Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961)

1. Brief Vita

Merleau-Ponty is indisputably one of the most important French phenomenologists. Throughout his life, he tried to think the importance of the body and the Sensible for every meaning and for the sense of Being. His phenomenological meditation on the lived-body, his description of the phenomena of language, art, institution, history and political life, and his thought on sensible Being instituted a constant dialogue between Husserl and Heidegger, between classical French philosophers such as Descartes and recent ones such as Bergson, between the sciences, psychology, geometry, physics, biology, between every human practice such as art or political life. What remains so original about Merleau-Ponty is his interpretation of philosophers’, artists’ and scientists’ work. He always tried to disclose the hidden sense of thoughts or experiences in order to reveal our primitive experience of the world.

Merleau-Ponty probably discovered Whitehead’s research very early—perhaps in 1933—but he really studied Whitehead at the end of his life, at the end of the 50’s, when his own research led him to the limits of phenomenology, when he tried to elaborate an ontology of the Sensible.

At the beginning of his work, Merleau-Ponty was looking for a new philosophy, a philosophy of the concreted. Such a philosophy would revise the classical theories of perception which are either realist or intellectualist: the former explains perception as a natural and causal process, while the latter considers perception to be a judgment or a representation. In his Projet de Travail sur la Nature de la Perception (1933), Merleau-Ponty hoped to find a new theory of perception and philosophy of the concrete, on the one hand in contemporary psychology, and on the other hand in German contemporary philosophy or English and American philosophy.[1] In his first two books, Merleau-Ponty chose to describe the relationship between human beings and nature and to explore the sense of perception; Gestaltpsychologie and phenomenology offered him ways to surpass the ancient and classical philosophies of perception. We can presume that, in 1933, Merleau-Ponty believed he could find what he was seeking in William James’ and Whitehead’s work. Here Merleau-Ponty was influenced by Jean Wahl and especially by his recent Vers le Concret.[2] But neither in La Structure du Comportement nor in Phénoménologie de la Perception, does Merleau-Ponty cite Whitehead; and his political writings, his articles on art and works on psychology and language from 1945 to 1955 never refer to Whitehead. At the end of the 1950’s nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty’s research became ontological. Works on expression and institution, on the relationship between the sensible world and the speaking world, led from phenomenology to ontology. He then investigated the sense of Being and nature: this was the object of the courses he gave at the Collège de France from 1956 to 1960.

These courses were entitled The Concept of Nature. It was not a coincidence. At the end of the first year of the course, Merleau-Ponty tried to establish a new concept of nature. After studying variations in the concept of nature, he investigated the modern scientific idea of nature. The course finished with a lesson on Whitehead’s idea of nature.[3] In Whitehead’s philosophy of nature, Merleau-Ponty was looking for the implicit ontology of the theory of relativityand quantum physics. Even if his questions were based on Husserl and Heidegger’s meditations, Merleau-Ponty did not find such an ontology in their work.

But it seems strange that a phenomenologist should read Whitehead. The phenomenological question is the question of the sense of the phenomenon: being for phenomenology is appearing. To describe the phenomenon as it appears requires the suspension of judgment about reality, things and the world: no metaphysical thesis on the sense of reality is claimed. Phenomenological reduction breaks with the natural attitude which believes naïvely in the existence of things and the world. The transcendental attitude which breaks with the natural attitude institutes a radical beginning. Philosophical questions become phenomenological questions: what signifies appearing and how to describe a phenomenon as a phenomenon?

