Existential selfhood in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception

Continental Philosophy Review 56 (4):595-618 (2023)
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This paper provides an interpretation of the existential conception of selfhood that follows from Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception. On this view, people relate to themselves not by “looking within” in acts of introspection but, first, by “looking without” at the field of solicitations in which they are immersed and, eventually, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, by “making explicit” the “melodic unity” or “immanent sense” of their behavior. To make sense of this, I draw out a distinction latent in Merleau-Ponty’s view between a pre-reflective sense of self and a reflective self-interpretation. The former is a suite of abilities and dispositions in light of which a person is aware of and drawn to act in a situation. This sense of self undergoes transitions over time, is constitutively susceptible to moments of disorientation, and tends toward but never achieves full coherence. Reflective self-interpretation is an activity whereby someone—provisionally and defeasibly—clarifies, articulates, and gets a better “grip” on how they are prereflectively drawn to act. I ground this interpretation in a detailed reading of Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of romantic love and I corroborate it by examining his account of the emergence of class-consciousness in the self-interpretation of a worker.

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B. Scot Rousse
University of California, Berkeley


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