The Problem of World, 3

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Having considered the thought of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre in the previous two studies, it is now time to return to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose claim regarding the phenomenological lifeworld we took as an impetus for this entire series of essays. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception (1945), he remarks that phenomenology always begins with the “facticity” of “man and the world” (lxx). From the first, Merleau-Ponty denies the possibility of a pure, knowing subject. Phenomenology may be a “transcendental philosophy,” but for Merleau-Ponty, it cannot begin with a transcendent subject, aloof and untouched by things. Rather, the transcendental philosophy that is phenomenology begins with the “world [that] is always ‘already there’ prior to reflection,” an “inalienable presence” (lxx). We might say that this inalienable presence is the ontic level of which we have written previously, although Merleau-Ponty does not employ that term here; rather, the “inalienable presence” of the world signals a “naïve contact” with what is, and it is Merleau-Ponty’s goal to “raise it to a philosophical status” (lxx). He thus finds himself between two requirements of the phenomenological discipline: the one, that it be an “exact science”; the other, that it be “an account of ‘lived’ space” (lxx). Generally, these two positions can be ascribed to Husserl as progenitor and Heidegger as radicalizer, but for Merleau-Ponty, writing almost twenty years on from the publication of Being and Time, the “exact” and the “lived” are not so distinct from each other. Indeed, as noted in the first study on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty maintains that Being and Time “emerges from Husserl’s suggestion, and in the end is nothing more than a making explicit of the “natürlichen Weltbegriff” [natural concept of the world] or the “Lebenswelt” [life-world] that Husserl, toward the end of his life, presented as the fundamental theme of phenomenology” (lxx-lxxi, translator’s insertions). Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to the tradition is his deep insight into this “fundamental theme,” and his ceaseless pursuit of the “naïve contact” that is so easily covered over. Both the early Heidegger and the Sartre of Being and Nothingness are prone to high flights of transcendentalism, preferring the ontological/existential level of analysis to that of the ontic/existentiell. Merleau-Ponty allows us to sink into that more primordial layer of being, thereby rooting phenomenology in the earth and flesh that Heidegger would spend so much time seeking in his later work.

In his commitment to the world and the body, Merleau-Ponty consistently maintains a commitment to “perspective”:

Everything that I know about the world, even through science, I know from a perspective that is my own or from an experience of the world without which scientific symbols would be meaningless. The entire universe of science is constructed upon the lived world, and if we wish to think science rigorously, to appreciate precisely its sense and its scope, we must first awaken that experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression. (lxxii)

Still in these early days of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty sees more clearly than most all others the dynamic interweaving of the ontic and ontological levels or moments of human existence. As we have seen, the human being is that being who, in her being, understands being and is in question respecting her being. Being resonates within the human being; the two are at play with each other. This play is the very condition of phenomenology, the belonging together of I and world, word and thing, the letting-be and self-showing of the phenomenon in its appearing. And though, as we have seen, this play is so often obscured by the existential perdurance of being determined in beings, Merleau-Ponty’s attention to the perspective of the lived provides us with the necessary angle of approach that is not made available to us in the more intellective transcendentalisms we have encountered previously.1

It is for this reason that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is a phenomenology of perception. We have already stated that perception is the tensile play of the human being and the world, an existing of the hyphen (I-world) that requires no magical logic of representation or correspondence (I | world). “Perception is not a science of the world, nor even an act or deliberate taking of a stand”—such falls into the domain of the reflective, the ontological, the second-order (lxxiv). Rather, perception is “the background against which all acts stand out and is thus presupposed by them” (lxxiv). A representational theory of truth and perception produces only doubt; the gap between perceiver and perceived, knower and known, always admits of interference, manipulation.2 But if perception is the very background of our being, that which we always naïvely know to be there—never certainly, never fully grasped, but always there—then we find ourselves on a very different footing:

The world is not an object whose law of constitution I have in my possession; it is the natural milieu and the field of all my thoughts and of all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not merely “dwell” in the “inner man”;3 or rather, there is no “inner man,” man is in and toward the world, and it is in the world that he knows himself. (lxxiv)

The world is that which is always there, but that which I can never possess, never fully. Similarly, I am also always there, but I can never possess myself, never fully. I and world, in tensile interdependence, are always already together in the “tightly woven fabric” of the “real” (lxxiv).

