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Dossier thématique : Phénoménologies et théories du langage autour de Merleau-Ponty

The Intertwining of Bodily Experience and Language: The Continued Relevance of Merleau-Ponty

Jordan Zlatev
p. 41-63


Dans cet article je soutiens que la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty peut aider à résoudre un problème de longue date, avec une pertinence continue pour la philosophie, la sémiotique et la linguistique : la relation dialectique entre la conscience pré-verbale et le langage. Je procède en reconstruisant le développement de sa pensée sur le sujet depuis la Phénoménologie de la perception jusqu’à ses derniers écrits. D’un point de vue initial où le langage n’était pas différencié du geste, Merleau-Ponty a évolué sous l’influence du structuralisme de Saussure pour distinguer la structure « diacritique », basée sur l’opposition, du système du langage de la nature basée sur la Gestalt de la perception et de l’expression corporelle. En même temps, ce système doit être conçu comme étant déjà un « langage parlé », sédimenté à partir du « langage parlant » vivant et expressif, ce dernier ressemblant aux conceptions modernes du « langagier ». La relation dialectique entre les deux, ainsi que le rôle finalement motivant de l’expérience non verbale, sont ensuite analysés au moyen des trois niveaux du modèle de motivation et de sédimentation, ce qui conduit à une clarification des notions clés d’expression et de sublimation. Je propose qu’en comprenant les deux comme « entrelacés », le paradoxe de leur primauté respective peut être résolu, parallèlement à la conception du langage comme fondamentalement motivé plutôt qu’arbitraire, et donc sans rupture fondamentale avec l’expérience corporelle.

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Notes de l’auteur

I am indebted to Johan Blomberg and Alexandra Mouratidou for helpful suggestions on how to improve a previous version of this paper, as well as to two anonymous reviewers and the editors for many helpful comments.

Texte intégral

Is this the only way in which we can survive – through an endless series of symbols? For things are unique; the smallest event can never be repeated; even last night’s emotion is absent today with the repetition of the same ceremony. And because it is impossible for two experiences ever to be similar, the only solution is this search for common denominators, symbols, to render life intelligible. We cannot go on without them. Yet this very habit keeps us from essentials, from truth, from the things themselves!

André Brink, The Ambassador


1The quotation above captures eloquently, if somewhat simplistically, one of the major dilemmas of human existence, thematized in various way in Western philosophy. How can we reconcile the impermanence, but deeply felt authenticity of first-person, subjective experience with the relative permanence, but distance and, in the worst case, emptiness of symbols: the “words, words, words” of Hamlet? It is taken from the well-known South-African author’s first novel, characteristically staged in the Paris of the early 1960s, when existentialism and phenomenology were about to be “superseded” by the new vogue of structuralism, with its fascination for language. The dilemma can then perhaps be paraphrased as the battleground of the two philosophies: one that champions lived experience and subjectivity which alone can give us access to “the things themselves”; the other enamoured with formal and impersonal “structures”, belonging to an anonymous collectivity and constituted essentially through language. These characterizations of phenomenology and structuralism, respectively, are of course simplistic, as there are in fact multiple overlaps between the two traditions in terms of ideas, establishing a foundation for objective knowledge upon – rather than opposed to – subjectivity (e.g., Stawarska 2015; Aurora 2018; Widoff 2018; De Palo 2022). Some of these overlaps are reflected in the work of leading linguists like Roman Jakobson and Eugenio Coseriu, as pointed out by Stawarska:

There are multiple resources for linguistic phenomenology within Husserl’s writings; the latter were explicitly adopted withing the early East European structuralist program which precedes the post-Second World War era when a forced choice between phenomenology and structuralism became de rigueur. (Stawarska 2015: 169)

2Unfortunately, the simplified view continues to this day, as testified by the fact that “there is relatively little language-focused research being conducted within contemporary phenomenology” (Stawarska 2015: 155). This is one reason to examine the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who throughout his whole life endeavoured to formulate a holistic, non-reductive account of how “the visible” of bodily experience, and “the invisible” of language, knowledge and culture come together, as reflected in the title given to his final and unfinished work: The Visible and the Invisible (Merleau-Ponty 1968). In it, as in most of his later writings, Merleau-Ponty sought to integrate ideas from Saussure (1960 [1916]) to enrich his phenomenology of perception with a “philosophy of expression” (Hass 2008). This project was, however, cut short by his sudden early death, resulting in a “missed opportunity in the history of philosophy”, in the words of the editors of the Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty:

Whereas for Merleau-Ponty, Saussurean linguistics furnished a model for the impersonal dimension of history, for structural linguists, psychoanalysts, and literary critics of the day, it referred to a process operating in the absence of subjectivity altogether. […] Ironically, then, the very figure who opened the French intellectual world to these new developments was in effect left behind as the coalesced into what, after his death in 1961, came to be called simply “structuralism”. (Carman & Hansen 2005: 17)

3But perhaps an even more important reason to return to Merleau-Ponty is that the nature of the complex relations between consciousness, bodily experience and language remain unclear to this day. This is not due to lack of interest in the topic, especially among proponents of cognitive linguistics (e.g. Johnson 1987; Lakoff & Johnson 1999; Ziemke, Zlatev & Frank 2007). However, many in this field operate with relatively simplistic accounts of “embodiment”, reducing this to neural and/or computational “simulations” of perception and action, or similar constructs that are quite divorced from actual experience (see Zlatev 2010; Blomberg & Zlatev 2014). In contrast, Merleau-Ponty developed a phenomenologically rich and philosophically profound analysis of bodily experience according to which, in the following eloquent formulation:

