Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Onto-theology and the (sexual) incarnation of Being in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty

Does Being require embodiment in a being? This seems at first sight ruled out by Heidegger’s ontological distinction, the difference between Being and beings. Being ‘is’ what lets beings be, hence it is not itself a being. Indeed, it is precisely by withdrawing from the ontic order of beings that Being can disclose beings qua beings: by thus withdrawing it forms the receding background of non-being against the backdrop of which beings can appear as beings. In this way, the ontological difference is central to Heidegger’s thought. Forgetting this distinction is precisely what Heidegger reproaches the tradition of Western philosophy with – a forgetting that manifests itself in what he calls “onto-theology”: the conceptualization of Being as a being. In onto-theology, Being is conceived as the highest, best or most basic being that underlies all other beings – such as Plato’s idea of the Good, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Kant’s transcendental subject, Marx’s matter and Nietzsche’s Will to Power. It is this critique of onto-theology that motivates Heidegger’s rejection of religion: it may be tempting to identify Being – as that which lets everything be – with God, but God (if ‘He’ exists at all) is a being and as such already presupposes Being. Thus Being is more fundamental than God: Being is – so to speak – the ‘non-God’ behind God.

The semi-divine status of mortal man in Being and Time
But doesn’t Heidegger himself relativize the strictness of the ontological difference at various stages of his thinking? And doesn’t he thereby approach a form of onto-theology? For example, in the conceptual framework of Being and Time, Being is made relative to Dasein which from its directedness at death (Sein-zum-Tode) projects the world as the horizon of meaning within which all beings can appear. The anticipated death of Dasein forms the ultimate backdrop of non-being agains with beings can appear as beings. Thus the mortality of man becomes the very condition of possibility of the happening of Being itself, the Lichtung des Seins, the disclosure of beings. It has often been noted that this ontological prioritization of Dasein constitutes a kind of relapse into transcendental subjectivism (see for example William Blattner, Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism, Campbridge UP, 2005). This problem was probably one of the reasons why the second part of Being and Time remained unpublished and why the human being lost its central place in Heidegger’s later thought. What is rarely noted, however, is that Being and Time, with this ontological prioritization of Dasein, implies a form of onto-theology as well: mortal man, as the ‘place’ where Being happens, becomes a semi-divine being, on which all other beings depend. It is an interesting question whether and to what extent early Heidegger was influenced in this regard by the Christian understanding of human mortality as the key – in the humanity of Christ – to the process of Redemption.

The Greek temple discloses the concealing earth
Heidegger’s later notion earth as the repository of Being
In a later phase of Heidegger’s thought, the question of onto-theology reappears in his notion of “earth” as a the repository of the “mysteryof Being. Thus in The Origin of the Work of Art the ontological distinction – as the difference between Being and beings, between concealment and unconcealment – takes on the form of a “strife” between earth and world. In the concept of world we recognize without much trouble Heidegger’s earlier concept of world as it figured in Being and Time: world as the open horizon of meaning within which beings can appear to humans. The real innovation therefore lies in the notion of the earth as the concretized concealment underlying the unconcealment of the world. The earth “is by nature undisclosable... The earth is essentially self-secluding.” (The Origin of the Work of Art, p.47) For Heidegger, the earth is not primarily a “present-to-hand” mass of matter or the planet as astronomical object. His “earth” designates the dark, unknown and uncontrollable inside” of nature on the basis of which man lives. Man builds his world on the earth: as such, the earth is “always already” presupposed and remains unthought. The potentials that lie dormant in the earth determine the historical possibilities open to the human world. But it is precisely the concealment of these possibilities that opens up our world in its historical boundaries. The opening of the world takes place against the backdrop of the concealing earth, which as such always threatens to take the world back into itself, to overgrow and erode the world if we do not actively maintain, nurture and protect it. This dialectical interplay between earth and world is conceived by Heidegger as a pre-Socratic strife (polemos):

“The world, in resting upon the earth, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The earth, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the world into itself and keep it there.” (The Origin of the Work of Art, p.49)

In this struggle, where world and earth hold each other in a tense equilibrium, the earth is nevertheless ontologically primary: the earth, as the concealment that conditions the disclosure of beings, performs the function of Being. In this sense one can say that, just as Being is embodied by mortal man in Being and Time, so this embodiment is accomplished by the concealing earth in Heidegger’s later thought. But doesn’t this again bring Heidegger in the vicinity of onto-theology? Doesn’t the earth as the concealing-unconcealing force constitute a primordial, divine being on which all other beings (including man) depend for their appearance?

