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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


MERLEAU-PONTY

(1908 — 1961)

 

PHENOMENOLOGY

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born in Rochefort-sur-Mer. Educated at lycées there and at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he gained his agrégation in 1931. He taught in various lycées and at the École Normale. After war service he was appointed a professor at the University of Lyon and then became Professor of Child Psychology at the Sorbonne. He accepted the Chair of Philosophy at the Collége de France in 1952. He was a founder and co-editor with Sartre of Les Temps Modernes.

 

KNOWLEDGE/ METHOD/ PSYCHOLOGY

[1] Merleau-Ponty's philosophical agenda is clear from the title of his best-known work [The Phenomenology of Perception]. He starts [Preface] with a criticism of interconnected inconsistencies in Husserl's philosophy. Husserl set out to establish philosophy as a 'rigorous science' but he offered an account of space, time and the world as we 'live' them. Husserl also tried to give a direct description of experience, without reference to its psychological origin or causal explanations, but in his last works he talked of a genetic and constructive phenomenology. Perhaps the most serious contradiction, says Merleau-Ponty, is that while phenomenology is a transcendental philosophy which brackets the question of the world's existence, yet it is also a philosophy "for which the world is 'already there' before reflection begins — as an inalienable presence" and which it seeks to make a direct and primitive contact with. What he objects to is Husserl's separation of the real world from the world considered as a phenomenon for consciousness [a]. For Husserl the epoché provides a world which is nothing other than the intentional object of consciousness. Certainly Merleau-Ponty does not claim any knowledge of things-in-themselves (Kantian noumena). But he does argue that attempts at a philosophical description of the structures of consciousness show us not eidetically intuited essences but a world that transcends that consciousness and reveals itself in and to it. He thus rejects the Husserlian notion of 'reduction' and his account of a pure transcendental ego. At the same time Merleau-Ponty seeks to pass beyond what he sees as a return to dualism in Sartre's distinction between the in-itself and for-itself [b].

These views reflect Merleau-Ponty's affirmation of the primacy of perception [Part II] — by means of which we gain access to the world. But perception for him is not a mere reflection on passively received sensory data. The world we encounter in perception is a 'lived experience'. What transcendental reduction reveals is a 'body-subject' [Part I]. The body for Merleau-Ponty is much more than just an entity to be treated as an inert object whose behaviour is to be explained exhaustively in terms of science as a "second order expression of the world". But neither is it a pure, transparent subject. It exhibits 'ambiguously' both aspects or functions. He thus rejects the claims of behaviourism and naturalism. The body must be seen also as a conscious 'subject' actively situated in the perceptual milieu — the presupposition for all conceptual thinking, rationality, value, existence. The situation the body-subject finds itself thrown into is one of constant change: its relationship to the world and other persons — its dialogue with them — is thus dialectical, and the reduction cannot be completed on account of 'ambiguity' [c].

