguous to its immediate participants, we must nevertheless judge acts on the presumption of a rational historical end, namely, communism. He derived this position by a kind of backward deduction. Accepting the view that any historical act can be meaningful only if history in the large exhibits a coherent meaning, Merleau-Ponty suggested that the justice or injustice of a political act had to be measured against its world-historical consequences, rather than in terms of a subjectively universal ethic or natural law. He further asserted that Marxism comprised the only valid philosophy of history for the twentieth century. The notion of communism as the coherent end of human prehistory, filtered through Husserl's concept of a rationally regulative historical telos , was thus erected as the ultimate standard for judging historical acts. This variant of Marxism "deciphers events, discovers in them a common meaning and thereby grasps a leading thread which, without dispensing us from fresh analysis at every stage, allows us to orient ourselves toward events. . . . It seeks . . . to offer men a perception of history which would continuously clarify the lines of force and vectors of the present."
But a Marxism clear as to the basic drift of history would hardly imply a philosophy of ambiguity. Here Merleau-Ponty's philosophical arguments in the Phenomenology of Perception came into play. As he succinctly put it in Humanism and Terror , "There is no science of the future." The meaning of history deciphered by Marxism remained provisional and uncertain. No univocal meaning could be guaranteed history, because (as the Phenomenology had already argued at some length) determinism in any predictive sense
was incompatible with the essence of human existence, the eventual object of history. Merleau-Ponty therefore affirmed that chaos remained as likely an historical outcome as humane relations among men (i. e., communism), and it was this doubt about the eventual outcome of history that rendered its contemporary meaning ambiguous. Marxism , stripped of a rationalist theology or deterministic support, became Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of ambiguity.
Another problem now arose. If no historical act could be definitively judged unless history evinced a coherent meaning, then the ambiguity of history might plausibly be taken as a signal that historical acts could not in fact be meaningfully judged, at least in any irrevocable sense.
But Merleau-Ponty argued nothing of the son. Instead, he contended that a modified Marxism supplied a more adequate provisional meaning of history than any other available standpoint. Because Marxism embraced the only "universal and human politics," its truth had to be avowed, even though this truth could not be proven. In this fashion, Merleau-Ponty provisionally justified revolutionary violence, since such violence aimed at creating a humanistic society where each man would recognize every other as a peer: a progressive end of history provided a rational standpoint for judging existent societies and historical acts.
The application to the Moscow Trials of this rather complicated train of argument resulted in a convoluted defense of terrorism, and specifically of the trials. Unfortunately, Merleau-Ponty's treatment of the trials as a paradigm of revolutionary violence relied on several problematic empirical premises: that Bukharin and his cohorts in fact formed a political opposition, intentionally or unintentionally, to the policies of the Soviet Union; that this "opposition" represented a genuine threat to the survival of the Soviet Union; and finally that the Soviet Union sustained the hope of socialism. This chain of contentions allowed Merleau-Ponty to argue that Bukharin's continuing political independence could reasonably be construed a threat to socialism, the progressive end of history.
He would eventually change his mind about several of these points, but they remained the backbone of his empirical argument in Humanism and Terror . Much confusion surrounded his cavalier attitude toward questions of fact. He at one point defended himself by pleading that "we have not examined whether in fact Bukharin
led an organizational opposition nor whether the execution of the old Bolsheviks was really indispensable to the order and the national defense of the U.S.S.R."—as if such empirical considerations were too mundane for his philosophical investigation.
Throughout his discussion of the trials, Merleau-Ponty remained committed to his own interpretation of Marxism . He defended progressive violence, not because it was objectively necessary or somehow inescapable, but rather because the eventual meaning history assumed might in the long run show that such violence helped build a better society. He asserted that only his brand of Marxism , devoted to understanding "concrete subjectivity and concrete action" within an historical situation, could comprehend the real significance of the Moscow Trials:
Revolutionaries dominate the present the same way historians dominate the past. That is certainly the case with the Moscow Trials: the prosecutor and the accused speak in the name of universal history, as yet unfinished, because they believe they can reach it through the Marxist absolute of action which is indivisibly objective and subjective. The Moscow Trials only make sense between revolutionaries, that is to say between men who are convinced that they are making history and who consequently already see the present as past and see those who hesitate as traitors.
