Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908-1961)

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Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher, was born on March 14, 1908, in Rochefort-sur-Mer and died on May 3, 1961, in Paris. A graduate of theÉcole Normale Supérieure, he held a degree in philosophy and a PhD in literature. He taught in the literature department of the University of Lyon, then at the Sorbonne, and he succeeded Louis Lavelle at the Collège de France in 1952. Introduced to existentialism by Gabriel Marcel, familiar with the work of Edmund Husserl, gestalt theory, and the work of Max Weber, he published several important works of philosophy: The Structure of Behavior (1963), The Phenomenology of Perception (1962), and Adventures of the Dialectic (1973), a critique of a certain conception of Marxism. He also left behind the unfinished manuscript The Visible and the Invisible (1968), which pointed to a fundamental reorientation in his thinking. Merleau-Ponty occasionally attended Jacques Lacan's seminar and was present at the Journées de Bonneval conference on the unconscious in 1960.

Merleau-Ponty's work touches on psychoanalysis in three different ways. In his early work he was part of a tradition that viewed phenomenology as an integral part of a comprehensive conception of the world and knowledge, as it was represented in experimental psychology by Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, in neurology by Kurt Goldstein, and in philosophy by Max Scheler and Georges Pollitzer. Freud's work also played a role, in that it seemed to Merleau-Ponty to be a search for the concrete and a counterbalance to reductionism, which made behavior and experience the sum of discrete elements, arranged partes extra partes, within an unacceptable empirical system.

More specifically, in the chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception titled "The Body in its Sexual Being," Merleau-Ponty proposes that we conceive of sexuality not as a mixture of representations and reflexes but as a purposeful way of being in the world and an unalterable drama. The sexual history of a person provides the key to that person's life because it expresses synthetically that person's way of being with respect to time and other people. Merleau-Ponty then considers two aspects of Freud's work. One aspect of Freud's work, his theoretical work, Merleau-Ponty felt, was tinged with nineteenth-century scientism and hence made obsolete by a holistic and dialectical conception of being in the world that challenges the causal approach to studying this order of phenomena. Merleau-Ponty finds value in the other aspect of Freud's work, concrete individual research, where symptoms have several meanings, where everything is overdetermined, and where a person's singular history is ultimately incomparable to any other. It is this second aspect that Merleau-Ponty emphasizes.

What Merleau-Ponty frequently referred to as "existential psychoanalysis" represents less a theory and practice based on the work of Ludwig Binswanger than a holistic conception of humans. Here, sexual life retains its specificity while being part of a dialectical relationship with being in the world, a dialectical relationship that binds the body to sexual activity without making sexual activity a supplemental and possibly dissociable part. Such a conception could result in a form of therapeutic practice.

Georges LantÉri-Laura

See also: Colloque sur l'inconscient; France; Phenomenology and psychoanalysis; Philosophy and psychoanalysis.


Editors of Les temps modernes. (1961). Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Les temps modernes, 184-185.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (Colin Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1945)

. (1963). The structure of behavior (Alden L. Fisher, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1942)

. (1968). The visible and the invisible (Alphonso Lingis, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1964)

. (1973). Adventures of the dialectic (Joseph Bien, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1955)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was the most original and profound thinker of the postwar French movement of existential phenomenology.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born in Rochefortsur-Mer (Charente-Maritime) on March 14, 1908. His father died when Maurice was still a child, and he and his sister were raised by their mother in Paris. The childhood was an unusually happy one, and Merleau-Ponty retained over the years a close and affectionate tie with his mother. In later life he ceased to practice the Catholicism which he had earlier shared with his devout mother. But apparently before his death a reconciliation had occurred, since he was buried with the solemn rites of the Church.

Merleau-Ponty was educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1926, graduating 4 years later. In the ensuing decade he taught at lycées in Beauvais and Chartres and, after 1935, as a junior member of the faculty at the École Normale. After the Nazi invasion of Poland he entered the army and served as a lieutenant in the infantry. With the collapse of France he was demobilized, and he returned to his teaching. During the Nazi occupation he was active in the Resistance. When the Liberation came, he joined the faculty of the University of Lyons and became coeditor with Jean Paul Sartre, an old friend from school days, of the new journal Les Temps modernes. In 1950 he was invited to the Sorbonne as professor of psychology and pedagogy. And 2 years later he was elected to the Collège de France to the chair formerly occupied by Henri Bergson. He was the youngest philosopher ever to hold this position, and he retained it until his death.

