Phenomenology and Metaphysics

The subject here is some important aspects of the relationship between phenomenology and the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. Because this is a very large topic, the discussion will be narrowed to the central question of the limits of phenomenology beyond which its methods are surpassed by metaphysics. As regards phenomenology, it is the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty that will be compared and contrasted with Whitehead’s metaphysics, along with appropriate references to certain influential thinkers in their backgrounds, especially F.W.J. Schelling. Merleau-Ponty will be at issue here because of his instructive intellectual trajectory that carried him from phenomenology to the beginnings of an ontology consonant with that of Whitehead, by whom he was somewhat influenced.

To speak of the relationship between phenomenology and metaphysics must not be misinterpreted as implying the absence of standard metaphysical topics in phenomenological philosophies themselves. In truth, it is quite the opposite. To mention only two prominent examples, one can think of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, the subtitle of which is “Essay in Phenomenological Ontology.” Even so, these and other phenomenological texts that take up positions on metaphysical topics still do so from within phenomenological perspectives and methodologies. Moreover, we will see that there is a certain sense of metaphysics that the Merleau-Ponty takes to be consistent and even synonymous with phenomenology. Yet, the central question of this essay is where phenomenology reaches its own limits and becomes metaphysics as Whitehead understood it.

1. The Early Phenomenology

To follow this development, Merleau-Ponty’s conception of phenomenological method and then something of the content of that phenomenology must be clarified. At the very beginning of his major early work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), he explicitly positions his conception of phenomenology against that of Husserl. The latter is correct to see it as a “study of essences,” he says, but this philosophy also requires that study to maintain the connection of those essences with their “facticity.” Phenomenology suspends the “natural attitude” in order to better understand it, but it also insists that the world is “already there” before our reflections on it, and it seeks “to recover this naive contact with the world” by relearning to see it. Phenomenology is a philosophy that does strive to be a “strict science” (Husserl), but it is also “an account of ‘lived’ space, time, and the world. Phenomenology attempts “a direct description of our experience such as it is” independently of any scientific explanation or construction.[1] “It is a question of describing, and not of explaining or analyzing.”[2] In this respect, Merleau-Ponty preferred Eugen Fink’s conception of the phenomenological reduction as an “‘astonishment’ before the world.”[3]

Phenomenology is a philosophy of consciousness, and Merleau-Ponty saw it as “en route” long before Husserl—in the proto-phenomenology, so to say, of Descartes and Kant.[4] However, he also insists that phenomenological descriptions of perceptual objects, other people, the world around us, and even ourselves, in no case consist of an “idealist return to consciousness.”[5] The intentionality of consciousness means, among other things, that consciousness is always linked to the world, that consciousness and its objects are given together and meant to be studied together, and that, consequently, a perceptual object, for example, has the “paradoxical” status of being an “in-itself—for us.” Thus, Merleau-Ponty writes, “The most important achievement of phenomenology is without doubt to have united extreme subjectivism and extreme objectivism in its notion of the world or of rationality.”[6] In turn, the phenomenological notion of world is of one that is “already there” before any experiences of it, but which is only the one lived by others and myself: “The thing and the world only exist as lived by me or through subjects such as me, because they are the concatenation [enchaînement] of our perspectives, but they transcend all perspectives because this chain is temporal and unfinished.”[7]

There is a corollary of this phenomenological attempt to chart a middle path between realism and idealism, namely, that objects and the world as such can have no meaning apart from the consciousness(es) from which that meaning emerges. On this view, as Jan Van der Veken has pointed out, if meaning emerges in the intersection of human beings and the world, then meaning cannot appear outside of that encounter.”[8] It is the relationship that is primary for Merleau-Ponty: consciousness is not an inner stage on which meanings appear, but rather, in conjunction with the world at which it aims, their source. Although meaning is ubiquitous, the world itself is not meaningful. Nor, at the opposite extreme does consciousness simply bestow meaning on the world. Rather, for Merleau-Ponty, since meaning emerges in the interaction of consciousness and world, the “fundamental metaphysical fact is [… that] I am sure that there is being—on condition that I not search for another sort of being that being-for-me.”[9]