[…] living experience emerges through the symbiotic intertwining of one’s own pulsing body, the overflowing, transcendent world of things, and the living bodies of others. […] [Such] experience is sensual, affective, inter-dynamic, and especially carnal. Indeed, against intellectual systems and models that suppress, deform, or denigrate these basic truths, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology “says to show” what we actually experience in life. Not mechanistic objects constituting an abstract Newtonian universe, but flesh, organic life, and a natural world. Not clusters of sense-data, but sensually rich things and artifacts: trees and mountains, chairs and buildings. Not solipsism, but complex relations and carnal contacts with other creatures. (Hass 2008: 146)

4The key question then can be formulated as follows: how does language, and related cultural phenomena, emerge from this rich matrix, in a way that both introduces something qualitatively new to human experience, at the same time as it relies on it, and rather than distorting it, opens more fully the door for its expression? As Merleau-Ponty writes in a transitional passage: “Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin, so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence”. (Merleau-Ponty 2011: 214)

5Given that this project was, as mentioned, cut short, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language is admittedly somewhat fragmentary (Hass 2008). It has even been declared by influential thinkers to be a “partial failure” (Ricoeur 1974: 247) and remained until recently relatively unexplored (e.g., Lewis 1966; Silverman 1980). In the last decade, however, there appears to have been a surge of interest in this topic (e.g., Foultier 2013, 2018; Alloa 2014), coinciding with re-evaluations of the writings of the “father of structuralism” Ferdinad de Saussure, showing much greater affinity with phenomenology than previously thought (Stawarksa 2015). The primary goal with this essay is thus to contribute to this “rehabiliation” of Merleau-Ponty as not only one of the foremost phenomenologists, following and developing the ideas of Husserl (e.g., Akhtar 2010), but as a thinker who has perhaps come closest to resolving the dilemma of “expeirence or language/symbols” that we begin with. Furthermore, I will indicate the relevance of his thought not only for philosophy but also fields like linguistics, cognitive science and (cognitive) semiotics.

  • 1 As expressed in the often-quoted statement in De Interpretatione: “Now spoken sounds [phonai] are s (...)

6I start in Section 1, by examining the preliminary account of language given in an early chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty 2011), where the stress in on the “gestural” nature of linguistic meaning, and the near-identity between (creative) speaking and thinking. A key point is to conceive of language not as representing ideas, as in the tradition that goes back to Aristotle,1 but as articulating them. While suggestive, and reminiscent of current approaches in linguistics such as dialogism (e.g., Linell 2009), this account leaves a number of questions unanswered. For example: how can language have an “invisible”, super-individual level of existence and, relatedly, how does language and linguistic meaning essentially differ from that of gestures? As discussed in Section 2, Saussure’s notions of la langue (the language system) and valeur (the differential, or what Merleau-Ponty will call the diacritical, principle of meaning formation) were clearly helpful for making progress in these respects in his later writings. At the same time Merleau-Ponty rejected structuralist “dogmas” (cf. Jakobson 1965), such as the “arbitrariness” of the sign and the “autonomy” of the language system. I suggest that this is so, because he appropriates Saussure’s ideas via Husserl’s notion of sedimentation, whereby relatively “ideal” structures can arise only on the basis of embodied acts and can therefore be neither arbitrary nor autonomous.

7However, the most original contribution of Merleau-Ponty with respect to answering the question on how best to account for the relation between the “primordial silence” of bodily experience and language is the notion of expression, originating in the Phenomenology of Perception, and further developed in his later works (see Hass 2008; Fultier 2015). I discuss this somewhat enigmatic insightful notion in Section 3, broadly following the interpretation given by Hass (2008). However, I propose that this needs to be understood in relation to the kindred notions of sublimation and Fundierung, showing more continuity between Merleau-Ponty and Husserl than what Hass wishes to admit. I relate this interpretation to recent work on the phenomenology of language in terms of the Motivation & Sedimentation Model (Blomberg & Zlatev 2014; Zlatev & Blomberg 2016, 2019; Blomberg 2019). Finally, I sum up Merleau-Ponty’s original resolution of the “experience vs. symbols” dilemma from the opening quotation, explaining why language does not, in fact, need to isolate us from the “things themselves”.

1 Language as “gestural meaning” and (authentic) thought

  • 2 When not stated otherwise, all page references are to the e-book of the Phenomenology of Perception (...)

8In his discussion of language in the last chapter of Part I “The body as expression and speech” in the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty follows the pattern of the whole book by presenting the ideas emanating from his phenomenology in contrast to empiricism, on the one hand, and various forms of rationalism and idealism (what he calls “intellectualism”) on the other. When it comes to language, empiricism sees words as “labels” or “signals” that are associated with stimuli, sense data or as what modern exponents tend to call “neural representations” or “simulations” of sensory-motor activity (Bergen 2015). The converse approach, with its own more modern variants – from Fodor’s controversial but influential thesis of a Language of Thought (Fodor 1975) to psycholinguistic models where speech production starts with a pre-verbal “Conceptualiser” (Levelt 1993) – grants productive power to thinking, but downgrades language to that of externalization, or even “translation” from non-verbal to verbally encoded thought. As Merleau-Ponty phrases it: “In the first case, there is nobody to speak; in the second, there is certainly a subject, but a thinking one, not a speaking one” (p. 205).2

9Both of these accounts are fatally flawed according to Merleau-Ponty, since words are not empty labels, but have intrinsic meanings: “Thus we refute both intellectualism and empiricism by simply saying that the word has a meaning” (p. 206). Notably, such meaning is not a matter of associations with something outside of the word, but rather part of it: “The link between the word and its living meaning is not an external link of association, the meaning inhabits the word” (p. 224). How is such “living meaning” to be accounted for? As could be expected from a philosopher of embodiment, Merleau-Ponty begins answering this question by stating that language operates similarly to gesture. He does not define the latter term, but judging from his examples, his conception is similar to that of one of the most prominent scholars in the field of gesture studies: “movements that partake of […] features of manifest deliberate expressiveness to an obvious degree” (Kendon 2004: 14). Or as stated by a commentator: “Gesture is the paradigmatic case of bodily expression. […] Signalling to a friend to ‘come here’ in Italian, shrugging one’s shoulders in French, frowning in British English, and indicating quotation marks in American are all forms of gesture” (Silverman 1980: 125).

