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Investigating Human Corporeity In Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy

February 6, 2012

French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote several noted works during the period 1940-1960, discussing human corporeity and what it means for a human to have a body. International philosophical research into Merleau-Ponty has primarily focussed on his relationships with other philosophers. A thesis published by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, presents him instead from the perspective of the history of ideas, focussing on the human corporeity and carnality.

The work Helena Dahlberg presents in her thesis investigates the philosophical concept of “flesh” [chair in French], and what it means. She does this by examining the relationship between Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and the French humanistic tradition of the 1940s, and its way of asking “What/who is a human being”, and “What/who should a human being be?”.

“The concept of flesh must be understood in the light of this tradition, since flesh does not solely describe humans, or what is specifically human: it describes the border between what is human and what is not human”, she says.

Merleau-Ponty wrote about corporeity as no other philosopher had, and Helena Dahlberg has particularly focussed on the duality of the body. This duality expresses itself, for example, in a person’s own body, which is experienced as identitical with oneself, while at the same time seeming to be separate, at a distance. Helena describes how the human body is a person’s presence, location and expression in the world, while at the same time expressing something else. A speaking voice may break, a gesticulating arm may be too violent or too feeble, and the parts of the body that are not currently receiving attention obey the law of gravity, rather than will.

The concept of flesh radicalises this duality, according to Helena Dahlberg. The flesh is the archetype for what is passive in humans, for what can be shaped and controlled, while to be present “in the flesh” or “in flesh and blood” expresses what is the most immediate of all, and the most personal. “The flesh in Merleau-Ponty must be understood as a boundary phenomenon, in several ways. The flesh describes the boundary between the proper and the improper, between the anonymous and the personal, between the animate and the inanimate. Further, flesh describes the boundary between what is human and what is not.”

Helena Dahlberg’s thesis presents a new understanding of human corporeity, based on the concept of flesh examined by Merleau-Ponty. The thesis investigates what it means for a person to be both self and not-self, that each person is alone while depending fundamentally on other people, that each person is in a never-ending process of creating the self while at the same time being always already defined and assessed by other people.“¨It is the corporeity of a human that exposes him or her to others and to him or herself, and it is the corporeity that is the basis of presence. At the same time it is the corporeity of each human that makes each one of us unique.

The thesis has been successfully defended.

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