As a teacher, I appreciate the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
from a pedagogical perspective: education is about teaching future citizens
of the world. Merleau-Ponty is not easy to read, possibly made more difficult
by translation, but it is clear his goal was not radical revolution — at
least not after he became painfully aware of the moral failings of Marxist-Leninism
a decade after defending Soviet purges. In the end, Merleau-Ponty was more
like Albert Camus than Jean-Paul
Sartre. It should be little wonder that
Merleau-Ponty, like Camus, had a strained relationship with Sartre.
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,
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 of Edmund 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
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
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
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
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 to Humanism 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
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,
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.
Matthews, Eric; Merleau-Ponty: A
Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum International,
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; The Primacy of Perception, and Other Essays on
Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics (Evanston,
Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston, Ill.:
Northwestern University Press, 1964)
Maurice; Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern
University Press, 1973)
Primozic, Daniel Thomas; On Merleau-Ponty (Belmont,
Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
ISBN: 0-534-57629-X [Amazon.com]
Sahakian, Wm. S.; History of Philosophy (New
York: Barnes & Noble, Harper; 1968) ISBN: 0-06-460002-5 [Amazon.com]
Complete source list.