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Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 'Phenomenology of Perception'

Published onAug 24, 2021
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 'Phenomenology of Perception'

Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) is usually seen as the philosopher of the body and embodiment. German philosophers, such as Plessner and Husserl, had already indicated that the idea of the body as a thing or object (res extensa) is too limited and that the body is not only Körper (objective body) but also Leib (lived body). In Merleau-Ponty’s main work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), the lived body is explained in terms of “one own body” (corps propre) or “embodied subject” (corps sujet). For the first time in the history of modern Western philosophy, the body is conceived as a subject. As a French philosopher educated in the 1930s, Merleau-Ponty is particularly influenced by German phenomenology (Husserl) and philosophy of existence (Heidegger). Where Husserl speaks of sense-making (Sinngebung) in terms of intentionality or “consciousness of,” Merleau-Ponty makes it clear that before we are explicitly aware of anything we already give meaning through our embodied actions. He, therefore, speaks of “motor intentionality.” Whereas Heidegger describes human existence as Dasein, Merleau-Ponty underlines that existence always involves being embodied. It is striking that Merleau-Ponty also had great knowledge of the psychology, neurology, and psychiatry of that time. Especially the work of the German psychiatrist and neurologist Kurt Goldstein who, among other things, examined and treated World War I veterans, was very important to him. Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of what it means to be human are thus developed in close dialogue with empirical findings from that time and are not only based on philosophical theories. Jean-Luc Nancy (born 1940) nowhere explicitly discusses Merleau-Ponty’s work and does not call himself a phenomenologist because he finds this movement too subject-centered. Nevertheless, his thinking does fit within the philosophy of existence (following in the footsteps of Heidegger). And just like Merleau-Ponty, he describes existence as embodied. Unlike Merleau-Ponty (and also unlike Heidegger), Nancy emphasizes that the (embodied) subject is not the center of sense-making, but that sense always emerges in the “between,” the “being with” of multiple bodies.

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