Nature: Course Notes from the College de France

Nature: Course Notes from the College de France


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Collected here are the written traces of courses on the concept of nature given by Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the Collège de France in the 1950s-notes that provide a window on the thinking of one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. In two courses distilled by a student and in a third composed of Merleau-Ponty's own notes, the ideas that animated the philosopher's lectures and that informed his later publications emerge in an early, fluid form in the process of being elaborated, negotiated, critiqued, and reconsidered.

Merleau-Ponty's project in these courses is an interrogation of nature, a task at the center of his investigation of perception, truth, and subjectivity. The first course, a survey of the historical elements in our concept of nature, examines first the Cartesian concept of nature and then historical and contemporary responses to Descartes, all with an eye toward developing a vision of nature more consistent with the findings of contemporary science.

In the second course, Merleau-Ponty takes up the problem of the relation of nature to ontology in general. Here, the key question is how the animal finds itself in its world. Because the human body is ultimately "an animal of movements and perceptions," humanity is intertwined with animality.

In the third course, "Nature and Logos: The Human Body," Merleau-Ponty assesses his previous findings and examines the emergence of the human body at the intersection of nature and Logos. This course, contemporaneous with the working notes for The Visible and the Invisible, allows us to observe the evolution of that work as well as to revisit the research he had begun in Primacy of Perception.

In these traces: a new reading of Descartes; a measured appreciation of Schelling; an assessment of recent developments in the sciences (both physical and biological) that leads to the notion of the body as a "system of equivalencies"; and an examination of the phenomenon of life. We have a wealth of material that allows us to reconsider Merleau-Ponty's thinking and to engage his philosophical project anew.

Before his death in 1961, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was chair in philosophy at the Collège de France.

Robert Vallier is completing his doctoral work on Merleau-Ponty and Schelling at DePaul University. He has also taught at the Universite de Paris-X (Nanterre) and at the College Internationale de Philosophie.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810114456
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 11/12/2003
Series: SPEP Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61) is the author of In Praise of PhilosophyThe Primacy of PerceptionSense and Non-Sense, SignsThemes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952-1960The Prose of the WorldAdventures of the DialecticConsciousness and the Acquisition of Language, and Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology, all published by Northwestern University Press.

Robert Vallier has taught at the Université Paris X-Nanterre and at the Collège International de Philosophie.

Read an Excerpt

Course Notes from the Collège de France

By Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 1995

Éditions du Seuil
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-1445-6

Chapter One The "Finalist" Element in Aristotle and the Stoics

We proceed toward the primordial meaning from the variations of its sense. Aristotle insists on the idea of an orientation toward a type, an order, a destination. So when Aristotle says that the nature of light bodies is to rise, a qualitative idea of destination is attached to Nature. The movement in space (rising) is secondary. What counts is the kinship between the light body and the heights as a qualitatively defined region. The whole of Nature is here divided into qualitatively defined regions or places for certain natural phenomena (sublunar phenomena); nature is the more or less successful realization of this qualitative destining of bodies.

The Stoic meaning of the word "nature" is close to this: it is the idea of a sympathy, of an action at a distance between the parts of the world, the idea of Destiny, of a liaison (and not of a connection of causes). But this course is not a study of these elements, because in order to reintroduce them, it is necessary to transform them. The return to dynamism cannot be a return to Stoicism.

This out-of-date definition has nevertheless not been without importance. The Aristotelian concepts are still present during the Renaissance. Bruno, as Father Lenoble underscores, is a prelude to the modern period, catching sight of the idea of the infinity of the World and of a plurality of possible Worlds; but he still speaks of a Soul of the World. Nature still remains narrowly construed in proportion to man. Before the sixteenth century, we are limited to recopying Theophrastus in order to know the number of species. At the end of the sixteenth century, we count 1,300 species; by 1682, John Ray counted 18,000 of them.