The unity of the subjective and the objective applies as well to the conscious subject. One of Merleau-Ponty’s main arguments against the Cartesian dualism is based on a great deal of experimental and experiential evidence from Gestalt psychology. This evidence shows that perception, far from being a passive response to environmental stimuli, actively structures our perceptual fields prior to any overlay of intellectual acts such that perceiving and perceived, subject and object, are indissolubly bound up with each other. This is to say that they are not independent, isolable relata that can be understood apart from each other. Rather, they are twin aspects of a concrete experience. Since the body thus reveals itself to be intelligent prior to the imposition of any intellectual acts, body and mind cannot conform to Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas of them. The body can be actively mixed up with, and “take account of” perceptual stimuli “only if we introduce beside the objective body the phenomenal body, if we make of it a knowing-body and if, finally, we substitute for [a Cartesian] consciousness as the subject of perception, existence, that is to say, being in the world through a body.”[10]

This “phenomenal” body, designated by Merleau-Ponty as the “lived body” (le corps propre) stands over against the objective body studied by science as the life-world does to the objective world of science, and these relationships have decisive consequences for understanding relationships between phenomenology and metaphysics. In Merleau-Ponty’s early work, Sens et non-sens (1947), phenomenology is roughly synonymous with one sense of metaphysics because the philosopher uses “metaphysics” as the contrast to treating the world and the body as scientific objects. “There is metaphysics,” he tells us, “starting from the moment when, ceasing to live in the evidence of the object—whether it be a question of a sensory or scientific object—we apperceive the radical subjectivity of all our experience as inseparable from its truth value.”[11] The lived world stands over against the world of science that “always presupposes an absolute observer in whom all points of view are summed up and, correlatively, a true projection of all perspectives.”[12]

Further, Merleau-Ponty argues in the same text that, following Fink’s description of the phenomenological reduction, philosophy should open us up to and preserve our wonder at all of the things that appear to us with their mysteries, opacities, nuances, ambiguities, and paradoxes—their “fundamental strangeness for me and the miracle of their appearing.”[13] If we understand metaphysics in that fashion, it is “the opposite of system. If system is an arrangement of concepts which makes all the aspects of experience immediately compatible and compossible, then it suppresses metaphysical consciousness.”[14]

2. The Beginnings of an Ontology and Process Thought

Three intertwined factors contributed to Merleau-Ponty’s move away from the primacy of consciousness and, therefore, of phenomenology—which he had earlier even identified with philosophy as such—and of its relationship with metaphysics just described. The first factor was a relentless self-examination about the philosophical adequacy of his view of an embodied consciousness as the origin of meaning. This question, as Erreur ! Contact non défini. points out, “forced Merleau-Ponty to have a greater sensitivity to the fundamental and equally undeniable givenness of both the subject and the world.” In his later writings, as Van der Veken goes on to say, “Man and world are sustained through and through by a more encompassing mystery, which itself is the possibility of their mutual dialogue […]. There is something to see and to say. The word is solicited by reality.”[15]

The second factor was also a problem of relationships, namely, that between the objective and the lived body. In his unfinished last manuscript, posthumously published as Le Visible et l’invisible, he wrote: “The problems posed in Ph.P. [Phénoménologie de la perception] are insoluble because I start there from the ‘consciousness’-‘object’ distinction.”[16] What could not be explained about the relationship between the objective and lived body was how “a given fact of the ‘objective’ order (a given cerebral lesion) could entail a given disturbance of the relation with the world—a massive disturbance, which seems to prove that the whole ‘consciousness’ is a function of the objective body.”[17]

