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.
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 probably occurred before his sudden death in May of 1961, because a Catholic Mass was said at his funeral.
According to 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 Merleau-Ponty was still very young is thought to have affected him immeasurably. He became extremely close to his mother and remained completely devoted to her until her death only a few years before 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 de philosophie (a difficult postgraduate examination for teaching positions at lycées and universities in France) 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.
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, The Structure of Behavior. 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. Although 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 a 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: The Phenomenology of Perception. This second book examined what he viewed as traditional prejudices 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 Ricœur, “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...
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