Husserl’s phenomenology is idealist-transcendantal: appearing is appearing to consciousness which gives sense to phenomena. But idealism has difficulties in describing and taking into account certain phenomena, such as time, the body or Nature. Merleau-Ponty thought we should describe the emergence of meaning and of things even before consciousness gives sense to phenomena. “Nature” is precisely such an emergence, the event of the apparaître. Nature is physis fu/sij,: the mode of being of nature is to appear. By this phenomenological assertion, phenomenology became ontology. Merleau-Ponty then read Heidegger and discovered in 1955 what we call the second Heidegger: the question of Being became essential for him. It is in this context that Merleau-Ponty truly discovered Whitehead. Like Husserl and Heidegger, but in a very different manner, Whitehead deconstructed modern ontology. This modern ontology was a heritage from Descartes, Galileo and Newton, and contemporary science led to a criticism of the modern ontology and science. A new conception of Being had to be elaborated.

2. Merleau-Ponty’s Interest in Whitehead

Merleau-Ponty discovered Whitehead while he was working on his last ontology, an ontology of the flesh. What is first is the “il y a,” the “there is,” only one flesh as an element that differentiates itself into multiple folds. Phenomena and sense emerge from the flesh. Whitehead’s ideas of nature and his metaphysical meditations about life seemed to echo Merleau-Ponty’s research. Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Whitehead was nevertheless limited: the notes of his course on Nature show that Merleau-Ponty read the Concept of Nature and the lecture from Modes of Thought entitled Nature and Life. He knew Whitehead’s later books via Wahl’s Vers le concret. His reading was strongly influenced by Wahl’s interpretation, in particular in his decision to read together natural philosophy and metaphysical philosophy, not differentiating, for example, events and objects from actual entities and eternal objects.

Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty wanted to break with classical ontology of the object and the subject, with the ontology which sustained scientific thought since Descartes. To describe our primitive experience of the world and to consider nature before the abstract bifurcation between scientific nature and perceptual nature is one and the same thing: we should then, as Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty thought, refuse the metaphysical categories of substance, matter, subject, object, essence; we should develop a new concept of space and time which precedes their separation into objective space and objective time. To view nature as a passage or process can lead to a new idea of Being: this is what Merleau-Ponty was seeking in Whitehead’s philosophy.

Therefore the Concept of Nature interested Merleau-Ponty: Whitehead refused every metaphysical thesis, he tried to describe only factors of nature. Merleau-Ponty found an echo of phenomenological neutralization. The metaphysical approach gave Merleau-Ponty an ontological idea of what is described in the Concept of Nature: from phenomenology to ontology for Merleau-Ponty, from description to metaphysic for Whitehead, we can note a parallel evolution.

2.1. A New Concept of Nature

Merleau-Ponty tried to understand nature as emergence, as sheer appearance [apparaître]: Nature is not anymore natura, a nature spread out before consciousness, but is physis. Whitehead’s idea of nature as passage and the idea of process corresponded to this concept of nature. This conception of nature departed from modern ontology, Cartesian philosophy, but seemed to conform to the results of contemporary physics. When Merleau-Ponty was reading the Concept of Nature, he was trying to find the hidden ontology of theory of relativity and quantum physics. Contemporary physics shows that nature is not at all an objective entity spread out before us. Nature is not contemplated by a kosmotheoros which is exterior to it. Laplace’s conception of nature sums up the idea Merleau-Ponty refused: “Laplace’s classical conception supposed tacitly the idea of an unlimited being over nature, who can view Nature as a Whole spread out, composed of innumerable temporal and spatial points, individualised without non-ontological confusion. This ‘contemplateur du monde’ reigns over the world with a system of eternal laws.”[4] We can find the same criticism in Process and Reality, but Whitehead opposed there Newton’s Scholium and Plato’s Timaeus: “The Scholium betrays its abstractness by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of generation, of fusis, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient” (PR 93). The error of Newton is the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” which is “the error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete” (SMW 51). This error was also quoted by Merleau-Ponty when he criticized intellectual and realistic abstractions. By these abstractions in Descartes’ philosophy or Newton’s physics, the becoming of nature is neglected. To think of nature as being concrete is to think of this becoming, the becoming of entities and the becoming of all nature. Nature is historical and temporal.

