Merleau-Ponty and Philosophy of Race


Maurice Merleau-Ponty

by Emily S. Lee

Maurice Merleau-Ponty did not write much on race; he only mentioned it once, as far as I know, in his article, “The Child’s Relation with Others”. In these post-colonial times, it is recognized that one of the tools of colonialism is its epistemic hegemony—defining knowledge on the semblance of originating or affiliating with the northwest. Under such circumstances, as a philosopher whose primary research questions focus on race and feminist philosophy, my concentration on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and weaving his work with the questions concerning race and sex needs some explanation.

Edmund Husserl inaugurated phenomenology: upon recognizing the phenomenal structure of the world, Husserl endeavored to eliminate the ambiguity entailed by the phenomenological structure, and aimed to achieve certainty about the world, following Rene Descartes in prioritizing certainty. But rather than aim for certainty, Merleau-Ponty accepted that being-in-the-world entailed ambiguity. He addressed the phenomenological framework’s epistemic and ontologic consequences. Marrying Husserl’s phenomenology with gestalt theory, Merleau-Ponty acknowledged that the “most basic unit of experience is that of figure-on-a-background,” anything simpler reflects mere mental projections. Human experience of the world cannot reduce experience to solely a unit, a figure, or a totality.[1] The background or horizon in which one is situated, and where one is situated within the horizon, conditions what and how one perceives. Therefore an optimal relation—spatially and temporally–must exist between the theme and its horizon for perception of the theme.[2]

Phenomenology posits that the world arises perceptually, experientially, epistemically and ontologically in negotiations between the intentions of the subject and the givens of the world, rather than already clearly separate as subjects and objects. The phenomenological framework does not rely upon the reductive logic of deduction or causal analysis; Merleau-Ponty recognized the situatedness and the openness that defines being-in-the-world.

This framework escapes the analytic methodological need to isolate the essential static features of race and the specific finite causes of racism and makes possible the understanding of race and racism through their varied, discontinuous perceptions and experiences, even among people who share an experience. The analysis of race as originating from conscious individual prejudices, and its consequent the response of colorblind legal tenets, proved insufficient as race persisted as a key indicator of social standing.

Since then, race theorists have argued that racism persists because it is embedded in the macro structural institutions, and the micro structural social and cultural practices of society. This does not deny the relevance of conscious individual forms of racism; rather, non-conscious, non-malicious racism illustrates the depth of racism in the very fabric of society. Phenomenology illuminates precisely this difficult situation by highlighting these micro-structural processes, ultimately revealing how clearly expressions of race and racism have not been static; they change. Precisely because racism is sedimented into the minutiae of the social cultural practices, racism has been dynamic; I would go so far as to say that expressions of racism have been downright creative in their multiplicity. Understanding race and racism through a phenomenological structure necessitates paying heed to the horizon and insists essentialistic beliefs of race are mere mental projections.

We can look to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology for an exploration of race because of his emphasis on embodiment. Merleau-Ponty’s most radical proposal locates subjectivity as the body or rather an embodied subjectivity. Merleau-Ponty insists that the body is phenomenally experienced as both matter and ideals, as perceived and perceiving, as experienced and experiencing.

In contrast to philosophy’s long historical denial that thought and cognition have any relation to the material conditions of subjects and the world, Merleau-Ponty scholars have been arguing for at least the last forty years that the specificities of human embodiment can influence—if not construct–our cognitive development and capabilities. For example, our upright postures, human bodily distinctions of front and back, the limitations of human body movements, including the distances between our ears, all can impact the cognitive connections of human beings.

Indeed, recent philosophy of cognitive science explores the embodied and environmental circumstances of cognition.[3] Merleau-Ponty’s focus on embodiment positions his work as directly relevant for feminist and race concerns.

With an embodied subjectivity, Merleau-Ponty’s work potentially answers a problem in the postmodernists’ account of the body. Emphasizing the force of the historical cultural world, postmodernists depict the body as a social construction. But such an account of the body coheres a little too much with the traditional treatment of all matter including the body as solely passive. Identifying subjectivity as embodied, my reading of Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of embodiment, particularly in regards to body movements, accounts for how the body acts in the world in turn. In this way, force relations are not just unidirectional from the mind onto the materiality of the body, but bidirectional from the body onto the mind and the world in general.