In this, Merleau-Ponty effectively dismantles the possibility of Husserl’s “reduction” (lxxiv). The “return to a transcendental consciousness in front of which the world is spread out in an absolute transparency” would merely be a return to a false and delusional representationalism. The world is simultaneously opaque and transcendent; the “transcendental idealism” of the reduction, and of which both Heidegger and Sartre are often guilty, “strips the world” of this very “opacity” and (ironically) “transcendence” (lxxv). The world is dissolved in the “universal” power of the cogito, and philosophy becomes solipsistically concerned with problems of judgment and knowledge and certainty—problems of foundation (lxxv). But if we, with Merleau-Ponty, take up our position, our perspective, we once again discover “the problem of the world,” a problem through the questioning of which we crack open the ossified shell of whichever existentiality we have destined, revealing the throbbing, fleshy play of being within (lxxv). The reduction reflects a desire to “withdraw from the world toward the unity of consciousness as the foundation of the world,” but perspective reveals to me that I must in fact “be my exterior,” that I am my body, and that I am “defined by [my] situation” (lxxvii, lxxvi). No longer can I dream of the absolute and universal power of being transcendentally “individual”; I am “expose[d],” and simultaneously possessed of an “inner weakness” (lxxvi). I am vulnerable to the other and the world, but not only that, I do not have a full grip upon myself. Plainly contrary to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty contends that “my existence must never reduce itself to the consciousness that I have of existing; it must in fact encompass the consciousness that one might have of it, and so also encompass my embodiment in a nature and at least the possibility of an historical situation” (lxxvi).4 My inner weakness is this ambiguity of and anonymity to myself. The they and the we of Heidegger and Sartre are not merely inauthentic or in bad faith—they are primordial, and vital, to human being. The desire for authentic, self-sustaining, responsible being (which Heidegger and Sartre each express in their own particular ways) is the desire for a pure, unassailable, uncompromised interiority, a desire that, for Merleau-Ponty, can never be fulfilled.

Thus, in the failure of the reduction, we “rediscover the world ... as the permanent horizon of all of my cogitationes [thoughts] and as a dimension in relation to which I never cease situating myself” (lxxvii, translator’s insertion). Thought does not represent the world; thought is an “inalienable fact” of my “being in the world” (lxxvii). In so raising our “naïve contact” with the world to “philosophical status,” Merleau-Ponty thus also raises our “common sense” to similar standing, but newly problematized by the problem of the world (lxxvii). Just as the reduction to transcendental consciousness must fail, the championing of common sense must not fail to see that the “fact” of thought is “taken for granted,” and “pass[es] by unnoticed” (lxxvii). As we saw in Heidegger, the destining of existents that is a product of our ontic-ontological being is a movement that hides its own action. Our everyday involvement in the world is that which is nearest to us, but this involvement is also that which distances us from ourselves in our dealings. For Merleau-Ponty, then, the reduction is not entirely without use; though it fails in revealing a transcendental consciousness, it does not reveal nothing. The reduction is precisely that which reveals the lifeworld, our dealings, the existentiality (articulation, structure, expression) of our being-in-the-world. The reduction is not therefore a purification but a wonderment: “it steps back in order to see transcendences spring forth and it loosens the intentional threads that connect us to the world because it reveals the world as strange and paradoxical” (lxxvii). I do not transcend the world; I am a “transcendence toward the world” (lxxvii, my emphasis).

