"Fleshing" Out a Relational Ethics: Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Contributions to Ecological Feminism
Jensen, Molly Hadley
Ecological feminists have identified a conceptual dualism in western philosophy and religion. According to their analyses, this dualism is a conceptual structure which supports gender, racial and ethnic oppression and the exploitation of the non-human beings. They argue that, within this dualism, the body is denigrated as inferior to and separate from the mind. Although this critique of dualism invites an exploration of the relation between mind and body (also human and nature), ecological feminists want to avoid biological reductionism and holism. Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his notion of the “flesh” is one understanding of the mind-body relation that can help ecological feminists formulate an alternative to dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s sense phenomenology and his axiom of the flesh, developed in the posthumously published The Visible and Invisible, describes sense perception and the language which emerges out of our senses as a reciprocity between body sensed and sensing. He argues that the mind is not separate from nor superior to the body, but that perceptions, concepts and language result from an intermingling of the sensed and sensing body. This understanding of the primacy and reciprocity of the senses suggests an ethics of relation in which bodies, particularly suffering bodies, have moral value. The ethical norms that emerge from the “flesh” are relational and responsive to diverse beings and contexts. Some of these norms include interdepence, mutuality, diversity and flourishing. These norms correspond with and contribute to ecological feminist ethics. Since the ethical norms are rooted in bodies and their relations, Merleau-Ponty recovers the ethical potency of bodies. His “flesh” supports the understanding of the body as a site of resistance. Judith Butler, Jeffner Allen, Luce Irigaray and other feminists have appropriated elements of Merleau-Ponty’s work to resist oppressive cultural identities. Ecological feminists can also draw on the “flesh” to resist and transform dualism.