Maurice Merleau-Ponty Essay - Critical Essays

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice


Maurice Merleau-Ponty 1908-1961

French philosopher.

The following entry provides criticism on Merleau-Ponty's works from 1966 through 1999.

Merleau-Ponty is often described as the most important French philosopher of the twentieth century. This evaluation, which relegates such commanding thinkers as Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre to a lesser standing in the history of modern French thought, is based primarily on two works: Merleau-Ponty's early treatise La Phénoménologie de la perception (1945; The Phenomenology of Perception) and the late work, left unfinished at the time of his death, Le visible et l'invisible (1964; The Visible and the Invisible). While these works present diverse and difficult philosophical concepts, commentators observe that these qualities were characteristic of Merleau-Ponty as a philosopher whose thought did not conform to the rigid system-building of such thinkers as G. W. F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heigdegger. Merleau-Ponty's ideas often inspired reactions to and revisions of their works. Critics find one source of the difficulty in analyzing Merleau-Ponty's philosophy in his ambition to avoid the common dualities of mind versus body and reason versus experience that occupied earlier philosophers, problems he regarded as literally defying explication in any but the most complex and ambiguous terms.

Biographical Information

Merleau-Ponty was born March 14, 1908, in Rochefort-sur-Mer, France. He was educated at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly and the Lycée-le-Grand before entering the Ecole Normale Supériore, where in 1930 he passed the aggregation exams in philosophy. From 1931 until 1944 he taught at lycées in Beauvais, Chartres, and Paris, completing during this time La Structure du comportement (1942; The Structure of Behavior) for his doctorate. After serving as an officer in the French army at the start of World War II, he taught philosophy at the Université de Lyon and later child psychology at the Sorbonne. Following the end of the war, Merleau-Ponty assisted in founding, along with Sartre and other prominent French intellectual and literary figures, Les Temps Modernes, which soon became the leading forum for political, philosophical, and artistic discussion in France. Initially drawn to the project because of the interest in Marxism that he shared with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty ultimately withdrew from participation in the journal when he rejected the Marxist historical dialectic, which he came to view as necessarily culminating in the abuses of Joseph Stalin's Soviet regime. In 1952 he was appointed to fill the chair of philosophy at the Collège de France, an honorific position to which was attached the sole obligation of giving an annual series of lectures. Merleau-Ponty's last book-length work published in his lifetime was an attack on Sartre. He died in 1961 while working on The Visible and the Invisible.

Major Works

While Merleau-Ponty's thought is most often associated with the modern school of phenomenology, his major works significantly distinguish him from the principal concepts that characterize this philosophical movement. Profoundly inspired by the writings of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who is widely named as the originator of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty differed from his predecessor by denying that the world of phenomena can only be comprehended and described from a perspective of “pure consciousness,” which was separated from the objects of which it was conscious. By contrast, Merleau-Ponty's studies in psychology and human behavior, as well as his inclusion of art and politics as integral to philosophical matters, led him to posit a less definite schema. That is, individuals are involved, not apart from the complex of phenomena, and are engaged in affecting and being affected by each other and by the world around them.

