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Expression and The Structure of Behaviour

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Presented at ‘Workshop with Donald A. Landes on Merleau-Ponty and the Paradoxes of Expression’, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland, 18 May 2016. This is a work in progress and not for citation.

This paper is part of a workshop with Donald A. Landes on his book Merleau-Ponty and the Paradoxes of Expression. It summarises the ideas of Merleau-Ponty, and Landes’ take on these, before offering some critical comments on Landes’ chapter on The Structure of Behaviour.

Introduction #

I’m going to begin with a (very) brief summary of some of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, before quickly outlining the concepts around which Landes’ book is organised. After that, I’ll talk about The Structure of Behaviour (hereafter SB), and Landes’ understanding of it—that the paradoxical logic of expression is implicit in even this early work—before offering some comments: first, that a possible tension exists between Merleau-Ponty’s abiding emphasis upon perception and Simondon’s philosophy, a tension which is not, however, insoluble; and that by also incorporating Simondon’s notion of being as problematic, we can further develop an account of bodily behaviour counter to those like Hubert Dreyfus’s, that emphasise and valorise the achievement of smooth equilibriums.

Merleau-Ponty #

Merleau-Ponty is best known for his focus upon the perceiving body. This body is neither a passive object, nor a subject only in virtue of a constituting consciousness. Concerning the subject of perception, he replaces “consciousness with existence, that is, with being in the world through a body” (Merleau-Ponty 2012: 584 n. 23). Perception is involvement in the world through the medium of a body. As fundamentally embodied, it is perspectival. The world eludes full and complete apprehension, and extends beyond spatial and temporal awareness. Hence things appear ambiguous and indeterminate, and solicit ‘completion’, as the body is perpetually ‘motivated’ to maintain a ‘grip’ on experience. As perception spontaneously and prereflectively ’traces out’ objects, so subjects simultaneously ‘find’ themselves in the world and transform things into that world. Perceiving subject and object perceived are mutually constituted through the mediation of body. Thus, subjects are neither outwith the world, nor within it as a mere thing, but inhabit a world of already meaningful entities that at once transcend them, while speak to us of ourselves". Throughout, the body is not explicitly cognised, but is an opening onto or “point of view on the world” (Merleau-Ponty 2012: 73). This world is already apprehended as routes and blockages, tools that are intuitive or obscure, places that are habitable or hostile; that is, meaningfully, as possible ways of relating to and acting in it.

Donald Landes on Merleau-Ponty #

For Merleau-Ponty, bodily expression does not make public a thought that is already fully possessed, whether by indicating (empiricism) or re-presenting it (intellectualism). Rather, words accomplish thought. Only upon expression is a thought realised, and available for understanding. There is no interpretative distance between expression and expressed. Here is something of a paradox: we know what we meant only after expressing it. This brings us to Donald Landes’ book. As signalled by its title, the work is chiefly concerned with expression and its structure. It suggests that this structure is paradoxical, and that paradox is necessary for and constitutive of expression, and by extension, communication.

If expression, then, accomplishes nascent meaning, rather than externalising a determinate internal idea, from what does it emerge? Landes draws upon later Merleau-Ponty to suggest that speech, for example, occurs against a background ‘silence’. This is neither ’nothingness’ nor “the unspoken and preexisting language of thought”, but a latent, superabundant reserve both within, and overflowing, the order of manifest expression: “the felt presence of so many possibilities that are never made explicit” (Landes 2013: 8)

Here he takes up the work of Gilbert Simondon (2013, 2020). While Simondon is ultimately concerned about human and animal life, and in particular, human relations with technology, he begins with a root-and-branch reform of the concept of the individual. For him, any individual is not self-identical, but exists relative to a dimension he calls preindividual. Individual and preindividual are not discrete substances: they are two moments or movements in an individuating process, that produces individuals. The preindividual describes the reservoir of potential ‘before’ resolution into an individual, meaning, action, and so on. While logically antecedent, it is neither separate from nor prior to individuals, and is retained throughout individuation as potential for further transformation. It has a particular kind of equilibrium, drawn from thermodynamics: neither stable (which would be exhausted of energy) nor unstable (which would lack any coherence), but metastable: this indicates a precarious organisation where least modification of some parameter is sufficient to provoke transformation. Preindividual being, then, is a supersaturated or tensed system, rich in potential energy, that, unlike the fully-constituted individual, is not self-identical (Simondon 2013).

