Phenomenology of Perception

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Phenomenology of Perception
Phenomenology of Perception (French edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Original title Phénoménologie de la perception
Translator Colin Smith (1st translation)
Donald Landes (2nd translation)
Country France
Language French
Subject Perception, the human body
  • 1945 (Éditions Gallimard, in French)
  • 1962 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, in English)
  • 2012 (Routledge, new English translation)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 466 (1965 Routledge edition)
ISBN 978-0415834339 (2012 Routledge edition)

Phenomenology of Perception (French: Phénoménologie de la perception) is a 1945 book by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which Merleau-Ponty expounds his thesis of "the primacy of perception". The work established Merleau-Ponty as the pre-eminent philosopher of the body, and is considered a major statement of French existentialism. The relationship between Phenomenology of Perception and Merleau-Ponty's late, unfinished work has received much scholarly discussion. An English translation by Colin Smith was published in 1962; another English translation, by Donald Landes, was published in 2013.[1][2]


Following the work of Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty aims to reveal the phenomenological structure of perception. However, Merleau-Ponty's conceptions of phenomenology and the dialectic do not precisely follow those of Husserl or Martin Heidegger.

Merleau-Ponty's central thesis is that of the "primacy of perception." We are first perceiving the world, then we do philosophy. This entails a critique of the Cartesian stance of "cogito ergo sum", resulting in a largely different conception of consciousness. Cartesian dualism of mind and body is called into question as our primary way of existing in the world, and is ultimately rejected in favor of an intersubjective conception or dialectical and intentional concept of consciousness. What is characteristic of his account of perception is the centrality that the body plays. We perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence.

Further, the ability to reflect comes from a pre-reflective ground that serves as the foundation for reflecting on actions. In other words, we perceive phenomena first, then reflect on them via this mediation of perception, which is instantaneous and synonymous with our being in perception, as an outcome of our bodyhood, i.e., embodiment (as in Gestalt psychology).

His account of the body helps him undermine what had been a long-standing conception of consciousness, which hinges on the distinction between the for-itself (subject) and in-itself (object), which plays a central role in Sartre's philosophy. (One of his main targets was his colleague Jean-Paul Sartre, who released Being and Nothingness in 1943.) The body stands between this fundamental distinction between subject and object, ambiguously existing as both. Merleau-Ponty devotes a chapter to "The Body in its Sexual Being".[3]

Scholarly reception[edit]

Philosopher Roger Scruton writes in Sexual Desire (1986) that Merleau-Ponty's chapter on "The Body in its Sexual Being" is "surprisingly unhelpful".[4] Philosopher Robert Bernasconi writes in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) that Phenomenology of Perception established Merleau-Ponty as the pre-eminent philosopher of the body, and that, along with his other writings, it has found a more receptive audience among analytic philosophers than the works of other phenomenologists.[5] Philosopher G. B. Madison writes in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1999) that Phenomenology of Perception was "immediately and widely recognized as a major statement of French existentialism", and is best known for Merleau-Ponty's central thesis of "the primacy of perception". According to Madison, in his subsequent work in the 1940s and 1950s Merleau-Ponty sought to respond to the charge that, by gounding all intellectual and cultural acquisitions in the prereflective and prepersonal life of the body, the Phenomenology of Perception results in reductionism and anti-intellectualism and undermines the ideals of reason and truth. Madison adds that the relationship between the book and Merleau-Ponty's late, unfinished work The Visible and the Invisible, edited by Claude Lefort, has received much scholarly discussion, with some commentators seeing a significant shift in direction in his later thought, and others emphasizing the continuity of his work.[6]


  1. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) [p. iv]
  2. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Donald Landes. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2012) [p. i]
  3. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2005) [e.g. pp. 408]
  4. ^ Scruton, Roger, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (London: Phoenix, 1994) [p. 396]
  5. ^ Bernasconi, Robert, in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) [p. 588]
  6. ^ Madison, G. B., in Robert Audi's The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) [p. 558-9]

External links[edit]