Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

French Phenomenological Philosopher

"We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive... To seek the essence of perception is to declare that perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth."

"The rationalist’s dilemma: either the free act is possible, or it is not - either the event originates in me or is imposed on me from outside, does not apply to our relations with the world and with our past. Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open, which implies both that it calls up specially favoured modes of resolution, and also that it is powerless to bring one into being by itself."

"What is then liberty? To be born is at once to be born in the world and to the world. The world is already constituted, but never completely. Under the first rapport, we are solicited, under the second we are open to an infinity of possibilities. But this analysis is still abstract, because we exist under these two relations at once. There is therefore never determinism and never absolute choice; I am never a thing and never naked consciousness."

"Time presupposes a view of time. It is, therefore, not like a river, not a flowing substance. The fact that the metaphor based on this comparison has persisted from the time of Heraclitus to our own day is explained by our surreptitiously putting into the river a witness of its course."

"We know not through our intellect but through our experience."

"I discover vision, not as a "thinking about seeing," to use Descartes expression, but as a gaze at grips with a visible world, and that is why for me there can be another's gaze."

"Humanity is not an aggregate of individuals, a community of thinkers, each of whom is guaranteed from the outset to be able to reach agreement with the others because all participate in the same thinking essence. Nor, of course, is it a single Being in which the multiplicity of individuals are dissolved and into which these individuals are destined to be reabsorbed. As a matter of principle, humanity is precarious: each person can only believe what he recognizes to be true internally and, at the same time, nobody thinks or makes up his mind without already being caught up in certain relationships with others, which leads him to opt for a particular set of opinions. Everyone is alone and yet nobody can do without other people, not just because they are useful (which is not in dispute here) but also when it comes to happiness."

"All thought of something is at the same time self-consciousness [...] At the root of all our experiences and all our reflections, we find [...] a being which immediately recognises itself, [...] and which knows its own existence, not by observation and as a given fact, nor by inference from any idea of itself, but through direct contact with that existence. Self-consciousness is the very being of mind in action."

"Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it's caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But, because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself."

"The perception of other people and the intersubjective world is problematic only for adults. The child lives in a world which he unhesitatingly believes accessible to all around him. He has no awares of himself or of others as private subjectives, nor does he suspect that all of us, himself included, are limited to one certain point of view of the world. That is why he subjects neither his thoughts, in which he believes as they present themselves, to any sort of criticism. He has no knowledge of points of view. For him men are empty heads turned towards one single, self-evident world where everything takes place, even dreams, which are, he thinks, in his room, and even thinking, since it is not distinct from words."

"It is no more natural and no less conventional to shout in anger or to kiss in love than to call a table 'a table'. Feelings and passional conduct are invented like words. Even those which like paternity seem to be part and parcel of the human make-up are in reality institutions. It is impossible to superimpose on man a lower layer of behavior which one chooses to call 'natural' followed by a manufactured cultural or spiritual world. Everything is both manufactured and natural in man as it were in the sense that there is not a word, not a form of behavior which does not owe something to purely biological being and which at the same time does not elude the simplicity of animal life and cause forms of vital behavior to deviate from their pre-ordained direction through a sort of leakage and through a genius for ambiguity which might serve to define man."

"I know myself only in my inherence in time and in the world, that is, I know myself only in ambiguity."

"The world is... the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not inhabit only the inner man, or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself."

"The contingency of the world must not be understood as a deficiency in being, a break in the stuff of necessary being, a threat to rationality, nor as a problem to be solved as soon as possible by the discovery of some deeper-laid necessity. That is ontic contingency, contingency within the bounds of the world."

"A shape is nothing but a sum of limited views, and the consciousness of a shape is a collective entity."

"There is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself. "

"I start from unified experince and from there acquire, in a secondary way, consciousness of a unifying activity when, taking up an analytical attitude, I break up perception into qualities and sensations, and when, in order to recapture on the basis of these the object into which I was in the first place blindly thrown, I am obliged to suppose an act of synthesis which is merely the counterpart of my analysis."

"In perception we do not think the object and we do not think ourselves thinking it, we are given over to the object and we merge into this body which is better informed than we are about the world."

"To understand is to experience harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance - and the body is our anchorage in the world. "

"All consciousness is perceptual...The perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence."

"As a matter of principle, humanity is precarious: each person can only believe what he recognizes to be true internally and, at the same time, nobody thinks or makes up his mind without already being caught up in certain relationships with others, which leads him to opt for a particular set of opinions."

"As Simone de Beauvoir's book L'Invitee points out, it is a question of knowing whether there is indeed a certain line of conduct which can justify each man in the eyes of his fellows or whether, on the contrary, our condition does not make always of be mutually unforgivable and whether, in such a situation, al moral principles are not merely a way to reassure rather than to save ourselves, a way to wave questions aside instead of answering them."

"At first glance Sartre's literary fate presents a mystery to those who know him : no man could be less provocative, and yet as an author he creates a scandal."

"Because the historian is concerned with the individual and remains in contact with an inexhaustible reality, his very position makes him better manned than the sociologist against the dream of .a sovereign knowledge capable of immediate access to all times and of an absolute objectivity."

"Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning, and we cannot do or say anything without its acquiring a name in history."

"Being established in my life, buttressed by my thinking nature, fastened down in this transcendental field which was opened for me by my first perception, and in which all absence is merely the obverse of a presence, all silence a modality of the being of sound, I enjoy a sort of ubiquity and theoretical eternity, I feel destined to move in a flow of endless life, neither the beginning nor the end of which I can experience in thought, since it is my living self who think of them, and since thus my life always precedes and survives itself."

"Being honeyed is to describe a particular relationship between the object and us or to indicate that we are moved or compelled to treat it in a certain way."

"But let us make no mistake about this freedom. Let us not imagine an abstract force which could superimpose its effects on life's "givens" or which cause breaches in life's development."

"But phenomenology is also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence, and does not expect to arrive at an understanding of man and the world from any starting point other than that of their 'facticity'."

"But the spectacle perceived does not partake of pure being. Taken exactly as I see it, it is a moment of my individual history, and since sensation is a reconstitution, it pre-supposes in me sediments left behind by some previous constitution, so that I am, as a sentient subject, a repository stocked with natural powers at which I am the first to be filled with wonder."

"But whether it bears the name of, Hegel or Marx, a philosophy which renounces absolute Spirit as history's motive force, which makes history walk on its own feet and which admits no other reason in things than that revealed by their meeting and interaction, could not af a priori man's possibility for wholeness, postulate a final synthesis resolving al contradictions or as its inevitable realization. Such a philosophy continues to see the revolutionary event as contingent and finds the date of the revolution written on no wall nor in any metaphysical heaven."

"By remaining faithful to the phenomena in his investigations of perspective, Cezanne discovered what recent psychologists have come to formulate: the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one."

"Cezanne said that you should be able to paint the smell of trees. Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness that each attribute ?reveals the being? of the object."

"De Lubac discusses an atheism which means to suppress this searching, he says, ?even including the problem as to what is responsible for the birth of God in human consciousness.?"

"Does one even have to say that Pierre loves Xaviere? A feeling is the name conventionally given to a series of instants, but life, when considered lucidly, is reduced to this swarming of instants to which chance alone gives a common meaning. In any case, the love of Francoise and Pierre only seemed to defy time insofar as it lost its reality. Once in escape the crumbling of time only by an act of faith which now seems to Francoise a voluntary illusion. All love is a verbal construction, or at best a lifeless scholasticism."

"Each one of them symbolizes or recalls a particular way of behaving, provoking in us reactions that are either favorable or unfavorable. This is why people?s tastes, character, and the attitude they adopt to the world and to particular things can be deciphered from the objects with which they choose to surround themselves, their preferences for certain colors or that places where they like to go for walks."

"Even those who have desired to work out a completely positive philosophy have been philosophers only to the extent that, at the same time, they have refused the right to install themselves in absolute knowledge. They taught not this knowledge, but it?s becoming in us, not the absolute but, at most, our absolute relation to it, as Kierkegaard said. What makes a philosopher is the movement which leads back without ceasing from knowledge to ignorance, from ignorance to knowledge, and a kind of rest in this movement."

"Everyone is alone and yet nobody can do without other people, not just because they are useful... but also when it comes to happiness."

"Far from being, as has been thought, a procedure of idealistic philosophy, phenomenological reduction belongs to existential philosophy: Heidegger's 'being-in-the-world' appears only against the background of the phenomenological reduction."

"Form and content ? what is said and the way in which it is said ? cannot exist separately from one another."

"His suggestion is to ?rediscover? the perceived world with the help of modern art and philosophy. For M.Ponty?s account of the role of the sense in perception is that they make it their business to cover their tracks as they organize experience in such a way that it presents to us a world of things arrayed before us in a three-dimensional objective space within which we are located as just another object."

"I am not in front of my body, I am in it or rather I am it... If we can still speak of interpretation in relation to the perception of one's own body, we shall have to say that it interprets itself."

"I wanted to render precisely the perceptual experience, I ought to say that one perceives in me, and not that I perceive."

"I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it. But this separation of consciousness is recognized only after a failure of communication, and our first movement is to believe in an undivided being between us."

"If every statement is incomplete and every expression is situated upon a silent tacit comprehension, then it must be that things are said and are thought by a Speech and by a Thought which we do not have but which has us."

"If humanism is the religion of man as a natural species, or the religion of man as a perfected creature, Sartre is as far from humanism today as he ever was."

"If we wish to learn how to prove something, to conduct a thorough investigation or to be critical of our preconceptions, and ourselves it remains appropriate, now as then, that we turn to science. Rather, the question is whether science does, or ever could, present us with a picture of the world which is complete, self-sufficient and somehow closed in upon itself, such that there could no longer be any meaningful questions outside this picture."

"In most cases, a painting, so it is said, represents objects. So painting does not imitate the world but is a world of its own."

"In order to see the world and grasp it as paradoxical, we must break with our familiar acceptance of it."

"In the poem, as in the perceived object, form cannot be separated from content."