Tuesday, June 01, 2004

So, if I were to tell you what my thesis is about, here's what I'd say. Pt I

In the early nineties, two very different intellectual communities developed a renewed interest in the work of a French existential phenomenologist from the 1940's and 50's called Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty was a contemporary and friend of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir for much of his life. Together they helped to found and edit the famous journal Les Temps Moderne. Merleau-Ponty is most famous for his Phenomenology of Perception, published in 1945, which sought to establish the primacy of the perceiving or 'lived' body ahead of both the physiological body and transcendental consciousness in the order of phenomena.

While he was widely regarded by his peers as the greatest of the post-war phenomenologists, interest in his work fell away in the anti-phenomenological climate of the Marxist, post-modernist 70's and 80's. It has recently simultaneously revived among, on the one hand, a particular breed of cognitive scientists and theorists of cognition who claim Merleau-Ponty as a precursor to their embodied, embedded cognitive science; and on the other, among feminist philosophers (particularly Australian feminist philosophers) seeking to establish an understanding of ethics that does justice to embodiment without effacing sexual difference.

As a consequence, the study of Merleau-Ponty's works today stands at a very strange intersection of interests, where reproductive ethics meets the science of consciousness, where neurophysiology confronts the sex-gender distinction, and where artificial intelligence meets the politics of identity and oppression.

I am interested in how Merleau-Ponty might catalyse a productive interaction along these lines. More specifically, I want to show how Merleau-Ponty's lived body forces us to reconsider the relationship between ethics and cognition, and allows us to grant ethical relations among embodied existents a kind of primacy, in the sense of grounding cognitive identities and more or less directly motivating cognition.

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