29 Apr 2010

The Painter's Secret Science: Summary of Section 1 of Merleau-Ponty's "Eye and Mind

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. Paragraph subheadings are my own. The PDF of the text can be found here from Timothy Quigley's course page. His own summary (far better than mine) can be found here.]

Important Points in this section:

- Science does not see that its grounds of knowledge are the scientists' lived bodies that are immersed in the world.

- Painters, however, tend to this bodily ground of our experience, and they can teach us about our immediate physical immersion in the world around us.

Points Relative to Deleuze [to be revised as we learn more. These points are mere speculations.]:

- Deleuze would seem to agree with Merleau-Ponty that painters can teach us about our direct bodily contact with the world. However, Deleuze might find this contact to be grounded in chaos, difference, and shocking disjunctions rather than in harmonious organic cooperation.

The Painter's Secret Science: Summary of Section 1 of Merleau-Ponty's "Eye and Mind"

Section 1

§1 Science Boldly Goes to What Lies in Front of It

Science confronts the world in a certain way. We might admire science's bold, ingenious and active manner of seeing the whole world as a plain object in general. By these means, it manipulates things, although it never lives among them or often come face-to-face with the world as it actually is. (159bc)

§2 Once Science Was Transcendent, Now It is Vagrant

So it seems science treats everything as objects that are immediately available to its understanding. Nonetheless, classical science held onto the idea that the world is somewhat opaque and that its own devices would allow it to return to the world as it actually is. [Because facts about the world are not immediately intuitable, we might wonder how we can be sure of the knowledge that science obtains. For this reason,] classical science then sought a transcendental ground for its investigations (159d). Things are different for the sciences of Merleau-Ponty's time. Scientists believe their activities to be autonomous and they consider their thinking as little more than a 'set of data-collecting techniques' (160a). Thinking, then, is really to test, operate, and transform what is under study. Yet their activities are heavily regulated by experimental controls. As a result, the phenomena that the activities set-up and unfold are really more creations of the experiment rather than natural events that are observed and recorded. "From this state of affairs arise all sorts of vagabond endeavors" (160a)

§3 Nightmare Machines

The sciences operate according to conceptual trends. A concept that is now in fashion will be applied in many different contexts to see what it yields. Yet, scientists will not question how the term really differs from similar predecessors.

So science benefits from its free and fluent use of concepts. Nonetheless, science still must try to understand itself.

Science cannot forget that it is built upon raw human experience of a "brute, existent world" (160bc). Science regards the world as its 'object x' of study and operation. This is the same as saying that science may have an absolute knowledge and that all things in the world are given to us as though they were ready to be analyzed in a laboratory. We can even advance this idea of regarding humans and the world as things we apply operations to. Cybernetics sees human beings as the product of information processes, as if we were like the machines we create. If we take this view which sees even humanity as machinery, then we will enter into "a sleep, or a nightmare, from which there is no awakening" (160d).

§4 The Ghost of Science is Philosophy

Science looks at the world as if from a perch above. And it sees the world below it as an object in general. But instead it must return to what is immediate to it: our lives and bodies which are doing the science, and the relations between our living bodies. In a sense, we enter each other lives, haunting them. And together we haunt a greater whole of existence, of actual Being. If science were to ground itself on this primordial ground (primordial historicity), then it would ground itself in things as they actual are, and it will ground itself in itself. In that way it would become philosophy. (161a)

§5 The Full Innocence of Art

So science neglects the brute meaning of real bodily existence. But art, and in particular painting, draw upon it. And it does so innocently, unlike writers, who take a stance. Unlike with painters, we do not allow writers "to hold the world suspended" (161b). Music has the disadvantage of being unable to depict anything concrete. It is only able to portray "certain outlines of Being - its ebb and flow, its growth, its upheavals, its turbulene" (161b).

§6 The Painter's Freedom

Unlike with other art forms, painters are allowed to view everything without also needing to appraise what they see. Painters do not need to do more than have raw immediate sensuous experiences with the world around them. Their tasks do not involve engaging with political or societal situations. Painters might live solitary lives just to hone their sensitivities. "With no other technique than what his eyes and hands discover in seeing and painting, he persists in drawing from this world, with its din of history's glories and scandals, canvases which will hardly add to the angers or the hopes of man - and no one complains" (161d).

§7 The Secret Science of Painting

Merleau-Ponty now asks, what is the "secret science" of the painter that is fundamental to his art and perhaps to all of culture as well?

Merleau-Ponty. "The Eye and Mind." Transl. Carleton Dallery. in The Primacy of Perception and other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics. Ed. James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Text of the part summarized [obtained very gratefully from Timothy Quigley's course page]:

What I am trying to convey to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the impalpable source of sensations. J. Gasquet, Cézanne

Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.1 Operating within its own realm,
it makes its constructs of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect
whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the
real world only at rare intervals. It is, and always has been, that admirably active,
ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as
though it were an object-in-general—as though it meant nothing to us and yet was
predestined for our ingenious schemes.
But classical science clung to a feeling for the opaqueness of the world, and it expected
through its constructions to get back into the world. For this reason it felt obliged to seek
a transcendent or transcendental foundation for its operations. Today we find—not in
science but in a widely prevalent philosophy of the sciences—an entirely new approach.
Constructive scientific activities see themselves and represent themselves to be
autonomous, and their thinking deliberately reduces itself to a set of data-collecting
techniques which it has invented. To think is thus to test out, to operate, to transform—the
only restriction being that this activity is regulated by an experimental control that admits
only the most "worked-up" phenomena, more likely produced by the apparatus than
recorded by it.
Whence all sorts of vagabond endeavors. Today more than ever, science is sensitive to
intellectual fads and fashions. When a model has succeeded in one order of problems, it
is tried out everywhere else. At the present time, for example, our embryology and
biology are full of "gradients." Just how these differ from what classical tradition called
"order" or "totality" is not at all clear. This question, however, is not raised; it is not even
allowed. The gradient is a net we throw out to sea, without knowing what we will haul
back in it. It is the slender twig upon which unforeseeable crystalizations will form. No
doubt this freedom of operation will serve well to overcome many a pointless dilemma—
provided only that from time to time we take stock, and ask ourselves why the apparatus
works in one place and fails in others. For all its flexibility, science must understand itself;
it must see itself as a construction based on a brute, existent world and not claim for its
blind operations the constitutive value that "concepts of nature" were granted in a certain
idealist philosophy. To say that the world is, by nominal definition, the object x of our
operations is to treat the scientist's knowledge as if it were absolute, as if everything that
is and has been was meant only to enter the laboratory. Thinking "operationally" has
become a sort of absolute artificialism, such as we see in the ideology of cybernetics,
where human creations are derived from a natural information process, itself conceived
on the model of human machines. If this kind of thinking were to extend its dominion over
humanity and history; and if, ignoring what we know of them through contact and our own
situations, it were to set out to construct them on the basis of a few abstract indices (as a
decadent psychoanalysis and culturalism have done in the United States)—then, since
the human being truly becomes the manipulandum he thinks he is, we enter into a
cultural regimen in which there is neither truth nor falsehood concerning humanity and
history, into a sleep, or nightmare from which there is no awakening.
Scientific thinking, a thinking which looks on from above, and thinks of the object-ingeneral,
must return to the "there is" which precedes it; to the site, the soil of the sensible
and humanly modified world such as it is in our lives and for our bodies—not that
possible body which we may legitimately think of as an information machine but this
actual body I call mine, this sentinel standing quietly at the command of my words and
my acts. Further, associated bodies must be revived along with my body—"others," not
merely as my congeners, as the zoologist says, but others who haunt me and whom I
haunt; "others" along with whom I haunt a single, present, and actual Being as no animal
ever haunted those of his own species, territory, or habitat. In this primordial historicity,
science's agile and improvisatory thought will learn to ground itself upon things
themselves and upon itself, and will once more become philosophy….
Now art, especially painting, draws upon this fabric of brute meaning which
operationalism would prefer to ignore. Art and only art does so in full innocence. From the
writer and the philosopher, in contrast, we want opinions and advice. We will not allow
them to hold the world suspended. We want them to take a stand; they cannot waive the
responsibilities of humans who speak. Music, at the other extreme, is too far on the hither
side of the world and the designatable to depict anything but certain schemata of Being—
its ebb and flow, its growth, its upheavals, its turbulence.
Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he
sees. For the painter, we might say, the watchwords of knowledge and action lose their
meaning and force. Political regimes which denounce "degenerate" painting rarely
destroy paintings. They hide them, and one senses here an element of "one never
knows" amounting almost to an acknowledgment. The reproach of escapism is seldom
aimed at the painter; we do not hold it against Cézanne that he lived hidden away at
L'Estaque during the Franco-Prussian War. And we recall with respect his "life is
frightening," although the most insignificant student, after Nietzsche, would flatly reject
philosophy if he or she were told that it did not teach us how to live life to the fullest. It is
as if in the painter's calling there were some urgency above all other claims on him.
Strong or frail in life, but incontestably sovereign in his rumination of the world,
possessed of no other "technique" than the skill his eyes and hands discover in seeing
and painting, he gives himself entirely to drawing from the world—with its din of history's
glories and scandals—canvases which will hardly add to the angers or the hopes of
humanity; and no one complains.2 What, then, is the secret science which he has or
which he seeks? That dimension which lets Van Gogh say he must go "still further"?
What is this fundamental of painting, perhaps of all culture?

I. "L'oeil et l'esprit" was the last work Merleau-Ponty saw published. It appeared in the inaugural
issue of Art de Frana I, no. I (January 1961). After his death it was reprinted in Les Temps
Modemes 184-85, along with seven articles devoted to him. It has now been published, in book
form, by Gallimard (1964). Both the Art de France article and the book contain illustrations chosen
by Merleau-Ponty. According to Professor Claude Lefort, "L'oeil et l'esprit" is a preliminary
statement of ideas that were to be developed in the second part of the book Merleau-Ponty was
writing at the time of his death—Le visible et l'invisible (part of which was published posthumously
by Gallimard in February 1964). The translator wishes to acknowledge his immense debt to George
Downing, who spent many long hours working over the final revisions of the translation. Also,
thanks are due to Michel Beaujour, Arleen B. Dallery, and Robert Reitter for their advice and
2. [II est là, fort ou faible dans la vie, mais souverain sans conteste dans sa rumination du monde,
sans autre "technique" que celie que ses yeux et ses mains se donnent à force de voir, à force de
peindre, acharné à tirer de ce monde où sonnent les scandales et les gloires de l'histoire des toiles
qui n'ajouteront guère aux colères ni aux espoirs des hommes, et personne ne murmure.]
3. Cf. Le visible et l'invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 273, 308-11.-Trans. 4. See Signes (Paris:
Gallimard, 1960),210,222-23, especially the footnotes, for a clarification of the "circularity" at issue here.—Trans.

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