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Comparative Philosophy

The World Becomes the Self's Body:
James, Merleau-Ponty, and Nishida

Nobuo Kazashi
Hiroshima City University

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ABSTRACT: Cartesian philosophy presupposes the legitimacy of body-mind dualism, subject-object dualism, the principle of "clear and distinct ideas," and the human individual as an "autonomous agent." In contrast, the philosophical projects of James, Merleau-Ponty, and Nishida are all characterized by a critical stance taken toward these Cartesian presuppositions. That is, first, the "body" is established as the ground for our pre-reflexive yet active communion with the world. Second, the intertwining inseparability of "object-knowledge" and "self-knowledge" in our being in the world is acknowledged. Third, the phenomenon of "horizon" is thematized as an indispensable moment in the constitution of "experience." Finally, the "self" is understood as being embedded in and supported by the "field of experience." With this in mind, we can appreciate Whitehead's comparison of James' "Does Consciousness Exist?" with Descartes' Discourse on Method as the "inauguration of a new stage of philosophy." In this context the significance of Nishida's notion of "the world as the self's body" can be productively discussed.

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In this essay we aim to explore the significance of the striking convergence between the central ideas of the later Merleau-Ponty and those of Kitaro Nishida, a modern Japanese philosopher, against the background of William James' radical empiricism. After providing for some preliminary explanation with regard to Kitaro Nishida, whose name might be still new to most Western readers, we shall first establish a scene of philosophic encounter between James and Merleau-Ponty so as to better situate Nishida's ideas in contemporary philosophy.

Kitaro Nishida was born in 1870, two years after the collapse of the feudal regime, and died in 1945, the year World War II ended. Thus, Nishida belongs to the second generation of Japanese intellectuals who struggled to steer an autonomous course in the face of the overwhelming influx of Western thought, and is generally regarded as the most significant philosopher of modern Japan.

However, what is noteworthy is the fact that it was in James' idea of pure experience that the young Nishida believed himself to have found a philosophical stand, not only radical enough to ground a new philosophical system on, but also congenial to some of the core-features of traditional Buddhist thought.

The major tenet of James' philosophy was the negation of the ontological dualism of subject-object, which entailed such consequential corollaries as the "functional" re-interpretation of the notion of consciousness, the discovery of the ambiguous body as the center for the field of lived experience, the thematization of the phenomenon of "fringes" or "horizon-structure" as essential to any type of experience, and the restitution of affective values as originally pre-given in the ambiguity of pure experience.

These ideas were propounded in James' Essays in Radical Empiricism so clearly that Whitehead considered James' work comparable to Descartes' Discourse on Method in terms of the "inauguration of a new stage in philosophy." Whitehead wrote in Science and the Modern World; "James clears the stage of the old paraphernalia; or rather he entirely alters its lighting." (1) In view of Nishida's responses to James' philosophy, however, we could consider that James also transformed the very design of modern Western philosophy in such a way as to, without knowing it, open its stage to the Eastern philosophical tradition."

Nishida wrote in 1910 as follows: "These days I have been reading the recently published articles of James. I find them interesting. They seem to bear clear resemblance to Zen...." (2) Nishida was reading those articles of James' to be included in Essays in Radical Empiricism. In brief, Nishida encountered James' philosophy under Buddhist illumination.

Thus, Nishida's maiden work, An Inquiry into the Good, published in 1911, a year after James' death, starts with a chapter simply entitled "Pure Experience." And Nishida's later works are generally considered the products of his persistent endeavors, spanning more than three decades, to overcome the psychologistic shortcomings of the Jamesian notion of pure experience by providing it with socio-historical dimensions.

Now it is well over two decades since a renewed interest in James' philosophy began to emerge among those American scholars concerned with the phenomenological movement. But, as early as 1943, Gordon Allport had already remarked with good reason:

Radical empiricism had never become integrated with modern psychology. It might have served as the foundations for an American school of phenomenology, but it did not. Instead, the examination of the intent and constitution of experience was left largely to Husserl and his associates in Germany. (3)

Later scholarship on James has abundantly substantiated the legitimacy of Allport's contention. However, it appears to me that, thus far, most of the phenomenological studies on James have been carried out with their major foci on comparisons between James and Husserl. But it is my conviction that the Jamesian philosophy of pure experience would take on new meanings if we juxtapose it with the notion of the "flesh" delineated by Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible.

Merleau-Ponty begins the chapter entitled "The Intertwining — The Chiasm" by confirming the necessity for philosophy to:

install itself in a locus where they [reflection and intuition] havenot yet been distinguished, in experiences that have not yet been "worked over," that offers us all at once, pell-mell, both "subject" and "object," both existence and essence, and hence give philosophy resources to redefine them. (4)

Merleau-Ponty gives the name of flesh to this "formative medium (or milieu) of the subject and the object," which, according to him, "has no name in any philosophy".

In turn, James explains his notion of "pure experience" in "Does Consciousness Exist?":

The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the "pure" experience. It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that. In this naïf immediacy it is of course valid; it is there, we act upon it; and the doubling of it in retrospection into a state of mind and a reality intended thereby, is just one of the acts. (5)

It appears to me rather difficult not to be struck by the clear convergence of the most fundamental concern of both philosophers to bring to light the ontologically primordial layer of experience.

