Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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Article abstract: Merleau-Ponty, French philosopher and man of letters, was one of the most original and profound thinkers of the postwar French movement of existential phenomenology.

Early Life

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s father died before his son was seven years old, and Maurice, his brother, and his sister were reared in Paris by their mother, a devout Catholic who gave her children a strongly religious upbringing. It was not until the 1930’s that Merleau-Ponty eventually became discontented with the established Church and ceased to practice his faith. At one point in his life, he even admitted to being an atheist but then altered his position to one of agnosticism. His final position with regard to religion is not known; what is clear, however, is that some degree of reconciliation with the Church of his early years must have occurred prior to his sudden death in May of 1961, since a Catholic Mass was said at his funeral.

According to the testimony of his own writings, Merleau-Ponty’s childhood was happy, so happy that his adult years never quite provided him with the same sense of complete fulfillment. The death of his father while the boy was still very young is thought to have affected the boy immeasurably, and as a result he became extremely close to his mother and remained completely devoted to her until her death only a few years prior to his own.

Merleau-Ponty received his secondary education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and then studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. After taking his agrégation in philosophy in 1931, he taught in a lycée at Beauvais for the next five years. He then held a research grant from the Caisse de la Recherche Scientifique for a year and subsequently took up teaching again, this time at the lycée in Chartres. In 1935, he returned to Paris as a junior member of the faculty at the school he had attended, the École Normale.

Life’s Work

In the winter of 1939, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Merleau-Ponty entered the army and served as a lieutenant in the infantry. While in the army, he wrote his first major work, La Structure du comportement (1942; The Structure of Behavior, 1963). Although the work was completed in 1938, when he was thirty years old, because of the war, the book was not published until 1942. Perhaps the most important thesis of this work is Merleau-Ponty’s reinterpretation of the distinctions between the physical, the biological (or vital), and the mental dimensions of existence. These dimensions were treated by him as different levels of conceptualization at which human behavior could be studied, and they were distinguished by the degree to which the concepts used were useful and meaningful. While Merleau-Ponty was very insistent upon the irreducibility of these distinctions, he also maintained that they were logically cumulative, such that biological concepts presuppose physical concepts, and mental concepts presuppose both. Yet, at the same time that he defended this thesis of the logical interdependence of the physical and the mental, Merleau-Ponty rejected in principle all attempts to explain this relationship in causal terms. Merleau-Ponty’s first work, then, was both a sustained and powerful attack on behaviorism in psychology as well as a new philosophical interpretation of the experimental work of the Gestalt psychologists.

After the demobilization of France and during the German Occupation, Merleau-Ponty again returned to teaching and writing. Continuing his critique of traditional psychology, in 1945 he published what was to become his masterwork: Phénoménologie de la perception (1945; Phenomenology of Perception , 1962). This second book examined what he viewed as traditional prejudices...

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regarding perception in order to advance a “return” to things themselves. According to Merleau-Ponty, understanding the body itself involves a theory of perception. One is able to know oneself only through relationships with the world, and the world is not what one thinks it is but what one lives through. Drawing heavily upon, but also modifying, the phenomenological techniques of Edmund Husserl as well as the existential threads in the thought of Gabriel Marcel and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, in this work, begins to construct a personal synthesis, an original philosophical interpretation of human experience. For this reason he is considered to be one of the originators of contemporary existential philosophy and, in the opinion of one of his notable colleagues, Paul Ricoeur, “was the greatest of the French phenomenologists.”

After the Occupation of France ended, Merleau-Ponty joined the faculty of the University of Lyon and at the same time (in 1945) became coeditor of the existentialist periodical Les Temps modernes with Jean-Paul Sartre, a former schoolmate and longtime friend. By 1950, Merleau-Ponty’s reputation was established, and he took a position at the Sorbonne as professor of psychology and pedagogy. He was to remain in this post for only two years. Then, in 1952, he was appointed to a chair at the Collège de France. This was the chair that had been left vacant by the death of Louis Lavelle and that had previously been occupied by Henri Bergson and Édouard Le Roy. Merleau-Ponty, in fact, was the youngest philosopher ever to hold this position—one of the more prestigious in French academic life—and he retained it until his death in May, 1961. Merleau-Ponty was happily married to a woman prominent in her own right as a physician and psychiatrist in Paris, and they had one child, a daughter.

All Merleau-Ponty’s work demonstrates a familiarity with both current scientific research and with the history of philosophy, a combination that gives his work a more balanced character than that of the other existentialists. Another of his major concerns was with political and social philosophy as well as the problems of everyday politics. Consequently he wrote numerous newspaper articles on contemporary events and problems. His more sustained essays on Marxist theory and leftist politics, however, were gathered in two collections: Humanisme et terreur (1947; humanism and terror) and Les Aventures de la dialectique (1955; the adventures of the dialectic).

