From Encountering Other Languages to the Language of Phenomenology: Merleau-Ponty and the Problem of Speech



Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of language is a central yet underdeveloped component of his total philosophical project. The recent publication of his 1953-1954 lectures on The Problem of Speech (2020) sheds light on his understanding of language at a critical moment in the development of this thought. In this talk, I interpret some key themes from the lectures. (1) Merleau-Ponty provides a dialectical account of the emergence of the mature philosophical and phenomenological understanding of speech and language. A key moment of this dialectical process is the encounter with foreign languages, which challenges our captivity and captivation within our own language. Merleau-Ponty illustrates this through the example of the European linguist’s encounter with the Chinese language. (2) The discussion of the encounter with other languages allows Merleau-Ponty to propose the idea of a “concrete universality” of human linguistic experience in spite of the genuine and radical disparities between human languages. I propose that we understand language as a “lateral universal” (Lau 2016). (3) The understanding of language advanced here has consequences for phenomenological method. Because phenomenology requires a language, and because the phenomenologist’s way of being in the world is pervasively linguistic, language cannot be simply and directly suspended at the outset of phenomenology. However, Merleau-Ponty’s indirect method can bring it into view for the phenomenologist.