Merleau-Ponty: The Self as Embodied Subjectivity

Merleau-Ponty: The Self as Embodied Subjectivity
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  • 0:01 Subject
  • 1:14 Rationalism
  • 1:51 Empiricism
  • 2:39 Merleau-Ponty
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore Maurice Merleau-Ponty's views on perception, action, and self. It will also highlight his critiques of rationalism and empiricism.


Before diving into our lesson on Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his ideas on self as an embodied subjectivity, we're going to need to explain what we mean by 'subjectivity.' We're also going to need to understand rationalism and empiricism. With so much to cover, today's lesson will definitely be a bit of a shallow dive into a very deep pool.

To jump in, let's define what we mean by subjectivity, or subject. For our purposes, we'll think of a subject as something that has being. A subject is a real thing that can take real action and cause real effects. In short, it exists. Keeping this in mind, Maurice Merleau-Ponty believed the physical body to be an important part of what makes up the subjective self.

This idea flew in the face of two of the most heralded, yet opposing, ideas in all of philosophy. They are empiricism and rationalism. In order to understand why Merleau-Ponty's ideas made such a splash, we need to understand the two philosophies against which he was arguing.


When speaking of self or being, rationalism asserts that reason and mental perception, rather than physical senses and experience, are the basis of knowledge and self. In other words, our rational thinking minds are where it's all at!

According to many who held this belief, the mind is the seat of our consciousness. It is the subject behind what it means to be human. The body is just a shell. As the famous Plato once said, and I paraphrase a bit, 'The body is just the prison house of the soul.'


Standing in contrast to rationalism is empiricism. Empiricism is the belief that our physical senses are the only source of knowledge. If the source of our knowledge can't be seen, touched, heard, tasted, etc., it really can't be trusted. Or, in other words, if it can't be empirically studied, it's a no go. Under these parameters, the idea of some mystical mind independently perceiving and giving us our sense of self comes under some serious scrutiny. An empiricist may argue that our physical body, and not some mystical mind, makes up our sense of self. While the rationalist would say, 'I think, therefore I am', an empiricist would say, 'I sense, therefore I am!'


Almost in a Goldilocks this-porridge-is-too-hot-and-this-porridge-is-too-cold sort of way, Merleau-Ponty stepped on the scene and declared rationalism and empiricism both miss the mark. To him, rationalism elevates the importance of the mind and perception too much, while empiricism too strongly negates them.

Rather than seeing the perceiving mind and the acting body as separate, Merleau-Ponty argued that they are interconnected. They both are our seat of knowledge, and they both give us our sense of self. Like love and marriage, you can't have one without the other!

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