2.2. Sense-Awareness and Passage of Nature

Merleau-Ponty agreed with Whitehead that “nature is that which we observe in perception through the senses” (CN 3). The description of nature as perceived shows the general fact of nature: “Something is going on” (CN 49), that is to say, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, “il y a.”[5] This general fact is disclosed to the sense-awareness. Merleau-Ponty expressed this in French as awakening [éveil] or sense-revelation [révélation sensible]. Nature is what appears to the sense-awareness which is part of nature. Merleau-Ponty found in Whitehead’s ideas an ontological rehabilitation of the body as a center of perception, as a percipient event. Body is neither a physical, nor a spiritual thing, but primitive meaning appears to the body, to this sense-awareness.

What is then revealed to sense-awareness? We do not perceive all this general fact of the passage of nature. This perception of nature is not an exhaustive perception: Merleau-Ponty liked to cite Whitehead’s idea of a ragged-edged nature (CN 50)[6]. In the Concept of Nature Whitehead made a distinction between discerned nature and discernable nature, what is individually perceived and what is in relation to the perceived but which is not perceived in particular. The non-exhaustivity of sense-awareness is essential for phenomenology: every perception refers to an unperceived horizon. But, according to Merleau-Ponty, the discernible nature is not only what is not actually perceived. It is what we cannot perceive but which is necessary for every perception. It is what Merleau-Ponty called the invisible of the visible which is forever unperceivable.

2.3. An Ontology of Relation

Sense-awareness is an opening to a nature which is first of all a relational Totality. Merleau-Ponty discovered in Whitehead’s thought an ontology of relations which echoed to his own research: the ontology of the flesh, of the reversibility between feeling and felt, is an ontology of relations. According to Whitehead, overlapping relations and extensions’ relations are relations between terms which do not precede those relations. Those terms are not objects but events: the distinction between objects and events was essential for Merleau-Ponty, who refused every ontology of the object which considers positive entity to exist en soi.

Sense-awareness reveals Nature as a “complex of events.” Merleau-Ponty underlined this idea: The unity of events, their interconnectedness, is linked to their insertion in the unity of the percipient being.

Sense-awareness is part of the passage of nature (CN 67). This conception of nature questions the classical opposition between subject and object: consciousness and nature should not be rigidly separated.

The fact that nature is passage signifies that nature is constituted by events and that events overlap one another. In metaphysical terms, as Merleau-Ponty noticed in an interpretation influenced by Wahl,[7] the term prehension translates such a relation of overlapping. This concept allows us to think of interconnectedness, solidarity and relatedness of events or of actual entities. The body as a percipient event is the model of such an overlapping and such a prehension: it prehends events of nature and it is so linked to the whole of nature. Those relations are feeling relations.

The passage of nature brings about the unity of the body and the unity of every observer.

2.4. Space and Time

The consequence of the relations between events is that we cannot envision time and space as separate, objective and measurable. We should understand space and time as undivided, as a primitive spatialization-temporalization which is the process of nature[8]. This criticism of the classical concept of time and space is the result of the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Whitehead’s philosophy took into account those results. Contemporary physics and perception both lead to the criticism of the idea of simple location. Merleau-Ponty remarked in his course on modern physics that the discovery of photons by Einstein led to a new idea of things.[9] Photons are corpuscles but they have also wave motions;[10] their position is due to the specific intensity of a field, as de Broglie believed.[11] That is to say, they have no simple location. The Whiteheadian criticism of simple location is also pertinent to describe perception. Perception is in fact at once inside the subject and in the perceived thing: “The criticism of simple location shows us the ontological value of perception. What I am perceiving is both in me and in things. Perception is from the interior of nature.”[12] Opening to the whole of nature, perception is a fold of nature.