Chapter Two Nature as the Idea of an Entirely Exterior Being, Made of Exterior Parts, Exterior to Man, and to Itself, as a Pure Object

Origin of This Conception

This is a more recent conception with which we have yet to come to terms. Its origin is nonetheless very ancient. We find it in Lucretius, and Goldschmidt insisted on the isolation of the atom. Each piece of being is a totality enclosed within its own "naked" or "disrobed" state. There is a kinship between the idea of the atom and individualism. There is no natural society; society is a utilitarian creation (Diogenes Laertius). We must therefore not get mixed up in it. Likewise, Epicurus does not recognize natural sentiments between parents and children. But the Renaissance did not like this aspect, preferring the concept of the alma mater to it.

Scientific discoveries did not provoke changes in the idea of Nature; rather, the change in the idea of Nature allowed for these discoveries. Thus it was a qualitative conception of the World that prevented Kepler from accepting the law of universal gravitation. He failed to substitute a Nature where Being is everywhere and always homogeneous for a Nature divided into qualitatively distinct regions (Koyré).

Nor was it in order to refute the idea of finality that Descartes and Newton posited the new idea of Nature. Finality, for them, isn't rejected, but sublimated in God. The new element resides in the idea of infinity, derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. From this point on, Nature is made double, as naturans and as naturata. Thus, all that could be interior to Nature takes refuge in God. Meaning finds its refuge in the naturans; naturata becomes product, pure exteriority.

Nevertheless, from the moment that we think the idea of infinite creation, the scission becomes not obligatory, but enticing. The opposition naturans-naturata dates from the twelfth century (in Averroës); but the Judeo-Christian idea did not have the role of positing this scission. In Natura naturata, the word "Nature" is conserved, and this allows Aquinas to append the Greek idea of Nature [to it]. There will be two philosophies of Nature: one to describe Nature, the "state of Nature" before original sin, and another for after it, when the Good and Nature cannot be posited together.

It is Descartes who will first posit the new idea of Nature, by drawing the consequences from the idea of God.

The First Idea of Nature in Descartes

If God is thought as infinite, we can no longer ultimately distinguish attributes in Him; were they distinguished, one would have to take precedence over the other. Consequently, will and understanding henceforth become identical.

What results from this for the World? The World produced by a God of such a nature is constituted in the order of finality. Nothing that God produces is unforeseen by Him; the effects are given with the causes. In this sense, the World foreseen has a cohesion: it is constituted in the order of finality and is perhaps thought according to ends (Laporte).

But even if the World is eminently finalist, finality does not express what happens in God. In God, ends and means are indiscernible; their agreement is self-evident. God does not pursue ends, because in Him there is not an anteriority of the Whole to the parts, not a separation between ends and means (thesis of Fr. Gibieuf). The word "finality" no longer retains any meaning except for man, insofar as he sees a harmony of the World. But the human cannot embrace the internal harmony of the World, because he can grasp only its parts, never The Whole. He cannot embrace the world taken collectively [monde "collectivé"].

It follows that God, with no need to see the harmony of the World, is beyond finality, and that man, unable to see the harmony, is on this side of finality. Finality in Descartes becomes a useless notion. The idea of finality, as choice between diverse possibles, is no longer applicable because it can express neither what happens in God nor what human beings see (thesis of Gilson).

Hence it also follows that Nature, in the image of God, is at least indefinite if not infinite. Nature loses its interior; it is the exterior realization of a rationality that is in God. Finality and causality are no longer distinguished, and this indistinction is expressed in the image of the "machine," an image that blends together a mechanism and an artificialism. There must be an artisan, and in this sense, such an idea is anthropomorphic.

