Maurice Merleau-Ponty Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.’”