10By emphasizing that gestures cut across the nature-culture divide, Merleau-Ponty was ahead of his time. Likewise in stressing that language is not purely conventional, and even less so “arbitrary”:

If we consider only the conceptual and delimiting meaning of words, it is true that the verbal form […] appears arbitrary. But it would no longer appear so if we took into account the emotional content of the word, which we have called above its “gestural” sense, which is all-important in poetry, for example. (p. 217)

  • 3 The translation here may be misleading, as suggested by the alternative rendition of this sentence: (...)

11It looks here as if Merleau-Ponty is referring to the “poetic function” and the key role of iconicity in language, emphasized by Roman Jakobson (e.g., Jakobson & Waugh 2020), but in fact he became familiar with the latter’s work later, so this must be a parallel line of thought in his own thinking. It also becomes clear that he distinguishes between two different kinds of meaning in language, where the “gestural” kind is only one. Merleau-Ponty states this even more explicitly in another passage: “Here the meaning of words must be finally induced by the words themselves, or more exactly, their conceptual meaning must be formed by a kind of deduction from a gestural meaning, which is immanent in speech” (p. 208). But it does not become clear how the conceptual (denotational) meaning arises “by a kind of deduction”.3

12There are indeed a number of similarities between the meanings of gestures and verbal utterances. Apart from those already mentioned, both kinds are shared between interlocutors in a pre-reflective manner: “The communication or comprehension of gestures comes about through the reciprocity of my intentions and the gestures of others, of my gestures and intentions discernible in the conduct of other people” (p. 213). Once we share the same world of experience (or life world, Lebenswelt, in the words of Husserl), we do not need to “decode” either verbal utterances or gestures, but share into them, through a kind of experience that resembles perception in its directness. Merleau-Ponty states this for gesture in the early chapter and elaborates with respect to language in a later chapter on intersubjectivity: “The meaning of a gesture thus ‘understood’ is not behind it, it is intermingled with the structure of the world outlined by the gesture, and which I take up on my own account.” (p. 216)

In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are inter-woven into a single fabric, my words and those of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator. […] Our perspectives merge into each other, and we co-exist through a common world. In the present dialogue, I am freed from myself, for the other person’s thoughts are certainly his; they are not of my making, though I do grasp them the moment they come into being, or even anticipate them. (p. 413)

13In further support for the similarity between words and gestures, Merleau-Ponty alludes to the situatedness of language in a passage that is reminiscent of the late Wittgenstein (1953): “And as, in a foreign country, I begin to understand the meaning of words through their place in a context of action, and by taking part in a communal life”. (p. 208)

14So, produced by the living body, combining natural and cultural meaning, non-arbitrary, directly perceived and situated: all these are aspects where language and gesture are indeed similar. Still, there are also differences, as Merleau-Ponty alludes to repeatedly with references to “conceptual and delimiting” meaning as well as to “phonemes [which] have no meaning in themselves” (p. 452). What he still lacks are tools from the conceptual apparatus of structuralism to be able to spell out this difference, as we will see in the next section. Without this, the gesture-language analogy is sometimes overstated and begins to sound like identity: “The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world” (p. 214). The meaning of the latter claim is later clarified: “The term ‘world’ here is not a manner of speaking: it means that the “mental” or cultural life borrows its structures from natural life and that the thinking subject must have its basis in the subject incarnate” (p. 225). But this means that there are two levels of the ‘world’. The first one is perceptually given and “here and now”, and it is to this that gestures may easily refer. The other is more abstract, and potentially displaced, and it is here where linguistic reference comes into its own, as part of the “invisible”.

15Before we turn to this, one more key point concerning language that Merleau-Ponty makes almost from the start of the early chapter needs to be considered: the celebrated, but potentially misconstrued claim that “speech […] does not translate ready-made thought, but accomplishes it” (p. 207). This claim is of course in opposition to the rationalist view of inner thought processes that are very much like language (so as to be translatable into it), but remain private and pre-linguistic (e.g., Fodor 1975). And indeed, Merleau-Ponty’s statement conforms to the phenomenology of language use that both everyday speakers and great writers and poets can attest to: in the majority of cases, we do not know what (exactly) we will say or write before the verbal expression materializes itself.

  • 4 “Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothi (...)
  • 5 For example: “By ‘thought,’ we mean essentially mediated cognition. This corresponds approximately (...)

16But does this mean that there can be no thought without language? At times Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting this: “‘Pure’ thought reduces itself to a certain void of consciousness, to a momentary desire.” (p. 213), which resembles some of the strongest claims on the determinative role of language over consciousness made by scholars like Saussure and Voloshinov.4 However, this could not be a correct interpretation, as there are many forms of intentionality like imagination, remembering and anticipation (explored by Merleau-Ponty elsewhere) that are more or less detached from the here and now. These arguably deserve the prestigious label “thought” and yet are not mediated by language.5 So the issue is to some extent terminological, and Merleau-Ponty is apparently focusing on unique features of verbal thought like (complex) predication, argumentation and metaphorization that distinguish it from other kinds of consciousness. The key point is that these do not first exist in a preverbal state, but are rather born in the process of verbal expression: “The word and speech must somehow cease to be a way of designating things or thoughts, and become the presence of that thought in the phenomenal world, and, moreover, not its clothing but its token or its body”. (p. 211)

17Further, as suggested in the citation above, Merleau-Ponty is not claiming that all language use amounts to thinking. This only concerns what he first calls “authentic speech”, in a footnote to the key claim on language not translating but accomplishing thought cited above: “There is, of course, every reason to distinguish between an authentic speech, which formulates for the first time, and second-order expression, speech about speech, which makes up the general run of empirical language. Only the first is identical with thought.” (p. 207). This distinction between two different “kinds” of language use is crucial, and to be elaborated in his further work, as discussed in the following section.