Nature thus becomes a synonym of existence in itself, without orientation, without interior. It no longer has orientation. What we thought earlier as orientation is now only mechanism. The apparent division of Nature becomes imaginative and results only from laws. Insofar as Nature is partes extra partes, only the Whole truly exists. The idea of Nature as exteriority immediately entails the idea of Nature as a system of laws. The figure of the World results automatically from the play of the laws of matter, to the point that even if God had created chaos, the play of laws should have led this chaos to take on the figure of the World such as it is. "Further, I showed what the laws of Nature were, and without basing my arguments on any principle other than the infinite perfections of God, I tried to demonstrate all those laws about which we could have any doubt, and to show that they are such that, even if God created many worlds, there could not be any in which they failed to be observed. After this, I showed how, in consequence of these laws, the greater part of the matter of this chaos had to become disposed and arranged in a certain way, which made it resemble our heavens" (Discourse, V). If God is infinite, then certain laws-the laws of every possible World-would result from it. Nature is the auto-functioning of the laws, which derives from the idea of the infinite.

Now if we allow that the existence of the World is contingent and suspended on a creative act, then once its existence is posited, the essence of this World would derive necessarily and intelligibly from the infinity of God. There is complete adequation of the World and of the possible; hence it follows that there is no longer a need for the idea of finality-that is, for the idea of a force battling against a certain contingency of things in order to bring them back into order, which supposes either the idea of disordered matter that will be informed by finality, or the idea of a causal order not constituting a rigorous determination of order and needing to be completed (Leibniz). Nature as a system of laws renders the presence of forces interior to it superfluous; the interiority is wholly within God.

Leibniz, reflecting on this idea, remarks: "His God [that of Descartes] does all that is feasible and passes, following a necessary and fatal order, through all possible combinations; but only the necessity of matter is needed for that, or rather his God is nothing but this necessity, or this principle of necessity acting on matter as it can."

Laporte's response to this is that the passage from chaos to order is not effected historically, but is rather presented as a passage that could have happened. But it doesn't matter whether or not God had anticipated the result of the spontaneous exercise of the laws of movement; in either case, the finality of God remains weak. If one imagined that God had created another Nature, Descartes would reply that given that the laws of this given Nature are eternal, the result would have been a kind of conflict that would have finally ended up with the World that we have before our eyes.

The gap established by Leibniz between the World and God is not like this. God does not realize every possible [world]. But this gap cannot be absolute, because there are reasons of choice: the best possible. This means that the realized World is the one that possesses the most plenitude. This is a problem of minimum and maximum, which has been resolved only by a sort of "divine mechanism," thanks to which the heaviest possible came into actual existence. The effort to distinguish God and matter (by means of the rift between the infinite understanding of God and the possibles) is thus nuanced by the presence of reasons justifying the realization of the choice, reasons intrinsic to the World in question and not willed by God. In this, Leibniz, no more than Descartes, does not absolutely succeed in separating God and matter.

Malebranche also commented on this text of Descartes; but, wanting to defend it, he only accentuated Descartes's orientation toward Spinozism:

Descartes knew that to best understand the nature of things, one had to consider them in their origin and in their nascent state, that one had to begin always by those that were the most simple, and go first by principle: that one should not have to place oneself in difficulty if God had formed his works little by little in the simplest ways, or if he had produced them all at once: but however God had formed them, in order to know them one should have to consider them at first in their principles, and take care only in the following, if what one had thought agreed with what God had made. He knew that the laws of Nature by which God conserves his works in the order and the situation in which they subsist are the same laws as those by which He was able to form and arrange his works: because it is evident to all those who attentively consider things that if God had not arranged all at once the whole of his work in the manner in which he arranged time, then all the order of nature would be reversed, since the laws of conservation would be contrary to the order of the first creation. If the whole universe rests in the order that we see it, it is because the laws of movement that conserve it in this order had been capable of placing it there. And if God had placed them in an order different from that in which they become placed by these laws of movement, all things would be reversed and placed by force of these laws in the order that we see presently.

It is for us that the possible genesis must be presented as it is presented in Descartes, but this is not valid in itself. Such is the first part of Malebranche's argument. But in the second part of it, Malebranche insists on the fact that the laws of Nature assure the maintenance of the World. That proves that the same laws were able to lead to this World. Otherwise, if there had been other laws at the origin, the World would be different; but de facto it is not, and de jure, cannot be. For otherwise, God would not know what He was doing, and would be behaving like a child. Malebranche presents Descartes's thesis as an affirmation of the "ideal" genesis of the World, going from the simple to the complex; then he declares that this ideal genesis produces this World. Hence it follows that real genesis proceeds according to ideal laws discovered by the philosopher.