Merleau-Ponty's fascination with the phenomenon of what he calls a "sort of reflection" accomplished by the ambiguous body has its major source in a passage in the fifth meditation of Husserl's Cartesian Mediations, where he discusses the body's reflexive relationship to itself. However, James anticipates Merleau-Ponty by some decades in concluding quite tersely: "Our body is the palmary instance of the ambiguous". (6)

Where does this convergence in the anti-Cartesian perspective on the body come from? Far from a haphazard coincidence, it surely was one of the major consequences of their phenomenological enterprises to "return to the stream of life" without taking preconceived ideas for granted and to describe our lived experience with utmost "attentiveness and wonder".

In a word, both philosophers' critique of the body-mind dualism were direct corollaries of their common critique of the subject-object dualism. Pure experience and the flesh were the names given respectively by James and Merleau-Ponty to the ontological milieu they discovered to be anterior to the conceptual bifurcation of the immediately given into the subjective and the objective.

In the last analysis, however, the concept of pure experience as presented in Essays is too sparse in content to bear the weight of all the ontological and epistemological problems that might arise: on this view, one and the same piece of pure experience is characterized as capable of functioning either as perception itself, or as perceiver, or as perceived, solely by virtue of the different contexts it can form with the continuous series of pure experiences surrounding it.

It is this overall problem underlying Jamesian notion of pure experience that limits its understanding of the ambiguity of the body. James' view seems to have stopped short of comprehending the reflexive role the body plays in our pre-reflective relation with the world, which was to be highlighted by the later Merleau-Ponty under the name of the bodily "chiasm." Consequently, this limit in James could be considered to derive from the rather facile solution he gave to the problem of how to understand the emergence of the subject-object dichotomy out of the stream of pure experience, which is alleged to have no inner duplicity consisting of the knower and the object known.

In this regard, it is very suggestive that Nishida came to put forth a "dialectical" view of our embodied existence which bears a striking resemblance to Merleau-Ponty's notion of the bodily chiasm through his endeavor to overcome the psychologistic character of Jamesian philosophy. In "Logic and Life," written in 1936, Nishida propounds his notion of "acting intuition":

The very life of our selves, which are possessed of historical bodies and are acting-intuitional, is self-contradictory. Historical life itself is self-contradictory. It cannot be the case that what knows is what is known. Our self-awareness is self-contradictory. Our body is also a thing. Things are what is seen. But our body is what sees at the same time that it is what works....One recognizes a self-contradiction solely in the thinking self because he starts with the thinking self separating the bodily self from it. But even the thinking self cannot exist apart from our historical body. (7) (my emphasis)

Those familiar with Merleau-Ponty's later thought will find themselves tempted to set Nishida's passage against parts of "Eye and Mind," where Merleau-Ponty wove a beautiful tapestry out of his vision of the chiasmic texture of the bodily field, which he came to name the "flesh of the world":

The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the "other side" of its power of looking....It is not a self through transparence, like thought, which only thinks its object by assimilating it, by constituting it, by transforming it into thought.... (8)

In spite of the different terminology the two philosophers employ, it would be quite hard, I submit, to fail to notice some highly intriguing intertextual resonance that rings between the passages just quoted. Clearly the common motif from which these textual variations well forth is the ontological notion of the bodily, expressive self as obtaining in and through the chiasmic, in Merleau-Ponty's term, or self-contradictory, in Nishida's term, relationship between the bodily self and the world. In other words, just as Nishida's initial position of pure experience developed, through a process of further self-critique, into a new "dialectical" vision of the self, Merleau-Ponty's early philosophy of ambiguity was transformed into a chiasmic vision of the self.

Now the ambiguous body is essential to considering our existence in the world, not because the body is ambiguous in the negative sense of ever oscillating indeterminately between the subjective and the objective poles, but because the ambiguous body is incessantly playing the pivotal role in the self-reflexive structuring of the bodily field of experience. Nishida literally struggled to chisel out such a vision under the titles of acting intuition; and, so did Merleau-Ponty under the titles of the flesh and the chiasm.

In Merleau-Ponty's thought, the idea of Gestalt turned out to form an organic unity with some of his other key ideas such as those of incarnate existence and the horizon-structurality of the perceptual field. At the same time, he calls the very notion of Gestalt into question. In a note for The Visible and the Invisible, he writes:

And who experiences it [a Gestalt]? A mind that would grasp it as an idea or a signification? No. It is a body — In what sense? My body is a Gestalt. It is co-present in every Gestalt. It is a Gestalt; it also, and eminently, is a heavy signification, it is flesh; the system it constitutes is ordered about a central hinge or a pivot which is openness to..., a bound and not a free possibility....And at the same time it is a component of every Gestalt. The flesh of the Gestalt... is what responds to its inertia, to its insertion in a "world," to its field biases. (9)

