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Phenomenology of Perception

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. An English translation by Colin Smith was published in 1962; another English translation, by Donald Landes, was published in 2013.[1][2]

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
Publisher Éditions Gallimard, Routledge & Kegan Paul
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 466 (1965 Routledge edition)
ISBN 978-0415834339 (2012 Routledge edition)



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".[3]

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."[4] 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."[5]


Phenomenology of Perception was influential. The book 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.[6] It was recognized as a major statement of French existentialism, and is best known for Merleau-Ponty's central thesis of "the primacy of perception". Merleau-Ponty was criticized on the grounds that, by grounding all intellectual and cultural acquisitions in the prereflective and prepersonal life of the body, his book results in 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. The relationship between Phenomenology of Perception 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.[7] Stephen Priest writes 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.[8]

The philosopher A. J. Ayer criticizes what he characterizes as Merleau-Ponty's arguments against the sense datum theory of perception, finding them inconclusive and open to several different objections. Ayer describes Merleau-Ponty's inclusion of a chapter on "The Body in its Sexual Being" as "surprising", suggesting that Merleau-Ponty included it to give him an opportunity to recur to the Hegelian dialectic of the master and the slave. Ayer compares Merleau-Ponty's views on sexual relations to those of Sartre in Being and Nothingness.[9] Helmut R. Wagner describes Phenomenology of Perception as an important contribution to phenomenology.[10] The philosopher Roger Scruton, writing in Sexual Desire (1986), describes Merleau-Ponty's chapter on "The Body in its Sexual Being" as "surprisingly unhelpful".[11] David Abram writes 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. Abram rejects 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."[12]

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.[13]


  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 & Kegan Paul, 1965) [p. vii]
  4. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) [pp. 4-5]
  5. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Trans: Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2005) [e.g. pp. 408]
  6. ^ Bernasconi, Robert (2005). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 588. ISBN 0-19-926479-1. 
  7. ^ Madison, G. B. (1999). Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 558–9. ISBN 0-521-63722-8. 
  8. ^ Priest, Stephen (2003). Merleau-Ponty. London: Routledge. p. 9. ISBN 0-415-30864-X. 
  9. ^ Ayer, A. J. (1984). Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. London: Unwin Paperbacks. pp. 216–7, 222. ISBN 0-04-100044-7. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Scruton, Roger, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (London: Phoenix, 1994) [p. 396]
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Renshon, Stanley A. (2002). America's Second Civil War: Dispatches from the Political Center. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. pp. 197–8. ISBN 978-0765800879. 

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