The third factor consisted of a rediscovery of, and finely detailed interest in, nature. It is true that there are many references to nature and to the natural world in Merleau-Ponty’s early writings, but his interest in both is still enveloped in a phenomenological perspective. However, this is not true in his nature lectures at the Collège de France that date from 1957and in L’Œil et l’esprit (1960).[18] In this last stage of his thought, what was primary was “a metaphysical reflection that searches for the relation between Being itself and that which is revealed in man, namely, the mystery of truth, of rationality, of humanity.”[19]

These three factors, then, decentered Merleau-Ponty’s early phenomenology of an embodied consciousness. He clearly did not repudiate the truth of its descriptions of the lived body and the life world, but he did come to hold that our relationship to Being could not be understood adequately if subject and object, consciousness and all the possible objects that it can intend, are the ultimate terms of the explanation. Instead of a philosophy of consciousness, Merleau-Ponty’s later work plunged deeper, so to say, to begin to seek the source of consciousness by developing an ontology of “flesh” (la chair). Without any name in traditional philosophy, flesh for Merleau-Ponty “is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it,” he writes, “we should need the old term ‘element,’ in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea.”[20] As the primary explanatory category, flesh is that from which my flesh and the flesh of the world emerge.

Consciousness itself also emerges from flesh, and it is this that for Merleau-Ponty marks the boundary of phenomenology’s transcendence into a metaphysics—or, as he usually says, ontology—more like that of Whitehead than those which Merleau-Ponty approved and rejected in Sens et non-sens. On his view, nature, as one of the fundamental manifestations of flesh considered as the ultimate ontological category, is “an object from which we have arisen” instead of a “mere accessory of consciousness in its tête-à-tête with knowledge.”[21] In turn, my body, even the earlier lived body, is a natural object: “Visible and mobile, my body is of the number of things” that “form part of its full definition and the world is made of the same stuff as the body.”[22]

If not as an object of consciousness, how is it for Merleau-Ponty that we are to understand our relationship with nature? The answer is an “intertwining,” or “chiasm,”[23] that makes of my flesh and that of the world an essential “reversibility,” which is “the ultimate truth.”[24] This means that to see is to be seen, to touch is to be touched, and in general, to feel is to be felt. Sartre rightly characterized this reversibility as envelopment:

[T]he understanding of existence and life, for Merleau, is conditioned entirely by this cardinal principle: envelopment. He makes us understand by that […] that Nature is right up in us and, so that to see but the moon or a neon advertisement, what is required is a natural appropriation of internal and external being. We are in being, it envelops us, it is in us […]. In us it makes itself flesh—the word is Merleau’s himself—and when we perceive the world through our body, we make it flesh and in turn, we make ourselves its flesh.[25]

Two important metaphysical consequences follow immediately from the chiasmatic reversibility of flesh. The first is our indivisibility from nature and the concomitant rejection of Cartesian or Cartesian-like dualisms, and the second consequence concerns the meaning of nature and the nature of meaning. As well, the first consequence has the corollary that Merleau-Ponty also rejected what Alfred North Whitehead criticized as “the bifurcation of nature” (CN 30) into “nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness” (Ibid., 31). On this view, what passes into our eyes, light waves, is not visible, and what is visible—colors and other “secondary” qualities—is not there. Thus, we have “two systems of reality” (Ibid., 30), nature as scientific object and nature as perceived, the one being “true and not perceived” and the other “perceived and not true.”[26]

With respect to the bifurcation of nature and on other related subjects, the Nature lectures demonstrate that Merleau-Ponty was, like Whitehead,[27] influenced substantially by the work of F.W.J. Schelling. He considers that, of all his predecessors, it was Schelling who most successfully overcame the bifurcation of nature. He also finds support in Schelling’s rejection of the Cartesian dualism, and in his endorsement of our indivisibility from nature. On the other hand, Merleau-Ponty rejected Schelling’s own interpretation of that indivisibility as identity, as when he states, “Because I am identical to Nature, I understand it just as well as my own life.’”[28] For Merleau-Ponty, there is differentiation as well as indivisibility, negativity in addition to positivity, inscribed in our perceptual life, that create a disruption (écart) of identity. In all these respects, Whitehead was similarly influenced by Schelling, though the influence was more indirect. As Braeckman shows nicely, the causal chain extended from Schelling to Coleridge, then to Wordsworth, and finally to Whitehead.

