People in our Neighbourhood: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

What I am trying to convey to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the impalpable source of sensations. J. Gasquet, Cézanne

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (14 March 1908 – 3 May 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger in addition to being closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

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 his insight that the body and that which it perceived could not be disentangled from each other.

Merleau-Ponty believed that science (through too much abstraction) resulted in a philosophical tendency to reduce every phenomena, object, and person to nothing more than collected data. Philosophers had a duty to relate things as they were viewed, not as science described them. This approach requires a return to The World as Lived. We can only know ourselves based upon the input of others. We are defined by all our actions, thoughts, and statements.

According to Merleau-Ponty, humans and our world are interconnected – neither causes the other, instead we shape and are shaped by our environment. We have both a natural (predefined) existence and the ability to change that nature via conscious choice.

His statement that “I am my body” could be interpreted as advocating a materialist, behaviorist type position. However, he does not deny those aspects of our life which are commonly called the ‘mental’ but suggests that the use of this ‘mind’ is inseparable from our body and physical nature.


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