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The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty

him and to which he claims special access, nor ‘from
a· source inside him, which he is ~ecially privileged to possess. The formula is presented to us
at the start, and then it is worked upon, in front
of us, in terms of sound and sight. The marve~lous
feeling of release provided by the piece stems frem
this fact. Once the 13 pitches and the 13 gestures
have been established, they are subjected to a
process of ever fuller transformations, but these,
however complex, are always log~cal, always clearly
stated, and always available for our understanding.

There is nothing behind the gesture, just as there
is nothing behind the music. And this leads to an
extraordinary focus sing upon surface: the surface
of the mime, like that of the music, becomes luminous. The music takes on plastic form and the mime
dissolves into pure relation. The experience is
thus at once extremely physical and extremely abstract. It is also extraordinarily cleansing, in

that we are made to fe.el that such luminosity is
within the reach of any of us – not through any
mystical initiation, not through taking part in any
orgiastic rite, but through ~ kind of submission
which allows us to rediscover our full physical
and intellectual potential. And it does this
through the mode of incarnatio~.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the entire
evening of 23 October came when the colnPoser/conductor and the mime took their bows. They made no
extravagent gestures of acknowledgement, ,such as
one is unfortunately used to in the opera house.

But neither did they try to give the impression
that they were above such things, wrapped in a
higher mystery. One merely sensed in them a humility and joyfulness, as though they ‘had only
carried out what had to. be done, and felt that they
had done it well. Outside, the world, in spite of
everything, seemed a good place to be alive in.

The Philosophy o’

Me..leau -Ponly
Sonia Kruks
This article is the second of a series on neglected
or misunderstood philosophers. The first was Adam
BUick’s article on Dietzgen in RP10. We also plan
articles on Cassirer, Collingwood, and Foucault.

Other suggestions would be welcome.

The work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) has
received scant consideration in this country. It
has either been ignored, or else it has been dismissed as nastily foreign and obscure. On the
appearance of his major work, The Phenomenology of
Perception, in 1945, its sole British reviewer dismissed it as failing to be ‘a genuine contribution
to philosophy.’ And when in 1965 an English translation of his first book, The structure of
Behaviour, came out here (twenty-three years after
the original was published in France), a reviewer
in the Times Literary Supplement described it as
‘opaque and somewhat indigestible.,l
The reviewer went on plaintively to attribute
these faults to the influence on Merleau-Ponty of
various obscure German philosophers who, it appears,
have always tried to confuse the British. Thus:

‘ ••• among those who had most influence on MerleauPonty were the three Germans, Hegel, Husserl and
Heidegger,all of whom have offered notable resistance to the British philosophical understanding.’

This otherwise dubious statement does at least
have the merit of pointing to some of MerleauPonty’s philosophical roots. But a fourth German
– who doubtless offers equal resistance to the
British philosophical understanding – namely Karl
Marx, must be added to the list.

Any philosopher who cla~s to be influenced by
such diverse thinkers as Hegel, Marx, Husserl and
Heidegger – and Merleau-Ponty claims an indebtedness to all four of them – must be open to accusations of eclecticism. Merleau-Ponty has frequently been accused, especially by the orthodox left
of his time, who detested his blending of Marxism
with existential phenomenology.2 Merleau-Ponty
would deny the charge. For the term ‘eclecticism’

implies an arbitrary amalgam of different theories.

But Merleau-Ponty is sufficiently a ‘Hegelian to
insist that his philosophy is a synthesis in which,
as part of a process of historical development,
the ideas of his predecessors are both incorporated

and transcended. Thus with regard to Hegel himself, Merleau-Ponty sees his role as both preserv~
ing and transforming the Hegelian notion of dialectic: Hegel remains idealism, failing
ever to transcend the world of thought. In broadening the notion of the dialectic from the world
of thought to that of material human ‘existence,
Merleau-Ponty is using Hegel to transcend Hegel.

In his assertion that human existence is materially grounded (as well as dialectical) and that no
priority can be given to consciousness MerleauPonty’s connection with Marx becomes evident. He
accepts and incorporates such Marxian notions as
the centrality of the productive process in shaping
society and the dialectical interpenetration of the
material world and consciousness. He too is conce~ned to ‘stand Hegel’ – and in a sense Husserl ‘on his feet’, but here the general similarities
end. Marx m~ves on from his stress on human
materiality and the bDportance of the productive
process to the notions of classes in production
and class conflict. But Merleau-Ponty, while
accepting the existence of class conflict, moves
primarily back to more traditional issues of ontology and epistemology and remains within a philosophical framework. From his materialism he develops arguments about the bodily basis of all human
experience, of all perception and knowledge; he
argues in detail that all forms of’ consciousness,
including philosophical speculation, are grounded
in praxis, arise from man’s social existence.

Much of his argument is compatible with Marxism;
but the context within which the argument takes
place is that of traditional philosophy rather
than Marxism.

This said, it must be added that Merleau-Ponty’s
view of history always remained d~inated by the
notion of class conflict, that he always tried to
assert a humanistic communism as the solution to
world problems and that he gave ‘critical support’

to the French Communist Par~y in the late 1940s.

Throughout his life he wrote copiously on politics,
articles ranging from theoretical discussions of

TLS, 30.9.65,; (2) See, for example. G. Lukacs,
Existentialisme ou Marxisme?, Paris, 1948; R.

