For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Phenomenology of Perception

by Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2012)


Published fifty years after the original translation by Colin Smith, Donald A. Landes' rendering of Merleau-Ponty's magnum opus is a welcome arrival for both the student and the scholar. Phenomenology of Perception (French: Phénoménologie de la perception) is a 1945 book about perception by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which the author expounds his thesis of "the primacy of perception". The work established Merleau-Ponty as the pre-eminent philosopher of the body, and is considered a major statement of French existentialism.

Key Passage

If I consider myself in my absolute concretion and such as reflection presents me to myself, then I am an anonymous and pre-human flow that has not yet been articulated as “worker,” for example, or as “bourgeois.” If I later conceive of myself as a man among men, or as a bourgeois among bourgeois, it seems that this can only be a secondary view of myself; I am never a worker or a bourgeois at my very core, but rather a consciousness that freely valuates itself as a bourgeois or a proletarian consciousness. Indeed, my objective place in the circuit of production is not sufficient to give rise to an awareness of class. People were exploited long before there were revolutionaries. The worker’s movement does not always progress in times of economic crisis. The revolt is not, then, the product of objective conditions, but conversely it is the decision made by the worker to desire the revolution that turns him into a proletarian. The valuation of the present is established by the free project of the future. One might conclude from this that history has no sense by itself, it has the sense we give it through our will.– And yet here again we fall back into the method of the “that-without-which”; in opposition to objective thought, which places the subject into the network of determinism, we have answered with an idealist reflection that makes determinism rest upon the subject’s constituting activity. Now, we have already seen that objective thought and reflective analysis are but two appearances of the same error, two ways of ignoring phenomena. Objective thought deduces class consciousness from the objective condition of the proletariat. Idealist reflection reduces the proletarian condition to the proletarian’s consciousness of that condition. The former draws the consciousness of class from class as defined by objective characteristics, whereas the latter reduces “being a worker” to the consciousness of being a worker. In both cases, we are operating on the level of abstraction, because we remain within the alternative between the in-itself and the for-itself. If we take up the question again, not with the intention of discovering the causes of this becoming conscious – for there is no cause that can act upon a consciousness from the outside, nor its conditions of possibility, for what we need is the conditions that make it actual – but rather with the intention of discovering class consciousness itself, if, in short, we adopt a truly existential method, then what do we find? I am not conscious of being a worker or a bourgeois because I in fact sell my work or because I in fact show solidarity to the capitalist machine, and I certainly do not become a worker or a bourgeois the day that I commit to seeing history through the lens of class warfare. Rather, “I exist as a worker” or “I exist as a bourgeois” first, and this mode of communication with the world and society motivates both my revolutionary or conservative projects and my explicit judgments (“I am a worker,” or “I am a bourgeois”), without it being the case that I can deduce the former from the latter, nor the latter from the former. Neither the economy nor society, taken as a system of impersonal forces, determine me as a proletarian, but rather society or the economy such as I bear them within myself and such as I live them; nor is it, for that matter, an intellectual operation without any motive, but rather my way of being in the world within this institutional framework. (p.467)


Merleau-Ponty, Perception, Phenomenology, French, French Existentialism, Existentialism


Merleau-Ponty Citations

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