[2] The central phenomenological themes of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy are already to be found in the first major work [The Structure of Behaviour]. This appears initially to be an essentially scientific work concerned with the psychology of human behaviour, but underlying his investigations is his primary concern — to overcome discontinuities, especially to bridge the gap between nature and consciousness. To do so he starts by criticizing behaviourist theories. Following the Gestaltists [for example, Koffka and Koehler] he argues that we are organisms who appear to exhibit goal-seeking activity. We do not react to stimuli in a purely passive mechanistic way, but rather the situations we respond to we have already 'endowed with meaning'. Thus, for example, when we are hungry and come across something which will satisfy our hunger our response is not just an activity to be analysed exhaustively in terms of the physical and chemical structures of the object. Rather, we already see it as food, as an appropriate object to eat and to satisfy our inner needs (Similarly we also see ambiguous figures 'as' one thing or 'as' another.) He accepts that bodily behaviour as such is a proper object of scientific study in causal terms, but he denies that mental activity can be identified with physical behaviour of the organism or with a network of reflexes, conditioned or otherwise. Science, he says, abstracts from the wholeness and purposiveness of living organisms. Instead he postulates a hierarchy of qualitatively different levels of conceptualization in the structures of things. The lowest or physical level is that at which the organism may be said to be the least 'purposive'. Its response to the environment is explicable in causal or mechanistic terms. But at the vital, that is, biological level such responses have to be understood with reference to the organism's structures and needs. At the highest, mental or human level the organism confers 'meaning' on the environment. This dialectical relationship gives rise to holistic, spatial patterns. No level can be reduced to the lower level; the levels are as it were cumulative. Thus we might say, for example, that while we can analyse ourselves in terms of atoms and molecules — relating to the laws and theories of physics and chemistry, the activity of complex molecules is describable by reference to the laws of biology. As for the highest level, we appeal here to the fulfilment of purposes and needs. Explanation involves reasons rather than causes. There is no inconsistency between the several sets of explanations appropriate at the different levels, and there is no reduction of biology to physics and chemistry, or of human activity to biology. The lower levels do, however, contribute to the higher levels. According to Merleau-Ponty meaning must therefore already have been conferred at a pre-conscious level of subjectivity. While he has rejected behaviourist psychology, and shows the influence of Gestalt theory, he is at the same time critical of Gestalt psychology to the extent that it seems to treat 'wholes' or 'forms' themselves as if they were causes, whereas causation is correctly to be attributed only to stimuli at the level of physical structures. With his theory of cumulative structures Merleau-Ponty hoped to avoid both materialism and mentalism [a].

matter, life and mind must participate unequally in the nature of form; they must represent different degrees of integration and, finally, must constitute a hierarchy in which individuality is progressively achieved [Pt III, Introd.].

[3] In The Structure of Behaviour he concentrates on scientific theories and then moves on to consider philosophical implications. But in The Phenomenology of Perception his approach is explicitly philosophical. From the very start he situates himself in the perceptual milieu and starts from the standpoint of the perceiving 'lived' body-subject. He criticizes both scientific empiricism and Cartesian intellectualism. Thus he rejects the notion of isolated, discrete sensory data. Sense-data are abstractions, 'pure' sensations which have no reference either to external reality or to the intentionality of consciousness. [See Introd., 1-4.] Following the Gestalt psychologists he argues that elementary perceptions, or impressions are bound up with larger wholes already charged with significance. "We are condemned to meaning", he says. A perception is always part of a phenomenal field [a]. The body-subject is the key notion not only in his approach to perception but also to sexuality, language, freedom, and the cogito. He rejects the concept of body as a purely physical object. It is through attribution to it of intentional structures that we can understand how it functions. The body-subject is that which makes possible lived experience, that through which we perceive, feel, will, and act [b]. From this starting point what is needed, he argues, is clarification of our "primary conception of the world". According to Merleau-Ponty there is a 'logic of the world' to which the body conforms, thereby supplying us in advance with a 'setting' for our sensory-experiences. He refers to this as the 'pre-objective' realm — the horizon of the cultural, human life-world, by reference to which a proper understanding of perception can be achieved [c]. "A thing is, therefore, not actually given in perception"; rather it is

internally taken by us, reconstituted and experienced by us in so far as it is bound up with a world, the basic structures of which we carry with us, and of which it is merely one of many possible concrete forms [PP, Pt II, 3].

