[NB] Reflection, Tradition, History

La réflexion ne saisit donc elle-même sont sens plein que si elle mentionne li le fonds irréflèchi qu’elle présuppose, dont elle profite, et qui constitue pour elle comme une passé originel, un passé qui n’a jamais été présent. (Reflection grasps itself in the full sense only if it refers to the unreflective fund that it presupposes, that it benefits, and that constitutes for it something like an original past, a past that was never present.)

(Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, 280; translation mine; published English translation in previous post)

This quote has some bearing on the discussion of marketplace and empire. To get at that, I first need to unpack the quote a little (yes, more notebooking!). There are a few features of this quote that I want to focus on: the funding metaphor that structures it, the relationship between temporal and intellectual precedence, and the entanglement of the temporal present and reflective presentation.

Take a look at the standard English translation and then compare it with mine. The two are not identical and the differences are important, so I will be talking about that throughout.

A little close reading

First, some reading music. Keep in mind the history of this little song and what it means to cover a song. I don’t want to get off on a tangent, but that sort of thinking gets you headed in the right direction as I proceed.

The Money, Honey

First, the funding metaphor. The standard English translation makes reflection simply derivative, suggesting that reflection presupposes and draws from the fund of unreflective experience. That suggests that what occurs in reflection is something akin to what happens when you take money out of your bank account–it gets a little smaller.

Merleau-Ponty seems to be saying something a little different, namely that reflection presupposes and benefits that unreflective fund. Rather than being the account holder withdrawing money, reflection is the interest that increases the amount of money in the account. The practice of reflection improves the value of unreflective experience rather than exhausting it.

Arguably, reflection can draw upon the fund of unreflective experience in a fashion that operates more like funds from a bank. We can take inspiration from something and then proceed to mine it for various practical ends until there is nothing left of the original inspiration (I am in put in mind of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms, though I would have to reflect on that a bit).

However, here Merleau-Ponty is trying to make a case for what reflection can be at its best and that kind of reflection operates within the fund itself, adding to it rather than (just) extracting from it. The previous English translation conflates the two relationships and so disposes us to underestimate reflection.

Way Down The Line

When Merleau-Ponty reaches for a way to explain the way in which the fund of unreflective experience manifests to reflection, he describes it as “like” (comme) an original past. It makes a visceral sense–when we come to consider something in reflection, it appears to us as something that has existed and to which we now turn our attention, that it has been waiting for us to notice it.

What we reflect upon seems to precede our reflection in a way that is very similar to the way that one event precedes another. The question of precedence raises the question of causality, but it is important to restrain ourselves from identifying precedence with causality. One event coming before another does not, in fact, entail one event causing another. What we have instead is a more indeterminate relationship between one event and another.

In the same way, when we turn to unreflective experience, we encounter experiences in relationship to each other without yet having a determinate relationship. Their relationship in and of itself constitutes the nature of the unreflective fund. If reflection benefits this fund, it does so by intensifying that connection.

It is surely no accident that experience occurs in time, right? Merleau-Ponty, living after Einstein, doesn’t have to prioritize the two and neither do we. The sort of relationships that define experiences in spatial relationship to each other are of a piece with the relationships that define them in temporal relation to each other. Not identical, but inseparable, especially at this level.

So, what is ‘never present’ and defines something like an ‘original past’ is the property of being related. This is akin to what Buddhists call ‘codetermination’ except that the relationship itself precedes the determinations. We might call it simply ‘cohabitation.’

Got The Time

To get at that notion of never present, we need to figure out exactly what it is to be present. The relationship of past and unreflective experience manifests in the present as the relationship between presence and the presentation of a determinate relationship. In the present, the relationship between experiences acquires some determinate character.

When I reflect upon the relationship between my emotional state and what is going on around me, I am beginning the process that establishes some determinate relation betwen the two. At first, I only acknowledge that their is a relationship and then proceed to specify that relation. This experience made me sad but it was so soon followed by this that made me happy that I was left with a sense of joy; and so on.

Similarly, when I reflect upon the crashing noise and the falling of the tree limb, I begin to make determination about their relationship to each other. I set about for a temporal sequence and proceed to establish, based on that, what caused the limb to fall (e.g., the wind blew it down; the wind blew it down because it had been softened by rot; it was rotten because of all the rain and humidity; it has been rainy and humid because…).

The present moment of reflection creates a series of pasts that have been present. Each of these past presents depends upon the relatedness of the never-present in at least two ways. First, there is the simple necessity for relation to be possible for any relation to come into reflective awareness. Second, and equally important, what comes into awareness is something that is already related in cohabitation and by being reflected upon itself becomes a new relation in cohabitation.

That is a bit abstract; let me say it in a more concrete though slightly less acuurate fashion. The present that we experience derives from our ability to isolate determinate relationships within experience. Those relationships pre-exist our reflection but become something different through our reflection on them. We both understand something about the world and contribute that understanding to the world. The relationship that reflection generates between itself and unreflective experience is what enriches unreflective experience.

To be present is to be presented to reflection and that process of presentation makes it possible for reflection to project backward (and foreword) the idea of other presents (i.e., the past and future). These other presents depend upon the unreflective and enrich it, but the determinations of reflection depend upon isolating aspects of it and so can never be identical with it.

Leave My Old Wreck Behind

This probably seems like a lot of writing for a single sentence but it provides a blueprint for appreciating and refreshing tradition in the face of historical erosion–that is for the post proper, though, not the notebook. Also, worth keeping in mind that small things can pack a lot of potency.

What Merleau-Ponty is basically saying is that reflection acquires its fullest sense of itself and its (limited) capacities when it is able to experience its own relationship to a world beyond its comprehension. Reflection presents that world to itself in its own terms and so the world of unreflective experience manifests in experience in terms of distance, temporal and spatial. Reflection can experience itself as adding to that world even as it is somehow excluded from it.

The inability of reflection to grasp the whole of unreflective experience makes error a necessary feature of reflection. We see this in how reflection present the never-present fund of unreflective experience using a time-image. However, the error is nonetheless real and has a place within the fund it cannot fully grasp.

Sound a little familiar? Perhaps like the lineaments of a gnostic sensibility?

Next time, then…

10 thoughts on “[NB] Reflection, Tradition, History

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