The Nature lectures also show us clearly that Merleau-Ponty’s view of our indivisibility from nature was influenced to some extent by his reading of Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature, Science and the Modern World, and the long middle chapter on Whitehead in Jean Wahl’s Vers le concret. The thirteen-page essay in La Nature on “The Idea of Nature for Whitehead” is too complex to articulate here, and I have described elsewhere the main themes of that essay.[29] However, in rapid summary, what he finds insightful in Whitehead’s account of nature are the following six points. First, he rejects the bifurcation of nature. Second, he discards atomistic accounts of space and time as exemplified by, say, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace, and praises Whitehead’s critique of “simple location” (SMW 49).

Third, Merleau-Ponty is attracted to, and seeks a greater understanding of, Whitehead’s view that nature is not passive substance arrayed before an active, constitutive mind, but rather something within which there is processive activity. Fourth, in conjunction with the rejection of “simple location,” he endorses Whitehead’s account of the “unity of events, their inherence in each other.”[30] Merleau-Ponty applies this concept and the rejection of “simple location” to express the relationship of my flesh and that of the world as “overlapping” and “encroachment.”[31] Fifth, following from the rejection of dualisms, he agrees with Whitehead’s view that mental awareness “shares in the passage of Nature” and, consequently, that consciousness cannot be a spectator over against nature as object.

The sixth point concerns the nature of meaning and the meaning of nature. As with Whitehead, for the later, unlike the earlier, Merleau-Ponty, nature overflows with meaning that does not depend for its being on consciousness. Meaning is thus organic and carnal. At one level this means that mind and body, idea and flesh, comprise two sides of the same chiasmatic unity. “There is a body of the mind, and a mind of the body and a chiasm between them.”[32] On his view, ideas are not the contrary of the visible; they are in-[the]visible, as Proust showed, as “its lining and depth.”[33]

At another level, on Merleau-Ponty’s view, the same relationship between the visible and the in-[the]visible meaning also permeates non-human nature. It is the in-visible that generates the unique style of the visible through its latent possibilities. For example, “As the vein bears the leaf from within, from the depths of its flesh, ideas are the texture of experience, its style, at first mute, then uttered. Like every style, they are elaborated within the thickness of being.”[34]

Merleau-Ponty conceives of the meaningfulness of nature in terms of a logos endiathetos and a logos proforikos. The former is the “silent Logos of perception,” the “Logos of the natural, esthetic world,” that which makes it possible for the logos proforikos to express it. The logos proforikos is “the Logos in the sense of language,” all the forms of cultural elaboration of “the natural, esthetic world.”[35] This is why, as noted earlier citing Erreur ! Contact non défini., “The word is solicited by reality.” In the fundamental il y a of nature, there is something there to say, an overabundance of meaningfulness to articulate, that does not originate in consciousness. And we can say it—that is, incarnate a logos proforikos—because our flesh and the flesh of the world are in some way fitted for each other such that there is an intelligible empiétement between our bodies, perceptual objects, other people, and the world around us.

3. Some Conclusions about Consonance

Merleau-Ponty was not able to develop his ontology fully before his tragically early death. However, two of its aspects seem clear: he was following his intuitions in working toward an alternative to a philosophy of consciousness, subjects and objects as he understood them, and that what he was writing at the end of his life was more and more consonant with Whitehead’s process metaphysics. This is so even with Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the logos endiathetos because for Whitehead, any idea manifested in what Merleau-Ponty would term the flesh of the world constitutes a form of definiteness, an eternal object, that has achieved ingression into some occasions of experience. They are also in-visible as either the objective form according to which a given occasion of experience prehends its predecessors, or as the subjective form that characterizes the way that an occasion of experience prehends its past and anticipates its future transcendence. These “subjective” and “objective” species of eternal objects (PR 291) are all in-visible, carnal ideas in Merleau-Ponty’s sense.