Simondon characterises the individuating process as one of ‘dephasing’. Strictly speaking, the preindividual is without phase: it is a “reservoir of intensities and problems” (Landes 2013: 25). Dephasing begins when a tension appears among these intensities, that provokes “resolution… and prolongation of those tensions in the form of a structure (my translation)” (Simondon 2013: 25).1 Individuation, then, is the resolution of a tension in the preindividual. The individual is this very resolution: a partial solution of the operation that instigates it. Becoming does not happen to being, but is being’s propensity to fall out of phase with itself and in so doing, to resolve itself. Finally, this process is transductive: every individual enters into the preindividual reserve for subsequent individuations. All structures remain metastable, retaining potential to dephase.

Landes understands expression as an instance of ‘metastable equilibrium’. This means that it is “precariously stable” (Landes 2013, 25): endlessly reconfigured by new expressions that—paradoxically—both draw upon and sustain it, take it up in order to surpass it. New expressions contribute their own latent possibilities to the precarious equilibrium. This is the central paradox of expression, ably captured by the term ‘coherent deformation’. While a given expression relies upon an established order of signification, both past and present, genuine expression is also creation that surpasses that order, taking up the weight of the past and present in order go beyond them. Poetry works within established language, but by some felicitous redistribution or deployment of a latent possibility, opens up a new trajectory of sense.

Expression, Landes holds, comprises a “trajectory of metastable equilibriums” (2013, 85). A new expression neither negates nor replaces a previous one, but prolongs it. This also refers to Jean-Luc Nancy’s (1993) notion of exscription, wherein each expression—in Nancy’s terminology, inscription—simultaneously exscribes all the latent content that overflows it. It prolongs, but also points away from, the latent, still indeterminate trajectories that sustain it. This makes expression inexhaustible in principle, though it may be corralled into less open configurations.

The Structure of Behavior #

Having said something of how Landes works in general with the ideas of Merleau-Ponty and Simondon, I’ll now return to the specific book by Merleau-Ponty that I’m discussing today, and also the associated chapter by Landes. Merleau-Ponty developed the theory of perception for which he is best known in Phenomenology of Perception (PhP), and revised this further in later works. However, in the earlier SB, he seeks “to understand the relations of consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social” (1967: 1). This resembles PhP in some respects, and departs from it in others. Like PhP, it seeks an alternative to realism and idealism: it proceeds from behaviour as agnostic in respect of these, so as to define it anew. Unlike PhP, it eschews phenomenological interrogation in favour of philosophical analysis of psychology and physiology. Its principle target is mechanistic behaviourism, which, for Merleau-Ponty, has too hastily expunged certain aspects of behaviour when rejecting Cartesianism. The work aims to reintroduce to behaviour a type of intentionality that is inconceivable in mechanistic terms, without at the same time reinstating intellectualist premises. It not only rejects certain ontological presuppositions of behaviourism—chiefly, that nature is the sum of external causal events; and that behaviour is explicable via reflex, as a causal reaction to stimuli located in physicochemical properties of an object—but suggests that these presuppositions are invalidated by behaviourism’s own findings.

Merleau-Ponty’s chief conclusion is that biological reactions do not reduce to organismic parts or localised stimuli. Animals do not exist within a world of bare objects that impinge unilaterally and mechanically via objective properties. A stimulus only is a stimulus because the organism inaugurates and projects around it a vital environment, or Umwelt, that “gives momentary meaning to all of the local excitations” (1967: 14).2 Animals respond to certain aspects of the external situation according to what, for them, makes sense: objects are not encountered as mere things, but relative to vital needs (Barbaras 2004): activity organises around the attractive or repellent, which do not reduce to physicochemical properties. Accordingly, ‘stimuli’ are not elementary properties, but the arrangement between organism and milieu.

