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Western Philosophers
20th-century philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Name: Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Birth: March 14, 1908
Death: May 4, 1961
School/tradition: Phenomenology, Existentialism (contested)
Main interests
psychology, metaphysics, perception, epistemology, art
Notable ideas
preceptions and projects shape appearances, intersubjective truths
Influences Influenced
Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre |

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (March 14, 1908 – May 4, 1961) was a French phenomenologist philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl, who is often (some think 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.


After secondary schooling at the lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty became a student at the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied alongside Sartre. He passed the agrégation in philosophy in 1930.

Merleau-Ponty first taught at Chartres, then became a tutor at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was awarded his doctorate on the basis of two important books: La structure du comportement (1942) and Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945).

Next, Merleau-Ponty taught at the University of Lyon (from 1945 to 1948), then lectured on child psychology and education at the Sorbonne (from 1949 to 1952). He was awarded the Chair of Philosophy at the Collège de France from 1952 until his death in 1961, making him the youngest person to have been elected to a Chair.

Besides his teaching, Merleau-Ponty was also political editor for Les Temps modernes from the founding of the journal in October 1945 until December 1952. Aged 53, he died suddenly of a stroke on the 3rd of May 1961, apparently while preparing for a class on Descartes. He was buried 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". This distinction is especially important in that Merleau-Ponty perceives the essences of the world existentially, as opposed to the Cartesian idea that the world is merely an extension of our own minds. 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"(Shading). 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 on the subject by notions of "Being" and the essential reversibility of seeing and being visible.

Thematic overview of his works[]

The primacy of perception[]

From the time of writing Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty wanted to show, in opposition to the idea that drove the tradition beginning with John Locke, that perception was not the causal product of atomic sensations. This atomist-causal conception was being perpetuated in certain psychological currents of the time, particularly in behaviorist psychology. According to Merleau-Ponty, perception has an active dimension, in that it is a primordial openness to the life world (to the 'Lebenswelt')

This primordial openness is at the heart of his thesis of the primacy of perception. The slogan of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl is "all consciousness is consciousness of something", which implies a distinction between "acts of thought" (the noesis) and "intentional objects of thought" (the noema). Thus, the correlation between noesis and noema becomes the first step in the constitution of analyses of consciousness.

However, in studying the posthumous manuscripts of Husserl, who remained one of his major influences, Merleau-Ponty remarked that, in their evolution, Husserl's work brings to light phenomena which are not assimilable to noetic-noematic correlation. This is particularly the case when one attends to the phenomena of the body (which is at once body-subject and body-object), subjective time (the consciousness of time is neither an act of consciousness nor an object of thought) and the other (the first considerations of the other in Husserl led to solipsism).

The distinction between "acts of thought" (noesis) and "intentional objects of thought" (noema) does not seem, therefore, to constitute an irreducible ground. It appears rather at a higher level of analysis. Thus, Merleau-Ponty does not postulate that "all consciousness is consciousness of something", which supposes at the outset a noetic-noematic ground. Instead, he develops the thesis according to which "all consciousness is perceptual consciousness". In doing so, he establishes a significant turn in the development of phenomenology, indicating that its conceptualisations should be re-examined in the light of the primacy of perception, in weighing up the philosophical consequences of this thesis.


René Descartes

Taking the study of perception as his point of departure, Merleau-Ponty was led to recognize that one's own body (le corps propre) is not only a thing, a potential object of study for science, but is also a permanent condition of experience, a constituent of the perceptual openness to the world and to its investment ([trans.? - à son investissement]). He therefore underlines the fact that there is an inherence of consciousness and of the body of which the analysis of perception should take account. The primacy of perception signifies a primacy of experience, so to speak, in so far as perception becomes an active and constitutive dimension.

The development of his works thus establishes an analysis which recognizes a corporeality of consciousness as much as an intentionality of the body, and so stands in contrast with the dualist ontology of mind and body in René Descartes, a philosopher to whom Merleau-Ponty continually returned, despite the important differences that separate them.

He says in the Phenomenology of Perception, “In so far as I have hands, feet; a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent on my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way that I do not choose” (1962, p. 440).


