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II. « Intraduisibles » de la phénoménologie française

The Meanders of French Thought into the Anglophone World: Merleau-Ponty’s La Structure du comportement and its English Translation

Stephen A. Noble
p. 103-119


Il y a eu, ces dernières années, un intérêt croissant pour la philosophie de Maurice Merleau-Ponty dans le monde anglophone. Pourtant, les recherches effectuées sur le travail du philosophe, et l’intérêt qui l’entoure, ont tendance à se concentrer sur des aspects sélectifs de ses travaux, au détriment d’autres points qui sont tout aussi significatifs. Il est clair, par exemple, que le premier livre du philosophe, La Structure du comportement, a suscité très peu d’intérêt dans le monde anglophone, même si ce livre est solidaire avec son œuvre principale, la Phénoménologie de la perception et en constitue le travail préparatoire. Le présent article se propose d’interroger des raisons susceptibles d’expliquer cette négligence. Premièrement, nous tentons de clarifier le contexte particulier du clivage qui existe entre les soi-disant philosophies « analytique » et « continentale », contexte dans lequel l’ouvrage a été introduit et qui aurait pu avoir une influence sur sa réception ; deuxièmement, nous examinons la traduction dont disposent les lecteurs de langue anglaise, dans le but de clarifier les raisons pour lesquelles le livre a suscité si peu d’enthousiasme dans le monde anglophone. Nous nous appuyons enfin sur ces discussions pour formuler quelques pistes de réflexion concernant le rôle que jouent les traductions dans le dialogue entre traditions philosophiques différentes.

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Texte intégral

“Philosophical worlds that touch at very few points”

1In April 1958, in the former Cistercian monastery known today as the Royaumont Abbey, situated just north of Paris, the fourth in a series of international philosophy conferences was held. The uniqueness of the venue—the event took place seven hundred and thirty years after the original monastery was founded—would turn out to be an appropriate setting for an event that would itself acquire historical, as well as philosophical, significance. According to some of those involved, the conference’s theme was, admittedly, “a little vague” (Beck, 1962: 7). Yet whatever adjectives one might propose to describe the choice of words used to convey the occasion’s central concern, it was certainly an original subject for an academic philosophy event organised near Paris in the 1950s. In French, just three words were needed to communicate the issue at hand: “la philosophie analytique [analytic philosophy]”.

  • 1 . All translations from the French shall, without exception, be our own.
  • 2 . We wish to make it clear from the outset that the often-cited nominal divide between so-called “ (...)

2But if the colloquium’s theme was expressed vaguely, its aims were clearly bold. Again according to those involved, the conference was intended as “an effort to foster dialogue between two types of philosophy which, for many years, [seemed] to have been ignoring each other” (ibid.)1. On the one hand, there was a philosophy “of the English school at Oxford, called ‘analytic’”, but practised differently in the the United States of America; and, on the other hand, a philosophy “of the ‘Continentals’” (ibid.)2. It must be said that the list of participants—comprising those who presented papers as well as those who simply took part in the discussions that followed them—was notable indeed, and included many who would go on to exert an influence on their age. For example: Ferdinand Alquié, Leo Apostel, John L. Austin, Alfred J. Ayer, Gaston Berger, Richard M. Hare, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Chaïm Perelman, Willard Van Orman Quine, Gilbert Ryle, Peter F. Strawson, Charles Taylor, Herman Léo Van Breda, Jean Wahl, Éric Weil, and Bernard Williams. With such a distinguished group of participants, it is perhaps not surprising that the colloquium was the stage for many contributions of lasting value, as well as many fascinating discussions. If there were ever a venue propitious for dialogue between the so-called “analytic” and “Continental” schools in the middle of the twentieth century, then there was surely none better than the Royaumont Abbey in April 1958.

  • 3 . Charles Taylor’s review is invaluable. Contrary to others that appeared at the same time, his te (...)

3The issue, however, is that events do not appear to have unfolded as hoped. The volume of collected papers that was published after the conference contains not only the exposés delivered there, but also extensive transcriptions of the fascinating discussions that occurred between all participants after each paper had been presented. When reading through this invaluable material, there is no doubt that dialogue was indeed fostered; the problem is that the discussions were not as fruitful as expected. In the words of one of those present, the Cartesian scholar John Leslie Beck: “The reader might wonder if the conference managed to create genuine dialogue. Given the immediate outcome, we may well doubt this. The oppositions between participants were clear-cut. The distances that separated them were vast. Several oppositions turned out to be insurmountable, such as that between Gilbert Ryle and the philosophers of the Husserlian school (Beck, 1962: 7)”. The description given by another participant, Charles Taylor, is even more forthright. Shortly after the book’s publication, Taylor explained that the conference was like a “dialogue that didn’t come off, a dialogue de sourds [dialogue of the deaf]” (Taylor, 1964: 132).3 It must be admitted that this is not the type of enlightened, open-minded discussion that one would expect from a meeting between some of the twentieth-century’s greatest philosophical minds.

4One of the clearest and most surprising examples of what Taylor calls a “dialogue of the deaf” occurred between Ryle and the philosopher we will be mainly interested in here, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The exchange came during the discussion that followed Ryle’s paper, entitled “La phénoménologie contre The Concept of Mind [Phenomenology versus The Concept of Mind]”, in which he relates his own philosophical method and conclusions to the methods and conclusions of what he characterises as Husserlian phenomenology. Ryle’s contribution to the conference was remarkable for many reasons, not all of which are entirely philosophical in nature. For example, the tone he adopted especially during the opening section of his paper, when discussing Husserl, was sententious and derisive. Many of his remarks were, it must be said, not only uncharitable, but also distasteful, carrying flippant and uncalled-for political connotations relating to the Nazis (Ryle, 1962: 68 [1971: 182]), at the hands of whom Husserl, of Jewish descent, had suffered significantly as early as 1933 (see Van Breda, 1959: 2–3). In his paper, Ryle spoke of the “great abyss” (ibid.) that separated Anglo-Saxon from Continental philosophy; by his manner of proceeding, it seemed not only that he had little inclination to broach the divide, but that he was single-handedly attempting to widen it.

