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The Elemental Past

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image of Research in Phenomenology

In a 1951 debate that marked the beginnings of the analytic-continental divide, Maurice Merleau-Ponty sided with Georges Bataille in rejecting A. J. Ayer’s claim that “the sun existed before human beings.” This rejection is already anticipated in a controversial passage from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, where he claims that “there is no world without an Existence that bears its structure.” I defend Merleau-Ponty’s counterintuitive position against naturalistic and anti-subjectivist critics by arguing that the world emerges in the exchange between perceiver and perceived. A deeper challenge is posed, however, by Quentin Meillassoux, who argues that the “correlationism” of contemporary philosophy rules out any account of the “ancestral” time that antedates all subjectivity. Against Meillassoux, and taking an encounter with fossils as my guide, I hold that the past prior to subjectivity can only be approached phenomenologically. The paradoxical character of this immemorial past, as a memory of the world rather than of the subject, opens the way toward a phenomenology of the “elemental” past. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of the absolute past of nature and the anonymity of the body, as well as Levinas’ account of the elements at the end of the world, I argue that our own materiality and organic lives participate in the differential rhythms of the elements, opening us to a memory of the world that binds the cosmic past and the apocalyptic future.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon Eugene, OR 97403-1295 USA


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