Maurice Merleau-Ponty

By: Mark Kingwell
March 14, 2010

The most illuminating essay written by prolific French phenomenologist MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY (1908-61) is called “Cezanne’s Doubt” (1945). In a series of elegant sentences, the philosopher considers the troubled artist, especially his unease with society and success. Merleau-Ponty reads this anxiety as, in fact, part of Cezanne’s post-impressionist struggle with the value of painting as an art form. Cezanne, he says, is forever committing a kind of intellectual suicide, “aiming for reality while denying himself the means to attain it.” But it is a suicide born of deep wisdom. Cezanne’s doubt is not merely aesthetic or vocational; it is profoundly philosophical. Time after time, his art tries to reveal perception in general through perception of this painting in particular, whose subject — no matter what objects are depicted — is how we see. “The painting of a drunken privy cleaner,” as one critic wrote in 1905, thus parallels and inspires the investigation of perception Merleau-Ponty had begun in the 1940s, including the principled rejection of Cartesian dualism. (The essay’s title is a play on the idea of Cartesian doubt employed in the Meditations.) Under the influence of Husserl, Heidegger, and others, Merleau-Ponty refined the provocative ideas of embodied consciousness and being-in-the-world. His sustained engagements with art were matched by sustained criticism of the abstractions of natural science, especially in psychology. Today his work is revered equally in aesthetics and in the phenomenological branch of cognitive science. He also gets credit for converting Jean-Paul Sartre to communism.

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