5Immediately upon finishing his contribution, Ryle was vehemently criticised. He was taken to task not only for his deep misunderstanding of Husserl’s work, but, even more surprisingly, for his apparent lack of concern for making any attempt to read it—seriously, or at all. The acerbic criticism came from none other than Herman Léo Van Breda (La Philosophie analytique, Cahiers de Royaumont, IV: 85–87). Without a doubt, Van Breda was one of the most astute authorities alive at the time on Husserl’s work, published and unpublished, having risked his own life to smuggle Husserl’s belongings out of Germany and save them from almost certain destruction at the hands of the Nazis, bringing them clandestinely to Belgium, and to Leuven (Van Breda, 1959). There could have been few men present at the Royaumont Abbey with more authority on the subject than Van Breda to compliment Ryle on his discourse on Husserlian phenomenology; but, apart from one or two fleeting, customary remarks of polite civility, compliments were not what Ryle received from him.

6In the remarks made by Merleau-Ponty after Ryle’s paper, which are often requests for clarification to which Ryle replies evasively, if at all, one senses clearly the divergences between what Charles Taylor calls the “two philosophical worlds that touch […] at very few points” (1964: 133). As an avid reader of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty is first moved to mention that he believes Ryle has characterised the latter’s work “somewhat nastily [un peu méchamment]” (La Philosophie analytique, Cahiers de Royaumont, IV: 93), and he goes on to admit that his vague impression of some form of rapprochement between the two types of philosophy may only be an “optimistic illusion” (ibid.). This is particularly clear when, alluding to the distinction in German between Richtigkeit and Wahrheit, he asks Ryle to state clearly whether he believes that philosophy is adequately defined as merely an enquiry into the correctness of verbal expressions (ibid.: 94), and when Ryle does not provide the clear, negative answer that would surely have reassured his French counterpart (ibid.: 97. See Noble, 2014a: 142–143).

7In order to account for the missed opportunities for fruitful interchange, as well as the sometimes surprising remarks that were made, Charles Taylor suggests some possible explanations: first of all, “the contempt in which ‘Continental’ philosophers are often held at Oxford, which hardly accords them the status of worthy interlocutors” (1964: 133); and, secondly, the fact that “Oxford has lived for so long in a state of cultural solipsism, out of communication with rival schools, that it rarely meets a challenge which would require clarification” (ibid.).

8Obviously, much has changed in the world of academic philosophy since 1958. For example, a growing number of philosophers and commentators today prefer to strive to lay bare the common concerns of diverging traditions, rather than toil in what Taylor aptly describes as “a state of cultural solipsism”. In this regard, a growing body of literature in recent years has tended to insist upon the elements that these traditions have in common, rather than on those that force them apart (see, for example, Dummet, 1993; Glock, 2008). Also, in the English-speaking world, there has even been a recent revival of interest in the conference that took place at the Royaumont Abbey in 1958, accompanied by discussion about how best to interpret the apparent clash of civilisations that occurred there (see Overgard, 2010; Vrahimis, 2013; Gallagher, 2017; and cf. Dummet, 1993). To be sure, all of these developments are undeniably positive for the practice of philosophy.

9Having said this, it cannot be denied that the manner in which events unfolded at the Royaumont Abbey in 1958 is indicative of certain real tendencies in the world of academic philosophy. The “cultural solipsism” and general attitude of “contempt” to which Charles Taylor refers—Simon Critchley evokes an “ideological prejudice that surely should have no home in philosophy” (1998: 4)—undoubtedly condition the manner in which French thought has been received in the English-speaking world. For those familiar with this particular Royaumont conference, and especially Ryle’s contribution, the brash confrontation between Searle and Derrida in the 1970s and 1980s (see, for example, Searle, 1977; Derrida, 1990; and Smith, 1999) came as little surprise.

10The aim of these introductory remarks is simple: to ground the discussions that follow in the reality of the academic context to which they are related. Indeed, any consideration of the transmission of French thought, through translation, towards the English-speaking world would be pointlessly abstract if it ignored the circumstances in which such transmission occurs.

11Presently, after introducing the challenging context of these discussions, we should like to ask a question which is closely aligned with issues concerning the reception of French thought, through the prism of translation, in the English-speaking world. Our question is the following: what responsibility, if any, might translations—and, by extension, translators—have in this arduous exchange between languages and cultures, where a slew of deep and serious misunderstandings appear to obstruct the possibility of fruitful discussion between equals? For, although attitudes are changing slowly, there are already at least two positive results of the growing interest in translation as an activity in and of itself: first of all, an increasing general awareness that translation is far from being a transparent medium; and, secondly, a consequent realisation that the translator’s labour, as well as the choices he or she makes, do indeed have ramifications, sometimes highly significant. The translator is, we might say, becoming less and less invisible, albeit gradually. What, then, are the repercussions of the involvement of translation in this exchange between the representatives of the often tumultuous Sorbonne and those of the generally calmer, ivy-clad colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and of their American and Canadian counterparts?

Merleau-Ponty and the Translation of La Structure du comportement

12We should like to enquire into the suggested question by examining the work of one French thinker, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In particular, we will be concerned with his first book, La Structure du comportement, and also, briefly, with the project that would become his last, upon which he was working when he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1961, and which we know today as Le Visible et l’invisible. Before embarking on this path, it would be well to make one point perspicuously clear. The task of discussing another translator’s work is a serious one indeed, and it must be approached with the utmost care. Anyone who has been concerned seriously with the labour of translation knows all too well what strenuous effort can be required in order to wrestle a writer’s well-hewn prose into a language he or she never used. This is why it will be essential to remain as impartial as possible, concentrating on the facts of the matter, and the facts alone. In this manner, any conclusions at which we might arrive will not be based on issues relating to individual taste, but on matters much more objective.