Must we not then reverse the thesis of continual creation? To assert that the existence of the World is just as contingent at every moment as it had been at the origin-is this not also to say that the creative act is renewed at every moment or that there is no more creation at every moment than there is at the origin? The World that continues to be at every moment, if it does indeed continue to be, must be such as it is.

Here there is the assertion of both an equally radical contingency and necessity at the same time.

Descartes thus allows that God could have created the World wholly differently from how I think it, "just as an industrious clockmaker can make two watches that mark the same hours in the same way, and between the two there would be no difference in exterior appearance, but which have nothing similar in the composition of their gears. Here it is certain that God has an infinity of means, by each of which he could have made all the things of the World appear such that they now appear, whether or not it is possible for the human mind to know which of these means He wanted to use to make them." But we have a moral certitude that things happened like this, a certitude comparable to that of the decoder who happens to give a coherent meaning to a rather long passage; we even have a "more-than-moral" certitude of it, which is the certitude that God is "sovereignly good and the source of all truth," a certitude that extends to all that is demonstrated in and by mathematics and physics. The order is here de jure; no need for a finality to put the things back in order.

There is here a Spinozism, insofar as

finality is the exercise of the infinite thought of God;

Nature is like God-a being that is all that it is able to be, absolute positivity, essence itself, else it would not have been able to be. Experiment has only an auxiliary role in physics: it helps us to not get lost as we proceed, but never serves as proof. When we confront Descartes with arguments based on experiments, he answers that it is as if we wanted to demonstrate with a bad square that the angles of a triangle are not equal to two right angles; his physics, like his geometry, is deduced. Exterior Nature, as a result, would be synonymous with the simple nature of which the Rules speak, which seems to present all the same characteristics (cf. Montesquieu: "The nature of a government is what makes it be such"). Reality possesses a certain quiddity from which all that belongs to it can be drawn.

Descartes thus moves toward a Spinozist positivism. For example, in his critique of the Aristotelian definition of movement (which ends by turning movement into rest, defining it by its end: natural place), nowhere, says Descartes, do we find a thing that has its own disappearance as its end. Herein is the idea that essence is posited by itself. Just as there is inertia in physics (rectilinear uniform movement being reduced to itself), so too is there a type of ontic inertia in essence. [This is] not the principle that leads "what is" to non-Being from within. What is, insofar as it is, is true. [This is rather] the emergence [surgissement] of a being that we call the World and that cannot not be a true being. Thus the idea of Nature results from the priority given to the infinite over the finite. And so it will enter into crisis as soon as this priority is put into question again.


Excerpted from NATURE by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Copyright © 1995 by Éditions du Seuil. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Translator's Acknowledgments
Translator's Introduction

First Course. The Concept of Nature, 1956-1957

Part 1. Study of the Variations of the Concept of Nature
1. The "Finalist" Element in Aristotle and the Stoics
2. Nature as the Idea of an Entirely Exterior Being, Made of Exterior Parts, Exterior to Man, and to Itself, as a Pure Object
3. The Humanist Conception of Nature
4. The Romantic Conception of Nature

Part 2. Modern Science and Nature
1. Classical and Modern Physics
2. Notions of Space and Time
3. The Idea of Nature in Whitehead

Second Course. The Concept of Nature, 1957-1958: Animality, the Human Body, and the Passage to Culture
1. Animality: The Tendencies of Modern Biology
2. Animality: The Study of Animal Behavior

Third Course. The Concept of Nature 1969-1960: Nature and Logos: The Human Body
First Sketch
Second Sketch
Third Sketch: The Human Body
Fourth Sketch: Two Preliminary Studies
Fifth Sketch
Sixth Sketch
Seventh Sketch: Man and Evolution: The Human Body
Eighth Sketch: The Human Body


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