Yet his argument, for all its involution, remained equivocal and inconsistent. Although he depicted a logic of history-in-process, he simultaneously defended, albeit with qualifications, the totalitarian arbitration of the Communist Party, and the desirability of a univocal interpretation of history. His discussion of the Moscow Trials only muddied the argument further. By the end, Merleau-Ponty had posed the question, not of the justice or necessity of the trials, but instead the more dubious question of whether their victims could be construed as dying for a revolution that might potentially realize a new humanity. In a backhanded way, he was in effect asserting that a liquidation of putative opposition elements (which he bizarrely styled a country's "unhappy consciousness") could be justified by a progressive future outcome of history. It was a position that Merleau-Ponty, as an intellectual "way above the crowd," could afford to take; yet it was a position that could hardly afford much solace for anyone actively trying to institute communism with-
out abandoning elementary standards of justice and proof—standards defensible in the here and now, without any reference to a possible moral utopia.
As he became disillusioned with Marxism and communist politics, Merleau-Ponty came to abandon or revise many of the philosophical and empirical propositions he had defended in 1947. Despite his sympathetic interpretation of the Moscow Trials, the French Communist Party did not roll out the welcome mat. Not only did he still offer a heretical version of Marxism in their eyes, he also raised critical reservations about the fate of contemporary communism. His doubts centered on the role of the proletariat—and these doubts would only deepen, not dissolve.
Adventures of the Proletariat
Merleau-Ponty's declining estimation of Marxism as a philosophy paralleled his declining estimation of Marxism as a movement. He came to question the proletariat's potential as an empirical force dedicated to radical social change. Yet the proletariat was the linchpin of his Marxism . It was the proletariat that unified subject and object, theory and practice, the ideal and real; it was the proletariat that embodied a universal meaning of history in potentia .
What seemed surprising, given Merleau-Ponty's characteristic skepticism toward idealist claims, was his continuing maintenance, with few philosophical qualms, of such an essentialist view of the proletariat, modeled on elements extracted from Lukács, Hegel, and Marx. Indeed, he came to doubt whether the empirical proletariat would ever uphold the lofty claims made in its name, as the presumptive bearer of humanity's rational future. In the period between his two major treatments of Marxist political problems, Humanism and Terror in 1947 and Adventure of the Dialectic in 1955, Merleau-Ponty revised his estimate of the empirical proletariat; ultimately, he felt that events had refuted the essentialist view.
Adventures of the Dialectic chronicled this disenchantment. Where in 1947 he had advocated a kind of critical adhesion to the Communist Party, in 1955 he denounced the obsolescence of Communist practice. The apparent cause for this newfound skepticism
While Humanism and Terror had insisted that only some form of Marxism could properly comprehend revolutionary action, Merleau-Ponty now stated that materialist philosophy was incapable of analyzing the Soviet Union without reference to "occult qualities." By tracing the decline of Marxian philosophical thought during the twentieth century, from its highwater mark in 1923 (in Lukács's History and Class Consciousness ) to its degeneration in Sartre's hands (in The Communists and Peace ), Adventures of the Dialectic attempted to confront squarely some of the difficulties facing Marx ism.
Although he had always denied Marxism the crutch of empirical determinism or rationalist necessity, in the immediate postwar period he had still believed that the proletariat might possibly fill the lofty role assigned it by the theory. By 1955, this hope had been replaced by distrust. It was not only the absence of militance among contemporary workers that bothered him; it was also the seemingly unavoidable degeneration of revolutionary fervor into bureaucratic torpor.