The highlighting of the fact that corporeality intrinsically has a dimension of expressivity which proves to be fundamental to the constitution of the Ego is one of the conclusions from Structure of Behavior that is constantly reiterated in Merleau-Ponty's later works. Following this theme of expressivity, he goes on to examine how an incarnate subject is in a position to undertake actions that transcend the organic level of the body, such as in intellectual operations and the products of one's cultural life.

Ferdinand de Saussure

He carefully considers language, then, as the core of culture, by examining in particular the connections between the unfolding of thought and sense - enriching his perspective not only by an analysis of the acquisition of language and the expressivity of the body, but also by taking into account pathologies of language, painting, cinema, literary usage, poetry and song.

One can see a certain preoccupation with language, beginning with the reflection on artistic expression in Structure of Behavior - which contains a passage on El Greco (p. 203ff) that prefigures the remarks that he develops in "Cezanne's Doubt" (1945), which itself follows the discussion in the Phenomenology of Perception. To this extent, the work undertaken while he occupied the Chair of Child Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of the Sorbonne is not an interlude in his philosophical and phenomenological preoccupations, representing, rather, a not insignificant moment in the overall development of his thought.

As the course outlines of his Sorbonne lectures indicate, during this period he continues a dialogue between phenomenology and the diverse work carried out in psychology, all in order to return to the study of the acquisition of language in children, as well as to broadly take advantage of the contribution of Ferdinand de Saussure to linguistics, and to work on the notion of structure through a discussion of work in psychology, linguistics and social anthropology.


It is important to clarify, and indeed emphasize, that the attention Merleau-Ponty pays to diverse forms of art (visual, plastic, literary, poetic, etc) should not be attributed to a concern with beauty per se. Nor is his work an attempt to elaborate normative criteria for "art." Thus, one does not find in his work a theoretical attempt to discern what constitutes a major work or a work of art, or even handicraft (l'artisanat).

Still, it is useful to note that, while he does not establish any normative criteria for art as such, there is nonetheless in his work a prevalent distinction between primary and secondary modes of expression. This distinction appears in the Phenomenology of Perception (p 207, 2nd note {Fr. ed.}) and is sometimes repeated in terms of spoken and speaking language (language parlé et parlant) (The Prose of the World, p 17-22 {Fr. ed.}). Spoken language (le language parlé), or secondary expression, returns to our linguistic baggage, to the cultural heritage that we have acquired, as well as the brute mass of relationships between signs and significations. Speaking language (le language parlant), or primary expression, such as it is, is language in the production of a sense, language at the advent of a thought, at the moment where it makes itself an advent of sense.

It is speaking language, that is to say, primary expression, that interests Merleau-Ponty and which keeps his attention through his treatment of the nature of production and the reception of expressions, a subject which also overlaps with an analysis of action, of intentionality, of perception, as well as the links between freedom and external conditions.

On the subject of painting, Merleau-Ponty claims that at the moment of his creative work, the painter can start with a certain idea and desire to actualise it, or else he can begin with the material in an attempt to release a certain idea or emotion, but in each case, there is, in the activity of painting, a pregnancy between the elaboration of expression and the sense that is created (trans? - une prégnance de l’élaboration de l’expression avec le sens qui est mis en œuvre). Beginning with this basic description, Merleau-Ponty attempts to explicate the invariant structures that characterise expressivity, attempting to take account of the over-determination of sense that he had described in "Cezanne's Doubt".

Among the structures to consider, the study of the notion of style occupies an important place in "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence". In spite of certain similarities with André Malraux, Merleau-Ponty distinguishes himself from Malraux in respect to three conceptions of style, the last of which is employed in Malraux's "The Voices of Silence". Merleau-Ponty remarks that in this work, "style" is sometimes used by Malraux in a highly subjective sense, understood as a projection of the artist's individuality. Sometimes it is used, on the contrary, in a very metaphysical sense (in Merleau-Ponty's opinion, a mystical sense), in which style is connected with a conception of an "über-artist" expressing "the Spirit of painting". Finally, it sometimes is reduced to simply designating a categorisation of an artistic school or movement.

