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Summary Article: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61), one of the most influential figures in French intellectual culture after World War II, strove to overcome the impasse between materialism and what he called “intellectualism” by emphasizing the importance of embodiment in human experience. Central to his deeply anti-Cartesian project was a rejection of what he termed pensées de survol, or “high-altitude, surveying thought” (1968 [1964]). Merleau-Ponty was, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the leading inheritors of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology. His work has had a tremendous impact on thinkers as diverse as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan.

Merleau-Ponty passed the agrégation in philosophy at the École normale supérieure and tutored there while finishing his thesis in the late 1930s. It was here that he became interested in how Husserl's phenomenology might help him conceptualize human consciousness neither as purely mechanical nor as disembodied mind. After studying at the Husserl Archives at the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1938, he returned to Paris with enough manuscripts to found an archive of Husserl's work at the Sorbonne. A brief stint in the infantry at the outbreak of World War II temporarily interrupted his research, but he remained active in the resistance during France's occupation. It was at the École normale supérieure that Merleau-Ponty met Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he helped to found the influential postwar journal Les temps modernes. He served as its political editor until 1952, when his growing disillusionment with the Soviet government and the French Communist Party occasioned a final split with Sartre that had long been coming on philosophical grounds. Merleau-Ponty felt that Sartre's existentialism reintroduced the very subject-object oppositions that, for him, phenomenology abolished.

Merleau-Ponty's published thesis, The Structure of Behavior (1963 [1942]), establishes as his most pressing concern the philosophy of perception, a focus that was to define his career. He claims that behavior cannot be understood as an isolated, linear process of stimulus-response but rather must be taken as a much more indeterminate whole, a “form” or structure of meaning. He opposes science when it abstracts from experience and claims to be able to make objective observations, a theory and practice that depends upon the same idealism from which it attempts to distance itself. Merleau-Ponty attempts to establish in place of this dualism of mind and world a revision of Husserl's Lebenswelt, the “life-world” in which human “form” may be understood to be in its perceptual, lived existence.

This same resistance to philosophical dualism and focus on embodied existence informs Merleau-Ponty's most famous work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), in which he explores a human experience of the world understood as always already intentional. There is no human consciousness of the world separable from situation and context, and no human activity without the body. This makes consciousness always a reciprocal interaction, an acting while being acted upon, a perceiving while being perceived. But this also means that consciousness is less a matter of solitary reflection, as Descartes's cogito would suggest, than of a situated envelopment of the subject by an action and event. This idea of reciprocation or “reversibility” in perception was to take its clearest form in Merleau-Ponty's la chair, or “flesh,” a term he uses in his later work to describe the percipient's “woven-ness” into the fabric of what is perceived.

In 1952 Merleau-Ponty became the youngest ever appointee, at the age of 44, to the prestigious Chair of Philosophy at the Collège de France. It is here that his interest in embodied perception began to take the form of an investigation of the intersections of ontology and aesthetics. The essay “Eye and mind,” in The Primacy of Perception (1964a), explores the ways in which art complicates our distancing, scientific use of vision. Signs (1964b) attempts to incorporate a Saussurean structuralist account of language into a phenomenological framework. Both works show the thinker on the brink of a new philosophy, one that has at its focus the relocation of the reflective Cartesian cogito into an anonymous Flesh at the intersection of the world and what we would understand to be the individual “self.” It was while working on these ideas, in many ways still germinal, that Merleau-Ponty suffered a fatal heart attack, in 1961, at the age of 53.

His notes for the continuation of his project were gathered by Claude Lefort and published in 1964 as Le visible et l'invisible (The Visible and the Invisible; 1968). In this work, Merleau-Ponty conceptualizes the écart, or “gap,” between perceiving and being perceived not as an oppositional dichotomy of subject and object but as a condition of reversibility. Most famously, he illustrates this concept by pointing out that what I touch with my hand is not merely an “object” of sensibility but in fact makes me aware of how my hand also is being touched. There is between touching and being touched less a logical contradiction than a relationship of differential exchange, or what Merleau-Ponty calls a chiasm. This network of chiasms is the foundation upon which Merleau-Ponty structures his notion of Flesh.

Merleau-Ponty's critique of the central aims of Western thinking has influenced literary theory and cultural theory in a number of ways. Broadly speaking, his work has been instrumental in the study of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and the Other. Jacques Derrida's deconstructionist critique of Cartesian dualism continues Merleau-Ponty's confrontation of the problem of presence in Western philosophy, while it is possible to regard Foucault's archaeology of knowledge as an elaboration of his concept of “vertical history,” and Lacan's theory of the “gaze” as a development, in psychoanalytic terms, of Merleau-Ponty's emphasis on the primacy of perception in embodied experience. However, it is the idea of philosophy as hyperreflection that may be his most important and lasting contribution to theory, as we can see in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others, who have explored the status of artistic works as reflections on the process of reflection (Merleau-Ponty 1968 [1964]). Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology was at bottom both a philosophy of experience and a meditation on the status of philosophy as experience and artifice, which he summed up in his idea that philosophy was a form of art in its own right.

SEE ALSO: de Beauvoir, Simone; Deconstruction; Deleuze, Gilles; Derrida, Jacques; Foucault, Michel; Husserl, Edmund; Lacan, Jacques; Other/Alterity; Phenomenology; Point of View/Focalization; Psychoanalysis (to 1966); Sartre, Jean-Paul; Saussure, Ferdinand de; Structuralism

  • Barbaras, R. (2004). The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty's Ontology (trans. T. Toadvine; L. Lawlor). Indiana University Press Bloomington.
  • Dillon, M. C. (1998). Merleau-Ponty's Ontology, 2nd edn. Indiana University Press Bloomington.
  • Evans, F.; Lawlor, L. (eds.) (2000). Chiasms: Merleau-Ponty's Notion of Flesh. SUNY Press Albany.
  • Johnson, G. A. (ed.) (1994). The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader (trans. Smith, M. B. ). Northwestern University Press Evanston, IL.
  • Johnson, G. A.; Smith, M. B. (eds.) (1990). Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty. Northwestern University Press Evanston, IL.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception (trans. Smith, C. ). Routledge London and New York. (Original work published 1945.).
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1963). The Structure of Behavior (trans. Fisher, A. L. ). Beacon Press Boston. (Original work published 1942.).
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964a). The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays (ed. Edie, J. ). Northwestern University Press Evanston, IL. (Original work published 1961.).
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964b). Signs (trans. McCleary, R. C. ). Northwestern University Press Evanston, IL. (Original work published 1960.).
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). The Visible and the Invisible (ed. Lefort, C. ; trans. Lingis, A. ). Northwestern University Press Evanston, IL. (Original work published 1964.).
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