Merleau-Ponty’s Child Psychology


Maurice Merleau-Ponty

by Talia Welsh

Not everyone is interested in children, but it is hard to find a person disinterested in their own childhood. Identity is so shaped by those first years of life and the relationships into which people finds themselves happily (or unhappily) born. What it is to be human is a story that not only begins with what is it to be an infant, but also a story where childhood continues to shape adult life long after it has ended.

Most commentaries on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work focus on his texts that are concerned with the role of embodiment in various philosophical theories: how our perception shapes our knowledge, how artists such as Cézanne reveal the paradoxical nature of perception, and how we encounter and live with others not as other minds, but as situated, living, and embodied beings. His magnum opus The Phenomenology of Perception is not merely a careful study of perception, but an examination of how attention to perception has epistemological and ontological implications.[1] Instead of separating philosophical questions as independent of our human-all-too-human condition, Merleau-Ponty argues that it is only from this condition that we can understand them.

If we follow this line of thinking, it seems only natural to extend the description of our embodiment to considering how we, as living beings, develop. Some of the most fascinating aspects of our development occur in childhood. While Merleau-Ponty discusses childhood experience at various points through his work, the most extensive look at child psychology is in the lectures in child psychology and pedagogy at the Sorbonne.[2] Merleau-Ponty published the Phenomenology of Perception in 1945. A few years later, in 1947, he published Humanism and Terror, and in 1948 Sense and Non-Sense.[3] The following year, Merleau-Ponty joined the faculty of the Institute of Psychology at the Sorbonne where he lectured on developmental psychology and pedagogy until being appointed chair of philosophy at the Collège de France in 1952. He remained at the Collège de France until his early death in 1961.

In this brief piece, I want to highlight two theses in which Merleau-Ponty’s work on child psychology presents a compelling frame to view the development of the self and the role of culture in shaping our relations with others. (These and other themes are more developed in my book The Child as Natural Phenomenologist: Primal and Primary Experience in Merleau-Ponty’s Psychology). First is his view about a primary intersubjectivity that precedes self and other awareness. Second, is his idea that there is not one general path of human development given the diversity of cultures, but that there are essential existential conflicts that one discovers cross-culturally.

As much as death signals the end of the self, birth is just as mysterious. Both extend out to infinity and signal the brevity and contingency of our lives. As mysterious are those first few years of life that one does not have access to as an adult, I know I existed before my earliest memories. I know I interacted with others, I learned to walk and talk. I was willful from my parent’s tales. But this person is as much a mystery to me as the foetus I once was. When does my sense of “me-ness,” my self as a myself, arise? What is its development and what is required for its formation?

From Descartes’ famous discussion of the certainty of cogito, there is a long tradition in philosophy of asserting that while the other mind may be a problem, our own certainty about our own mind is not. I know that I am a thinking thing even though I may be dreaming or delusional. But how do I know for sure that you are also a thinking thing? Could you perhaps be a robot or a zombie? More mundanely, how do I know you are being honest? That what you say is indeed what you think? But if we consider this issue developmentally, the question seems to be turned on its head. Infants show interest and engagement with others long before we would assume any kind of certainty or understanding of the self exists.

Merleau-Ponty argues that the self-aware experience that can be described in terms of concepts is based upon a more primal bodily engagement with the world and others. What precedes and continues to color existence with others is a more a primary kind of intersubjectivity where one is not a self-aware being encountering another self-aware being. Instead, there first exists a communal experience. For example, Merleau-Ponty refers to the phenomenon of “contagion of cries” where infants spontaneously erupt in wails when one of them cries. This first stage of existence is called “a kind of precommunication, an anonymous collectivity . . . a kind of group existence.”[4] This early stage is also called syncretic sociability wherein the ego “lives as well in others as in itself” [5]. Merleau-Ponty paraphrases the French child psychologist Henri Wallon as describing syncretic sociability as when “the child cannot limit himself to his own life.”[6] The idea that being human is not primarily isolation within the certainty of the self, but rather a communal experience with others stretches our philosophical imagination. Is subjective experience merely a facet of what it means to exist? Merleau-Ponty temptingly lectures, “When Malraux says, ‘One dies alone, therefore one lives alone,’ he is making a false deduction. Life in fact radically surpasses individualities, and it is impossible to judge it in relationship to death, which is an individual failure.”[7] This suggestive thesis has compatibility with contemporary discussions inside and outside of philosophy and developmental psychology where one looks at the discussion of human existence not as a story about a collection of individuals, but rather a narrative about systems with cultural, genetic and environmental elements in interplay with each other.

When and how, then, does the ability to be able to think — I think, therefore I am — arise? Above we find that the first general theme supports the idea that the primordial, syncretic stage is historically primary. In addition, Merleau-Ponty’s lectures and written work provide room to think that this original syncretic stage is also primal and is never fully erased by the advent of self-awareness. It will be the mirror stage that initiates a sense of self. But this stage is precariously built upon a division between visual image and lived experience. As adults we never completely “overcome” the mirror stage because we never can resolve the problems it poses. The communal experience we have as infants subsists throughout our life.

