Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born 14 March 1908, before the first World War. As with many of his generation, Merleau-Ponty lost his father to the war. Unfortunately, much of European philosopher emerged from the ruins of the two World Wars and the horrors of these conflicts.
Following World War II, Merleau-Ponty emerged as one of the leading French philosophers. He was closely associated with his former classmate, Jean-Paul Sartre, who had introduced Merleau-Ponty to the writings of Edmund Husserl. Merleau-Ponty would spend most of his career working to refine phenomenology, the study of human perceptions.
Few philosophers dared match wits with Jean-Paul Sartre, but Merleau-Ponty was always up to the task. The two enjoyed long discussions, with Merleau-Ponty and Sartre often agreeing on all but the most minor of points.
In the years following World War II, Merleau-Ponty defended the Soviet Union, to the point of defending the Moscow Trials and Soviet purges. Eventually, though, he could no longer defend the Soviet Union and its abuse of power in the name of communism. Merleau-Ponty’s split from Sartre, much like the more famous split between Camus and Sartre, was a result of Sartre’s unflinching defense of the Soviet Union and its cruelty toward its own citizens. The actions of the USSR against satellite nations only aggravated the opinions of many dedicated socialists, like Merleau-Ponty. Until his death, Merleau-Ponty remained a Marxist, but a critic of the Soviet Communist party.

Creating Mrs. Orwell

Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of a mistress might have resulted in her marriage to George Orwell. It was a short, unromantic marriage, at that.
This information first came to my attention in the New York Times book news, 14 June 2003. Reviewed by Stacy Schiff, a biography of Sonia Brownell came to my attention. The book, The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, by Hilary Spurling, paints an interesting picture of Merleau-Ponty, which has me intrigued. Apparently, Merleau-Ponty was charming… like Camus and Sartre. With popularity comes certain perks.
The Orwells were married for 14 weeks, a fact that increased my curiousity regarding Merleau-Ponty’s potential role in the matter. George Orwell was a bed-ridden invalid when he proposed to and married Sonia. Why would a woman marry a man not able to leave the hospital? Even the wedding party was held, following a hospital ceremony, at a hotel without the groom. What made Sonia marry someone without necessarily loving him? Pity or a broken heart?
Spurling’s biography of Sonia Orwell describes Merleau-Ponty as charismatic. “Jilted” by Merleau-Ponty, Sonia accepted a proposal from Orwell, for whom she had been a babysitter and typist. Sonia apparently attracted scandal, since her second husband had been a defendant in a trial for homosexuality. She continued to miss Merleau-Ponty.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed his existential philosophy by drawing heavily upon the works ofEdmund Husserl. Merleau-Ponty has been categorized as both an phenomenologist and an existentialist, indicating the difficulty of separating the two schools. Each holds as a primary tenet that the individual defines both self and the world experienced. Merleau-Ponty rejected the Western philosophical tradition of ideals and transcendent “truth” to emphasize human experience. For Merleau-Ponty, experience did encompass more than sense / reason: he included nonsense / un-reason.
Merleau-Ponty suggested that philosophers, scientists, and educators of all manner, were limited by their own physical existences and experiences. One of the challenges presented by Merleau-Ponty is that while he thought science and emperical data were paths towards the truth, he also rejected the notion that science, as a set of methods, could discover philosophical truths. As Continental philosophers were rejecting “scientism” in the aftermath of the two World Wars, Merleau-Ponty was suggesting there was still a value in science, but not in science alone.

Immediate Experience: The Lebenswelt

It was Merleau-Ponty’s contention that science and too much abstraction had resulted in a philosophical tendency to reduce every phenomena, every object, every person to nothing more than collected data. Merleau-Ponty believed that philosophers had a duty to relate things as they were viewed, not as science described them.
We must return to the Lebenswelt, the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, our immediate experience of the world.
In contrast to Sartre’s contention “we are condemned to freedom,” Merleau-Ponty stated “we are condemned to meaning.” According to his theories, since we are only able to know ourselves based upon the input of others, all our actions, thoughts, and statements define us and have historical consequences. In accordance with the idea that true human nature never ceases to change, Merleau-Ponty described philosophy as “like art, the act of bringing truth into being.”