In The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty examines such psychological movements as behaviorism and Gestalt—a theory concerned with the human perception of stimuli organized into patterns—with regard to plant, animal, and human behavior. In this work Merleau-Ponty denounces both purely casual theories and rationalist explanations of behavior as inadequate, arguing that man is not merely a reactor to the world, nor is the world only a creation of the human mind. Rather, Merleau-Ponty proposes, man exists in a relationship with his environment in which each partially determined the other. The Phenomenology of Perception, which many critics consider his major work, begins with a preface and lengthy introduction by the author, the former summarizing Merleau-Ponty's version of phenomenological ideas and procedures, the latter discussing what the author calls the “phenomenal field.” Having established his foundation, Merleau-Ponty goes on to discuss his main theme—man's bodily being as the source of meaning and as such the core of human existence. In doing so, Merleau-Ponty deals with such topics as the relation between physical sensation and overall perception, how human perception—both preconscious and conscious—functions, and how conscious existence has its base in preconscious, physical existence. In his third book, Humanisme et terreur (1947; Humanism and Terror), Merleau-Ponty presents a possible justification for the terrorism of the Moscow Trials, and for revolutionary violence in general. Portraying Stalin's rivals within the Communist party as potential threats to the unity and strength of Russia during World War II, Merleau-Ponty suggests that the violence against them may be seen as necessary to the success both of the Soviet proletariet revolution and of the U.S.S.R.'s opposition to Nazi Germany. He further proposes that aggression resulting in a less violent and more egalitarian future might be excusable, and perhaps more justifiable than a policy of nonviolence that perpetuates established violence or invites oppression. Among Merleau-Ponty's other works are several collections of essays, including Sens et non-sens (1948; Sense and Non-sense), Les Aventures de la dialectique (1955; Adventures of the Dialectic, and Signes (1960; Signs); and writings such as La Prose du monde (1968; The Prose of the World) and The Visible and the Invisible, which was left unfinished at the author's death.

Critical Reception

For commentators on Merleau-Ponty's work, the fact that he never developed a definable system of thought, and indeed remained averse to definitive propositions that would purport to offer an ultimate model of existence in general and human experience in particular, leaves open more than the usual diversity of interpretations of his thought. There is general agreement, nevertheless, that The Phenomenology of Perception stands as his philosophical masterwork, however enticing and promising the ideas advanced in The Visible and the Invisible may be. In describing the direction of his later work, Hugh J. Silverman and James Barry, Jr. have observed that toward the end of his life “Merleau-Ponty was moving toward a fundamental ontology—inspired by a rereading of Heidegger. He also sought to open a space for his new theory of visibility—his account of a philosophy oriented toward the fabric of contemporary existence. He called this orientation ‘non-philosophy.’”

Principal Works

La Structure du comportement [The Structure of Behavior] (philosophy) 1942

La Phénoménologie de la perception [The Phenomenology of Perception] (philosophy) 1945

Humanisme et terreur: Essai sur le problème communiste [Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem] (philosophy) 1947

Sens et non-sens [Sense and Non-Sense] (philosophy) 1948

Éloge de la Philosophie, Leçon inaugurale faite au Collége de France [In Praise of Philosophy] (lecture) 1953

Les Aventures de la dialectique [Adventures of the Dialectic] (philosophy) 1955

Les Philosophes célèbres (philosophy) 1956

Les Sciences de l'homme et la phénoménologie (philosophy) 1958

Signes [Signs] (philosophy) 1960

Le Visible et l'invisible [The Visible and the Invisible] (philosophy) 1964

La Prose du monde [The Prose of the World] (philosophy) 1968

The Essential Writings of Merleau-Ponty (philosophy) 1969

Résumés de cours, Collège de France 1952-1960 [Themes from Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952-1960] (lectures) 1970

Existence et dialectique (philosophy) 1971

Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language (philosophy) 1973

Phenomenology, Language and Sociology: Selected Essays of Merleau-Ponty (essays) 1974

Approches phénoménologiques (philosophy) 1981


John F. Bannan (essay date September 1966)

SOURCE: Bannan, John. F. “Merleau-Ponty on God.” International Philosophical Quarterly 6, no. 3 (September 1966): 341-65.

[In the following essay, Bannan discusses Merleau-Ponty's attempts to reconcile religion with philosophy.]

“It is characteristic of man to think God, but this does not mean that God exists.”1 Like Descartes, Merleau-Ponty finds himself with the idea of God. He finds it when he takes an inventory of consciousness, where it stems in some way from the latter's objectivist behavior, always a central philosophical concern for him. He also finds it when he takes an inventory of his time, where it is part of the historical reality of...

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Edward W. Said (essay date January 1967)

SOURCE: Said, Edward W. “Labyrinth of Incarnations: The Essays of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” Kenyon Review 29, no. 1 (January 1967): 54-68.

[In the following essay, Said explores Merleau-Ponty's place in post-1930s French philosophy.]

