The Temporality of Life

The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2007) Vol. XLV

The Temporality of Life: Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, and the Immemorial Past
Alia Al-Saji McGill University
Borrowing conceptual tools from Bergson, this essay asks after the shift in the temporality of life from Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception to his later works. Although the Phénoménologie conceives life in terms of the field of presence of bodily action, later texts point to a life of invisible and immemorial dimensionality. By reconsidering Bergson, but also thereby revising his reading of Husserl, MerleauPonty develops a nonserial theory of time in the later works, one that acknowledges the verticality and irreducibility of the past. Life in the flesh relies on unconsciousness or forgetting, on an invisibility that structures its passage.

What concepts of life inform Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy? In Phénoménologie de la perception, the study of the lived body (le corps propre or vécu) implies a particular understanding of life.1 Life is an intentional, yet operative, activity that brings the body into contact with objects in the world. In Le visible et l’invisible, the concept of the lived body gives way to that of the flesh (la chair), which brings with it a different sense of life. 2 Life, in the flesh, is not limited to an individual body but radiates in several directions at once, encompassing the world and others. This life-force is both visible and invisible; perception and unconsciousness, activity and passivity, present and past intertwine therein. But whatever its sense, the concept of life
Alia Al-Saji (PhD Emory University, 2002) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at McGill University. Her recent articles address Merleau-Ponty’s ethics (in Interrogating Ethics, Duquesne University Press, 2006) and Bergson’s influence on Sartre (in Über Sartre, Turia+Kant, 2005). She has also written on memory in Bergson and Deleuze and on sensation in each of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. In addition to several anthologies, her articles have appeared in Chiasmi International, Continental Philosophy Review, and Philosophy Today. Her current work interrogates memory, vision, and ethics through Bergson and Merleau-Ponty.


Alia Al-Saji

remains behind the scenes in these texts. Whether because Merleau-Ponty is unable to find in the term “life” the precision he desires, 3 or because life itself is ambiguous, comprising several tendencies that cannot be integrated under one overarching concept, any philosophy of life drawn from Merleau-Ponty appears heterogeneous, even fragmentary. The concept of life has several currents in his work that remain unthematized. I will attempt to make these currents visible by focusing on the ways in which life deploys time in MerleauPonty’s texts. Time offers a unique and productive lens through which to study the life of the lived body and flesh.4 By inquiring into the temporality of life, my aim is to discover connections and discontinuities among Merleau-Ponty’s texts that are not visible otherwise. Light can be shed on the relation between temporality and life by borrowing some conceptual tools from Henri Bergson. Certain Bergsonian concepts will help frame my reading of Merleau-Ponty: namely, “attention to life [attention à la vie]” and the “past in general [le passé en général]” from Matière et mémoire, 5 and the “vital impetus [élan vital]” of L’évolution créatrice. 6 These concepts define different aspects of life for Bergson, in some ways continuous and in others opposed. Though I will be drawing upon resonances between Merleau-Ponty’s texts and Bergson’s, these will rarely be direct references. With the exception of passages addressing Bergsonian intuition and the past in Le visible et l’invisible or in footnotes to Phénoménologie de la perception, such references are limited.7 Rather, I will elaborate upon tendencies hinted at, but not explicitly dealt with, in Merleau-Ponty’s writings—a certain “unthought” that is revealed when Merleau-Ponty is read in conjunction with Bergson.8 My contention is that the modulation and deployment of time by the lived body or flesh—and thus the temporal sense of life and the way that past, present, and future relate—shift from Phénoménologie de la perception to Le visible et l’invisible. Though the earlier text presents bodily life mainly in terms of action and a perceptual field of presence, the later text goes beyond this to a life of invisible dimensionalities and immemorial depth. Hence, while the Phénoménologie remains for the most part in the grips of a philosophy of consciousness and presence, Le visible et l’invisible opens the way to an original sense of the past and to the irreducible role of unconsciousness and forgetting.9 In particular, Phénoménologie de la perception seems to generally agree with Bergson’s concept of “attention to life,” whereas Le visible et l’invisible and later course notes and essays draw on the Bergsonian concept of an immemorial past. In parallel with this deepening Bergsonian influence, I will point to Merleau-Ponty’s revised approach to Edmund Husserl in his later works. There, Merleau-Ponty’s 178

The Temporality of Life

increasingly critical reading of On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time is accompanied by an intensified appreciation for later Husserlian texts, in particular “The Origin of Geometry.”10 I argue that while Merleau-Ponty’s early reading of Bergson is mediated by Husserl’s lectures on timeconsciousness, his later revised reading of Husserl is part of a different theory of time that takes seriously, and finds its echo in, Bergson. 11 This Bergsonian–Husserlian interplay can be witnessed in the weight accorded to forgetting and the past and the disruption of serial time in the later works. Hence, a guiding question of my essay: Can Merleau-Ponty’s concept of life in its various incarnations—as acting body or flesh— accommodate and account for an immemorial dimension of pastness and thus a structural absence or alterity, irreducible to presence?

1. The Early Merleau-Ponty and Bodily Life as Action
My aim is to elucidate the notion of life in Phénoménologie de la perception by interrogating the temporality of the lived body. The body represents a current of intentional activity, but it is also subtended by what Merleau-Ponty calls prepersonal or “natural” life—currents of biological, habitual, or sensory existence (which I study elsewhere).12 For the purposes of the comparison with the later Merleau-Ponty, I will focus on the dominant current of life in the Phénoménologie: the body in action. In action, “my body appears to me as an attitude directed towards a certain existing or possible task” (PhP 100/116). The perceived world is primarily, though not exclusively, given by the practical and utilitarian attitude we adopt toward it. It is a world “organize[d] … in accordance with the projects of the present moment” (PhP 112/130). The tasks toward which the body is oriented are not pure possibilities; they are inscribed within a field delimited by the body’s abilities—by what Merleau-Ponty, following Husserl, calls its “I can.” Although Merleau-Ponty draws a distinction between actual, present action and virtual, possible or future action, the second is extrapolated from the first. To be precise, virtual action is an extension not simply of the body’s current occupations, but of its present capacities and sensations (built up through habit). Virtual action is felt in the body “by the presence of a particular tension” (PhP 109/126), through kinaestheses that prefigure future movements. By means of kinaestheses “[t]he normal person reckons with the possible, which thus, without shifting from its position as a possibility acquires a sort of actuality” (PhP 109/127). Hence, the field of possible action—though not reducible to the actions of the body at the moment—is opened 179

Although the senses appear at first to be a heterogeneity. but frontal and intentionally directed. although this principle structures the phenomenal field in the Phénoménologie. action tends to be identified with the object at which it aims (PhP 110–11/128).” says Merleau-Ponty (PhP 139/161). In “La philosophie de l’existence. its role remains unacknowledged by the early Merleau-Ponty. and mirrors. Bodily unity is thus accomplished in the teleology of action (PhP 101/117). The futurity of the body has neither the sense of the unpredictable nor the merely imagined. as I. The senses then appear to be united in translating aspects of the same thing. with the result that what MerleauPonty calls “virtual action” takes the form of deferred presence.14 Significantly. bodily efficacy is measured and illustrated in the Phénoménologie by actions that are generally goal-oriented. the present. communicating synaesthetically. “when [the body] escapes from dispersion. Within this “dialogue” of subject and object. The body’s life is its efficacy. Merleau-Ponty notes that the definition of the body as that by which we act is already to be found in Bergson 180 . It is this “intentional arc” that organizes. and “endows experience with its degree of vitality and fruitfulness” (PhP 157/184)—so that the life of the body is woven from things with which it is engaged in the world.13 It is rather projected from. that is. The vitality of the body is thus understood in terms of what it does or is capable of doing.15 “[T]o move one’s body is to aim at things through it. the lived body is not naïve contact with the world but operates according to a hermeneutical principle of action or utility. M. Bodily action is centered upon the present and circumscribed by the possibilities of the now. bodily unity mirrors the unity of the object-pole or single task to be performed (PhP 132/154). Their synthesis is not lateral and free-floating. a certain kind of work” (PhP 106/123). In other words.Alia Al-Saji up according to the capacities and projects of the present moment and draws its efficacy from them (PhP 111–12/129). Action is based on an objectivating intentionality— through which objects “present themselves to the subject as poles of action … call[ing] for a certain mode of resolution. Young has pointed out. the presence of an object-pole in perception puts a term to this instability and imposes upon them an objective and external unity.” a talk from 1959 published in Parcours deux. which finds its reflection in the field of actions available to the body. As Dorothea Olkowski shows. “[they] intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing” (PhP 229/265). animates. The unity of the senses discussed by Merleau-Ponty in the “Sentir” chapter serves as an illustration. pulls itself together and tends by all means in its power towards one single goal of its activity … one single intention” (PhP 232/269). That bodily life in the Phénoménologie is implicitly identified with action has been argued by other commentators.

