The following extracts are taken from Merleau-Ponty’s address, delivered on January 15, 1953. This translation is in the volume bearing M-Ponty’s title for his address, “In Praise of Philosophy,” published as a single volume by Northwestern University Press in 1963.
Our relationship to the true passes through others. Either we go towards the true with them, or it is not towards the true that we are going.
Now we have said that there is no solitary truth. Are we therefore on a revolving wheel? We are, but it is not the wheel of the skeptics. It is true that in the last resort there is no judge, that I do not think according to the true alone, nor according to myself alone, nor according to the others alone, because each of the three has need of the other two and it would be a non-sense to sacrifice any one. A philosophical life always bases itself on these three cardinal points.
…to philosophize is to seek, and this is to imply that there are things to see and to say. Well, today we no longer seek. We “return” to one or the other of our traditions and “defend” it. Our convictions are founded less on perceived values and truths than on the vices and errors of those we do not like. We love very few things, though we dislike many. Our thinking is a thought in retreat or in reply.
Having passed a certain point of tension, ideas cease to develop and live. They fall to the level of justifications and pretexts, relics of the past, points of honor; and what one pompously calls the movement of ideas is reduced to the sum of our nostalgias, our grudges, our timidities, and our phobias.
Our common peril, the shared danger now confronting all living beings on this planet, is one we know through each other. The scientists, certainly, perform a crucial and noble role in alerting us to the perils of our laziness, our indecision, our acceptance of the destructiveness daily portioned out by the self-aggrandizing mediocrities who regard themselves as our rulers. Additionally, we share and create the atmosphere of awareness through our communications and action through meeting, further amplifying and clarifying the central task that is our gasping for air and thirst for water, the need to stop feeding the sun and starving the earth. This truth–or, these truths–arise in the course of our being and breathing, conversing and traversing the dimension of sociality, now completely folded into our daily affairs. Truth has come to us, is impressed upon is, almost each day’s newest update containing information more dire and demanding than that preceding.
Merleau-Ponty was addressing fellow academics, many of them professors of philosophy, so his critique of thinking made mediocre and vulgarized by personal dislikes, had a cachet specific to his time and place. However, there is still something applicable in his meditation upon falling back upon traditions of thought and simply defending from there, as distinct from seeking: seeking truth, seeking clarity, seeking survival. Today, that is our search, a path upon which we are impelled by the force of our circumstances and our felt awareness of their scorching breath. We rightly seek to understand, to comprehend, the movement of events and our possibilities within the flow of time and locale, and it is not entirely amiss that we employ familiar tools: science, technology, social analysis in the form of Marxist and ecological critiques. These, and many other ways of organizing our insights, deliver us from simply thrashing about in the gusher of incoming alarm and bad news. We need a “place” for dis-passionate analysis, a reflective step away from the nonstop flow of data and the swirl of events.
Ours is not a society that encourages philosophy, save as a very occasional ornament to show that our so-called culture is something more and other than solely making money and forcing our intentions upon the rest of the world. For philosophy, the body needs rest, the nerves need relaxation, and life requires a modicum of peace and liberty. In the highly stressed shooting gallery that the USA has become, these qualities are in very short supply; the lives of most people are not conducive to creativity, relaxation, or thoughtful reflection. They are, instead, devoted to hours of escapism alternating with meaningless drudgery.
In his time, Plato envisioned a Republic in line with the class bias of his own society, ruled by “philosopher kings.” Later, humanity passed through a phase where monarchs appointed by divine force carried forth the affairs of those beneath them. Later still, the rise of commerce and the exploitation of human labor powered a society producing goods and profits. Now, we are awash in goods but little good, profits without prophets, the sacrifice of real value–the living world–for abstractions of numbers in accounts. We have come a long way since the notion of philosopher kings, but we have also lost something, something that can and must be made possible: a society in which philosophy as the kernel of human endeavor and life, is the daily province of all humanity. As Merleau-Ponty said, it is seeking of truth in the skein of relationships, a fabric woven and unfolded in the quest to refine the questions themselves. This life is possible only when we finally unburden ourselves of the wholly artificial scarcity, widespread suffering, and insane destructiveness that is now business-as-usual.
The question is being put to us by Being, and our response is the one we live out. Questions can be difficult companions and even fatal to those who do not adequately keep company with them. We are being questioned in our being, and we can only answer with our choice to live–or die. No less a decision will suffice, no artifice will tide us over.