Thus the way we perceive the world through the body follows from the fact that consciousness as the highest manifestation of the body is located in the world in a specific spatio-temporal context. He makes a distinction between 'bodily space' and 'external space' [Pt I, 3]. He seems here to be suggesting that one's awareness of one's body is a precondition of the consciousness that one has of being in the world and that the body provides a reference point for the attribution of spatiality between one's body and other similarly connected objects. Time likewise is understood in terms of one's occupation of it as a 'setting' in which both past and future, although belonging to being are accessible only in the lived present of memory and agency [d]. The world, however, retains a unity independent of our changing knowledge of it and of our activity towards truth through appearance. Human beings are engaged in a dialogue with the world considered not only as a set of physical entities but also as containing other individuals or persons. And the 'other' is equally a 'body-subject'. It cannot be both a being-in-itself, belonging to the world of caused and determinate objects, and a consciousness, a being-for-itself which lacks an outside and parts. Both 'modes of being', he says, are presupposed in the concept of the body-subject — the living body as experienced. Body is "solidified or generalized existence", while existence is a "perpetual incarnation" [Pt I, 5]. We can see the other as human subject only when his subjectivity is embodied. To see him only as body leads to conflict as sometimes occurs in sexual relations. The gaze of another on my body causes me to experience shame. I am treated as an object and am depersonalized, become as a slave. Alternatively, through my own immodest display I may dominate the other, render him defenceless. Paradoxically, his desire for me and his consequent loss of freedom leads me no longer to value him. Sexuality, however, properly understood and utilized, is for Merleau-Ponty one more form of original intentionality. Moreover, it 'interfuses' with existence and is thereby 'ambiguous' [e] in that it is not possible to determine whether a decision or act is 'sexual' or 'non-sexual'.

Given Merleau-Ponty's account of embodied perception, it follows that for him a perceiver can be understood only as incarnated. What is discoverable through the cogito, he says, is neither psychological immanence, the inherence of phenomena in 'private states of consciousness', nor even a transcendental immanence where phenomena belong to a constituting consciousness. Rather what we find is a deep-seated momentum of transcendence which is the perceiver's very being — a simultaneous contact with his own being and that of the world [Pt III, 1]. Thus he in effect avoids both the view that the thinking self or ego is that in which thoughts, perceptions, and so on, inhere, and the view that the self is just the totality of sets or series of thoughts, perceptions. In perception the body-subject finds itself in and inseparable from its surroundings. Perception is 'lived'. There is no autonomous subject which can be separated from its objects. At the same time the subject is not a consciousness. We find ourselves, he says, in our performance or acts — that is the body-subject in its perceptual, sexual, linguistic engagement with the world. Thus, for Merleau-Ponty human beings do not exist in isolation from others [f]. (At the end of the book he quotes St Exupéry's observation, "Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him".) And to the extent that at the highest, most purposive conscious level man is free from causal determinism he is aware of the possibility of particular courses of action. But he goes on to argue that man is not free in a total or unlimited sense; he is constrained by the historical and cultural environment in which he has been born and nurtured [Pt III, 3] [g]. A theory of freedom must take account of what Merleau-Ponty calls a kind of 'sedimentation' of one's life. He means by this that we develop an attitude towards the world as we become moulded by repeated experiences of it which are in some sense favourable — meet our needs, interests. Choice is never absolute; it can not be exercised in a vacuum, out of nothing. But neither are we completely determined.

 

ONTOLOGY

[4] Merleau-Ponty's critique of dualism is taken further in his last writings in the context of what he calls his 'ontology of flesh'. [See especially Eye and Mind and The Visible and the Invisible.] His ontology may be described as a 'dialectical monism' in so far as he rejects the dualistic analyses of Being into a pure free consciousness of the 'self' and the determinism or necessitation of the 'other' and argues in favour of a mutual 'intertwining' (chiasme) of the lived body-subject and the world. (He here draws on the notion of reciprocity implicit in his phenomenology of perception.) Being is both the silent, invisible ground of Nature and the visibility revealed through it [a]. Being made visible constitutes what Merleau-Ponty calls "the flesh [chair] of the world". Flesh is the element of Being which precedes and grounds the self and the other. It is the "anonymous visibility" — neither material nor spiritual, nor substantial. Rather it is "a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being" [V&I]. Man, as himself grounded in Nature (he is not just a body-subject related to a specific historical-cultural situation), is a moment of instantiation of Being's self-revelation. Thus grounded man is perceptible. But as revealer of Being, able to render visible the 'perceptible structures' of the world, he is also the perceiver and contributes to its meaning. "One can say that we perceive the things themselves, that we are the world that thinks itself — or that the world is at the heart of our flesh" [ibid.]. Being as made visible is thus both that which "gives to us" and that which we give to it [b].