For Merleau-Ponty, it is these uses of the notion of style that lead Malraux to postulate a cleavage between the objectivity of Italian Renaissance painting and the subjectivity of painting in his own time, a conclusion that Merleau-Ponty disputes. According to Merleau-Ponty, it is important to consider the heart of this problematic, by recognizing that style is first of all a demand owed to the primacy of perception, which also implies taking into consideration the dimensions of historicity and intersubjectivity.

History and Intersubjectivity[]


In his essay "Cézanne's Doubt", in which he identifies Cézanne's Impressionistic theory of painting as analogous to his own concept of radical reflection, the attempt to return to, and reflect on, prereflective consciousnes, Merleau-Ponty identifies science as the opposite of art. In Merleau-Ponty's account, while art is an attempt to capture an individual's perception, science is anti-individualistic. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty presents a phenomenological objection to positivism: that it can tell us nothing about human subjectivity. All that a scientific text can explain is the particular individual experience of that scientist, which cannot be transcended.


"[My] past, though not a fate, has at least a specific weight and is not a set of events over there, at a distance from me, but the atmosphere of my present.” (Phenomenology of Perception)

Sociology and Anthropology[]

Flesh and the Chiasm / Visible and the Invisible[]

The notions of flesh and chiasm and the related ideas of visible and invisible come up mainly in Le visible et l'invisible and the work notes which accompany it (this work was incomplete when Merleau-Ponty died and was published after his death), as well as in lecture notes from a course given at the Collège de France from 1959-1961, and, very briefly, in the preface to Signes. Since these notions had not yet been fully developed, it is not always easy to work out exactly what Merleau-Ponty meant. However, without going into issues of interpretation, there are nonetheless certain elements which are generally agreed by specialists in the area and therefore worth outlining.

First of all, we should note that these notions are introduced to overcome certain divisions which were current at the time. So, for example, when Merleau-Ponty says that 'all consciousness is perceptive consciousness' he recognises a primordial interrelation of perceiving and perceived, something which is sometimes expressed as the reversibility of touching and being touched. Similarly, in his discussion of the body, Merleau-Ponty suggests a corporeal consciousness and corporeal intentionality. These categories of subject/world, or body/consciousness have often been thought in terms of duality. The notion of flesh, like that of chiasm, comes as a way of naming the complex relations between these terms. As for the terms 'visible' and 'invisible', these are linked to the question of meaning.

According to Merleau-Ponty's argument, there is no clear-cut distinction between being and ways of appearing. Despite the attention he pays to Heidegger's work, which he discusses frequently during this period, Merleau-Ponty does not support Heidegger's metaphysics. For Merleau-Ponty, the question of meaning does not come from a dualist ontology of appearance and being. Rather, it is a certain reversibility of the visible and the invisible which must be understood: the visible is not the opposite of the invisible (in this, Merleau-Ponty also distances himself from the Sartrean ontology of L'Être et le néant) but rather its doubling, its 'profondeur charnelle'. What is at stake, is an underlining of the interrelations of signs and meanings. Meanings are not subordinated to signs, nor vice versa.

As a result of all this, the idea of meaning cannot be attributed purely to ideas. There is also an inherent materiality in meaning. For example, in L’œil et l’esprit Merleau-Ponty notes that if a painting is torn apart, it no longer has meaning but is rather returned to strips of canvas.


Contemporary influence[]

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 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, this association was extended, if only partially, to another strand of anti-cognitivist cognitive science: embodied or enactive cognitive science.

It was through this relationship with Merleau-Ponty's work that cognitive science's affair with phenomenology was born, which is represented by a growing number of works, including Andy Clark's Being There (1997), the collection Naturalizing Phenomenology edited by Petitot et al. (1999), Alva Noë's Action in Perception (2004), Shaun Gallagher's How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005), and the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.

Feminist philosophy[]

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.

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.)

Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of the body has also been taken up by Iris Young in her renowned essay "Throwing Like a Girl", and its follow-up, "'Throwing Like a Girl': Twenty Years Later." Young analyzes the particular modalities of feminine bodily comportment as they differ from that of males. Young observes that while a man who throws a ball puts his whole body into the motion, a woman throwing a ball generally restricts her own movements as she makes them, and that, generally, in sports, women move in a more tentative, reactive way. Merleau-Ponty argues that we experience the world in terms of the "I can"-- that is, oriented towards certain projects based on our capacity and habituality. Young's thesis is that in women, this intentionality is inhibited and ambivalent, rather than confident.


Ecophenomenology can be described as the pursuit of the relationalities of worldly engagement, both human and those of other creatures (Brown & Toadvine 2003).

This engagement is situated in a kind of middle ground of relationality, a space governed exclusively neither by causality, nor by intentionality. In this space of in-betweenness phenomenology can overcome its inaugural opposition to naturalism.[1]

David Abram explains Merleau-Ponty's concept of "the Flesh" as "the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity."[2] This concept unites subject and object dialectically as determinations within a more primordial reality. Merleau-Ponty himself refers to "that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break; it has neither the tight construction of the mechanism nor the transparency of a whole which precedes its parts."[3]


The following table gives a selection of Merleau-Ponty's works in French and English translation. A much more comprehensive bibliography can be found on this page, at the Merleau-Ponty Circle website linked below.

Year Original French English Translation
1942 La Structure du comportement (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1942) The Structure of Behavior trans. by Alden Fisher, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963; London: Methuen, 1965).
1945 Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945) Phenomenology of Perception trans. by Colin Smith, (New York: Humanities Press, 1962) and (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962) translation revised by Forrest Williams, 1981; reprinted, 2002)
1947 Humanisme et terreur, essai sur le problème communiste (Paris: Gallimard, 1947) Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem trans. by John O'Neill, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969)
1948 Sens et non-sens (Paris: Nagel, 1948, 1966) Sense and Non-Sense trans. by Herbert Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964).
1951 Les Relations avec autrui chez l’enfant (Paris: Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1951, 1975) 'The Child’s Relations with Others' trans. by William Cobb, in The Primacy of Perception ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 96-155.
1953 Éloge de la Philosophie, Lecon inaugurale faite au Collége de France, Le jeudi 15 janvier 1953 (Paris: Gallimard, 1953) In Praise of Philosophy trans. by John Wild and James Edie, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1963)
1955 Les aventures de la dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1955) Adventures of the Dialectic trans. by Joseph Bien, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1974)
1958 Les Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie (Paris: Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1958, 1975) 'Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man' trans. by John Wild in The Primacy of Perception ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 43-95.
1960 Éloge de la Philosophie et autres essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1960) -
1960 Signes (Paris: Gallimard, 1960) Signs trans. by Richard McCleary, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964).
1964 L’Œil et l’esprit (Paris: Gallimard, 1964) 'Eye and Mind' trans. by Carleton Dallery in The Primacy of Perception ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 159-190. Revised translation by Michael Smith in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader (1993), 121-149.
1964 Le Visible et l’invisible, suivi de notes de travail Edited by Claude Lefort (Paris: Gallimard, 1964) The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes trans. by Alphonso Lingis, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
1968 Résumés de cours, Collège de France 1952-1960 (Paris: Gallimard, 1968) Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952-1960 trans. by John O’Neill, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
1969 La Prose du monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1969) The Prose of the World trans. by John O’Neill (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1974


  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Conscience and language acquisition: Bulletin de Psychologie 18(3-6) 1964, 226-259.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Structure and conflicts of the child's conscience: Bulletin de Psychologie 18(3-6) 1964, 171-202.


  • Clark, A. 1997. Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Gallagher, S. 2003. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Noë, A. Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Petitot, J., Varela, F., Pachoud, B. and Roy, J-M. (eds.). 1999. Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Abram, D. (1988) "Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth." Environmental Ethics 10, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 101-20.


  1. Charles Brown and Ted Toadvine, (Eds) (2003). Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself, Albany: SUNY Press.
  2. Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than Human World, 66, Pantheon Books, New York.
  3. (1970) The Concept of Nature, I, Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952-1960, 65-66, Northwestern University Press.

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