For young children the sense of stability of their caregivers precedes any sense of self-awareness. Merleau-Ponty discusses this issue with reference to Wallon and Jacques Lacan’s discussion of the mirror stage of development.[8] The mirror stage is when the child starts to recognize herself in the mirror and begins to form a sense of self around this “view from the outside.” In distinction from Lacan’s first famous essay on the mirror stage, Merleau-Ponty follows Wallon and stresses the fact that the child’s first experiences with the mirror are not about the child’s own image, but rather about an interest and recognition in the parental image. The child often turns around to see if Daddy is still there after seeing him in the mirror and this behavior is often narrated by the parents — “Look! That’s you! There is Daddy!” The child only later comes to spend time making eye contact with her own image. Lacan initially stresses the child’s interest in her own image, but later in his work (perhaps due to the influence of Merleau-Ponty with whom he was friends), he includes reference to the importance of the parents.[9]

For Merleau-Ponty, the mirror stage revolves around how the infant places her own body in relation to others: “The child must come to understand that there are two points of view about himself and that his body which feels is also visible, not just for the child, but also for others.”[10] It is this sense of a visible-to-others body that will allow the child to organize a sense of self-awareness like she understands the other to possess. But, it is the specular image of the parents that the infant first understands how a mirror operates and upon the specular image of the parents the infant comes to understand her own image. Along with language acquisition and increased motility, the child will increasingly come to have the tools needed to integrate her own experiences and develop a sense of mineness about them.

The second discussion that I want to draw attention to is the way in which Merleau-Ponty adopts anthropological work as demonstrating a strong degree of cultural relativity when it comes to normal development and his conception of “conflicts.” One facet of the existential phenomenological approach is to suddenly have all sorts of discussions that might have been thought as non-philosophical become relevant. One sees truth as created by people and thus contingent upon their experiences. Matters traditionally associated with the body, such as one’s physiology and psychology, are now relevant. But moreover history, economics, language and culture become intrinsic to any philosophical inquiry. When one takes this structural approach, suddenly one cannot help to question not only the universal nature of certain kinds of philosophical approaches, but also of the findings of the sciences. Does it makes sense to proclaim that contemporary Western models of normal child development, normal sexual relationships, normal styles of upbringing and proper education should be generalized?

Merleau-Ponty spends a large amount of a few lectures summarizing the findings of various anthropologists and what he calls “culturalists.” What he takes from these studies of largely non-Western, “primitive” societies is that a great variance in understandings of the child and adult relationship exists. As with his stress on the importance of the parents in the mirror stage, Merleau-Ponty likewise focuses on not just the child’s development but the child’s development in relation to the others in his life, in particular his family. What he develops is a modification of both Piaget’s stages of development and psychoanalysis’s view of certain kinds of necessary conflicts and resolutions (such as the Oedipus complex).

The problem with such universal standards for development is that when exported into cultures that differ greatly from our own, they appear to have little relevance. What Merleau-Ponty takes from the combination of sociology and anthropology to child psychology is the importance of the child in context and not just the child as an individual.

The culturalists study the chain of integrations that tie the individual to society and that carry the environment’s institutional structure. Hence importance is given to the child’s upbringing, but only while admitting that the exterior evolution of an individual can uniquely depend upon his childhood. Therefore, it is a different conception than Freud’s. Childhood is not seen as the installation of certain complexes in the individual, ones which will play a destined role, but as an initiation into a certain cultural environment. [11]

Although many would be sympathetic to this desire to recognize the importance of the cultural environment, it does leave theories of development in a curious position. Are they all relative to particular cultures? How wide can the variance be? Are there no generalities that can be made cross-cultures? Are there no “bad practices” that we can condemn regardless of culture?

Merleau-Ponty argues for a view that holds there are certain existential human conflicts around which all societies will develop norms and systems around. They are the parent-child conflict, the male-female conflict and the self-stranger conflict.[12] Children and parents will always view each other with some ambivalence, and our styles and ideals of childrearing are reflections of these essential struggles. Likewise, negotiating sexual difference (and sexuality, Merleau-Ponty did not consider adult same-sex sexual relationships) will be a centerpiece of social norms and taboos. This removes the idea of individual conflicts as universal (such as the Oedipus conflict) or individual successes and failures being required for maturity (since not all cultures value the same expressions). But it retains the sense that discussions about development will always include some ambivalence in every society given the inherent nature of conflicts between adults and children.

Merleau-Ponty had a compelling view on development, its role in the formation of the self and other-awareness, and its cross-cultural implications. For those interested in Merleau-Ponty’s more famous work on embodiment, perception, and his later concept of “flesh,” his child psychology offers an interesting point of comparison. Merleau-Ponty asks us to reframe our understanding of the importance of conscious self-certainty and also the implicit assumptions inherent in our Western standards of normal development. The importance of childhood is not only how it operates as our beginning into the world, but how it continues to shape our experiences long after it is over. Merleau-Ponty stated that “childhood is never fully realized.” [13] Who we are will forever be shaped by who we were.

Cover image The Wells Children Playing in an Interior, by J.M.W. Turner, 1796


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes. London: Routledge, 2012.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Child Psychology and Pedagogy: The Sorbonne Lectures 1949–1952. Translated by Talia Welsh. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2010.

[3] Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem. Translated by John O’Neill. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Sense and Non-Sense. Translated by Herbert Dreyfus and Patricia Dreyfus. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

[4] Child Psychology and Pedagogy, 248.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 253.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits. Translated by Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. (Delivered on July 17, 1949.)

Wallon, Henri. Les origines de la pensée chez l’enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963. (Originally published in 1945.)

[9] Lacan, Jacques. Livre VIII: Le Transfert (1960–1961). Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2001. (Original work presented in 1960–61.)

[10] Child Psychology and Pedagogy, 424.

[11] Ibid., 100.

[12] Ibid., 308.

[13] Ibid., 254.

About the Author:

Talia Welsh is an Associate U.C. Foundation Professor of Philosophy & Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her most recent book is The Child as Natural Phenomenologist: Primal and Primary Experience in Merleau-Ponty’s Psychology. (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2013).