In sum, the Gestalts or forms that are visible in the field of perceptual experience emerge only by virtue of the matrix-Gestalt of our bodily ek-sistence, which is, in principle, invisible to us because we are the body. The forms or significations of visible objects and the forms of our bodily existence are empirically distinct and separate, but ontologically they form an inseparable whole, which is a field of experience. Paraphrasing the same point, Merleau-Ponty wrote down in another working note:

I cannot see myself in movement, witness my own movement. But this de jure invisible signifies in reality that Wahrnehmen and Sich bewegen are synonymous; it is for this reason that the Wahrnehmen never rejoins the Sich bewegen it wishes to apprehend; it is another of the same....Wahrnehmen and Sich bewegen emerge from one another. (10)

This working note shows very clearly not only how tenaciously Merleau-Ponty kept ruminating upon some of the inspiration he drew from Husserl's texts to develop his own ontological vision, but also how close his last formulations of such a vision came to those of Nishida's, carried out under the general heading of acting intuition. Let us hear Nishida's own voices to grasp his views:

We see the world of forms to the extent that our body is formed. Therefore, we can maintain that, without the body, there would be no self. It holds true for animals, too. Therefore, the body is of the logos character. (11)

True intuition is not, as is usually understood, simply one's losing oneself, or things and the self becoming one. It means that the self becomes creative....There our body becomes what sees as well as what works....The world becomes the self's body. (12)

Intuition does not mean that the whole is seen at one time. It is not merely a totum simul. Rather it means that the universal is infinitely self-determining or that the basho [place] is self-determining....Man is a relative totality....Even in artistic intuition it [the totality] is not given simply all at once; it is not realized simply as it is. The artist goes through a process of seeing things step by step; a process of improving the totality. Therefore, we can say, with Bergson, that even the artist himself does not know how the work will turn out. Moreover, as the artist constructs a work which he himself cannot know, so too we proceed to construct history. (13) (my emphasis)

Nishida applied his notions of "acting intuition" and basho [place] so as to grasp the essential forms of relationship between the individual and the socio-historical world; in other words, here we recognize an "art-model" for understanding socio-historical reality. Just like Merleau-Ponty who recognized the "best of Bergsonism," not in the well-known Bergsonian idea of "intuitive coincidence" between the subject and the object, but in the "exchange between the past and the present, matter and spirit, silence and speech, the world and us," Nishida recognized the essence of intuition in the anticipatory comprehension of the whole that was alleged to obtain in and through the expressive interpenetration between the individual and the socio-historical world as the grounding basho [place] for his existence. And it was in this sense that both philosophers upheld the artistic, bodily activity as the paragon of such "dialectical" interpenetration between the immanent and the transcendent.

Let us delineate here the points at stake in the most general terms. The cornerstones for the Cartesian philosophy as a methodological meditation for the pursuit of scientific knowledge were, among others, the presupposition of the legitimacy of the body-mind dualism, that of the legitimacy of the subject-object dualism, the centrality of the principle of "clear and distinct ideas," and the resultant vision of the human individual as an "autonomous agent".

By contrast, what characterizes the philosophical projects of James, Nishida, and Merleau-Ponty is, roughly speaking, the shared, critical stance taken with regard to each of these four key elements in Cartesianism. That is to say: first, the establishment of the body as the ground for our pre-discursive and yet active communion with the world; second, the acknowledgment of the intertwining inseparability of object-knowledge and self-knowledge in our being in the world; third, the thematization of the phenomenon of horizon as an indispensable moment in the constitution of experience of any kind; fourth, the understanding of the self as embedded in and supported by the field of experience.

In sum, it would be in this vein that we can fully appreciate Whitehead's comparison of James' "Does Consciousness Exist?" to Descartes' Discourse on Method in terms of the "inauguration of a new stage in philosophy". Also it is in this context that the significance of Nishida's notion of acting intuition as well as that of Merleau-Ponty's notion of the flesh of the world can be drawn out in a most productive manner. And such realization shall help us to slough off the usual, facile dichotomy of East and West in philosophy.

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(1) Alfred N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1925), p. 143

(2) Nishida Kitaro Zenshu (The Complete Collection of Works by Kitaro Nishida, 19 vols., Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1953-55) vol.18, p. 132 (my translation)

(3) Gordon Allport, "The Productive Paradoxes of William James." Quoted in Hans Linschoten's On the Way toward a Phenomenological Psychology: Psychology of William James, Amedeo Girogi, trans. (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1968), p.31

(4) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Alphonso Lingis, trans. (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 130

(5) Essays in Radical Empiricism, Ralph B. Perry, ed. (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967), pp. 23-24

(6) Ibid., p. 153

(7) Nishida, op.cit.,vol.8, p.360 (my translation)

(8) Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, James Edie, ed. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 162-3

(9) The Visible and the Invisible, pp. 205-6

(10) Ibid., pp. 254-5.

(11) Nishida, op.cit.vol.8, pp.328 (my translation)

(12) Ibid., pp.341-2 (my translation)

(13) Nishida, op.cit., vol.7, pp.343-4 (Fundamental Problems of Philosophy: The World of Action and the Dialectical World, David Dilworth, trans., 1970, p. 184)

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