According to Emile Brehier, the distinguished philosopher and historian of philosophy, the major task faced by French thinkers of the early twentieth century was to re-situate man in what he aptly describes as “the circuit of reality.” The theories of which Bergson and Durkheim, for example, were heirs had isolated man in a limbo, in order that “reality,” or whatever was left when man was lifted aside, could be studied....

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Albert Rabil, Jr. (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Rabil, Albert, Jr. “Merleau-Ponty and Sartrian Existentialism—Political and Philosophical.” In Merleau-Ponty: Existentialist of the Social World, pp. 116-40. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Rabil examines Merleau-Ponty's response to French existentialism.]

We are condemned to freedom.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

Hell is other people.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

We are condemned to meaning.



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Richard L. Lanigan (essay date winter 1969)

SOURCE: Lanigan, Richard L. “Rhetorical Criticism: An Interpretation of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 2, no. 1 (winter 1969): 61-71.

[In the following essay, Lanigan discusses Merleau-Ponty's influence on the study of rhetorical inquiry.]

Traditional methods of rhetorical criticism are being echoed in the contemporary analytic and descriptive techniques of critics who focus upon the structural and stylistic elements of discourse1 or upon the “rhetorical situation.”2 In either case, the causal paradigm for investigation and prediction is an account of “audience” attitude and demography. Thus, the functional critic...

(The entire section is 3961 words.)

James H. Charlesworth (essay date June 1970)

SOURCE: Charlesworth, James H. “Reflections on Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Description of ‘Word.’” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 30, no. 4 (June 1970): 609-13.

[In the following essay, Charlesworth examines Merleau-Ponty's concept of words and their meanings.]

What is a word? What is the relation of word to thought? Where do words come from? What is the place of words in our lives? These are some of the questions which will be confronted in the following pages. There are two interrelated sections of this essay: the first is a dialogue with Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological observations, and the second contains a few of my own...

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Don Ihde (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Ihde, Don. “Singing the World: Language and Perception.” In The Horizons of the Flesh: Critical Perspectives on the Thought of Merleau-Ponty, edited by Garth Gillian, pp. 61-77. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Ihde discusses Merleau-Ponty's theories of phenomenology.]

Phenomenology is a revolution in man's understanding of himself and his world. But the newness and radicality of this revolution is faced with a problem, the same problem which arises in the epiphany of any new phenomenon. What phenomenology has to say must be made understandable—but what it has to say is such that it cannot be said easily in a...

(The entire section is 6280 words.)

K. M. Dolgov (essay date winter 1975)

SOURCE: Dolgov, K. M. “The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” Soviet Studies in Philosophy 14, no. 3 (winter 1975): 67-92.

[In the following essay, Dolgov presents an overview of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological and aesthetic system of thought.]

Maurice Merleau-Ponty enjoys a special place among contemporary French bourgeois philosophers and aestheticians. Statements by Sartre, Camus, Hyppolite, Dufrenne, Ricoeur, Geroux, Lévi-Strauss, and others show that they experienced (and some continue to this day to experience) in one way or another the influence of this philosopher. For example, all French phenomenologists and existentialists recognize...

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James M. Edie (essay date July 1975)

SOURCE: Edie, James M. “The Significance of Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy of Language.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 13, no. 3 (July 1975): 385-98.

[In the following essay, Edie examines the continuing significance of Merleau-Ponty's unfinished philosophical system.]

It is now more than fourteen years since we first heard of the untimely death of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. To me, and I am sure to many others, it seems much longer. Merleau-Ponty has already entered the history of philosophy. Though his Nachlass is still being published, and not all of his writings have yet appeared in English translation, philosophers of our generation had already enshrined...

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Hugh J. Silverman (essay date fall 1976)

SOURCE: Silverman, Hugh J. “Re-Reading Merleau-Ponty.”1Telos, no. 29 (fall 1976): 106-29.

[In the following essay, Silverman argues that Merleau-Ponty's last publication, Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Hegel, serves as a criticism of his earlier thought and a bridge from modernism to postmodernism.]

In Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Hegel, Merleau-Ponty reassesses the European philosophical tradition which highlights the names of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. His problematic is the status of philosophy in relation to its non-philosophical sources and goals. I shall propose that Philosophy...

(The entire section is 11722 words.)

Margaret Urban Coyne (essay date September 1980)

SOURCE: Coyne, Margaret Urban. “Merleau-Ponty on Language: An Interrupted Journey toward a Phenomenology of Speaking.” International Philosophical Quarterly 20, no. 3 (September 1980): 307-26.

[In the following essay, Coyne discusses Merleau-Ponty's attempts to create a “gestural” theory of linguistics.]

At Merleau-Ponty's untimely death in 1961, his published works reflected a growing preoccupation with language and meaning as a central problem of philosophy. Indeed, his ambitious attempt to recapture the peculiar significance of the act of speech and the status of language as a unique cultural instrument seems to become the main focus of his larger project,...

(The entire section is 9843 words.)

Bernard P. Dauenhauer (essay date December 1980)

SOURCE: Dauenhauer, Bernard P. “One Central Link between Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy of Language and His Political Thought.” Tulane Studies in Philosophy 29 (December 1980): 57-80.

[In the following essay, Dauenhauer examines the place of silence in both Merleau-Ponty's linguistic theories and his thoughts on political action.]

Through much of his career, Merleau-Ponty was concerned both with the topic of language and with the topic of politics. But he himself never explicitly connected these two strands of thought. Nonetheless, at least one central link binds these strands together and, in so doing, strengthens each of them. This link is provided by his recognition...

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John D. Glenn, Jr. (essay date December 1980)

SOURCE: Glenn, John D., Jr. “Merleau-Ponty's Existential Dialectic.” Tulane Studies in Philosophy 29 (December 1980): 81-93.

[In the following essay, Glenn discusses Merleau-Ponty's existential dialectic in terms of “mind and body, of temporality, and of human freedom.”]

There are many respects in which the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty can be described as dialectical.1 His first two major works, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, often proceed dialectically, posing and then undercutting traditional views on the nature of and relation between man and world. More significant, of course, is the positive philosophical...

(The entire section is 3937 words.)

David Michael Levin (essay date winter 1982)

SOURCE: Levin, David Michael. “Sanity and Myth in Affective Space: A Discussion of Merleau-Ponty.” Philosophical Forum 14, no. 2 (winter 1982): 157-89.

[In the following essay, Levin questions the notions of objective space and metaphysical reality in Merleau-Ponty's theories.]

[E]very culture which has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Section XXIII

The mythos is that appeal of foremost and radical concern to all human beings...

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Paul Crowther (essay date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Crowther, Paul. “Merleau-Ponty: Perception into Art.” British Journal of Aesthetics 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 138-49.

[In the following essay, Crowther explores the significance of Merleau-Ponty's theories of phenomenology to the creation and study of art.]

Since Heidegger's Being and Time, the fundamental intent of phenomenology has been to burrow beneath the edifices of abstract knowledge (such as science or traditional philosophy) with a view to expressing a more primordial contact with the world—a contact which is presupposed but ill understood by abstract reflection. In a sense, Merleau-Ponty gives us a paradigm for the application of such...

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Robert D. Walsh (essay date fall 1983)

SOURCE: Walsh, Robert D. “An Organism of Words: Ruminations on the Philosophical-Poetics of Merleau-Ponty.” Kinesis 14, no. 1 (fall 1984): 13-41.

[In the following essay, originally presented to the Eastern Pennsylvania Philosophical Association in 1983, Walsh emphasizes the role of the Nietzschian idea of rumination in Merleau-Ponty's theory of phenomenology.]


The title of this paper is a phrase found in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception.1 It is used there to indicate the originary element of authentic language. It also suggests, however, a way of entering...

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Bernard Charles Flynn (essay date May 1984)

SOURCE: Flynn, Bernard Charles. “Textuality and the Flesh: Derrida and Merleau-Ponty.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 15, no. 2 (May 1984): 164-79.