Phénoménologie de la perception resonates with this view of bodily life centered on the present. in adult life that of our body as a child. Three problems can be noted at this 181 .18 But it also presents us with problems that arise once past and future are conceived in terms of the present—difficulties that cause Merleau-Ponty to revise this picture of time in the working notes to Le visible et l’invisible (as we shall see). According to Merleau-Ponty. or. The body is understood along organic and functional lines. The richness of this perception comes from the intensity of one’s “attention to life” (MM 7). these “gaps in memory” merely express the temporal structure of our body. Conscious perception is discernment in view of utility and action. Notably. The body’s perceptions are the reflection onto things of the body’s possible actions on them. the first chapter of Matière et mémoire presents the body as a sensori-motor schema. it is the ability to detach a figure that interests the body from the background of indifferent images.”16 Though I will have occasion to question this reading of Bergson.” and if we cannot retain in health the living memory of sickness. a center of action and affection. It is an organism whose complexity leads to indetermination and hence hesitation and the ability to choose. (PhP 140/163) Though this could be taken to mean that the body lives an instantaneous existence of discontinuous acts. it can never become “past. Bodily temporality originates. is here and now. the body “secretes time … project[ing] round the present a double horizon of past and future” (PhP 239–40/277). and takes its energy. its possible uses of them. “Attention à la vie” thus designates a life that is defined by practicality and interest in the present. The body. from the present—being itself constituted as a “field of presence”17 (PhP 416/475–76).” the body necessarily exists “now”. and we evidently act through our body. it is useful to first elaborate the connection that Merleau-Ponty is trying to make. This rectilinear and formal view of time owes much to Husserl’s lectures On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time. this view of the body as action emphasizes the dimension of the present. He points simply to the privilege of the present in the way in which the body lives time. Indeed. Just as it is necessarily “here. from the point of view of action. because Bergson “defined the present as that upon which we act.The Temporality of Life and constitutes a space in which their philosophies meet. Merleau-Ponty does not wish to draw this implication. This body exists in the present and its memory is that of repetition and habit. This projection takes place “on the basis of the implications contained in the present” (PhP 181/211) and spreads out from the present in the form of “a network of intentionalities” (PhP 417/477).

a similar misreading often takes place. differs from the immediate past only by its place in the temporal order. This view of time is accompanied in Phénoménologie de la perception by a largely critical reading of Bergsonian durée. (2) There is no way to explain the discontinuous nature of forgetting (VI 194/248). the status of the present is not questioned. Forgetting may be understood as an ordered fading-away that occurs on the horizon beyond a certain arbitrarily designated point in the temporal order. in both cases. the negativity. are not acknowledged in Merleau-Ponty’s reading of duration. As the naïve presence to self and world. MerleauPonty may note. However. But this picture of fusion is not surprising. The critique is twofold: Bergson fails to account for the ordered passage. since Bergsonian duration is not modeled on retention. the fusion and fluidity of consciousness that he takes to be characteristic of duration (PhP 276n/319n). the present is left without articulation or depth. Merleau-Ponty tries to fit Bergsonian duration into a flat and linear Husserlian picture of time (specifically that of the Time-consciousness Lectures)—thus suppressing the dimension of original pastness that can be found in Matière et mémoire.19 But. In “La philoso182 . Even when Merleau-Ponty presents a sympathetic account of Bergson.Alia Al-Saji juncture: (1) The past. but also as a structural dimension of time itself. by which a memory continues to be possessed but is held at a distance. There is no sense of pastness as an original dimension of being that is not derived from the field of presence. I will limit my discussion to what this reveals of the privilege of the present and of the Husserlian framework that mediates Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Bergson in the Phénoménologie. In Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Bergson. however remote. Viewed serially. that constitutes the past. And he misses the genuine consciousness of absence. the attempt to understand it from within this Husserlian schema results in a misreading. since “preserved perceptions” continue to coexist with the present (PhP 413/473). (3) As a corollary. all of duration is “squeezed into a present” with no possibility of transcendence or passage (PhP 79n/93–94n). 20 Notably. given that the organizing dimension of “past in general.” and the difference in kind that it installs. the latency and unconsciousness of forgetting are elided. Since both Renaud Barbaras and Leonard Lawlor have shown this to be a misreading of Bergson. duration becomes a haphazard accumulation of “preserved presents” (PhP 415n/475n). Or forgetting may be conceived as an intentional act. Forgetting is sidestepped as a phenomenon. performed in bad faith. and retention. with disapproval. of the present. What at once grounds the present and makes it pass remains unthought. Both remote and immediate past are retrievable and representable in principle due to the positions they occupy as former presents (PhP 416/475–76).

Bergson revises both and spends much of Matière et mémoire arguing why memory must in fact already inform any concrete theory of perception. because the body has a more complex relation with the past. First. it is this elided dimension of originary pastness—irreducible to any representational memoryimage or present perception because different in kind from them—that makes possible the flow of time and the passage of the present. for example. within time in particular.23 2.” Merleau-Ponty makes the following surprising claim: “[T]he analysis that Bergson carried out in Matière et mémoire. we must take into account. caught fire. Merleau-Ponty again elides the dimension of “past in general” or pure memory so central to Matière et mémoire. Second. however. But these presentations of body and perception are only preliminary. but memories.”24 Thus Merleau-Ponty inscribes the 183 . The Later Merleau-Ponty and the Life of the Flesh “In the immemorial depth of the visible. For Bergson. the body can only be understood as a zero-point in space (a center of action and affection) (MM 11–12). the dimension of the present. 33–35). more proximate and more remote. something moved. 22 It shows a conceptualization of bodily life centered on the present. Though it is true that duration is contracted into the present in the context of action—the past being only selectively allowed in and actualized to mold to present interests—this is not all there is to duration for Bergson. and duration is not exclusive or internal to consciousness. Here. Without memory. while perception remains instantaneous and fleeting. are actualized in every perception. informing and completing what is perceived (MM 68). Bodies are not external envelops indifferent to duration. wherein the force of the past remains a blindspot. pure perception is only a hypothetical construct (MM 31). Not only does habit form a kind of bodily memory. and engulfed his body.”21 But to read Matière et mémoire as privileging the present is to limit oneself to the first chapter of the book.The Temporality of Life phie de l’existence. This reading of Bergson tells us more about Merleau-Ponty’s own early view of time than it does Bergson’s. shows that if we consider time. everything he paints is in answer to this incitement. of efficacy limited to action. the superficial reflection of the body’s possible actions on objects around it (what Bergson calls “pure perception”) (MM 31. but each body expresses a particular rhythm of duration or hold on time (MM 249–50). I will explore productive openings to such a dimension in Merleau-Ponty’s later course notes and texts. In what follows. Not only does concrete perception take time and thus already contract the immediate past.

or to immobilize [it] as under the objective of a microscope. we shall see. In conjunction with a critical rereading of Husserlian time-consciousness. and cannot be overcome in. without seeking to nullify that distance (VI 124/166). Merleau-Ponty draws on both Bergson’s concept of the “past in general” and Husserl’s later notion of institution in order to think the dimension(s) of invisibility that open up the life of the flesh. Central to Merleau-Ponty’s project is a reconsideration of both Bergson and Husserl on time. Merleau-Ponty echoes Bergson when he insists that only a special kind of vision or memory can allow us to catch a glimpse of this dimension—“not to hold [it] as with forceps. In this section.” we can hear the echo of Matière et mémoire’s “past in general. as both ground and abyss. to echo Husserl. The “immemorial” is presented in Le visible et l’invisible as originary nonpresence. 25 The flesh is a difficult but central concept of Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy —one for which no adequate definition is supplied. In Merleau-Ponty’s invocation of an “immemorial depth of the visible. it is. It registers within experience as an original forgetting or blindspot that does not derive from. lies at the heart of what MerleauPonty means by describing the flesh as visible and invisible. nor a layer of positivity. The immemorial is. But this “originating breaks up” (VI 124/165). the immemorial is a past that accompanies and makes possible the present. These descriptions point to an immemorial that is neither lost presence. the invisible is alternatively referred to by Merleau-Ponty as the “depth” or “lining [doublure]” of the visible (EM 187/85). revealing the ground upon which it is instituted—an immemorial or invisible abyss. Nichturpräsentierbar (VI 239/292). once present and now forgotten. direct perception (VI 248/301). an “impossible past”—one that has never been present and that cannot be made present in a representation or act of recollection (VI 123/ 164). nor distant past.” Although Merleau-Ponty still sometimes regards 184 .Alia Al-Saji immemorial past as invisibility in the structure of the flesh. but to let [it] be and to witness [its] continued being” (VI 101/138).26 This memory rejoins the past through its constitutive distance. we find that the bodily field of presence has broken up. so that the sense of the immemorial is not “an original integrity.… a secret lost and to be rediscovered” (VI 122/162). Merleau-Ponty says. in this case that of the flesh. In this context. Here. This insinuation of the past into the present. my aim is to discover the sense of life at work in Merleau-Ponty’s later texts by again broaching the question of temporality. It is neither an empirical past. underlying experience but hidden from view (VI 158/ 209–10). Merleau-Ponty notes that “we find in our experience a movement toward what could not in any event be present to us in the original and whose irremediable absence would thus count among our originating experiences” (VI 159/ 211).