Garaudy, Mhsaventures de l’anti-marxisme,’ Paris,1956



Marxism to topical pieces on the French political
The systematic developllent of his philosophy 1& to.

scene. Yet still he remained primarily a philobe found in his first two books – The structure of
sopher. In his hands Marxism is foremost an anaBehaviour (1942) and The Phenomenologg of Perceplytic tool and he stresses the similarities between
tlon (1945) – on both of which the following
the method of historical materialism and his own
account draws. The account is ~ivided into four
phenomeno1ogica1 methodology: both attempt to grasp
sections: (1) The critique of scientism and idea1’the totality of’ human existence in all its complexity., ism; (2) The body-subject and the natural world;
Mer1eau-Ponty has a complex relationship with
(3) The social world: (4) Freedom and history.

Marx – and an even more complex relationship with
Husserl. He explicitly connects his own work with
that of Husser1, regarding Husserl as the originator of the phenamenological method and claiming to
be using that method as the cornerstone of his own
As has already been suggested, the notion of diaphilosophy. In the preface to the Phenomenology
lectic is central to Metleau-Ponty’s work. His
he quotes approvingly Husserl’s command that phenofirst book, The structure of Behaviour, is an analysis of animal and human behaviour from a dialeCtmenology be ‘a “descriptive ~sychology” or a return
to the “things ~themselves”. ‘

Like Husserl, he
ical viewpoint. Much of the book is taken up with
regards such a return to the ‘things themselves’

‘refuting non-dialectical approaches to behaviour.

as requiring a suspension of both our ‘scientific’

The first method which is attacked is that mechanisand our ‘normal’ everyday assumptions about phenotic materialism or ‘scientism’ which attempts to
explain all behaviour in terms of the necessary
mena. We must perform the ‘phenomenological reducworking of ‘objective’ causal laws. Merleaution’, in which we cease to take our experiences Ponty’s main targets are the reflex ,theorists,
such as seeing or touching – for granted and radiincluding Pavlov; but his criticisms apply equally
cally question their possibility, instead of autoto all forms of positivistic social science, inmatically assuming it.

cluding present-day behaviourism.

‘To return’to things themselves,’ Marleau-Ponty
Reflex theory cannot, in his view, even account
writes, is to return to that world which precedes
fully for animal behaviour. It is based on an
knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and
atomised conception of the nervous system, whereas
in relation to which every scientific schematizain actuality the nervous system is an integral
tion is an abstract and derivative sign-language. ,4
whole. It artificially views the brain as split
In assessing Mer1eau-Ponty’s relationship with
into separate segments, each of which must produce
Husser1 (1959-1938), we have to contend with the
a particular response when subject to a particular
fact that Husser1’s ideas changed considerably
stimulus. But this model is unable to explain
during his lifetime. Until the 1930s, Hussar1 redeviations from the ‘necessary’ response, such as
garded the ‘reduction’ as the means of arriving at
the way animals can adapt their behaviour to comthe ‘transcendental ego’, or pure consciousness.

pensate if sections of the brain are damaged. Nor
If we compare Mer1eau-Ponty’s views with this
can it explain how the same stimulus can produce
position it is hard to see why he insisted on
different responses~n different situations. It
tdentifying himself as a disciple of Husser1, for
is only in examining the total – and thus dialectthe concept of pure consciousness is antithetic to
ical – relation of an animal to its environment
his entire philosophy.

that we can explain such phenomena.

However, during the last few years of his life,
Husser1 altered his ideas considerably, and it is
In explaining human behaviour positivist thein fact on the later Husser1 that Mer1eau-Ponty
ories are even more inadequate.” A man ia an integrated whole and there ar, no clear-cut distincdraws. The Husser1 of the Krisis (1936) no longer
attributes an absolute status to the transcendental
tions between his instincts, his reflexes and his
ego; rather, the transcendental ego is ‘correlative’ conscious activity. It is thus not possible to
explain behaviour in terms of discoverable chains
to the world. He focusses his attention on the
of stimulus and response. Learning cannot’ be ex-I
concept of the ‘lived world’, the world as we exp1ained as the response to the stimuli of rewards,
perience it, and on human existence in its interfor learning is not acquiring a capacity to repeat
subjective elements. Thus for the late ‘Husser1,
an action mechanically. It consists in acquiring
as for Mer1eau-Ponty, the ‘reduction’, the questhe capacity to respond differently to differing
tioning of the normally ‘given’, leads us back ulsituations. Because it involves adaptation,
timately to man’s existence in and relationship
with the world. For both of them the ‘reduction’

learning must presuppose an intenti~nal interaction with the situation, not a passive response
reveals ‘a subject destined to be in the world’,5
man as a necessarily material and social existence,
to it. When, for example, a child learns to distin9″lish red and green, he does not learn a mechan:not a pure consciousness.

ical response to the different colours, but the
Merleau-Ponty also frequently refers to
general facility of distinguishing colours.

Heidegger, but regar~s him as of secondary importHowever, it is not only ‘scientism’ which is
ance to Husserl. There are certain similarities
open to criticism in Merleau-Ponty’s view. Equally
between Merleau-Ponty’s work and that of Heidegger,
especially in their treatment of time and in their
undialectical and incomplete are those approaches
to behaviour which Mer1eau-Ponty describes variouscommon hostility to Cartesian dualism. But their
lyas ‘idealist’,’ ‘critical’ and ‘intellectualist’.

‘essential orientations were very different.

