Ferrarello on Sexuality and Metaphysics

Jun 16th, 2014 | By | Category: Feature

“No one is saved and no one is totally lost.” (171) With these words Merleau-Ponty closes the section of his Phenomenology of Perception dedicated to the Body in its Sexual Being.

Why should we feel lost or safe in relation to sexuality? And what does sexuality have to do with metaphysics?

Merleau-Ponty and Husserl explain the relationship between the subject and the world from the same beginning point: our perceptual life. For example, I know the shape of this tree because I can perceive it.folded hands

Any perception involves at least two poles: the object and me. The problem is that each pole is double: on the one hand there is me as I am and on the other there is me as an object. I can perceive the tree and I can be an object, like the tree is. The same happens with the object, the tree can be the tree as it is in itself and it can be the tree as we mean it. Of course the challenge, as phenomenologist, is being able to unpack the meaning that the object has in itself for us, which means:  Can we describe how the tree is in itself? Or can we describe how the body is in itself as an object?

Sexuality can be the key to answer these questions. In fact it can help us to gain an access to describe the body in all its ‘ambiguity’ or ‘anonymity’. Since, the body is an object, somehow independent from my knowledge, with a halo of unknown, I can listen to it and describe its meaning when it ‘speaks’ to me in its sexual being.  Its ambiguous meaning as object of my perceptual experience and as instrument of my perceptual life can be described by the observation of its sexual being.

Sun and rain, to use an example from Merleau-Ponty, are neither happy nor sad. They are emotionally neutral, it is we who give them a meaning for us. Lived sexual phenomena are like the sun and the rain. We, in our bodies, are objective entities that are in the world and at the same time embodied sexual phenomena have a meaning for us.

For Merleau-Ponty sexuality seems to be the way in which we can reflect on our being meaningfully embodied since he interprets sexual life as a specific form of intentionality.

In fact, our body is a mystery that relates to us via a kind of intentionality  “which is not pure awareness of something” but it is a pure “following the general flow of existence and yields to its movements” (p. 157).  Sexuality is this flow of existence.

feet“The problem of the world, and, (…) that of one’s own body consists in the fact that it is all there. (…) The experience of one’s own body runs counter to the reflective procedure” (p. 198) that characterizes phenomenological research. To know the meaning our embodied life has for us, we need to reflect on our lived-experiences, but to know what we are, we must first live spontaneously, prereflectively. Sexuality represents this prereflective, spontaneous ‘intentional arc’ that cannot be completely seized or unpacked by reflection without the loss of the fullness of the lived experience itself.

So then why metaphysics and sexuality? How to combine spontaneous intentionality and the science of being?

Merleau-Ponty wrote “Metaphysics in not localized at the level of knowledge: it begins with the opening upon ‘another’ and is to be found everywhere, and already, in the specific development of sexuality” (168)

For Merleau-Ponty metaphysics since Kant has signified the science that inquiries into the condition of the possibility of knowledge–not knowledge itself. In order for something to be known, it needs first to be in the world, to be chair or a body. As Hegel remarked, criticizing Kant, I cannot learn to swim if I don’t swim first. There is no “learning to swim” absent the lived experience of swimming. The beginning of metaphysics is our openness to the world as body that coexists with other bodies. Metaphysics does not begin with knowledge but with that perception through which we feel our ‘openness upon the other’, by being-here. For Merleau-Ponty “the body in its sexual being,” an almost a tautological expression, is our opening to metaphysics. Body is ‘being’ and its being consists of its sexual life. Sexuality is the way in which our body is thrown in the world. The body can express itself as a sexual being and it can be sexual because it is embodied. From Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, sexuality is the ambiguity of the body expressed in its being. In this sense it is the beginning of metaphysics because it throws the body into its being-there.

Merleau-Ponty describes the cases of those patients who lose their ability to speak. Speech, which he views as “the body of the thought” (p. 182) is lost in a way similar to how we can lose memory. This does not mean that the patient ceases to speak but that there is a real loss of a part of her corporeity, because there is a refusal from her to coexist with herself as a body and with others as a meaning for her in the world. The patient is not able to recognize herself as a body in the world nor as a body that has meaning for her. In the context of sexuality Merleau-Ponty writes that “frigidity is scarcely bound up with anatomical or physiological conditions, but it expresses in most cases a refusal of orgasm, of femininity or of sexuality” (158). Once again, when patient recovers the will to coexist as flesh, she can discover that her body has a new meaning for her, perhaps a meaning that is completely new and until that moment “unnamed” (165).

Sexuality is for Merleau-Ponty “a manner of being toward the world” (158) because it allows the unnamed to be while it is living. “Sexuality is the process by which facts are drawn up” and it should not be regarded as a fortuitous content of our experience. It is that form of intentionality that follows the arc of the body in its expression of its own ambiguity and self-concealment.

“I am condemned to being” (166) as unnamed. “No one is lost and no one is saved” means that everyone is condemned to begin to be as unnamed meaning and to become meaning as sexual being. In sexuality “existence realizes itself in the body” (166) as incarnate significance, as beginning of the ambiguity of the being, i.e. as beginning of metaphysics. In finality, sexuality represents that incarnate meaning from which we can begin the exploration of the body as a unit that “there is for us and in itself” (71).

-Susi Ferrarello, PhD



Merleau-Ponty, M. (1996). Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, Trans.). New York: Routledge.



Folded hands: photo credit: Victor Bezrukov via photopin cc
Feet: photo credit: Theen … via photopin cc


Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.