29 Significantly for Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s rethinking of the past and of life. in particular “The Origin of Geometry. In Husserl’s theory. I also find a positive re-reading of the Bergsonian past in Le visible et l’invisible. that of ‘acts’ and decisions.1 Re-reading Husserl The immemorial is described by Merleau-Ponty as a “vertical past. is overcome” (W.N. 27 Without overstating this influence. the past exists only as consciousness of the past. In this reading. then there is indeed a past. in a former present which has been preserved (VI 122/163).” This reversal is made apparent in Merleau-Ponty’s multiple attempts in the working notes to revise Husserl’s theory of time-consciousness. this criticism of Husserl is part of Merleau-Ponty’s critical rethinking of the Phénoménologie’s reliance on a philosophy of consciousness and presence. as Renaud Barbaras and Mauro Carbone have shown. a mutual re-reading of Bergson and Husserl appears to take place in the later works—motivating. but no coinciding with it—I am separated from it by the whole thickness of my present. Time is reduced to a succession of punctual acts— intentionally tied back to a primordial-impressional consciousness.28 2. “Husserl’s error is to have described the [retentional] interlocking starting from a Präsensfeld considered without thickness. February 1959. (VI 122/163) This reevaluation of Bergson is accompanied in Merleau-Ponty’s later works by a re-reading of Husserl on time. [I]f in being inscribed within me each present loses its flesh. its being is derived from the act of consciousness that constitutes it (IP 33). VI 168/222). as immanent consciousness” (W. the pure past is reinscribed as an invisible.N. Indeed. Though Merleau-Ponty attempts to re-read the lectures on time185 .” which disrupts the serial or linear order of time (VI 244/ 297).The Temporality of Life Bergsonism as a philosophy that locates “the secret of Being … in an integrity that is behind us” (VI 124/165). Merleau-Ponty’s focus shifts from the lectures on time-consciousness—toward which he becomes increasingly critical—to later Husserlian texts.” Rather than reading Bergson through Husserlian time-consciousness. VI 173/227). seen in the acting body and its “field of presence. January 1959. He says: “The ‘wild’ or ‘brute’ being is introduced—the serial time. if the pure memory into which it is changed is an invisible. This corresponds in Le visible et l’invisible to a reversal of the Phénoménologie’s dominant picture of time. Merleau-Ponty’s interest in Husserl now seems to have a Bergsonian inflection. what Husserl calls the “source-point” of time-consciousness. in my view.

The past hence continues to have an effect and to leave a trace. For Husserl. it also dictates the punctuality of primordial-impressional consciousness and makes its passage inexplicable. but not through the efficacy of action. In his reading of Husserl. but also its inaccessibility as it was to present consciousness. as it is through Bergson. This “negativity” is understood not as lack but precisely as surplus. time cannot be reduced to constituting consciousness. In this sense. that of an unconscious. This is the surplus of the past to representation (VI 253/306).Alia Al-Saji consciousness beyond this picture of life as punctuality (VI 195/ 248).” Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology (1959–60). as “more than Being” (HLP 49. VI 243/296). the past remains a mystery to such a philosophy of time founded on consciousness (IP 123). It is an absence that Merleau-Ponty describes as “fecund” (VI 263/ 316). primordial-impressional consciousness grounds. To understand time as institution is to recognize the verticality of the past—its originality and alterity. Merleau-Ponty “leave[s] the philosophy of Erlebnisse and pass[es] to the philosophy of our Urstiftung” (VI 221/275). as we shall see. connected in succession by retentions and protentions. the immemorial institutes a different kind of temporality of life—what MerleauPonty calls a “time before time” (W. By instituting itself as past. Merleau-Ponty notes that “time is the very model of institution. The verticality of time was already a central theme of Merleau-Ponty’s course on “The Origin of Geometry. that counts in the world (VI 228/281). an absolutely positive instant with no influence “of Zeitmaterie on Zeitform” (VI 184/238). it is through Husserl’s “unthought” on institution (HLP 14–15). La Passivité.” 32 In this sense. April 1960. the present (and hence to the past and future as modified and dependent dimensions).31 Opposing institution and constitution. gives life and meaning to. It is the absolute self-possession and self-presence of this consciousness that is supposed to guarantee the evidentiary and vital givenness of perceptual presence. and it can be discerned even earlier in the two courses from 1954–55.N. while the present becomes an abstract idealization. its “efficacy” or generativity is. Hence. it remains a core problem of Husserl’s account (VI 244/ 297). IP 168). each 186 . nor can it simply be divided along lines of activity and passivity (IP 37). Merleau-Ponty emphasizes in his reading of Husserl that this “past in general” is not a positivity—the in-itself conservation of the past—but a “hollow” or “circumscribed negativity” (HLP 20). perception is “borne by the past as massive Being” without exhausting it (VI 244/297). L’Institution. In place of the rectilinear flow of lived experiences.30 But this self-coincidence not only excludes any original dimension of unconsciousness or forgetfulness (VI 194/248). that Merleau-Ponty comes to rethink time. Thus.

forgetfulness remains for Husserl a lack that could ideally be filled. are attempts to articulate this difficult temporal structure of life. Rather. I will turn to MerleauPonty’s conception of “time before time. but a new style or field of activity is opened up (IP 38. precisely because it is singular and passes. as preexisting the present in general. a different norm of meaning. according to which we experience or see differently (IP 41). it is a “noble form of memory” (Signs 59/74). 2. the institution of the past means the ineluctuable passage of the present: “Husserl has used the fine word Stiftung—foundation or establishment—to designate … the unlimited fecundity of each present which. rather it comes into existence as always already past. “Time before time” is therefore a temporality that inscribes a structure of 187 . Curiously. as “past in general.g. paradoxically. that Husserl fully thought through the implications of institution.” prior to explicitly investigating its resonances with Bergson. what Husserl calls “sedimentation” and Merleau-Ponty terms “simultaneity” in depth. Because this time is not based on presence. his elaboration brings several Bergsonian concepts to bear.35 Here the Bergsonian unconscious. (I will explore the role of the “past in general” below. The instituted past sets up a level. can never stop having been and thus being universally” (Signs 59/73–74). It is neither conservation as the accumulation of in-itself presents. 124). where past and future are derived from the present moment. both forgets and conserves. To see this. but the image of time as an “open register [registre ouvert]” and Bergson’s famous “retrograde movement of the true” should also be noted.33 It makes possible a different kind of future—in which it is not just a particular action that becomes possible. IP 40).34 Institution means opening a register..) At the same time. says Merleau-Ponty echoing Bergson’s L’évolution créatrice (EC 16/16. It is unclear.2 Time as Chiasm There are several ways of understanding the anteriority involved in Merleau-Ponty’s reference to a “time before time. This passage. it is left to Husserl’s readers to recognize both its irreducibility and fecundity.” comes to inflect MerleauPonty’s reading of time.The Temporality of Life event opens a dimension. although Merleau-Ponty finds the notion of institution in Husserl. nor is it forgetting as an indifferent succession of mutually exterior moments. what is missing is a theorization of forgetting that acknowledges the unconscious and irrecuperable nature of the past. however.” “Time before time” preexists the linear time of presence. Though Merleau-Ponty finds forgetting interspersed in Husserl’s texts (e. its past is not formed after having been present. not only in “The Origin of Geometry” but also in Ideas II). one replacing the other without trace.