2 Language as speaking and spoken, and as a “diacritical” system

18In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty returns to the distinction between the two kinds of language with the terms parole parlante and parole parlée – usually translated in English as “speaking word” and “spoken word” – reminding again that it is the first of these that realizes thought: “Or again one might draw a distinction between a speaking word and a spoken word. The former is the one in which the significant intention is at the stage of coming into being” (p. 229). Much later in the book he uses the terms parole originaire and parole secondaire: “This is why we have been led to distinguish between a secondary speech which renders a thought already acquired, and an originating speech which brings it into existence, in the first place for ourselves, and then for others” (p. 453). In his late works, he seems to settle with the terms langage parlant and langage parlé – speaking and spoken language – calling the latter “language after the fact, language as an institution” (Merleau-Ponty 1973b: 10).

19How are we to understand the dialectics between these two levels, and does Merleau-Ponty’s understanding undergo development in his late writings? A naïve first interpretation, provoked especially by the terms “authentic” and “originary” vs “secondary”, and “second-order”, would be to appreciate only the first, and devalue the latter. This would resemble the manner in which contemporary proponents of “distributed language” (e.g., Cowley 2011) regard linguistic phenomena like constructions and rules as “second-order constructs” formulated by linguists, with no actual linguistic reality. However, this is not the position of Merleau-Ponty, since “the spoken word”, parole/langage parlé(e) is claimed to play an essential part in the constitution of the “cultural world”:

Speech is the surplus of our existence over natural being. But the act of expression constitutes a linguistic world and a cultural world, and allows that to fall back into being which was striving to outstrip it. Hence the spoken word, which enjoys available significances as one might enjoy an acquired fortune. (p. 229)

20In other words, Merleau-Ponty is here appropriating the late Husserl’s notion of (generative, historical) sedimentation which is a way to describe how cultural phenomena achieve a form of stability and super-personal existence, which is the only way that “ideality” can be accounted for in phenomenologically valid terms (Steinbock 2003; Woelert 2011; Blomberg 2019). As elaborated further in the following section, this culturally sedimented layer of meaning is essential for the potential of new and original meanings to arise, as the “the speaking word” would be impossible without “the spoken word”:

The new sense-giving intention knows itself only by donning already available meanings, the outcome of previous acts of expression. The available meanings suddenly link up in accordance with an unknown law, and once and for all a fresh cultural entity has taken on an existence. (p. 213)

21While sedimentation concerns all cultural products, from musical pieces to mathematical theorems, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges a special role for language in the formation of the cultural world: “alone of all expressive processes, speech is able to settle into a sediment and constitute an acquisition for use in human relationships” (p. 220). While this cannot be fully correct, there is indeed something special in the nature of linguistic sedimentations in the way in which they can be referred back to, reused, adapted, criticized and so one. Or in other words, language potentiates intertextuality (Kristeva 1980; Alfaro 1996), or extended dialogism (Linell 2009). Once this self-referential cultural world has emerged into existence, it is possible to use the structures of sedimented language to refer to it, and thus to symbolize and predicate in complex ways. Gestures (proper) are not capable of this:

Gesture is limited to showing a certain relationship between man and the perceptible world, because this world is presented to the spectator by natural perception, and because in this way the intentional object is offered to the spectator at the same time as the gesture itself. Verbal “gesticulation”, on the other hand, aims at a mental setting which is not given to everybody, and which it is its task to communicate. But here what nature does not provide, cultural background does. (p. 216)

22Thus, a key difference between language and gesture has been established: gestures may refer to the “perceptible world”, while language (largely) deals with the cultural world that it has made possible in the first place:

Available meanings, in other words former acts of expression, establish between speaking subjects a common world, to which the words being actually uttered in their novelty refer as does the gesture to the perceptible world. And the meaning of speech is nothing other than the way in which it handles this linguistic world or in which it plays modulations on the keyboard of acquired meanings. (p. 216)

23Does this go too far, as we use language to refer to everyday things, feelings and actions, all of which are intentional objects (apparently) given to use in perception? Not really, since what Merleau-Ponty, already in the Phenomenology of Perception, is implying is that all of these phenomena become in part constituted through language – for linguistic beings like us. It is not that pre-verbal experience has been made irrelevant, but rather that when we use language to name things and describe happenings, there is no way to abstract ourselves from the sedimented “available meanings”. At the same time, our authentic speech and thought are not determined by these sediments since we have the capacity to calibrate these along with pre-verbal experience, and create “a fresh cultural entity”. In other words, sedimented language is not so much a “straitjacket” for experience, but a web of meaning to use as a resource.