 

LANGUAGE

[5] [See Phenomenology of Perception, Pt I, 6; also Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language; and Signs.] Following from his rejection of dualism Merleau-Ponty argues that thought is inseparable from language. He denies that we can have concepts 'in the mind' before they are expressed or articulated linguistically. New concepts are worked out in or through new expressions which he calls collectively 'speaking word'; and he regards this process as the creative manifestation of the body-subject. Such expressions in due course add to the corpus of social and public language — the 'spoken word'. However, just as he allows for the conferring of meaning at a 'pre-conscious' level so he attributes to the body a pre-linguistic understanding, a 'praktognosia' of its world — though this is an aspect of and inseparable from the body's behaviour [PP, Pt. I, 3] [a]. Thought is to the body's subjectivity as language is to its 'objective' corporality, the two dimensions constituting one reality. He also recognises that his concept of the body-subject is difficult to articulate in so far as our language has built into it a bias towards dualism. We must therefore struggle to create a new language in order to express this central concept [b]. He later [CAL] draws on the structuralist view that the meaning and usage of language has to be grasped synchronically by reference to the relationship between signs and not diachronically by reference to the history of linguistic development; and he sees in this evidence or support for his own claim that the body-subject is involved in a lived relation with the world, because language here and now is, as it were, the living present in speech. Merleau-Ponty's emphasis is thus on parole, that is the 'signified' — meaning which is 'enacted', as opposed to 'langue' which refers to the total structure of 'signs' [c] — the meanings and words which parole, as a set of individual speech-acts (be they English, Chinese, or any other language), instantiates.

It is through language and its intersubjectivity that the intentionality of the body-subject makes sense of the world. And he makes it clear that language is to be understood in a wide sense as including all 'signs', employed not only in literature but also in art, science, indeed in the cultural dimension as a whole. Indeed the significance of a created work lies in this intersubjectivity — in the reader's or viewer's 're-creation' of it as well as in the work itself as originally created by the writer or artist. Moreover, in an era when science is increasingly alienating man from the real, language and the arts in particular are particularly suited to be the means for this revelation. Through the lived experience in which language is articulated — in our actions, art, literature, and so on (that is, in 'beings' as signifiers) — it opens up to the Being of all things [see The Visible and the Invisible]. Contemplated against the 'background of silence', language then comes to be seen as a 'witness to Being' [Signs] [d].

 

ETHICS/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[6] Merleau-Ponty agreed that we must start from a collectively accepted set of meanings and values of our world, but he says that from this position we can exercise our freedom to choose and thereby create ourselves as moral beings. Initially his views on ethics would seem to have been posited in the context of Marxist social and political theory. But while he was sympathetic to the grounding of consciousness in the material infrastructure, he rejected a historical dialectic and the subordination of the individual to the collective. Nevertheless, he accepted the consequentialist view that 'objective history' is the final arbiter of individual choice and action regardless of intentions. In general we can say he set out to define a position which would avoid both an 'objectivist' material 'in itself' and an 'idealist' 'for itself' but which yet reconciles the two in 'ambiguity' [a]. He attacked Marxist theory as appropriated by Communism and came to see this capacity of Marxism to be adapted in this way as an indication of fundamental flaws in the theory itself [see The Risks of Dialectic]. A genuine revolutionary movement, he argues, must seek only to guide tendencies in society, not to impose its dogma. To the extent that it is directed against a particular class it is doomed to become degenerate, and it cannot therefore be the agency through which a historical process operates. History itself is not a rigid monolithic objectification of a necessary dialectic but a contingent and multilayered sequence of events; and Marxism, if adopted as a theoretical instrument for the development of society, must itself take cognisance of history and submit to revision in the light of changing circumstances.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

