Dates: 1908-1961

Nationality: French

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (March 14, 1908 – May 3, 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in addition to being closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. At the core of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role that perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world. Like the other major phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty expressed his philosophical insights in writings on art, literature, linguistics, and politics; however Merleau-Ponty was the only major phenomenologist of the first half of the Twentieth Century to engage extensively with the sciences, and especially with descriptive psychology. Because of this engagement, his writings have become influential with the recent project of naturalizing phenomenology in which phenomenologists utilize the results of psychology and cognitive science.

It is important to clarify, and indeed emphasize, that the attention Merleau-Ponty pays to diverse forms of art (visual, plastic, literary, poetic, etc) should not be attributed to a concern with beauty per se. Nor is his work an attempt to elaborate normative criteria for “art.” Thus, one does not find in his work a theoretical attempt to discern what constitutes a major work or a work of art, or even handicraft.

Still, it is useful to note that, while he does not establish any normative criteria for art as such, there is nonetheless in his work a prevalent distinction between primary and secondary modes of expression. This distinction appears in Phenomenology of Perception (p 207, 2nd note {Fr. ed.}) and is sometimes repeated in terms of spoken and speaking language (le langage parlé et le langage parlant) (The Prose of the World, p. 10). Spoken language (le langage parlé), or secondary expression, returns to our linguistic baggage, to the cultural heritage that we have acquired, as well as the brute mass of relationships between signs and significations. Speaking language (le langage parlant), or primary expression, such as it is, is language in the production of a sense, language at the advent of a thought, at the moment where it makes itself an advent of sense.

It is speaking language, that is to say, primary expression, that interests Merleau-Ponty and which keeps his attention through his treatment of the nature of production and the reception of expressions, a subject which also overlaps with an analysis of action, of intentionality, of perception, as well as the links between freedom and external conditions.

The notion of style occupies an important place in “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”. In spite of certain similarities with André Malraux, Merleau-Ponty distinguishes himself from Malraux in respect to three conceptions of style, the last of which is employed in Malraux’s The Voices of Silence. Merleau-Ponty remarks that in this work “style” is sometimes used by Malraux in a highly subjective sense, understood as a projection of the artist’s individuality. Sometimes it is used, on the contrary, in a very metaphysical sense (in Merleau-Ponty’s opinion, a mystical sense), in which style is connected with a conception of an “über-artist” expressing “the Spirit of Painting.” Finally, it sometimes is reduced to simply designating a categorization of an artistic school or movement.

For Merleau-Ponty, it is these uses of the notion of style that lead Malraux to postulate a cleavage between the objectivity of Italian Renaissance painting and the subjectivity of painting in his own time, a conclusion that Merleau-Ponty disputes. According to Merleau-Ponty, it is important to consider the heart of this problematic, by recognizing that style is first of all a demand owed to the primacy of perception, which also implies taking into consideration the dimensions of historicity and intersubjectivity.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Maurice Merleau-Ponty’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 December 2010, 22:23 UTC, <>

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