Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) is one of the most important philosophers of the Twentieth century. His theories of perception and the role of the body have had an enormous impact on the humanities and social sciences, yet the full scope of his contribution not only to phenomenology but philosophy generally is only now becoming clear. In this lucid and comprehensive introduction, Taylor Carman explains and assesses the full range of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy.

Beginning with an overview of Merleau-Ponty's life and work, subsequent chapters cover fundamental aspects of Merleau-Ponty's thought, including his philosophy of perception and intentionality; the role of the body in relation to perception; philosophy of history and culture; and his writings on art and aesthetics, particularly the work of Cezanne. A final chapter considers Merleau-Ponty's importance today, examining his philosophy in light of recent developments in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

Merleau-Ponty is essential reading for students of phenomenology, existentialism and Twentieth century philosophy. It is also ideal for anyone in the humanities and social sciences seeking an introduction to his work.


Merleau-Ponty was one of the most interesting and original philosophers of the twentieth century. His most enduring contributions to philosophy belong to the theory—or rather, as the title of his magnum opus has it, the phenomenology—of perception. Although it is impossible to summarize his most significant and enduring insights in a few pages, four main points are worth highlighting at the outset.

First, Merleau-Ponty maintains that perception is not an event or state in the mind or brain, but an organism’s entire bodily relation to its environment. Perception is, as psychologist J. J. Gibson puts it in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, an “ecological” phenomenon. The body consequently cannot be understood as a mere causal link in a chain of events that terminates in perceptual experience. Instead, it is constitutive of perception, which is the most basic— and in the end, inescapable—horizon of what Merleau-Ponty, following Heidegger, calls our “being in the world” (être au monde). Human existence thus differs profoundly from the existence of objects, for it consists not in our merely occurring among things, but in our actively and intelligently inhabiting an environment.

Second, precisely because it is a bodily phenomenon, perception is also essentially finite and perspectival: my body, Merleau-Ponty says, “is my point of view on the world” (PP 85/70/81). Though that might sound obvious, perceptual perspective is elusive and difficult to describe. It is neither symmetrical nor geometrical, for instance, but concretely anchored in the structures and capacities of . . .

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