Two decades after Heidegger’s Being and Time, and not without the mediation of Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) attempted a profound application of the German fathers of phenomenology to one particular question: perception. In Phenomenology of Perception (French edition: 1945), Merleau-Ponty insists that one must step away from the natural attitude, and choose instead to seize the phenomenological epoche (bracketing) or suspension of habitual views on an object. Through this method, he could realize that perception is not a “window to the world” but the medium of interaction of the subject with this world, to which he belongs in equal measure, not more or less, than that perceived object. Subject of perception and perceived object participate equally to the world. A section of Phenomenology of Perception addresses the question of language, and we find there the core concerns of Merleau-Ponty: disapproval of Idealist perspectives, care for the role of the body, construction of identity through one’s embodied performance (of language), and motifs of ultimately aesthetic values behind and instead of the rational interpretations of previous philosophical schools.
Through his reflection on language, Merleau-Ponty tries to further disturb the subject-object dichotomy prevalent before phenomenology, and the attempts at setting a subject-less language. This was necessarily the unsaid assumption in Idealist theories, for which an utterance is only the ‘translation’ or representation of a thought, of an idea. Merleau-Ponty was aiming at transcending also Empiricist positions, for which “the word is only a psychic phenomenon comparable to a neurological stimulus” (Lewis 1966, 22). He wanted to address one central question: what meaning really means. Other traditions had already replied to the question in terms of lexicon of reference. Merleau-Ponty asked, more precisely: what does meaning mean for humans?
For Merleau-Ponty, meaning arises at the meeting point of la pensée (thought) and la parole (speech). His argument is intriguing and somehow controversial: thought emerges, or even exists only through speech, and at the time of speech. “The most familiar object seems curiously indeterminate until we have found its name; the thinker is not sure of his idea until he has formulated it” (23). Thought is ‘molded’ through performance, through speech. According to Merleau-Ponty, we all made the experience of this phenomenon. He provides a definition for la parole:
“La parole is then this paradoxical operation in which we attempt to rejoin, by means of words whose meaning is given, and of already available significations, an intention which in principle goes beyond and modifies, which itself determines in the last analysis the meaning of the words