Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Sexuality and Meaning in Freud and Merleau-Ponty

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Sexuality and Meaning in Freud and Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt


The purpose of this article is to analyze certain aspects common to Freud and Merleau-Ponty in light of their understanding of the body as a sexed being. We believe that both authors, with different nuances, are in opposition to the dominant currents of thought of the early 20th century and the years following, which view human corporeality and behavior, in general, from either a mechanicist or intellectualist perspective. The merely physical or physiological conception of the body, on the one hand, and the disjunction between corporeality and the so-called higher faculties (using classical language), on the other, are unable to explain real human behavior. Freud and Merleau-Ponty rescue the meaning given to sexuality as they integrate it into the totality of the person, without making it into a blind or merely instinctive force. Merleau-Ponty takes advantage of psychological experiences, in order to show that the criticized explanations actually reflect pathological behavior better than normal behavior. Merleau-Ponty sees that the theory of Freud is ideal for use in phenomenology, especially because of the latter's understanding of corporeality as an essential interpretative key for human existence.

We have structured our discussion of sexuality in Freud and MerleauPonty around two issues which make it possible to establish a dialogue between the two thinkers. First of all we will look at the integration of erotic perception in the whole human existence. Secondly, we will investigate the topic of sexuality as bearing meaning in contrast with a vision of sexuality as a behavioral infrastructure. The notion of meaning illuminates, from the perspective of Merleau-Ponty's thought, the Freudian understanding of both the unconscious as well as instinct. It also permits a precise delimitation of the points of contact between Freud and Merleau-Ponty. We will also, as a secondary objective, shed light on the influence of Merleau-Ponty on some contemporary psychoanalyst thought. This influence has been recognized by important analysts and theorists, who have created or shaped schools with disciples in various parts of the world. For example, Willy and Madelaine Baranger in South America, and Jaques Lacan in Europe.1 More recently others have also gotten on the bandwagon: Winnicott (1954, 1994), Civitarese and Ferro (2012), Naffah (2013) and Lutereau (2011), among others. Merleau-Ponty contributed to overcome certain determinist or intellectualist understandings of Freud's metapsychology, with a better interpretation of his writings. Over the course of our article we will enter in detail into distinct aspects of this influence.

Merleau-Ponty focuses most directly on human sexuality in the chapter of The phenomenology of perception (2012) dedicated to the body as a sexed being. Both in this chapter and in various of his other works he refers to Freud while simultaneously performing a reading of his ideas that coincides with the centrality that Merleau-Ponty gives to the body, as well as with the importance of the link between pre-reflective forms of knowledge2 and the unconscious.

We see an evolution that begins with his earliest writing, The structure of behaviour (1957), in which Merleau-Ponty criticizes Freud for his causalist explanations, in which the body is considered as the cause of effects that manifest themselves in a superior part of the person. This vision changes in later works, which reflect a better understanding of Freud's ideas.3 It is clear that Merleau-Ponty did not read Freud just once, but reread him, extracting the essence of his doctrine.4 One of the achievements that he attributes to Freud is that of giving sexuality a meaning, and to make it part of the biography of the person. This recognition goes hand in hand with an understanding of sexuality as a vital force that goes beyond genitality. Merleau-Ponty, in referring to the libido in particular, does not consider it to be an instinct, but rather:

[I]t is the subject's general power of adhering to different milieus, of determining himself through different experiences, and of acquiring structures of behavior: the libido is what ensures that a man has a history. …

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