Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Feminist Politics and the Human Situation: A Rereading of Merleau-Ponty

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Feminist Politics and the Human Situation: A Rereading of Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt

Alison Jaggar's "ovial" (if I may) 1983 book, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, correlates liberal, Marxist, radical, and socialist feminist theories with their "malestream" counterparts in political theory. She then shows how those theories, in turn, are derived from underlying metaphysical commitments to specific concepts of human nature, that is, to different ideas of what human beings are. Her purpose is to clarify the fundamental differences between feminists in the hope of facilitating more constructive conversations among them. In the introductory chapter of the book, however, she notes that there are other strands of feminist thought, and goes on to explain why they are not incorporated into her analysis. Among these are "religious and existentialist conceptions," which are excluded "primarily because I find them implausible.'" Twenty years later, "postmodern" feminist theory has developed out of the intellectual tradition of which existentialism was a part. Because this strand of feminist thought also includes elements of Freudian and Marxist theory, which are important to Jaggar's socialist feminism, it may be time to reconsider the plausibility of a feminism that draws on the tradition of Simone de Beauvoir and her philosophical allies.2

The problem, of course, is that existentialists and postmodernists offer no theory of human nature. What they offer instead is an account of the human situation. Maurice Merleau-Ponty's account of the human situation, however, has proved quite useful to feminist theorists working on a variety of important philosophical questions. My argument will be that his thought offers important avenues for a postmodern feminist politics as well, both because of the absence of many of the strong markers of masculinist thought in his work,3 and because of his contributions to a political theory of the "noncommunist left"4 that resonates strongly with Jaggar's socialist feminism.

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty's work to develop a feminist politics of the human situation, however, is complicated by the fact that both his philosophical views and, more notoriously, his political position evolved considerably between 1945 and his death in 1961.1 discuss the evolution of his political thought elsewhere.5 Here I will trace the development of his understanding of the human situation from Phenomenology of Perception to The Visible and the Invisible, and suggest how that understanding could provide a basis for feminist politics on Jaggar's model.6


Merleau-Ponty's thought is important for feminists because he understands the human situation as thoroughly embodied, hence the relevance of his work for discussions of the gendered body and feminist epistemology, and as intrinsically intersubjective, hence its relevance for feminist ethics and politics. Still, while both embodiment and intersubjectivity are important elements in all of Merleau-Ponty's work, and he often emphasizes the extent to which they are interrelated, the evolution of his thought after 1945 can be seen as shifting the primary emphasis from embodiment to intersubjectivity, or from perception to language. Another way to trace this development would be to see his guiding image as moving from one in which we stand next to each other to look out on a common scene, to a model in which we look at the others around us to understand how that common scene comes to be shared, a transition with obvious implications for both feminist thought and his political philosophy.

Merleau-Ponty begins the chapter on intersubjectivity in Phenomenology of Perception by describing the human situation in traditional existentialist terms: "in short, I am never at one with myself. Such is the lot of a being who is born, that is, who once and for all has been given to himself as something to be understood" (PP 347). But he quickly moves to link this human situation to perception, embodiment and intersubjectivity. "In so far as I have sensory functions, a visual, auditory, and tactile field, I am already in communication with others taken as similar psycho-social subjects" (PP 353). …

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