Merleau-Ponty felt that classical Marxism had rested on the "ferment of negation" being "materially" incarnated in an actual historical force. According to him, Marxism could only maintain its ultimate verity on this real historical basis, the proletariat conceived as Selbstaufhebung , a self-transcending being and the agent of universal history through meaningful negation. But he now argued that the party and proletariat necessarily navigated within the plenitude of a positive world; the proletariat could therefore never exist as pure philosophical negativity, but only as one positive institution among others. This circumstance in turn encouraged a set of fateful identifications: "The proletariat is the revolution, the Party is the proletariat, the heads are the Party . . . as being is being." Even if a militant proletariat did exist, the chances for success at the task of negative transcendence toward a better society seemed dim: its negativity would surely be corrupted by bureaucratic institutionalization.
Merleau-Ponty thus came to hold that negativity only descended into history at privileged moments: for the most part, even revolu-
tionary policies were represented by mere functionaries, who could not help but corrupt the aims of the movement. What had once appeared to him as a process that might create humane relations among men now seemed more a vicious cycle of unsuccessful attempts to seize institutional power. While allowing that revolutions might remain true as movements, he now entertained no doubts that they were "false as regimes."
It was a melancholy conclusion. From start to finish, Adventures of the Dialectic represented the work of a disappointed man—perhaps because Merleau-Ponty could never quite escape his nostalgia for the Hegelio-Marxist Absolute. As he wrote at the outset of Adventures in regard to Max Weber, "Demystification is also depoetization and disenchantment. We must keep the capitalistic refusal of the sacred as external, but renew within it the demands of the absolute that it has abolished. We have no grounds for affirming that this recovery will be made."
Merleau-Ponty nevertheless continued to identify with what he called the Stimmung or mood of Marxism , its conviction of being on the threshhold of Absolute Truth. Yet he recognized that such a Marxian philosophy of history, which would grant history an ultimate tendency and coherent meaning, could no longer be realistically reconciled with empirical events. "There is less a sense of history than an elimination of nonsense." In reaction, he moved away from Hegel, toward Machiavelli, the spokesman for politics as the creative mastery of fate. If history had no univocal sense or direction, then politics should be judged, not by some chimerical reference to ultimate historical meaning, but rather by the manifold immanent meanings traced by the political actors themselves.
The tendency of Merleau-Ponty's argument obviously cast doubt on the substance of Marx's original enterprise. But he nonetheless upheld a chastened dialectic at the end of its "adventures." "Is the conclusion of these adventures then that the dialectic was a myth? But the illusion was only to precipitate in an historical fact—the birth and growth of the proletariat—the total signification of history, to think that history itself organized its own recovery, that proletarian power would be its own supression, negation of the negation. . . . What then is obsolete is not the dialectic, but the pretension of terminating it in an end of history or in a permanent revolution. . . . "
The rejection of determinism as a tool of the human sciences lay at the heart of all of Merleau-Ponty's social thought, be it Marxian or phenomenological. In discussing culture, causal thinking remained insufficient, for it could never on principle account for creative meaning. Similarly, politics could not be construed as a chapter in some preordained history any more than it could be regarded as an exercise in pure morality; instead, Merleau-Ponty found in politics "an action which invents itself." A philosophically coherent Marxism would have to admit the absence of determinism and the importance of creative meaning, as well as the centrality of subjective factors—even though such a reformed Marxism might become a philosophy that "Marx undoubtedly would not have wished to recognize as his own."
During the immediate postwar period, Merleau-Ponty had attempted to accommodate Marxism to his own thought, in the process producing several rather disingenuous restatements of the deterministic prejudices of orthodox Marxism . "For Marxism . . . the historical determination of effects by causes passes through human consciousness, with the result that men make their own history, although their doing so is neither disinterested nor lacking in motives. . . . Since human decision is motivated by the course of events, it will therefore seem—at least in retrospect—to be called forth by these events, so that no rupture or hiatus between effects and causes will ever be discernible in completed history." Such a line of reasoning obviously blunted the cutting edge of his critique of determinism in the social sciences.
