Preferred Citation: Miller, James. History and Human Existence - From Marx to Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1979.

10— Merleau-Ponty: The Ambiguity of History

Situated vs. Absolute Freedom

Despite a common background in existential phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre derived fundamentally different outlooks on man from their early investigations. These differences were most firmly drawn by Merleau-Ponty in his discussion of freedom at the close of the Phenomenology of Perception .

Sartre, it will be recalled, had asserted a kind of absolute freedom for the conscious human being. It was this claim that Merleau-Ponty disputed. To be sure, he never doubted man's experience of freedom: freedom indeed appeared to him as a phenomenologically verified certainty. The phenomenal subject always maintained a "power of placing in abeyance" the determinants of its existence. and "this suffices to insure our freedom from determinism."[13] But such a freedom could never be divorced from the individual's insertion in a world; instead, the concept of freedom only made sense in conjunction with this insertion. If freedom were everywhere, as seemed to be the case in Sartre's Being and Nothingness , then freedom in effect would be nowhere: as an omnipresent endowment, freedom lost its field of application, and thus its traditional significance and critical import. "Free action, in order to be discernible, has to stand out from a background of life from which it is entirely, or almost entirely, absent."[14]


While Sartre properly emphasized the subject's freedom, he distorted the scope of this freedom by rendering it absolute. The subject, argued Merleau-Ponty, always faced a previously established situation, an environment and world not of its own making. Its life, as intersubjectively open, acquired a social atmosphere which it did not itself constitute. Social roles pressed upon the individual as plausible courses for his life to take. Certain modes of behavior became habitual. Probably , this world, these habits, a familiar comportment: probably these would not change overnight. It was unlikely that an individual would suddenly choose to be something radically other than what he had already become. The Sartre of Being and Nothingness underestimated the weight of this realm of relative constraint and habitual inertia. Here as elsewhere, charged Merleau-Ponty, Sartre remained beholden to rationalist dualisms. "The rationalist's dilemma: either the free act is possible, or it is not—either the event originates in me or is imposed on me from outside—does not apply to our relations with the world and with our past. Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open, which implies both that it calls up specially favored modes of resolution, and also that it is powerless to bring one into being by itself."[15]

The individual sustained a psychological and historical structure, endowed with a certain style of existence, which had to be granted a certain persistence. To be sure, the individual's existence, like his perceptions, received meaning from his projects, from the goals he assigned himself. Yet although the subject gave direction and significance to his life, such projects generally remained merely lived, rather than explicitly thought. The individual thus existed within an inarticulate momentum, establishing probabilities and patterns of behavior. He always exercised his freedom within this temporal framework; antecedent circumstance as well as prospective ends suggested decisions and prompted acts. "The situation thus comes to the aid of decision, and in this exchange between the situation and the person who takes it up, it is impossible to determine precisely the 'share contributed by the situation' and the 'share contributed by freedom.'"[16]

In Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, men faced a previously constituted world that nevertheless accommodated free action. This world acted upon the individual as surely as he acted upon it, in a perpet-


ual exchange. For Merleau-Ponty, there was "never determinism and never absolute choice," by the very nature of man's being in the world.

Through this account of freedom, the Phenomenology of Perception offered nothing less than a new empirical anthropology—and a much more compelling picture of being human than that provided by Sartre's philosophical anthropology. Merleau-Ponty's insistence on the life-world as the foundation of phenomenology went further than anything suggested by Husserl and gave his philosophy a strongly empirical bent; it also placed his thought beyond any a priori categorizations, such as Sartre's bifurcation of being into an in-itself and for-itself. His interpretation of phenomenology indeed spared his philosophy the idealist and rationalist overtones still present in the phenomenologies of Husserl as well as Sartre. While his thought here converged with Heidegger's, Merleau-Ponty avoided the ontological emphasis that characterized Being and Time . Rooted in experimental science, yet maintaining a poetic regard for the virtually ineffable primacy of subjective experience, his philosophy occupied a unique position within the phenomenological movement.

10— Merleau-Ponty: The Ambiguity of History

Preferred Citation: Miller, James. History and Human Existence - From Marx to Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1979.