is not “the past itself such as it was in its own time. the present continues to pass. The invisible plays a crucial role 188 .” says Merleau-Ponty. But there is another sense to this anteriority. but rather … the past such as it was one day plus an inexplicable alteration. 37 Crucially. whereby the past that has never been present forms the ground for the existence and passage of the present. but has them really behind itself in simultaneity. or as a background coexists with the figure that it puts in relief. for the temporality. then. For Merleau-Ponty. it is organized around a past that has never been present. In this sense. but prevents the past from simply becoming present. In the working notes to Le visible et l’invisible. According to Merleau-Ponty. There is a constitutive distance. since there is preexistence of the past in general only in connection with the present. the apparent positivity of the present thus incorporates and relies on a negativity of the past—just as the visible spectacle includes an invisibility in principle. as the past continues to coexist with and insinuate itself into the present. by proliferation.38 Moreover. undergirds and makes possible the passage of the present that characterizes linear time. or difference. “time before time” inscribes a structure of coexistence. inside itself and not it and they side by side ‘in’ time” (VI 267/321). however. to incorporate itself into and transform the past. and bound synthetically to … other moments of time and the past. by encroachment. The relation of past and present is asymmetrical. that holds past and present together. one of chiasm for Merleau-Ponty. But these two senses of anteriority. just as depth coexists with and provides the structural condition for things to be things. Although Merleau-Ponty first hesitates to call this a difference in kind— or to use the philosophical categories of the homogeneous and heterogeneous (IP 194–95)—by the time of Le visible et l’invisible he recognizes that the true difference in kind is that of chiasm. coincidence. one with the irreversible passage that defines time (VI 243/297). also IP 124). temporal and structural. the chiasm institutes an irreversibility. must be thought together. a strange distance” (VI 124/166). This coexistence is not. since one of the terms appears to forever preexist the other. This distance is one of difference in kind for Bergson. “Simultaneity” is.36 “What is given. by promiscuity” (VI 115/155). It is useful to explore this analogy between past-present and invisible-visible a little farther. It is a time structured by virtual envelopment or coexistence rather than succession. “time before time” exists “by piling up. which Merleau-Ponty is trying to highlight. “Time before time” hence coexists with phenomenal time as flow. He notes that the present or “the visible landscape under my eyes is not exterior to.Alia Al-Saji preexistence or asymmetry. Merleau-Ponty refers to this as the “simultaneity” of past with present (VI 243/297. But it is also a reversibility (VI 148/194).

It is from this spatiality that measurable dimensions are abstracted (EM 180/65). This account of the power and generativity of the invisible is clearly illustrated by Merleau-Ponty’s example of depth in L’Œil et l’Esprit. they serve to differentiate and define what is seen (VI 180/234). movements closer and farther.” and intervals that are themselves unperceived but make possible the articulation and formation of a perceived (VI 148/195). The invisible is a power of differential creation. (VI 247/300) But the relation of visible and invisible also involves an asymmetry. Visible and invisible are inseparable terms for Merleau-Ponty. and shifts within space. For the invisible is. To see in depth is to see material objects in their place despite. the fact that they overlap with each other (EM 180/64). But depth itself cannot be seen. To understand the invisible as an “invisible of the visible” (VI 247/ 300) is hence to understand “time as chiasm” (W. for it designates the absence.39 Most importantly.40 Just as visible and invisible require one another. However strange it may seem to describe past and present in these terms—to say that the past not only preexists the present but also coexists with and makes present —this is Merleau-Ponty’s position in Le visible et l’invisible. VI 267/321).The Temporality of Life in Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy of life. The immemorial appears as a constitutive dimension of the 189 . according to Merleau-Ponty. and coexist with. or difference that he takes to be constitutive of being or flesh. The inscription of an immemorial dimension in life—of a vertical past of institution—results in a time where. my body. but belong to each other—so that we must speak of an invisible of the visible. the invisible permits Merleau-Ponty to conceptualize this difference as an irreducible part of all experience. clearings. The invisible is thus not an in-itself. Depth makes possible not only the coexistence of visible things in space. What is made visible is thus not a copy of the invisible. It opens the dimension of visibility. It creates diacritical differences within the world and in this way makes the world visible—vision being the discernment of difference in the perceptual field. Depth is not merely an objective and measurable third dimension. that which makes visible. so are past and present. They are not opposed. but rather the “lining [doublure]” or reverse side of the visible (EM 187/85). each enveloping-enveloped—and that itself is the flesh” (VI 268/321). just as they are different but coexistent terms. but that which generates dimensions. what is visible is the play of things one behind the other. but lived space itself as a diacritical and heterogeneous locality in which distinct objects can appear to. November 1960. for the invisible is not a thing or idea. negativity.N. as Merleau-Ponty says. without being coincident (VI 152/200). “[t]he past and the present are Ineinander. The visibility of a spectacle involves “clear zones. or rather because of. Though intervals between “things” are not seen for themselves.

As we saw. Drawing on Heidegger. In this vein. does not prevent the later Merleau-Ponty from reading Bergsonism as the insinuation of negativity into being or life. an integral and in-itself past. as we shall see. “time as chiasm” is also Stiftung (VI 267/321). already be held within it. It points. and that he sometimes speaks of it as though it were in-itself. This is because Merleau-Ponty has come to understand time differently in Le visible et l’invisible: not as succession. (It is rethought beyond punctuality. 42 We find in Merleau-Ponty the same motives that led Bergson to see duration as coexistence of the past with the present (in the cone of pure memory in Matière et mémoire). It is both closer to the present. and even the reading of Husserl.41 The immemorial past is not a thing or a collection of memories (VI 236/289). Rather. 44 In order for the present to pass. since this ground was never itself present. Merleau-Ponty seeks within time a negativity that will make possible its organization and its passage. to a time that is the structural condition of all temporalizing movement—the ground of the passage of time as well as the possibility of remembering. That the past is not negativity for Bergson. 2. but that make present (VI 114/153). just as the invisible opens for us visibility. but as a structure requiring the negativity of pastness to make possible the existence and passage of the present. but also a dimension of original pastness that destabilizes the present and ensures its passage.Alia Al-Saji present and the flesh. Merleau-Ponty describes this ground as an abyss. the immemorial should not simply be understood as a remote past. The present is no longer privileged. and farther from the present. the present appears at the intersection of lines of force and dimensions that are not themselves present. 43 What Gilles Deleuze will later call Bergson’s paradoxes of time mean that the past must already coexist with the present. This original or immemorial past preexists the present in general. MerleauPonty uncovers this verticality in part by interrogating Husserl’s unthought in “The Origin of Geometry”. that structures time itself. rather. there must be both a past of the present that allows it to be retained and recalled. as the ground that makes it present and allows its passage. the negativity. in the later works shows Merleau-Ponty’s renewed attention to Bergson.3 Bergsonian Inflections Like the invisible that is revealed as that which makes visible.) “Time before time” does not therefore designate a temporally prior origin. it is the constitutive distance or difference. just as it 190 . after he had theorized it as succession and flow in Les données immédiates. But the understanding of pastness. Rather than being comparable to any given object set off in the distance opened up by depth. the immemorial is akin to depth itself. but virtuality.

Forgetting is. however. it must be unconscious (HLP 31. calls forgetting a “secret” or “noble” memory (IP 256. VI 122/163).”)46 For Bergson.) But in order for this coexistent dimension to be past and not merely a duplicate of the present that is. Nor is the past reducible to a construct of consciousness. Forgetting is distance. It must be instituted along with the present as a past which has never itself been present. we find that both memory and perception require forgetting. Sedimentation. IP 257). as the invisible ground of every perception (VI 194/248). In the working notes to Le visible et l’invisible and in his lectures on La Passivité. notes Husserl.”49 It is in this sense that Merleau-Ponty. in order for the past to be conserved. Both conservation and construction fail to address what Merleau-Ponty in La Passivité calls the “problem of memory” (IP 231). it must be forgotten. is if it passes while it is present—if the past is given along with the present and internally implicated in it. Rather. not absolute negation—the erasure of the past as if it never was (IP 256). this dimension cannot itself be present. (Hence. a chiasm. which means that there is no possibility of coinciding with it in recollection. The only way for the present to pass. Merleau-Ponty will point to the “simultaneity” of past and present. in his reading of Husserlian institution. difference. dateable and recollected past. The past is already insinuated in every present. Merleau-Ponty notes that it is this “inaccessibility” of the past that makes it past (IP 257.”47 The error is to believe that the past in general was first consciously present and only then passed. Signs 59/74). Without this dimension. says Bergson. Only in this way is memory possible according to MerleauPonty: “Forgetfulness that is memory. this is not a particular. so that “the past exists in the mode of forgetfulness. “which is obstacle and connection. an immemorial 48 (VI 247/300). The past should not be understood as a container that preserves all memories intact ready to be recalled. the present would have no internal reason for passing. but the virtual element of the “past in general. the past is an originary forgetting—imperception or blindspot—that accompanies every present. Merleau-Ponty’s innovation comes in seeing forgetting as the solution—as a necessary and original structure of time (IP 256). or transcendence of the past. This problem is badly posed if forgetfulness is understood as an inability to remember. Merleau-Ponty will insist on a difference that internally connects past and present. different in kind from the present.” Merleau-Ponty will add another paradox to this Bergsonian picture of time. that which separates is also that which unites.The Temporality of Life coexists with and permits the passage of each present.45 (Hence. leaves our capacities and energies free for production (rather 191 . As we saw with institution. or a difficulty to be overcome. transcendence of the past that drives into me its arrow like a wound.

