Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the question of biological continuism

Summer 2012

This essay will demonstrate how, fifty years ago, Maurice Merleau-Ponty had moved far beyond Heidegger to accomplish the kind of profound reconsideration of human relations with other animals that Derrida urged in his late writings but could not himself pursue. Merleau-Ponty’s work has been foundational for the new interdisciplinary movement of biosemiotics, and it anticipates by many decades Cary Wolfe’s call for more specific attention to the ‘embodiment, embeddedness, and materiality’ of our consciousness as it coevolved with us and other animals. While Heidegger rejected serious engagement with evolution and its consequences, Merleau-Ponty insisted upon it. For him, no rupture occurred during the millennia of our co-evolution with the other creatures. While there is no abyssal divide, however, there are nevertheless profound differences within a ‘strange kinship’ which is not a hierarchical but a lateral relation, or Ineinander. The essay will show how he carefully evaluated the philosophical consequences of leading evolutionary biology of the 1950s, Uexküll’s Umwelt theory, and the animal studies of Tinbergen and Lorenz, in order to develop his account of Homo sapien’s silent appearance on the evolutionary scene and continued intertwining with the lives of our animal kin.  

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NF 76 The Animals Turn