[In the following essay, Flynn suggests what he terms “correspondences” between Merleau-Ponty's late writings and certain features of the work of French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.]

The title of this essay obviously suggests a comparison, a comparison which at first glance seems highly unlikely. Merleau-Ponty is the author of an essay entitled “The Primacy of Perception,”1 and Derrida is the author of the statement, “I don't know what perception is and I don't believe that...

(The entire section is 7770 words.)

John D. Glenn, Jr. (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Glenn, John D., Jr. “The Behaviorism of a Phenomenologist—The Structure of Behavior and The Concept of Mind.Philosophical Topics 13, no. 2 (spring 1985): 247-56.

[In the following essay, Glenn argues in favor of the primacy of Merleau-Ponty's critique of scientific behaviorism in the study of his later development of phenomenology.]

For some years, studies of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy tended to concentrate on his second book Phenomenology of Perception. Recently, interest has shifted more toward his later work—particularly the posthumously-published The Visible and the Invisible. In any event, less attention has been given...

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Hugh J. Silverman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Silverman, Hugh J. “Between Merleau-Ponty and Postmodernism.” In Merleau-Ponty, Hermeneutics, and Postmodernism, edited by Thomas W. Busch and Shaun Gallagher, pp. 139-47. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[In the following essay, Silverman examines Merleau-Ponty's role in postmodernist theory.]

In Merleau-Ponty's day, there would not have been a discourse about the question of Postmodernism.1 In Merleau-Ponty's day, there would not have been an issue about his relation to Deconstruction. In Merleau-Ponty's day, the issue of a post-hermeneutics or even a post-structuralism would not have occupied any attention at all. When Merleau-Ponty...

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Joseph Margolis (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Margolis, Joseph. “Merleau-Ponty and Postmodernism.” In Merleau-Ponty, Hermeneutics, and Postmodernism, edited by Thomas W. Busch and Shaun Gallagher, pp. 241-56. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[In the following essay, Margolis discusses Merleau-Ponty's legacy to postmodernism.]

One cannot report the relationship between postmodernism and the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: there is none, certainly there is none in the ordinary sense in which Jean-François Lyotard embraces postmodernism and Jürgen Habermas rejects it.1 Furthermore, even under the constraint of philosophical relevance, postmodernism is as much a puzzle as a would-be...

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Michael Gardiner (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘The Incomparable Monster of Solipsism’: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty.” In Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words, edited by Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Michael Gardiner, pp. 128-44. London: SAGE Publications, 1998.

[In the following essay, Gardiner explores affinities between the work of Merleau-Ponty and that of Mikhail Bakhtin.]

Not only do we have a right to assert that others exist, but I should be inclined to contend that existence can be attributed only to others, and in virtue of their otherness, and that I cannot think of myself as existing except in so far as I conceive of myself as not being the others: and so as other...

(The entire section is 7899 words.)

Lawrence Hass (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Hass, Lawrence. “Sense and Alterity: Rereading Merleau-Ponty's Reversibility Thesis.” In Merleau-Ponty, Interiority and Exteriority, Psychic Life and the World, edited by Dorothea Olkowski and James Morley, pp. 91-105. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Hass argues that a thorough understanding of Merleau-Ponty's reversibility thesis is fundamental to grasping his overall theories of phenomenology.]

When I find again the actual world such as it is, under my hands, under my eyes, up against my body, I find much more than an object: [I find] a Being of which my vision is a part, a visibility older...

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Further Reading


Froman, Wayne Jeffrey. “Language as Original Content of Perception.” In Merleau-Ponty: Language and the Act of Speech, pp. 73-100. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1976.

Examines Merleau-Ponty's theory of perception.

Gillian, Garth. “In the Folds of the Flesh: Philosophy and Language.” In The Horizons of the Flesh: Critical Perspectives on the Thought of Merleau-Ponty, pp. 1-60. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Discusses Merleau-Ponty's theories on meaning in both verbal and behavioral expression.

Primozic, Daniel T. On Merleau-Ponty....

(The entire section is 128 words.)