The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art, and politics. He was on the editorial board of Les Temps modernes, the leftist magazine established by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945.
At the core of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world. Like the other major phenomenologists, Merleau-Ponty expressed his philosophical insights in writings on art, literature, linguistics, and politics. He was the only major phenomenologist of the first half of the twentieth century to engage extensively with the sciences and especially with descriptive psychology. It is through this engagement that his writings have become influential in the recent project of naturalizing phenomenology, in which phenomenologists use the results of psychology and cognitive science.
Merleau-Ponty emphasized the body as the primary site of knowing the world, a corrective to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge, and maintained that the body and that which it perceived could not be disentangled from each other.
The articulation of the primacy of embodiment led him away from phenomenology towards what he was to call “indirect ontology” or the ontology of “the flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), seen in his final and incomplete work, The Visible and Invisible, and his last published essay, “Eye and Mind”.
In his Phenomenology of Perception (first published in French in 1945), Merleau-Ponty developed the concept of the body-subject as an alternative to the Cartesian “cogito.” This distinction is especially important in that Merleau-Ponty perceives the essences of the world existentially. Consciousness, the world, and the human body as a perceiving thing are intricately intertwined and mutually “engaged.” The phenomenal thing is not the unchanging object of the natural sciences, but a correlate of our body and its sensory-motor functions. Taking up and “communing with” (Merleau-Ponty’s phrase) the sensible qualities it encounters, the body as incarnated subjectivity intentionally elaborates things within an ever-present world frame, through use of its pre-conscious, prepredicative understanding of the world’s makeup. The elaboration, however, is “inexhaustible” (the hallmark of any perception according to Merleau-Ponty). Things are that upon which our body has a “grip” (prise), while the grip itself is a function of our connaturality with the world’s things.
The world and the sense of self are emergent phenomena in an ongoing “becoming.”
The essential partiality of our view of things, their being given only in a certain perspective and at a certain moment in time does not diminish their reality, but on the contrary establishes it, as there is no other way for things to be copresent with us and with other things than through such “Abschattungen” (sketches, faint outlines, adumbrations). The thing transcends our view, but is manifest precisely by presenting itself to a range of possible views. The object of perception is immanently tied to its background—to the nexus of meaningful relations among objects within the world. Because the object is inextricably within the world of meaningful relations, each object reflects the other (much in the style of Leibniz’s monads). Through involvement in the world – being-in-the-world – the perceiver tacitly experiences all the perspectives upon that object coming from all the surrounding things of its environment, as well as the potential perspectives that that object has upon the beings around it.
Each object is a “mirror of all others.” Our perception of the object through all perspectives is not that of a propositional, or clearly delineated, perception. Rather, it is an ambiguous perception founded upon the body’s primordial involvement and understanding of the world and of the meanings that constitute the landscape’s perceptual gestalt. Only after we have been integrated within the environment so as to perceive objects as such can we turn our attention toward particular objects within the landscape so as to define them more clearly. This attention, however, does not operate by clarifying what is already seen, but by constructing a new gestalt oriented toward a particular object. Because our bodily involvement with things is always provisional and indeterminate, we encounter meaningful things in a unified though ever open-ended world.
The primacy of perception
From the time of writing Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty wanted to show, in opposition to the idea that drove the tradition beginning with John Locke, that perception was not the causal product of atomic sensations. This atomist-causal conception was being perpetuated in certain psychological currents of the time, particularly in behaviourism. According to Merleau-Ponty, perception has an active dimension, in that it is a primordial openness to the lifeworld (the “Lebenswelt“).
This primordial openness is at the heart of his thesis of the primacy of perception. The slogan of Husserl’s phenomenology is “all consciousness is consciousness of something”, which implies a distinction between “acts of thought” (the noesis) and “intentional objects of thought” (the noema). Thus, the correlation between noesis and noema becomes the first step in the constitution of analyses of consciousness. However, in studying the posthumous manuscripts of Husserl, who remained one of his major influences, Merleau-Ponty remarked that, in their evolution, Husserl’s work brings to light phenomena which are not assimilable to noesis–noema correlation. This is particularly the case when one attends to the phenomena of the body (which is at once body-subject and body-object), subjective time (the consciousness of time is neither an act of consciousness nor an object of thought) and the other (the first considerations of the other in Husserl led to solipsism).
The distinction between “acts of thought” (noesis) and “intentional objects of thought” (noema) does not seem, therefore, to constitute an irreducible ground. It appears rather at a higher level of analysis. Thus, Merleau-Ponty does not postulate that “all consciousness is consciousness of something”, which supposes at the outset a noetic-noematic ground. Instead, he develops the thesis according to which “all consciousness is perceptual consciousness”. In doing so, he establishes a significant turn in the development of phenomenology, indicating that its conceptualisations should be re-examined in the light of the primacy of perception, in weighing up the philosophical consequences of this thesis
Taking the study of perception as his point of departure, Merleau-Ponty was led to recognize that one’s own body (le corps propre) is not only a thing, a potential object of study for science, but is also a permanent condition of experience, a constituent of the perceptual openness to the world.