In this group he includes the philosophies of
Heidegger was primarily an ontologist, involved in
Descartes and Kant and, by implication, the neothe ‘quest for being’, while for Merleau-Ponty
Kantian tradition which dominated French academic
concrete human existence was always the central
concern. “Sartre summed up the divergence: ‘Being
philosophy when he was a student. Idealism’s inis the ‘sole concern of the German philosopher; in
adequacy stems from the fact that by assertlng the
priority of consciousness over matter it divorces
spi te of sometimes using a common vocabulary, man
remained the principle concern for Merleau.,6
(3) Phenomenology of Perception (pb/mom(utJlogie
It is perhaps now time to cease considering
de ‘la perception, Gallimard, Paris, 1945)
Merleau-Ponty’s intellectual sources and to turn to
trans. C. Slni th, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962,
his philosophy itself. For, as has been suggested,
p.viii; (4) PP, p.ixj (5) PP, p.xi; (6) SitUations,
his work is a unique synthesis, not reducible to
V01.4, Ga11imard, Paris, 1964, p275;’ (7) PP, p.

‘those ideas of ~thers which it incorporates in it.

xviii; (9) PP, P.ixi

The Critique of Scientism
and Idealism



man from the world and from his $WO corporality.

consciously motivated. The use of the word is
Descartes’ ‘~ogito’ r. for example, might reveal a
almost metaphorical, implying a reaching out or a
worl~ – but it is a world of thoughts only. The
reciprocal relationship between objects. The world
priority of mind must lock man in a world ot pure
is not random or chaotic; it’ consists of intelliconsciousness, of purely intellectual knowing,’ .'”
gible relationships between things. Thus there is
while reducing the physical world to a mere object
meaning and ‘intention’ in the basic structure of
the world. It is a world of relationships.

of ~wledge. For the idealist, mind and matter
exist in an unbridgeable dualism; for MerleauBut such relationships do not exist for things
Ponty they exist in a dialectical unity – and beh’in-themselves’, as pure objects, but for things
haviour can only be fully accounted for within that
which we perceive. Thus, for example, the structduality.

ures that the physicist discovers do not exist in
Merleau-Ponty begins to give this account in the
things themselves, independently of the physicist,
final sections of The Structure of Behaviour, but
but as the objects of his perception. This is not
he does not develop it fully until the Phenomenology. to say that they are ‘only’ objects of his percepIn the former he describes what he calls ‘meaning- ~ion, but that his perceiving is what brings them
ful’ structures or ‘forms’ emerging from the dialinto being for bim. In other words, the intentectical relations between individual organisms and
ionality of objects or their uniqueness is a functheir environment, in which each is necessary for
tion of our dialectical relationship with the world.

the existence of the other. To describe behaviour
In the Phenomenology Merleau-Ponty expresses it as
adequa;pe:y is to elucidate the genesis and meaning
follows: ‘I am the absolute source ••• for I alone
bring into being for myself (and therefore into
of such ‘forms’.

But in what, we may ask, does their meaning conbeing in the only sense the word can have for me)
sist? we must turn to the Phenomenology to answer
the tradition which I elect to carry on, or the
this question.. There, Merleau-Ponty asserts that
horizon whose distance from me would be abolished
••• if I were not there to scan it with my gaze.,e
meaning exists primarily in the ‘intentionality’

Merleau-Ponty is at pains to distinguish his views
of all things – animate and inanimate – or in what
he’ calls ‘their unique mode of existing’: ‘Whether
from traditional idealism, for he recognises that
we are concerned with a thing perceived, a historthe world actually exi~ts and that I am of it and
ical event or a doctrine, to ‘understand’ is to
in it; while idealism places man ‘outside’ the
take in the total intention ••• the unique mode of
world as a consciousness which surveys it.

existing expressed in the properties of tlie pebble,
If man’s relati~nship with the world, in which
glass or piece of wax, in all the events of a revhe draws from it its intentions, is not one of a
olution, in all the thoughts of a philosopher. ,7
conscious subject to the objects of consciousness,
The assertion that a pebble or a piece of glass
we have to ask how this relationship does arise.

If man is in a dialectical relationship with the
has ‘intention’ or a ‘unique mode of existing’ is
at first glance puzzling, especially to one unmaterial world, he cannot be outside it. For a
dialectical relationship is, for Merleau-Ponty, one
familiar with the vocabulary of the phenomenological. tradition. In equating ‘intention’ with
in which subject and object not only imply each
having a ‘unique mode of existing’ and in applying
other, but form a unity, interpenetrating each
the terms to ,inanimate objects, Merleau-Ponty is
other. Thus man has to be both subject and object
obviously not using the notion of intention in its
and the world has to be the source of subjective
usual sense of a goal towards which action is
meaning for man, as well as an objective given.

It is because man is a ‘body-subject’ that such a
dialectic is pos~ible.

the human context
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‘the human context’ explores the philosophical assumptions and the methodology of the human sciences.<the different fields of psychology. sociology
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VOLU,ME VII, NO. 2, 1975
ARNOLD GEHLEN: Epochs of Painting
LEE WHITEHEAD: The lsland-Mouptain in Myth: Some Notes Towards the (un)Natural History of an Image
REN~ COURT: Art and Interiority
BETTY MANDELL: Alienation and Architecture
HANS H. RUDNICK: Boredom and Creativity: Two Poles of Cultural
E. AMADO LEVY-VALENSI: Sin and Salvation in the Ontology of
D. H. Lawrence
OEORGES BALANDlER:,From one Anthropology to Ano,ther: EvansPritchard, Luc de Heusch and Jean Monod
JOHN B. O’MALLEY: “Here be Dragons!”: On the Object of Social
ENZO PACI: Towards an A’nalysis of the Present Moment and its
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ROBERT D. ROMANYSHYN: Psychotherapy and the Human Context:

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The Body-Subject and

The Natural World
The concept of the ‘body-subject’ appears, at first
consideration, paradOXical. For the body is normally regarded as an object. Either as the object
of external forces in materialist thought, or as
the object df consciousness in idealist philosophy.

In regarding the body as a subject, Merleau-Ponty
is denying both these views and is asserting it is
only through·our materiality, through our bodily
existence, that we are able to ‘know’ the world,
which is also to create it.

