Maurice Merleau-Ponty (14 March 1908 – 3 May 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art and politics. He was on the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes, the leftist magazine created by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945.
Life and work
Merleau-Ponty was born in Rochefort-sur-Mer, in the province of Charente-Maritime, on March 14, 1908. After the death in 1913 of his father, a colonial artillery captain and a knight of the Legion of Honor, he moved with his family to Paris. He would later describe his childhood as incomparably happy, and he remained very close to his mother until her death in 1953. Merleau-Ponty pursued secondary studies at the Parisian lycees Janson-de-Sailly and Louis-le-Grand, completing his first course in philosophy at Janson-de-Sailly with Gustave Rodrigues in 1923–24. He won the school’s “Award for Outstanding Achievement” in philosophy that year and would later trace his commitment to the vocation of philosophy to this first course. He was also awarded “First Prize in Philosophy” at Louis-le-Grand in 1924–25. He attended the École Normale Supérieure from 1926 to 1930, where he befriended Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Some evidence suggests that, during these years, Merleau-Ponty authored a novel, Nord. Récit de l’arctique, under the pseudonym Jacques Heller. His professors at ENS included Léon Brunschvicg and Émile Bréhier, the latter supervising his research on Plotinus for the Diplôme d’études supérieures in 1929. Bréhier would continue to supervise Merleau-Ponty’s research through the completion of his two doctoral dissertations in 1945. During his student years, Merleau-Ponty attended Husserl’s 1929 Sorbonne lectures and Georges Gurvitch’s 1928–1930 courses on German philosophy. He received the agrégation in philosophy in 1930, ranking in second place.
After a year of mandatory military service, Merleau-Ponty taught at the lycee in Beauvais from 1931 to 1933, pursued a year of research on perception funded by a subvention from the Caisse nationale des sciences (the precursor of today’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique) in 1933–34, and taught at the lycee in Chartres in 1934–35. From 1935 to 1940, he was a tutor (agégé-répétiteur) at the École Normale Supérieure, where his primary duty was to prepare students for the agrégation. During this period, he attended Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel and Aron Gurwitsch’s lectures on Gestalt psychology. His first publications also appeared during these years, as a series of review essays on Max Scheler’s Ressentiment (1935), Gabriel Marcel’s Being and Having (1936), and Sartre’s Imagination (1936). In 1938, he completed his thèse complémentaire, originally titled Conscience et comportement [Consciousness and Behavior] and published in 1942 as Le structure de comportement [The Structure of Behavior]. He was the first outside visitor to the newly established Husserl Archives in Louvain, Belgium, in April 1939, where he met Eugen Fink and consulted Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts, including Ideen II and later sections of Die Krisis.
With the outbreak of World War Two, Merleau-Ponty served for a year as lieutenant in the 5th Infantry Regiment and 59th Light Infantry Division, until he was wounded in battle in June 1940, days before the signing of the armistice between France and Germany. He was awarded the Croix de guerre, recognizing bravery in combat. After several months of convalescence, he returned to teaching at the Lycée Carnot in Paris, where he remained from 1940 until 1944. In November 1940, he married Suzanne Jolibois, and their daughter Marianne was born in June 1941. In the winter of 1940–41, Merleau-Ponty renewed his acquaintance with Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he had met as a student at the École Normale, through their involvement in the resistance group Socialisme et Liberté. The group published around ten issues of an underground review until the arrest of two members in early 1942 led to its dissolution. After the conclusion of the war, in 1945, Merleau-Ponty would collaborate with Sartre and Beauvoir to found Les Temps Modernes, a journal devoted to “littérature engagée”, for which he served as political editor until 1952.
At the end of the 1943–44 school year, Merleau-Ponty completed his main thesis, Phénoménologie de la perception [Phenomenology of Perception], and in 1944–45 he taught at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, replacing Sartre during the latter’s leave from this position. Merleau-Ponty defended his two dissertations in July 1945, fulfilling the requirements for the Docteur ès lettres, which was awarded “with distinction”. In October 1945, Les Temps Modernes published its inaugural issue; Merleau-Ponty was a founding member of the journal’s governing board, managed its daily affairs, and penned many of its editorials that were signed simply “T.M.”, even though he refused to allow his name to be printed on the cover alongside Sartre’s as the review’s Director. That fall, Merleau-Ponty was appointed to the post of Maître de conférences in Psychology at the University of Lyon, where he was promoted to the rank of Professor in the Chair of Psychology in 1948. From 1947 to 1949, he also taught supplementary courses at the École Normale Supérieure, where his students included the young Michel Foucault. Student notes (taken by Jean Deprun) from Merleau-Ponty’s 1947–48 course on “The Union of the Soul and the Body in Malebranche, Biran, and Bergson”—a course that he taught at both Lyon and E.N.S. to prepare students for the agrégation and which was attended by Foucault—were published in 1968.