13Merleau-Ponty’s major, completed philosophical work is, of course, his second book, the Phénoménologie de la perception, which was his principal doctoral thesis (thèse principale), finished in 1944 and published in the Spring of 1945. La Structure du comportement was Merleau-Ponty’s secondary doctoral dissertation (thèse complémentaire), completed in 1939, and it became his first book, published in November 1942. It was defended, along with the Phénoménologie de la perception, in July 1945. The existing, published English translation of La Structure du comportement dates from 1963, having appeared just after the first English translation of the Phénoménologie de la perception, in 1962, one year after the philosopher’s untimely death. Although the works are complementary, with the conclusions of La Structure du comportement demonstrating the necessity of a phenomenological study of perception (see Noble, 2014b), Merleau-Ponty’s first book is not, like his second, major one, a work on phenomenology. For the most part, La Structure du comportement is an in-depth, critical, and philosophical examination of what were, at the time, recent developments in the scientific analysis of behaviour and perception. Its discussions of phenomenology proper are only developed in the concluding sections. Although it is impossible to say for sure, the predominance of empirical, scientific issues rather than those of a purely conceptual nature might well have have been a factor that influenced the book’s reception—or lack thereof—in the English-speaking world. For, as Ryle made clear at Royaumont Abbey, for the Oxonian philosophers there was a sharp divide between the empirical research of science and the conceptual research of philosophy—and, more importantly, the two were perhaps better kept apart (La Philosophie analytique, Cahiers de Royaumont, IV: 67–68, 96–97). “What is important”, Ryle replied to Merleau-Ponty in 1958, “is that the factual questions of this domain [i.e., that of the empirical sciences] are not within the competence of philosophy” (ibid.: 96). For Merleau-Ponty, on the contrary, they most certainly were.

14When examining the English translation of La Structure du comportement, not only with the eyes of a philosopher, but with the eyes of a translator, one is taken by a certain surprise. The issue is not that the existing translation is in any way dated, as sometimes happens with such works; objectively speaking, the main problem is that the existing translation bears all the hallmarks of, and stumbles into all the same pitfalls as, the work of students taking their first classes in translation. Generally speaking, it shows little or no regard for the fundamental linguistic differences between French and English, and, on certain occasions, it borders on unintelligibility. It is composed of a slew of loan, or literal, translations, with the French prose being rendered into English by choosing word-for-word English equivalents. In fact, the number and scope of problems in the existing translation is so significant that it is difficult to know where to start a discussion of it. Having little idea where to set the beginning of such an analysis in a logical manner, it thus seems best to do the obvious: to begin at the beginning—the very beginning—with the “Table of Contents”. In English books, of course, the “Table of Contents” appears at the outset, and it thus provides the English-speaking reader with a first glimpse of the overall structure of a book, before getting to the text itself.

15A “Table of Contents” is indeed an essential part of any book, and its presence is all the more important in works that are dense and technical, as La Structure du comportement can often be. It provides an insight into the level of organisation of the author’s thought, and it clarifies the path along which the book proposes to lead the reader. In any difficult, intricate work, a clear, well-organised “Table of Contents” is indisputably a welcome addition. And apart from the usual questions of terminology that might be brought up by specific words or expressions mentioned within it, a “Table of Contents” should present no great difficulties to the translator, and it should be a relatively straightforward section of text to deal with. However, this is far from the case in the current translation of La Structure du comportement. Furthermore, the tendencies exhibited in the English translation’s “Table of Contents” are indicative of many general tendencies encountered throughout the rest of the translation. Consequently, the translated “Table of Contents” gives a clear indication of the manner in which the entire translation seems to have been carried out. It thus seems quite appropriate to begin here, at the very beginning.

Translating Structure

  • 4 . All references to La Structure du comportement in French shall be preceded by the abbreviation S (...)
  • 5 . Today, this type of five-level hierarchy would be commonly indicated in the following manner: “I (...)
  • 6 . In later French editions, the page numbers for sub-subsections and paragraphs are removed; but t (...)

16Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to devote some attention to formal considerations relating to structure; the significance of these issues will become apparent very quickly. The French edition of La Structure du comportement is rigorously organised, according to a five-level hierarchy (see S.C.: 311–314)4. The book is divided into chapters, which are subdivided into sections and then subsections (Levels 1, 2, and 3, respectively). Very often, chapter subsections are also divided into sub-subsections (Level 4), and, on one occasion, sub-subsections are further divided into paragraphs (Level 5. See S.C., Ch. IV, § II.3: 314). Each of these distinct levels is clearly indicated in the French “Table des matières”5. The book’s four chapters are numbered using Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV), as are their respective sections, with the subsections numbered using Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). In turn, when chapter subsections are divided into sub-subsections, the latter are, first of all, clearly and consistently demarcated by the use of em dashes (i.e., “—”), and, secondly, always followed by clearly identifiable descriptive headings. In the one instance where the author further divides the sub-subsections into paragraphs (see Ch. IV, § II.3; S.C.: 314), the sub-subsections are demarcated by capital letters and the paragraphs by em dashes, again with clear headings attributed to both levels. Furthermore, in the first edition of the French text, all of the sectional, subsectional, and sub-subsectional headings—and even the paragraph headings in the one instance where they occur—are followed by their corresponding page numbers, and sometimes even separated from one another by line breaks to increase clarity even further.6 This highly structured configuration and lucid presentation makes it extremely easy for the reader to trace the work’s development in great detail, almost paragraph by paragraph.

17The structuring of the book into a clear, five-level hierarchy attests to its exemplary organisation. Indeed, it is unusual today for a work of philosophy to be organised down to the level of chapter sub-subsections (i.e., Level 4), let alone paragraphs (i.e., Level 5). Despite this high degree of organisation and the faultless clarity of its presentation in the French edition, not only does the “Table of Contents” in the English translation not respect the logical structure of the original French text, but it actually obfuscates this structure. For a reason that is impossible to fathom, the existing translation does not clearly or consistently distinguish between chapter subsections (i.e., Level 3), chapter sub-subsections (i.e., Level 4), or sub-subsection paragraphs (i.e., Level 5). Nor does it clearly or consistently present the accompanying headings that are so explicit and so easy to identify in the French text.

