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Touching the Other in Myself: Merleau-Ponty, Tactility, and Care Ethics
Review Journal of Political Philosophy (2006)
  • Maurice Hamington, Portland State University
Michael Rosing, a staff nurse in the progressive cardiovascular unit at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport, Iowa describes an encounter with a patient, Madge, age 92, who came in for a few days of testing, observation, and treatment. The night before she was to be discharged, Madge called Rosing to her room. Rosing recounts the exchange: “Madge was perched on the edge of the bed waiting for me. As I approached, she asked me to put my hands in hers and said, ‘you have the warmest hands of all the nurses who take care of me.’ She’d called me in simply to comment on my hands.” Madge went on to express her initial discomfort at having a male nurse take care of her, however his touch had subsequently put her at ease. These comments did not surprise Rosing, who acknowledges the significance of tactility for comforting, gathering embodied knowledge, and reciprocity: “touching can be a warming experience for both the patient and the nurse. It’s the reason I shake hands or take the patient’s hand in mine as I introduce myself. It’s also why I touch or rest my free hand on my patent’s shoulder while I listen, for example, to lung or bowel sounds.” Rosing uses anecdotal evidence to conclude that touch therapy is an effective means for assisting patients. How can we characterize the exchange between Rosing and Madge? Abstracted from the particulars of the context, the interchange between Rosing and Madge can be described as the contractual obligation between a professional health care worker and a client of his medical facility. However, this generalized description fails to capture the primal human connection inherent in the interaction as Rosing portrays it. Although largely accomplished through an unspoken process of bodily contact, we have a sense that something was indeed exchanged when Rosing touched Madge and when Madge touched Rosing and that the exchange was good. This is both an epistemological and an ethical observation. The touch was functional in the moral meaning shared but the understanding implied in Rosing’s description is not a moral duty or right but something less determinate. The task of this article is to explore at least the contours of tacit embodied ethics: the relationship between touch and caring. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) undertook a comprehensive and radical philosophical inquiry into the human body. Ultimately, his project reframed traditional structures of meaning to give embodiment a unique epistemic privilege. Employing and extending the phenomenological method inherited from Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty finds that the bracketing of phenomenal experience opens up the possibility for exploring the body’s relation to the lifeworld. His explorations find a perceptual continuity that transcends categorical understandings such as those of “subject” and “object.” In this manner, Merleau-Ponty embraces the indeterminacy of corporeal existence: “ambiguity is the essence of human existence, and everything we live or think has several meanings.” Accordingly, the traditional language of philosophy, with its desire to understand phenomenon through the application of precise labels that allow for thematic manipulation often appears inadequate to capture the life of the body. Merleau-Ponty is postmodernist in his rejection of categories and, of course, existentialist in his phenomenological account of the body. The combination lends itself to comfort with indeterminacy. For Merleau-Ponty, “our body is comparable to a work of art. It is a nexus of living meanings, not the law for a certain number of covariant terms.” Similarly, feminist care ethicists have embraced the ambiguities of relational existence to advocate a morality not solely grounded in rigid categories of adjudication—right and wrong action. Nel Noddings describes caring as a moral ideal grounded in affective reciprocal relations. Joan Tronto describes caring as labor that results in the flourishing of humans and their world. Selma Sevenhuijsen views care as an attentive responsiveness that allows for empathetic knowledge. None of these understandings directly answers the question, “what am I to do?” in a manner abstracted from context. Care ethics attends to the situatedness of particular agents including their relationships to other agents. Accordingly, it is extremely difficult to care for humanity in general, but specific individuals who exist in particular places and times, are much more easily cared about. It is suggested here that part of the full contextualization of individuals cared for is that they are embodied. They are flesh and blood human beings not abstract and easily interchangeable moral agents. Some philosophers are uncomfortable with care ethics and have categorized it as a subset of virtue theory or criticized it as relativistic. Philosopher Susan Hekman describes the discomfort surrounding care ethics as a result of it offering a new moral paradigm that “does not exist in the same epistemological space as that of Western moral theory. It stands not as a supplement to that tradition but in an other, incompatible theoretical space.” Hekman makes a case that concern for adjudication and justice in philosophy have overwhelmed the moral voice of care; a voice that has always existed but has historically been marginalized. Like a number of care theorists, she gestures at the role of the body: “Moral voices are connected to moral persons, persons who are concrete rather than disembodied.” It is my contention that Merleau-Ponty’s insights into the perceptual body provide the epistemic space for a comprehensive understanding of caring. Elsewhere, I have explored the general role of the body in caring to claim that through embodied knowledge and its perceptual posture, the body is built to care. In this article, the focus will be more specifically on the complex and central role of tactility in care ethics. I will suggest that Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of touch reframes a caring morality by grounding it in corporeal phenomenon rather than abstract categories. Most care ethicists begin, as Carol Gilligan did in the early 1980’s, by responding to the inadequacy of traditional moral categories and then positing an alternative voice. The need for fully integrating a philosophy of embodiment is claimed but is not entirely developed. Here, I propose to begin with Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the perceptual body and then establish caring as a potential of a tactile body. After reviewing the phenomenological method that Merleau-Ponty employed, we will inquire into how the body through tactility constitutes the self, knowledge of the world, knowledge of others, and finally morality. Merleau-Ponty gives us the tools to interrogate the moral meaning of Rosing’s warm hands and how they brought comfort to Madge.
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Citation Information
Maurice Hamington. "Touching the Other in Myself: Merleau-Ponty, Tactility, and Care Ethics" Review Journal of Political Philosophy Vol. 4 Iss. 1 (2006)
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