Tracework: Myself and others in the moral phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas

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In this study, I examine the significance of the trace and its legibility in the phenomenologies of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, showing that this trope plays a more significant role in Merleau-Ponty's thinking than has been recognized heretofore and that it constitutes a crucial point of contact between Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. But this point of contact is also, in both their philosophies, a site where their thinking is compelled to confront its limits and the enigmas involved in the description of the topography of a hermeneutical flesh. It is argued that the significance of the trace consists in its alterity, its registering and inscribing in the very matter of the flesh an imperative spiritual assignment: the morally binding hold of the other person on my capacity to be responsive to the other's needs and bear responsibility for the other's welfare. The retrieval or recuperation of the trace, which, I argue, is inscribed as a certain predisposition in what, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, we might call the prepersonal topology of the flesh, would thus constitute a task of the utmost importance for the formation of the moral self. However, given the paradoxical temporality of the trace and the hermeneutical nature of its legibility, the retrieval of the trace is not actually possible. Nevertheless, the attempt to retrieve it - one's commitment to retrieving it - is an absolutely imperative existential task, determining the character of the moral self. In both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, however, the problematic nature of this recuperative project is manifested in the ambiguous, equivocal modality of their rhetoric, supposedly engaged in the phenomenological description of the primordial 'inscription', but oscillating, in fact, undecidably between descriptive and prescriptive, constative and performative, literal and metaphorical modes of discourse. It is argued that this, far from being a fault, is necessitated by the hermeneutic nature of the trace, which requires that the description be invocative and evocative, provoking a deep transformation in experience that would make the description true. It accordingly becomes clear that and why the moral phenomenologies of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, depending as they must on a metaphorical interaction between language and experience, cannot function within the framework of the traditional correspondence theory of truth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)345-392
Number of pages48
JournalInternational Journal of Philosophical Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1 1998


  • Body
  • Ethics
  • Levinas
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Moral
  • Phenomenology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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