This “rupture” of our transcendence toward the world “teach[e]s us” the “unmotivated springing forth of the world” (lxxvii). The world in its “absolute evidentness” is “what we perceive” (lxxx). This does not mean that what we perceive is absolutely certain; quite the contrary, Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of vision (in Phenomenology of Perception and his later works, which we do not have space to consider here) reveal the invisible within the visible, which is nevertheless no undermining of the evidentness of our perception. Because the world is “what I live,” because I am “open to the world,” its evidentness is not concerned with certainty, and is in fact entirely comfortable with the invisible, the hidden, the unsearchable. Our perception of the world has always already accounted for these unavailable perspectives; it is only those second-order existentialities that configure the world according to “objective” space that presume the total knowability, total visibility, of the existents so configured. Indeed, the evidentness of the world arises from the fact that I “unquestionably communicate with it” (lxxx). My being is always hyphenated in its being, intentionally related to, joined with, the world that “I do not possess” and that “I can never fully justify” (lxxxi). This is the “permanent thesis of my life”: “that “there is a world,” or rather, “there is the world”” (lxxxi). Unmotivated, the world has always already sprung forth, always already shown itself, and I have always already let it be. And as Heidegger argued that, in its self-showing, the world is revealed in its “worldliness,” so too does Merleau-Ponty recognize that the “facticity” of that world with which I am always interwoven is “what establishes the Weltlichkeit der Welt [worldliness of the world]” (lxxxi, translator’s insertion).

We are always in the world, and this world always shows itself to us as what is. “There is” was that ontic declarative we encountered in Heidegger, the interbeing of language and being discovered in the phenomenological method. Insofar as we are in what is, we see too that the “unity of the world” is “already accomplished,” “already there” (lxxxi). Sartre’s originally promising monism, hamstrung by his intellectual predilection, is here given nuance. Merleau-Ponty wants neither a monism of spirit nor a monism of matter, and for this reason eschews the term, but the world is still the world. Where Sartre falls back into a pseudo-dualism to preserve his for-itself, Merleau-Ponty’s unity of the world is a world full of difference. The hyphen (I-world) is not an empty gap, but a rich and fertile connection, an articulation that joins as much as it separates. The intentional relation cannot be resolved into ideas or atoms. The world is not ultimately founded upon the subject, nor is the subject ultimately founded upon the world. The reciprocal foundation intimated in Heidegger, and which Sartre feared, is here more fully expressed. The world is not valuated by a transcendental consciousness but discovered to be already full of values. Indeed, value is not a sufficient term to describe the plenitude of meaning that Merleau-Ponty reveals. He prefers instead “signification,” that lateral joining of terms—I and world, word and thing—that indicates “a certain taking up of a position with regard to the situation” (lxxxii, lxxxiii). Value requires correspondence: a word expresses a thing. Signification, on the other hand, is a play: a word indicates a thing.5 Merleau-Ponty wrests Sartre from the representationalism with which he toys, shifting meaning out of the subject position and back into the place of the hyphen: “everything has a sense, and we uncover the same ontological structure beneath all of these relations” (lxxxiii). The world is the sensible world, a world of meaning. Wherein Sartre we are condemned to freedom, and so find our values and meanings to be “free-floating” in precisely the way that Heidegger repudiated, in Merleau-Ponty, “we are condemned to sense”: “there is nothing we can do or say that does not acquire a name in history” (lxxxiv).

