chapter  16
10 Pages

Nature and animality

ByScott Churchill

Merleau-Ponty’s interest in nature in general and animality in particular was first made known in his The Structure of Behavior, which was an effort to explore the relationship of consciousness and nature by establishing the “founding” of consciousness in nature itself. At the same time, he wanted to explore how nature was in turn “given” to consciousness, and this in fact is the question raised on the first page of The Structure of Behavior. One can already observe here the ambiguity at play within Merleau-Ponty’s thought, in this case his alternating between the givenness of nature to consciousness and the “foundedness” of consciousness in nature. Alphonse de Waelhens observed that for Merleau-Ponty “the natural experience of man situates him from the beginning in a world of things and consists for him in orienting himself among them and taking a stand” (SB: xxiv). While his Phenomenology of Perception is situated mostly at the level of this “natural [pre-scientific] experience”, The Structure of Behavior took scientific experience as its point of departure. His aim was to show that “the facts and the materials gathered together by this science are sufficient to contradict each of the interpretive doctrines to which behaviourism and Gestalt psychology have implicitly or explicitly resorted” (ibid.: xxv). His examination of the scientific experience of nature was first approached through a critique of the behaviourists’ efforts to observe behaviour as reducible to antecedent events and contingencies of reinforcement. MerleauPonty was interested, however, in deeper issues: what is the “being” of nature and the “being” of consciousness such that an understanding of one by the other is possible? This enquiry drew Merleau-Ponty

into a discussion of Gestalt psychology’s notion of isomorphism – the thesis that there is a corresponding kinship between consciousness and nature such that “in a given case the organization of experience and the underlying physiological facts have the same structure” (Köhler 1947: 177) – and eventually into a critique of its intellectualist bias (in so far as isomorphism names but neither explains nor clarifies the ontological relation of consciousness and nature). Within Merleau-Ponty’s critique of existing psychological theories, the intellectualist bias of the Gestalt psychologists became the counterpart to the realist bias found in the behaviourists’ untenable epistemological stance (empiricism).