Phenomenology of Perception

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Phenomenology of Perception
Phenomenology of Perception (French edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorMaurice Merleau-Ponty
Original titlePhénoménologie de la perception
TranslatorColin Smith (1st translation)
Donald Landes (2nd translation)
PublisherÉditions Gallimard, Routledge & Kegan Paul
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages466 (1965 Routledge edition)
ISBN978-0415834339 (2012 Routledge edition)

Phenomenology of Perception (French: Phénoménologie de la perception) is a 1945 book by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which the author 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.


Merleau-Ponty begins by attempting to define phenomenology, which according to him has not yet received a proper definition. He asserts that phenomenology contains a series of apparent contradictions, which include the fact that it attempts to create a philosophy that would be a rigorous science while also offering an account of space, time and the world as people experience them. Merleau-Ponty denies that such contradictions can be resolved by distinguishing between Edmund Husserl's views and those of Martin Heidegger, commenting that Heidegger's Being and Time (1927) "springs from an indication given by Husserl and amounts to no more than an explicit account of the 'natürlicher Weltbegriff' or the 'Lebenswelt' which Husserl, toward the end of his life, identified as the central theme of phenomenology, with the result that the contradiction appears in Husserl's own philosophy".[1]

Following the work of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty attempts to reveal the phenomenological structure of perception. He writes that while the "notion of sensation...seems immediate and obvious", it is in fact confused. Merleau-Ponty asserts that because "traditional analyses" have accepted it, they have "missed the phenomenon of perception." Merleau-Ponty argues that while sensation could be understood to mean "the way in which I am affected and the experiencing of a state of myself", there is nothing in experience corresponding to "pure sensation" or "an atom of feeling". He writes that, "The alleged self-evidence of sensation is not based on any testimony of consciousness, but on widely held prejudice."[2] Merleau-Ponty's central thesis is that of the "primacy of perception." He critiques of the Cartesian stance of "cogito ergo sum" and expounds a different conception of consciousness. Cartesian dualism of mind and body is called into question as the primary way of existing in the world, and is ultimately rejected in favor of an intersubjective conception or dialectical and intentional concept of consciousness. The body is central to Merleau-Ponty's account of perception. In his view, the ability to reflect comes from a pre-reflective ground that serves as the foundation for reflecting on actions.

Merleau-Ponty's 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 the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness was released 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", in which he suggests that the body "can symbolize existence because it brings it into being and actualizes it."[3]

Publication history[edit]

Phenomenology of Perception was first published in 1945. An English translation by Colin Smith was published in 1962; another English translation, by Donald Landes, was published in 2013.[4][5]


Evaluations in books[edit]

The philosopher A. J. Ayer, writing in Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1982), criticized Merleau-Ponty's arguments against the sense datum theory of perception, finding them inconclusive. He described Merleau-Ponty's inclusion of a chapter on sexuality as "surprising", suggesting that Merleau-Ponty included it to give him an opportunity to revisit the Hegelian dialectic of the master and the slave. He compared Merleau-Ponty's views on sex to those of Sartre in Being and Nothingness.[6] Murray S. Davis, writing in Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology (1983), observes that Merleau-Ponty's view that aspects of psychoanalysis, such as its attribution of meaning to all human actions and the diffusing of sexuality throughout the whole of human existence, are similar to phenomenology is controversial, and that other authors would view psychoanalysis as "materialistic and mechanical".[7] Helmut R. Wagner, writing in Phenomenology of Consciousness and Sociology of the Life-world (1983), described Phenomenology of Perception as an important contribution to phenomenology.[8] The philosopher Roger Scruton, writing in Sexual Desire (1986), described Merleau-Ponty's chapter on sexuality as "surprisingly unhelpful".[9]

The philosopher David Abram, writing in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), observed that while "the sensible thing" is "commonly considered by our philosophical tradition to be passive and inert", Merleau-Ponty consistently describes it in the active voice in Phenomenology of Perception. He rejected the idea that Merleau-Ponty's "animistic turns of phrase" are the result of poetic license, arguing that Merleau-Ponty "writes of the perceived things as entities, of sensible qualities as powers, and of the sensible itself as a field of animate presences, in order to acknowledge and underscore their active, dynamic contribution to perceptual experience."[10] Stephen Priest, writing in Merleau-Ponty (1998), commented that, following the publication of Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty decided that in it he had taken "subject-object dualism as phenomenologically primitive" and "made use of a comparatively superficial psychologistic vocabulary" that he wished to replace.[11]

G. B. Madison, writing in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1999), observed that Phenomenology of Perception was 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, Merleau-Ponty was criticized on the grounds that, by grounding all intellectual and cultural acquisitions in the prereflective and prepersonal life of the body, the Phenomenology of Perception promotes reductionism and anti-intellectualism and undermines the ideals of reason and truth, and that Merleau-Ponty sought to respond to this charge in his subsequent work in the 1940s and 1950s. Madison further states that the relationship between the book and Merleau-Ponty's late, unfinished work The Visible and the Invisible, edited by the philosopher 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.[12]

The philosopher Robert Bernasconi, writing in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2005), observed that Phenomenology of Perception established Merleau-Ponty as the pre-eminent philosopher of the body, and along with Merleau-Ponty's other writings, found a more receptive audience among analytic philosophers than the works of other phenomenologists.[13]

Political influence[edit]

In a 1999 interview with the critic Louis Menand in The New Yorker, American vice president Al Gore mentioned Phenomenology of Perception as an inspiration.[14]


  1. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) [p. vii]
  2. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) [pp. 4-5]
  3. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2005) [e.g. pp. 408]
  4. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) [p. iv]
  5. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Donald Landes. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2012) [p. i]
  6. ^ Ayer, A. J. (1984). Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. London: Unwin Paperbacks. pp. 216–7, 222. ISBN 0-04-100044-7.
  7. ^ Davis, Murray S. (1985). Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 247–248. ISBN 0-226-13792-9.
  8. ^ Wagner, Helmut R. (1983). Phenomenology of Consciousness and Sociology of the Life-world: An Introductory Study. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press. p. 219. ISBN 0-88864-032-3.
  9. ^ Scruton, Roger, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (London: Phoenix, 1994) [p. 396]
  10. ^ Abram, David (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 54–6. ISBN 0-679-43819-X.
  11. ^ Priest, Stephen (2003). Merleau-Ponty. London: Routledge. p. 9. ISBN 0-415-30864-X.
  12. ^ Madison, G. B. (1999). Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 558–9. ISBN 0-521-63722-8.
  13. ^ Bernasconi, Robert (2005). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 588. ISBN 0-19-926479-1.
  14. ^ Renshon, Stanley A. (2002). America's Second Civil War: Dispatches from the Political Center. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. pp. 197–8. ISBN 978-0765800879.

External links[edit]