Book Plug: Merleau-Ponty and Theology by Christopher Ben Simpson

Christopher Ben Simpson’s recent book, Merleau-Ponty and Theology, is the first book-length study bringing Merleau-Ponty’s thought into conversation with Christian theology. Simpson’s claim is that Merleau-Ponty’s insights, particularly those regarding the material realm (the “corporeal”), human bodies as living bodies (the “corporal”), and human social bodies (the “corporate”), can help one “think through afresh such Christian doctrines of creation, theological anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology” (ix). The book is structured in two parts. Part One focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical contributions, and Part Two offers specific “sites of interaction between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and Christian theology” (ix).

Given some of my recent work on Foucault and Gadamer, I was drawn to Simpson’s discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of our social reality and truth as “sedimented.” From one perspective, the idea seems to be that our social world—a world into which we are both thrown and which we actively construct—is fluid and open to change yet is also determinate and thus allows for the establishment of shared languages, traditions, and practices. Unlike other non-human animals, we do not simply “get used to an environment”; rather, “we think, we engage in symbolic behavior and so ‘institute “cultures”’ as a particularly human order of sedimentation. There are multiple ‘fields’ beyond the ‘“natural body”’ and its modifications: ‘imaginary fields, ideological fields, mythical fields’” (Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 124; Simpson, 76). From another perspective, Merleau-Ponty describes truth as a sedimentation. Here the idea is that our present truth also involves past truths that have proven themselves as true; however, present truth, being historical and contextualized, is not a simple repetition of the past in the present. Stated differently, past truths must be taken up in new ways that speak to the realities of our own time. Tradition is not static, but dynamic, allowing “for both continuity and novelty” (145).

In Part Two, 8.2, Simpson discusses how various Christian thinkers including Maximus and Augustine have conceived of Christian tradition in ways consonant with Merleau-Ponty’s insights. Augustine, for example, emphasizes the historical and “fitting” character of revelation. Commenting on Augustine’s view, Simpson writes, “The revelatory ‘oracles’ of God were presented through and to humans in history ‘by certain signs and sacraments suitable to the times’ (Augustine, The City of God, VII.32, XVIII.41). Revelation, Augustine writes, was only understandable and ‘suited to our wandering state’ (Augustine, The Trinity, IV.1.1,2) inasmuch as it spoke to us through some created and so changeable (historically mutable) substance (Augustine, The City of God, XVI.6; Augustine, The Trinity, I.1.1,2, II.3.9,16, II.5.15,25). Thus revelation condescends, ‘stoops’ to us in order to ‘nourish our understanding and enable it to rise up to the sublimities of divine things’ (Augustine, The City of God, XV.25; Augustine, The Trinity, I.1.1,2). Lastly, similar to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of tradition as that which is “handed over,” given, received, and reconfigured for the present, Christian thinkers such as Irenaeus and Gregory of Nazianzus have likewise understood the movement of Christian tradition as that which involves a “preserved continuity, unity, and catholicity in the midst of continually different and creative cultural and historical appropriations” (147).

Simpson covers many other theological topics such as divine transcendence, Christ as “vinculum between God, humanity, and nature,” God in the world, embodied spirituality, the Spirit and the Church, and so forth. Those interested both in gaining a deeper understanding of key concepts and emphases in Merleau-Ponty’s thought and (re)thinking traditional Christian themes in a phenomenological key will find Simpson’s book a treat.

