In Search of Lost Speech: From Language to Nature in Merleau-Ponty’s Collège de France Courses
In this paper I track the development of Merleau-Ponty’s inquiries into language by way of the themes of institution and nature in his Collège de France lectures of 1953-1960, in particular, The Problem of Speech (1953-54) and Institution and Passivity (1954-55). I have both exegetical and substantive aims. The exegetical aim is to emphasize the continuity in Merleau-Ponty’s thought over this transitional period against those interpretations that present a starker contrast between Merleau-Ponty’s early and late work. The substantive aim is to demonstrate that the themes of language and nature are deeply interwoven in Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, with institution serving as an important mediating concept. Language, he comes to see in his latest approaches to the topic, is situated between natural and artificial institutions. These insights are of importance not only for Merleau-Ponty scholars working on themes of language and nature, but also for current work in phenomenology of language and phenomenologically inspired embodied approaches to language in the cognitive sciences. For both the exegetical and substantive aims, a careful study of the recently published The Problem of Speech lectures from 1953-1954 is instructive. It helps us understand how Merleau-Ponty’s inquiries into expression from the years following Phenomenology of Perception directly lead to the central themes of the late work such as the inquiries into institution and passivity, and the reflections on nature.
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