18In the translation, there are three fundamental problems in this regard, neither of which is self-evident initially, especially if one is not familiar with the original work in French. First of all, in its attempt to distinguish between the different types of sections the book contains—which, we recall, are always accompanied by titles or headings—and except for the four Roman numerals it maintains to refer to the four chapters (I, II, III, IV), the English translation abandons the use of numbers. It is impossible to tell why the translation dispenses with these numbers, for, as one well knows, numbered sections and subsections have the distinct advantage of demonstrating the clear, incremental progress of a book’s development, from beginning to end. Secondly, rather than employ numbers to refer to the work’s different types of sections, as the French text does, the English translation has opted to make use of varied forms of punctuation marks, such as semi-colons, colons, and em dashes, even resorting to the use of an esoteric one—the arcane interpunct, also referred to as a middle dot. The problem is that the use the translation makes of these characters is so unconventional that it is simply unclear and confusing. Thirdly, and surely as a consequence of the preceding problem, the variety of punctuation marks employed is quite obviously too great and too unusual, for the translation uses them inconsistently and actually manages to confuse them with one another. Such inconsistency in the unconventional use of these punctuation marks has at least one serious consequence: the confusion of chapter subsections, sub-subsections, and also sub-subsection paragraphs. At best, the outcome is unclear; at worst, it is highly confusing. More importantly, the result in no wise resembles the consistent clarity of the French original, and the overall effect is an obfuscation of the logical development of the book.

  • 7 . This is the title that appears in later editions. The first edition indicates simply “Le circuit (...)

19A brief example will demonstrate these points clearly. During the course of Chapter I’s first section, entitled “Les conceptions classiques du réflexe et ses hypothèses auxiliaires [The Classical Conception of the Reflex and its Additional Hypotheses]”, Merleau-Ponty devotes a long, and pivotal, discussion to the concept of “Le circuit du réflexe [The Reflex Circuit]”7. His analysis of this concept constitutes Subsection 3 of Chapter I, Section I (or, in a more modern notation, “1.1.3”). In the original French text, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of “The Reflex Circuit” is very clearly divided into four different sub-subsections, all of which are given clear, distinct descriptive headings in the French “Table des matières”, along with, in the first edition, and as mentioned, corresponding page numbers (see S.C.: 311).

  • 8 . All references to The Structure of Behaviour in the English translation shall be preceded by the (...)

20However, the situation is quite different in the translation. Due to its aforementioned abandonment of numbering as well as its confusing and inconsistent use of unorthodox punctuation marks to attempt to indicate logical structure, a series of issues arises here in the translation that will be repeated throughout. First of all, it is difficult to grasp in the English translation that Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of “The Reflex Circuit” is actually divided into different sub-subsections at all, let alone how many of them (see S.C.: 311 and cf. S.B., v8). The short descriptive headings that are numbered and clearly presented as such in the French text are printed together in the translation without any unambiguous hierarchical distinction made between them. This is due in part to a thoroughly unconventional, inconsistent, and confusing use of a punctuation mark, i.e., the em dash. Indeed, the groups of words that should be presented clearly as distinct descriptive headings are actually lumped together in the translation, one after another, in the format of a paragraph, sometimes using an em dash to attempt to indicate separation. However, the em dash is employed exactly as if it were a punctuation mark in the middle of a sentence—with no space used before or after it, and, furthermore, with no capitalisation used for the first letter of the word that follows it. Consequently, and in distinct contrast to what occurs in the French original, it is not only difficult for the reader to apprehend the headings as headings, but it is also hard to discern the relations between them—something which, of course, is essential for understanding the development of the chapter, and of the book.

  • 9 . To further confuse matters, the translation prints the abbreviated heading, “The Reflex Circuit” (...)
  • 10 . See also Ch. I, § III (S.C.: 312; S.B.: v); Ch. II, §§ I–III & “Conclusion” (S.C.: 312; S.B.: vi (...)

21In the second instance, this lack of clarity gives rise to three distinct issues. First of all, the translation manages to suppress the first sub-subsection of Subsection 3 (or, in a more modern notation, “”). Secondly, it adds the heading of this suppressed first sub-subsection onto the end of the heading preceding it, i.e., that of Subsection 3. Therefore, instead of simply reading “Le circuit réflexe [The Reflex Circuit]”, as it does in the French text (S.C.: 14, 311), the heading of Subsection 3 in the translation’s “Table of Contents” becomes the following: “The reflex circuit: chemical, secretory and vegetative conditions of the reflex” (S.B.: v).9 And, thirdly, since the first sub-subsection disappears from the table, what should be the second sub-subsection would appear to take its place here and become the first. In short, the English-speaking reader is unsuspectingly led far astray from the original structure of the chapter, and thus of the argument, and a certain confusion reigns. This tendency begins in Chapter I, and it continues throughout.10

22What appears to be a general lack of attention to detail exhibited by the existing translation’s “Table of Contents” has serious effects on the English-speaking reader’s grasp of certain decisive passages of the book. There are numerous striking examples of the resulting confusion, but the one on which we would like to concentrate appears in the book’s very last chapter. Here, the author ties all of his preceding discussions together and presents his philosophical conclusions, guiding the reader towards a phenomenology of perception. However, in the English translation, the original structure and development of this last chapter is again seriously compromised.