Heidegger’s earth and the prehistoric Earth Mother
As has been suggested by the deep ecology movement, Heidegger’s notion of the earth is reminiscent of the prehistoric Earth Goddess, the Earth Mother, worshiped in the many Venus figurines which according to archaeologists were the first religious expressions of prehistoric mankind. This Mother Goddess who survives in such later goddesses as Astarte, Demeter, Cybele and the Catholic quasi-goddess Mary stood for the female force in nature, the source of fertility and the periodic regeneration of nature, the eternal cycle of life and death, creation and destruction. This obviously does not mean that Heidegger’s ontological notion of earth was already anticipated by prehistoric man (although one may wonder – if Heidegger can hark back to pre-Socratic thought – whether a recourse to more ancient sources is not possible as well). For one, the prehistoric image of the divine force in nature as specifically feminine seems to have no correlate in Heidegger’s thought, where the earth remains neutral with respect to sexuality. My main point now is merely that this notion of earth – like Heidegger’s earlier focus on mortal man as the place where beings are disclosed – suggests a form of onto-theology which unsettles the rigor of the ontological distinction. Hence my opening question: Does Being require embodiment in a being?

Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh
In order to put this question in a somewhat broader frame and achieve a better view on the question of incarnation, it is worthwhile to enter into a brief discussion of Merleau-Ponty's notion of the flesh, which bears a striking resemblance to Heidegger’s earth. Although the body is implicitly addressed in Being and Time in the analysis of the ready-to-hand (zuhandene) tools to which Dasein stands in a bodily-pragmatic relationship, the body itself as the precondition of the intentional relation to the world is not thematized by Heidegger – not in Being and Time and not in his later thought. The phenomenological thematization of the body is, of course, primarily the merit of Merleau-Ponty. He has shown in ample detail how it is always through our bodies that we see, smell, feel, hear, in short, perceive things. “Consciousness is being toward the thing through the intermediary of the body.” (Phenomenology of Perception, p.138) With his notion of the flesh, Merleau-Ponty refers primarily to the concealing or receding character of the body as the medium of intentionality: the flesh is the body insofar as it hides itself in order to let the perceived object come to the fore. The hand – to give an example typical of Merleau-Ponty – that feels an object, is not itself felt. As soon as we try to feel this feeling hand with our other hand, the first hand stops being the medium of intentionality and the second hand becomes that medium, which in its turn remains unfelt. This feeling but unfelt hand is an instance of the flesh.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Flesh as incarnation of Being
By extension, Merleau-Ponty applies this notion of flesh to any medium we use with our bodies to perceive the world. The cane with which a blind man explores his environment a second example from Merleau-Ponty fades into the background of attention in order to bring the explored environment to the fore: as such, the cane becomes one with the flesh of the feeling hand. In the same way, according to Merleau-Ponty, every receding background – the entire perceptual field that withdraws from attention in order to present a perceptual Gestalt – is part of the flesh as the medium of intentionality. Body and world melt together in their receding aspects to form the flesh against the backdrop of which objects can appear to our consciousness. As such, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh comes close to Heidegger’s notion of the concealing earth as the precondition of the openness of the human world. With a chiasm typical of the later Merleau-Ponty, one could put this affinity with Heidegger as follows: Human flesh is the earth in our bodies, the earth is the flesh in our world. This relationship with Heidegger is further suggested by Merleau-Ponty’s speaking explicitly of Being in relation to flesh: “that carnal being, as a being of depths [...] and a presentation of a certain absence, is a prototype of Being, of which our body, the sensible sentient, is a very remarkable variant”. (The visible and the invisible, p.136) And further on: “[I]t is the invisible of this world, that which inhabits this world, sustains it, and renders it visible, its own and interior possibility, the Being of this being.” (Idem, p.151) Although the notion of Being is not central to The visible and the invisible and is not deeply explored there (possibly because of the fact that this book remained unfinished and was only published posthumously), it is nevertheless clear that Merleau-Ponty must have had Heidegger’s ontology in mind when he equated the flesh with the Being of a being (see for example the reference to “Being in Heidegger’s sense” in the Working Notes of that book, p.170). Hence, the flesh is not just the receding background that presents a being as this or that particular being, it is the receding background par excellence in that it presents the being as being. The flesh opens up not merely the what-ness of a being but also its that-ness, i.e. the fact that it exists in the first place. In that sense one can indeed say that Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh grasps a certain incarnation of Being (cf. Merleau-Ponty’s phrase “prototype of Being” on p.136).

