Booknotes

Faith and Good Faith, Maurice Merleau-Ponty

My interest in this essay found in Sense and Non-Sense was piqued by reference to it in Conall Cash’s paper at the recent, 2019 Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference on “Truth and Intersubjectivity in Merleau-Ponty’s Political Thought”. It is a very short essay, mostly on Catholic faith and connection with political commitment.

There are a few interesting passages on the relationship between Catholicism and power, government, and ideology. Merleau-Ponty recounts an anecdote in which monks assert that a government has a right to an oppressive police force, and a Catholic could oppose such a government only as a private citizen and not as a Catholic. Catholics, qua Catholics, cannot be counted on for social matters and defend only the spirit and the Church. This is because: “God, unlike things, does not need time and space in order to exist: He is everywhere, and nowhere in particular.” Merleau-Ponty follows this with the observation that, in God, perfection has already been achieved and cannot be increased, there is no longer any good to be done. ‘The expression, β€œto do good” loses its sense because good resides only in the spirit and finally in God, who is eternal.’

Merleau-Ponty refers frequently to the ambiguity of the Catholic’s position. “Man could not be returned to God unless he had been separated from Him. ‘Fortunate the fault that merited such a Redeemer.’” In fact, humanity became humanity through sin, acquiring knowledge of good and evil and the task of returning to Creation through faith. God is to be found as interior, intimior intimo meo, and as exterior too. The former means that clarifying one’s ideas and sincerely expressing them is an act of faith, since sincerity to truth is fidelity to God. What follows is that, “The Catholic as Catholic has no sense of the future: he must wait for that future to become part of the past before he can cast his lot with it.” The Catholic must also have faith in things not seen; he or she must be reliant but who must know on what he or she relies, scio cui credidi. Merleau-Ponty goes on to talk about the incarnation; what he seems to be saying is that we know the world is reduced to visible objects under an infinite gaze, even if we do not apprehend those objects. Man and faith depends on knowledge, God depends on commitment. Merleau-Ponty’s point emerges: the Catholic is never fully committed to anything and dwells in ambiguity.

Cash, in his paper, has a more elegant summary of this ambiguity, which speaks of pure faith as pure interiority and pure knowledge, pure determination, as pure sincerity.

Thus, we reach the passage that really sparked my interest:

From the moment we do something, we turn toward the world, stop self-questioning, and go beyond ourselves in our action. Faith – in the sense of an unreserved commitment which is never completely justified – enters the picture as soon as we leave the realm of pure geometrical ideas and have to deal with the existing world. Each of our perceptions is an act of faith in that it affirms more than we strictly know, since objects are inexhaustible and our information limited.

My curiosity is as to whether the resolution of part of the phenomenal body into part of the objective body, as might occurred in device equivocation, affirms too much. I wonder whether it reduces an importantly invisible thing into a visible thing, and violates what Merleau-Ponty elsewhere (in The Visible and the Invisible) calls “la foi perceptive“. Perhaps it could be that we know too much, too sincerely about devices (or in the reflective moments or stages of skill acquisition.)