Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

2. Mind and body

Much of Merleau-Ponty’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942) is devoted to a detailed critical discussion of physiological psychology and the attempt to provide on its basis a reductive explanation of behaviour. In developing his argument Merleau-Ponty draws on Gestalt psychology and especially K. Goldstein’s The Organism which emphasizes the holistic features of the life of organisms. Merleau-Ponty takes over Goldstein’s holism and incorporates it into what he terms a ‘dialectical’ conception of the structures of behaviour, according to which as organisms evolve and become more sophisticated, higher ‘forms’ of behaviour develop which transform the life of the organism. So the new capacities characteristic of these higher forms are not simple additions to an otherwise unaltered neurophysiology; instead, through a process of ‘dialectical’ assimilation, these new capacities bring with them changes in the functioning of the underlying neurophysiology (see Gestalt psychology).

Merleau-Ponty argues that this dialectical approach enables him to reject reductive theories without invoking the kind of vitalism espoused by Bergson (see Vitalism). Equally, he argues, it provides a way of accommodating the phenomena of consciousness without dualist metaphysics: for, he writes, ‘man is not a rational animal. The appearance of reason and mind does not leave intact a sphere of self-enclosed instincts in man’ ([1942] 1963: 181). Thus there can be no partition of ‘mind’ from ‘body’ in human life: the mental is intrinsically bodily, a theme Merleau-Ponty illustrates through the role of the sense-organs in perception. Equally the body is intrinsically mental, in the sense that there can be no adequate understanding of human behaviour that does not conceptualize it as the behaviour of a normally rational agent. Merleau-Ponty’s comment on Watson’s behaviourism shows his aspirations clearly:

what is healthy and profound in this intuition of behavior found itself compromised by an impoverished philosophy…. When Watson spoke of behavior he had in mind what others have called existence; but the new notion could receive its philosophical status only if causal or mechanical thinking were abandoned for dialectical thinking.

(Merleau-Ponty [1942] 1963: 226)

Citing this article:
Baldwin, Thomas. Mind and body. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles