Alterity And Reversibility In Merleau-Ponty; A Discourse On Cultural Diversity And Minority Rights

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Alterity And Reversibility In Merleau-Ponty; A Discourse On Cultural Diversity And Minority Rights


Abstract


Cultural diversity is increasingly becoming an inevitable feature of most modern states. This is because trade, tourism, international dialogue amongst scholars, scientists and artists and the movement of skilled labour as well as migration have ensured that few countries do not contain within them significant numbers of peoples from other cultures. A likely consequence of this diversity is clash of cultural interests, especially between minority and majority cultural groups, in response to which proponents of multiculturalism argue for minority rights and recognition for cultural minorities. But multiculturalism tends to over emphasize the “cultural self” at the expense of the “cultural other” culminating in cultural separatism.

This thesis takes up, however, the argument that a healthy perception and understanding of ‘the other’ in our relationship with fellow human b eings is more fundamental to tackling the challenges of cultural diversity than multiculturalism. The aim of this work, therefore, is to employ Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility thesis (in which one’s world opens upon the other and vice-versa when people come in contact with one another) as an alternative model with which to better understand the ontological nature of the self’s relation to the other as the basis for intercultural reversal of perspectives for social harmony. Methodologically, the qualitative research design is used for this study.

Data for the study are collected from books, journals articles, biographies, and interviews. Data from these sources are analyzed by the use of historical-hermeneutics and philosophical exposition/analysis. Historical-hermeneutics is employed to survey and understand previous conceptions of alterity and the self’s relation to alterity in the history of philosophy/thought. Philosophical exposition is used to highlight the relational ontology of the self to alterity in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of reversibility and also highlight the increasing reality of cultural diversity and minority rights claims. Philosophical/textual analysis is used to analyse Merlau-Ponty’s ontology of alterity and reversibility in order to apply it to the challenges of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, with social development in view.


Chapter One


Introduction

1.1 Background to the Study

In our experiences, others seem so close; yet in our thinking, they remain remote…

-William Ralph Shroeder1

The experience of others becomes an issue of concern and interest for basically two reasons- cultural and intellectual. From the cultural perspective (which is of primary concern in this work), we are confronted with some facts. Personal relationships are troubled: divorces are increasing; families are breaking apart; cultural groups clash over conflicting interests and friendships exit under great strains. We oscillate between a desperate effort to commit ourselves completely and an insistence on remaining islands unto ourselves. Even for those who try hardest and care, most interpersonal relationships seem only to touch the surface; at best, they leave one unharmed; more often, they deliberate and disorient.2 Although interpersonal life promises a full-course meal, for many, it provides only a series of appetizers.

A related fact is the lowered expectations people have for relationships as a result of which

Careers take precedence; relationships are sacrificed. Injunctions to be individual, authentic and concerned only about oneself are hawked from street corners by self-help proselytizers. One becomes convinced that one must continually oppose others if one is to remain oneself. One trusts very few; from the rest, one hopes for indifference rather than resistance. As our hopes diminish, our efforts to create radiant relationships are abandoned, and a cycle of entropy ensues.3

Intellectual issues are the second motivation, the question of which lie at the foundation of social sciences and ethics. One’s conception of the nature of others determines what can be observed and known about them and what procedures of inquiry can be most productive.

One’s position on the nature of interpersonal relations determines what social entities should be investigated. In addition, the importance people give to ethics and politics depends on the adequacy with which they grasp the reality of others and the clarity with which they understand their relationship with others. If one does not or cannot experience the presence and personhood of others, then ethical and political thought becomes merely academic. Therefore, if ethics is to discover realizable ideals and to seriously address the contemporary interpersonal situations, an incisive phenomenology of interpersonal experience will be indispensible.

The quality of Interpersonal relationships, however, is dependent on each participant’s concept of who the other with whom he relates is. This means that whether the other is conceived as someone who is just out there completely different from the self or as a mirror of the self with whom the self reflects him/herself and vice – versa has serious implications for how one relates with the other. This has implications for cultural diversity, which has become inevitably characteristic of modern societies with its attendant challenges to which proponents of multiculturalism have tried to proffer solutions such as minority rights, identity and recognition for minority groups. But these solutions proffered by multiculturalism may not tackle the challenges of cultural diversity from its roots. More fundamentally, how one culture conceives the other culture determines the quality of relationships that will exist between members of those cultural groups. Therefore, a healthy ontological understanding and conception of the other (the type articulated in the reversibility thesis of Merleau-Ponty) is more fundamental to the management of the challenges of cultural diversity than multiculturalism.


1.2 Statement of the Problem

As it has been observed, most modern states today are, at least to some degree, culturally diverse. Trade, tourism, international dialogue amongst scholars, scientists and artists and the movement of skilled labour as well as migration have ensured that few countries do not contain within them significant numbers of peoples from alien cultures. This diversity gives rise to a series of important and potentially divisive questions. Minorities and majorities increasingly clash over such issues as language rights, regional autonomy, political representation, education curriculum, land claims, immigration and naturalization policy, even national symbols, such as the choice of national anthem or public holidays.

