Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–1961)

views updated


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher associated with existential phenomenology, was the youngest philosopher ever to be appointed to the chair once occupied by Henri Bergson at the Collège de France. Merleau-Ponty was born in Rochefort-sur-Mer on March 14, 1908. His father died early in his childhood; he and his brother and sister were raised by his mother. He attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and then the École Normale Supérieure earning his aggregation in 1930. He taught in lycées and then was mobilized in the Fifth Infantry Regiment, and served as a second lieutenant from 1939 until demobilization in 1940. During the occupation he participated in the Résistance. After the liberation in 1945 he taught at the Université de Lyon; during this time he, together with Jean-Paul Sartre, founded the avant-garde journal, Les temps modernes. In was also in 1945 that his major work, the Phenomenology of Perception was published.

Merleau-Ponty is known primarily for developing an ontology that recognizes the philosophical significance of the human body and for his success in overcoming the dualism that has plagued European philosophy from its inception, but these endeavors also include significant contributions to post-structuralist linguistics, political theory, developmental psychology, and aesthetics. His early interest in the resonance between the emergent school of gestalt psychology and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger led to a radical reassessment of transcendental philosophy. He died abruptly on May 3, 1961, at the age of fifty-three, leaving his last major manuscript, Le visible et l'invisible, unfinished. Claude Lefort has edited the extant text, four chapters and an appendix, and published it together with extensive working notes dated from January 1959 to March 1961.

The Lived Body

Merleau-Ponty revolutionized European thinking about the bodywhich since ancient Greece had taken it to be either insignificant or a detriment to knowledgeby demonstrating its constitutive role in the process of human understanding. He showed, for example, that it is through bodily motility that the various adumbrations or perspectival views of an object can be synthesized into a unitary whole. Human understanding of objective space, the three-dimensional Cartesian grid of depth, breadth, and height, is an abstraction from lived spacespace articulated by the body's capacity to move purposively, to grasp things, to maintain the equilibrium that allows for stable visual coordinates, and to interrogate its environment. Furthermore, the body's ability to perceive the world is grounded in the body's double role as sensor and sensed, capable of being both subject and object of experience: One could not touch an object were one not oneself, as bodyan object capable of being touched; nor could one see were her or his eyes not themselves objects located within the surroundings to which they are sensitive. The classical dualism, which views the body and other worldly objects as disjunct from the mind as the subject or agency of disembodied thought, is replaced with Merleau-Ponty's model of corporeal intentionality in which the body is revealed as having an intelligence of its own, manifest in reflex as in habitual activities, which allows it to interact with the world at a level prior to the reflexivity of deliberate conceptualization.

Reversibility Thesis

The transcendental role of the body, its ability to project its organizational schemas into the world, is inseparable from the body's own status as physical object subject to the worldly forces impinging upon it. These roles are inseparable, but not coincident. There is a divergence of the body as sensing from the body as sensed: The finger that touches the thumb or is touched by it does not form an identity with the thumb; rather the two bodily parts co-exist in an ambiguous relationship of reversibility within the encompassing matrix of bodily being-in-the-world. Finger and thumb can reverse roles, the erstwhile sensor becoming the sensed, just as the hand that feels the table can sense itself being touched by the table. Yet neither of these roles would be possible were it not for the other.

The Flesh of the World

Merleau-Ponty takes the reversibility of subject and object roles in the case of human flesh as emblematic of a global manner of being which he designates as chiasm or intertwining. The term flesh is generalized to encompass worldly being as such. The world is taken as an arena of interaction in which every entity is what it is in relation to every other. This is not a pan-animism, but rather an attempt to rectify the post-Socratic reduction of nature to inert materiality in a movement of thought which is as consonant with the ancient concept of physis as it is with the contemporary notion of world as ecosystem. The figure of the chiasm, the intersection marking the point at which things touch each other as they cross, refers to the dynamics of worldly unfolding or global temporality in which the interaction of things brings about change. The brute or savage being of the world, the factuality of its transcendence, is counterbalanced with the relatedness of its denizens apparent in the relatively abiding structures human intelligence organizes under the heading of science. Humans are that aspect of the flesh of the world that is capable of the reflective relationship of conceptualization or understanding, but other aspects of the world betray other forms of corporeal reflexivity in the complex of interaction that encompasses organic cycles, weather systems, geological formations, and so forth as each of these contributes and responds to all the others.