But to ‘know’ the world through one’s body is
not to ‘know’ it in the way pure consciousness
‘does. Bodily’ knowledge’ differs in two ways from
that of ‘a universal constituting consciousness’.

Firstly, it is ‘situated’ knowledge. Our body is
in the world; we thus cannot know the world from a
distance, but only from our own time and place.

OUr knowledge of the world varies as our situation
within it alters and there can be no universal or
a-temporal, no absolute 9r objective knowledge.

the ‘in-itself’, the material world as given, is
always known, not by ‘objective’ thought, but ‘for
us’ •
Secondly, bodily knowledge differs from that of
a ‘constituting consciousness’ in that it is, in
the first instance, ‘perceptive’ knowledge and not
the knowledge of pure reason. Unlike the latter,
it does not arise through contemplation but through
intentionality when we act. Our fnniIamental,ex19

perience is that of our bodies. We come to know
the world and to realise our interconnectedness
with the world through our bodies; and this knowledge is sensual or perceptive before it is

The body is the contact point which makes
possible the dialectical relation between man and
the world, in which each sustains the other. It
is because of the primacy of body, rather than
mind, in this relationship that our initial knowledge of the world has to be ‘perceptive’ – i.e.

bodily – rather than of the ‘cogito’. MerleauPonty talks about a ‘tacit cogito’,9 a preconscious ‘knowing of ourselves and of existence,
as the basis of our knowledge. Reason and philosophy 7 the ‘spoken cogito’ – are grounded in and
sustained by the ‘tacit cogito’. Perception always
remains experientially prior to reason. The ‘tacit
cogito’, he writes, ‘does not constitute the world,
it divines the world’s presence round about it as
a field not provided by itself •.• the tacit
cogito, the presence of oneself to oneself, is
anterior to any philosophy. ,ID
But, we might ask, what kind of world can it be
that the body ‘divines’ prior to rational consciousness? Certainly it is not the ordered world of
science or philosophy, for such order is elicited
by scientific or philosophical activity and does
not exist prior to such activity~ The world that
I ‘know’ or ‘perceive’ through my, ,body is described
by Merleau-Ponty as a ‘primordial layer’ of being,
or as ‘the mode of the ilnpersonal “One”.’

It is at the level of the interaction of the
body with this inchoate being that the dialectic
has its source. Here the dichotomy of man, as
subject (‘pour-soi’) and world, as object (‘ensoi’) can be transcended, ,since the body lives its
oneness with the world without a defined line
between the two being possible; body and world
coincide: ‘In this primary layer of sense experience which is discovered only provided that we
really coincide with the act of perception and
break with the critical attitude, I have the living
experience of the unity of the subject and the
intersensory unity of the thing.,ll
It is at the level of preconscious sense experience that man first creates and elicits meaning through his dialectical interaction with the
world. All the more conscious and elucidated
structures of meaning, including philosophy and”
the shape of history and politics, therefore
arise, in the final analysis, from this preconscious level. – ‘it is upon our experience of the
world that all our logical operations concerned
with significance must be based,.12 It is just
because it arises from the primary dialectic that
all conscious experience is guaranteed as also
being of and in the world.

The Social World

This far in our exposition, the analysis has been
of men as individuals, or of ‘man’ in general.

But ‘man’ for Merleau-Ponty is not ‘individual
man’ or ‘man in general’; he is man among men.

Human existence is a two-fold dialectic. Firstly,
it is a dialectic between man and the natural
world; secondly, grounded in the first dialectic,
there occurs a dialectic between men, in which the
‘social world’ of language, culture and institutions is brought into being. Man’s relation to
the social world is similar in many ways to his
relation with the natural world. For the social
~~rld is also rooted in a pre-conscious level of
incipient meanings and is a field within which
individuals act, drawing out more explicit meanings and structures from the pre-conscious. Myth,


magic, science and lega~ systems are all, at their
different levels, ‘crystallizations’ of what already exists inchoately in the social world.

Merleau-Ponty writes: ‘OUr relationship to the
social is, like our relationship to the world,
deeper than any express perception or any judgement ••• Prior to the process of becoming aware,
the social exists obscurely and as a summons.’

Most of Merleau-Ponty’s works after the
Phenomenology discuss specific aspects of the
social world – politics, history, art, literature
etc. In these works he generally takes the existence of the social world as ‘given’.’ In The
Structure of Behaviour and the Phenomenology,
however, he is concerned with the question of how
the soci~l world is possible. The question falls
into two distinct but connected parts: firstly,
how can shared meanings arise, or – in MerleauPonty’s terminology – how is ‘intersubjectivity’

possible? Secondly, what is the dynamic through
which the social world is created? Through what
means does it come into existence and endure?

The question of intersubjectivity is treated at
some length in th~ final sections of the

The discussion would appear to
be a reply to Sartre’s, view of inter-personal relations, as developed in Being and Nothingness
(1943). Merleau-Ponty’s critical position follows
logically from his notion of the body-subject and
its inherence in the natural world. Sartre, inMerleau-Ponty’s opini~n, fails to overcome the
duality of subject and object in his philosophy.

For if (as Sartre does) the individual is regarded
as a subject, a pure consciousness, the world, including other people, is for him no more than an
object of consciousness. Thus when two people
meet, each reduces the other to an object, an
opaque ‘thing-in-itself’ which he can observe,
but whose perceptions and feelings he ~annot share.