By 1955, he was taking a different tack. In Adventures of the Dialectic , he detected a fatal equivocation in Marx's own theory between determinism and a genuine dialectic steering clear of abstract alternatives such as idealism and materialism. Marx's concept of society as "second nature" most strikingly crystallized this equivocation by analogically justifying the treatment of social relations as natural data. Merleau-Ponty felt the practical consequences of such an objectivistic understanding could only prove onerous. If society was literally a second nature, men would be justified in governing it as they governed first nature: through technical domination. Technical action would replace meaningful comprehension; in Marxist
practice, the professional revolutionary would displace the self-conscious proletariat, and guiding historical development would become the prerogative of a party elite. The "milieu of the revolution" would less and less be "relations between men, and more and more 'things' with their immanent necessity." Orthodox Marxism had already taken this turn.
It would be a mistake to pretend that Marx himself could emerge unscathed from an historical development clearly implicating his own theory. Merleau-Ponty therefore criticized Marx (somewhat inaccurately) for positing a dialectic of history executed behind humanity's back. This formulation illicitly attributed dialectic to things—relations of production, means of production—rather than men.
If the revolution is in things, how could one hesitate to brush aside by any means resistances which are only apparent? If the revolutionary function of the proletariat is engraved in the infrastructure of capital, the political action which expresses it is justified just as the Inquisition was justified by Providence. In presenting itself as the reflex of that-which-is, the historical process in itself, scientific socialism . . . grants itself the basis of an absolute knowledge at the same time as it authorizes itself to extract from history by violence a meaning which resides there, yet profoundly hidden. The melange of objectivism and extreme subjectivism, the one constantly sustaining the other, which defines Bolshevism already exists in Marx when he admits that the revolution is present before being recognized.
Such an indictment called into question the very point of remaining a Marxist, of whatever persuasion. "There is not a great deal of sense in making a fresh start from Marx if his philosophy is implicated in this failure, as if this philosophy remained intact throughout the affair, by right bounding the interrogation and self-criticism of humanity."
Nonetheless, Merleau-Ponty himself, in his description of "becoming a proletarian" in the Phenomenology of Perception , had hinted at the viability of a modest Marxism , freed from a deterministic dialectic of history. The elimination from Marxism of guarantees, whether factual or metaphysical, left the ultimate significance of history open. Such a Marxism could not claim before the fact to embody the essential meaning of history. Its prognostications would instead assume the status of negative propositions: "The world
economy cannot be organized and its internal contradictions cannot be overcome . . . as long as socialistic ownership of the instruments of production is not everywhere established . . . Marxism would remain a politics which is as justified as any other. It would even be the only universal and human politics. But it would not be able to take advantage of a pre-established harmony with the course of events."
Philosophically, historical materialism would then become one heuristic scheme among others—the most potentially fruitful perhaps, but one that still had perpetually to prove its utility in actual contact with events. Far from reducing history to one of its sectors, which would determine in advance the path to be followed, a chastened historical materialism would merely claim that "there is a close connection between the person and his external world, between the subject and the object which determines the alienation of the subject in the object, and, if the movement can be reversed, will determine the reintegration of the world with man."
A modest Marxism , suggested Merleau-Ponty, held out the hope, although it could not guarantee it, that truth, reason, and logic would prevail in the course of history. But if contemporary conditions contained scant (if any) indicators that actually pointed in this rational direction, if the proletariat seemed unable to fulfill the mission prescribed for it by the Marxian theory—then Marxism was reduced to a gamble, a vow, a wager. Such a philosophy of history could no longer assume a rationality immanent in history. Instead, history became an "adventure" in which reason could hardly be counted an inevitable component.