a dimension or level according to which the present is experienced and has meaning. or style. In actualization. But as an interconnected. the past in general is unconscious. which is not that of efficient causality but of suggestion. it cannot be represented as such. In this regard.”)54 192 . 52 Pure memory is not the empirical or factual content of the past. Pure memory has a power (puissance).Alia Al-Saji than endlessly engaged in the task of reactivation to secure self-evidence) (HUA 373–74). then. It is left to Merleau-Ponty to draw the implications of this Husserlian “unthought. rather than a structural or ontological element of the past itself. Pure memories are not atomistic or separable moments. But Husserl’s use of intemporal formulas in “The Origin of Geometry” leads to reservations on Merleau-Ponty’s part (HLP 20. One may speculate. open. Husserl’s ambivalence—conceding the necessity of forgetfulness but still desiring coincidence with the entire instituted past—means that the fecundity of forgetting is finally elided (HLP 20). but its dimensionality— not recollection. 385). Pure memory therefore lies outside consciousness and the present. What was a fluid and polyphonous network—where events interpenetrated and were over-inscribed with meaning—is decomposed. that the Bergsonian past helps Merleau-Ponty save institution from the presence of origins. relative to the present (MM 156). the past would be an in-itself origin that could be recovered. as memory-images.” an “ontological unconscious. and endlessly detailed whole. but what sets the tone. dateable pure memories. it constitutes an original kind of forgetting. but planes in which the whole past coexists at different levels of tension (corresponding to sheets in Bergson’s famous image of a cone) (MM 181). in principle. 53 (Deleuze describes it as “extra-psychological.” Though it is unclear whether he intended to take this route. It is thus artificial to speak of individual. but a different way of living time—a particular rhythm of duration or intensity of life that characterizes a plane of pure memory. to use Merleau-Ponty’s terms. 30–32). of our recollections and perceptions. For the “unconditioned general validity [unbedingte Allgemeingültigkeit]” that Husserl seeks implies the ability to ultimately overcome forgetfulness (HUA 366. Each opens. a different perspective of the past. Each plane instantiates a different style or configuration of pastness. Merleau-Ponty’s insistence on the unconscious nature of the past recalls Bergson’s concept of pure memory.51 What it suggests is not a copy of the present from which it was formed. or coincided with.50 What Bergson calls “pure memory [souvenir pur]” is not a passive imprint on the mind. the suggestive richness and complexity of this past is reduced in light of utility and indexed. The inability to completely reactivate the past would reflect the limits of our individual capacities and social communication (HUA 375).

Although this indifferentiation seems. HLP 29) that calls for an indefinite search or elaboration (IP 124). but the multiplication of differences that connect laterally and nonoppositionally. What are perceived are “figures upon levels”—perception requiring. the articulation of our field. Merleau-Ponty appeals to Bergson in this context: “Bergson: unconscious. we understand spontaneity as a surging forth (“surgissement”) that lies outside the control of consciousness and hence is not opposed to passivity. As we saw with institution. for Merleau-Ponty.” 58 In this regard. but operative emptiness. It is in this sense that perception is “ignorance of itself.55 But. But the full sense of the fecundity of the past can only be understood by taking forgetting and unconsciousness seriously—by reconceptualizing the invisible as that which makes visible (as seen above). but also of activity-passivity (IP 251). as “hinges of our life” (VI 221/274). for it forgets the openness or dimensionality that makes it possible. the differentiation of a Gestalt structure (VI 189/243). and in. beyond the frontal structure of the Gestalt—and to reinterpret 193 . the unconscious “functions as a pivot” (VI 189/243). a register. The key to the generativity of the unconscious thus lies in its invisible dimensionality. emptiness. or “articulations of our field” (VI 180/234). The past would be a polysemic and overdetermined matrix. the present. such spontaneity cannot be understood as a “cause” of consciousness (IP 181). as Stéphanie Ménasé suggests. not only of subject-object. Forgetting leaves a trace (IP 99. that the instituted and forgotten past makes a difference for. a “mixed life” that can suggest divergent futures (IP 269) Could this be an attempt to understand difference. 29). this past is theorized by Merleau-Ponty as a fecund absence or “circumscribed negativity” (HLP 20. 56 The past in general reveals a deeper current of life. lacuna of consciousness. imperception” (VI 213/267). as Merleau-Ponty makes clear. active. to simply be the result of a lack of separation (specifically that of figure-ground)—a fusion that destroys the past—the notion of dimension suggests another interpretation. (i) It is the level according to which one perceives. I find at least two ways in which this dimension is invisible or unconscious. without selection. In Merleau-Ponty’s later works. which incarnates the force of time. its making visible. at first. The weight of the past forms “another power [une autre puissance]” of life.The Temporality of Life This unconsciousness points to the peculiar “spontaneity” that belongs to the past—if.”57 It is by opening a dimension. and lacuna which is not only non-being. “which depends upon [the forgotten] and goes farther. not the efficacy of action. The “indifferentiation” of the past would not be lack of difference. This may shed light on Merleau-Ponty’s description of forgetting as “indifferentiation” in the working notes (VI 197/250). and as such cannot itself be perceived. one that he tries to articulate in his later work beyond the dichotomies.

point-become-center of forces (VI 195/248). 61 This winding designates—in language that immediately predates that of the flesh—a lateral. that dimension is installed—a process which itself takes time. according to Merleau-Ponty (IP 252). is unlocalizable or “ungraspable … in the forceps of attention” (VI 195/249). it has thickness or verticality. It is in this additional sense that the opening of a new dimension always involves an initial. But this does not mean that the present is nothing. whereby perception is “formed in the things” and not imposed upon them (VI 194/247). This open-ended movement is described by MerleauPonty as “decentering and recentering. or élan vital? (ii) Every level or dimension is the deformation of an already established level. which creates a new order. Whether as line-become-level or vector. or color-becomeneutral lighting (VI 247/301). thus understood.Alia Al-Saji the Gestalt itself (VI 205–207/258–60)—as winding. Rethinking the past demands such a reconceptualization of the present.” he says citing Bergson (VI 194/247).62 Merleau-Ponty’s clearest account of this probably comes in L’Œil et l’Esprit. ambiguous passage. and reorganized in order to create the new (IP 249–50). Again drawing on Bergson. he understands the latent line in painting as a generating axis. or élan. since the past is 194 . structural blindness of consciousness (VI 225/278). only to take this up differently (IP 99). that institutes a new index of spatial curvature by means of its inflection—rendering things visible through its self-differentiation (EM 183/72–4). the past will give the new norm or articulation of the field of experience. Its passage cannot be understood serially. as instituted. in the case of “matrix-events [événements-matrices]” (IP 44) or traumatic events (IP 250). redistributed. difference. perception begins in imperception and forgetfulness of what was previously given. To say that the present passes is to say that it “has no locus between the before and the after” (HLP 9). it is “divergence with respect to a norm of meaning. In the shift. The dimensional present.” 59 The old level is destabilized. dynamic. It is hence through a certain disorder. it therefore appears as a “disarticulation” of the previous order (VI 197/250). Before the new level has been established. registers as nonsense with respect to that norm. While. and diacritical differentiation. “bougé. as a succession of instants “with defined contours” that replace one another (VI 184/238). the present is opened up to duration and passage (IP 88). as instituting it represents a change of direction (“virage”) from the already given norm (IP 87)—a disarticulation that.” between instituting and instituted. zigzag.” 60 It is in this sense that life is a “winding [serpentement]. It suggests a transcendence without subject or object. its supposed punctuality and self-presence are shattered. the winding points to a duration that grounds the process by which dimensions are opened up.

as we have seen (VI 243–44/ 297). (VI 147/193) The difficulty in rendering this radiation or dimensionality appears in Merleau-Ponty’s repeated attempts to articulate the flesh: “what we are calling flesh. this interiorly worked-over mass. 93–94). The living present is “a swelling or bulb of time”—a “cycle” that Merleau-Ponty understands by means of the Husserlian notion of horizon (VI 184/238): “Through the horizon. the present becomes something only as past for a future.The Temporality of Life “simultaneous” with the present. though coincident with neither.”65 2. it gets its date only afterward (HLP 31). the life of the flesh is not limited to the here and now. at times incompossible (EC 258/259). Despite Bergson’s hesitations. there is still a double circulation of the past toward the future and the future toward the past” (HLP 32). To be precise. appears to have always preexisted itself (IP 94). and conservation. and a Plurality of Invisibles As a result of this reconceptualization of time. but “radiates beyond itself ” (EM 186/81). Due to this “unstable balance of 195 . Merleau-Ponty notes: As the formative medium of the object and the subject. instituted present is reflected back onto its instituting process. the hard in itself that resides in a unique place and moment: one can indeed say of my body that it is not elsewhere. Midway between the material individual and the universal idea. the present is not given in-itself. once instituted. But since the future is divergence with respect to the present. life is a virtual multiplicity of tendencies or rhythms. has no name in any philosophy” (VI 147/193). the productivity of the present as dimension is felt in the future(s) it makes possible. this reflection is also a refraction of sense. to the field of presence of the individual body. [the flesh] is not the atom of being. but one cannot say that it is here and now in the sense that objects are. the flesh comes into contact with Bergson’s élan vital (VI 139–40/184). The sense of life as winding that we find in the flesh recalls Bergson’s philosophy of life in L’évolution créatrice. This is the “retrograde movement” by which the dimensional.4 Life. The futural horizon promises forgetfulness. It is in this context that Merleau-Ponty brings together Husserl’s institution and Bergson’s “retrograde movement of the true”63 (IP 91. Like the past in general. a movement by vibration or radiation” (EM 184/77). 64 Yet dimension. bringing into focus the present as an event. “without displacement. of the present. this noncoincidence is not an illusion for Merleau-Ponty but the structure of meaning by which an event “has to become what it is. There is a “flesh of time” (VI 112/150)—a temporalizing movement. Flesh.

