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.

Foucault and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors in ROTPP Vol. 2.1

Musical MetaphorsThe latest issue of Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics (Vol. 2, No. 1) has been published and contains my article, Foucault’s Polyphonic Genealogies and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors. For those interested, here’s the abstract.


In this essay I highlight the complexity of Foucault’s thought through an examination of the diverse philosophical traditions—from Kant, to Nietzsche, to Foucault’s phenomenological lineage via Cavaillès and Canguilhem—that influence his own distinctive project. In addition, I identify key Foucauldian concepts worthy of continued reflection and offer, as my own contribution to the dialogue, various musical analogies as hermeneutical and analytical “tools” that (1) illuminate and clarify Foucault’s ideas and (2) provide a coherent way to understand episteme change.

Resistance Through Re-narration Available Online at African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society

For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.

Part I: Phenomenological Explorations of Music

guitare-jamie-eva_picasso.jpgAs Bruce Ellis Benson explains in chapter two of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, we tend to think that a musical composition is finished when the piece in its “final” version is written down.  However, there are a number of assumptions that we should question in connection with such a conclusion.  First, why assume that a process of revisions always leads to a better version, much less to the “perfect” version?  Beethoven, for example, was known for ceaselessly revising and offering a number of variants for musical passages and even entire sections of his symphonies. Even if we grant that his revisions generally improved his work, why should we necessarily conclude that they always did?  Second, is it not the case that pressing deadlines, familial responsibilities, or creative inertia also factor into to a piece coming to completion. That is, the artist may not in fact be satisfied with his or her final version, and yet the work must be brought to a close.  If this is the case, then we might even say that the composer is aware of the imperfections in his or her work-the places that at some later time, he or she if given the time, would want to change or develop the work.  Third (and closely related to the second point),  is there a sense in which a composition becomes “fixed” and definite when written down, or is it the case that even for the composer there is a certain “indefiniteness” and indeterminacy involved in his or her work even when the composition is “finished”?  Arguing for the latter, Benson states that although composers have “reasonably” definite intentions, “it would be impossible for their intentions to encompass all of the details of any given piece.”[1]  In other words, often or perhaps even most of the time, the composer himself is unsure exactly how he wants every aspect and detail of the work to sound until the piece is actually played with a specific group and with very particular instrumentation.  As Benson highlights, Mozart would at times perform different versions of the same piece to a group of friends in order to seek their input as to which version they thought best.  Having performed in several jazz orchestras and dabbled in jazz composition myself, I find this claim rather convincing.  It was often the case that our director, who was an accomplished composer and arranger, would present us with his scores and then during the rehearsal time, numerous changes would be made-changes that he could not foresee until the actual music appeared.  Clearly, he had a definite intention of how he wanted the piece to sound, yet the various intricacies of tempo, dynamics, and so forth were not solidified.  

But what about after all these things are made more precise, is it the case that at that point the work is finished?  This leads us to the next issue, viz. what counts as the correct interpretation of a piece?   To illustrate, Benson cites Edward Cone who comments on the difficulties performers face in playing Chopin’s music,

The performer’s first obligation, then, is to the score-but to what score?  The autograph or the first printed edition?  The composer’s hasty manuscript or the presumably more careful copy by a trusted amanuensis?  The composer’s initial version or his later emendation? [and so on].[2]  

To be sure one might give good reasons for choosing and preferring one version over another.  But still we must recognize that performers, conductors and arrangers play a role in the process of composing.  That is, the performers, conductors and arrangers in some genuine sense continue to compose a work that is already as it were “finished.”[3] Yet, as we stated earlier, composers certainly have some definite intentions, but how extensive those intentions are is another issue.  Also, the fact that composers may not even be cognizant of places of indeterminacy in their own compositions until the music is actually performed suggests that a determinate intention, though having some definiteness to it, may also “contain” what we might call a kind of built-in-flexibility that does not destroy its identity. 


[1] Bruce Ellis Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue:  A Phenomenology of Music.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 67. 

[2] Edward T. Cone, “The Pianist as Critic,” in The Practice of Performance Studies in Musical Interpretation, p. 244, as cited in Benson, Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 70. 

[3] This idea of on-going composition strikes me as having something in common with Gadamer’s hermeneutical insight that texts always exhibit an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds.  Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes: “Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way, for the text belongs to the whole tradition whose content interests the age and in which it seeks to understand itself.  The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and his original audience.  It certainly is not identical with them, for it is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter and hence by the totality of the objective course of history. […] Not just occasionally but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author.  That is why understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well.“(Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed. trans. and revised Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York:  Continuum, 2004),  p. 296).