Merleau-Ponty takes the radical core of Heidegger’s early thought and lets it flourish. His phenomenology sees the wedding of “an extreme subjectivism with an extreme objectivism,” where “[r]ationality fits precisely to the experiences in which it is revealed” (lxxxiv). Man and world are disclosed in and through each other, and “a sense appears,” as not the value of, but the very being of the articulation of being. Merleau-Ponty does not presume to a “pure being,” a world of either “absolute Spirit” or a “realist” world of matter, because the world that “shines forth” in phenomenological study is a world of “intersection,” a world of meeting and communion (lxxxiv). Neither pole of the intentionality relation is “already given ... rather, they “establish each other”” in a play “that has no ontological guarantee, and whose justification rests entirely upon the actual power that it gives us for taking up our history”—which is to say, our freedom (lxxxiv).6 Like Heidegger, who saw in phenomenology the indissoluble union of logos and being, Merleau-Ponty sees in phenomenology much more than a “making explicit” of being; phenomenology, in its letting be that which shows itself as itself, is the very “founding of being”; as a philosophy, it is not a “reflection of a prior truth,” but the “actualization of a truth” (lxxxiv, my emphasis). In that act, we discover that “the only Logos that preexists is the world itself” (lxxxiv). We are condemned to sense; it is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the earth upon which we walk, the others to whom we speak. The philosophy that is phenomenology is thus a project of the world, a conversation with its “mystery,” an “indefinitely doubled” and “infinite dialogue or meditation” that “will never know just where it is going” (lxxxv). It is always “unfinished,” always “inchoate,” but as such, it is always full of life (lxxxv). In phenomenology, in opening to the problem of the world, we do not practice a sterile, bloodless rationality, but a philosophy that is “an ever-renewed experiment of its own beginning” (lxxviii).

Works Cited

Carnes, Natalie. “Possession and Dispossession: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Gregory of Nyssa on Life Amidst Skepticism.” Modern Theology, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 104-123.

Derrida, Jacques. Voice and Phenomenon: Introduction to the Problem of the Sign in Husserl’s Phenomenology. 1967. Translated by Leonard Lawlor, Northwestern University Press, 2011.

Fink, Eugen. Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Transcendental Method. 1932. Translated by Ronald Bruzina, Indiana University Press, 1995.

—. Play as the Symbol of the World: And Other Writings. 1960. Translated by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner, Indiana University Press, 2016.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis. J. Schmidt, State University Press of New York, 2010.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945. Translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2012.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 1943. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 2003.


  1. Thus, the reciprocal influence of the ontic and ontological levels of understanding articulated by Heidegger in Being and Time, which Sartre flattens with his assertion of the “transphenomenality” of being as such, is restored by Merleau-Ponty by looking to the ontic. Sartre’s admirable pursuit of the concrete leads him to deny the possibility of any access to the play of being; he traps himself at the level of destined existents. Perhaps if he had begun Being and Nothingness with the chapter “The Body” he would have arrived at a place more similar to Merleau-Ponty. 

  2. See Natalie Carnes, “Possession and Dispossession: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Gregory of Nyssa on Life Amidst Skepticism,” Modern Theology, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 104-123, for an insightful discussion of the madness and even violence that such a theory can provoke. 

  3. Recall that already in Being and Time Heidegger had argued that the “primary “place” of truth” is not in the logos, not in the psyche or in the position of the subject (31). Merleau-Ponty is here bringing this abstract claim into lived experience, into life

  4. Sartre’s discussion of the caress and the flesh in Being and Nothingness, taken positively, approaches Merleau-Ponty here. But Sartre sees the enfleshment brought about by the caress as a deprivation of the for-itself-ness of the for-itself, and so cannot fully embrace the insight at which he has arrived (even though he argues that the body is the for-itself!). 

  5. Here I am drawing on Derrida’s critique of Husserl in Voice and Phenomenon (1967), wherein he criticizes the immediacy of expression that Husserl maintains as primary. Expression supposes that a word can immediately be the value of a thing, a mental content or representation, but Derrida argues that such is derivative of original indication, wherein a word points to a thing, mediately and temporally. A word cannot “overlay” a thing like a film, nor can there be a symbolic layer of values overlaying the world, because both words and speakers are in the world. Signification is lateral, perspectival, always in situation

  6. Merleau-Ponty is here referring to Eugen Fink’s Sixth Cartesian Meditation (1932), who, it is worth noting, also wrote Play as Symbol of the World (1960). An exploration of the linkages here between play and being, and between this late- or post-Husserlian thinker and the proto-postmodern Merleau-Ponty, I reserve for a future study. 

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