Joan Mitchell, Noël

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Philosophy, Phenomenology, and the Body

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

To perceive means to have a body, which in turn means inhabiting an already significant world. We don’t—on a fundamental level—think the world, but rather live in it. So argues French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who stands with Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre as one of the greatest and most influential proponents of Phenomenology, the 20th-century philosophical movement that sought to uncover the structures of immediate, lived experience from a first person perspective rather than the detached, third personal perspective of both scientific and ordinary discourse. Radically expanding on Heidegger’s key notion that human existence is a being-in-the-world (Inderweltsein), Merleau-Ponty believed that the structure of such “worldedness” (Être au monde) was grounded in embodiment: Perception and intentionality are not essentially processes of representation, but rather ways of engaging the world via the medium of bodily skills and dispositions. The body, as Merleau-Ponty claims, brings existence “into being and actualizes it.” But, what’s at stake in arguing for a philosophy of the body—for (usually opposed) notions of subjectivity and objectivity, for the nature of knowledge, for sexuality ? How can we understand the experience of being in the world?

In this course, we will read Merleau-Ponty’s classic The Phenomenology of Perception, interrogating its concepts of sensation, the phenomenal field, the experience of motility, expression and sexuality, and the nature of space, temporality and freedom. Along the way, we’ll be concerned with Merleau-Ponty’s relation to the phenomenological tradition in general, as well as its philosophical antecedents in Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, among others; and examine phenomenology as a living philosophy for contemporary life. How are Merleau-Ponty’s ideas—on the body, perception, and experience–used and developed today, in philosophy and beyond?

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 09 — April 30, 2024
4 weeks


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