Key Theories of Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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French philosopher and psychologist, who developed an approach to phenomenology that centred upon the embodied nature of human existence, Merleau-Ponty’s (1907-1961) work encompasses psychology (1963) and the attempt to articulate a humanist Marxism (1964a, 1973a) as well as the philosophies of perception (1962), language and semiotics (1964b), aesthetics (1994) and ontology (1968). At the core of all this work is an aversion to Cartesian dualism. Descartes approached the problems of modern philosophy by defending the primacy and autonomy of the rational reflective individual human subject (the cogito). This subject’s relation to the external world, including its own body, is principally one of rational understanding. It stands outside the world, and is capable of undistorted and certain knowledge of that world. Even in his first major work, The Structure of Behaviour (1942), Merleau-Ponty (1963) challenges this assumption. He argues that the world is not to be understood as a source of isolated stimuli (as behavioural psychology argues) that have pre-existing meanings in demanding determinate responses from the human subject. Rather individual stimuli are irreducibly part of a shifting structure of meanings and symbols, and the meaning of (and thus the subject’s response to) any given stimulus depends upon the structure within which the stimulus occurs. The human subject thus responds to this world, not through the detached reflection of the Cartesian cogito, but through pre-reflective and practical participation within it. The subject is not independent of the world, but is as much a part of this structure as the stimulus itself. The meaningful relationship of the subject to its world is thus one that is primarily lived rather than rationally understood, and as such the subject is incapable of absolute and certain knowledge. What it knows, it knows because of what it is now.

This theme is developed in Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) best known essay, Phenomenology of Perception (1945). The rejection of the Cartesian subject is here developed in a profound exploration of the ‘lived-body’. Human existence is necessarily embodied. This is to say far more than the Cartesian might: that the mind is situated within a physical body. For Merleau-Ponty, a subject does not consciously pilot its body, as if it were a complex machine made up of muscles, nerves and bones. First, the parts of a body are not ‘side-by-side’ (as are the parts of a machine), but are interrelated. Each part of my body is expressive of the body as a whole, and thus I am in possession of this body as a whole. I am ‘enveloped’ in my body. This suggests that I do not primarily control my body through conscious deliberation. More significantly, my relationship to the world beyond my body is similarly pre-reflective. I am embedded in a bodily life of desires, habits and evaluations that are expressed through and entwined with a knowledge of the world that itself is embodied. The competent typist, for example, does not have to reflect consciously upon the position of each key. The knowledge of the keys’ positions is ‘in the hand’. The Cartesian cogito, ‘I think’, is thus displaced by what Merleau-Ponty calls a tacit cogito, ‘I can’ (1962, P-137).

Just as he has rejected mechanistic and reductionist explanation in Cartesianism and behaviourist psychology, so too in his reflections on sexuality, Merleau-Ponty rejects the mechanistic implications found in Freud, whereby the manifest behaviour of the subject is reduced to an unconscious meaning. Freud’s recognition of the meaningfulness of all behaviour is applauded, but there is, for Merleau-Ponty, no one universal trajectory of sexual development that allows for the unambiguous deciphering of that meaning. Rather, sexuality is one of the dimensions through which a human being’s life comes to have a history. Sexuality is a projection of a person’s being in the world, and thus of their particular ‘style’ as a person (pp. 158 and 150). But that history can always have different meanings, in response to shifts in the structure of inter-subjective meanings within which it is lived.

In his last works, including the unfinished The Visible and the Invisible (1964), Merleau-Ponty builds radically and critically upon his earlier work by arguing that it has still not completely shed the dualism to which it was opposed. The ‘tacit cogito’ is abandoned in favour of an analysis of ‘Flesh’ as the ‘element’ (as water, fire, earth and air are elements) of our being in the world (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 139). Already in Phenomenology Merleau-Ponty had begun to explore the complex relationship between inner and outer that emerges once dualism is abandoned. There cannot be an unproblematic inside (mind) set against an outside (body/world). Rather the inner and outer are ‘reversible’ (so that, for example, when left and right hands meet, the body is both touching and touched (1962, p. 93)). From a different perspective reversibility also emerges in the analysis of speech and language. In Phenomenology language is ultimately grounded in bodily gestures, expressing the emotional essence of one’s community. But in learning our original language, we become enveloped in a (superficially external) tradition, so that we come to rely upon what has already been constituted outside us, in order to express our inner selves. In the later Signs (1960) it is Speech which says things, and Speech has us, rather than vice versa (1964 p. 19). In another context, Merleau- Ponty observes that the musician does not produce a sonata, but is ‘at the service of the sonata’ (1968 p. 153). This idea of reversibility is developed in the concept of ‘chiasm’ (that itself is regarded as being incarnate in Flesh). ‘Chiasm’ articulates this tension between inner and outer as the reversibility of self and world, so that, in the highly elusive imagery of The Visible, the seer is both vision and visible. However, Merleau-Ponty stresses that such reservability is never actually realised. Rather there remains a strife both within the self and between the self and the world, and this strife (or divergence) allows for an openness within Being. As throughout his work, Merleau-Ponty again stresses ambiguity and the impossibility of any definitive grounding to our judgements, for his ontology presupposes that Being is perpetually renewing itself.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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