In the former work, Merleau-Ponty leaned so far in the direction of Marxist historicism as to argue that historical undertakings are to be judged retroactively by their success or failure and that to act “historically” is inevitably to submit oneself to this “objective” judgment of events, in which personal intentions, good or bad, are irrelevant. Simultaneously, however, he rejected the orthodox Marxist view that a scientific theory of the logic of historical development is accessible as a basis for such action. The latter work, exhibiting a new direction in the philosopher’s social thought, contains a powerful critique of the French Communist Party, with which he had earlier sympathized. Marxism, in his opinion, was a timely device for thinking about human needs and contingencies in modern industrial society; he, however, rejected its dogmatic rigidity, particularly its claims to predictive power and historical mission, and the nonliberating, totalitarian features that had become associated with it.

Well to the left of Sartre during the 1940’s, Merleau-Ponty was close to the Communists from 1945 to 1950 and played a crucial role in linking existentialist and Marxist thought during that period; by 1955, however, he was no longer engaged in Marxist politics. From 1950 on, Sartre, on the other hand, was moving closer to Marxism. For some years after 1955, Sartre was occupied almost exclusively with the existentialism-Marxism debate, which since 1945 had continued to be an explosive issue in French intellectual and political life. The ideological split with Sartre led to an open break with him and to Merleau-Ponty’s resignation from the editorship of Les Temps modernes. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty’s political views remained decisive for Sartre, as the latter freely admitted in a memoir published after Merleau-Ponty’s death.

Essays and articles on language, literature, the aesthetics of film, and painting were also undertaken by Merleau-Ponty in the busy final decade of his life. In these essays, published as collections entitled Sens et non-sens (1948; Sense and NonSense, 1964) and Signs (1960; English translation, 1964), he sought to work out some of the implications of his thesis on the primacy of perception using Husserl as his fundamental reference point for epistemological grounding and dialogue. Merleau-Ponty had hoped to conclude his analysis of the prereflective life of consciousness with a survey of the major modes of reflective thought in which he would seek to determine their criteria for validity and truth. At the time of his sudden death from a coronary thrombosis in 1961, he had written only incomplete fragments and sketches.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s career included two principal aspects. He was, first, a professional philosopher and teacher of philosophy whose main body of work was done in the field of philosophical psychology and phenomenology. In addition, he was a man of letters who wrote extensively on political and aesthetic subjects and actively participated in the intellectual life of his time. Despite the fact that Merleau-Ponty is sometimes viewed as a kind of junior collaborator of Sartre, both his philosophical work and his more general writings reveal a mind and a mode of thought that developed in a fully independent manner and that are at once very different from Sartre’s and, in terms of intellectual rigor and elegance, often demonstrably superior.

As in the case with other “existentialist” philosophers, there are no “disciples” of Merleau-Ponty in the strict sense of the word, since his method was his life. To adopt his method then, would be to begin to experience the world in a new way, with a new philosophy, and not with a continuation of Merleau-Ponty’s life and thought. Thus it is not by virtue of his existentialism, Marxism, or phenomenology that he has made his greatest contribution, but rather by the extent to which, through each of these, he has been able to illuminate the lived human quality of existence. It is in and through his uniqueness that his impact will be felt most strongly.


Bannan, John F. The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. The aim of Bannan’s excellent and very thorough work is not to locate the thought of Merleau-Ponty among the classic positions in the history of philosophy but to focus upon his more immediate context—his relations with Husserl’s work, with Sartre, and with Marxism. Contains a very brief biographical note on the philosopher.

Dillon, M. C. Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. This well-documented, scholarly work approaches Merleau-Ponty in the historical context out of which Merleau-Ponty’s ontology, his alternative to Cartesian knowledge, arose. This lengthy work also contains an excellent bibliography and extensive notes.

Mallin, Samuel B. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. In this lengthy and scholarly work, the author’s purpose is to provide a unified and comprehensive interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. His method is to analyze extensively the concepts that are central and original to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and the way in which they form an integrated whole. The work also contains a bibliography of primary and secondary sources and an appendix consisting of a table of contents of the philosophy of perception and its integration into the text.

Rabil, Albert, Jr. Merleau-Ponty: Existentialist of the Social World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. In this well-respected and lengthy work, Rabil suggests that in Merleau-Ponty more than any other philosopher a dialectical tension exists in his existentialist preoccupation with self-understanding and the social orientation of the politically minded and the reformer. The author analyzes the sources, the vision and the viability of this “social philosophy.” Contains a bibliography and extensive notes.

Spurling, Laurie. Phenomenology and the Social World: The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and Its Relation to the Social Sciences. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. Spurling argues that Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy can be understood as a dialectic between a discipline and a transcendental impulse and that it is this overall dialectical relationship that offers a coherent perspective on being in the world, especially on those areas of thought often considered to be the exclusive domain of the social sciences. Contains a bibliography and extensive notes.

Whitford, Margaret. Merleau-Ponty’s Critique of Sartre’s Philosophy. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1982. Rather than presenting a straightforward comparison of the two philosophers’ thought, the author of this brief but illuminating book focuses upon the limits of Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Sartre. Cogito, freedom, temporality, others, ontology, phenomenology, and dialectic are the categories discussed.