The perishability of flesh and its ontological significance
As I said, Merleau-Ponty does not really explore how the flesh performs this ontological function of incarnated Being. But in light of the early Heidegger’s insight into death as the backdrop of non-being against which the being can appear as being, it seems obvious in this context to point out the inherent perishability of all flesh. As it is said in the Christian tradition: the “way of all flesh” leads to death. This tendency toward death is an essential quality of flesh which, however, remains unexplored by Merleau-Ponty. Starting from this perishability of the flesh, its ontological-disclosive function can perhaps be understood somewhat better. The fading into the background of the flesh to make room for what appears, could also be understood as a form of dying, a real disappearance towards the non-being of death, in contrast to which all beings can appear as beings. It is thus, through its inner being-unto-death (Sein-zum-Tode), that the flesh can perform the dual function of disclosing not just the what-ness (identity) of a thing but also its that-ness (existence). In this way, we could also strike a bridge – through the notion of mortal flesh – between the Daseinsanalytik of the early Heidegger and his later notion of the concealing earth. The earth, as the flesh of the world, has a tendency to death in the sense that it constantly threatens to draw the creations of the human world back into its concealment. As such, the earth is also the grave of the dead, the dust to which man returns, the matter that perishes ceaselessly in the sensory flux. Living from the earth, based on the earth as a grounded” being, man has in his flesh (the earthly part of his body) an orientation towards death, in contrast to which beings are opened up for him as beings.

Further questions: onto-theology, sexual difference, mortality
These notions of mortal man, earth and flesh – as elaborated by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – bring into sharp relief the question whether Being needs to be incarnated in a mortal being and whether this amounts to a rehabilitation of onto-theology and thereby of religion. Concerning the latter, the relationship with Christianity seems especially important here. The conception of God as incarnated in a mortal being whose suffering and death grants the world a new dispensation – this is, after all, Christianity par excellence. Christ is the incarnate Word, “all things have their being in Him” (Epistle to the Colossians 1: 17). On the other hand, as already indicated, the originally prehistoric worship of the earth as Mother Goddess seems relevant here as well. This relationship with femininity as an onto-theological category is also suggested by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh, which shows a clearly feminine connotation. Thus Merleau-Ponty speaks of the flesh as an invagination” of the world, an infolding retraction of the world which opens up the appearance of beings. And the flesh which folds itself inward in order to make room for the appearance of something else – is this not ideally the womb, the space in which every human being comes into existence? In this regard we could also refer to the feminist philosophy of Luce Irigaray, who interprets Heidegger’s ontological difference in terms of the sexual difference between man and woman. With Irigaray, the “maternal-feminine” becomes the original matrix, the ontological uterus, the material “Source of Being (L'oubli de l'air chez Martin Heidegger, p.17). Starting from a broader cultural stereotype which calls for caution, since it tends to sexism we might say that body (as forefronting, erect, phallic) carries a masculine connotation, while the connotation of flesh (as receding, invaginating, receiving) is more feminine.

Baptismal font
Mary's womb?
Given the threat of sexism and phallogocentrism, however, the question is whether the issue of the incarnation of Being should be developed in the gendered terms of sexuality. Is it possible, for example, to understand Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh in neutral terms, bypassing the sexual difference? Or is flesh always already sexually determined, such that the notion of sexless flesh is a nonsensical and misguided product of political correctness? And what is in this connection the meaning of Christianity, where the Incarnate Word is decisively masculine (“The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” – with some good will, the Holy Spirit can be described as feminine, as some Christians do). How does Christianity relate to the ancient religion of the Mother Goddess as the feminine power in the earth? Do these exlcude each other or is a dialogue possible between them, leading to a deeper onto-theological understanding of the incarnation of Being in which both male and female play a role? What is the significance here of Mary as the Mother of God? And of the fact that the baptismal fond is sometimes referred to as “the womb of Mary”? Does this allow us a synthesis of Christianity with the older religion of the Earth Mother?

But the most fundamental question concerns the incarnation of Being as such. Is onto-theology of that kind tenable in the light of Heideggerian ontology, which we have taken as our starting point here? Is it possible to do justice to the fundamental thought of the ontological difference the thought of Being as the background of non-being against which beings can appear – and at the same time understand Being as incarnated in a concrete being? Does this remain an insurmountable paradox? Or does the solution lie, as I already suggested, in the mortality of that onto-theologically “highest” being? Is the being that dies and which as such moves in the twilight region between something and nothing capable of incarnating Being while also upholding the ontological difference? Is it possible, in other words, for Being to incarnate itself in a disappearing being? And how does this constitutive disappearance relate to sexual difference? Is the disappearing being primarily male or female? Or neither? Or both, like something between them?


  1. Great essay. The last few lines leave me in complete suspense. I feel like I should tune in, same bat time, same bat channel to hear the answers....

    1. Thanks! I hope to finish this essay in a not too distant future...

      Same bat time, same bat channel...

      Peter Sas

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