Maurice Merleau-Ponty  

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"We looked long and compassionately at the narrow chest which the uniform barely covered in that near - zero cold , at the ash - blond hair , the delicate ..."--Sense and Non-Sense (1948) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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Maurice Jean Jacques Merleau-Ponty(14 March 1908 – 3 May 1961) was a French philosopher, strongly influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art, politics, religion, biology, psychology, psychoanalysis, language, nature, and history. He was the lead editor of Les Temps modernes, the leftist magazine he established with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1945.

At the core of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role that perception plays in the human experience of the world. Merleau-Ponty understands perception to be an ongoing dialogue between one's lived body and the world which it perceives, in which perceivers passively and actively strive to express the perceived world in concert with others. He was the only major phenomenologist of the first half of the twentieth century to engage extensively with the sciences and especially with Gestalt psychology. It is through this engagement that his writings became influential in the 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 (corporéité) 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”.

Merleau-Ponty engaged with Marxism throughout his career. His 1947 book, Humanism and Terror, has been widely misunderstood as a defence of the Soviet farce trials. In fact, this text avoids the definitive endorsement of a view on the Soviet Union, but instead engages with the Marxist theory of history as a critique of liberalism, in order to reveal an unresolved antinomy in modern politics, between humanism and terror: if human values can only be achieved through violent force, and if liberal ideas hide illiberal realities, how is just political action to be decided? Merleau-Ponty maintained an engaged though critical relationship to the Marxist left until the end of his life, particularly during his time as the political editor of the journal Les Temps modernes.

Language

The highlighting of the fact that corporeity intrinsically has a dimension of expressivity which proves to be fundamental to the constitution of the ego is one of the conclusions of The Structure of Behavior that is constantly reiterated in Merleau-Ponty's later works. Following this theme of expressivity, he goes on to examine how an incarnate subject is in a position to undertake actions that transcend the organic level of the body, such as in intellectual operations and the products of one's cultural life.

He carefully considers language, then, as the core of culture, by examining in particular the connections between the unfolding of thought and sense - enriching his perspective not only by an analysis of the acquisition of language and the expressivity of the body, but also by taking into account pathologies of language, painting, cinema, literature, poetry and song.

This work deals mainly with language, beginning with the reflection on artistic expression in The Structure of Behavior - which contains a passage on El Greco (p. 203ff) that prefigures the remarks that he develops in "Cézanne's Doubt" (1945) and follows the discussion in Phenomenology of Perception. The work undertaken while serving as the Chair of Child Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of the Sorbonne is not a departure from his philosophical and phenomenological works, but are an important continuation in the development of his thought.

As the course outlines of his Sorbonne lectures indicate, during this period he continues a dialogue between phenomenology and the diverse work carried out in psychology, all in order to return to the study of the acquisition of language in children, as well as to broadly take advantage of the contribution of Ferdinand de Saussure to linguistics, and to work on the notion of structure through a discussion of work in psychology, linguistics and social anthropology.

Bibliography

The following table gives a selection of Merleau-Ponty's works in French and English translation. A much more comprehensive bibliography can be found through the Merleau-Ponty Circle website:

Year Original French English Translation
1942 La Structure du comportement (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1942) The Structure of Behavior trans. by Alden Fisher, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963; London: Methuen, 1965).
1945 Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945) Phenomenology of Perception trans. by Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962); trans. revised by Forrest Williams (1981; reprinted, 2002); new trans. by Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012).
1947 Humanisme et terreur, essai sur le problème communiste (Paris: Gallimard, 1947) Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem trans. by John O'Neill, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969)
1948 Sens et non-sens (Paris: Nagel, 1948, 1966) Sense and Non-Sense trans. by Hubert Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964).
1949–50 Conscience et l'acquisition du langage (Paris: Bulletin de psychologie, 236, vol. XVIII, 3–6, Nov. 1964) Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language trans. by Hugh J. Silverman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
1949–52 Merleau-Ponty à la Sorbonne: résumé de cours, 1949-1952 (Grenoble: Cynara, 1988) Child Psychology and Pedagogy: The Sorbonne Lectures 1949-1952 trans. By Talia Welsh (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2010)
1951 Les Relations avec autrui chez l’enfant (Paris: Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1951, 1975) The Child’s Relations with Others trans. by William Cobb, in The Primacy of Perception ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 96-155.
1953 Éloge de la Philosophie, Lecon inaugurale faite au Collége de France, Le jeudi 15 janvier 1953 (Paris: Gallimard, 1953) In Praise of Philosophy trans. by John Wild and James M. Edie, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1963)
1955 Les aventures de la dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1955) Adventures of the Dialectic trans. by Joseph Bien, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1974)
1958 Les Sciences de l’homme et la phénoménologie (Paris: Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1958, 1975) Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man trans. by John Wild in The Primacy of Perception ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 43–95.
1960 Éloge de la Philosophie et autres essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1960) -
1960 Signes (Paris: Gallimard, 1960) Signs trans. by Richard McCleary, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964).
1961 L’Œil et l’esprit (Paris: Gallimard, 1961) Eye and Mind trans. by Carleton Dallery in The Primacy of Perception ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 159-190. Revised translation by Michael Smith in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader (1993), 121-149.
1964 Le Visible et l’invisible, suivi de notes de travail Edited by Claude Lefort (Paris: Gallimard, 1964) The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes trans. by Alphonso Lingis, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
1968 Résumés de cours, Collège de France 1952-1960 (Paris: Gallimard, 1968) Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952-1960 trans. by John O’Neill, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
1969 La Prose du monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1969) The Prose of the World trans. by John O’Neill, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1974




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