24Hence, it appears that Merleau-Ponty was prepared for some – though not all, as we saw in the previous section – ideas of structuralism before reading Saussure’s Cours at the end of 1940s. What is easy to accommodate is first the signifier-signified notion of the linguistic sign, where the two are indivisible, and meaning is not something external that is attached to signs by associations. More importantly, Saussure’s notion of the language system (la langue) as constituting a complex multi-dimensional network of oppositions between signs provides him with a model for langage parlé that is more elaborated than his earlier conception, which was more like a storehouse of signs. In a text published in Signs (Merleau-Ponty 1964b), he compares Saussure’s notion of “linguistic ideality” with that of Husserl in the Origin of Geometry, and considers it more articulated (Alloa 2014: 167). What he is particularly impressed by is the differential conception of linguistic meaning that Saussure emphasises, and which remains until today the most influential idea of structuralism: “What we have learned from Saussure is that, taken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964b: 39)

25Until the end of his life, he will be using the term diacritical to characterize this concept, which is at first surprising given that Saussure never uses the term himself, and diacritics are marks/signs that are “written in the margins of the letters, above, beneath or beside them, they provoke their alteration in terms of accentuation or tone” (Alloa 2014: 165). What leads Merleau-Ponty to the term is probably the etymology of the Greek term diakrisis: distinction. This principle applies not only to the signifieds (meanings) of linguistic signs but also to their signifiers, which makes phonemes not just any kinds of sounds, but meaning-distinguishing ones. Merleau-Ponty comments on the influential analysis of children’s babbling by Jakobson (1968), according to which it initially includes all possible sounds, while with the acquisition of their language, the child loses the ability to differentiate sounds that do not mark phonemic contrasts:

Here, there is what Jakobson calls a deflation: suddenly the richness of babbling disappears; […] It is, therefore, not a question of motor or auditory models posing a problem for him. Everything happens as though the child were obliged to restrain himself, because sounds now take on a distinctive signification. (Merleau-Ponty 1973a: 23)

26The outcome is a “diacritical” language system that is “so varied, so precise, so systematic […] that the internal structure of an utterance can ultimately agree only with the mental situation to which it responds and of which it becomes an unequivocal sign” (Merleau-Ponty 1964a: 8). Thus, while in the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty is still sceptical towards analysing language as a system of signs, we can see that in his late writings he has no such restraints. However, we must remember that this concerns not language as living speech, but as the sedimented language system: langage parlé. The first is energeia, situated “languaging” in modern terms (Linell 2009), an activity that goes beyond the system in expression and interpretation. On the other hand, the sedimented system gives precision and systematicity, making language a much more articulated semiotic system than gesture. But in contrast to the (relative) stasis and abstractness of Saussure’s la langue (at least according to the received interpretation) the language system remains for Merleau-Ponty emergent from “former acts of expression” and hence in a constant state of becoming and change. Given the gestural substrate of speech (and even writing), not to mention the signed languages of deaf communities, the system is also embodied and contingent, as opposed to ideal. It is motivated, as opposed to “arbitrary”, even as it is diacritical, and differing from language to language. As argued in the following section, it may be regarded as a sublimation of preverbal experience, but it cannot exist without it and the living speech that aims to express this, both of which serve as its ground, or Fundierung.

3 Language as expression and sublimation; the Motivation & Sedimentation Model

27As we saw in the previous sections, ever since the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty has been striving to describe the “action that breaks” through the “primordial silence” (p. 214) of carnal experience, leading to “the invisible” of socially shared knowledge and culture. As could be noticed in many of the preceding quotations, he often refers to this type of action as expression. As argued by Hass (2008), this aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is one of his most original contributions, at least in part surpassing the ideas of his teacher Husserl. He begins by comparing expression in the arts, with music and painting as examples, with expression in language, and points out that despite first appearances, the phenomenon is essentially the same, with true expression bringing forth new ideas, rather than just translating or externalizing them:

No one will deny that here the process of expression brings the meaning into being or makes it effective, and does not merely translate it. It is no different, despite what may appear to be the case, with the expression of thoughts in speech. Thought is no “internal” thing, and does not exist independently of the world and of words. What misleads us in this connection, and causes us to believe in a thought which exists for itself prior to expression, is thought already constituted and expressed, which we can silently recall to ourselves. (p. 212-213)

28After explaining the difference between speaking language and spoken language in the previous section, it is easier to appreciate this argument. It is the “thought already constituted and expressed” of langage parlé that makes up most of our silent and not very original thoughts, as well as our standard everyday phrases like “Hi, how are you”? It is on this backdrop that we occasionally make the effort to say anything truly new: in speech, writing, or even to ourselves. As pointed out, we should not denigrate the already spoken language, including the diacritical system of oppositions, since if it were not for these, we would not have the resources to say anything original. Still, it is the “fresh usage” of the latter that is the product of a genuine act of expression – in language use, just as in the use of other semiotic systems such as music, depiction and even geometry (see below):

We are invited to discern beneath thinking which basks in its acquisitions, and offers merely a brief resting-place in the unending process of expression, another thought which is struggling to establish itself, and succeeds only by bending the resources of constituted language to some fresh usage. (p. 453)

29The dependency goes both ways; without such acts of expression there will be no (new) ideas, since “an idea is necessarily linked to an act of expression, and owes to it its appearance of autonomy” (p. 453). Acts of expression, along with their “appearance of autonomy”, can of course be simulated by machines operating with prefabricated utterances (currently known as) and extremely powerful algorithms that carry out billions of operations per second. While Merleau-Ponty could hardly have fully imagined these, I don’t think that he would have been surprised to find out that current “AI systems” are able to fool even some of their designers that there are meaningful intentions, and even “feelings” and “sentience” behind such inherently meaningless manipulations of already “spoken language”.6 But true expression is something quite different from this:

To give expression is not to substitute, for new thought, a system of stable signs to which unchangeable thoughts are linked; it is to ensure, by the use of words already used, that the new intention carries on the heritage of the past; it is at a stroke to incorporate the past into the present, and weld that present to a future. (p. 456)