Merleau-Ponty argues that such a view of human
relations is mistaken, for man is not a pure subject. Far from the other being a threat to my .

subjectivity, he is an extension of it, since his
perceptions confirm mine. This is because we are
both bodily beings, a composite.of objectivity and
subjectivity, grounded in the same dialectic with
the primordial world: ‘The possibility of another
person’s being self-evident is owed to the fact
that I am not transparent for myself, and that my
subjectivity draws its body in its wake ••• if
another’s body is not an object forme, nor mine
an object for him, if both are manifestations of
behaviour, the positing of the other does not
reduce me to the status of an object in his field,
nor does my perception of the other reduce him to
the status of an object in mine.,14
bur perceptions cannot be identical as we each
start from our own unique ‘situation’, be it spatial or socio-cultural. But because we both,
through our bodies, open onto the same natural
world and draw our intentions from the same source,
our perceptions must overlap considerably and we
are aPle to create common areas of meaning, an
‘interworld’ between us. Solipsism, which would
be possible if men were pure consciousness, is
never a real possibility, given what man is.

Thus a world of common meanings, of inter subjectivity, is in principle not only possible but
necessary. Meaning, as we have seen, may be preconscious, rooted in bodily action. Thus the
(9) PP, p403; (10) PP, p404;
(11) PP, p239;
PP, p328; (13) PP, p362; (14) PP, p362;
(15) La Structure du Comportement, PUF,Paris, 1942,
trans. by A. Fisher as The Structure of Behaviour,
Methuen, 1965

human ‘interworld’ may at its simples~ level be
the term ‘work’, rather than to talk about human
merely qne of bodily significations. But with the
‘action’, because it is not any action”but only
use of language, the human ‘interworld’ grows ever
that which transforms nature which is significant
fuller and richer. For it is when we speak that
in the creation of the human world.

we discover what we have to say; and when we speak~,
To understand consciousness and culture, we have
to each other that common worlds, beyond the init·~to start from our concrete perceptions. The human
ial conception of the people involved, come into
body is the first thing we perceive; a baby
being. This quality of spilling out beyond itself,
‘knows’ its mother’s body before anything else.

of creating an infinite number of significations,
But after the human body, it is objects of use
is not unique to language, but is a quality of
which form the basis of our fields of perception
all human activity. All human actions, all tradiand hence the basis of the human world.

It is his
tions, all institutions, have infinite implications. ability to work, his ability to transform and
The richness and subtlety of the human world arises
humanise nature, that distinguishes man from anifrom its infinity of significance – as does the
mals. What animals cannot do, and which is unique
uncertainty of our world; for we can never be sure
to man, is to project themselves beyond their given
environment and create the means to bring their
of the full implications of our actions.

The social world, then, is a world of incipient
projection into being. Man alone has a capacity
and actualised meaning; it encompasses the ‘tacit
to ‘tr?nscend’ the given in creating the social
cogito’, speech and consciousness in all forms,
world. This transcendence is two-fold: man transincluding philosophy.

Its institution by and becends nature or the natural world through the work
tween men is possible because men share an interdialectic; he also transcends the social world as
subjective basis through their bodily relationship
it’is given at any moment, through his capacity to
look and act beyond the given.

with the natural world. But to say that it is
‘possible’, because of our intersubjectivity, is
Within this continual creation and recreation
not yet fully to account for the creation of the
of the social world, within the two-fold dialectic
social world. We have not yet answered the quesof man with nature and man with the social world,
tion: how does the social world come into existence? consciousness is to be found emerging from the preMerleau-Ponty’s brief answer to this question
conscious perception of the body-subject. There
is: through the work dialectic. The main discusis no clear boundary between the ‘lived knowledge’

sion of the function of work takes place in The
of the body and the world of ideas. Consciousness
Structure of Behaviour, in a section entitled
does not consist in having a’mental representation
‘L’ordre humain’, in which he argues that work is
of things, nor is it the exercise of judgement;
a uniquely human activity, and one of the main
rather, it is a ‘network of intentions’ with no
features distinguishing human frqm animal life.

boundaries – ‘La conscience est plut8t un reseau
Perception, our essential way of ‘knowing’ is,
d’intentions significatives, tant8t claires pour
as we have seen, intentional and related to action.

elles-memes, tant8t au contraire vecus plutot que
It ‘is because we need to use an object, cross a
connues. ,15
space, climb a hill, that we perceive it as we do.

It is also through the dialectic of work that
The importance of work is that it creates ‘human’

the essential ambiguity and openness of human
objects and a human environment for man.

It inexistence are revealed. We have already talked
augurates a new dialectic, between man and a world
about ‘transcendence’, the process,of men continhe himself has physically created. By ‘work’,
ually going beyond the present that they have
Merleau~Ponty does not mean simply labour, or

It is an essential element in human
economic production, but something much wider;
existence that man creates and is then trapped in
namely, the total of activities through which man
his own creations, that he negates his creations
transforms nature. He says he has chosen to use
in transcending them and that th~s process repeats
itself endlessly.

This is, in a sense, man’s burden. But it is
also the sourc~ of his freedom since it means that
the present is not immutable and that man’s actions
open endlessly onto the future.

I~ is to
Merleau-Ponty’s conception of freedom that we
must now turn.

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Freedom and History
It could be said that the genesis of human freedom
is the central, though implicit, theme of both The
Structure of Behaviour and the Phenomenology. For
in both works Merleau-Ponty is at pains to reject
deterministic explanations of behaviour and to show
how it is that man creates his own world. However, the explicit consideration of the notion of
freedom does not take place until the final chapter of the pl~nomenology.

It is to this discussion
that we now turn.

Merleau-Ponty starts his discussion by considering the traditional debate over free will and determinism, a debate which is central to the split
in philosophy between idealism and the kind of
philosophy which Merleau-Ponty calls ‘scientism’.

