Maurice Merleau-Ponty was an existential philosopher (influenced by Husserl) along with his contemporaries Sartre and de Beauvoir; however, Merleau-Ponty’s work defied traditional conventions and even challenged Sartre’s anguish, conflicting relations, and uncompromising Marxism and Cartesian ontology. MerleauPonty emphasized the embodied experience, especially the perception, and he argued that phenomena could not be comprehended fully with philosophical traditions and norms because of the leakiness and complexity of what he referred to as equally disappointing alternatives, empiricism and intellectualism. His ideas about knowledge have influenced educators.
Along with Saussure, Merleau-Ponty was one of the philosophical innovators who brought structuralism and linguistics into an interdependent relationship with phenomenology, and his work refuted Western idealism and sought to (re)articulate the various relationships of subject and object in the intersubjective state, self, and world, as well as many other dualisms through an account of the lived and existential body within The Phenomenology of Perception.
For contemporary educational scholars, such as Madeleine Grumet, Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the body—or the body-subject, as he refers to it—and theory of the body are too often underestimated by educators who tend to view the body as simply an “object” that a transcendent mind orders to perform various activities, so that students may get back to their “mental” work. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophies ground knowledge within the body’s experiences in conjunction with the world.
With philosophical analyses of perceptions, embodied experiences, difficulties of human existence, and the body and intersubjectivity, MerleauPonty’s phenomenological works are gaining more attention within contemporary educational research and scholarship because he challenges dualisms and offers a more holistic approach to educational philosophy and curriculum. Educators who embrace Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy challenge the mind/body split and incorporate the body into the curriculum and classroom in a multitude of ways—from discussing the misogynistic body philosophy from Plato and the early Greeks (which has guided educational “norms” and practices)—to discussing the pregnant body; able and disabled bodies; and how the body is “disruptive” and “leaky” in schools with regard to race, class, gender, ability, ethnicity, and sexuality, to actually using and integrating the body in the learning process with individual and collaborative hands-on experiences—such as dancing to learn mathematical patterns, building muscles and using the muscles on the body itself, and/or performing a play.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.). New York: Routledge.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). The primacy of perception, and other essays on phenomenological psychology, the philosophy of art, history, and politics (J. Edie, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
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