and in this he differs from Bergson. or actualization. only some rhythms can come into existence to the detriment of others. but that is also creative. the flesh appears to overflow the bounds of the present and to hold within its folds the invisible trace of a past which has never been present and the virtual memories of other lines of differentiation. In this essay.67 For “[t]he ‘originating’ is not of one sole type. since it is not a homogeneous or univocal dimension. It is at once an instituting élan. This is reflected in the impossibility of coinciding with the invisible. It is both the drive to see and the eyes that see (EC 91–94/92– 95). but the flesh is a “spatializing-temporalizing vortex” (VI 244/297). There is more to the invisible for Merleau-Ponty than the past in general. Like Bergson’s concept of life. with a heterogeneous multiplicity of invisible dimensions. I have pursued the parallel between immemorial past and invisible in Merleau-Ponty’s later works. be it virtual or otherwise. the evolution. to a remote but once present past or a past initself. But it is not all the invisible. and thus avoided relegating the immemorial to the sphere of presence or positivity. Life is at once a continuous vital force and the discontinuous. The generativity of life means that it can be conceived under two aspects: as invisible vital impetus and as visible actualizations or offshoots of that impetus. life is generative of difference in the visible world. While the diversity that Bergson describes in the development of élan vital resonates with Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the flesh. a dimension of invisibility of the flesh. It is not possible to give an exhaustive list of the invisible. or winding. in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the flesh. as there is heterogeneity of life and in the flesh for Merleau-Ponty. for there is always a further invisible dimension within what we grasp as well as behind it. And “[t]he reversibility that defines the flesh exists in other fields” (VI 144/189).Alia Al-Saji tendencies. it is not all behind us” (VI 124/ 165). Life is in this sense a finite principle—one that is blind. and the instituted dimensions. Not only is the present also dimensional for Merleau-Ponty. We are therefore left.68 The invisible proliferates with the being of which it is the condition and the reverse side. then. But the concept of life in L’évolution créatrice also pretends to harmonize these rhythms within the unity of a virtual origin (EC 117/118– 19). 196 . There is heterogeneity of the invisible. other rhythms or invisibles (EC 118/119–20). In actualization. The immemorial. Merleau-Ponty dismisses any original unity that would hold together the invisibles of the flesh. forgotten along this winding and sedimented in the form of organisms. of life goes toward increased differentiation and divergence according to Bergson (EC 117/118). of holding it with forceps as Merleau-Ponty says. material sedimentations of that force.” vital impetus is divided between various directions (EC 98/99). since Bergson does not posit a goal to life. is a kind of invisible.66 Like Merleau-Ponty’s invisible.

Here Merleau-Ponty’s analysis connects the élan vital of L’évolution créatrice with the discussion of perception in Matière et mémoire (Signs 186/234–35). This is “visual perception”: the things surrounding my body present to me the outline of my possible actions upon them (EC 96/97–98). Significantly. Their difference would be insurmountable if it were simply a shift in concepts. more than anything else. Vision is thus not an innate principle. but by situating them within the general impetus of life that holds together incompossible tendencies or directions. In “Bergson se faisant. The analogy between vision and life is a complex one for Bergson. framed by the activities and interests of the body in the present. Our access to life in Le visible et l’invisible came through the immemorial.” Merleau-Ponty reads the Bergsonian concept of life as a “prehuman” or “total act of vision” (Signs 187/235). The description of life as a kind of vision owes to the sense that life has for Bergson in L’évolution créatrice: “life is. But the shift and the heterogeneity are here within life itself. There is continuity between individual perception. a discontinuity between different periods of a philosophy. We have arrived at an understanding of life. and the inner workings of life as a kind of vision.The Temporality of Life But there are also ways in which these invisibles intersect. the possibilities of action of a living body must be marked out in advance in terms of its environment. but a drive that is immanent to 197 . no longer as a field of presence or action. is not the performance of a predetermined behavior. For this to occur. but enjoy a relation of part to whole. Action. but as flesh inscribing an invisibility or pastness in principle. in which the flesh of the visible and the flesh of time come together. but Merleau-Ponty offers another route to the concept of life in his later work. since they are not only parallel structures or tendencies. But behind this continuity lies a deeper sense of life than Merleau-Ponty’s account suggests. Conclusion We began with a conception of life. MerleauPonty notes that the main illustration of élan vital is to be found in the example of the formation of the eye in L’évolution créatrice—which is not an arbitrary example. it involves indetermination and “a rudiment of choice” (EC 96/97). a route that proceeds by way of vision. a tendency to act on inert matter” (EC 96/97). These two senses of life appear at first to be unbridgeable. as it is presented in Matière et mémoire. 3. He adds: “the rôle of life is to insert some indetermination into matter” (EC 126/127). This offers us a means of bridging the two concepts not by reducing one to the other. it is by appealing to the heterogeneous nature of life that the two temporalities of life presented in this essay— acting body and flesh—can meet. for Bergson.

Henceforth cited as VI. I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of Le Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. intuitive or aesthetic. But other memories can also contaminate the present. Lefort. presented in this essay. Merleau-Ponty notes the relative imprecision of the term life. with English then French pagination. which life covers over in its push toward action. The Visible and the Invisible. C. reverberating as traces of a dimension of pastness hitherto forgotten (MM 90). 1964). 3 In a discussion with Ortega y Gasset in 1951 concerning Dilthey’s use of the term “Leben” to express historicity. in other words. these paths are opened up because the hesitation. A. once a distance or gap is installed between body and world.” However. other lines of development are opened up. It is the ability to refrain from immediate action and to take up alternate paths that may no longer obey the imperatives of utility. invisibility. The flow of life is thus sustained by an immemorial depth. vision can also be affective.Alia Al-Saji life as action. Both senses of life and of vision are present in Merleau-Ponty’s texts as they are in Bergson’s. Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. In this sense. suivi de notes de travail. vision is only perception and action by relying upon and forgetting this depth. allows the virtuality of the past to surge into the present. 2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. or winding of life without reducing it to presence (VI 128/170). Lefort (Paris: Gallimard. Notes I wish to thank Leonard Lawlor for his insightful and detailed comments on an earlier draft. However paradoxical it may be. to see differently. molding to and deepening our perception of it. Indeed. établi par C. “L’homme et 198 . Vision is therefore a figure for both senses of life outlined in this essay: vision is perception in view of action. Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. trans. 1945). there is a drive within life—a tendency to action—that carries us away from the virtuality and pastness inscribed in life. but vision can also be “an auscultation or palpation in depth. Vision is also hesitation and discernment. 1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. ed. once indetermination is inscribed in the flesh. 1962).” a special vision or intuition that glimpses the immemorial dimensionality. 1968). with English then French pagination. Cf. 69 It is through this optics that the two senses of life. but which is recalled when life turns to other ways of seeing. Useful. actualized memories are then selectively allowed into the present. which constitutes vision. Le visible et l’invisible. Phenomenology of Perception. Bergson calls this drive “attention to life. trans. can be seen to converge. C. Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard. Henceforth cited as PhP. Most importantly.