Merleau-Ponty's first book, The Structure of Behavior, was completed in his thirtieth year but, owing to the war, was first published in 1942. It is a sustained and powerful attack on behaviorism in psychology, but it also features the introduction of novel philosophical interpretations of the experimental work of the Gestalt psychologists. This study was continued in his major work, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945). Drawing heavily upon the phenomenological techniques of Edmund Husserl (to which, however, he added new modifications) and upon the existential strands in the thought of Gabriel Marcel and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty began to fashion a personal synthesis, an original philosophical interpretation of human experience. He is thus one of the originators of contemporary existential philosophy and, in the generous tribute of a colleague, Paul Ricoeur, "was the greatest of the French phenomenologists."

All of Merleau-Ponty's work shows a familiarity with current scientific research and with the history of philosophy. This gives his work a more balanced and solid character than that of the other existentialists. Another major concern of his was with political and social philosophy and even with the ephemeral problems of day-to-day politics. He wrote a great many newspaper articles on contemporary events and problems. More sustained essays on Marxist theory and leftist politics were gathered in two collections: Humanism and Terror (1947) and The Adventures of the Dialectic (1955). The latter work contains a powerful critique of the French Communist party, with which he had earlier sympathized. This led to an open break with Sartre and to his resignation from the editorship of Les Temps modernes. Nevertheless his own political views remained decisive for Sartre, as the latter freely admits in a memoir published after Merleau-Ponty's death.

Interpretations of literary works, the art of the film, and painting were also crowded into the busy final decade of Merleau-Ponty's life. In these essays, published as collections entitled Sense and NonSense (1948) and Signs (1960), he sought to work out some of the implications of his thesis on the primacy of perception. He had hoped to crown his analysis of the prereflective life of consciousness with a survey of the major modes of reflective thought in which he would seek to determine their criteria for truth and validity. But at his sudden death of a coronary thrombosis on May 3, 1961, he had written only incomplete fragments and sketches.

Merleau-Ponty was happily married to a physician and psychiatrist in Paris, and they had one child, a daughter.

Further Reading

A hundred-page memoir by Jean Paul Sartre in Situations (7 vols., 1947-1965) gives a very sympathetic portrait and generous account of his quarrel with Merleau-Ponty. Two excellent interpretations of Merleau-Ponty's work in English are John F. Bannan, The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (1967), and Albert Rabil, Merleau-Ponty: Existentialist of the Social World (1967); both are reliable, although the latter is more complete. □

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice

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French phenomenologist, professor of philosophy at the Collège de France; b. Rochefort-sur-mer (Charente-Maritime), March 14, 1908; d. Paris, May 3, 1961. Of Catholic origin, Merleau-Ponty was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure in 1926. After receiving his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1945, he taught at the University of Lyons and the Sorbonne (194952) until his nomination to the Collège de France. Although not a philosophical theist, Merleau-Ponty requested and received a religious burial service, an indication that he remained open on the question of personal religious belief. Situated within the movement most accurately designated as existential phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty's thought manifests affinities with the work of J. P. Sartre, M. Heidegger, and G. Marcel (see existentialism). E. husserl, especially of the late period, remains the principal philosophical influence; G. W. F. hegel was a significant but less dominant source. Committed to phenomenology as the philosophical method that would permit surpassing the subject-object, idealism-realism dichotomy of modern philosophy, Merleau-Ponty developed and transformed the phenomenology of Husserl into a more concrete and realistic philosophy. His major works consist of (1) detailed critical analyses of the sciences of man as well as of the classical modern rationalist philosophers and (2) an elucidation of the basic structures of human existence based upon man's immediate experience of the world, others, and himself. Later works develop his thought in the areas of aesthetics, political philosophy, and philosophy of history.

Bibliography: Works. The Structure of Behavior, tr. a. l. fisher (Boston 1963); The Phenomenology of Perception, tr. c. smith (New York 1962); Humanisme et terreur (Paris 1947); In Praise of Philosophy, tr. j. wild and j. m. edie (Evanston, Ill. 1963); Les Aventures de la dialectique (Paris 1955); Signs, tr. r. c. mccleary (Evanston 1964); Sense and Non-Sense, tr. H. L. and p. a. dreyfus (Evanston 1964); The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, ed. j. m. edie (Evanston 1964). Literature. a. de waelhens, Une Philosophie de l'ambiguïté: L'Existentialisme de Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Louvain 1951). a. dondeyne, Contemporary European Thought and Christian Faith, tr. e. mcmullin and j. burnheim (Pittsburgh 1958). h. spiecelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 2 v. (The Hague 1960).

[a. l. fisher]

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice

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Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1905–61) A French phenomenological philosopher who was especially concerned with the relationships between the body, consciousness, and the outside world; one-time friend and colleague of Jean-Paul Sartre. His work on language is often seen as linking phenomenology and structuralism. Merleau-Ponty's most important book is The Phenomenology of Perception (1945). His work is rarely used by sociologists although Anthony Giddens has taken up some of his ideas in The Constitution of Society (1984).