To describe this arrangement irreducible to mechanism, Merleau-Ponty offers his own conceptualisation of form. Form is something that exists for active organisms: it does not describe a mere “additive whole” (Barbaras 2004: 218), but “total processes whose properties are not the sum of those which the isolated parts would possess” (Merleau-Ponty 1967: 49). For Merleau-Ponty, animal behaviour, while linked to its environment, is also active. Animals are not simply caused to act by their environment (or even by simple internal causal triggers). There is a reciprocal relation of organism and milieu: “the creation of certain relations” that compose “a unity of meaning” or signification (1967: 87). The establishment of behaviour, then, is a circular process, a negotation that gives rise to an active and dynamic form, that is “the mode of activity proper to the organism” (1967: 130). The fact that animals participate in this sense-making process suggests that stimulus cannot be defined independently of organism. An animal, then, has a hand in carving out its perspective on its world, in establishing “that part that is adequate to it” (1967: 105). Form is a kind of signification instantiated in vital behaviour. This behaviour is part of the organism’s reality, which is “not substantial but structural” (1967: 139).

Moving to higher behaviour does not entail a new category, only differentiation between “degrees of integration” (1967: 133). Merleau-Ponty specifies three such Gestalten: physical, vital and human. Physical order describes an equilibrium constituted relative to a external limit, whose activity tends towards rest. These external conditions might be “topographical… as in the distribution of electrical charges on a conductor; or… conditions which are themselves dynamic, as in the case of a drop of oil placed in the middle of a mass of water” (1967: 145). The point here is that activity reaches a limit point at which it is complete, and then ceases. Only with the biological or vital order does behaviour appear. Here, an organism “executes a work beyond its proper limits”, to actively establish its Umwelt “with respect to conditions which are only virtual and which the system itself brings into existence” (1967: 145–46). Before I turn to the third, human, order, it bears mentioning that Merleau-Ponty differentiates within living behavior according to degrees of autonomy. This turns on whether the relevant structure is “submerged in the content, or… emerges from it to become… the proper theme of activity” (1967: 103). In syncretic forms, behaviour is fully submerged in a concrete situation. In amovable forms, behaviours relate to contextual signals, but remain tied to situations that resemble those from which they emerged.

The human order adds a “third dialectic” (Merleau-Ponty 1967: 162): production of new structures. Thanks to symbolic form, behaviour can be liberated both from specific situations and species-defined ‘functional values’, to become the “proper theme of the activity that tends to express it” (1967: 120). Put otherwise, behaviour “no longer has only signification, [but] is itself signification” (1967: 122). It is available for a plurality of points of view—different “aspects of an identical thing” (1967: 116)—and can take objects as simultaneously available for multiple uses. Put otherwise, human symbolic behaviour introduces a new element: human action takes place, as it were, ‘under a description’. The same movement means something different—is a different act or behaviour—according to the description or context. Unlike in amovable form, its relationship to situations or meanings is not governed by logics of similitude or resemblance.

This also furnishes the existential capacity of “orientating oneself in relation to the possible” (1967: 176). For Merleau-Ponty, this capacity is what inaugurates the human world proper, and makes possible “new cycles of behaviour” (which amount to the same thing) (1967: 162). For humans, projects and purposes, and values underpinning these, appear against a structured, human background: ’nascent perception’ is of a human milieu. Yet such structures can be thematised, abstracted, given “new significance”, and finally surpassed (1967: 179). This makes the human dialectic ambiguous (or, paradoxical): the selfsame activity that engenders what apparently determinate structures has “as its meaning to reject them and to surpass them” (1967: 176).