Body and Subject

For Merleau-Ponty, people are both bodies and subjects of thought. The act of self-contemplation is not the same as the tradutional dualism of mind-body; Merleau-Ponty is not discussing the “spirit” when he writes of the body-subject. There is a curious ambiguity, a tension, between bodily existence and the self as a subject of contemplation. The body-self relationship cannot be severed, yet the two are not one thing. Unity was also considered by Merleau-Ponty when he wrote on the relationships of thought-to-speech and fact-to-value.
You must exist physically before you can think about what it means to exist. This extends the notion of self-definition to recognize that you first need a physical body and brain before you can create an “essence” that is you. Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Phenomenology of Perception:
It is the definition of the human body to appropriate in an indefinite series of non-continuous acts “centers of meaning” which go beyond its natural powers and transform it.
Our thoughts move us to act physically. The complication is that even our thought process is a physical, concrete process of chemical and electrical signals in the brain. Without the physical, there is no self-conception. If self-conception itself is a physical act, then we are always at risk of reducing our view of humanity to the empirical study of the brain.
About the only thing clear in Merleau-Ponty’s view is that nothing can be certain. We struggle to define terms like “self” and “body” which are the very basis for philosophy. If we cannot define “person” without creating a tangled web of relationships, then nothing else can be reduced to an ideal. It would seem the one thing we should know, ourselves, is impossible to know.
In The Structure of Behavior, a study of psychological theories, Merleau-Ponty wrote that his aim was “to understand the relations of consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social.” According to Merleau-Ponty, humans and our world are interconnected: neither causes the other, instead we shape and are shaped by our environment. Furthermore, we have both a natural (predefined) existence and the ability to change that nature via conscious choice.
[If] one understands by perception the act which makes us know existences, all the problems we have just touched on [in the book] are reducible to the problem of perception.

The Phenomenology of Perception

Merleau-Ponty’s Primacy of Perception, published in 1945, further explained his theory of perception.
[Our experience of perception comes from our being present] at the moment when things, truths, and values are constituted for us; that perception is a nascent Logos; that it teaches us, outside of all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself; that is summons us to the tasks of knowledge and action. It is not a question of reducing human knowledge to sensation, but of assisting at the birth of this knowledge, to make it as sensible as the sensible, to recover the consciousness of rationality. This experience of rationality is lost when we take it for granted as self-evident, but is, on the contrary, rediscovered when it is made to appear against the background of non-human nature.
Merleau-Ponty’s theories were advanced in his major work The Phenomenology of Perception. The text opens with a preface and long introduction. Merleau-Ponty used these pages to explain his phenomenology, including both its concepts and procedures. Again, Merleau-Ponty was setting his approach apart from that of Husserl.
Phenomenology, as proposed by Merleau-Ponty, is concerned primary with physical existence. The human body, and its perceptions, is the way we relate to and understand existence. Merleau-Ponty suggested meaning therefore begins with perception. Because meaning begins with perception, Merleau-Ponty found it necessary to discuss how perception works. Perception starts, according to Merleau-Ponty, with the preconscious moment the external comes into contact with the body. The conscious interpretation of input, as neurologists have affirmed, follows the experience by a significant lapse.

Free Will

Merleau-Ponty did not advocate a concept of “absolute free will” in his works. Instead, there are limitations on human choice. The Phenomenology of Perception served to illustrate differences between Jean-Paul Sartre’s understanding of free will and that of Merleau-Ponty. Though a simplification, it has been suggested that Sartre’s “free will” is always absolute. As Albert Camus and others have written, the radical interpretation is that even choosing to live each day is a choice. For Merleau-Ponty, the suggestion that reality is created by individuals was too simplistic. Sartre, according to Merleau-Ponty, was too quick to imply that the only obstacles one faces are created by the individual. Absolute free will is impossible, Merleau-Ponty believed, because real barriers to choice are all around us.
In The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty developed the argument that humans are “situated” within their environments. There are physical and cultural limits on choice. While Sartre argued one can always reject such limits, especially cultural limits, Merleau-Ponty proposed conditional free will. People can act on their environments, and via these constant interactions the individual and the environment are changed.
Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Phenomenology of Perception:
The view which we oppose [Sartre’s] is wrong in that it pays attention only to our intellectual projects, and does not take into account the existential projects which polarize life toward a purpose in which being-determined and being-undetermined fuse.

