Hence reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes, upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past, a past which has never been a present. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 241)
I have been chewing this quote over in a longer draft, but it’s worth a little notebook noodling, too.
What constitutes the unreflective fund of experience? Well, it encompasses just about everything from our biological inheritance (as a species and an individual) that condition the apparatus of our perception and our capacity to understand to our social circumstances that inculcate habits in us. It includes the nature of the chemical elements that make our biological existence possible and the concrete elements of our world like the way trees grow and cities expand.
It even includes our capacity for action, a capacity that is itself educated by the world in which it develops, a world including other agents.
Yet, in spite of that expansive fund, Merleau-Ponty’s observation has the corollary effect of strictly limiting our reflective capacity. Because it depends on this expansive fund, it is not itself entirely free to make sense of it. The limits of our understanding limits our capacity to act rationally, to act in a manner that accords with our intentions, because our intentions arise out of this expansive world we don’t fully understand.
Understanding, on this sort of account, is humble work. It takes a lot of effort to find the right level to begin the work, since understanding acquires its fullest capacity only when it finds its own position in the expansive fund.
When we manage to get close to that point, what we discover is not the power of our reason, but the depth of our ignorance. The point at which we become aware of our position in the world is the point at which we must submit ourselves to it, to our fate. The unreflective fund of experience is the sheer weight of our life confronting our awareness and revealing our inability to sever ourselves from it.
We find this level only through a sort of intuitive groping in the dark. We can’t reason our way to it because our reason operates in and upon the present rather than upon the ‘original past.’
Submission to our ignorance as the precondition of our enlightenment.