The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was the most original and profound thinker of the postwar French movement of existential phenomenology.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born in Rochefortsur-Mer (Charente-Maritime) on March 14, 1908. His father died when Maurice was still a child, and he and his sister were raised by their mother in Paris. The childhood was an unusually happy one, and Merleau-Ponty retained over the years a close and affectionate tie with his mother. In later life he ceased to practice the Catholicism which he had earlier shared with his devout mother. But apparently before his death a reconciliation had occurred, since he was buried with the solemn rites of the Church.
Merleau-Ponty was educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1926, graduating 4 years later. In the ensuing decade he taught at lycées in Beauvais and Chartres and, after 1935, as a junior member of the faculty at the École Normale. After the Nazi invasion of Poland he entered the army and served as a lieutenant in the infantry. With the collapse of France he was demobilized, and he returned to his teaching. During the Nazi occupation he was active in the Resistance. When the Liberation came, he joined the faculty of the University of Lyons and became coeditor with Jean Paul Sartre, an old friend from school days, of the new journal Les Temps modernes. In 1950 he was invited to the Sorbonne as professor of psychology and pedagogy. And 2 years later he was elected to the Collège de France to the chair formerly occupied by Henri Bergson. He was the youngest philosopher ever to hold this position, and he retained it until his death.
Merleau-Ponty's first book, The Structure of Behavior, was completed in his thirtieth year but, owing to the war, was first published in 1942. It is a sustained and powerful attack on behaviorism in psychology, but it also features the introduction of novel philosophical interpretations of the experimental work of the Gestalt psychologists. This study was continued in his major work, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945). Drawing heavily upon the phenomenological techniques of Edmund Husserl (to which, however, he added new modifications) and upon the existential strands in the thought of Gabriel Marcel and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty began to fashion a personal synthesis, an original philosophical interpretation of human experience. He is thus one of the originators of contemporary existential philosophy and, in the generous tribute of a colleague, Paul Ricoeur, "was the greatest of the French phenomenologists."
All of Merleau-Ponty's work shows a familiarity with current scientific research and with the history of philosophy. This gives his work a more balanced and solid character than that of the other existentialists. Another major concern of his was with political and social philosophy and even with the ephemeral problems of day-to-day politics. He wrote a great many newspaper articles on contemporary events and problems. More sustained essays on Marxist theory and leftist politics were gathered in two collections: Humanism and Terror (1947) and The Adventures of the Dialectic (1955). The latter work contains a powerful critique of the French Communist party, with which he had earlier sympathized. This led to an open break with Sartre and to his resignation from the editorship of Les Temps modernes. Nevertheless his own political views remained decisive for Sartre, as the latter freely admits in a memoir published after Merleau-Ponty's death.
Interpretations of literary works, the art of the film, and painting were also crowded into the busy final decade of Merleau-Ponty's life. In these essays, published as collections entitled Sense and NonSense (1948) and Signs (1960), he sought to work out some of the implications of his thesis on the primacy of perception. He had hoped to crown his analysis of the prereflective life of consciousness with a survey of the major modes of reflective thought in which he would seek to determine their criteria for truth and validity. But at his sudden death of a coronary thrombosis on May 3, 1961, he had written only incomplete fragments and sketches.
Merleau-Ponty was happily married to a physician and psychiatrist in Paris, and they had one child, a daughter.
Further Reading on Maurice Merleau-Ponty
A hundred-page memoir by Jean Paul Sartre in Situations (7 vols., 1947-1965) gives a very sympathetic portrait and generous account of his quarrel with Merleau-Ponty. Two excellent interpretations of Merleau-Ponty's work in English are John F. Bannan, The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (1967), and Albert Rabil, Merleau-Ponty: Existentialist of the Social World (1967); both are reliable, although the latter is more complete.