Landes on Merleau-Ponty and Simondon #

Landes finds a paradoxical logic implicit in even this early work. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of reflex reveals a form of paradoxical, “directed activity between blind mechanism and intelligent behaviour” (Landes 2013: 64). Even basic, animal behaviours are orientated according to “current positions and potential movements”, addressed to a future situation that is not yet actual (2013: 64): what Landes calls, in his language of expression, a “future paradoxical ideal weight” (2013: 64). Even simple behaviour, then, “is expression” (2013: 60): activity wherein an interior expresses itself on the outside, where the interior does not preexist, but is produced though, the expression.

Similarly, more complex behaviours “respond to the situation by playing forward a past that is thereby paradoxically altered” (2013: 66). Bodily behaviour and gesture has its own kind of intelligence or “expressive creativity” (2013: 64): it is a “moving expression of its past and present towards a future that is present as metastable” (2013: 64). Landes suggests that nascent perception is already paradoxical, or ambiguous, as always self-transcending towards the ‘virtual’. The form or sense that grounds activity, then, is not only taken up but transformed: every activity “instates new lines of force” in an existing field. This makes the human situation dynamic: activity is “creation in the face of an evolving situation”, orientated in virtue of “unpredictable future encounters” (2013: 72).

Response (1): From Form to Information #

While recognising that Landes claims only that Merleau-Ponty tends towards the kind of equilibrium Simondon will eventually describe, a cursory response to this encounter might still wonder whether a tension exists between their respective positions of these two with respect to perception and sense. For Merleau-Ponty, bodily experience is founded in perception. This commitment to perceptual primacy obtains throughout his work: there is always presupposition of, and grounding in, primordial perceptual sense. In SB, form plays this role. In Simondon’s problematic, however, the preindividual is an ontogenetic operation that exists, as it were, one stage earlier. The preindividual cannot correlate with perception or, crucially, any notion of sense. It is by definition prior to the individual, whereas sense, however indeterminate or paradoxical, is a relation between individual and milieu that is, to a greater or lesser extent, already individuated.

Landes combines Merleau-Ponty and Simondon to develop a robust notion of the potential for transformation that resides in the order of expression. A body draws upon something latent within past and present, in order to create a future difference. Landes calls bodily movement a “paradoxical response”, insofar as it plays forward the past and present towards “a new situation, something that comes from an alternatively-configured one that shares neither its content nor its material form, but its sense” (2013: 64). I wonder whether conceiving this operation in terms of shared sense might not inhibit creative expressive potential, even if this is not fully grasped until the gesture is completed. A tension exists, then, between Merleau-Ponty’s position, where form is the “ultimate ground”, and Simondon’s, where the foundation resides in the movement, still incommensurable with sense, out of which sense emerges (2013: 68). This risks turning form into something that exists prior to, and then undergoes, transformation, rather than something that is, as it were, composed of transformations. Is metastability the metastable of the expressed, or does what is expressed express the metastable? I offer this tension as a topic for discussion. However, a potential response might be to bolster the processual dimension of sense, by supplanting the priority of form with the process of taking-form: the movement from preindividual towards sense, that Simondon calls information. This is the “formula of individuation” that regulates how, in this case, sense, will emerge, but does not preexist this operation, and is gradually elaborated through the transductive process of individuation (Simondon 2013: 31).3

Response (2): From Equilibria to Problems #

We could build this out further by recalling Simondon’s assertion that being is inherently problematic (2013). As noted, a problem emerges when a burgeoning tension within the preindividual reservoir of some domain leads to dephasing. This dephasing is the elaboration of the problem; the individual, by individuating itself, resolves the tension. Returning to bodily behaviour, this could be understood as a problem of varying orientation within a diverse world that ceaselessly insists in ways that are only partially predictable, and that solicits expressive responses.

Giving centrality to problems in expressive bodily behaviour allows us to avoid a tendency to overemphasise minimisation or even elimination of tension. This tendency is epitomised by Hubert Dreyfus’ notion of ‘skilful coping’ (Dreyfus 2013; Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1999). Dreyfus claims that in learning, agents gradually surpass general rules from which learning begins, to eventually respond spontaneously, non-reflectively, but intelligently to the situation in question. Dreyfus suggests that this entire process is geared towards the maintainence of what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘optimal grip’: an ongoing and implicit reorientation of the perceiving body, to discern objects adequately relative to current concerns. For Dreyfus, coping is not merely an important aspect of, or even structure within, embodied experience. It is strongly normative: we are at our most human when coping, which is intelligent but spontaneous smoothing over tensions in activity (Reynolds 2006).

