Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Merleau-Ponty and a Reconsideration of Alienation

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Merleau-Ponty and a Reconsideration of Alienation

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes text stops here in original.)

Many scholars in the West have rightly turned away from the modernist world view of Descartes, with its isolated rational individual in full possession of both itself and one rational world. Many have also rightly turned away from the related modernist political view of bourgeois liberalism, with its isolated individual as the rational bearer of natural and even God-given rights. Yet, with the rather extreme pendulum swing by many toward postmodernism, with its counter claim that our rational world and the rational subject are more or less freely constituted by language, one is left with the impression that something of value has been lost: a patterned world with which the human person or subject is in contact.1

With respect to both the rational world and the human subject, Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, as it does with respect to so many issues, comes between more extreme positions, in this case between modernism and postmodernism. He moves beyond both modernism's pre-established rationality and the bourgeoisie's isolated rational subject, but does so by re-interpreting and redefining each, not by attempting to eliminate them. Moreover, his grounding of both rationality and the sense of self in the body's lived-through encounter with a really existing world escapes the foundationalism of modernism, since this encounter continues to unfold, and it escapes the arbitrariness of postmodernism, since this encounter is stable enough to make at least some non-arbitrary generalizations about both the world and the human experience of it. Given this last point, that human experiences, and thus more generally human nature, are stable enough to make at least some provisional generalizations about them, it seems plausible to maintain an at least modified (non-essentialist) theory of alienation, and that this theory may still be used to guide a politics - even in our so-called postmodern age. This, then, will be the focus of the present essay: it will present MerleauPonty's theory of rationality and of the human subject as coming between modernism and postmodernism; it will present a nonessentialist theory of alienation; and it will attempt to make the case that this nonessentialist theory of alienation can still be used to guide politics.


Before taking up Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, let us first turn to a brief characterization of how both the modernist and postmodernist treat the human subject, and, given their respective theories of the subject or of human nature, how each then addresses politics. The concept of rationality will be addressed further below.

As is well know, Descartes defines the modern subject as the indubitable and complete reflective awareness of oneself by oneself, as a complete awareness of oneself as a conscious, thinking entity, i.e., as a thinking substance, with a precise rational identity. This rational self, which is separate from the world, others, and even embodied emotions, can nonetheless rationally manipulate and control the world, others, and itself. With this sort of view of the subject more or less incorporated into Natural Law Theory, employed variously by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and even by Marx, as well as by many to follow, we find a precise human essence, given in nature or even by God, from which we may be alienated, that more or less absolutely dictates what its proper social and political environments should be.


A variety of views regarding the postmodern subject is admirably revealed and summarized by Pauline Marie Rosenau in Post-Modernism and the Social Science.2

She states that postmodernists frequently propose a de-emphasizing of the personal subject and, generally, that they call "for less emphasis on the subject [considered] ... as the 'preconstituted centre of the experience of culture and history'"3 (PMSS 42). Of Nietzsche, as one of the most significant precursors of the postmodern rejection of the modern subject, Rosenau states the following: "Nietzsche questioned the . …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.