Now one might think that Merleau-Ponty would object to conceiving the logos endiathetos in terms of eternal objects because of his resistance to eternal truths, a-historical forms of order, and a God who is a disengaged spectator of the world. One would also think that his suspicions would have been heightened if he had known of Whitehead’s view that eternal objects are the referents of God’s conceptual vision. It is highly doubtful that he did know of this view, but he was certainly familiar with its Augustinian version.

However, Merleau-Ponty’s disagreement with Whitehead on this matter might well be much less than it appears. In the first place, the phrase “Eternal object” is a misnomer because its referent is neither eternal nor an object. It cannot be an object because it is a mere possibility, a possible form of order. Its “metaphysical status […] is that of a possibility for an actuality” (SMW 159). According to the seventh Category of Explanation in Process and Reality, “an eternal object can be described only in terms of its potentiality for ‘ingression’ into the becoming of actual entities […]. It is a pure potential” (PR 23). And since an eternal object has no objective existence, it cannot be an object, and because it is not an object, it cannot be eternal. Nor, of course, qua possibility alone, could it be temporal.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Whitehead often refers to eternal objects in terms that suggest or imply that they are objectively existing entities. Furthermore, “Eternal Objects, or Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact, or Forms of Definiteness” (PR 22; emphasis in the original) comprise the fifth Category of Existence. Thus, these possibilities do exist in some sense prior to their ingression. Exactly how this can be is most unclear and is, in my view, an unnecessary inconsistency with Whitehead’s speculative scheme. Nor is it of any help to say that eternal objects exist somehow in God’s conceptual vision because God would also prehend them only as pure potentialities. As Whitehead is at pains to point out, God should not be conceived as an exception to the system. In any case, however this dispute might be resolved, Merleau-Ponty would certainly limit potentialities, and thus the logos endiathetos, to what is revealed within flesh—in Whitehead’s language, possible forms of order that have already achieved ingression.[36]

There is at least one other way in which Merleau-Ponty’s ontological reflections converge on Whitehead’s process metaphysics, and that is in terms of method. “The task of a philosophy of nature,” Merleau-Ponty wrote at the end of his essay on Whitehead,

would be to describe all the modes of process, without grouping them under certain titles borrowed from substance thinking. Man is a mode as well as animal cells. There is no limit to the proliferation of categories, but there are types of “concrescence” which pass by shading off from one to another.[37]

This is to say that, instead of describing phenomena as they appear within consciousness in order to arrive at their essential structures, the method appropriate for ontology is the same as for Whitehead’s metaphysics: descriptive generalization.

However, given Merleau-Ponty’s statement in Sens et non-sens that metaphysics is “the opposite of system,” and given that he continued to think of nature as an openness that cannot be captured adequately in concepts, how compatible in the end is his ontology with that of Whitehead? From all that appears, there is a substantial convergence. First, the type of system that Merleau-Ponty had in mind was much more like that of Hegel than of Whitehead’s adventurous speculation. Second, both thinkers hold that, in Whitehead’s words, “The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought” (PR 4). Third, consider Whitehead’s well-known characterization of metaphysical discovery as “the flight of an aeroplane” that “makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization” before landing again “for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation” (PR 5). Even this image is far less opposed to Merleau-Ponty’s thought than it might seem. For, this exercise in speculative thinking, like all thinking for both philosophers, takes place, as noted above, within the flux of nature rather than from the perspective of a disengaged spectator.