23The explanation for this is as follows. In the original French text, the last chapter of the book is divided into two sections: the first of these (or “4.1”) is entitled “Les solutions classiques [The Classical Solutions]”, and has five subsections; while the second (or “4.2”), entitled “N’y a-t-il pas une vérité du naturalisme? [Is There Not Some Truth to Naturalism?]”, has four subsections. In this second, and thus final section of Chapter IV—which is also the final section of the book—the penultimate third subsection (or “4.2.3”) is complex and is divided into sub-subsections and even paragraphs. Indeed, its descriptive heading gives some idea of the complexity it involves: “Il faut distinguer la conscience comme lieu des significations et la conscience comme flux du vécu [We Must Distinguish Between Consciousness as a Place Where Significations Are Harboured and Consciousness as a Flux of Lived-experience]” (S.C.: 314). In order to draw such a distinction within the concept of consciousness, Merleau-Ponty examines a number of themes, including external perception; the thing understood as a phenomenon; the body proper; and a return to the perceptual field, with this field understood as a domain of original experience. After this third subsection (or “4.2.3”) is concluded, the reader arrives at the book’s last pages, which deal with the issue of how signification can inhere in a structured whole and how such a whole laden with signification can be comprehended through the act of perception. This final passage of the work is entitled “Structure et signification. Le problème de la conscience perceptive [Structure and Signification. The Problem of Perceptual Consciousness]”, and it is plainly indicated by the author as corresponding to Chapter IV, Section II, Subsection 4 (or “4.2.4”. S.C.: 314).

24However, the confusion in the existing translation becomes so significant again here that it manages to garble the complexity of the all-important penultimate subsection of the book (or “4.2.3”), where, before arriving at his conclusions, Merleau-Ponty draws essential distinctions within the concept of consciousness. Rather than respecting the development of the original French text at this point, the English translation again fails to distinguish clearly between subsections and sub-subsections, as well as, at this place in the text, even paragraphs, too. In the end, such lack of clarity will cause it to veer into what can only be called textual disorder. Any clear indication of the intricate hierarchical structure of the work, organised here down to levels four and five, is lost, as is any clear trace of the hierarchical structure of the sub-subsections or the paragraphs to which these levels correspond. In order to compensate for the changes in structure, the headings of the problematic sub-subsections and paragraphs are simply spliced onto the heading of the subsection of which they are a part, using colons and semi-colons. Consequently, in the English translation, the heading of the third, penultimate subsection of Chapter 4, Section 2 (or “4.2.3”) becomes an improbably long and cumbersome piece of text indeed: “Consciousness, as a place of significations, and consciousness, as a flux of the lived [sic], must be distinguished: I) external perception, the phenomenon of the thing; the phenomenon of the body proper; the return to the perceptual field as to an original experience; realism as a well-founded error—2) error; the psychological and social structures” (S.B.: vii).

25But we are still one subsection from the end of the book, and the circumstances will further deteriorate. Immediately following the section of textual unclarity and inaccuracy we have just described, it turns out that the very long passage the translation presents to the English-speaking reader as the “Conclusion” is not actually the “Conclusion” at all. To begin with, and strictly speaking, no passage in the original French text is marked as the “Conclusion”. The French “Table des matières” indicates that the author entitled the very last passages of the book, quite simply, and as we have noted above, “Structure et signification. Le problème de la conscience perceptive [Structure and Signification. The Problem of Perceptual Consciousness]” (or “4.2.4”). This is the title that the translation introduces in its “Table of Contents” with the additional word “Conclusion”. The addition of such a word to the heading could be argued for on the grounds of adding clarity, and an argument presented in favour of such a change could be a reasonable one, whether one agrees with it or not. However, due to the translation’s apparent difficulties in rendering the structure of the French edition faithfully, and, in particular, due to the disorganisation this creates throughout the “Table of Contents”—and, by extension, throughout the book—its attempt to add clarification to the text, by adding a word to indicate the conclusion, turns out to be less than successful. In fact, the confusion the translation creates reaches a point of culmination here at the end of the final chapter.

26When the translation places this last heading within the text itself, it abbreviates the heading, no doubt for the sake of clarity, to just one word: “Conclusion”. And when it does so, it prints the heading “Conclusion” in the wrong place entirely, putting it too early in the chapter (see S.C.: 314, 302 & 304, and cf. S.B.: vii and 220). In other words, the passages that the translation presents to the reader as the crucial concluding discussion of the book—which, as mentioned, deals in the original French text with the themes of structure and signification and their relations to perceptual consciousness—is not that discussion at all. In fact, the translation wrongly introduces as the “Conclusion” a preceding discussion, which deals with the difficult issue of accounting for our perceptual experience of error. As important as this passage is, it is most definitely not the book’s conclusion. As it turns out, this previous discussion is, in fact, none other than the last paragraph of the last sub-subsection of the chapter’s third, and penultimate, subsection (or “4.2.3”)—the subsection which, as we explained above, is so unclearly rendered in the “Table of Contents”. This fact only underlines the importance of clearly apprehending, and clearly indicating, the book’s highly organised structural hierarchy. As a result of this situation in the last chapter, the true logical development of the crucial final pages of La Structure du comportement is entirely lost to the unsuspecting English-speaking reader, who is served with the wrong “Conclusion”. When compared to the French original, the result is simple: textual disarray.

A Philosopher’s Prose in Translation

27What appears to be the English translation’s inattention to the complexities of the original French text evident in the “Table of Contents” is, as one might imagine, also clearly present in the translation of the French prose itself. Throughout the work, surprises abound, and one has to go no further than the book’s “Introduction” and the first paragraph of Chapter One to encounter problems. In the opening pages, the reader encounters a variety of non-negligible issues, to which we would like to devote some brief discussion. For example (and the list is not exhaustive): first of all, awkward word-for-word translations, as well as the unnecessary invention of English words; secondly, confusion of the conditional mood with the future tense, as well as clear grammatical errors; and, thirdly, even basic mistakes in punctuation—all of this before the first paragraph of Chapter One has come to an end.

28To illustrate the first example cited—awkward word-for-word renderings of the prose—let us mention a clear case of the issue that appears at the very beginning of the translation. Later editions of the La Structure du comportement include an introductory text written by a Belgian contemporary of Merleau-Ponty, Alphonse De Waelhens, which is entitled “Une philosophie de l’ambiguïté”. This text was inserted before the work itself, and is reproduced in the English translation. Its title is rendered as follows: “A Philosophy of the Ambiguous” (S.B.: xviii). However, this is fundamentally problematic. In English, the word “ambiguous” is an adjective; it is not a noun substantive, and it cannot function properly as a noun substantive. Here, the translation is following the literal word-order of the original French, and rendering “Une philosophie de l’…” as “A Philosophy of the…”. But, in English, this sounds cumbersome and unfamiliar, whereas in French, on the contrary, there is no such hint of anything untoward. The only acceptable translation is as follows: “A Philosophy of Ambiguity”.