As we have seen, SB already has a different, arguably more nuanced, account than the one outlined by Dreyfus (moreover, Gayle Salamon (2012) demonstrates convincingly that Dreyfus distorts optimal grip to fit with his own idea of coping, and that Merleau-Ponty makes no such strong claims about the direction and ultimate seamlessness of embodied activity). For Merleau-Ponty, overcoming structures and creating new ones is what is characteristically human. And, this precisely involves thematisation of, and not immersion in, a behavioural context. Indeed, skillful coping might be considered closer to what Merleau-Ponty would consider amovable, or even syncretic, behavior, insofar as it is correlated tightly with a context. While in SB human behaviour shuttles between degrees of integration, only creatively surpassing structure expresses properly human activity. Landes, by enjoining Simondon to suggest that behaviour is a moving trajectory of metastable equilibriums, strengthens this reading. For Simondon, problems or paradoxes are centrally implicated in the emergence of the new. They indicate that something cannot be straightforwardly absorbed into the existing state of affairs, and that it demands a creative response. Behaviour is a continual tension and release. A spontaneous grip on the world, that inaugurates and maintains a bodily form or sense, occurs alongside the creative inauguration and resolution of problems as the body moves through more or less familiar situations. The crucial difference is this: for Dreyfus elimination of tension is a telos. Jack Reynold rightly suggests that denies problems and tensions them their “incendiary power” (2006: 533). Problems and paradoxes, however, introduce something irreducible to the current equilibrium: something that can surpass it towards the future. Problems are not something accidental or undesirable that some individual must solve to restore a stable equilibrium. Building from Landes’ reading of the metastability of behaviour, we can suggest that formation of and response to problems—and the concomitant creative instigation of merely metastable equilibriums of sense—is a foundational aspect of expressive bodily being.

Works Cited #

Barbaras, R. (2004), The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology, trans. L. Lawlor and T. Toadvine, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Dreyfus, H. L. (2013), ‘The Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental’, in J. K. Schear (ed), Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate, 15–40, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Dreyfus, H. L. and S. E. Dreyfus (1999), ‘The Challenge of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Embodiment for Cognitive Science’, in G. Weiss and H. F. Haber (eds), Perspectives on Embodiment: The Intersections of Nature and Culture, 103–20, London: Routledge.

Landes, D. A. (2013), Merleau-Ponty and the Paradoxes of Expression, London: Bloomsbury.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1967), The Structure of Behaviour, tran. A. J. Fisher, Boston: Beacon Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012), Phenomenology of Perception, tran. D. Landes, London: Routledge.

Nancy, J-L. (1993), The Birth of Presence, trans. K. Lydon, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Reynolds, J. (2006), ‘Dreyfus and Deleuze on L’habitude, Coping, and Trauma in Skill Acquisition’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 14 (4): 539–59.

Salamon, G. (2012), ‘The Phenomenology of Rheumatology: Disability, Merleau-Ponty, and the Fallacy of Maximal Grip’, Hypatia 27 (2): 243–60.

Simondon, G. (2013), L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, Grenoble: Editions Jérôme Millon.

Simondon, G. (2020), Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information, tran. T. Adkins, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Von Uexküll, J. (2010), A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With ‘A Theory Of Meaning’, tran. J. D. O’Neil, London: University of Minnesota Press.

  1. “… une résolution des tensions premières et une conservation de ces tensions sous forme de structure”. ↩︎

  2. Here Merleau-Ponty draws upon a theory of the Umwelt developed by Jakob von Uexküll (2010). ↩︎

  3. “… l’information est la formule de l’individuation, formule qui ne peut préexister à cette individuation”. ↩︎