2.5. Nature and Life

This way in which events or entities (in particular percipient events) are linked to all other events or entities and finally to the whole of nature allows one to describe the emergence of individual entities: the term concrescence expresses such emergence. This term was essential for Merleau-Ponty: it led Merleau-Ponty, like Whitehead, to a meditation on life. At the beginning of his course on the concept of nature, Merleau-Ponty defined Nature from Greek and Latin terms: “In Greek, the word ‘nature’ comes from the verb fuw which is an allusion to vegetable life; the Latin word comes from nascor, to be born, to live.”[13] Nature is life. Nature is passage: it is not composed of punctual instants, but it is life inside which there are durations.[14] Those durations overlap each other[15] and finally refer to the whole of nature. Whitehead’s ideas of concrescence and process express this idea. If we were to describe nature as lifeless, then we would have to describe the body, organisms and life in this way also. But this would be to forget nature’s powers of self-production.

Merleau-Ponty’s evolution was thus parallel to Whitehead’s: the latter led to a meditation of life when his thought became metaphysical; the former led to an ontology of life when his meditation on nature became ontological.

The deconstruction of the classical idea of lifeless nature, led to a meditation of nature as being alive. At the end of his life, Merleau-Ponty explored the limits of phenomenology: Whitehead and his meditation on nature and life contributed to this exploration. Nature and life opened metaphysical and cosmological perspectives which were not at all phenomenological. Nature can be described as creative advance. Such activity of nature is much more effective in nature alive than in lifeless nature, even if all nature is process and passage.[16] Lifeless nature leads to the idea of activity; nature alive leads to the meaning of this activity (MT 202-203). We cannot understand this meaning if we accept Cartesian dualism between matter and spirit. We should understand the universe as an organic totality whose elements are inter-related. To live is indeed to appropriate a multiplicity which is multiplicity of nature. This appropriation rests on prehensions and constitutes the subject itself. The constitution of the self is therefore self-enjoyment, in which nature is gathered in an occasion of experience. But this process of appropriation also constitutes the life of nature (MT 205-206). It is a temporal process. Much more, it is the spatialization-temporalization of time itself. This time is cosmic time. This cosmic time is also linked to a cosmological conception of Being. Indeed there is a unity of nature and a continuity of all occurrences of nature. The ontology of the flesh also presupposes this unity and continuity of nature. Merleau-Ponty ended up his commentary of Whitehead by insisting on this cosmological conception: every type of natural occurrences “lead[s] on to each other” (MT 215). This meditation on nature and life sketched the ontology of the flesh.

3. An ontology of the Sensible?

Merleau-Ponty’s course on nature shows how a Whiteheadian philosophy of nature can nourish an ontological meditation which has its starting point in phenomenology.

First of all, Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh was only possible once Merleau-Ponty had criticized the classical conceptions of perception. The case is the same for Whitehead: the togetherness of the events, the links between percipient events and other events, imply a new conception of perception. We can find this new conception in Process and Reality. Merleau-Ponty knew Process and Reality’s distinctions:[17] perception is not only in the mode of presentational immediacy; perception refers to thickness, history and the memory of the body.[18] The past of the body and of the world is gathered in the perception in the mode of causal efficacy. To perceive with our body is to feel the thickness of the body and of time: according to Merleau-Ponty, the Whiteheadian idea of the withness of the body means that to perceive the world is also to perceive one’s own body. The idea of the reversibility of the flesh between body and world could thus find essential concepts in the theory of feelings and the conception of perception of Process and Reality. Merleau-Ponty only guessed this at the end of his life.

As a matter of fact, the development of Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the flesh was long and complex; it was the product of various conceptual encounters in which Whitehead undoubtedly played a significant role. This, however, is certain: if Merleau-Ponty had been acquainted with Process and Reality, he would have been able to cast an even more critical eye on the phenomenological tradition.

As we have seen, lots of concepts of the philosophy of nature are pertinent in describing flesh and Being as a sensible being. Nature is not a Whole constituted in itself. There is an auto-creation of nature and the passage of nature does not presuppose a totality which would precede it. The flesh is auto-constituting: the flesh is creativity, creative advance. The flesh is the element of interconnectedness, the relatedness of the multiple. But it is also from the flesh that every perception and sense emerge. In Whitehead’s terms, we can say that the percipient event is part of nature, and that every prehension is part of nature’s auto-creation.