29Secondly—concerning the confusion of moods and tenses—in only the second sentence of Chapter One, Merleau-Ponty provides a simple example whose function will be to demonstrate certain qualities of what is given in naive consciousness. He writes : “Si je suis dans une pièce sombre et qu’une tache lumineuse apparaisse sur le mur, je dirai que…” (S.C.: 1. Emphasis added). In this sentence, which is a conditional, the first independent clause is introduced by the present tense—“Si je suis…”, or, in English, “If I am…”—while the second part of the conditional is introduced by the simple future—“je dirai que…”, or “I will say that…”. However, it would appear that the translation has confused the French simple future verb form—“je dirai”—with the French conditional verb form—“je dirais”—and the sentence has been translated as follows: “If I am in a dark room…, I would say that…” (S.B.: 7. Emphasis added). In English, this is grammatically incorrect. In an English conditional sentence such as this one, with the second independent clause formulated in the conditional mood, the first independent clause should be in the subjunctive mood, as follows: “If I were in a dark room…, I would say that…”. It is highly surprising that such a basic grammatical error should be introduced into the prose of a perfectly normal, and perfectly simple, French sentence, especially in only the second sentence of the book.

30Thirdly, concerning punctuation, even before reaching the end of the first page, and still only a few lines in from the beginning of Chapter One, the reader comes across the following sentence: “La lumière phénoménale était une force d’attraction, la lumière réelle est une vis a tergo” (S.C.: 1). In the current English translation, this sentence is rendered as follows: “The phenomenal light was a force of attraction, the real light is a vis a tergo” (S.B.: 7). Here, the translation may use the correct words, but it does not respect the rules of English punctuation. The precise problem in this case is the following: whereas French allows for the coordination of two independent clauses with the use of a comma alone, English requires, at the least, either a coordinating conjunction or a semi-colon. Hence, we should read as follows: either “The phenomenal light was a force of attraction; the real light is a vis a tergo”; or “The phenomenal light was a force of attraction, and the real light is a vis a tergo”. This basic issue of proper English punctuation—resulting from the direct transposition of French punctuation into English, and occurring only a matter of lines into the book—is recurrent throughout the translation.

  • 11 . When discussing any issue related to the meaning and use of English words, our reference is The (...)

31The opening pages of the book can provide examples not because they are an isolated case, but, rather, because the tendencies one notes there continue throughout. And these tendencies create even more difficulties towards the end of the work, when the conceptual discussions become more dense. For example, in the final chapter of the text, when analysing the nature of the knowledge we posses as incarnate subjects, Merleau-Ponty uses the expression “l’ensemble des connaissances existentielles” (S.C.: 267). In the English translation, this is rendered literally, as follows: “the ensemble of existential knowledges” (S.B.: 197). First of all, the meaning of the English noun ensemble is generally much more restricted than its French equivalent, and the word in English commonly refers to a group of musicians or other artists of some sort. Although in English the term can convey the meaning of a totality, this possibility is generally restricted to a totality of countable items11. Secondly, and more importantly, unlike in French, the English noun knowledge is of course a mass noun—it simply does not take the plural form. For the French expression “l’ensemble des connaissances existentielles”, we would thus prefer to read “the whole of existential knowledge” or “the entirety of existential knowledge”—or even, more simply, “all of existential knowledge”. Then, later in the final chapter, as the book nears its concluding pages, and within a passage that contains a crucial analysis of the nature of signification, Merleau-Ponty provides the following, essential general conclusion for the very first time; it is, moreover, a general conclusion that will be echoed and developed throughout his writings in the years to come: “La signification est incarnée” (S.C.: 288). In the English translation, we note again a tendency towards a literal rendering of the text, and this sentence becomes the following: “The signification is incarnate” (S.B.: 211). Obviously, the crucial point of the French text is lost here: the author is not making a statement about any particular signification, which is the meaning the English translation gives; rather, he is affirming a bold conclusion that applies to all signification. Here, one should simply read: “Signification is incarnate”. The same persistent propensity for word-for-word translations results, in the very last passage of the book, in an odd discussion of “consciousness of self” (S.B.: 223)—i.e., “la conscience de soi” (S.C.: 303)—instead of, quite simply, “self-consciousness” (cf. S.C.: 277 and S.B.: 204). This, of course, is a detail, but it reveals to what extent literal translations are encountered, with the example here being such a straightforward one—and located, moreover, at such a crucial point in the work. Furthermore, when in the penultimate section of the last chapter Merleau-Ponty turns his attention to the fundamental notion of the “body”, which is to be understood not as an object or a thing, but as a lived phenomenon—a theme so central to his philosophy that he will devote the entire first part of the Phénoménologie de la perception to it—the translation introduces a confusion that obfuscates the meaning of the entire discussion, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the reader to understand what is going on. Merleau-Ponty writes : “le phénomène de mon corps doit être distingué des pures significations logiques” (S.C. : 290. Emphasis added). In the translation, this becomes the following: “the phenomena of my body should be distinguished from purely logical significations” (S.B.: 213. Emphasis added). In the context of the discussion, the reader is left confused, wondering what the phenomena of my body might be, and if these might perhaps be experiences, which are in some manner attached to my body. However, it is of course the body itself that is to be understood as a phenomenon—as the French text clearly states.

  • 12 . We recall, as mentioned above, that the translation of La Structure du comportement appeared in (...)
  • 13 . In the French original, the passage in question reads as follows: “[…] la conscience pour laquel (...)