He therefore underlines the fact that there is an inherence of consciousness and of the body of which the analysis of perception should take account. The primacy of perception signifies a primacy of experience, so to speak, insofar as perception becomes an active and constitutive dimension.
Merleau-Ponty demonstrates a corporeity of consciousness as much as an intentionality of the body, and so stands in contrast with the dualist ontology of mind and body in Descartes, a philosopher to whom Merleau-Ponty continually returned, despite the important differences that separate them. In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty wrote: “Insofar as I have hands, feet; a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent on my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way that I do not choose” (1962, p. 440).
The question concerning corporeity connects also with Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on space (l’espace) and the primacy of the dimension of depth (la profondeur) as implied in the notion of being in the world (être au monde; to echo Heidegger’s In-der-Welt-sein) and of one’s own body (le corps propre).
In his essay “Cézanne’s Doubt”, in which he identifies Paul Cézanne‘s impressionistic theory of painting as analogous to his own concept of radical reflection, the attempt to return to, and reflect on, prereflective consciousness, Merleau-Ponty identifies science as the opposite of art. In Merleau-Ponty’s account, whereas art is an attempt to capture an individual’s perception, science is anti-individualistic. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty presents a phenomenological objection to positivism: that it can tell us nothing about human subjectivity.
All that a scientific text can explain is the particular individual experience of that scientist, which cannot be transcended.
science neglects the depth and profundity of the phenomena that it endeavors to explain.
Merleau-Ponty understood science to be an ex post facto abstraction. Causal and physiological accounts of perception, for example, explain perception in terms that are only arrived at after abstracting from the phenomenon itself.
Merleau-Ponty chastised science for taking itself to be the area in which a complete account of nature may be given.
The subjective depth of phenomena cannot be given in science as it is. This characterizes Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to ground science in phenomenological objectivity and, in essence, institute a “return to the phenomena.”
Anticognitivist cognitive science
Merleau-Ponty’s critical position with respect to science was stated in his Preface to the Phenomenology— he described scientific points of view as “always both naive and at the same time dishonest”. Despite, or perhaps because of, this view, his work influenced and anticipated the strands of modern psychology known as post-cognitivism. Hubert Dreyfus has been instrumental in emphasising the relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s work to current post-cognitive research, and its criticism of the traditional view of cognitive science.
Dreyfus’s seminal critique of cognitivism (or the computational account of the mind), What Computers Can’t Do, consciously replays Merleau-Ponty’s critique of intellectualist psychology to argue for the irreducibility of corporeal know-how to discrete, syntactic processes. Through the influence of Dreyfus’s critique and neurophysiological alternative, Merleau-Ponty became associated with neurophysiological, connectionist accounts of cognition.
With the publication in 1991 of The Embodied Mind by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, this association was extended, if only partially, to another strand of “anti-cognitivist” or post-representationalist cognitive science: embodied or enactive cognitive science, and later in the decade, to neurophenomenology. In addition, Merleau-Ponty’s work has also influenced researchers trying to integrate neuroscience with the principles of chaos theory.
Merleau-Ponty has also been picked up by Australian and Nordic philosophers inspired by the French feminist tradition, including Rosalyn Diprose and Sara Heinämaa.
Diprose’s recent work takes advantage of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of an intercorporeity, or indistinction of perspectives, to critique individualistic identity politics from a feminist perspective and to ground the irreducibility of generosity as a virtue, where generosity has a dual sense of giving and being given.
Heinämaa has argued for a rereading of Merleau-Ponty’s influence on Simone de Beauvoir. (She has also challenged Dreyfus’s reading of Merleau-Ponty as behaviorist, and as neglecting the importance of the phenomenological reduction to Merleau-Ponty’s thought.)
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body has also been taken up by Iris Young in her essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” and its follow-up, “‘Throwing Like a Girl’: Twenty Years Later.” Young analyzes the particular modalities of feminine bodily comportment as they differ from that of men. Young observes that while a man who throws a ball puts his whole body into the motion, a woman throwing a ball generally restricts her own movements as she makes them, and that, generally, in sports, women move in a more tentative, reactive way. Merleau-Ponty argues that we experience the world in terms of the “I can” – that is, oriented towards certain projects based on our capacity and habituality. Young’s thesis is that in women, this intentionality is inhibited and ambivalent, rather than confident, experienced as an “I cannot.”
Ecophenomenology can be described as the pursuit of the relationalities of worldly engagement, both human and those of other creatures (Brown & Toadvine 2003).
This engagement is situated in a kind of middle ground of relationality, a space that is neither purely objective, because it is reciprocally constituted by a diversity of lived experiences motivating the movements of countless organisms, nor purely subjective, because it is nonetheless a field of material relationships between bodies. It is governed exclusively neither by causality, nor by intentionality. In this space of in-betweenness phenomenology can overcome its inaugural opposition to naturalism.