Unfortunately, such a modest version did not accord with Marx's own Marxism : Marx had preserved the premise of immanent historical rationality precisely in his expectations for the proletariat; and orthodox Marxism had transformed this optimistic prognosis of the meaning of history into an absolute political criterion, now interpreted purely objectively. What the later Marx wanted from Hegel was "no longer dialectical inspiration but a rationalism to be used for the benefit of 'matter,' i.e., 'relations of production,' considered as an external self-given order and a totally positive force. . . . It becomes a question of annexing Hegel's logic to economics. . . . Action that will change the world is no longer undivided philosophical and technical praxis , an infrastructural movement and at
the same time an appeal to a total critique of the subject, but rather a purely technical action comparable to that of the engineer who constructs a bridge." In his last political writings, Merleau-Ponty thus referred to Marxism as just another name for a "rationalistic politics." A Marxism stripped of rationalist as well as deterministic guarantees could not, he came to feel, justify the designation " Marxism " any longer.
While it might retain a relative heuristic value, Marxism could not therefore be considered true—"certainly no longer true in the sense it was believed to be true." The options in Merleau-Ponty's eyes were simple. One either remained a dogmatic Marxist, owing allegiance to Communism as a movement, or one opted for a powerless, skeptical radicalism, without immediate political efficacy, but also without intellectual compromises. "It is clear that a revolutionary politics cannot be maintained without its pivot, that is, proletarian power. If there is no 'universal class' and exercise of power by that class, the revolutionary spirit becomes pure morality or moral radicalism again. Revolutionary politics was a doing, a realism, the birth of a force. The non-Communist left often retains only its negations. This phenomenon is a chapter in the great decline of the revolutionary idea. . . . Its principal hypothesis, that of a revolutionary class, is not confirmed by the actual course of events."
At its inception, Merleau-Ponty's adherence to Marxism had depended on an essentialist view of history and the proletariat: the latter provisionally incarnated the teleological meaning of history. He came to criticize Marxism harshly because he felt that history could no longer sustain such a conception. Despite his attempts to formulate a Marxism without guarantees, his idiosyncratic fusion of Lukács's 1923 view of class and Husserl's later notion of the telos of history thus ultimately fueled a despair at ever realizing a rational historical philosophy. Disheartened and politically exhausted, Merleau-Ponty failed to entertain the possibility that the proletariat—and history—had been misunderstood in the essentialist conception from the outset.
Out of this impasse nonetheless emerged a call for a new left. Beyond disillusioned revolt, he proposed a revival of Machiavellian virtù , a "real spiritual strength" that might forge "a way between the will to please and defiance, between self-satisfied goodness and cruelty," in the name of "an historical undertaking all may adhere
to." The judgment of historical action could no longer classify "men and societies according to their approximation to the canon of the classless society," for although such a canon is "what our social criticism demands, there is no force in history which is destined to produce it."
Merleau-Ponty now viewed history as a far more tentative venture, "not so much a movement toward an homogeneous or a classless society as the quest, through always atypical cultural devices, for a life which is not unliveable for the greatest number." Such a course would hardly satisfy whoever still believed in secular salvation; still "unremitting virtù" might conquer whatever prospects for a better world remained open. "History never confesses, not even her lost illusions, but neither does she dream of them again."
In its evasions as well as its accomplishments, Merleau-Ponty's Marxism remains instructive. To take the negative side first, the tortured logic of Humanism and Terror reveals the illogic of any philosophy of history founded on criteria gleaned from an harmonious end of history, an end somehow deciphered before the event. Truth might well be on the horizon, but if we have not yet encountered it, how can it shed light on the mundane world of the here and now? The kind of absolute criteria such truth yields, seems, upon reflection, to invite the application of arbitrary criteria. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty's commitment to a supratemporal Absolute—the classless society of communism—vitiated this critique of Soviet Communism and compromised his handling of the Moscow Trials. Because he strained to interpret Stalin's policies as harboring the seeds of a rational future, he neglected to scrutinize sufficiently the Soviet theory and practice of socialism; similarly, because he averred that Marxism was correct in its belief that truth—the classless society of communism—will win out, he proved eager, in effect, to justify the Stalinist state on the grounds that it pointed the way toward this truth.
