Maurice Merleau-Ponty (March 14, 1908 - May 4, 1961) was a French phenomenologist philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl, and often somewhat mistakenly classified as an existentialist thinker because of his close association with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and his distinctly Heideggerian conception of Being.
In 1930, Merleau-Ponty completed his training at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he had studied with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In 1949, four years after the publication of the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty was awarded the Chair of Child Psychology at the Sorbonne.
At 44, Merleau-Ponty was the youngest ever Chair of Philosophy at the College de France when he was appointed in 1952. He held this position until May 1961, when he died suddenly of a stroke, apparently while preparing for a class on Descartes.
Merleau-Ponty is interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In his Phenomenology of Perception (first published in French in 1945), Merleau-Ponty developed the concept of the "body-subject" as an alternative to the cartesian "cogito". Consciousness, the world, and the human body as a perceiving thing are intricately intertwined and mutually `engaged'. The phenomenal thing is not the unchanging object of the natural sciences, but a correlate of our body and its sensory functions. Taking up and coinciding with the sensible qualities it encounters, the body as incarnated subjectivity intentionally reconstructs things within an ever-present world frame, through use of its pre-conscious, pre-predicative understanding of the world's make-up. Things are that upon which our body has a grip, while the grip itself is a function of our connaturality with the world's things.
The essential partiality of our view of things, their being given only in a certain perspective and at a certain moment in time does not diminish their reality, but on the contrary establishes it, as there is no other way for things to be co-present with us and with other things than through such "Abschattung". The thing seen in perspective transcends our view, and yet is immanent in it. By a pre-conscious act of `original faith' we immediately place this phenomenal thing in the world, where it blends in with other things and behaves like any "figure" against a certain background. Just as much as our own unity as a bodily subject is not a unity in thought, but one that is experienced in our interaction with our surroundings, so the unity of the thing is `perceived' as pervading all of its perspectives. We do not consciously construct the thing, but rather allow it to construct itself before our eyes; only when this unconscious process results in perceptive ambiguity, i.e. when the body is unable to present us the thing in any clearly articulated way, the subject will consciously interfere and clarify his perception. Apart from such instances, the subjectivity of the perceiving body operates unknown to the conscious subject, engaging the pre-objective factuality in which it too participates, and disclosing the rationality of the world to the subject. Thus we encounter meaningful things in a unified though ever open-ended world.
Critics have remarked that while Merleau-Ponty makes a great effort to break away from Cartesian dualism, in the end the "Phenomenology of Perception" still starts out from the opposition of consciousness and its objects. Merleau-Ponty himself also acknowledged this, and in his later work proceeded from a standpoint of unity, replacing notions that still centre around the subject by notions of "Being" and the essential reversibility of seeing and being visible.
Merleau-Ponty's work has become classic, in the sense that it is read today in different disciplines, with very different effects.
Anti-cognitivist cognitive science
Despite Merleau-Ponty's own critical position with respect to science - he describes scientific points of view as "always both naive and at the same time dishonest" in his Preface to the Phenomenology - his work has become a touchstone for the anti-cognitivist strands of cognitive science, largely through the influence of Hubert Dreyfus.
Dreyfus' seminal critique of cognitivism (or the computational account of the mind), What Computers Can't Do, consciously replays Merleau-Ponty's critique of intellectualist psychology to argue for the irreducibility of corporeal know-how to discrete, syntactic processes. Through the influence of Dreyfus' critique, and neurophysiological alternative, Merleau-Ponty became associated with neurophysiological, connectionist accounts of cognition.
With the publication in 1991 of The Embodied Mind by Evan Thompson , Eleanor Rosch and Francisco Varela, this association was extended, if only partially, to another strand of anti-cognitivist cognitive science: emergentist or evolutionist cognitive science.
It was through this relationship with Merleau-Ponty's work that cognitive science's affair with phenomenology was born, which is best represented by the 1999 anthology, Naturalizing Phenomenology.
Merleau-Ponty has also been picked up by Australian and Scandinavian philosophers inspired by the French feminist tradition, including Rosalyn Diprose and Sara Heinämaa .
Rosalyn Diprose's recent work takes advantage of Merleau-Ponty conception of an intercorporeality, or indistinction of perspectives, to critique individualistic identity politics from a feminist perspective and to ground the irreducibility of generosity as a virtue, where generosity has a dual sense of giving and being given. See esp. Corporeal Generosity (2002)
Sara Heinämaa has argued for a re-reading of Merleau-Ponty's influence on Simone de Beauvoir. (She has also challenged Hubert Dreyfus' reading of Merleau-Ponty as behaviourist, and as neglecting the importance of the phenomenological reduction to Merleau-Ponty's thought.)
A selection of his works translated into English follows. A much more comprehensive bibliography can be found on this page, at the Merleau-Ponty Circle website linked below.
- Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. Bien, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
- The Essential Writings of Merleau-Ponty, ed. Fisher, New York: Harcourt, 1969.
- Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, trans. O'Neill, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
- Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Smith, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.
- The Primacy of Perception: and Other Essays on Phenomenology, Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, ed. Edie, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
- Prose of the World, trans. O'Neill, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969.
- Sense and Nonsense, trans. Dreyfus & Dreyfus, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
- Signs, trans. McCleary, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
- The Structure of Behaviour, trans. Fischer, London: Metheun, 1965.
- The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Lingis, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.
The Merleau-Ponty Circle- A group devoted to the study of the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy- Excellent article on Merleau-Ponty by Jack Reynolds
Last updated: 10-17-2005 20:19:17