David Abram explains Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh” (chair) as “the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and he identifies this elemental matrix with the interdependent web of earthly life. This concept unites subject and object dialectically as determinations within a more primordial reality, which Merleau-Ponty calls “the flesh,” and which Abram refers to variously as “the animate earth,” “the breathing biosphere,” or “the more-than-human natural world.” Yet this is not nature or the biosphere conceived as a complex set of objects and objective processes, but rather “the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body — by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences. Merleau-Ponty’s ecophenemonology with its emphasis on holistic dialog within the larger-than-human world also has implications for the ontogenesis and phylogenesis of language, indeed he states that “language is the very voice of the trees, the waves and the forest.” Merleau-Ponty himself refers to “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break…” Among the many working notes found on his desk at the time of his death, and published with the half-complete manuscript of The Visible and the Invisible, several make evident that Merleau-Ponty himself recognized a deep affinity between his notion of a primordial “flesh” and a radically transformed understanding of “nature.” Hence in November 1960 he writes: “Do a psychoanalysis of Nature: it is the flesh, the mother.” And in the last published working note, written in March 1961, he writes: “Nature as the other side of humanity (as flesh, nowise as ‘matter’).”
dreyfus on Hubert Dreyfus on Merleau-Ponty, Part 1/2
don’t need concepts/rules.. it’s the way your body has of immediately grasping the gestalt of what’s going on
3 min – we are always moving to get an optimal grip.. going underneath what heideggers was getting at.. in perception.. if you get too close .. too many details.. too far away lose the details..
4 min – in museum.. led by your body (to the art) outside what your mind could do.. the object just calls you to get in the best relation to see it
skillful coping – in flow .. w/o thinking/rules.. your body/skills is drawing you to get this optimal grip on the situation.. concrete .. but always changing..
5 min – artistotle said this.. heidegger got it back out of him.. that if you keep acting and getting experiences.. making mistakes.. learning.. become personal of practical wisdom.. means you’ll do the appropriate thing at appropriate time.. mastery
does ponty talk about mastery/expertise?.. no .. his is just everyone has own job.. in everyday skillful action/perception.. heidegger goes to other end and talks about mastery.. could become someone who changes world by not just responding in original way.. but a way that changes people’s perception – highest thing you can do according to heidegger
4 min – merleau-ponty fills gap heidegger left.. of what the body does… you could ask.. what takes the place of mental representation.. it’s body sets… to cope with things and to move toward the optimal
5 min – people in ai had taken over philosophy – mental reps.. descartes, hume, kant, concepts were rules .. and far from taking over how it should be done.. they had taken over what we had just recently in philosophy recently learned was the wrong way to do it… they had inherited a lemon..
6 min – if they’d known philosopy .. they could have predicted like me that it was a research program.. they took cartesian modern philosophy and turned it into a research program.. anyone could tell it was going to fail
that’s merleau-ponty.. none of that would have been said by heidegger .. heidegger was just interested in the way we could rep the world w/o mental rep.. but merleau-ponty sees.. nothing mental about it.. at the basic level.. it’s our body/skills for dealing with things.. getting a grip on things is what we need to understand..
7 min – and then it becomes clear that computers just haven’t got it… they haven’t got bodies and they haven’t got skills.. and now.. the world is org’d by embodied beings like us.. to be coped with by embodied beings like us… the computer is just totally lost in the world from the bottom up.. *it would have to have in it.. a model of the world and a model of the body.. without that.. the world is just utterly ungraspable by computers
*and neither possible as a model.. since always changing/emerging..
8 min – the way merleau-ponty gets into it.. is thru the body.. this is where i got interested in writing this book about the internet.. because there it’s no longer about making these artificial minds by computers.. heidegger trashed it and it trashed itself.. but now it’s about.. people said.. the marvelous thing about the internet is that we don’t have to have bodies on the internet.. we are in cyberspace.. everybody is in touch with everybody else.. nobody’s limited by their body.. by how they look.. by their local situation
9 min – so it was all this anti-body hype and there’s where merleau-ponty comes in.. saying.. it’s our body with its skills which enable us to relate to things.. by going around them and relate to people.. by this interesting thing called inter corporeality.. where i don’t have to figure out .. from what your gestures and how you look.. what you’re thinking/doing.. i respond immediately with my gestures/look… and to merleau-ponty.. that inercorporeality seemed magical.. whenever he couldn’t explain anything.. that was his word for it.. now they’ve discovered something called mirror neurons..where it turns out that the same neurons in apes.. perceive a certain movement
10 min – also the neurons produce the movement.. so that.. it’s not accident when you see me doing it you do an appropriate thing.. i think of this myself.. yawning.. would be the clearest case of this.. yawning is inter corporeality.. if things are boring and i yawn.. you don’t have to figure out what i meant..
merleau-ponty: the body is geared into the world and that’s what the internet definitely leaves out