The idealists are correct in saying that if man is
determined by external factors, in the sense that
they ’cause’ him inevitably to act in certain ways,
then he is a ‘thing’ and in no sense free.

Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of human behaviour, both
in The Structure of Behaviour and the Phenomenology, imp’lies a rejection of determinism, as un-


able to account either for human behaviour or for
the role of the observer of behaviour in contributing to what he observes.

But although the idealists are correct in rejecting determinism, their assertion that man, is
undetermined, is absolutely free, is still inadequate. By insisting that all of each man’s actions are necessarily free, idealists make freedom
a ‘primordial acquisition’, which we all have
automatically as part of our essential being:

freedom belongs to the slave as much as it belongs
to his master; and it belongs to the slave whether
he acquiesces in or revolts against his servitude.

In short, the idealist view makes freedom a property of being, instead of an attribute of actions,
It can provide us with no criterion for distinguishing free actions from unfree ones, since it
places freedom anterior to action.

‘ ••• if the
slave displays freedom as much by living in fear
as by breaking his phains, then it cannot be held
that there is such a thing as free action, f~ee­
dom being anterior to all actions.’

For freedom to have a concrete meaning, it must
be an attribute of action and not its non-specific
background; free action must involve choice, but

we cannot discount the part it plays in our habitual behaviour, nor the ‘privileged’ status that it
has, which makes its transcendence ‘improbable’.

An ‘absolute~ freedom, such as Hegel posits
through the State, cannot be more than an empty
universality. Just as meaning can only come into
being through man’s insertion in and dialectical
relationship with the world, so freedom can only
come into being through ‘the roots which it
thrusts into the world.,1G JHSt as it is man’s
materiality which makes intersubjectivity possible, so it is his social, physical and temporal
situation which makes acts of freedom possible ‘Taken concretely, freedom is always a meeting of
the inner and the outer’. That is, free action
results from the dialectical interpenetration of
man and the world; a dialectic in which man himself creates the ‘obstacles’ to his freedom
through his way of being in the world.

Merleau-Ponty gives us as an example of free action
in a societal setting the development of proletar~
ian class conSCiousness, leading to revolution:

the man who is ‘objectively’ a worker does not
automatically identify himself with the working
class because of this fact; the recognition of his
class position is not inevitable: it is a choice
made by the worker. But it is a choice made by a
man ‘situated’ in a particular kind of social
world; and it is a choice which arises from his
social mode of existence and which need not be an
intellectual choice. Merleau-Ponty sums up his
analysis as follows: ‘Objectivist thought derives
class consciousness from the objective condition
of the proletariat. Idealist reflection reduces
the proletarian condition to the awareness of it,
which the proletarian arrives at ••• In each case
we are in a realm of abstraction, because we remain torn between the in-itself and the foritself. ,17
What we have to arrive at is the unity and interpenetration of the ‘in-itself’ and the ‘foritself’, that is, of matter and consciousness, in
a dialectical whole. SUch a unity can only-be
discovered if we apply a ‘genuinely existen~ial
method’ and seek to discover ‘class consciousness
itself’, rather than the ’causes’ of class consciousness. We find that class is not
pure idea
nor a scientific and objective-fact; class is a
mode of existence – ‘What makes me a proletarian
is not the economic system or society considered
as systems of impersonal forces, but these institutions as I carry them within me and experience
them; nor is it an intellectual operation devoid
of motive, but my way of being in the world within
this institutional framework.’ Freedom consists
in embracing all the possibilities in one’s mode


not any choice leads to freedom: it must be a
ohoice which leads to ‘open’ action, action pointing towards the future and transcending the given;
action therefore which furthers the individual
‘project’ and the human dialectic. If a slave
chooses to remain a slave, he is making a choice,
but it is not one that leads to an open future or
the overthrow of his condition. It is not a
choice that results in freedom. Freedom therefore
cannot be considered universal or absolute; to have
any real meaning, freedom has to be considered in
its concrete instances. It is, in Merleau-Ponty’s
word, ‘situated’. It exists only within a field,:

a horizon of possible action, within the ‘social
world’ as it exists for particular individuals.

And our situation often makes our actions ‘probable’ and therefore, in a weak sense of the word,
predictable, although it can never make our actions
inevitable. Thus, for example, if I have had an
inferiority complex for twenty years, it is ‘probable’ that I will continue to have it, though
never impossible that I should overcome it. Certain attitudes-, certain patterns of behaviour,
acquire through habit a ‘favoured status’ for us.

OUr behaviour becomes ‘sedimented’, shaped at a
pre-conscious level by our personal history. It
is possible to transcend such sedimentation, but

(16) PP, p456; (17) PP, p443; (18) PP, p449; (19)PP, pl7l;
(20) Merleau-Ponty uses Hesserl’s term ‘Mitsein’ here,
meaning a way of ‘being-with-others’, a plural

(21) Merleau-Ponty himself recognised
this when he wrote of the new works that he was
planning in 1952 that they, ‘viendront fixer
definitivement le sens phi10sophique des premi~res,
1esque11es en retour 1eur prescrivent un itineraire
et une ~thode. ‘

(in ‘Un Inedi.,t de Mer1eau-Ponty’,
publish-ed in Revue de M~taphysique et de Morale,
Autumn 1962). ‘(22) Le Visible et l’Invisib1e
(incomplete text), published posthumously, edited
by C.Lefort, Gallimard, Paris, 1964, trans. A.

Lingis, Northwestern UP, USA, 1969. (2J) Published
in the collection of essays Sens et Non-Sens,
Nagel, Paris, 1948, trans. as Sense and Non-Sense
by H. and P. Dreyfus, Northwestern UP, USA, 1964
(24) Les Aventures de la Dia1ectique, Gallimard,
Paris, 1955, trans. J. Bien, He in emann, 1974.

of existence and transcending its limitations, the
‘obstacles’ to a free existence, tha~ he and
others share.