Fortunately, Merleau-Ponty's social thought does not begin and end with Humanism and Terror . In fact, his philosophy of the human subject implicitly contradicted his vision of an Absolute end
of history. For the human subject depicted in the Phenomenology of Perception always maintained an openness toward the world, always elaborated a range of meanings, drawing freely from a fund of available significations. It is one of Merleau-Ponty's great merits to have elaborated this vision of subjectivity; in so doing, he left to his readers a legacy that can even be fruitfully applied to the critique of his essentialist philosophy of history in Humanism and Terror .
For Merleau-Ponty, who departed from the Cartesian (and Husserlian) tradition on this point,
The "subject" is no longer just the epistemological subject, but also the human subject, who, by means of a continual dialectic, thinks in terms of its situation, forms its categories in contact with its experience, and modifies this situation and this experience by the meaning it discovers in them. In particular, this subject is no longer alone, is no longer consciousness in general or pure being for itself. It is in the midst of other consciousnesses which likewise have a situation; it is for others, and because of this, it undergoes an objectification and becomes generic subject. For the first time since Hegel, militant philosophy is reflecting not on subjectivity, but on intersubjectivity .
This image of (inter)subjectivity represented an historical result. For Merleau-Ponty as for Marx, "The history which produced capitalism symbolizes the emergence of subjectivity."
Consciousness, while in no way the constitutive support of the social world, did on this view become an ineliminable vessel of meaning; in this capacity, its importance for any social theory could scarcely be belittled. Similarly, as Merleau-Ponty's sketch of belonging to a social class in his Phenomenology suggested, the human subject, in its passions as well as conscious disposition, comprised a critical element in any radical strategy. His social philosophy implied a practical focus on the individual and his everyday concerns as the ultimate existential basis for any authentically emancipatory movement. Otherwise, the individual might find himself sacrificed to party directives, the victim of an ostensibly objective meaning of history escaping his grasp.
Thus Merleau-Ponty, despite his advocacy of an essentialist notion of the proletariat in Humanism and Terror , held out the hope, in his philosphy of the human subject, of a new form of radi-
cal theory founded on an existential notion of class. According to the existential conception, a class was viewed as an institution comprised of concrete subjects who were only contingently related to the claims of a reasonable history, through the ongoing practical accomplishments of individuals within the class committed to social change. Here he provided a basis for restoring to radical theory a dimension it had been in danger of losing, even in his own Marxism —the dimension of real individuals as the premise of theory and practice, a dimension Marx himself had constantly reiterated.
On this point, Merleau-Ponty's intentions rejoined those of Marx. Nevertheless, the image of subjectivity he proposed differed significantly from that offered by Marx. Although both considered subjectivity as intersubjectivity; although both grasped subjectivity as objective and, through action, objectifying; although both spoke of the individual's dependency in regard to social situations—despite all such similarities, Merleau-Ponty broke sharply with Marx's necessitarian formulations, his focus on interest and labor as paradigms of human action, and his optimistic hopes for a rational outcome of history.
Marx himself, thanks to his tacit expectations of the rationality and purposiveness of human action, both individual and collective, was able to merge that concrete conjunction of individuals called the proletariat with the image of a social force aiming rationally at the coherent outcome of history, the classless society of communism. In contrast, Merleau-Ponty, by consistently depriving Marxism of any guarantees, either rationalistic or deterministic, illuminated this relation between the concrete and rational, empirical and universal, "is" and "ought" as profoundly problematic. It seemed questionable whether the real subjects of history could ever embody the universal negativity—the proletariat in and for itself—required by the Marxist theory.
