Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was a French philosopher in the tradition of phenomenology. He taught at the Ecole Normale Superieure, later held the chair of child psychology and pedagogy at the Sorbonne, and in 1952 became the successor of Louis Lavelle at the College de France. In 1946 he founded the journal Les Temps Modernes together with Jean- Paul Sartre, but he withdrew his cooperation in 1955 and subsequently left the editorial board.
Merleau-Ponty developed his thoughts under the influence of various schools of thought, the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger being the most important; others were dialectics (Hegel, Marx), existentialism (Sartre) and neocriticism (Brunschvicg). His theory of time is based on the Husserlian phenomenology and is to be found in two of his major large-scale works: the early work Phenomenology of Perception (1945) and the unfinished manuscript The Visible and the Invisible (1964), which was posthumously published by Claude Lefort.
In the discussion surrounding his work, it remains contentious whether there is any continuity between the early and the late thought or not. Time as subject is treated quite differently in the two works mentioned above: In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty analyzes time in a phenomenological manner, and in The Visible and the Invisible, in which Merleau-Ponty seeks for a way of thinking beyond subject-object dualism, time becomes a subject of ontology. But already in his early work, Merleau-Ponty argued against the dualism of subject and object and the theoretical concepts of empiricism and idealism, which emphasize a dualistic way of thinking. Although his analysis of time exhibits a tendency toward a subjective notion, it would be a misinterpretation to speak of a subjective view of time. In fact, Merleau-Ponty’s concept of time undergoes continuous development throughout his life’s work.
In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau- Ponty argues against the idea that time resembles a flowing river. This image of time is problematic from two perspectives: First, it suggests that time has an existence in itself and, therefore, is something in the world; and, second, that time flows from the past to the future or vice versa. Merleau- Ponty denies that time exists in the world; he says that there is no such thing as succession to be found in the world of things. This position has led to the widespread conviction that he defends a subjective view of time. But time is also not to be found in consciousness, according to Merleau- Ponty. The role of the subject is to unfold time, and it does so from the present, which Merleau-Ponty considers to be the source of time. Therefore, there is no flow of time from the past to the future. Moreover the concept of unfolding or constitution of time is not completely subjective, because contact with the world is necessary. Furthermore, this special kind of constitution does not imply a completion—time is never wholly constituted, it remains in statu nascendi as Merleau-Ponty calls it. That means it cannot become an object of complete recognition. Merleau-Ponty understands time in Phenomenology of Perception as a dynamic structure that constantly evolves from the primordial interaction of subject and world.
The constitution of time is bound to the present, and the reason for this present-centered view of time lies in the function of the body (the corps propre). The concept of the body takes over a transcendental function similar to the transcendental consciousness in Husserl’s phenomenology: It is the condition of possibility for perception, because it situates the subject in the world and gives it a perspective. Husserl did not think of the body as basis for perception, because he held that the body is a concept that first has to be constituted in experience before it can function as a means of perception. The difference to Husserl’s concept is that the transcendental consciousness is itself transcendent. On the contrary, the body has a transcendental function but is not transcendent itself. The body’s significance for time lies in its presence for the subject. It is always present for the subject even if the subject has not attained selfconsciousness yet. My own body cannot be compared to an ordinary object in the world, because I am not able to distance myself from it in order to perceive it as a whole thing or from all sides. That means my own body is always present for me, but it can never be wholly presented to me. Because the body is fundamental to perception, it also determines the time-consciousness to evolve from the present moment. But the present moment, just like time as a whole, remains in statu nascendi; in other words, it is never complete; the present as the source of time is never fully present, because it constantly evolves.
Merleau-Ponty states that time and the subject are identical, in the sense that their structure is alike. The identification of subject and time is programmatic for Merleau-Ponty: It expresses his aim to describe time from the perspective of the subject without limiting it to a subjective concept. Since time and the subject are not heterogeneous to each other, Merleau-Ponty doesn’t require a higher- order subjectivity that synthesizes time to make it available for consciousness.
In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau- Ponty’s aim is to give phenomenology an ontological foundation. He stresses the notion of time as dimension of being and even speaks of time as an element in the ancient Greek sense. Time is the element in which structure becomes possible, and structure is necessary for the possibility of being; as a dimension of being, it is fundamental to the structure of subject and object. Merleau-Ponty expands the body-concept to the concept of “flesh.” He uses this term to denote the irreducible bond of subject and world on the level of corporeality and perceptual structures. Because he connects the notion of flesh with time (the flesh of time), it becomes obvious that here at the latest he no longer defends a subjective view of time (if he ever had done so). The importance of the present has not lost weight. The flesh as universal structure is not restricted to the perceiving subject but contains both the perceived and the perceiver (perception has its place in between subject and object, it is not only an act of the subject); it is a structure of simultaneity. In the presence of the flesh, past, present, and future are contained simultaneously. The present is itself structured, this richer notion of presence is captured in the term simultaneity. In this expanded view of time, Merleau-Ponty also reflects on historicity from various, preferably nondualistic, perspectives. An ontology of time from a Merleau- Pontyan perspective will neither objectify it nor restrict it to subjectivity. Although being cannot become objectified, it is open to philosophical interrogation; therefore, Merleau-Ponty himself calls his ontology an indirect one.
Merleau-Ponty’s late thoughts about time remained fragmentary and, as such, open to various interpretations. Nevertheless, they are worth considering for a nondualistic time theory. His philosophy influenced among others the works of Foucault and Derrida (for example, his critique of the metaphysics of presence) and is the subject of philosophical discussions in Europe and to a great extent in North America, where for example the relevance of his theory for the interpretation of recent results in the cognitive sciences is discussed.
See also Bergson, Henri; Derrida, Jacques; Epistemology; Farber, Marvin; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Marx, Karl; Metaphysics; Perception; Ricoeur, Paul; Time, Phenomenology of
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