30So once again, expression is not translation, representation, “symbol manipulation” etc., but the uniquely human capacity that leads to the sublimation of bodily experience. What this means is that linguistic (and other kinds of semiotic) expression both transcends the body and, somewhat paradoxically, does not leave it behind but remains anchored with it. Hass states this, once again, particularly clearly:

Merleau-Ponty says […] that knowledge and language sublimate experience. When they are expressive, knowledge and language take up certain formations and give rise to powerful, new articulations, even while carrying along the initial form. With this in mind, we can see that an act of expression is dramatically different from one of representation (re-presentation). For at its core, expression is not about imitation (mimēsis), correspondence, or isomorphism — these are the basic watchwords of representation theories of thought, language, and knowledge. Rather, expression is about the creative transformation of some previous data or experience so that it yields new knowledge or radiates a powerful, new sense without the original data disappearing or being covered up. (Hass 2008: 155)

31In the famous Cogito chapter of Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty illustrates this with the expression of a geometrical “proof” about the angles of a triangle, and makes it clear that the perceptual Gestalt of a drawn or imagined triangle, and the “lines of force” (p. 449) that this potentiates, are the prerequisite to see the relevant patterns, and eventually to formulate the corresponding theorem as sedimented knowledge. He proposes that basically the same applies for all acts of expression:

Our body, to the extent that it moves itself about, that is, to the extent that it is inseparable from a view of the world and is that view itself brought into existence, is the condition of possibility, not only of the geometrical synthesis, but of all expressive operations and all acquired views which constitute the cultural world. (p. 451)

32This also concerns the expressive use of language, even if he had previously stated that language differs from other semiotic systems by creating the appearance of being disembodied and free from the indeterminacy and contingencies of bodily-based expression:

No language detaches itself entirely from the pre-cariousness of the mute forms of expression, nor reabsorbs its own contingency, nor consumes itself to make the things themselves appear, and in this sense the privilege of language over against painting or the image of life remains relative. (Merleau-Ponty 1964b: 98)

  • 7 It is perhaps for similar reasons that Heidegger is also increasingly more poetic in his late writi (...)

33Merleau-Ponty does not develop all these concepts into an explicit theory, in part because of lack of time, but more importantly because he becomes increasingly expressive, and even poetic, in his later writings. In this respect, he is being consistent with his philosophy, since “nailing down” ideas by a logical argument or a model runs the risk of robbing them of their expressive originality.7 Thus, he prefers increasingly to use language to “sing the world” rather than to attempt to represent it, as pointed out repeatedly by Hass (2008). Still, formulating some of these complex ideas into a more explicit model cannot be detrimental in itself, especially if this is seen as a step in the dialectics of generative (historical) expression and sedimentation, facilitating communication and further elaboration.

34It is precisely for such reasons that the Motivation & Sedimentation Model (Zlatev & Blomberg 2019; Devylder & Zlatev 2020; Zlatev, Jacobsson & Paju 2021) arose spontaneously over the past few years, largely inspired by the work of Merleau-Ponty himself, but also integrating phenomenological notions more generally, as well as ideas from integral linguistics (Coseriu 1985, 2000). As illustrated in Figure 1, the model posits three distinct, but dynamically interacting levels of semiosis (understood as meaning-making in general, rather than as sign use more narrowly): the Embodied, the Sedimented and the Situated, spelled with capital letters to avoid terminological confusion since these terms are highly polysemous. Each level is characterized by an internal dialectics of process and structure, with processes both sedimenting into structures, and being motivated by the latter. The Embodied level of meaning is both pre-linguistic and pre-signitive (i.e., not based on sign use), engulfed in the richness of “the visible”: processes of Gestalt perception and motility, bodily interactions with things, empathetic direct perception of other persons etc.: see the eloquent characterization of this offered by Hass (2008) in Section 1. While each single bodily act is in some respects unique, there is ongoing “genetic” (bodily) sedimentation of these into carnal patterns, such as habits, body schemas, and mimetic schemas. The latter have been suggested to extract the essences of culture-laden bodily acts like SIT, EAT, KISS, and KICK, and to serve as a bridging step to the formation of concepts and signs in ontogeny and phylogeny (Zlatev 2007, 2014; Hutto 2008; Donald 2012; Cienki 2013).

Figure 1. The Motivation & Sedimentation Model: The motivation relation is represented by solid lines and the sedimentation relation by dotted lines, on short-term (horizontal) and historical (vertical) time scales (adapted from Zlatev & Blomberg 2019)

35Importantly, the Embodied level does not interact directly with the one above it, the Sedimented, but motivates the situated expressive acts on the Situated level, and indirectly the situated norms that they locally may sediment into, for example the different manners of speaking to a friend and an acquaintance. The levels are linked by two types of relations. The first is motivation, which always “points” towards more or less creative expressions from more or less sedimented structures. Importantly, with the exception of the link from sedimented norms to conventional use, this is never a determinative relation, as it necessarily leaves space for unpredictable and creative expression (Coseriu 1985; Blomberg & Zlatev 2014). The converse relation is that of sedimentation, which in the vertical dimension is “generative”, i.e., takes place over generations and historical time, as opposed to individual lives and social encounters.

