Maurice Merleau-Ponty Philosophy and Phenomenology of Perception

French existentialist philosopher best known for his beliefs in subject-object dialogue, lived body, and rejection of dualistic rationalism and empiricism.

French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), was strongly influenced by Marx, Husserl and Heidegger. He was also closely associated to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Famous for his book Phenomenology of Perception (1945), he argues that a subject-object dialogue is the foundation of human experience, which is not merely perceived but is a “lived body” in human existence.

He is closely associated with existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Merleau-Ponty believed in the primacy of perception in the analysis of human existence, he disagreed with many of the more radical conclusions of Sartre’s existentialism about freedom of choice, personal responsibility, “anguish” and “despair.”

Like Sartre, he was a phenomenologist, concerned with conscious experience of human beings, without reference to the question of whether what is experienced is objectively real. He explained embodied experience without resorting to the traditional approaches of modern philosophy of empiricism and rationalism, which he believed were both flawed and unsatisfactory.

Merleau-Ponty Rejects the Dualism of Empiricism and Rationalism

Empiricism declares that all knowledge is derived from the experience of the senses, while rationalism claims that all knowledge is a priori, because it has been derived through reason. To Merleau-Ponty, both concepts are unsatisfactory as they fail to resolve Menos’ Paradox. Menos is a character in one of the dialogues of Plato, who poses the following dilemma: “How can you look for something when you don’t know what it is? Even if you find the thing, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?”

Empiricism is dualistic in nature, in that it separates the subject (consciousness) from the object (things outside of consciousness.) The idea of the transcendent as something separate from people encourages empiricists to try to perceive the world in a determinate way – as a series of atomistic sense impressions. Merleau-Ponty argues it is not how the rich and multi-layered world is experienced.

Rationalism is also dualistic in nature, separating subject and object. It also sees the world as something de-contextualized and determinate, although unlike empiricism, truth can be determined through the application of reason in rationalism.

Merleau-Ponty Philosophy

As he breaks away from the dualism of empiricism and rationalism, he sees the body as existing in a third state, that is, between subject and object. His epistemology gives primacy to perception. He argues that a subject-object dialogue is the foundation of the human experience. He prefers to characterize perception as a subject-object dialogue experienced through a “lived Body” by which consciousness is experienced and not merely existing in the mind.

Merleau-Ponty rejects the claim by Descartes that the body is a machine manipulated by the mind. Although he doesn’t deny the physiological reality of the body as a set of separated parts that work together, he argues that the body is more than just a machine, since it is lived.

Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception

In his best known book Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty signified his philosophy by rejecting the dualistic empiricist and rationalist approaches to perception for being too rigid in the concept of the subject-object relationship, and by claiming that there is interdependence between subject and object through his “lived body” idea.

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