Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 20, 2018, from

4. Consciousness and freedom

In the final chapters of The Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty uses his account of the sub-personal elements of life to elucidate the characteristic marks of personal life – self-consciousness and freedom. His discussion of these themes is, in part, an argument against their treatment by Sartre in Being and Nothingness, which was published two years earlier in 1943. Central to Sartre’s account was the thesis that consciousness has a distinctive ‘being’ as ‘being-for-itself’ – that is, self-conscious – which is supposed to yield the conclusion that consciousness manifests an inescapable and absolute freedom (see Sartre, J.-P. §3). As against Sartre, therefore, Merleau-Ponty argues that both self-consciousness and freedom are achievements that cannot be understood in isolation from the sub-personal aspects of life from which they are absent. They do not constitute an inescapable fate to which we are condemned; instead they are just the high points in the ebb and flow of our existence.

In the case of consciousness Merleau-Ponty argues that it is because ‘all consciousness is, in some measure, perceptual’ ([1945] 1962: 395), in the sense that it draws upon our habitual sub-personal experience of the world, that self-consciousness is both capable of genuinely extending our knowledge and also vulnerable to error and illusion. A form of self-consciousness that was not thus vulnerable would be so totally detached from this tacit background that it would lack the concepts with which this background furnishes us and could, therefore, tell us nothing about ourselves. Similarly the exercise of genuine freedom presupposes a background engagement with the world that is not itself an exercise of freedom. If one seeks, as Sartre does, to find freedom in all acts of consciousness, one empties of any content the distinction between freedom and its absence by misconstruing the absence of a choice to act as a choice not to act. Instead, we need to acknowledge the impersonal significance of things which arises from our sub-personal needs, habits and constraints; only against this background can a ‘strictly individual project’ stand out briefly as an exercise of freedom before its significance too is compromised by its incorporation into the general run of events.

Citing this article:
Baldwin, Thomas. Consciousness and freedom. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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