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Maurice Merleau-Ponty - Biography

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born March 14, 1908, in Rochefort-sur-Mer, France. Like many of his generation, he lost his father in the First World War. He attended the Lycées Janson-de-Sailly and Louis-le-Grande, receiving his aggregation in philosophy at the École Normale Superieure in 1930. Merleau-Ponty attended the lectures of Kojeve on Hegel, and was also working with the Catholic Journal Ésprirt for a brief period. He continued his studies at the École Normale Superieure and then began teaching philosophy at high schools in Beauvais, Chartres, and Paris. He completed his Docteur des Lettres based on two dissertations, La Structure du Comportement (1942) and his Phénoménology de la Perception (1945) (the Structure of Behavior and the Phenomenology of Perception). He took the chair of child psychology at the Sorbonne in 1949, and in 1952 he was elected to the chair of philosophy at the Collège de France, the youngest ever appointed to the position, which he held until his death in May 1961.

Merleai-Ponty served in the infantry when in World War II broke out. He began collaborating with his friend and co-founding editor of Les Temps Modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre from 1945 to 1952. However, he became disillusioned with the Korean War, and Sartrian politics, and decided to resign from the editorial board of what would soon become Sartre's journal. The nature of Merleau-Ponty's disagreements with Sartre are formulated in the Adventures of the Dialectic, published in 1955. It is an exhaustive analysis of Sartre's relationship to communism, criticizing his privileging of the subject-object relations in his version of phenomenology.

Merleau-Ponty was greatly influenced by Husserl, and in his own work he attempted to refute the tendencies in Western philosophy of empiricism and what he called intellectualism, or what is commonly referred to as idealism. He challenged the thinking of dualisms, of subject and object, self and world, through the lived experience of the existential body, as revealed in his (The Phenomenology of Perception). He argued that the 'body subject' was frequently underestimated in philosophy, which tends to view the body as something to be transcended by the power of the mind. For this reason, he was interested in the 'primacy of perception', as a place of embodied inherence in the world, while admitting that perception itself is primarily cognitive. His opposition to the knowledge of scientific and analytic methods was based on their derivative relation to knowledge as compared to the practical thinking of an embodied relation to the world.

He confirmed the primacy of lived experience by pronouncing, "the perceiving mind is an incarnate mind." He saw the body as in continuity with the world, arguing that even considering the body as external and in the world is inconsistent with a concept of the primacy of lived experience. This is a difficult mode of thinking, where the consideration of perception in the world itself delivers the subject into the state of perception. Therefore, there is no perception in general, there is only perception in the world. For Merleau-Ponty, the 'lived' perception is fundamental to phenomenology, it is what makes it possible and necessary. As the perceiving subject changes, hence the relation of the subject to the world also changes, beginning things anew. Consciousness for Merleau-Ponty is also perceptual, in a state of flux, and is never autonomous from what it perceives of the world. Certainty of idea is based on the certainty of perception, which, contrary to the cogito of Descartes, always remains to be established by phenomenological investigation -there is no universal or ideal certainty at the level of ideas. One cannot say that 'I perceive' is equivalent to 'I think', nor is the concept of being strictly a universalism. The incarnate situation of the perceiving subject opens the way to a phenomenological description of the living present -the perceived thing is equivalent to what is said about it.

Merleau-Ponty was also fond of language-based concepts as those of linguistic and structuralist philosophies, and he cited such ideas in his critiques of Sartre and his contemporaries for playing down the importance of language in relation to thought. Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi-Strauss and Ferdinand De Saussure were all key figures for Merleau-Ponty. Claude Levi-Strauss, a structuralist anthropologist, dedicated his major work The Savage Mind to the memory of Merleau-Ponty, and Ferdinand De Saussure, a linguist who demonstrated the importance differences play in language, was introduced to Merleau-Ponty, into his reflections and teachings on language, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Saussure would form the core of structuralist thought, particularly on theories of language and semiotics. In his unfinished work, The Prose of the World, Merleau-Ponty writes, 'Saussure shows admirably that … it cannot be the history of the word or language which determines its present meaning.' Structural linguistics is a theory that seems to emphasize the subject's lived relation to the world. Meaning in language is attributed to the interplay, a diacritical relationship, between signs. As Merleau-Ponty has observed of Saussure, the notion of the primacy of the synchronic dimension of language for understanding the nature of language itself "liberates history from historicism and makes a new conception of reason possible." Language is enacted and evolving, it is the "living present" in speech. Therefore, language can no more be reduced to a history of linguistics than history can be reduced to historical discourse.

Before completing what was to a be a considerable investigation into the relationship between what he saw as two distinct phases in his philosophy, firstly, as in the Phenomenology of Perception, the nature of perception as inherence in the world and a fundamental influence to the development of thought, and secondly, the furthering of his reflections on language, "to show how communication with others, and thought, take up and go beyond the realm of perception." He had entitled it The Visible and the Invisible, and nearly finished three chapters, as well as a series of "Working Notes" that reveal some profound changes in his thought. He died suddenly at the age of 53 while working of the manuscript.