In 1947, Merleau-Ponty participated regularly in the Collège philosophique, an association formed by Jean Wahl to provide an open venue for intellectual exchange without the academic formality of the Sorbonne, and frequented by many leading Parisian thinkers. Merleau-Ponty published his first book of political philosophy in 1947, Humanisme et terreur, essai sur le problème communiste [Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem], in which he responded to the developing opposition between liberal democracies and communism by cautioning a “wait-and-see” attitude toward Marxism. A collection of essays concerning the arts, philosophy, and politics, Sens et non-sense [Sense and Non-Sense], appeared in 1948. In the fall of 1948, Merleau-Ponty delivered a series of seven weekly lectures on French national radio that were subsequently published as Causeries 1948.
Merleau-Ponty declined an invitation to join the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago as a Visiting Professor in 1948–49, but instead received a leave from Lyon for the year to present a series of lectures at the University of Mexico in early 1949. Later in 1949, Merleau-Ponty was appointed Professor of Child Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of Paris, and in this position lectured widely on child development, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Gestalt psychology, and anthropology. His eight courses from the Sorbonne are known from compiled student notes reviewed by him and published in the Sorbonne’s Bulletin de psychologie. Merleau-Ponty held this position for three years until his election, in 1952, to the Chair of Philosophy at the Collège de France, the most prestigious post for a philosopher in France, which he would hold until his death in 1961. At forty-four, Merleau-Ponty was the youngest person ever elected to this position, but his appointment was not without controversy. Rather than following the typical procedure of ratifying the vote of the General Assembly of Professors, who had selected Merleau-Ponty as their lead candidate, the Académie des sciences morales et politiques made the unprecedented decision to remove his name from the list of candidates; the Académie’s decision was subsequently overturned by the Minister of Education himself, who allowed the faculty vote in favor of Merleau-Ponty to stand. Merleau-Ponty’s January 1953 inaugural lecture at the Collège de France was published under the title Éloge de la Philosophie [In Praise of Philosophy]. Many of his courses from the Collège de France have subsequently been published, based either on student notes or Merleau-Ponty’s own lecture notes.
In the face of growing political disagreements with Sartre set in motion by the Korean War, Merleau-Ponty resigned his role as political editor of Les Temps Modernes in December of 1952 and withdrew from the editorial board altogether in 1953. His critique of Sartre’s politics became public in 1955 with Les Aventures de la dialectique [Adventures of the Dialectic], in which Merleau-Ponty distanced himself from revolutionary Marxism and sharply criticized Sartre for “ultrabolshevism”. Beauvoir’s equally biting rebuttal, “Merleau-Ponty and Pseudo-Sartreanism”, published the same year in Les Temps Modernes, accuses Merleau-Ponty of willfully misrepresenting Sartre’s position, opening a rift between the three former friends that would never entirely heal. Merleau-Ponty’s intellectual circle during his years at the Collège de France included Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, and for several years he was a regular contributor to the popular weekly magazine L’Express. In October and November 1955, on a commission from Alliance française, Merleau-Ponty visited several African countries, including Tunisia, French Equatorial Africa, the Belgian Congo, and Kenya, where he delivered a series of lectures on the concept of race, colonialism, and development. In 1956, he published Les Philosophes célèbres [Famous Philosophers], a large edited volume of original introductions to key historical and contemporary thinkers (beginning, interestingly, with philosophers from India and China) whose contributors included Gilles Deleuze, Gilbert Ryle, Alfred Schutz, and Jean Starobinski. In April 1957, Merleau-Ponty declined to accept induction into France’s Order of the Legion of Honor, presumably in protest over the inhumane actions of the Fourth Republic, including the use of torture, during the Battle of Algiers. In October and November of 1957, as his second commission from Alliance française, he lectured in Madagascar, Reunion Island, and Mauritius, citing as a primary motivation for accepting the commission his desire to see first-hand the effects of reforms in French policies governing overseas territories. The last book Merleau-Ponty published during his lifetime, Signes [Signs], appearing in 1960, collecting essays on art, language, the history of philosophy, and politics that spanned more than a decade. His last published essay, “L’Œil et l’esprit” [Eye and Mind] addressing the ontological implications of painting, appeared in the 1961 inaugural issue of Art de France. Merleau-Ponty died of a heart attack in Paris on May 3rd, 1961, at the age of 53, with Descartes’ Optics open on his desk.
