This July, the OUP Philosophy team honors Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61) as their Philosopher of the Month. Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenologist and together with Sartre founded the existential philosophy. His work draws on the empirical psychology, the early phenomenology of Husserl, Saussure’s structuralism as well as Heidegger’s ontology.
His most famous work Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945, Phenomenology of Perception) established Merleau-Ponty as the philosopher of the body. The body is the centre of perceptions and medium of consciousness. By this, he emphasized the way in which our experience does not form a shut-off private domain, but a way of being-in-the world in which the lived body and the perceptible world coexist internally. It is through this body-world co-existence, called intersubjectivity, that all meanings originate. Merleau-Ponty thus opposes purely scientific thinking for their explanation of human experience, and all notions of dualism such as the subject-object dualism of Cartesianism associated with Sartre’s existentialism, and the separation of the mind into the Freudian distinction of the conscious and the unconscious.
Merleau-Ponty also has profound influence in the field of aesthetics and art theory. His philosophy of painting rests on the three essays: ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, ‘Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence’ and ‘Eye and Mind’. They examine how art and perception intertwine and how art displays the act of presenting the world in a way that is more truly representative. In his most famous essay, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, Merleau-Ponty offered an anti-formalist phenomenological interpretation of Cézanne’s painting. Whereas previous critical analysis of the artist tend to focus on his use of geometry, plane and form, Merleau-Ponty praised the artist for his use of colours and his ability to render visible a ‘lived’ prescientific experience of the world. Cezanne had used colors in the way that bring voluminosity and solidity to things since colours bring us closer to the world and get to ‘the heart of things’.
For more on Merleau-Ponty’s life and work, browse our interactive slideshow below:
Featured Image: The Card Player (5th version) (ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.