For many years Merleau-Ponty's writings were undeservedly neglected outside France. More recently, however, his merits as a philosopher have been increasingly recognised — not least by many philosophers working in the 'analytic' tradition (despite the complexity and prolixity of his style — characteristic of much twentieth century continental philosophy). Of particular significance are his rejection of both rationlism/ idealism and positivistic and reductionist empiricism, his concept of the 'body-subject' and a 'holistic' account of perception and action as operating within the domain of intersubjectivity, and his dialectical 'ontology of flesh'. He accepted Husserl's epoché and phenomenological reduction but argued that this leads not to a separated transcendental consciousness or ego but to essences of 'lived experience'; and while emphasising the Cartesian primacy of the self he sought to overcome dualist theories (including Sartre's sharp distinction between the pour-soi and the en soi) through an appeal to his doctrine of 'ambiguity', by which he understands a theme or the meaning of a word as open to different interpretations, depending on the context, none of which should be regarded as privileged [a]. He was also critical of attempts to reconcile existentialism and Marxism, arguing that a reworking of both is needed.

Merleau-Ponty was probably aware of most of the contentious issues raised by his thought, but owing to his untimely death he was unable to complete a number of projects which most probably would have addressed these. Two points in particular should be mentioned.

(1) (With reference to his early work) how transition from one structural level to another is to be effected has, arguably, not been fully worked out. But many commentators would accept that his account of degrees of rationality and of freedom of the body-subject acting within the constraints of causal determinism might prove to be more successful in resolving the seemingly intractable problem of dualism while avoiding the difficulties of reductive naturalist theories.

(2) Some critics maintain that an unresolved tension remains between the extremes of a 'subjective' idealism and an 'objective' realism. This might well be seen to be compounded by his later acceptance of a structuralist account of language, in so far as the distinction between the lived experience of the subject and the described experience articulated through language (parole) and 'meanings' is itself made within the linguistic framework. This would seem to prevent access to the objective world of the 'other'.

 

READING

Merleau-Ponty: [of many writings] La Structure du comportement (1942) (The Structure of Behaviour, trans. A. L. Fisher); Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) (The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith); Les Aventures de la dialectique (1955) (Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. J. Bien); Signes (1960) (Signs, trans. R. McCleary); L'Oeil et l'esprit (1964) (Eye and Mind, in Phenomenology, Language and Sociology, ed. J. O'Neill); Le Visible et l'invisible (1964) (The Visible and the Invisible, trans. A. Lingis; La Conscience et l'acquisition de la langage (1964) (Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, trans. H. Silverman).

Studies

J. Bannan, The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.

M. C. Dillon, Merleau-Ponty's Ontology.

J. Edie, Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy of Language: Structuralism and Dialectics.

E. Matthews, Merleau-Ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Collections of Essays

J. Sallis (ed.), Merleau-Ponty: Perception, Structure, Language.

C. Taylor and M. B. N. Hansen (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Merleau-Ponty

 

Note: In his utilization of some of the key concepts of structuralism [see 5c] Merleau-Ponty drew on the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

 

[1a] Critique of contradictions in Husserl: (i) 'rigorous science' versus world as 'lived'; (ii) non-causal psychological descriptions of experience versus genetic/ constructive phenomenology; (iii) criticism of separation of real world from (bracketed) transcendental world (phenomenology of consciousness)

   Husserl (i)

   Husserl(ii)

   Husserl(iii)

[2a 4b 8a]

[1a 2e]

[2c]

 

[1b; cf. 2a 3e] No knowledge of noumena claimed, but transcendent world revealed to/ in itself through descriptions of structures/ consciousness; rejection of reduction and pure transcendent ego, and of in/ for-itself dualism

   Descartes

   Kant

   Husserl

   Heidegger

   Sartre

[2a 3g]

[2d 3b c]

[2c 5a 7d]

[1c 2a f]

[1c 2a b]

 

[1c; also 3b] Primacy of perception: world as lived experience, man as being-in-the-world; transcendental reduction → 'body-subject'