36Much empirical work with the model has focused on metaphors, in language and images, which is characteristic since metaphorization is among the most creative expressive acts there is. It presupposes “seeing” analogies between phenomena and using the combination of similarity and difference between two things (e.g., national flag and toilet paper) to give rise to creative tensions, whereby new meanings emerge (Stampoulidis 2021; Moskaluk, Zlatev & van de Weijer 2022). But such situated meaning is never solely motivated by the Embodied level alone, but also by the structures of the Sedimented level, which as could be expected (and seen in the downward pointing dashed arrow) arise on the basis of previous expressive acts on the Situated level. In essence, this double motivation of situated language (and other sign) use from the pre-signitive Embodied level as well as from the cultural Sedimented level, can be seen as an explication of Merleau-Ponty’s expression relation, where to remind, “thought […] is struggling to establish itself, and succeeds only by bending the resources of constituted language to some fresh usage (p. 453)”. In fact, there is a third motivation of creative use as shown in Figure 1, the situated norms on the Situated level, which are locally emerging patterns of coordination and (implicit) agreement that emerge in particular social interactions, as acknowledged in the frameworks like dialogic syntax (Du Bois 2014). This dialectic, or “intertwined” as Merleau-Ponty would prefer, relation between bodily experience and culturally sedimented knowledge is what gives rise to the creative character of situated langage parlant.

37Notably, there are also horizontal sedimentation and motivation links between norms and “conventional use” on the Sedimented level, which would correspond to automatized, non-expressive use of language and other semiotic systems. To the extent that we would wish to grant the language and picture “creating” AI systems mentioned earlier any capacity for meaning making, this would be the only level on which they would operate. But the model also clearly shows why such meaning is, in a way, fake: there is no bodily experience to motivate such structures in the first place, as well as no own creative situated use from which these structures can be sediment in their own experience, only borrowed from the public domain, so to speak. This is only langage parlé without any langage parlant.

38The vertical dimension of the model, with the Sedimented level represented above the Embodied level, reflects appropriately the reciprocal notions of sublimation and Fundierung, which Merleau-Ponty relies on to provide what is perhaps the clearest characterization of the relation between the visible and the invisible. In an early passage in the Phenomenology of Perception he writes:

Visual contents are taken up, utilized and sublimated to the level of thought by a symbolical power which transcends them, but it is on the basis of sight that this power can be constituted. The relationship between matter and form is called in phenomenological terminology a relationship of Fundierung: the symbolic function rests on the visual as on a ground. (p. 188)

39This “grounding” role of the body is essential, and by adopting (and extending) the Husserlian notion of Fundierung, Merleau-Ponty marks his endebtedness to the father of phenomenology. Even while he surpasses Husserl in his radicalized version of embodiment, eventually extending this to the “flesh of the world” in his last works, and in many passages directs (politely formulated) critique against idealist conceptions in the work of Husserl, the French philosopher remains rooted in Husserlian phenomenolgy (e.g., Akhtar 2010). Toward the end of the Phenomenology of Perception, he gives one of the most explicit definitions of Fundierung that can be found in the literature:

The relation of reason to fact, or eternity to time, like that of reflection to the unreflective, of thought to language or of thought to perception is this two-way relationship that phenomenology has called Fundierung: the founding term, or originator – time, the unreflective, the fact, language, perception – is primary in the sense that the originated is presented as a determinate or explicit form of the originator, which prevents the latter from reabsorbing the former, and yet the originator is not primary in the empiricist sense and the originated is not simply derived from it, since it is through the originated that the originator is made manifest. (p. 458)

40What may seem at first surprising is that apart from “fact”, “time” and “the unreflective” – which can be relatively easily seen as belong to the “visible” dimension of meaning – “language” is also mentioned. But with the help of the discussions in this and the previous section, and the Motivation & Sedimentation Model, we can see that there is no contradiction, since what is meant here as part of the “originator” is situated language use, langage parlant. The founded, “originated” maps nicely to the Sedimented level, which is what sublimates not only pre-verbal but also verbal experience. Elsewhere, Merleau-Ponty will call this level “the order of knowledge”, which is both qualitatively different and dependent on “the perceptual order”:

We are certainly not denying the originality of the order of knowledge vis-à-vis the perceptual order. We are trying […] to rediscover the paths of sublimation which preserves and transforms the perceived world into the spoken word. (Merleau-Ponty 1973b: 186)

41Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of sublimation is neither something mysterious, nor some kind of reductive empiricism. It cannot be the latter due to the unpredictability and creativity of the relation of expression. It is only after being expressed on the Situated level that knowledge can then sediment “down” into the Sedimented level, which thus is grounded in (or perhaps we can say in accordance with Figure 1, “sandwiched” by both (a) the motivations from the underlying Embodied level and (b) the sedimentations of expressions from the Situated Level. The living human body, with its “double function” is indispensable for such sublimation, as stated beautifully in one of the later texts:

Knowledge and communication sublimate rather than suppress our incarnation, and the characteristic operation of the mind is in the movement by which we recapture our corporeal existence and use it to symbolize instead of merely to co-exist. This metamorphosis lies in the double function of our body. Through its “sensory fields” and its whole organization the body is, so to speak, predestined to model itself on the natural aspects of the world. But as an active body capable of gestures, of expression and finally of language, it turns back on the world to signify it. (Merleau-Ponty 1964a: 7, my emphasis)

42To conclude, the body offers a Fundierung not only for habits and various kinds of bodily schemas by means of genetic sedimentation. Such sedimented structures are indispensable for living in the world, but die along with the living body. More importantly, the body also serves as the ground for all acts of expression, from those in gesture to those in making geometrical proofs, and crucially: to all creative use of language. The latter then sediment generatively into language as a system, as well as into cultural knowledge taking the shape of a “symbolic landscape” (Dor 2015). It is these that can be passed on, and thus outlive the existence of the embodied subject as an individual. Merleau-Ponty thus remains a philosopher of the body to the end of his life, acknowledging both its potentials and limitations.


  • 8 An anonymous reviewer points out that in some late texts Merleau-Ponty also regards perception, and (...)

