The philosophical work of the Frenchman Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), in many aspects intellectual companion and collaborator of Sartre, although also divergent critic of his famous dualism of the being in-itself and for-itself, recently returns to the philosophical arena, not so much because of his relation to the already slightly forgotten Sartre, but because of his conceptions about the “embodied consciousness” that interest today the philosophical movement known as Embodied Mind, so influential in the so-called North American Philosophy of Mind, with representatives known world wide such as George Lakoff. For, with Merleau-Ponty a new path is opened for the influence of Phenomenology in the existentialist movement which tries to rectify the Sartrean horizon of a Being in-itself opposed in a dualist form to the Consciousness for-itself, as if it were the Fichtean opposition of an I and Not-I, with the introduction of an intermediate term that Merleau-Ponty thematizes as “own body” through analyses of the last Husserl about the Lifeworld (Lebenswelt) and the habitualities. The inspiration now comes from the Schellingean Identity as a unity that tries to overcome the Fichtean dualism, looking for an intermediate term with his proposal of regarding the biological nature not as a mere Not-I, as Fichte did, but as a “sleeping Spirit”, as Schelling would say. This way, Merleau-Ponty will pose as a program of the existential phenomenology a description of the “own body” understood, following his own words, as an “in-between two”, as that which is precisely found in between the for-itself and the in-itself, in between the consciousness and the thing, in between freedom and nature.
To bridge the gap in between the in-itself and the for-itself Merleau-Ponty undertakes from his fist work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), an exploration through the Biology and Psychology of the Gestalt, trying to break the Cartesian dualism between res extensa and res cogitans, still active in Sartre's in-itself and for-itself. The world must now be reorganized through a tripartition in Matter, Life and Spirit. As Vincent Descombes points out:
“With this triad, Merleau-Ponty accepts the legacy of what has held, in France, the role of a Naturphilosophie, via the reading of Aristotle by Ravaisson (who also corresponded with Schelling)” (V. Descombes, Modern French Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 58). We need to remember that Ravaisson, influenced by the Schellingean Idea of the Identity as a unity of the Nature and the Spirit, looked in the Habit, in his worked De l'habitude (1938), for a positivized version of the abstract and more speculative Schellingean Identity, understanding it as something intermediate between the mechanic nature and the consciousness, in so far as the habit, understood as a psychological category, has a conscious origin but ends up mechanizing itself and forming part of an unconscious behavior. Felix de Ravaisson inaugurates this way a bio-psychological organicism tradition that is updated and reinforced in Merleau-Ponty with the contributions of the Gestalt theory and, especially, in the work of Goldstein: human behavior possesses a global structuration or organization whose explanation is not reached from the simple physiological description that is constantly reduced to a mechanistic atomism, nor from the pure psychological description which tends towards the pure and absolute substantialization of the psychic. In between Nature and Consciousness, being in-itself and for-itself, human behavior is configured as an intermediate structure that arises in media res with the perceptive act. For the perceptive activity is for Merleau-Ponty a true original experience, which he tries to describe with the help of the phenomenological method in his most important work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945).
It is in this work where we find the key notion of habitude (which should be translated as ability, not as habit, following the translation to English of the term, not as habit, but as skill or ability, which Hurbert L. Dreyfus proposes in “Merleau-Ponty and Recent Cognitive Science”, en The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, T. Carman, Mark B.N. Hansen edit., Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 145, n. 3), notion used by Merleau-Ponty as the “in-between two” that allows to overcome the traditional dualism. In it he finds the key category to talk about the body not as a mere physical mechanism, a mere object in between two objects, but as a motor being, as the “vehicle of the being-in the world”. So writes the French Philosopher:
“Even if subsequently, thought and the perception of space are freed from motility and spatial being, for us to be able to conceive space, it is in the first place necessary that we should have been thrust into it by our body, and that it should have provided us with the first model of those transportations, equivalents and identifications which make space into an objective system and allow our experience to be one of objects, opening out on an 'in itself'” (M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1962, reprinted 2002, trans. by Colin Smith, p. 164)
In order to clarify what he understands by habitude, as “the acquisition of a habit as a rearrangement and renewal of the corporal schema presents great difficulties to traditional philosophies, which are always inclined to conceive synthesis as intellectual synthesis” (op. cit., p. 164), Merleau-Ponty uses the example of dance:
“For example, is it not the case that forming the habit of dancing is discovering, by analysis, the formula of the movement in question, and the reconstructing it on the basis of the ideal outline by the use of previously acquired movements, those of walking and running? But before the formula of the new dance can incorporate certain elements of general motility, it must first have had, as it were, the stamp of movement set upon it. As has often been said, it is the body which 'catches' (kapiert) and 'comprehends' movement. The acquisition of a habit is indeed the grasping of a significance, but it is the motor grasping of a motor significance” (op. cit., p. 165).