1998). Le tournant de l’expérience. Arthur Mitchell (Mineola. 113–29. 64. Edward S. La Nature: Notes. Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur in Search of Time. Signes (Paris: Gallimard. 1964). Merleau-Ponty. Séglard (Paris: Seuil. 1995). trans. 7 and 148. 4 If. 1991).” in The Crisis of European 199 . Henceforth cited as HLP.” Man and World 17 (1984): 279–97. “Habitual Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty. reading: “Bergson in the Making. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917). Bergo (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. trans. 1907). and Elizabeth Grosz. Lawlor and B. borrowing the term from Bergson’s concept of souvenir pur. See Renaud Barbaras. Bergson: Les phénoménologies existentialistes et leur héritage bergsonien (Hildesheim: Georg Olms. 33–61. 2006). Le bergsonisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology. and “The Origin of Geometry.” then the workings of time in his texts will tell us something about the concept(s) of life operative therein. who show how Merleau-Ponty can be productively read through Bergson. 1960). with English then French pagination. Notes de cours sur L’origine de la géométrie de Husserl (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 6 Henri Bergson. Sartre. Éloge de la philosophie et autres essais (Paris: Gallimard. 7 Here I should add the various texts in which Merleau-Ponty pays homage to Bergson or revises his early. Cf. 10 Edmund Husserl. Time Travels: Feminism. and Elizabeth Grosz. 88.” in Parcours deux. Ed Casey.N. This criticism has been elaborated by several commentators.) 5 Henri Bergson. R. Le tournant de l’expérience: Recherches sur la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty (Paris: Vrin. Self and Meaning (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. mainly critical. Cours du Collège de France.” HLP 14–15) further. 376. 9 This is one of Merleau-Ponty’s famous criticisms of Phénoménologie de la perception: “the fact that in part I retained the philosophy of ‘consciousness’” (W. my approach differs in that it seeks to use Bergson to develop Merleau-Ponty’s thought (or “unthought. Creative Evolution. 1953). L’évolution créatrice (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. L. 44–46. 1998). as Merleau-Ponty notes.The Temporality of Life l’adversité. February 1959. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 1896). Power (Durham and London: Duke University Press. (The English version will be primarily used. J. Henceforth cited as EC. 54. “[c]oncepts for a philosopher are only nets for catching sense. Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer. ed. Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l’esprit (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Henceforth cited as MM. B. I find inspiration for my own approach in the work of Renaud Barbaras. with English then French pagination. and Mark Muldoon. 2002). trans.” in Parcours deux. 8 Though I find recent studies of the explicit comparisons and influences among Bergson. Nature. Notable among these recent comparisons are Florence Caeymaex. 1966). 1998 [1911]). notably Renaud Barbaras. établi et annoté par D. Bergson. Cf. I will employ both formulations as equivalent in what follows. Gilles Deleuze. and “La philosophie de l’existence. 87. 1951–1961 (Paris: Verdier. 1951–1961 (Paris: Verdier. Gilles Deleuze calls the “past in general” a pure past. Casey.” in Signs. 53. 2005). Merleau-Ponty and other authors very useful. NY: Dover Publications. 2005). VI 183/237). henceforth cited as Signs. 2000). 2000).

always self-differentiating power). 15 Iris Marion Young. 19 The latter option appears as Merleau-Ponty’s provisional solution in Phénoménologie de la perception: “Forgetting is therefore an act. translation my own).” in Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader. 252. Le tournant de l’expérience. 29–30. i. Parcours deux. 116). montre que si nous considérons le temps. It is more in line with what Bergson calls the “possible” in La pensée et le mouvant (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. productive. Fóti (New Jersey: Humanities Press. et nous agissons évidemment par notre corps” (Merleau-Ponty.. Thinking Through French Philosophy: The Being of the Question (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Materiality. Merleau-Ponty’s anxiety with respect to Bergsonian influence (Time Travels. it is conceived on the basis of the real (109–12). is how the Phénoménologie’s desire for subjectivity as presence limits its ability to think the originary nature of the past. Leonard Lawlor. 1970). Painting. 1998). 23 There is a location in Phénoménologie de la perception that offers 200 . par exemple. 12 See my manuscript “‘A Past Which Has Never Been Present’: Toward an Alternative Theory of the Prepersonal in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. 89–90. 20 Cf. A study of the working notes to Le visible et l’invisible and the course notes from the Collège de France from 1954–55 and 1958–61 shows that Heidegger and Freud are also important in this regard. 288–89. V. 16 “[Bergson] a défini le présent comme ce sur quoi nous agissons. la dimension du présent” (Merleau-Ponty. “Throwing Like a Girl: Twenty Years Later. Donn Welton (Oxford: Blackwell. 41–42. translation my own). 1938). My focus on Bergson and Husserl comes from the complex mirroring that characterizes Merleau-Ponty’s re-reading of these authors and their significance with respect to his understanding of the past.) 18 As evidenced by Merleau-Ponty’s close reading of that text in the “Temporalité” chapter of the Phénoménologie. (Merleau-Ponty famously criticized this philosophy of subjectivity later in his career (VI 200/ 253). 1996).Alia Al-Saji Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. 353–78. see John Sallis. 252.” in Merleau-Ponty: Difference. But decisive. and the Phenomenology of Perception. Subjectivity. as I look past a person whom I do not wish to see” (PhP 162/189). that of subjectivity.” The Modern Schoolman 48 (May 1971): 343–57. 17 For the relation between this field of presence and the central problem of the Phénoménologie. “Merleau-Ponty and Bergson: The Character of the Phenomenal Field. “Time. trans. ed.e. 14 Dorothea Olkowski. 22 It also reflects. Barbaras. Parcours deux. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ed. not the only authors whom Merleau-Ponty re-reads in his later works. il faut considérer. 11 Bergson and Husserl are. 2003). dans le temps en particulier. cited as HUA with German pagination. I keep the memory at arm’s length. 21 “[L]’analyse à laquelle Bergson s’est livré dans Matière et mémoire. of course.” 13 “Virtual action” in the Phénoménologie does not share the Bergsonian or Deleuzian sense of the virtual (a generative. as Elizabeth Grosz points out. in my view.

188. Le tournant de l’expérience. Ménasé [Paris: Gallimard. 1996]). Richir. I analyze this temporality elsewhere (see my paper “‘A Past Which Has Never Been Present’: Toward an Alternative Theory of the Prepersonal in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception”). L’Institution. see Rudolf Bernet. “Le sens de la phénoménologie dans Le visible et l’invisible. Notes de cours au Collège de France. 8–44. For an excellent account of Bergson’s growing influence on Merleau-Ponty (especially on his later critique of Husserlian eidetic phenomenology).g. “Eye and Mind. in particular Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology. Jacques Derrida. Mauro Carbone presents this re-reading in light of Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Proust. Merleau-Ponty is drawing here on Bergson’s La pensée et le mouvant. 24 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Henceforth cited as EM. HLP 53–54). “Institution: The Significance of Merleau-Ponty’s 1954 Course at the Collège de France. 27 More generally. 1958–59. 1964). 71–73. 2004). 1959 (VI 193/247). 33–61. Freud (cf. étabi par S. 140–42. 1964). 31 For a detailed analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s course L’Institution. 29 Renaud Barbaras analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s critical re-reading of Husserl’s early theory of time in The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology. Lawlor. Also see Claude Lefort in an essay written after MerleauPonty’s death collected in Sur une Colonne Absente: Écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty (Paris: Gallimard. 1958–1959 et 1960–1961. the importance of Husserl for the later MerleauPonty has been demonstrated by Marc Richir. 1978). L’Œil et l’Esprit (Paris: Gallimard. as well as some of the published notes from Merleau-Ponty’s lectures at the Collège de France.” HLP).” trans. 67. for Husserl. of course. “Is the Present Ever Present?” Research in Phenomenology 12 (1982): 105–106. “Foreword. The relevant passage is referred to by Merleau-Ponty in a working note from May 20. 2004). La Nature. C.. The later MerleauPonty’s reading of Heidegger is a complex question. see The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 30 For the importance of self-presence to Husserl. 218–23. 86. trans. 1967). La Passivité and Working notes to VI. La Passivité.” 137–38.” Esprit 66 (June 1982): 124–44. see Robert Vallier. the prepersonal temporality opened up by this reference remains marginal to the dominant current of bodily life—the primacy of perception and action—that runs through the Phénoménologie. especially 219. Interestingly. La voix et le phénomène (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 28 Other important influences for the later works are. and L’Institution. Notes des cours. of course. see Barbaras. 25 The texts concerned are Le visible et l’invisible and L’Œil et l’Esprit. Dallery.” Chiasmi International 7 (2006): 201 . 4. Toadvine and L. 1954–1955 (Paris: Belin. T. cited as IP. Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology and Notes des cours au Collège de France. VI 243/296) and Heidegger (cf. Lawlor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. which I must defer to others (cf. 1–13. 103 and. 26 Also VI 128/170. and. with English then French pagination. “Le sens de la phénoménologie. 2003). in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays (Evanston: Northwestern University Press. this reading is itself mediated by his interpretations of Husserl and Bergson (for Bergson. e.The Temporality of Life such an opening: Merleau-Ponty’s reference to “a past which has never been present” at the end of the “Sentir” chapter (PhP 242/280). Although it foreshadows discussions of the invisible and unconscious in later texts.