However, free action does not have a clearly
defined g~l. ~ free action is ‘open’, it trans,,;
cends the given, but it can be a leap into the

unknown. Thus revolution is more likely to arise
from a desire to change a restricting present than
from ~ clearly defined conception of revolution,
or of a post-revolutionary society. Merl.eao.-Ponty
says that ‘it is doubtful whether the RUssian peasants of 1917 expressly envisaged revolution and
the transfer of property. Revolution arises day
by day from the concatenation of less remote and
more remote ends.’ He’compares the revolutionary
movement to the work of an artist. Both are projects in which man asserts his freedom by transcending the present, but without knowing exactly
where he is going: ‘The revolutionary project,
like the work of an artist, is an intention which
itself creates its instruments and its means of
expression. ‘

In this analogy, as in his discussion so far,
Merleau-Ponty would appear to regard the individual
fre~ project and the project – or historical development – of whole social groups as essentially th~
same. But in fact the relationship between individual projects and the social project, or history,
is’ far more complex than the analogy would suggest. It is a relationship of dialectical interpenetration. As we have see~, the individual project starts from the given situation, which includes the social and historical world of ‘ the individual. It is thus not a project that is the outcome purely of individual decision or consciousness; it is not the project of a pure subject, but
of the individual as he sustains intersubjectivity.

But, if we turn to the other side of the coin,
is history – the general social project – sustain~d
by individual projects? The answer is essentially
‘yes’, but not in a simple or causal fashion. It
is only because the individual project is already
social, is centred outside the individual, that tn~
individual project sustains the social project history – and gives it meaning. We cannot treat
history as anything so simple as the sum of individual wills or the acts of great men. SUch conceptions, implicitly idealist, since they assume
pure and autonomous cortsciousnesses, would make
history a wholly random affair: ‘There would not
be, in the history of social prog~ess, revolutionary si tua tions or periods of setback. A social
revolution would be equally possible at any moment,
and one might reasonably expect a despot to undergo a conversion to anarchism. History would never
moye in any direction, nor would it be possible to
say that even over a short period of time events
were conspiring to produce any definite outcome. ,IS
But history is not random or arbitrary: it does
have a direction; events create structures, traditions. It is through the generality of individual
rrojects that history develops: ‘ ••• there must be
atrictly speaking an intersubjectivity; each one
of us must be both anonymous in the sense of absolutely individual, and anonymous in the sense of
absolutely general~ OUr being in the world, is
the concrete bearer of this double anonymity.

‘Provided·that this is so, there can be situations, a direction (‘sens’) of history, .and a historical truth: three ways of saying the same thing.’

We can see in this statement one of the main
reasons for Merleau-Ponty’s interest in Marxism:

Marxism alone has considered the ‘direction’ and
, truth’ of history in a manner which integrates
general material factors with individual consciousness. Marxism alone attempts to examine the integration of the particular and the general within

the histOrical process.

It can do this, in Merleau-Ponty’s view, because, in the method of historical materialism, it
has an ‘open’ tool of economic analysis: ‘The
economics on which it bases history is not, as in
classical economics, a closed cycle of phenomena,
but a correlation of productive forces a~d forms
of production, which is complete only when the
former emerge from their anonymity, become aware
of themselves and are thus capable of imposing a
form on the future. Now, the coming to.awareness
is clearly a cultural phenomenon, and through it
all psychological motivations may find their way
into the web of history.,I9 Merleau-Ponty goes on
to argue that the insights of historical materialism can be expressed in ‘another language’, that
of the ‘philosophy of existence’. For in describing production and productive relations, it is in
fact describing man’s creation of the social world.

Thus we could perhaps say that historical materialism ‘does not base history and ways of thinking on
production and ways of working, but more generally
on ways of existing and coexisting, on human relationships.’ Historical materialism relates ideas
and economic forms not directly to each other, but
through the mediation of general his’torical modes
of existence. For example, solipsism, as a philosophical doctrine, cannot be seen as the ‘reSUlt’

of a system of private property. We cannot treat,
it as a mechanical projection of economics into
the sphere of ideas. But solipsism and private
property are clearly related, even though neither
is the product of the other. Rather, they are both
expressions of the same way of being in the world,20
of the same way of working or coexisting. What
they share is ‘the same existential prejudice in
favour of isolation and mistrust’, arising from a
particular mode of human coexistence. MerleauPonty is not denying the importance of economics,
in the narrower sense of factors of production,
especially in revolutionary situations; but he
argues that this narrower sense of the term outstrips its own meaning, for one cannot separate the
economic from the wider social factors.

Marxism provides a generally valid method of
historical and social analysis, in Merleau-Ponty’s
view, and points to the possible ‘direction’ of
history; but a general analysis cannot provide an
infallible basis for deciding how we should act in
specific and immediate situations. Thus he could
embrace the general method of analysis while remaining highly critical of the specific policies
of the French Communist Party and other groups
which claimed to be Marxist.

After the ‘Phenomenology’

This article has concentrated on onl’y two of
Merleau-Ponty’s works, The Structure of Behaviour
and the Phenomenology of Perception. They have
been considered at such length because it is in
them that Merleau-Ponty develops the core of his
‘philosophy and because they provide the underpinnings for his other works. 2I This is not to
deny that a later development takes place in his
thought. In his last work, The Visible and the
Invisible,22 a significant change of perspective
has taken place: the unity of Being is stressed
over and placed prior to the dialectic of man and
world. But the concept of Being and the assumption that there is a unity of Being already exists
in the Phenomenology, although not fully explicated
there. The developments which CUlminate in The
Visible and the Invisible arise from within the
earlier philosophy and do not at any time constitute a break from it.

