Date: Sun 22 Dec 2002 - 22:50:28 GMT

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                              A PHENOMENOLOGICAL BASIS

    by Joe E. Dees

            A substantial number of contemporary existentialists, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre, asserted that humankind is free, and that to be free is to be 'condemned to be free'. Because of the absolute nature of human freedom, humans could not be determined. This view condemned as impossible any attempts to categorize either the behaviors or the views of humans in general, even (eschewing identities) similar trends. Thus, probability was forbidden; humanitiy's absolute freedom would not permit the existence of parallels.
            This view was shown to be faulty by Sartre's contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It's fault lies in its fundamental self- contradiction. After first recounting the aspects of activity, temporality, contingency, chouce and commitment inherent in the existential view of human subjectivity, Merleau-Ponty presents Sartre's position. It is at the conclusion of this presentation that the axe falls.

            "The result, however, of this first reflection on Freedom would be to rule it out altogether. If indeed it is the case that our freedom is the same in all our actions, and even in our passions, if it is not to be measured in terms of our conduct, and if the slave displays Freedom as much by living in fear as by breaking his chains, then it cannot be said that there is such a thing as Free action, Freedom being anterior to all actions...We may say in this case that freedom is everywhere, but equally nowhere...the idea of action, therefore, disappears: nothing can pass from us to the world, since we are nothing that can be specified, and since the non-being which constitutes us could not possibly find its way into the world's plenum. (From nothing, nothing comes.) There are merely intentions followed immediately by effects...the very idea of choice vanishes. For to choose is to choose something in which freedom sees, at least for a moment, a symbol of itself. There is free choice only if freedom comes into play in its decision, and posits the situation chosen as a situation of freedom. A freedom which has no need to be exercised because it is already acquired could not commit itself in this way: it knows that the next instant will find it, come what may, just as free and indeterminate. The very notion of freedom demands that our decision should plunge into the future, that something should have been done by it, that the subsequent instant should benefit from its predecessor and, though not necessitated, should at least be required by it. If freedom is doing, it is necessary that what it does should not be immediately undone by a new freedom. Each instant, therefore, must not be a closed world; one instant must be able to commit its successors and, a decision once taken and action once begun, I must have something acquired at my disposal, I must benefit from my impetus, I must be inclined to carry on...Unless there are cycles of behavior, open situations requiring a certain complation and capable of constituting a background to either a confirmatory or transformatory decision, we never experience freedom. The choice of an intelligible character is excluded, not only becausethere is no time anterior to time, but because the idea of an initial choice involves a contradiction. If Freedom is to have room in which to move, if it is to be describable as freedom, it must have a field, which means that there must be special possibilities, or realities which tend to cling to being."

            Sic transit Gloria, Jean-Paul; passim in pax. Merleau-Ponty's arguments are basically that 1) absolute freedom, by virtue of its very absoluteness, is empirically indistinguishable from the absolute absence of freedom, 2) if all acts are free, then freedom is a meaningless term, 3) if all one's choices are realized without a mediating time, both time and choice of one alternative over another cease to exist, 4) a commitment cannot be made to realize a goal realized at the moment of desire, that is, the entire idea of effort becomes an impossible delusion, and 5) there is no freedom without the existence of a circumscribing field of unfreedom in which it can be manifested, and with which it can be contrasted.
            Granting Merleau-Ponty's point that freedom must be contingent rather than absolute, what necessary fields must it be contingent upon? Being-in-the-World is an individual being, and "is in each case mine" (Heidegger). Well, its essence "lies in its existence"
    (Heidegger again). Are there any similarities there? Yes, three: the world, perception, and the body, the last two referring to humanity's manner of being-in-the-world. Merleau-Ponty discusses all three.

            "If a friend and I are standing before a landscape, and if I attempt to show my friend something ehich I see and which he does not yet see, we cannot account for the situation by saying that I see something in my own world and that I attempt, by sending verbal messages, to give rise to an analogous perception in the world of my friend. There are not two numerically distinct worlds plus a mediating language which alone would bring us together. There is - and I know it very well if I become impatient with him - a kind of demand that what I see be seen by him also. And at the same time this communication is required by the very thing which I am looking at, by the reflection of sunlight upon it, by its color, by its sensible evidence. The thing imposes itself not as true for every intellect, but as real for every subject who is standing where I am."

            Humans share a world, and share common perceptions of it. But what is the nature of these perceptions?

            "What prohibits me from treating my perception as an intellectual act is that an intellectual act would grasp the object either as possible or as necessary. But in perception it is "real"; it is given as the infinite sum of an indefinite series of perspectival views in each of which the object is given but in none of which is it given exhaustively. It is not accidental for the object to be given to me in a "deformed" way, from the point of view (place) which I occupy. That is the price of its being
    "real"...Thus, there is a paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception. Immanence, because the perceived object cannot be foreign to hi who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains something more than what is actually given...the perceived thing itself is paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it. I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself...I wish only to point out that the accusation of contradiction is not decisive, if the acknowledged contradiction appears as the very condition of consciousness."

            Therefore, perception is perspectival; this entails that it is incomplete, involving the paradox of the object as both seen and unseen. Also, as a subject need an object of which to be conscious, an object needs a subject to be conscious of it. Their very nature is defined correlatively. What, however, is essential to these bodies from which humans perceive and act and in which their consciousnesses reside?

            "Whether or not I have decided to climb them, these mountains appear high to me, because they exceed my body's power to take them in its stride, and...I cannot so contrive that they be small for me. Underlying myself as a thinking subject...there is...a natural self which does not budge from its terrestrial situation and which constantly adumbrates absolute valuations. What is more, ny projects as a thinking being are clearly modeled on the so far as I have hands, feet, and body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent upon my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way which I do not is clear that, one and the same project being given, one rock will appear as an obstacle, and another, being more negotiable, as a means...The probable the preceived world. The mountain is great or small to the extent that, as a perceived thing, it is to be found in the field of my possible actions, and in relation to a leve which is not only that of my individual life, but that of 'any man'. Generality and probability are not fictions, but phenomena; we must therefore find a phenomenological basis for statistical thought. It belongs necessarily to a being which is fixed, situated and surrounded by things in the world."

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