Fourth, a lack of certainty and dogmatism and a corresponding openness and a general reticence about claiming success, characterize the thinking of both philosophers. Merleau-Ponty is hesitant to the point of diffidence in asserting the truth of diverse claims, and it is striking to see throughout every chapter of The Visible and the Invisible how its author constantly questions the meaning of philosophy itself. As for Whitehead, four times before the seventeenth page of Process and Reality he asserts the necessity of philosophical humility in terms such as the following: “There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (p. xiv).

Finally, fifth, both Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead are committed to considering all of the evidence (PR 337, 338) and a convergence of their thought is beneficial to both. Whitehead states that “Intensity is the reward of narrowness,” and “In describing the capacities, realized or unrealized, of an actual occasion, we have, with Locke, tacitly taken human experience as an example upon which to found the generalized description required for metaphysics” (PR 112). Yet, the disadvantage of his narrow focus on the microcosmic level of atomism in Process and Reality is the lack of the richness of life at the macrocosmic level at which we live—details that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and later ontology provide. Conversely, as the Nature lectures show, M-P himself pursued his interests in nature and life right down to the level of cells and their life processes. Perhaps in time he would have arrived at Whitehead’s conception of nature as spatially and temporally overlapping, chiasmatic, internally related, actively creative, and meaningful occasions of experience: the unity of nature and logos. He would have arrived, that is, at a metaphysics that he envisaged when he was a candidate for the Chair of Philosophy at the Collège de France. He wrote of a creative expression,

[…] a spontaneity which accomplishes what appeared to be impossible when we observed only the separate elements, a spontaneity which gathers together the plurality of monads, the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole. To establish this wonder would be metaphysics itself and would at the same time give us the principle of an ethics.[38]

It is a pity that he did not live long enough to accomplish his goal and that he did not realize of how much more help Whitehead’s metaphysics would have been to him.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), p. i. Translated by Colin Smith as Phenomenology of Perception (New York: The Humanities Press, 1962), p. vii. Hereafter, references to Merleau-Ponty’s texts will provide English pagination first followed by the original French pagination. Corrected translations, where necessary, will be noted.

[2] Ibid., p. viii/ii. Similarly, Merleau-Ponty writes, “The real is to be described, and not to construct or constitute.” Ibid., p. x/iv.

[3] Ibid., p. xiii /viii. The English translation of “étonnement” is “wonder,” which is not nearly forceful enough.

[4] Ibid., p. xvii/xii.

[5] Ibid., p. ix/iii.

[6] Ibid., p. xix/xv.

[7] Ibid., 333/384-385.

[8] “Merleau-Ponty on the Ultimate Problems of Rationality,” in Ultimate Reality and Meaning: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Philosophy of Understanding 12:3 (1989), p. 203.

[9] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sens et non-sens (Paris: Nagel, 1948), p. 164. Translated by Hubert L Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus as Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 93.

[10] Phenomenology of Perception, p. 309 n.1/357n.

[11] Sense and non-sense, 93/163.

[12] Ibid., 93/162. “a true projection of all perspectives” is not the best translation of “un géométral de toutes les perspectives.” A “flat projection” would be more accurate since “géométral” means a design that shows the precise dimensions and form of some object without regard to perspectives.

[13] Ibid., 94/165.

[14] Ibid., 94/166.

[15] Van der Veken, p. 204.

[16] Le Visible et l’invisible, suivi de notes de travail. Edited by Claude Lefort. Paris: Gallimard, 1964, p. 253. Translated by Alphonso Lingis as The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 200.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Merleau-Ponty gave three separate lecture courses on the subject of nature: January-May 1957 on “Le Concept de Nature,” January-May 1958 on “Le concept de Nature (suite). L’animalité, le corps humain, passage à la culture,” and January-May 1960 on “Nature et Logos: le corps humain.” Student notes from these courses appear in La Nature, Notes, Cours du Collège de France. Edited by Dominique Séglard. Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1995. Translated by Robert Vallier as Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003. This text will be referred to hereafter as the Nature lectures. Merleau-Ponty’s own retrospective summaries of these courses were published in Résumés de cours, Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968. Translated by John O’Neill as Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952-1960. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

[19] Van der Veken, 205.

