Joe's Reviews > Adventures of the Dialectic

Adventures of the Dialectic by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
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M 50x66
's review
May 31, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: reviewed, political-thought, marxism, existential-marxism, dialectic


January 2005

A Dialectic without Dreams

Merleau-Ponty is generally read for his work in phenomenology, not his work on dialectics. This is both a pity and a mistake. While he certainly does deserve to be remembered as the third great phenomenologist of the past century, after Husserl & Heidegger, his being forgotten as a dialectical thinker is almost inexplicable.

I say almost inexplicable because, I fear, the reason he is ignored as a dialectical thinker is because he advocated, and superbly demonstrated, a dialectic without myths, utopia or dreams. In the great chapter (2) on Lukacs he says, "[t]he dialectic is this continued intuition, a consistent reading of actual history, the re-establishment of the tormented relations, of the interminable exchanges, between subject and object. There is only one knowledge, which is the knowledge of our world in a state of becoming, and this becoming embraces knowledge itself." He speaks of interminable exchanges, implies the permanence of tormented relations, affirms that knowledge always becomes. This is a dialectic scraped clean of the utopianism of the Marxist classless society, contemptuous of some miraculous Kojevean 'End of History', sans any vain 'Hegelian' promise of some never-never land in which Science will precisely equal Wisdom.

So then why dialectic, or, more precisely, why use the dialectical method if it offers no goal? Immediately after the sentences quoted above M-P says, "[b]ut it is knowledge that teaches us this." The dialectic, as M-P understands it, gives us, better - can give us, an understanding of history, and our present, but as to the future it promises exactly nothing. How could it promise more? If becoming, and the unknown, press on us forever, every totalization is always in danger of being threatened by some unanticipated contingency that changes this totalization into some unpredicted, and above all, unpredictable (until it occurs) Other.

By way of contrast let me now mention that for Hegel, finally, one could say that Dialectic remained a retrospective method and not a predictive science - at least until the precise end of the dialectical process. "The Owl of Minerva takes flight only at night." But, for Hegel, I think it is correct to say that when Subject and Object become One, Forever, we will be able to say that the all-knowing owl is always flying because the Absolute (Spirit) is always dark. We now perhaps better understand the content of the Hegelian characterization of (and objection to) the early position of Schelling - as a 'night in which all cows are black' - this position wasn't wrong; it was merely premature. Thus at the extreme end of Hegelian theory, one is always in danger of seeing it toppling over into the Kojevean 'End of History' position, which M-P in the epilogue characterizes as an idealization of death.

M-P holds, in this book, that this is not the position of Marx and Lukacs. "In Marx spirit becomes a thing, while things become saturated with spirit. History's course is a becoming of meanings transformed into forces or institutions. This is why there is an inertia of history in Marx and also an appeal to human invention in order to complete the dialectic. Marx cannot therefore transfer to, and lay to the account of, matter the same rationality which Hegel ascribes to spirit." Hegel is pleased to be taken to mean that Spirit is an active helpful partner of humanity in dialectic; a materialist dialectic can make no such claims of matter. What Merleau-Ponty, btw, is here denying, for those who have ears, is that there can be an end to any genuine material dialectic. ...Matter itself is permanently, in every human sense, an irrational factor. In other words, being and reason can never be one. Whatever Rationality in things we find - we find it there because we put it there. "Marxism cannot hide the Welt-geist in matter." Dialectic in which a dialectical partner is permanently non-rational becomes a science of circumstances. Thus M-P maintains that for Lukacs (and, I think, himself) that only revolutionary creativity can `guarantee' "a coherent and homogenous system."

...But no system is permanent. "A dialectical conception demands only that, between capitalism, where it exists, and its antecedents, be one of an integrated society to a less integrated one." By more integrated M-P means a more `socialized' society, societies in which, since there is more common ground, "destinies can be compared." It is ultimately here in social interaction that, for M-P, dialectical knowledge arises. But, as indicated earlier, nothing is guaranteed. "The principle of the logic of history is not that all problems posed are solved in advance, that the solution precedes the problem, or that there would be no question if the answer did not pre-exist somewhere, as if history were built on exact ideas. One should rather formulate it negatively: there is no event which does not bring further precision to the permanent problem of knowing what man and his society are..." One is here tempted to say that M-P here answers two of the questions we asked at the beginning of the review. Why resort to the method of dialectic? - It brings (or exposes a) further precision to our knowledge of the problem of man. Why no certain Telos, no end to history, no grand finale that finds Science and Wisdom in permanent embrace? - The "problem of knowing what man and his society are" is permanent.

For M-P the problems of society reside only in human history; neither spirit nor matter will save us. "The sense of history is then threatened at every step with going astray and constantly needs to be reinterpreted." "There is less a sense of history than an elimination of non-sense." Oh, and this indeed would be the 'reason' M-P, the dialectical thought of M-P, was forgotten. A dialectic, shorn of fairy tale, certainty or reward, would attract none of our scholarly saints, or even our Leninist `realists.' Over the last two centuries there have been only three reasons, often entwined, to turn to dialectic; the pursuit of Knowledge, the pursuit of utopia/revolution, or the pursuit of some always obscure inner `intuition' or joy. ...Apparently, given the way M-P is ignored by Hegelian and Marxist dialecticians, the only pursuit that was decisive was the last.

This has only been a brief commentary on a small slice, a handful of pages, of this superb book, that, I hope, will make others interested enough to read it. The discussions of Weber, Lukacs, Trotsky and Sartre are all excellent. M-P is a political philosopher who deserves to be read along with the great and important political philosophers of the 20th century: Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. Ignore any of them and increase your ignorance.

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