43In this essay, I have (re)considered the relation between bodily experience and language in the work of Merleau-Ponty in three steps, corresponding the past three sections. These form not so much a chronological (as most of the ideas can be found in various stages of development already in The Phenomenology of Perception), but a logical progression of his thought. The first step was to see language as consisting of meaningful embodied acts of communication, similar to gestures. The second was to distinguish language from gestures with the help of the “diacritical” nature of the language system, and to see the latter as emerging from (already) spoken language, sedimented from situated, speaking language.8 The third and final step was to spell out the relations between: (A) “the visible” of carnal meaning, (B) the creative, or at least spontaneous, use of language (and other sign systems) in acts of expression (which thus also become part of “the visible”) and (C) the language-mediated repository of cultural knowledge and the language system itself. With some help from the Motivation & Sedimentation Model, these relations were shown to correspond to two of the key notions of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy: expression and sublimation. Schematically, these can be formulated as follows, with the arrow sign reading as emerge rather than (logically) entail.

(1) Expression: A + C => B

(2) Sublimation: A + B => C

44To resolve the apparent paradox of how B (langage parlant) can both presuppose and give rise to C (langage parlé), the two need to be thought of as simultaneous and intertwined. Hass (2008) lavishes praise on (1) but is sceptical about (2), since he sees it (correctly) as continuing the Husserlian tradition of seeking different levels of meaning, with different degrees of “primacy”. Thus, he gives a “flatter” interpretation of intertwining, where these take place, so to say, on the same level:

Language is a marvellous conjunction of a social-cultural structure sustained by carnal life, but a structure which can be transformed by embodied acts of expression. In a phrase, carnal life, and non-material linguistic structures are in a relation of reversibility. They are an intertwining of the visible and the invisible. (Hass 2008 : 190)

45Still, as suggested here, and argued more elsewhere (Zlatev 2018; Zlatev & Blomberg 2019), there are advantages to more hierarchical models when dealing with multiple and different kinds of meaning: perceptual and signitive, gestural and linguistic. This is especially when the levels/layers are not regarded as ontologically distinct but standing in a Fundierung relation.

46In conclusion, we may use the explication offered by this essay to help resolve the dilemma of “experience vs. symbols” that we started with. Three reasons can be given to reduce the existential anxiety of the protagonist in Brink’s novel. The first is that “symbols” are not really needed to “survive”, as bodily experiences sediment genetically into patterns like habits and schemas. So we could, in principle, live a meaningful life completely without language or other semiotic systems. But this would not really be a human life, as it is an essential side of our nature not only to experience, but to express this experience, and to use language as the principle means of such expression, of course with huge inter-individual variation. As explicated with the help of the Motivation & Sedimentation Model in Section 3, and much more expressively formulated by Merleau-Ponty, this is an inherently creative process that does not rob experience of its richness, and thus does not alienate us from “the things themselves”. As Merleau-Ponty writes, somewhat enigmatically, but comprehensibly in the present context, at the end of The Visible and the Invisible, this does not so much separate us from truth, but rather allows its birth. This concerns also philosophy itself, as the ultimate activity aiming at truth: “In a sense the whole of philosophy, as Husserl says, consists in restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning, and expression of experience by experience, which in particular clarifies the special domain of language.” (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 155)

47The third reason to tone down the opposition between language and experience is that when the highly articulated symbolic system of language sublimates experience, this system cannot be “purely formal” or “autonomous”, since it has been sedimented from the experientially motivated acts of expression in the first place. In other words, the “symbols” of language, no less than the signs of other semiotic systems such as gestures and pictures cannot be “arbitrary”, as they remain doubly grounded: in the pre-verbal experience of the body, as well as in the outcomes of previous acts of expression. It is only the artificial use of symbols by machines simulating human interaction, and perhaps when we start to behave like such machines, that we should fear. Such short-circuiting of both the body and the speaking word would disconnect us not only from “the things themselves”, but from others and from ourselves. So we should remain vigilant against this danger.

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1 As expressed in the often-quoted statement in De Interpretatione: “Now spoken sounds [phonai] are symbols [symbola] of affections of the soul [pathemata], and written marks symbols of spoken sounds”. (Aristotle. Int., 25)

2 When not stated otherwise, all page references are to the e-book of the Phenomenology of Perception, ISBN 0-203-99461-2:

3 The translation here may be misleading, as suggested by the alternative rendition of this sentence: “Their conceptual meaning (signification) is formed by levy (prélèvement) on a gestural meaning, which, itself, is immanent to la parole” (Lewis 1966: 24).

4 “Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language” (Saussure 1960: 112). “There is no such thing as experience outside the embodiment of signs” (Voloshinov 1986: 85).

5 For example: “By ‘thought,’ we mean essentially mediated cognition. This corresponds approximately to what are sometimes called ‘higher cognitive processes,’ in which the mind is not fully immersed in the practical concerns of the here-and-now, but rather employs various structures and processes of conscious awareness such as mental imagery, episodic memories or explicit anticipations to focus on intentional objects that are not perceptually present” (Zlatev & Blomberg 2015).

6 For a recent example, see

7 It is perhaps for similar reasons that Heidegger is also increasingly more poetic in his late writings, which also characteristically attempt to deal with language (e.g., Heidegger 1971).

8 An anonymous reviewer points out that in some late texts Merleau-Ponty also regards perception, and hence presumably also gestural meaning, as “diacritical”. Nevertheless, he is aware that the contrasts and structures of Gestalts differ fundamentally from the systematic, and especially paradigmatic (i.e., contrasting with other absent signs) oppositions of language: “I describe perception as a diacritical, relative, oppositional system… This is right. But there is all the same this difference between perception and language, that I see the perceived things, and that the significations on the contrary are invisible.” (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 214-215). For a thorough discussion of the semiotic differences between the “structures” of language as explored by structuralism, and those of Gestalt psychology, see Sonesson (2012).

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Jordan Zlatev

Division for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University

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