Visible and Invisible

Merleau-Ponty's thesis of the primacy of perception evolves from the middle phase of his thinking when he published the Phenomenology of Perception and set forth the view that "the perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence" to later phases in which this thesis had to be expanded to accommodate the findings of extensive analyses of language based on his unique interpretation of the philosophical significance of Saussurean semiotics. There is controversy regarding his later thinking on the relative primacy of language and perception, but general agreement that the relationship between the two is that of intertwining: language, conceived as sign system, may be conceived as an invisible nexus of relations that is apparent in the visible world and is itself perceptible in speech and writing. The controversy centers on two questions regarding origins or foundations. Does the invisible structure of language reflect organization perceived in the world or does it constitute that nexus of relations? The second question challenges the legitimacy of asking the first: Is it possible to separate perception from language in such a way that one could even ask about the primacy of one with respect to the other?

Merleau-Ponty regards language as flesh, akin to the flesh of the body in its reflexivityits relatedness to itself and worldbut "less heavy, more transparent." In general, the structure of the visible-invisible relation can be defined as asymmetrical reversibility : Just as the object one touches can be seen although its tactile aspect remains invisible as such, so can the hidden or horizonal aspects of a given theme be brought into focal vision but only through the loss of its horizonality.


Merleau-Ponty's thinking in general is dynamic and emergent; it is unified by an elusive paradigm he would never have captured even if he lived longer than he did. Nowhere is this questing more apparent than in his political thought. He was always a critical reader of Marxalthough he refrained from revisionism as long as he couldand was highly suspicious of the Communist revolution, although he initially endorsed its humanist goals. When Merleau-Ponty died at the height of his powers, he was working toward what may be called an ethics of expression and reversibility, and the direction of this thought can be seen articulating itself as early as his chapter on "Freedom" in the Phenomenology of Perception.

The issue that dominated left-wing politics in Franceindeed, Europe at large and the USSRhad to do with the tension between party leadership and domination, on the one hand, and the emergence of an increasingly self-conscious proletariat anxious to take up the reins of history, on the other. Was the role of the Central Committee to take charge? Or to take its bidding from the workers of the world? Was the dialectical movement of history objectively determined by materiality? Or subjectively articulated in contests at the level of ideality?

Merleau-Ponty refused to take sides, but sought to undercut the polarity and find a means to embrace the truths to be found on both ends of the spectrum. "The world," he writes, "is already constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities. But this analysis is still abstract, for we exist in both ways at once. There is, therefore, never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness. It is impossible to determine precisely the 'share contributed by the situation' and the 'share contributed by freedom'" (p. 453). In short, it is through the expression of his situation on the part of the individual worker and his recognition of others in the same plight that solidarity is formed and action can be undertaken. The worker can benefit from guidance from above, but the task of gaining freedom and overcoming the forces that resist it cannot be displaced on to others, else the worker is reduced to slavery again, this time at the hands of his or her liberators.

This idea of circumscribed freedom was in direct opposition to the thesis of radical freedom then espoused by Merleau-Ponty's colleague and cofounder of Les temps modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre. This conflict at the level of ideas came to a head in the early 1950s with the disclosure of the atrocities being committed by Stalin in Russia. How to respond? Sartre maintained solidarity with the Communist Party; Merleau-Ponty distanced himself from both, and resigned from the editorial staff of the journal in 1953. The political writings in Sense and Non-Sense (1964 [1948]) were written before this break, and the critical reflections on Marxism (including a chapter on "Sartre and Ultrabolshevism") titled Adventures of the Dialectic was published in 1955. In the later Humanism and Terror (1969 [1947]), Merleau-Ponty sought to put the dialectical thinking of Hegel and Marx in historical perspective, transcend it, and point in a new direction. His conclusion constitutes another step in the direction of the ethics of expression and reversibility mentioned above. "To seek harmony with ourselves and others, in a word, truth, not only in solitary thought but through the experience of concrete situations and in a living dialogue with others apart from which internal evidence cannot validate its universal right, is the exact contrary of irrationalism, since it accepts our incoherence and conflict with others as constants but assumes we are able to minimize them. It rules out the inevitability of reason and well as that of chaos" (1969 [1947], p. 187).