Terrorism and Marxism

Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror is a troubling book. It is difficult to comment on Merleau-Ponty’s defenses of the Soviet Union without reflecting the biases that time affords: we know the Soviet Union to have been a cruel, oppressive power and not a model of Marxist ideals. The French Left embraced Marxism and the Communist Party in ways that might defy explanation, until one considers the absolute destruction of the two World Wars on the Continent. People were left with nothing; socialism promised to provide for everyone. The Soviet Union became the idealized model for socialists.
The question posed by Merleau-Ponty, in the context of Marxism, is if violence can be justified in the name of revolution. The difficulty for Merleau-Ponty is that he did not ask this about a full-scale revolution against injustices, but rather in the context of Soviet Stalinist purges. According toHumanism and Terror, terror might be justified by history if the Marxist ideal were realized by the Soviet Union.
In 1938, the Soviet Union, under the iron-fisted leadership of the dictator Joseph Stalin, began a series of show trials to purge the Communist Party of individuals Stalin feared would challenge his authority. This was following the the footsteps of Lenin, and it might be considered evidence that Russia had only traded one style of authoritarian rule for another. Stalin managed to have tried and executed numerous high-ranking Communist Party officials, most charged with treason and crimes against the people.
Merleau-Ponty thought it was necessary to first refute Arthur Koestler’s interpretation of events, which appeared in Darkness at Noon. For Merleau-Ponty, the trials could have been part of the Marxist evolution of history. In other words, the Moscow Trials were merely a step, a phase like capitalism or feudalism, as the Soviet Union matured towards utopia. Of course, this all had much less to do with Karl Marx than basic modern politics.
Today it seems shocking, but in Humanism and Terror Merleau-Ponty casts Stalin’s rivals as threats to the Soviet Union and even the totality of Europe. Merleau-Ponty suggested that without Soviet unity and Stalin’s leadership, World War II might have been lost to Germany. The text argues that the violence against possible traitors to the Communist Party was, therefore excusable.
Even if the individuals tried and executed were innocent, as many historians believe, Merleau-Ponty argued that the deaths were still possibly minor mistakes that could result in a better Soviet Union at a later date. This argument attempts to either raise the dead to martyrdom or it casts them as meaningless lives that had value only insofar as they were sacrificed to Marxist historical progress. The least tenable argument is that the terror was justified if a more egalitarian society evolved, while other forms of oppression might have continued without the deaths.
For Merleau-Ponty, history was, at best, uncertain and ambiguous. Only as we approach a full century since the Russian Revolution can we look back and pass judgment on the figures involved in shaping the Soviet legacy. However, this line of reasoning would allow one to avoid passing judgment on almost any action, as long as the ultimate aim was an egalitarian society. Later in life, Merleau-Ponty would recognize that actions must be judged in a moral context at all times.
True, we make mistakes and what seems like a good choice can be viewed historically as a disaster. However, the killing of innocent individuals and the use of terror to exercise power seems difficult to justify in any context. Choices are often based on the odds of future results, but humanism seems to demand that we not sacrifice people for a future we cannot predict will be better.


  • La Structure du comportement, Essay: 1942, 1949, rev. 6th ed. 1967
    trans. The Structure of Behavior, 1963
  • Les Relations avec autrui chez l’enfant, Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1958
  • La Phenomenologie de la perception, Essay: 1945, 1976
    trans. The Phenomenology of Perception, 1962
  • Humanisme et terreur: Essai sur le probleme communiste, Essay: 1947
    trans. Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, 1969
  • Sens et non-sens, Essays, Articles: 1948, 1966
    trans. Sense and Non-Sense, 1964
  • Eloge de la philosophie: Lecon inaugural faite au College de France, le jeudi 15 janvier 1953, 1953
    trans. of original In Praise of Philosophy, 1963
    revised as Les Aventures de la dialectique, 1955
    trans. Adventures of the Dialectic, 1973
  • Signes, Essays, Articles: 1960
    trans. Signs, 1964
  • Le Visible et l’ invisible, 1964,
    trans. The Visible and the Invisible, 1968.
  • Resumes de cours, Lectures: 1952—1960
    trans. Themes From the Lectures at the College de France, 1970
  • Perception, Structure, Language, Essays: 1981