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Merleau-Ponty and Dooyeweerd

This page discusses how Merleau-Ponty's and Dooyeweerd's thought compare: how Dooyeweerd might affirm, critique and enrich Merleau-Ponty, and perhaps vice versa.

It is as yet incomplete. It is offered as continuing work to stimulate thinking; academic writers should feel free to make use of, develop and even publish ideas contained here since it is unlikely that I shall have the opportunity to do so. I do believe the seeds sown in this page deserve the chance to blossom.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was interested in how we live in the world. He developed a view of perception as active, pre-rational response in a perceivable world, and of the central importance of the body, which may be summed up as "experienced corporality". He seemed to be motivated to counter mentalism, a worldview that over-emphasises the mental and logical and downplays the importance of body and the psychical, pre-rational aspects. He wanted to counter the then-dominant presumption that our action in the world is primarily as rational agents, distal from objects that we think about and control. In this, he was rowing in the same direction as many others, but charted his own unique course.

Merleau-Ponty's main work, in which he articulates those ideas, is The Phenomenology of Perception [1962]. This shows that he was influenced by Phenomenology, but took it in his own direction.

Dooyeweerd's Contributions to Merleau-Ponty's Thought

Dooyeweerd shows just a little awareness of Merleau-Ponty, in [NC, III, 779-80]. Merleau-Ponty, he believes, has been completely emancipated from the Greek Form-Matter ground-motive that opposes mind and matter [but I am not so sure, in that MP is still seeking to oppose the Mind/Form pole, rather than integrate the two]. Dooyeweerd then comments that

"This involves a fundamental misinterpretation of the subject-object relation of pre-theoretic experience and of the antithetic Gegenstand-relation of theoretic thought. This leads MERLEAU PONTY to the characterization of human corporality as a 'blind adherence' ('adhesion aveugle') to the pre-objective world."

But Dooyeweerd does not expand on this misinterpretation. So in the following growing table, I present some excerpts from Merleau-Ponty, how Dooyeweerd would affirm the ideas contained therein, how he might critique them and how he might provide the basis for enriching them. Please feel free to use and develop and publish these thoughts: these are seeds that deserve to be sown, grow, blossom and bear fruit.

Comparison between Merleau-Ponty's and Dooyeweerd's Thought
Merleau-Ponty Dooyeweerd Affirms Dooyeweerd Critiques Dooyeweerd Enriches
"My body is the meaningful core" [p.46] Do not forget the body, which is multi-aspectual But does this evince a reductionist approach: trying to explain all things by corporeality? Elevation of biotic and psychic aspects? Extend to all aspects, and understand how later aspects including the analytical depend on the biotic and sensitive aspects.
Meaning The French word sense, which M-P uses frequently, can be translated as 'meaning' (even though some translators do not). It is good to have a thinker recognising the importance of meaning. However, M-P presumes that sense meaning is generated by us ex ninilo - and this leads him into tensions when he discovers otherwise. [Note 1] Try reinterpreting M-P in terms of Dooyeweerd's 'oceanic' idea of meaning.
Meaning implicit as well as explicit. In his essay 'Indirect language and the voices of silence', M-P argues that meaning is not only explicit in language but also to be found 'behind' language. Meaning is "the excess of what we live over what has already been said" [M-P Signs, 83]. "Meaning is the being of all that has been created." [[NC, I, 4]. Where M-P arrives at the end of his essay, Dooyeweerd takes as his starting point. M-P finds it difficult to take it much further and really explore it, because of being trapped in Immanence Standpoint. Take Dooyeweerd's diverse spheres of meaning (aspects).
Relationship between meaning and language.
"Similarly, meaning is not langauge's servant, and yet it does not govern lanuage." [M-PSigns, 83]
Our lingual functioning (as language) has a special role to enable us to 'parcel up' bits of meaningfulness. But it does not govern meaning, and nor is it determined by it. We lingual-subjects have 'freedom' in how we function.
Imposition of meaning Recognises the importance of meaning Does this presume meaning is imposed, generated ex nihilo? 'Imposition' seems disharmonious with M-P's ideas of experience. The 'imposition' of meaning might instead be less distal and more proximal, in that we function within meaningfulness. That is, I do not stand at a distance from a thing and throw meaning onto it, but rather function with it in an 'ocean' of meaningfulness. Try reinterpreting M-P in terms of Dooyeweerd's 'oceanic' idea of meaning.
Spoken language v.
Speaking language
Does this show M-P recognising two distinct meanings of meaning, the two sides of reality that D recognises?