32Finally, we also encounter towards the end of the book a translation that, subsequently, has come to plague the interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in the English-speaking world ever since. In fact, the English translation of La Structure du comportement, as one of the very first English translations of Merleau-Ponty’s writings12, serves to establish the tendency to translate the French verb interroger—as well as all of its cognates, such as interrogation—by its literal English equivalent, namely, to interrogate. Thus, it is in The Structure of Behaviour that we hear Merleau-Ponty say, for the very first time in English, that the philosopher must ‘interrogate’ perceptual consciousness (S.B.: 201)13. This is a notion that will grow in importance in Merleau-Ponty’s work throughout the years, and which will become central to his later philosophy, especially in the manuscript of Le Visible et l’invisible. But it is important to underline that it is in La Structure du comportement where we encounter this idea for the first time.

33As we have argued elsewhere (Noble, 2018: 122–127), the problem with this literal translation is that the French verb interroger and its cognates have a much wider lexical field than their English literal equivalents, such as interrogate or interrogation. In English, the verb interrogate and the corresponding noun interrogation have a much narrower meaning than their French literal equivalents; when we use these words in English, we think of a procedure of formal, perhaps even hostile, questioning, such as might be carried out by the police, the military, or the secret services. In French, of course, this is not the case, and the French equivalent of the English noun interrogation would not be interrogation, but, rather, interrogatoire. This is not at all the meaning intended by Merleau-Ponty when he uses this term, and the discrepancy between meanings shows clearly the unsuitability of an English expression that has become common when discussing Melreau-Ponty’s philosophy, calling it even a philosophy of interrogation—which translates into French as une philosophie de l’interrogatoire.

34Despite this analysis, and in partial reference to it, it has been suggested recently that the English translation of the French word interrogation by its exact lexical equivalent—i.e., interrogation—may nevertheless provide an interesting example of the evolution of language. Indeed, while not disputing the more restricted semantic field of the English term interrogation in relation to its French lexical equivalent, Maryvonne Boisseau and Denis Boisseau (2019) suggest that the use of the English word interrogation with the much wider meaning of the French equivalent has in fact entered into the English language over the course of the last forty years. In order to support their claims, the authors quote from two passages of Lawrence’s Venuti’s book The Translator’s Invisibility, where the English term appears to be used with its wider French meaning (Venuti, 2008: 19, 262). Furthermore, they quote from private correspondence from Venuti himself, where the latter claims that, during the 1970s and 1980s in certain academic circles, one did indeed begin to encounter the English word used with its wider French meaning. If it is indeed the case that the meaning of the English word interrogation has changed over recent years, then the authors have identified an interesting example of language evolving, and, moreover, doing so under the explicit influence of translation.

  • 14 . Undergraduate students are, of course, among this category of people.

35However this may be, we would like to make two remarks regarding this issue. First of all, if change is indeed occurring, one might ask to what extent it is actually taking place. For, the use of the English word with a meaning closer to its French lexical equivalent is only occurring, if it is occurring at all, in a very narrow environment indeed, i.e., that of a very specific academic community, located also in a specific part of the world—for the moment, North America, and, in particular, the United States. Having said this, one must admit that the evolution of language often happens slowly and, of course, that change must be initiated in some specific location. Secondly, and more importantly, if again the authors are correct, and this translation has forced change upon a component of the English language, this fact does not justify, retrospectively, the translation that occurred. In the context of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, the translation of the French term interrogation by its English lexical equivalent is, for very good reasons, highly inadequate and unsuitable (see Noble, 2018: 122–127). Any regular native speaker of English—and by this we mean anyone who has no knowledge of twentieth-century French philosophy, and who comes across such a translation and talk of “interrogating perception” for the first time14—inevitably finds the prose and the ideas strange and foreign indeed. In short, in the early 1960s, when this tendency was initiated, it did not sound like English at all, and this is still the case today for any native speaker of English not acquainted with the world of French philosophy. What we have found here, then, is that the translation of La Structure du comportement helped to initiate this inadequate rendering of the French.

The Consequences of Translation and the Responsibility of the Translator

36None of the examples discussed here are inconsequential in any way whatsoever. To transform the impeccable prose of someone who was recognised by his contemporaries as one of the best writers of his time into the work of a person who, for example, had not yet mastered the basic rules of punctation and could not construct a proper conditional phrase is surprising indeed. To mangle a clear, well-strucutred Table of Contents and transform it into something almost unrecognisable that obfuscates the structure of the work it is supposed to clarify is baffling. After reading little more than a paragraph of the English translation of La Structure du comportement, the reader has already encountered a slew of issues—issues that will be repeated throughout the book, alongside many others. It is important to add that, of course, this is not at all so in French. Although it is really in his second book, the Phénoménologie de la perception, where Merleau-Ponty’s distinctive style becomes fully apparent, La Structure du comportement already bears the hallmark of an excellent writer, who paid great attention to his style. In this regard, it is highly significant that, despite the technical nature of much of the subject matter, especially towards the beginning of the book, and despite the scientific intricacies of many of the discussions, the prose remains solid, clear, and forceful throughout. As our brief comments have indicated, this is far from the case in the English translation.

37And so where does all of this leave us? Let us now return to the beginning, and to Royaumont Abbey in 1958. One of the lessons learned there was the profound difficulty of fostering fruitful dialogue between the representatives of different philosophical traditions, even when the material conditions and the list of participants seemed ideal. As we saw, for example, Ryle’s contribution and the discussions that followed it, in particular with Merleau-Ponty, demonstrated a basic disagreement not only about Husserlian phenomenology, but, more importantly, about the issues that lay within the scope of philosophy, and, consequently, about the task of philosophy itself. Ryle was of course a man of great intellectual rigour, who wrote, and no doubt appreciated, clear prose, but it became clear that he did not conceive of philosophy in the same manner as Merleau-Ponty. From the former’s remarks at Royaumont, we can deduce that La Structure du comportement would have been a difficult book for him as a philosopher, given much of its scientific subject matter and also its discussions of Husserlian phenomenology in its concluding sections.