The example of dance will be taken and analyzed in deepness as a social habitus by PierreBourdieu, who many times declared to be influenced by Merleau-Ponty's habitude, in his known book The Bachelor's Ball: The Crisis of Peasant Society in Bearn (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Bourdieu undertakes in sociology a reflection about the corporal abilities (habitus) as an explanatory genesis of social structures (of class, intellectual, cultural, etc.) comparable and, in great part, complementary to the Piagetean reflection about the constitutive role of children's corporal abilities in the genesis of the structures of intelligence. In such a sense, it constitutes for the philosophical reflection about Ability as a philosophical Idea common to various scientific, artistic, etc., categorizations -which we have been developing with our proposal of the Pensamiento Hábil-, a privileged field of novel modes of sociological-operational analyses.
After the example of dance Merleau-Ponty continues in the Phenomenology of Perception generalizing the sense of the bodily abilities:
“To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments. It is possible to know how to type without being able to say where the letters which make the words are to be found on the bank of keys. To know how to type is not, then, to know the place of each letter among the keys, nor even to have acquired a conditioned reflex for each one, which is set in motion by the letter as it comes before our eye. If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, what then is it? It is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort” (op.cit., p. 166).
Likewise, according to Merleau-Ponty, an organist, for example, has such a big operatory familiarity with his instrument that it easily persists when he has to change it for a different one. For Merleau-Ponty this example of the organist, as it is the case of instruments in general, clearly shows how the habitude doesn't reside in the mind, nor in the body understood as something purely mechanic, but in the body as a mediator of a world:
“It is known (Cf. Chevalier, L’Habitude, pp. 202 and ff.) that an experienced organist is capable of playing an organ which he does not know, which has more or fewer manuals, and stops differently arranged, compared with those on the instrument he is used to playing. He needs only an hour's practice to be ready to perform his programme. Such a short preparation rules out the supposition that new conditioned reflexes have here been substituted for the existing sets, except where both form a system and the change is all-embracing, which takes us away from the mechanistic theory, since in that case the reactions are mediated by a comprehensive grasp of the instrument. Are we to maintain that the organist analyses the organ, that he conjures up and retains a representation of the stops, pedals and manuals and their relation to each other in space? But during the short rehearsal preceding the concert, he does not act like a person about to draw a plan. He sit on the seat, works the pedals, pulls out the stops, gets the measure of the instrument with his body, incorporates within himself the relevant directions and dimensions, settles into the organ as one settles into the house” (op.cit., p.168).
The body in such sense, as operatory body, is for this reason, for Merleau-Ponty, a new way of understanding the human individual in opposition to the way it is commonly understood in mechanistic materialism or Cartesian mentalism:
“What we have discovered through the study of motility, is a new meaning of the word 'meaning'. The great strength of intellectualist psychology and idealist philosophy comes from their having no difficulty in showing that perception and thought have an intrinsic significance and cannot be explained in terms of the external association of fortuitously agglomerated contents. The Cogito was the coming to self-awareness of this inner core. But all meaning was ipso facto conceived as an act of thought, as the work of a pure I, and although rationalism easily refuted empiricism, it was itself unable to account for the variety of the experience, for the element of senselessness in it, for the contingency of contents. Bodily experience forces us to acknowledge an imposition of meaning which is not the work of a universal constituting consciousness, a meaning which clings to certain contents” (op.cit., p. 170).
Against it, “it will perhaps be objected that the organization of our body is contingent, that we can 'conceive a man without hands, feet, head' (Pascal, Pensées et Opuscules (ed. Brunschvicg), Section VI, No. 339, p. 486) and a fortiori a sexless man, self-propagating by cutting or layering. But this is the case only if we take an abstract view of hands, feet, head or sexual apparatus, regarding them, that is, as fragments of matter, and ignoring their living function. Only, indeed, if we form an abstract notion of man in general, into which only the Cogitatio is allowed to enter. If, on the other hand, we conceive man in terms of his experience, that is to say, of his distinctive way of patterning the world, and if we reintegrate the 'organs' into the functional totality in which they play their part, a handless or sexless man is as inconceivable as one without the power of thought” (op. cit., p. 197).
(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)