Conference Presentation: A Merleau-Pontian Reading of Aristotle’s Notion of Form in ‘Book Z’ of the Metaphysics

I had the opportunity to present for the first time at the Northern Plains Philosophy Conference at North Dakota State University on April 2, 2022.

Here is my abstract:

I believe that Merleau-Ponty’s unique approach to the notion of form offers a fresh perspective that will reinforce and bring credibility to Aristotle’s account. Coming from a psychological and phenomenological angle, Merleau-Ponty argues for the necessity of form in his first major work, The Structure of Behavior. Although his path toward defining form differs from Aristotle’s metaphysical path, Merleau-Ponty argues, like Aristotle, that the notion of form is what provides intelligibility to the world around us. 

In this paper, we will focus on the description of form in chapters 10 and 17 of Book Z of Aristotle’s Metaphysicsand look at the evidence for this idea of form in Merleau-Ponty’s The Structure of Behavior. This is not to say that Merleau-Ponty is purposely writing to verify Aristotle’s account, for he does not explicitly relate his analysis to Aristotle. And though he was most likely exposed to Aristotelianism, particularly Scholastic and Renaissance Aristotelianism, through his study of the Rationalists, he appears more interested in engaging with other schools of thought and rarely mentions Aristotle or his works. Nevertheless, a reader of Merleau-Ponty’s The Structure of Behavior, who is familiar with Aristotle’s description of form, cannot ignore the unmistakable parallels between their two accounts. 

We will begin by considering the question (aporia), which I will call the “problem of parts,” that both Aristotle and Merleau-Ponty are concerned with and which ultimately leads them to posit the notion of form. Second, we will examine Aristotle’s metaphysical description of form in chapters 10 and 17 of Book Z of the Metaphysics. As we make our way through the text, I will link Aristotle’s senses of form with Merleau-Ponty’s senses of form which he gathers from his studies on animal and human behavior. 

To those who are concerned that Aristotle’s notion of form is no longer relevant or applicable, this paper advances that Merleau-Ponty’s re-imagining of form both defends Aristotle’s metaphysical explanations while, at the same time, extends them into pertinent areas of ethical interest.

New Chapter Published: The Need for Merleau-Ponty in Foucault’s Account of the Abnormal

My chapter has been published in an edited collection on Merleau-Ponty. The title of the chapter is “The Need for Merleau-Ponty in Foucault’s Account of the Abnormal” and is in the book, Normality, Abnormality, and Pathology in Merleau-Ponty, edited by Talia Welsh and Susan Bredlau. You can purchase the hardcover on Amazon or at SUNY press. The paperback should come out in late summer 2022.

Here is the abstract:

Due to both his historical contributions as well as the simple persuasive power of his writing, many of us are drawn to the work of Michel Foucault on the history of the abnormal. And yet, while we acknowledge the insights offered by his account of the abnormal, we may feel that something is missing from his historical narrative and wonder if it can be fully trusted. In this chapter, I will argue that we can only successfully draw on Foucault’s work on the abnormal once we recognize that it is Merleau-Ponty’s work in psychology that serves as its hidden foundation.

To do so, I begin by giving a brief summary of Foucault’s account of the abnormal according to his 1961 History of Madness and his 1974-1975 lectures entitled Abnormal. Foucault describes how the abnormal of the modern age comes out of an understanding of madness that can be traced in the previous ages. He then reveals some common historical structures present in each age; in particular, how the notion of madness is dependent on the societal constructions of the rational and the nonrational. But we are left asking: Where are these constructions coming from? And why is madness inextricably linked to our understanding of the rational and nonrational in every age? Foucault’s account of the abnormal seems to tell us how the notions of madness play out in society, but offers no explanation for why the historical structures are shaped in this way. 

I turn to Merleau-Ponty for aid and find that the very historical structures recounted by Foucault are actually rooted in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological patterns of the abnormal. Drawing on the Phenomenology of Perception, I describe the phenomenological foundation of the abnormal as a way to make madness both accessible and meaningful. We find that this foundation is precisely what is needed for the arbitrary historical constructions of Foucault. To close, I look at the presence of these patterns in the disorder of schizophrenia, demonstrating how the unity of a historical-phenomenological account of the abnormal can provide deeper insights into the experience of a mental disorder.

New Course Next Semester: Introduction to Phenomenology

I’m excited that I will be teaching a new course here at the University of Mary next semester (Spring 2022) called the Introduction to Phenomenology. Here is the blurb.

Introduction to Phenomenology (Dr. Venable), Spring 2022

Are you interested in studying philosophy from the ground up? Do you want to test how much you can learn about the human and the world just by reflecting on everyday experiences? Are you curious about the philosophy behind the theology of the body movement? 

This course will explore the roots, the approach and the application of the philosophical movement of phenomenology. To uncover its roots, we will begin by looking at the pre-phenomenological themes in Aristotle’s Metaphysics and by gaining an overview of transcendental phenomenology found in Husserl. Next, we will learn about the approach by testing it out ourselves! Each student will choose a specific personal experience (such as driving a car, brushing one’s teeth, or playing an instrument) and reflect phenomenologically on it. Paired with this project, we will consider key writings on phenomenological approaches (including Engelland, Sokolowski, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger). Lastly, we will turn to applications of phenomenology as seen in the themes of the Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II and in other works of modern ethicists.

Book Sent to Press: Madness in Experience and History

My book has been sent to press! You can actually pre-order it now through Routledge and even Amazon. It is so exciting to see this come to fruition!

Title: Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology

Back of the Book Blurb:

Madness in Experience and History brings together experience and history to show their impact on madness or mental illness. 

Drawing on the writings of two 20th century French philosophers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michel Foucault, the author pairs a phenomenological approach with an archaeological approach to present a new perspective on mental illness as an experience that arises out of common behavioral patterns and shared historical structures. Many today feel frustrated with the medical model because of its deficiencies in explaining mental illness. In response, the author argues that we must integrate human experiences of mental disorders with the history of mental disorders to have a full account of mental health and to make possible a more holistic care.

Scholars in the humanities and mental health practitioners will appreciate how such an analysis not only offers a greater understanding of mental health, but also a fresh take on discovering value in diverse human experiences.

Article Published: The Weight of Bodily Presence in Art and Liturgy

I am happy to announce that my article, “The Weight of Bodily Presence in Art and Liturgy,” has been published! It was published in the journal Religions in a special issue entitled “Phenomenology and Liturgical Practice.” You can see the official post here (where you can read it online or download it). Or you can also download it from my profile on academia.

If you have wondered about the advantages and disadvantages of doing virtual church during the pandemic, this is for you! Here is my abstract:

This essay addresses the question of virtual church, particularly on whether or not liturgy can be done virtually. We will approach our subject from a somewhat unusual perspective by looking to types of aesthetic experiences which we have been doing “virtually” for a long time. By exploring how we experience art in virtual and physical contexts, we gain insight into the corresponding experiences in liturgical practices. Drawing on Mikel Dufrenne, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gabriel Marcel, I first examine the importance of the body when we experience “presence” in aesthetic environments. Next, I consider the weight of the body in experiences of presence in liturgical practices, both in person and virtual, guided again by Gabriel Marcel as well as Bruce Ellis Benson, Emmanuel Falque, Christina Gschwandtner and Éric Palazzo. Through these reflections, I argue that what art teaches us about the significance of the physical closeness of the human applies to the practice of liturgy and that, while unexpected benefits will surface in virtual settings, nothing replaces the powerful experiences that arise when the body is physically present.