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.

My book, Madness in Experience and History, is published!

My book has been published! You can order it now through Routledge and Amazon.

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.

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.

Conference Presentation: Virtual Symphony and Virtual Church: Considering the Importance of Bodily Presence

I had the opportunity to present a presentation titled, “Virtual Symphony and Virtual Church: Considering the Importance of Bodily Presence” at the virtual 2021 Psychology and the Other Conference on September 19, 2021.

Here is my short summary and longer abstract:

Short Summary

This paper weighs in on the question of virtual church, particularly on whether or not liturgy can be done virtually. We will approach our subject from an unusual perspective by looking first to aesthetic experiences, such as watching a virtual symphony, and then relate them to liturgical experiences, such as attending virtual church. Art and liturgy are linked in that they both have the unique ability to facilitate presence, to make something known to us in a new way so that we walk away changed. I argue that what art teaches us about the importance of the body 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.

Longer Abstract

No one will deny that there is a substantial difference between meeting in person and meeting virtually. Now, more than ever due to the covid crisis, we have experienced virtual gatherings in almost every sphere of our lives. For religious gatherings, these types of discussions have been of critical importance, sometimes causing great tension and conflict between members of the same communities. This paper weighs in on 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 first to aesthetic experiences, such as watching a virtual symphony, and then relate them to liturgical experiences, such as attending virtual church. Art and liturgy are linked in that they both have the unique ability to facilitate presence, to make something known to us in a new way so that we walk away changed. 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.

Beginning with art, we consider aesthetic experiences such as viewing a photo of a painting or listening to a music recording or attending a virtual symphony. Drawing on Mikel Dufrenne, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gabriel Marcel, we explore how art has a way of pulling us beyond the constraints of space and time in order to experience presence. And yet, the most powerful moments of presence are when the body is at the same place and in the same time as the work of art, such as discovering the original painting at a museum or attending an in person symphony. 

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. Considering liturgy as both what happens in worship gatherings and in daily life, we will discuss three aspects of liturgy to understand the role of presence in its practices: liturgy as art, liturgy as bodily, and liturgy as communal. We find that liturgy as art draws us into worshipping and into shaping our souls, liturgy engages all five senses of the body and liturgy lives only in communal settings. I will relate this three-part understanding of liturgy to virtual and non-virtual experiences and argue that a full experience of liturgy must include the bodily presence of the self and others.

Applying the insights from aesthetic experiences to liturgical experiences, we discover the importance of bodily presence in all areas of life. This discovery, ultimately, provides further validation to treating humans as undivided wholes, with full integration of mental and physical capacities, and awakens us to the deep experiences of presence that we have available when we are fully engaged.

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.