As a result of these, proponents of multiculturalism argue, basically, that special rights should be granted minority groups to protect them against the oppression of the majorities. But these minority rights, even when granted, seem incapable of effectively and durably managing the challenges of the inevitable cultural diversity of our era, and we are left in the dilemma of whether relational complications between cultural groups are primarily those of rights or of the ontological understanding of the other and the self’s relation to the other.

A look at alterity and relational ontology in relation to multiculturalism raises a number of questions demanding serious attention. Such questions in view for this work include:

  • What is the ontological nature of inter-personal relationship?
  • Can multiculturalism and minority rights offer lasting solutions to the challenges of cultural diversity? If yes how? And if no, what is the workable alternative?
  • What are the socio-cultural implications of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of reversibility for the management of cultural diversity?

1.3 Purpose of the Study

The main objective of this study is to examine Maurice Merlau-Ponty’s alterity and reversibility thesis with a view to showing how it can be used as an alternative model with which to understand cultural diversity and relations.

The other objectives include:

  1. To examine the essential theories of multiculturalism.
  2. To articulate some philosophers’ perspectives on alterity, intersubjectivity and minority rights.
  3. To bring Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s perspective to bear on multiculturalism and minority rights.
  4. To advocate a shift of emphasis from agitation for minority rights to a more objective perception and understanding of the other.

1.4 Thesis

This work demonstrates the thesis that an ontological understanding of the other and interpersonal relationship that positively mirrors the other in the self is fundamental to tackling the problem of diversity more effectively than multiculturalism and minority rights.


1.5 Significance of the Study

Some writers in the past have taken up the concept of cultural diversity for intellectual analysis. But a Thorough philosophical engagement of the concept of multiculturalism is relatively a new activity. This research, therefore, exposes individuals to the philosophical issues in multiculturalism and critical solutions to the problems associated with human diversity from cultural perspectives. This research is significant to contemporary philosophers and researchers as it opens up fertile ground for an on-going research on alterity, cultural diversity, multiculturalism and minority rights. The research is significant to governments of multicultural states at all levels as its findings offer some fundamental clarifications to problems of cultural diversity as well as offer solutions that stem from the human relational ontology.


1.6 The Scope of the Study

This study is limited to an analysis of ontological issues in intersubjectivity, multiculturalism, recognition and identity with reference to the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with a view to finding common human grounds in multicultural states.


1.7 Research Methodology

The qualitative research design is used for this study. Data for the study are collected from books, journals articles, biographies, and interviews. Data from these sources are analyzed by the use of historical-hermeneutics and philosophical exposition/analysis. Historicalhermeneutics is employed to survey and understand previous conceptions of alterity and the self’s relation to alterity in the history of philosophy/thought. Philosophical exposition is used to highlight the relational ontology of the self to alterity in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of reversibility and also highlight the increasing reality of cultural diversity and minority rights claims.

Philosophical / textual analysis is used to analyse Merlau-Ponty’s ontology of alterity and reversibility in order to apply it to the challenges of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, with social development in view.


1.8 Explanation of Terms

Some key terms within the thesis are defined and clarified here to enhance easier comprehension. Such words include: alterity, reversibility, ontology, phenomenology, multiculturalism and interculturalism.

Alterity

The term alterity derives from the Latin word alter, which means “other.” In contemporary philosophy the question of the other is primarily that of the other human being, although some thinkers have raised the question of whether the human other should be privileged in this way. However, the central question governing philosophical discussions of alterity is not that of who the other is, but that of our access to alterity.4

Reversibility

Reversibility as used by Merleau-Ponty, is a non-dualistic divergence between touching and being touched, which necessitates some form of encroachment between the two terms. It also means that the world is capable of encroaching upon and altering us, just as we are capable of encroaching upon and altering it. Such ontology rejects any absolute antinomy between self and world, as well as any notion of subjectivity that prioritizes a rational, autonomous individual, who is capable of imposing their choice upon a situation that is entirely external to them.

Ontology

Ontology is a major branch of philosophy and a central part of metaphysics that studies questions of being or existence. The questions include a wide range of issues concerning being or existence such as: the meaning of being or what it means “to be” for each of such beings as physical entities, souls, God, values, numbers, time, space, imaginary objects, and others; what is real existence; why something exits rather than nothing.5 Examples of such ontological questions include:

  • Why does anything exist, rather than nothingness? (a question raised by Leibniz)
  • What constitutes the identity of an object? When does an object go out of existence, as opposed to changing?
  • Is existence an event, flux, process? Or is it something static, stable, or unchanging?
  • How is existence related to time and space? What is and kind of being is time and space? Is it a being or something else?

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