38After some of the tendencies described in the present work, what can we imagine that Ryle and any of his “analytic” colleagues might make of The Structure of Behaviour if they picked it up, in translation, and tried to read it? Can we imagine that the translation would have facilitated dialogue in an already difficult context? One of the general reasons that Charles Taylor suggests to explain why the conference at the Royaumont Abbey mainly fell short of its aims was that the participants were “insufficiently prepared, and knew too little about the other to engage in a really fruitful dialogue” (1964: 133). Can we imagine that the translation of La Structure du comportement that we have examined above would have helped prepare them better for such communication? Is it thus any easier to understand the severe judgements representatives of the “analytic” tradition pass on French philosophy, and the fact that they have little time for it, when they encounter in their translations of it philosophers discussing “ensembles of existential knowledges” and exhorting us to “interrogate perception”, with the conclusions of their arguments unclearly expressed and the “Conclusions” of their books not quite resembling conclusions at all? For any native speaker of English, and irrespective of the philosophical school with which they may be associated, this is a strange world indeed. Unfortunately, this type of confusion and unclarity is wholly in keeping with the risible caricature of so-called “Continental”, and especially French philosophy, for which so-called “Anglo-Saxon”, “analytic” philosophers have so little time. It also justifies the construal of the representatives of the “Continental” tradition as, to paraphrase Charles Taylor, unworthy interlocutors (1964: 133). It is thus time to say clearly, after all is said and done here, that it is very difficult even to speak of the reception of La Structure du comportement in the English-speaking world, precisely because the book has been largely overlooked. Indeed, no monograph written in English has ever been devoted to it, whereas this is not the case in French (see Geraets, 1971, and cf., De Waelhens, 1978: 1–57). Also, although some recent research written in French has concentrated almost exclusively on La Structure du comportement (see Bimbenet, 2000; Bernet, 2008; and Noble, 2008), there is still, today, little interest in the work in the English-speaking world. And the unfortunate fact is that La Structure du comportement is not an isolated case. Far from it, in fact, with English-speaking researchers still turning away from fundamental works of French philosophy. As French thought continues to meander, or find its way haphazardly, into and through the English-speaking world, might it not be time for those of us who write, philosophise, and translate to stop theorising for a moment and ask where some of the responsibility might lie for the regrettable reception it so often receives amongst native speakers of English? Indeed, should a good translation not constitute, in and of itself, a new point where two different worlds are brought together, so that they might touch?

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1 . All translations from the French shall, without exception, be our own.

2 . We wish to make it clear from the outset that the often-cited nominal divide between so-called “Anglo-Saxon (analytic)” and so-called “Continental” philosophy is actually caricatured and spurious. This was eminently clear at the Royaumont Abbey in 1958, where numerous “Continentals”, notably from Belgium and the Netherlands—for example, Leo Apostel, Evert Willem Beth, and Chaïm Perelman—presented papers or intervened from the point of view of the “Anglo-Saxon”, “analytic” tradition.

3 . Charles Taylor’s review is invaluable. Contrary to others that appeared at the same time, his text reads less like a book review and more like an account of what actually happened at the Royaumont Abbey, supported by the insight of a philosopher who was present and, furthermore, who knew both traditions well. (Cf., for example, Martinelli, 1963).

4 . All references to La Structure du comportement in French shall be preceded by the abbreviation S.C.

5 . Today, this type of five-level hierarchy would be commonly indicated in the following manner: “I. A. 1. a. i.” or “”.

6 . In later French editions, the page numbers for sub-subsections and paragraphs are removed; but the clear, five-level structure of the “Table des matières” remains unaltered.

7 . This is the title that appears in later editions. The first edition indicates simply “Le circuit [The Circuit]”.

8 . All references to The Structure of Behaviour in the English translation shall be preceded by the abbreviation S.B.

9 . To further confuse matters, the translation prints the abbreviated heading, “The Reflex Circuit”, within the text itself (S.B.: 16).

10 . See also Ch. I, § III (S.C.: 312; S.B.: v); Ch. II, §§ I–III & “Conclusion” (S.C.: 312; S.B.: vi); Ch. III, §§ II–III (S.C.: 313–314; S.B.: vi–vii); and Ch. IV, §§ II (S.C.: 314; S.B.: vii).

11 . When discussing any issue related to the meaning and use of English words, our reference is The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 20 vols., prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1989.

12 . We recall, as mentioned above, that the translation of La Structure du comportement appeared in 1963, just after that of the Phénoménologie de la perception, in 1962.

13 . In the French original, the passage in question reads as follows: “[…] la conscience pour laquelle la Gestalt existe, n’était pas la conscience intellectuelle, mais l’expérience perceptive. C’est la conscience perceptive qu’il faudrait interroger pour trouver en elle un éclaircissement définitif” (S.C.: 287). This is rendered in the English translation in the following manner: “[…] the consciousness for which the Gestalt exists was not intellectual consciousness but perpetual experience. Thus, it is perceptual consciousness that must be interrogated in order to find in it a definitive clarification” (S.B.: 201). Instead, we would propose the following translation of the problematic last sentence, respecting also the conditional mood of the French verb falloir: “We would thus need to question perceptual consciousness in order to find within it a definitive clarification” (emphasis added).

14 . Undergraduate students are, of course, among this category of people.

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Stephen A. Noble, « The Meanders of French Thought into the Anglophone World: Merleau-Ponty’s La Structure du comportement and its English Translation », Palimpsestes, 33 | -1, 103-119.

Référence électronique

Stephen A. Noble, « The Meanders of French Thought into the Anglophone World: Merleau-Ponty’s La Structure du comportement and its English Translation », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 33 | 2019, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2019, consulté le 13 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.4254

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Stephen A. Noble

Maître de conférences en traduction et traductologie à l’université de Lille. Il est docteur en philosophie de l’université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne et ancien chercheur post-doctoral auprès du Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada (CRSH/SSHRC), dans le département de philosophie à l’université McGill, où il demeure membre associé. Il est l’auteur de Silence et langage (Brill, 2014) et de La Conscience perceptive (Zeta Books, 2014), ainsi que de nombreux chapitres de livres et articles publiés dans des revues traitant explicitement des questions philosophiques ayant trait aux thèmes du langage et de la traduction.

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