An illustration of how light enters the lens of the eye and it's path to the retina.

Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and the Meaning of Painting

William D. Adams, PhD will speak on Thursday, June 23, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk is co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Adams is Former Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Former President, Colby College. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: It’s been a few years since we hosted you at NLM in your official capacity as Chairman of NEH. It’s nice to be back in touch. Would you tell us a little more about yourself and what you’ve been doing lately? 

Portrait of an older white man in a gallery setting. William D. Adams: After leaving NEH in May of 2017, I was invited to serve as a Senior Fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York. I spent two years there, speaking and writing about the humanities and conducting my own research. At the end of the fellowship, I retired to Portland, Maine where I’ve continued my research and writing on a variety of topics. I also spend a good deal of time in southern France, where my wife and I have a home. Some of my writing is posted on Medium and on my personal website.

CN: Your talk, “Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and the Meaning of Painting,” explores French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s critique of René Descartes’s theory of vision. Was there a primary question that sparked your interest in this topic?

An illustration of how light enters the lens of the eye and it's path to the retina.
La Dioptrique,1637
National Library of Medicine #2331057R

WA: For several years, I’ve been working on a book about Merleau-Ponty and the painter Paul Cézanne. Merleau-Ponty’s interest in painting was anchored in his interest in perception and especially visual perception. In the French tradition, Descartes is required reading for anyone interested in the topic of vision. To understand Merleau-Ponty, I’ve had to understand his life-long interest in Descartes, along with his vehement criticisms of Descartes’s methods and conclusions.

CN: Tell us about the two main figures of your talk who lived 300 years apart.  Who were Merleau-Ponty and Descartes and what ties them together?

WA: Merleau-Ponty came to philosophy as a high school student in Paris in the 1920s. At that time, certainly, Descartes was the most important figure in the history of French philosophy. Anyone interested in becoming a professional philosopher would have to come to terms with his work, one way or another. Notwithstanding their profound differences, Merleau-Ponty never stopped thinking about him. Descartes figures prominently in his doctoral dissertation, and a copy of the La Dioptrique, Descartes’s revolutionary book on vision from 1637, was found open on Merleau-Ponty’s desk in the study where he died suddenly in 1961.

A page featuring a woodcut showing the path of light from two eyes to an arrow.
La Dioptrique,1637
National Library of Medicine #2331057R

When Descartes was writing in the first half of the 17th century, it was still possible to think of mathematics, natural science, and philosophy as a single, unified enterprise. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but it’s one of the distinguishing features of Descartes’s work. He was a great mathematician, a path-breaking natural scientist, and a philosopher of the first order. At the same time, and paradoxically, Descartes, by dividing the world into mental things and physical things, mind and body, object and subject, laid the groundwork for the fragmentation of knowledge that characterizes our own cultural circumstances. Merleau-Ponty pondered the fateful influence of Descartes’s dualisms across his career.

CN: Your talk deals with understanding how our bodies and our minds perceive and interpret the world. What did you learn about art’s relationship to our physical selves?

WA: Merleau-Ponty admired the poet Paul Valéry’s comment that “the painter brings her body,” adding “it is by lending her body to the world that the painter turns the world into a painting.”  For Merleau-Ponty, painting is first and foremost an act of corporeal expression. No body, no painting, and no appreciation of painting. Thinking about painting in this way permits Merleau-Ponty to argue that painting is a highly developed form of vision that can teach us about every instance of vision.

CN: You completed some research in the NLM collections, what did you study and how does it fit into your research?

WA: Because of the importance of Descartes’s La Dioptrique to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception and vision, I wanted to see the original texts, and especially their illustrations of Descartes’ theory of vision. This speaks to the importance of archives generally, and to NLM’s collection of rare books in particular. While there are many copies of Descartes’s illustrations on the web, seeing them in the flesh, so to speak, and in their original context, was both helpful and revealing. One senses more clearly the scope of Descartes’s ambition. And the illustrations offer insight into Descartes’s understanding of how visual images can be deployed to assist the understanding of concepts. It’s a bit ironic. Concepts that are “clear and distinct” ought to be graspable by the mind alone. And yet, Descartes labored over illustrations.

CN: There is an intersection in your work between biomedical sciences and the humanities. In your view, what are the benefits of research at this intersection?

A woodcut illustration of a man in a cape and hat looking through a large metal telescope like device.
La Dioptrique,1637
National Library of Medicine #2331057R

WA: Vision is a good example of a topic that can’t be fully understood without natural science, philosophy, and art. The biomedical sciences have made astounding progress toward understanding the biological and chemical foundations of vision, but their discoveries need to be joined to explorations of the experience of vision. That’s where art and philosophy enter the picture. We need to integrate the humanities and natural sciences, in both research and educational settings. Not easy to do, but essential.

Watch on YouTube

William D. Adams’s presentation is co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the NLM/NEH partnership to collaborate on research, education, and career initiatives, and is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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