• Don Landes

“Language and Development: Paradoxical Trajectories in Merleau-Ponty, Simondon, and Bergson.”

Journal Article: “Language and Development: Paradoxical Trajectories in Merleau-Ponty, Simondon, and Bergson.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 2 (2017): 597–607.


Introductory paragraph:



There is arguably a tendency to understand “development” according to a model in which pre-programmed plans unfold toward the realization of the stable individuals we experience in our environment. According to this model, development might be understood as a mechanical process akin to technical production, and accounting for the developed individual would involve working backward to identify the necessary steps by which they were produced. Such a model might indeed lead to the conceptual “disjoining” of nature (a pre-programmed plan) and nurture (the contingencies of the unfolding) as two separate and identifiable contributors to the developmental process, as discussed for instance in Evelyn Fox Keller’s (2010) recent critique of this seemingly intuitive conceptual move. In contrast to this pre-programmed or mechanistic model, I would like to suggest that development is a form of expression (in the rich sense given to this term by Maurice Merleau-Ponty), that is, an open trajectory of creative response. To explore the phenomenological and ontological implications of rethinking development as expression, I draw together Merleau-Ponty’s account of expression and Gilbert Simondon’s work on individuation. I begin by considering how Merleau-Ponty’s reconceptualization of language as a “moving equilibrium” offers an example of development as a trajectory that carries forward the past toward an open future. I then turn to consider language as an illustration of Simondon’s theory of individuation, where development becomes an open and creative process of ontogenesis.

And yet, if this alternative model of development as expression is plausible, it nonetheless suggests that development itself develops. If development itself is never a static and finished process, then it too resists capture in a closed theory. In short, the attempt to formulate this alternative model of development as expression recursively throws into question the project of such a formulation, and this suggests an important link with Henri Bergson’s concern regarding the limits of language in trying to express dynamic phenomena. Thus, the essay concludes by setting up a Bergsonian challenge to – and sketching a possible solution for – our alternative model of development. Perhaps the “disjoining” criticized by Keller (2010) is more than an accidental linguistic “morass” (9) to be cleaned up, and rather points to the need to develop new models of thought and of language that remain open to the dynamic phenomena of development.

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