There is at once unity of the flesh, unity of nature, and an auto-differentiation of flesh and nature: phenomena or entities are the individual folds of such a differentiation, but they are also linked to one another. So, overlapping relations constitute universal solidarity. Overlapping is the translation of the French empiétement or enjambement which are among the most important concepts of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. We can say that there is flesh, a universal solidarity, because there are overlapping relations.

This unity, as we have seen, requires a new conception of time and space. There is a corporeal and fleshly insertion of time; time and space are inseparable. There is time of nature and time of Being which is not at all objective or natural time. The text Nature and Life was important for Merleau-Ponty: the idea of concrescence and the fact that there is a self-enjoyment of time in organisms were essential for Merleau-Ponty. Indeed for the French philosopher, there is a fold of nature inside the body. This fold is the spatialization-temporalization of space and time.

This is enough to show that Whitehead (among many other authors, including Husserl and Heidegger) could have played a more important role for Merleau-Ponty. This also shows that Merleau-Ponty opened up a dialogue between Whitehead and phenomenology which is not yet closed. But such dialogue could also go in the opposite direction: phenomenological philosophy, in particular that of Merleau-Ponty, could address questions to Whitehead’s thought, particularly his metaphysics and cosmology.

To illustrate this possible dialogue, we could suggest some remarks on the question of essences. In his course, Merleau-Ponty asserted[19] the importance of the notions of ingression and situation in the Concept of Nature: these notions are essential when considering the relation between events and objects and between actual entities and eternal objects. They allow one to avoid the separation between events and objects, or actual entities and eternal objects. But in spite of the idea of ingression, the concepts of objects or eternal objects may lead to a negation of the process or the passage of nature. Objects are réification of what is only process. The concept of objects seems to introduce a new Platonism,[20] Merleau-Ponty remarked, here again influenced by Wahl. Merleau-Ponty preferred his own notion of style to describe the essence of what happens rather than the notion of objects. Style is not a positive essence. Objects are perhaps still such an essence.

We could not really consider objects to be apart from events. But the object is already perhaps an abstraction. Experience is at first the experience of events, not the experience of objects. Merleau-Ponty saw that objects are nothing without events, they are the “ ‘structures’ of events”[21]: there could be no meaning in nature, in the passage of nature, if there were only events. But objects should never be seen as could be the case for eternal objects, as positive essences, if we would like to keep the concrete meaning of our primitive experience. This concrete meaning is sensible, and Merleau-Ponty could remind Whitehead that experience, meaning and Being are first of all sensible.

The dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead is helpful for understanding Being as sensible being, and for developing an ontology of the Sensible, as Merleau-Ponty tried to do at the end of his life with his ontology of the flesh.


[1] Projet de Travail sur la Nature de la Perception, 1933, in Le Primat de la Perception, Lagrasse, Verdier, 1996,p. 13. This text was written by Merleau-Ponty to obtain a subvention from the Caisse nationale des Sciences.

[2] Jean Wahl, Vers le concret, Paris, Vrin, 1932 (réédition 2004).

[3] La Nature, notes, cours du Collège de France (noted N.), published by Dominique Séglard, Paris, Seuil, 1995, and Cours inédit, volume XV. Collège de France. 1956-1957. Cours du lundi et du jeudi. Le concept de nature. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MF 12770.

[4] La Nature, p. 153, translation mine.

[5] Volume XV, p. 157.

[6] N. 154, for example.

[7] Volume XV, p. 158.

[8] See Le Visible et l’Invisible, Notes de travail, p. 302, transcription by Claude Lefort, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.

[9] N. 123-152.

[10] N. 125-126.

[11] N. 126.

[12] N. 159.

[13] N. 19, translation mine.

