The Sound of Silence: Merleau‐Ponty on Conscious Thought

European Journal of Philosophy 25 (2):312-335 (2017)
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We take ourselves to have an inner life of thought, and we take ourselves to be capable of linguistically expressing our thoughts to others. But what is the nature of this “inner life” of thought? Is conscious thought necessarily carried out in language? This paper takes up these questions by examining Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression. For Merleau-Ponty, language expresses thought. Thus it would seem that thought must be independent of, and in some sense prior to, the speech that expresses it. He also claims, however, that thinking just is linguistic expression, and thus that language constitutes thought. The primary aim of this paper is to make sense of this constitutive claim while maintaining that, for Merleau-Ponty, there is an inner life of thought that exists independently of linguistic expression, and that this inner life rightly deserves the label “thought”. The upshot of this account is twofold. First, it explains why the mainstream view of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression seems plausible, but is ultimately inadequate. Second, it functions as a corrective to contemporary debates about the nature and scope of phenomenal consciousness and the sense in which conscious experience has content.

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Philip Walsh
Gartner (Research and Advisory Consulting Firm)


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