In his last and unfinished work, The Visible and the Invisible (1968 [1964]), Merleau-Ponty returns to the subject of dialectical thought, espouses the thought that ideality and materiality intertwine in a movement of history that can move in the direction of minimizing conflict, but explicitly repudiates the formalism that informs the work of Hegel, Marx, and Sartre in a misguided attempt to impose an abstract structure on the unpredictable and messy historical process in which situated human freedoms collide and intertwine. It is also in this work that he begins to articulate the notion of reversibility, his own response to the Husserlian doctrine of foundation (Fundierung ).


From the earliest of his writing until the last, Merleau-Ponty maintained the thesis of the irreducibility of the figure-ground or theme-horizon structure articulated by gestalt theory. This thesis holds that perception and cognition are fundamentally relational, hence stand in opposition to such standpoints as that of sense-data theory based on the notions of perceptual atoms, elemental simples, or discrete qualia.

In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty offers an extended case study of Schneider, a World War I soldier debilitated by a shrapnel wound in the occipital region of his brain. The point of the study is to demonstrate the inadequacy of the standpoints of empiricism or physicalism, on the one hand, and intellectualism or transcendentalism, on the other, to provide an accurate description of Schneider's afflictions, which are neither purely physiological nor purely intentional but involve a degeneration of the lived body resulting in aberrant forms of substitution behavior in such domains as sexual responsiveness, existential spatiality, motility, expression, and memory.

Merleau-Ponty is unique among phenomenologists in reinterpreting Freudian notions regarding the unconscious in a positive way and integrating them within his own body of theory. This appropriation involved some modification, to be sure, specifically that of asserting a continuity between conscious and unconscious aspects of human experience at the level of prereflective horizonality. Merleau-Ponty steers a middle course between Freud's relatively mechanistic account of such phenomena as repression, which attributes it to an autonomous function of censorship and dissemblance, and Jean-Paul Sartre's relatively voluntaristic account, which attributes repression to an act of self-deception on the part of a consciousness recoiling from the implications of its own freedom. Merleau-Ponty interprets behavior traditionally subsumed under the heading of repression in terms of a process of habituation operating at prepersonal or unreflective levels in which the body's response to worldly events becomes sedimented as a style of contending with a domain of existence permeated with negative significance. Thus, the aphonia and anorexia of a girl whose family has forbidden her to see her lover is understood, neither as a reversion to an infantile phase of oral sexuality, as Freud would have it, nor as a recoil from responsibility in the mode of magical transformation, as Sartre would have it, but as a refusal of coexistence, a withdrawal from the communal world of eating and talking, which acquires the autonomy of a habit exacerbated by former habitualities favoring oral modes of responding to the world.

In addition to his interests in gestalt psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis, Merleau-Ponty was also well-acquainted with the work done by his sometime colleague Jean Piaget in developmental psychology and the work of Jacques Lacan, a contemporary known for his reinterpretation of Freudian themes along semiological lines. There are frequent references to Piaget in The Structure of Behavior (1963 [1942]) and the Phenomenology of Perception, and an extended response to Lacan's seminal thinking on the mirror stage in a late essay titled "The Child's Relations with Others." Perhaps Merleau-Ponty's greatest contribution to psychological theory lies in his articulation of an ontological framework capable of consolidating the findings of thinkers across the full spectrum of ideologies from eidetic analysis to experimental and behavioral research: He unremittingly refused to endorse the radical distinctions between the a priori and the a posteriori, between transcendental and empirical approaches, which have functioned to isolate the various schools through polarized opposition.


Merleau-Ponty revivifies the ancient Greek sense of the term aesthetics by focusing on the perceptual foundations of art rather than concerning himself with judgments of taste. In accordance with his thesis of the primacy of perception, he regards the artist as one who seeks to respond to the world as it manifests itself perceptually rather than to superimpose preconceived conceptual structures upon the world. For example, classical Renaissance painting attempts to render depth on a two-dimensional surface by applying the laws of perspective. Such laws reduce depth to a mere rotation of breadth, seeing it from the side, and overlook the existential or lived aspect of depth as the dimension of exploration and mystery. In classical painting the eye of the artist is fixed and static, whereas in perception the artist's body is spatially mobile and not delimited to an instant of time.

Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty's favorite exemplar, renders depth in his paintings of Mont St. Victoire by using broad, blurred strokes in the foreground, clearer ones in the mid-ground, and an ethereal mistiness in the distance. In his still life paintings, table tops, vases, carafes of wine, and the like are portrayed as a moving eye would see them, not as a photograph would array them from a single point. The painting of galloping horses titled Derby at Epsom by Theodore Géricault shows the quadrupeds with their legs extended forward and backward, a distortion of the actual positions of legs in equine movement that succeeds in imparting motion to the animals rather than suspending them awkwardly in the air as a fixed frame, instantaneous representation would. The distortion is actually truer to what people perceive in the extended duration of the lived moment.

Artists have the ability to see what theoretical presuppositions lead people to overlook, and this allows them to bring the invisible to visibility, hence to bring the painting to life. Artists paint what they see rather than what they know of an object. Renoir visually interrogates the water he sees in the Mediterranean sea at Cassis to enable him to paint The Bathers in a pool in a sylvan setting. He sees the play of light through the fluid surfaces of the dynamic element that is invisible to the eye of the observer who can only see what he or she thinks is actually there. Artists train themselves to see the speck of light on the glistening surface of eyes that are, themselves, seeing. It is the invisibility of that speck of light to Fra Lippo Lippi, for example, who paints the eye as he thinks it truly is anatomically, that makes the persons in his portraits appear moribund.

The reversibility of seer and seen crosses as in a chiasm with the reversibility of the invisible and the visible. Artists attuned to their own visibility can paint their subjects seeing them and thereby depict the subjectivity of the subject that remains invisible to those who think that in perceiving others people see only their material bodies. Perception, however, isor can betruer to living bodies than Cartesian philosophy that reduces human flesh to res extensa and conceives res cogitans as invisible.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetics, History of; A Priori and A Posteriori; Art, Representation in; Bergson, Henri; Cartesianism; Dialectical Materialism; Empiricism; Freedom; Freud, Sigmund; Gestalt Theory; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Humanism; Husserl, Edmund; Lacan, Jacques; Marxist Philosophy; Marx, Karl; Nomos and Phusis; Perception; Perception, Contemporary Views; Phenomenology; Physicalism; Piaget, Jean; Qualia; Rationality; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Unconscious.


principal works by merleau-ponty

Humanisme et terreur, Essai sur le problème communiste. Paris: Gallimard, 1947. Translated by John O'Neill as Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).

"La conscience et l'acquisition du langage." Bulletin de psychologie 236 (18) (1964): 36. Translated by Hugh J. Silverman as Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

"La Nature": Notes, cours du collège de France. Compiled and with notes by Dominique Séglard. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1995. Translated by Robert Vallier as "Nature": Course Notes from the Collège de France (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003).

La prose du monde. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. Translated by John O'Neill as The Prose of the World (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

La structure du comportement. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1942. Translated by Alden L. Fisher as The Structure of Behavior (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).

Le visible et l'invisible. Edited by Claude Lefort. Paris: Gallimard, 1964. Translated by Alphonso Lingis as The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

Les aventures de la dialectique. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. Translated by Joseph Bien as Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945. Translated by Colin Smith as Phenomenology of Perception (London; New York: Routledge, 1962).

Résumés de cours, Collège de France, 19521960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968. Translated by John O'Neill as Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 19521960 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970).

Sens et non-sens. Paris: Gallimard, 1948. Translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus as Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

Signes. Paris: Gallimard, 1960. Translated by Richard C. McCleary as Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

works on merleau-ponty in english

Dillon, M. C. Merleau-Ponty's Ontology. 2nd ed. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Johnson, Galen. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993.

Madison, G. B. The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981.

Silverman, Hugh J., and James Barry, eds. Texts and Dialogues. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1992.

M. C. Dillon (2005)

About this article

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–1961)

Updated About content Print Article