Merleau-Ponty’s friend and former student Claude Lefort published two of his teacher’s unfinished manuscripts posthumously: La prose du monde [The Prose of the World], an exploration of literature and expression drafted in 1950–51 and apparently abandoned; and Le visible et l’invisible [The Visible and the Invisible], a manuscript and numerous working notes from 1959–1961 that present elements of Merleau-Ponty’s mature ontology. The latter manuscript was apparently part of a larger project, Être et Monde [Being and World], for which two additional unpublished sections were substantially drafted in 1957–1958: La Nature ou le monde du silence [Nature or the World of Silence] and Introduction à l’ontologie [Introduction to Ontology]. These manuscripts, along with many of Merleau-Ponty’s other unpublished notes and papers, were donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France by Suzanne Merleau-Ponty in 1992 and are available for consultation by scholars. (Source)
(in French unless noted otherwise)
- La structure du comportement, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1942; 6th ed., 1967.
- The Structure of Behavior, trans. Alden Fisher, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963; Boston: Beacon Press, 1963; London: Methuen, 1965. (English)
- Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, 1945; 1976.
- Fenomenología de la percepción, trans. Emilio Uranga, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1957, xx+507 pp. (Spanish)
- Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, New York: Humanities Press, 1962; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962; rev.trans. Forrest Williams, 1981. (English)
- Fenomenologia della percezione, trans. Andrea Bonomi, Milan: Saggiatore, 1965. (Italian)
- Phänomenologie der Wahrnehmung, trans. Rudolf Boehm, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1966. (German)
- Chikaku no genshogaku [知覚の現象学], 1967. (Japanese)
- Fenomenologia da percepção, trans. Reginaldo di Piero, Rio de Janeiro: Freitas Bastos, 1971, 465 pp. (Brazilian Portuguese)
- Fenomenología de la percepción, trans. Jem Cabanes, Barcelona: Península, 1975; repr., Barcelona: Planeta-De Agostini, 1993, 469 pp. (Spanish)
- Voorwoord tot de fenomenologie van de waarneming, trans. Reinout Bakker, Baarn: Het Wereldvenster, 1977, 79 pp. Trans. of introduction. (Dutch)
- Fenomenologija percepcije, trans. Anđelko Habazin, ed. & intro. Danilo Pejović, Sarajevo: Veselin Masleša: Svjetlost, 1978; 1990, 567 pp. (Serbo-Croatian)
- Fenomenologia percepcji: fragmenty, trans. Jacek Migasiński and Piotr Stefańczyk, Warsaw: Polska Akademia Nauk. Instytut Filozofii i Socjologii, 1988, 111 pp. Partial trans. (Polish)
- Prooimio stēn Phainomenologia tēs antilēpsēs, trans. Phōtē Kallia, Athens: Ekdoseis Erasmos, 1991, 47 pp. Trans. of introduction. (Greek)
- Fenomenologia da percepção, trans. Carlos Alberto Ribeiro de Moura, São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1994, 662 pp; 2nd ed., 1999. (Brazilian Portuguese)
- Kroppens fænomenologi, trans. Bjørn Nake, intro. Dag Østerberg, Frederiksberg: Det lille forlag, 1994. Partial trans. (Danish)
- Algının fenomenolojisine önsöz. Avant-propos, trans. Medar Atıcı, Istanbul: AFA, 1994, 60 pp. Partial trans. (Turkish)
- Fenomenologiya vospriyatiya [Феноменология восприятия], St Petersburg: Iuventa Nauka [Ювента Наука], 1999, 605 pp. (Russian)
- Ẓuhūrīyat al-idrāk, trans. Fuʼād Shāhīn, Beirut: Maʻhad al-Inmāʼ al-ʻArabī, 1998, 367 pp. (Arabic)
- Fenomenologia perceptiei, trans. Ilieş Câmpeanu and Georgiana Vătăjelu Medrea, Oradea: Aion, 1999, 535 pp.  (Romanian)
- Kroppens fenomenologi, trans. William Fovet, Göteborg: Daidalos, 1999, 183 pp. Partial trans. (Swedish)
- Zhi jue xian xiang xue [知觉现象学], trans. Zhihui Jiang, Beijing: Shang wu yin shu guan, 2001. (Chinese)
- Fenomenologia percepcji, trans. Małgorzata Kowalska and Jacek Migasiński, Warsaw: Fundacja Aletheia, 2001, 499 pp. (Polish)
- Fenomenologija zaznave, trans. Špela Žakelj, intro. Janez Strehovec, Ljubljana: Študentska založba, 2006. (Slovenian)
- Fenomenologija na văsprijatieto, Sofia: Sonm, 2011, 670 pp. (Bulgarian)
- Az észlelés fenomenológiája, trans. Sajó Sándor, Budapest: L'Harmattan, 2012, 497 pp. (Hungarian)
- Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald Landes, London: Routledge, 2012. (English)
- Fenomenologie vnímání, trans. Jakub Čapek, Prague: Oikoymenh, 2013, 559 pp. (Czech)
- Humanisme et terreur: essai sur le problème communiste, Paris: Gallimard, 1947.
- Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, trans. John O’Neill, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. (English)
- Sens et non-sens, Paris: Nagel, 1948; repr., Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
- Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Herbert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. (English)
- Les Relations avec autrui chez l’enfant, Paris: Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1951; repr., 1975.
- "The Child’s Relations with Others", trans. William Cobb, in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 1964, pp 96-155. (English)
- Éloge de la philosophie, Paris: Gallimard, 1953.
- In Praise of Philosophy, trans. John Wild and James Edie, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1963. (English)
- Les Aventures de la dialectique, Paris: Gallimard, 1955.
- Las aventuras de la dialéctica, trans. León Rozitchner, Buenos Aires: Leviatán, 1957. (Spanish)
- Die Abenteuer der Dialektik, trans. Alfred Schmidt, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968. (German)
- Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. Joseph Bien, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1974. (English)
- editor, Les philosophes célèbres, Paris: Mazenod, 1956.
- Signes, Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
- Signs, trans. Richard McCleary, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. (English)
- L’Œil et l’esprit, Paris: Gallimard, 1964.
- "Eye and Mind", in Merleau-Ponty, 2007. (English)
- The Primacy of Perception: and Other Essays on Phenomenology, Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, ed. James Edie, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. (English)
- Le visible et l’invisible: suivi de notes de travail, ed. Claude Lefort, Paris: Gallimard, 1964.
- The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968. (English)
- Résumés de cours, Collège de France 1952–1960, Paris: Gallimard, 1968.
- Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, trans. John O'Neill, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970. (English)
- La Prose du monde, Paris: Gallimard, 1969.
- The Prose of the World, trans. John O’Neill, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1974. (English)
- The Essential Writings of Merleau-Ponty, ed. Alden L. Fisher, New York: Harcourt, 1969. (English)
- Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, trans. Hugh J. Silverman, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973. (English)
- Merleau-Ponty à la Sorbonne. Résumé de cours 1949–1952, Paris: Cynara, 1988.
- Child Psychology and Pedagogy: The Sorbonne Lectures, 1949–1952, trans. Talia Welsh, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010. (English)
- Texts and Dialogues, eds. Hugh Silverman and James Barry Jr., New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1992. (English)
- La nature, notes, cours du Collège de France, Paris: Seuil, 1995.
- Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France, trans. Robert Vallier, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003. (English)
- Notes des cours au Collège de France 1958–1959 et 1960–1961, Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
- Parcours 1935–1951, LaGrasse: Verdier, 1997.
- L’union de l’âme et du corps chez Malebranche, Biran et Bergson, ed. Jean Deprun, Paris: Vrin, 1997.
- The Incarnate Subject: Malebranche, Biran, and Bergson on the Union of Body and Soul, eds. Andrew Bjelland Jr. and Patrick Burke, Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2001. (English)
- Notes de cours sur, L’origine de la géométrie de Husserl, ed. Renaud Barbaras, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.
- Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology, eds. Leonard Lawlor with Bettina Bergo, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2002. (English)
- Parcours deux 1951–1961, LaGrasse: Verdier, 2000.
- Causeries 1948, ed. Stéphanie Ménasé, Paris: Seuil, 2002.
- The World of Perception, trans. Oliver Davis, London: Routledge, 2004. (English)
- L’institution, La passivité. Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954–1955), Tours: Belin, 2003.
- Institution and Passivity: Course Notes from the Collège de France (1954–1955), trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010. (English)
- The Merleau-Ponty Reader, eds. Leonard Lawlor and Ted Toadvine, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007. (English)
- Oeuvres, Paris: Gallimard, 2010.
- Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France, Notes, 1953, Geneva: MētisPresses, 2011.
- Recherches sur l’usage littéraire du langage. Course au Collège de France, Notes, 1953, Geneva: MētisPresses, 2013.
- "La Nature de la Perception" , in Theodore F. Geraets, Vers une nouvelle philosophie transcendentale, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971, pp 188-199.
- "The Nature of Perception", trans. Forrest Williams, in Merleau-Ponty, Texts and Dialogues, 1992, pp 74-84. (English)
- "Un inédit de Maurice Merleau-Ponty", in Merleau-Ponty, Parcours deux 1951–1961, 2000, pp 36-48.
- "An Unpublished Text by Maurice Merleau-Ponty", in The Merleau-Ponty Reader, 2007, pp 283-290. (English)
- "La Nature ou le monde du silence (pages d’introduction)", in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ed. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, Paris: Mermann, 2008, pp 41-53.
- Taylor Carman, Mark B. N. Hansen, The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, Cambridge University Press, 2000. (English)
- Pascal Dupond, Le vocabulaire de Merleau-Ponty, Paris: Ellipses, 2001.
- Brett Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexkill, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009. (English)
- Ted Toadvine, "Maurice Merleau-Ponty", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 14 Sep 2016. (English)
- Jack Reynolds, "Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908—1961)", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d. (English)