When he pursued this line of thought, Merleau-Ponty suggested that the locus of political change had to become the individual, not conceived merely abstractly, as a potential participant in a universal history, but also concretely, as a person haunted by habitual concerns, inarticulate needs, and fears as well as hopes. The cultivation of these fallible subjects, 'involved [entrainées] but not manipulated," alone could bring to radical politics "the mark of truth." If the vaunted dialectic of Marxism was to retain any liberating signifi-
cance, it could only be through such contact with real individuals, only through the attempt, perpetually renewed, to elucidate a significance of history which enabled each individual to care enough about his common world to want to risk changing it with others: only on this condition could dialectic clarify historical processes. Otherwise, dialectic became an empty formal husk, invoked but unsubstantiated, an absolute without a human anchor.
Merleau-Ponty also fruitfully differed from Marx in his depiction of society as an order of symbolic structures, and his understanding of institutional rules as normative rather than causal. Within institutions, tradition and explicit norms prescribe a form of life: that is, a coherent nexus of meaningful behaviors, intentional acts, and tacit gestures. While the individual may assume a previously "legislated" network of norms, the prescriptive power of such instituionalized norms depends on a community of individuals "fulfilling" the prescribed intentions in practice. Without this ongoing fulfillment, a normative order has no foundation beyond force and mere coercion. Consent through communication and action sustains institutions in existence: social conventions, unlike natural objects, must maintain their objective meaning on no grounds but those human beings supply. But since such grounds are institutionally codified in rules governing behavior and belief, and since such codes are used by human beings to articulate their intentions without any one of them necessarily comprehending what is entailed by entering into a specific institutional practice and communicating in terms of its code, the individual can never be considered absolutely free: for the intelligible articulation of his intentions rests on his previous initiation into institutions and their practices, beginning with that most conservative of institutions, language.
Despite the restricted application of their special methods, disciplines in search of general rules, such as linguistics and economics, have provided an increasingly rigorous access to such institutional rules. The most authoritative of these disciplines investigate generally stable social relations and institutions, such as language, economic exchange, and kinship systems; they seek to uncover, through procedures open to critical inspection, the rule-governed context of individual behavior, even beyond the explicit intentions of individuals. Institutional rules may form, even where they do not consciously inform, the meaningful behavior of social agents; such rules
articulate that nebulous region Marx called "second nature," the unreflective arena of habit, custom, convention, and style.
To stress that the social studies uncover prescriptive rules rather than framing natural laws hardly corrects a long-standing misunderstanding; it does, however, suggest that previous inquiries have sometimes mistaken prescriptive force for natural fact. The substitution of "rules" for the notion of "laws" helps to underline the open-ended and malleable applicability of most rules, which are tied to context and concrete instance. For this reason, the knowledge of rules, while it may supply foresight, does not confer the power to predict.
The very meaning of "following a rule" remains in dispute among contemporary philosophers. And yet to point up this ambiguity, to argue the context-bound nature of meaning, only amplifies the primary point: such ambiguity and context-bound applicability, the open-endedness of meanings-in-use—such is the practical significance of being governed by a rule. As Merleau-Ponty remarked, institutions at best motivate or warrant, rather than simply "cause," behavior. By supplying tacit grounds where they do not explicitly prescribe behavior, rules map out the style of an institution: yet institutional styles, like social relations, collapse, develop, alter. Meanings-in-use, by their mere being-in-usage, remain open to the novel.
Here was a compelling, albeit fragmentary, interpretation that illuminated the metaphorical notion of society as a "second nature," an interpretation that might conceivably clarify and overcome the dilemmas in Marx's original understanding of social and historical laws. Merleau-Ponty thus anticipated the terms for a new debate over the methods of social inquiry.
These terms supported a vision of man as creatively engaged in shaping a history, and yet enmeshed in conventional constraints. It was a vision that afforded the prospect of a social theory beyond the antinomies of the Marxian tradition, although Merleau-Ponty himself only hinted at the shape such a theory might assume; it was a vision that offered radical thought a novel interpretation of subjectivity as an instituting self beyond either positivist determinism or rationalist necessity. The hard price paid for such insights was the abandonment of Marxism as Merleau-Ponty understood it.