Part I: Fanon’s Descent Under the Burden of the White Gaze

In his book, Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon challenges Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive notion of a Frantz Fanon corporeal schema and substitutes his own schemata, first an historical-racial schema, and second an epidermal racial schema.  Briefly stated (and more on this later), Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema describes the way in which the body’s agency makes manifest the historical world.  For Merleau-Ponty, our bodies are not objects in space, rather they inhabit space and through them we experience the world and the other.  In so far as the body is able to participate in and transform its historico-cultural horizon, it is free; in so far as its capacity for expression and its ability to alter its own history and given context are denied, it is not free.[1]

With this background in mind, we turn to Fanon’s text in order to understand why he substitutes his historical-racial schema and epidermal racial schema for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of a corporeal schema.  Fanon argues that a phenomenology of blackness—the experience of skin difference and of being the black other—can only be understood in the encounter with whiteness or more precisely, the white imagination.[2] That is, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, Fanon was “content to intellectualize these differences”; however, once he entered the white world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” he experienced his otherness and became aware of pre-theoretical racial attitudes which up to that point had not existed for him.[3] In his chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination.  As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!,” crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move,  Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.

I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, […]  Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from my self, and gave myself up as an object.  What did this mean to me?  Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body.  Yet this reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my idea.  I wanted simply to be a man among men.[4]

As Fanon takes up the white view of himself, he experiences its all-encompassing reach.  That is, his becoming a white-defined black other involved more than his present encounter with the child on the train; in essence, he entered into the white erasing and re-scripting of black history.  Not only is his present fixed by the white other, but his past is fixed as well.  The child’s unison refrain gives rise to polyphonic lines of “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism” and the like.

A few paragraphs before his description of the train episode with the child, Fanon mentions Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema, highlighting the difficulties that a black person experiences in a white-scripted world because of his skin color and the various meanings that have been given to these and other embodied differences.  In Merleau-Ponty’s account, the reciprocal and fitting relation between body and the world gives rise to the possibility of a mutual constructing and transforming of both.  The body is not a mere object in space, but rather is our way of being in a spatio-temporal world; it is the background “always tacitly understood.”[5] With his corporeal schema, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the body’s free agency in its ability to both disclose and transform the historical world.[6]

Fanon, however, is not satisfied with this generic schema and thus introduces his historical-racial schema, which is imposed on him by the white other.  For Fanon, Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive, universal rendering of the corporeal schema through which the self and world emerge does not account for the disparity of experience between whites and blacks with regard to their ability to actively participate and transform themselves and the world.  As Jeremy Weate explains,

In the interracial encounter, the White is able to participate in the schematization of the world, whilst the Black may not, for his skin difference closes down the possibility of free agency.  A white mythos inserts itself between the black body and its self-image, becoming the ‘elements used’ in a reflexive understanding of black subjectivity.  In contesting the terms of Merleau-Ponty’s account of bodily freedom, Fanon provides a genealogy of the existential unfreedom of the black body in the racialized encounter.”[7]


[1] Admittedly, I am speaking of the body in a reified way; however, body should not be understood as a res, but rather as a crucial aspect of the psychosomatic whole, which constitutes a human being.

[2] Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” p. 171.  See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 89.  In addition to Merleau-Ponty, Fanon perhaps also has Hegel and Sartre in mind, particularly the former’s dialectical understanding of recognition and reciprocity.  See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp. 191–97.  For an analysis of Fanon’s reflections on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, see Turner, “On the Difference between the Hegelian and Fanonian Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage,” in Fanon: A Critical Reader, ed. Lewis R. Gordon et al., pp. 134–51.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 90.

[4] Ibid., p. 92.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 115.  Elaborating his notion of body schema, Merleau-Ponty explains, “[b]odily space can be distinguished from external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading them out, because it is the darkness needed in the theatre to show up the performance, the background of somnolence or reserve of vague power against which the gesture and its aim stand out, the zone of not being in front of which precise beings, figures and points can come to light.  In the last analysis, if my body can be a ‘form’ and if there can be, in front of it, important figures against indifferent backgrounds, this occurs in virtue of its being polarized by its tasks, of its existence towards them, of its collecting together of itself in its pursuit of its aims; the body schema is finally a way of stating that my body is in-the-world” (Ibid., p. 115).

[6] Fanon describes with ironic overtones Merleau-Ponty’s account as follows, “[a] slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world seems to be the schema.  It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 91)

[7] Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” p. 172.