[20] The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139/184.

[21] Résumés de cours, Collège de France 1952-1960, p. 64/94.

[22] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’Œil et l’esprit (Paris: Gallimard 1964), p. 19. Translated by Carleton Dallery as “Eye and Mind” in The Primary of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Edited by James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 163.

[23] Le Visible et l’invisible, p. 130/172.

[24] Ibid., p. 155/204.

[25] “Merleau-Ponty [I],” translated by William S. Hamrick, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. XV, No. 2, May 1984, p. 132. This was a previously unpublished manuscript, the initial version of the well known memorial article for Merleau-Ponty that appeared in the October 1961 issue of Les Temps modernes and was reprinted in Sartre’s Situations IV.

[26] Jean Wahl, Vers le concret, Études d’histoire de la philosophie contemporaine William James, Whitehead, Gabriel Marcel, Avant-propos de Mathias Girel (Paris: J. Vrin, 2004 [1933]), p. 121. Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in his process metaphysics arrives at what is effectively a chiasmatic conception of occasions of experience. Through the vector character of prehensions, each new act of concrescence unites the internal and external because it begins by taking up its predecessors and ends by bequeathing its becoming to its successors.

[27] See Antoon Braeckman, Antoon Braeckman, “Whitehead and German Idealism: A Poetic Heritage,” Process Studies, Volume 14, Number 4 (Winter 1985), pp. 265-286.

[28] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, translated by Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, with an Introduction by Robert Stern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 36. Merleau-Ponty quotes this sentence in La Nature, p. 40/63.

[29] William S. Hamrick, “A Process View of the Flesh: Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty,” Process Studies 28, no. 1-2 (Spring-Summer): 117-129 and “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Healing the Bifurcation of Nature,” in Janusz A. Polanowski and Donald W. Sherburne, eds. Whitehead’s Philosophy: Points of Connection (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004, pp. 127-142.

[30] La Nature, p. 117/159.

[31] The Visible and the Invisible, p. 248/302. The words that Merleau-Ponty uses to express this relationship are “empiétement” and “enjambement.”

[32] Ibid., p. 259/313.

[33] Ibid., p. 149/195.

[34] Ibid., 119/159, translation altered. I have used “vein” for “nervure,” where the existing translation has “nervure.”

[35] La Nature, p. 212/274.

[36] There is a related but separate issue about possibilities and their mode of existence, if any, that should be mentioned here, though it lies beyond the limits of this essay. For Henri Bergson, to conceive possibilities as already somehow existing and waiting, as it were, to be actualized, is to be guilty of a “retrospective illusion,” “the retrograde movement of the true.” For Bergson, it is the other way around: something becomes possible and can be known as such only after it is actualized. See La Pensée et le mouvant (Paris: F. Alcan, 1934), Introduction Part I and Chapter III, “Le possible et le réel.” Translated by Mabelle L. Andison as The Creative Mind, An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Replica Books, Baker & Taylor, 1999.

[37] Ibid., pp. 121-122/165.

[38] “Un inédit de Maurice Merleau-Ponty,” Revue de métaphysique et de morale, no. 4 (1962), p. 409. Translated as “An Unpublished Text by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: A Prospectus of His Work,” in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Edited by James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 11.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Bergson, Henri. 1999. The Creative Mind, An Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison. (New York: Replica Books, Baker & Taylor). Originally published in 1934 as La Pensée et le mouvant (Paris: F. Alcan).

Braeckman, Antoon. 1985. “Whitehead and German Idealism: A Poetic Heritage.” Process Studies, Volume 14, Number 4 (Winter): 265-286.

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Author Information

William S. Hamrick
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, U.S.A.

How to Cite this Article

Hamrick, William S., “Phenomenology and Metaphysics”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.