chapter  1
5 Pages

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: life and works

ByJack Reynolds

In many respects Merleau-Ponty is the unknown man of the twentieth century’s major European philosophers. This is not to deny that he has been widely read and influential – in fact, there is good reason to agree with Paul Ricoeur that he was the greatest of the French phenomenologists – but simply to observe that his life and personality have not been examined, some might say fetishized, in the manner that might be expected for a French academic philosopher of significant public repute. Certainly, he did not initially receive the same amount of attention as his contemporaries and sometimes friends, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He has not had biographies written about him as they have, nor had photographic diaries and movies devoted to him, as have Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, and he never courted the media in the manner of, say, Sartre, and more recently, Bernard-Henri Lévy. In fact, the life of Merleau-Ponty and the force of his personality remain something of a mystery. He seems to personify what Heidegger is reputed to have said of Aristotle: that he lived, he worked, and he died, and that was all that needed to be said about the relation between a philosopher and their biography. On the other hand, perhaps this mystery and this anonymity that surround Merleau-Ponty partly reveal his personality. At least according to Sartre’s remarkable, heartfelt eulogy, “Merleau-Ponty Vivant” (Stewart 1998), one never felt wholly familiar with Merleau-Ponty. According to both Sartre and de Beauvoir’s reflections, he had a reserve, a certain aloofness, although this should not be taken to indicate a lack of charm or charisma.