Positing embodied subjectivity paves the way to centrally figuring the specificities of embodiment such as race and sex. A prevailing strategy against racism as prejudice is to emphasize the sameness at the core of all human beings, as in the strategy of colorblindness. Race theory and society in general has long understood that race is socially constructed, that race is not natural or biologically relevant, but this emphasis on the identity of the genetic essence of all human beings relegates the distinguishing specificities of embodiment—the specificities of race and sex–as secondary to human beings.

Such dismissal of precisely the features that serve as the primary vehicle for recognizing race explains the conceptual vacuum for understanding the persistence of race in our society. Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the body opens the possibility for insisting that the specificities of embodiment are not secondary, but primary, to subjectivity. Race does not function as a superficial cover over the surface of the primary layer of humanity; one lives race through the immediacy of the body.

To hammer it home, although society recognizes racial meaning as conceptually or theoretically socially constructed, during an intimate, every day interaction, one does not live the racial meaning of embodiment as such. Rather one perceives, experiences and lives the cultural meaning of race as biological, material and natural: phrenological impulses strongly persist. The specificities of embodiment such as race centrally function in our being-in-the-world. Merleau-Ponty’s recognition of an embodied subjectivity within the phenomenological framework makes it possible to conceptualize the role of the embodiment of race.

This ambiguous and embodied framework of the expressions of race and racism accommodates the difficulty of analyzing the experiences of women of color. The biggest difficulty in conceptualizing the experiences of women of color centers on determining how to treat the experiences of race and sex without adding or analogizing the two. Phenomenology’s open framework depicts the ambiguity of the two experiences by refusing to reductively isolate each feature. The phenomenological framework encompasses the multiple and dynamic experiences of both race and sex.

A well-known critique of phenomenology is that although it provides a rich descriptive framework, it cannot give a normative analysis or an account of agency. As an existential phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty did not accept the debilitating position that we have no choices. Instead, he explored how in our situatedness as beings in the world, we nevertheless acquire and create transcendental ideas and ontological truth. From Merleau-Ponty’s idea of a hyper-dialectic, Francoise Dastur describes a hyper-reflection:

Hyper-reflection discovers in the problem of the double genesis of world and reflection, of being and thought—and not solely the problem of the correlation of thought and the existing object.[4]

In this condition of the double genesis, and not in the correspondence of ontology and meaning, Merleau-Ponty’s framework can explain how the phenomenological descriptions of the embodied experience of race can at the same time inspire the urgent need, and the agency of generating new values and significations about race and sex.

I understand whatever explanations I provide for reading Merleau-Ponty to shed light on race will necessarily not suffice, because after all I cannot avoid, like all human beings, lagging behind my own self-consciousness; I cannot escape the ambiguous circumstances of the current socio-historical influences—including my own education—a within which I think. Moreover, I must admit that the structure of my analyses—pointing to a conceptual difficulty in race and turning to the work of another dead white man for a solution—is problematic. So I am sure that even after my explanations, much of what I have said will nevertheless continue to inspire suspicions about my own colonized epistemic commitments because after all similar conceptual structures exist in other thinkers. Such suspicions are valid and as a phenomenologist, I admit to all of these ambiguous possibilities.


[1] See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), 302.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 205. See also 148 and Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology 209, 213.

[3] See Mark Rowlands, The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); Robert D. Rupert, Cognitive Systems and the Extended Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Shaun Gallagher, How the Body Shapes the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[4] Francoise Dastur, “World, Flesh, Vision,” Chiasms: Merleau-Ponty’s Notion of Flesh, eds. Fred Evans and Leonard Lawlor (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 27. She quotes from the Visible 46.

About the Author:

Emily S. Lee is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University at Fullerton. Her research interests include feminist philosophy, philosophy of race and phenomenology. She has published articles on phenomenology and epistemology in regards to the embodiment of women of color. She is currently working on a monograph concerning the phenomenology of race and an anthology on phenomenology, embodiment and race.