and Carbone. translation my own). see Barbaras. “Merleau-Ponty and the ‘Backward Flow’ of Time: The Reversibility of Temporality and the Temporality of Reversibility” in Merleau-Ponty. Gestalt. Phénomènes. La vie du sujet: 202 . 53–56. Edmund Husserl. Language. 33 Whether this applies to every present or only to those presents we may designate events (“événements-matrices. Chair et Langage: Essais sur Merleau-Ponty (Fougères: Encre Marine.Alia Al-Saji 281–302. But it shows. and movement—also contribute to the “deflagration of Being” that renders vision and visibility possible (EM 180/65). Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution. This is a markedly ungenerous reading of Bergson.” IP 44. 1959.” 136). trans. 1960–61. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: Second Book. line. in Notes de cours. IP 250) is a more complex question. while for Merleau-Ponty’s reading of “The Origin of Geometry. Gallagher (Albany: SUNY. What appears mentioned in passing by Husserl (Selbstvergessenheit in Ideas II) is read by Merleau-Ponty as a structure. other differentiations—such as color. 1992). There. or even traumatic events. and Postmodernism. 37 In a working note from May 20. 34 For dimension in the later Merleau-Ponty. Schuwer [Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. T. Being of Phenomenon. W. 1987). 177–90. in reverse. Merleau-Ponty is reading closely Martin Heidegger’s “Language” (Poetry. Temps et Etres: Ontologie et phénoménologie (Grenoble: J. Signs 173/218. Thinking of the Sensible. 82–85. see Glen Mazis. Rojcewicz and A. 1971]). see Rudolf Bernet. 36–37. 40 Although depth appears as first dimension in Merleau-Ponty’s account. Busch and S. Hermeneutics. see HLP 49. trans. Hofstadter [New York: Harper & Row. 55. however.) 36 Renaud Barbaras elaborates this idea of constitutive distance in Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy in Le tournant de l’expérience. Marc Richir describes this reading as a “fecund infidelity” that draws on Husserl’s concrete analyses (“Le sens de la phénoménologie. 32 “Le temps est le modèle même de l’institution” (IP 36. R. In Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology. ed. 53–68. I would add to this.” again criticizing Bergson for not going far enough (199). 2001). 41 For Merleau-Ponty’s appropriation of Heidegger’s Abgrund. 174–81. that time as chiasm must be understood not only in terms of reversibility but also irreversibility. Merleau-Ponty criticizes Bergson for being conceptually unable to sustain a genuine difference in kind: “Inadequacy of the Bergsonian representation of a soul that conserves everything (this makes it impossible that the perceived— imaginary difference be a difference in nature)” (VI 194/247). Moreover. see Marc Richir. but “more than Being” (HLP 49). 38 For an analysis of the reversibility of time. what Merleau-Ponty is trying to argue—the true difference in kind being that of chiasm. A. Thought. 39 For the invisible in the later works. 35 Cf. Merleau-Ponty uses Bergson’s famous argument about nothingness to show that the Heideggerian abyss is not a lack of Being. (Cf. MerleauPonty describes the relation of past and present as “[c]ohésion par l’incompossibilité.” see Françoise Dastur. Millon. (For the play between ground and abyss in Merleau-Ponty’s thought. 52. 1989].

46 The full text reads: “Le temps n’est pas enveloppant et pas enveloppé: il y a de moi au passé une épaisseur qui n’est pas faite d’une série de perspectives ni de la conscience de leur rapport. “Time Lag: Motifs for a Phenomenology of the Experience of Time. 44 Deleuze. Deleuze and a new theory of time. Passivité et création: Merleau-Ponty et l’art moderne (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Ontology. above translation my own). Le bergsonisme. 56 For an elaboration of how Merleau-Ponty’s “time before time” contributes to overcoming the dichotomy of activity-passivity. A consequence (which I do not have the space to develop) would be the following: If forgetting is also a kind of death. Though Bernet’s phenomenological reading of Bergson offers substantial insight—in particular into the relation of perception and memory (66–68)—it remains that by identifying the pure past with the virtual consciousness of it. translation my own). (For my reading of Bergson. 99. Bergson is assimilated to philosophies of consciousness (63. 50 Merleau-Ponty’s reference to “partial coincidence” in the context of the Bergsonian past in Le visible et l’invisible.) 54 Le bergsonisme. L’énergie spirituelle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 73–74). 48 On originary forgetting. La Nature. 97). 54–59. Ethics (London: Continuum.The Temporality of Life Recherches sur l’interprétation de Husserl dans la phénoménologie [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. then life for the later Merleau-Ponty must already be intertwined with death. transcendance du passé qui plante en moi sa fléche comme une blessure. seem to support this (VI 122/163). 47 “Le passé existe dans le mode de l’oubli” (IP 272. or ontological. 2003). 1919). 133. 50. 57 “Bergson: inconscient..” Research in Phenomenology 30 (2000): 115. Thinking of the Sensible. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. and his reading of Husserl and Bergson together there. 53 In this regard. Merleau-Ponty was already concerned with the philosophical. 53–57. 49 “Oubli qui est mémoire. see Carbone. L’énergie spirituelle. ce qui sépare est aussi ce qui unit” (IP 258. In his study of memory in La Passivité.) My reading of pure memory thus comes closer to Leonard Lawlor’s analysis in The Challenge of Bergsonism: Phenomenology. translation my own). 52 “Il n’a pas de date et ne saurait en avoir. 69. 1994]. 51 Bergson. 45 Henri Bergson. 169. significance of forgetting (IP 167). 55 Stéphanie Ménasé. 2003). see Bernhard Waldenfels. 130–31. 12–13. 134. 43 Henri Bergson. qui est obstacle et liaison (Proust)” (IP 36. (One question would be whether MerleauPonty’s description of forgetting as imperception is open to the same criticism.” Research in Phenomenology 35 [2005]: 55–76). c’est du passé en général. I disagree with Rudolf Bernet’s characterization of Bergson as having no genuine sense of forgetting (“A Present Folded Back on the Past (Bergson).) 42 “Le vrai sens de la philosophie bergsonienne n’est pas tant d’éliminer l’idée de néant que de l’incorporer à l’idée d’être” (MerleauPonty.” Continental Philosophy Review 37(2004): 203–39. et lacune qui n’est 203 . 1889). 137). lacune de la conscience. ce ne peut être aucun passé en particulier” (Ibid. see “The Memory of Another Past: Bergson.

Arthur Mitchell.g. mais vide opérant. actif ” (IP 222n. unperceived spatial objects. The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology.” or “seconder” (Thinking of the Sensible. La pensée et le mouvant. or Vorhabe (HLP 21). Le tournant de l’expérience: Recherches sur la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty. ———. Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawlor.Alia Al-Saji pas seulement non-être. La visibilité de l’invisible: Merleau-Ponty entre Cézanne et Proust (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag. ———. 1889. VI 217/270).. or “attentive recognition. 58 To quote the full text: “La sédimentation est cela: trace de l’oublié et par là même appel à une pensée qui table sur lui et va plus loin” (IP 99. Elizabeth Grosz sees in this “winding” the distinctly Bergsonian inflection of Merleau-Ponty’s later ontology (Time Travels. 2004. experienced in opening up the future. 69 Bergson theorizes concrete perception. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.” as a form of action and contrasts this to intuition. Henri. 1998 [1911]. NY: Dover Publications. 1998. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Barbaras. 37). the showing of the sensible itself. L’énergie spirituelle. passage ambigu …” (IP 87. 68 See Véronique Fóti. trans. 204 . trans. References Al-Saji. Vision’s Invisibles: Philosophical Explorations (Albany: SUNY. 59 “[Ce sens interne] est écart par rapport à une norme de sens. 65 The full note reads: “[C]e qui est et demande à être: il a à devenir ce qu’il est” (IP 36. 1919. 64 It is in this way that the newness of the present is given: as negativity.’ from within. which detaches from action and sees life in terms of dynamic tendencies and rhythms of duration (EC 176–77/178). 60 “[D]écentration et recentration. translation my own). Being of Phenomenon. 126–27). Renaud.” Manuscript. the work of invisibility (EM 165/25). Alia. différence” (IP 41. above translation my own). 61 Bergson. but these play a minor role (MM 158–61). zigzag. translation my own). translation my own). Bergson. e. “‘A Past Which Has Never Been Present’: Toward an Alternative Theory of the Prepersonal in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. 177 and 185. 2001). 66 For vision is opened up as a diacritical dimension through the two eyes (cf. not in the positivity of presence (VI 267/320–21). Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. 2003). See also Mauro Carbone. 63 Cf. Mineola. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. instead of representing. 62 Mauro Carbone describes this as “‘complying with. ———. 264. Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between objectifying. margin. Barbaras. which sees the visible “from within” and expresses. vide. 99n. above translation my own). Vrin. 67 There are other invisibles in Bergson’s texts. Creative Evolution. “profane” vision and the painter’s vision. 74.

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