The bulk of Merleau-Ponty’s writings after
1945 are not concerned directly with questions of

ontology, nor with the formulation of a general
philosophy. They are concerned with such topics
as politics, aesthetics, literature, anthropology,
linguistics, and are often very specific’ in content. They often discuss a particular political
event or situation, a particular artist or the
theories of a specific anthropologist and many are
journalistic in form.

However, for all their concreteness, these writings – even newspaper articles
– cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the philosophy implicitly contained in
them. For whether writing about the. Algerian war
or the French Communist Party, C~zanne’s painting
or L~vi-Strauss~ Merleau-Ponty’s approach remains
a function of his own philosophical perspective.

Thus, for example, his discussion of C~zanne’s
painting in ‘C~zanne’s doubt,23 cannot be fully
understood unless we realise the implicit parallel
which Merleau-Ponty draws between what he believes
C~zanne is doing and what he sees himself doing:

C~zanne is concerned to overcome the dichotomy of
art and nature; he attempts to paint the world and
his feelings about it as they are, avoiding either
a total subjectivism, which could make his vision
and feeling non-communicable, or an ‘objective’

approach, which would make of him the dispassionate observer of a thing-like nature – analogous to
the philosopher who surveys the world as if he is
not part of it: C~zanne’s use of perspective does
not conform to its ‘Liws’. We know that ‘objectively ” according to geometric perspective, objects diminish in size for us as we get further
away from them. But ‘lived perspective’ is not
like that: we do not perceive by geometry, but on
the basis of our own situation which is not purely
spatial, but is a function of our total existence.

The ‘deformations’ of perspective, for which
C~zanne is known, capture the non-geometric manner
in which we actually see, in which size and spatialrelations vary according to what concerns us
about a scene.

To give another example, this time drawn from

politics: we have to grasp Merleau-Ponty’s notions
of freedom and history, as developed in the
Phenomonology, in order t~understand his criticisms of the Soviet Union and of the French Communist Party. These criticisms are most fully developed in a book entitled The Adventures of the
Dialectic,24 written in 1955. In this work,
Merleau-Ponty’s central argument against the
Communism of the time is that it has destroyed the
dialectic of individual and history – and hence the
possibility of a humanistic society and individual
freedom – by denying the subjectivity of men in
the name of the inevitable laws of historical development. For Merleau-Ponty, as we have seen, men
make history as concrete, experiencing individuals.

If we forget this and suppress tne individual in
the name of the general – i.e. the inevitable march
of the proletariat to communism – then we destroy
the relationship of the ‘for-itself’ and the ‘initself’; we destroy the dialectical relationship
in which the free and open human project consists.

Merleau-Ponty’s breadth of interests and his
competence in fields as apparently distant from
each other as art and politics, physiology, linguistics and history of philosophy is something
rarely found among British philosophers.

It is a
breadth of interest, however, wholly consistent
with his conception of philosophy. To philosophise is, in his view, to ‘return to things themselves’. Philosophy cannot be an endless scrutiny
of its own propositions.

If it were, it would
become a solipsistic activity, divorced from the
world around it and doomed to unreality. To
philosophize is to think about something and the
concrete world around the philosopher must be his
field of study. Philosophy is an activity turned
outwards towards the world; the philosopher a
person who examines in wonderment the complexity
and coherence of the world ••• it is, among other
qualities, his sense of wonderment and his ability
to communicate it which makes Merleau-Ponty a
philosopher worth reading.

ftlIDandPopula .. MeID…Y
An Interview with Michel Foucault
The following interview originally appeared in
Cahiers du Cinema (251-2), July-August 1974.

It has been translated by Martin Jordin.

di~cussion is introduced by PB and ST of Cahiers

Lacombe Lucien, Night Porter, The Chinese in Paris,
The Infernal Trio, etc, films whose avowed aim is
to rewrite history, are not isolated occurrences.

They are themselves part of history, a history in
the making; they have (as we are sometimes reproached for saying) a context.

In France,-this
context is the coming to power of a new bourgeoisie,
a fraction of the bourgeoisie with its own ideology
(Giscard, president of all the French; a more-justand-humane society detc), with its own conception of
france and of history. What is called ‘postGaullism’ is also an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to discard a particular image of itself heroic and nationalist, but also anti-Petainist and
anti-fascist – which de Gaulle and Gaullism embodied, if not, strictly speaking, Pompiaou.

Chaban’s electoral failure signed the death warrant
of this pompous and rqther grotesque heroic image

(cf. Malraux) of France’s recent history. A different version is beginning to be written and
scre~ned: that France was not so anti-fascist as
all that, that the French people didn’t give a
damn about Nazism, that the anti-fascism and resistance were never anything more than prec.isely
this farcical image of Gaullist ‘grandeur’ which
is currently being shown up as a fraud.

What is emerging is an ideology of cynicism:

the ideology of the technocratic multinationals
whose representative Giscard is. They feel the
French people are ripe for such cynicism (a cynicism of the ruling class; the disenchantment of the
exploited classes). A cynicism which appears on
the screen in the so-called ‘retro style,l: a
snobbish fetishism of the old-fashioned (clothes
and ornaments) and a ridiculing of history.

All the implications, all the effects of this
fake archaeology of history had to be exposed.

It was and is necessary to confront it with a gen(1) The current fad for the recent past, this
hearking-back to the thirties and forties, etc,
has come to be known in France as ‘la mode retro’.

(trans. )

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