   Descartes

   Husserl

   Bergson

   Heidegger

[1b]

[5a 8a]

[3a]

[2a]

 

[2a; cf. 3c]

Rejection of behaviourism,* naturalism, scientific abstractionism; body as conscious subject situated in perceptual milieu — presupposition for thought, value, existence; discontinuities (body-mind, etc.) overcome by theory of non-reductive cumulative structures

[*i.e., scientific behaviourists such as Pavlov]

   Descartes

   Husserl

   Bergson

   Heidegger

   Searle

[1b 3g]

[5a 8a]

[2b]

[2a]

[2g h]

 

[3a] [Later] Rejection of intellectualism and scientific empiricism,* and of discrete sense-data; elementary perception in 'wholes' (Gestalten) in phenomenal field

   Descartes

   Bergson

   Heidegger

   *logical positivists but

   names not mentioned:

   e.g. Carnap

   Ryle

   Austin

[1a 2a]

[1a]

[2e]

 

 

[4b]

[3d]

[1c]

 

[3b; cf. 1c] Rejection of body as just physical object; has intentional structures; body- subject makes possible 'lived experience'    Heidegger [2e]

 

[3c; cf. 2a] 'Pre-objective realm' as setting for sensory experiences; horizon of cultural, human life-world

   Descartes

   Husserl

   Heidegger

[1b]

[8a]

[2a]

 

[3d] Body — reference point for spatiality; time 'occupied' as setting past & future in lived present of memory and agency

   Bergson

   Heidegger

[1b]

[3d]

 

[3e; cf. 1b] The 'other' neither being-in-itself (caused/ determined) nor consciousness for-itself; both presupposed in lived/ experienced 'body-subject'; domination and enslavement

   Jaspers

   Heidegger

   Sartre

   Ricoeur

[3a 4c]

[2g]

[4a b]

[8d]

 

[3f; cf. 1b 3e] Modification of 'cogito': no psychological/ transcendental immanence but simultaneous content with own being and world; body-subject in perceptual, sexual, linguistic performance with world & others

   Descartes

   Scheler

   Wittgenstein

   Sartre

Hampshire

[1b 2a]

[1g]

[2d]

[2c]

[1e]

 

[3g] At conscious level man free from causal determinism (aware of courses of action), but constrained by historical and cultural environment

   Bergson

   Heidegger

   Sartre

Hampshire

[3b]

[2i]

[4c]

[1e]

 

[4a] Rejection of dualistic view of Being; Being as 'invisible' and 'visible' ground of Nature

   Descartes

   Sartre

[3d e]

[2a b]

 

[4b] [Later] man, grounded in nature, as perceiving reality renders visible 'structures of world' (in itself unknowing, invisible, silent being): Nature aware of itself

   Wittgenstein

   Heidegger

[3b]

[2h 5b]

 

[5a] Thought inseparable from language, but body has 'pre- linguistic understanding'    Wittgenstein [2c]

 

[5b] 'New language' needed to articulate concept of body-subject

   Ryle

   Searle

[1b]

[2a]

 

[5c] Structuralism: meaning and usage grasped synchronistically (relations between signs); support for 'body-subject'; concept of lived relation to world — language living present in speech

   [Saussure — see

   Ricoeur [2a]]

   Heidegger

   

   

[5c]

 

 

 

[5d] Language and inter-subjectivity → intentionality of signs makes sense of world; language ('speaking word') as 'witness to Being' against background of silence

   Wittgenstein

   Heidegger

[3b]

[5c]

 

[6a; cf. 3g] Man creates himself as moral being through choice of values/ meanings; consciousness in infra-structure but M-P rejects historical dialectic and individual's subjugation, but history final arbiter of choice & action; avoids materialist in-itself and idealist for-itself

   Marx

   Sartre

[1c 2a b f]

[6c d e]

 

[CSa; 1c 3e 6a] Doctrine of contextual ambiguity    Wittgenstein [2b 3c]