[14] See N. 155-156 and vol. XV. 150, 155.

[15] Vol. XV. 152.

[16] N. 158, and Merleau-Ponty cites MT. 198-200 in volume XV. 154.

[17] Vol. XV. 158.

[18] Vol. XV. 158.

[19] N. 158.

[20] Vol. XV. 152.

[21] Vol. XV. 152.

Works Cited and Further Readings

1. Works by Merleau-Ponty

1996. Le Primat de la Perception (Lagrasse, Verdier). Translated in 1964 as The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, edited by James M. Edie (Evanston, Northwestern University Press).

1995. La Nature: notes, cours du Collège de France, edited by DoDominique Séglard (Paris, Seuil). Translated in 2003 by R. Vallier as “Course notes from the College de France (Evanston, Northwestern University Press).

1964. Le Visible et l’Invisible, Notes de travail, transcribed by Claude Lefort (Paris, Gallimard). Translated in 1968 by Lingis as The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, Northwestern University Press).

1956-1957. “Cours inédit, volume XV. Collège de France. Cours du lundi et du jeudi. Le Concept de Nature” (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MF 12770).

Merleau-Ponty read Whitehead’s Concept of Nature, The Function of Reason, and knew indirectly of Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality, particularly through Jean Wahl’s 1932 Vers le Concret (Paris, Vrin), which was reissued in 2004.

On Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead

Cassou-Noguès, Pierre. 2001. “ Merleau-Ponty et les sciences de la nature: lecture de la physique moderne: confrontation à Bergson et Whitehead,” Chiasmi International, 2 (Milan, Mimesis; University of Memphis; Paris, Vrin), 119-42.

_____. 2002. “A l’intérieur de l’événement. La notion d’organisme dans la cosmologie de Whitehead,” Les études philosophiques, 4, 441-57.

Garelli, Jacques. 2004. De l’entité à l’événement, La phénoménologie à l’épreuve de la science et de l’art contemporain, Chapter VII (Milan, Mimesis).

Hamrick, William S. 1974. “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Some Moral Implications,” Process Studies, 4, 4, 235-51.

_____. 1999. “A Process View of the Flesh: Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty,” Process Studies, 28, 1-2. 117-29.

_____. 2004. “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Healing the Bifurcation of Nature,” in Janusz A. Polanowski and Donald W. Sherburne, eds. Whitehead’s Philosophy: Points of Connection (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press), pp. 127-142.

Robert, Franck. 2006a. “Whitehead et la phénoménologie. Une lecture croisée du dernier Merleau-Ponty et du Whitehead de Process and Reality,” Chiasmi International, 8 (Milan, Mimesis; University of Memphis; Paris, Vrin), 2006.

_____. 2006b. “Merleau-Ponty, lecteur de Whitehead, Le concept de nature, socle d’une pensée renouvelée de l’Etre,” in La science et le monde moderne d’Alfred North Whitehead—Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, edited by François Beets, Michel Dupuis and Michel Weber (Frankfurt, Ontos).

_____. 2006c. “Science et ontologie: Merleau-Ponty et Whitehead,” Archives de Philosophie.

Rodrigo, Pierre. 2002. “L’onto-logique d’Alfred North Whitehead,” Les Études Philosophiques, 4, 475-90.

_____. 2004. “A. N. Whitehead: du substantialisme à la ‘tinologie’,” in Alfred North Whitehead: De l’algèbre universelle à la théologie naturelle, edited by François Beets, Michel Dupuis, and Michel Weber (Frankfurt, Ontos), 337-352.

Van der Veken, Jan. 2004. “L’identité de la personne dans une philosophie de la créativité,” in Alfred North Whitehead: De l’algèbre universelle à la théologie naturelle, edited by François Beets, Michel Dupuis, and Michel Weber (Frankfurt, Ontos), 255-268.

Author Information

Franck Robert
Lycée de Barcelonnette, 04400 France

How to Cite this Article

Robert, Franck, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.