Spoken language = fact-side actuality of language and languages-that-exist.

Speaking language = the law-side, the deep laws of the lingual aspect.

M-P was not entirely clear about this, but that may be excused because he was groping for this distinction from within the fog of an Immanence Standpoint. Develop M-P using Dooyeweerd's notion of two sides of reality.
Speaking language, as the meaningfulness and activity of language itself, expressing what we emote. [PP 184] The lingual aspect governs this and gives the phenomenon of language itself a meaningfulness. Its kernel meaning is signification or expression.
The word-signified relationship is not arbitrary but motivated [PP 184] Might be a reaching for Dooyeweerd's 'oceanic' view of meaningfulness, by which meaning is not arbitrary. However, because of the prevailing Immanence Standpoint in philosophy, it may be that M-P could not reach all the way. Reinterpret M-P in terms of Dooyeweerd's 'oceanic' view of meaning.
Meaning in history History, to Dooyeweerd is treated in two ways, narrowly as human functioning in the formative aspect, and widely as an idea of progress, which is based on humanity opening up the meaningfulness (meaningful potential) of each aspect. Since all aspects (not just the lingual) are aspects of meaning within which we dwell ('ocean of meaningfulness'), all history is inherently meaningful. Reinterpret M-P in terms of Dooyeweerd's 'oceanic' view of meaning. Dooyeweerd's idea of progress is that each aspect makes different kinds of Good possible (their combination contributing to 'Shalom').
More to be written

Merleau-Ponty's Contribution to Dooyeweerd's Thought

Merleau-Ponty was not, as far as I know, aware of Dooyeweerd, so made no direct contribution. The following are some pointers to how his thought might contribute to Dooyeweerd's:


Note 1. On meaning: Merleau-Ponty appears to address meaning and normativity, but not in ways that necessarily help us. His Phenomenology of Perception [1962] contains no entries in the index on 'meaning', 'norm...' or 'good', though his French word sense could imply signified meaning. However, in his essay, 'Indirect language and the voices of silence', Merleau-Ponty [1964, 39-83] argues that meaning is not only that which is explicit in language but also that which is implicit or behind language; he seems to be reaching for something we live 'within', which is Dooyeweerd's understanding of meaning.

Note 2. On Normativity: Telero [2005] finds normativity in Merleau-Ponty's talk about "blurred" perceptions and "better or worse", but it is implicit and not discussed explicitly. Spina [2003, 47] finds Merleau-Ponty discussing two kinds of normativity: as essence or ideal conditions of relationship to environment, and as a biological a priori, as "structure by means of which the behavioural constants of an organism appear to an observer." The norm of X is the essence of X. This is interesting if essence is itself inherently normative, but if not (as seems to be the case), it merely shifts the problem one step back without resolving it. The essence that is the norm is caught through perception and based on the certainty of the cognitive act [Spina 2003, 47]. This is in danger of reducing normativity to cognition, which might be applicable to animal and artefact affordances but probably not to some of the affordances of ICT that relate to usefulness or even society (c.f. Faraj & Azad's [2014, 254] argument that there is a need to significantly evolve the original affordance construct and go beyond its ecological and perceptual focus).


Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. The Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Merleau-Ponty M. 1964. Signs, tr. RC McLeary, ed. J Wild et al. Northwestern University Press.

Spina M. 2003. Norm and normality, starting from Merleau-Ponty, EBook PDF EPUB Online.

Telero M. 2005. Perception, normativity, and selfhood in Merleau-Ponty: The spatial 'level' and existential space. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, XI.III, 443-61.

This page, '', is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Copyright (c) at all dates below Andrew Basden. However Academic writers may use and develop and publish material from this page. All may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 16 June 2016 Last updated: 20 June 2016, refs, signs. 24 August 2016 body multi-aspectual. 24 August 2016 meaning in history; altd intro. 27 January 2017 notes on meaning and normativity (nv yet to be referred). 20 June 2018 tiny error corrected.