Merleau-Ponty: Parole and Pensée


Part 1.2.2

Two decades after Heidegger’s Being and Time, and not without the mediation of Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) attempted a profound application of the German fathers of phenomenology to one particular question: perception. In Phenomenology of Perception (French edition: 1945), Merleau-Ponty insists that one must step away from the natural attitude, and choose instead to seize the phenomenological epoche (bracketing) or suspension of habitual views on an object. Through this method, he could realize that perception is not a “window to the world” but the medium of interaction of the subject with this world, to which he belongs in equal measure, not more or less, than that perceived object. Subject of perception and perceived object participate equally to the world. A section of Phenomenology of Perception addresses the question of language, and we find there the core concerns of Merleau-Ponty: disapproval of Idealist perspectives, care for the role of the body, construction of identity through one’s embodied performance (of language), and motifs of ultimately aesthetic values behind and instead of the rational interpretations of previous philosophical schools.

Through his reflection on language, Merleau-Ponty tries to further disturb the subject-object dichotomy prevalent before phenomenology, and the attempts at setting a subject-less language. This was necessarily the unsaid assumption in Idealist theories, for which an utterance is only the ‘translation’ or representation of a thought, of an idea. Merleau-Ponty was aiming at transcending also Empiricist positions, for which “the word is only a psychic phenomenon comparable to a neurological stimulus” (Lewis 1966, 22). He wanted to address one central question: what meaning really means. Other traditions had already replied to the question in terms of lexicon of reference. Merleau-Ponty asked, more precisely: what does meaning mean for humans?

For Merleau-Ponty, meaning arises at the meeting point of la pensée (thought) and la parole (speech). His argument is intriguing and somehow controversial: thought emerges, or even exists only through speech, and at the time of speech. “The most familiar object seems curiously indeterminate until we have found its name; the thinker is not sure of his idea until he has formulated it” (23). Thought is ‘molded’ through performance, through speech. According to Merleau-Ponty, we all made the experience of this phenomenon. He provides a definition for la parole:

La parole is then this paradoxical operation in which we attempt to rejoin, by means of words whose meaning is given, and of already available significations, an intention which in principle goes beyond and modifies, which itself determines in the last analysis the meaning of the words by which it is conveyed” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 445-4461).

The idea of “rejoining” is important here: speech is not just the expression of our thought, as we may usually believe, but the search of already available words and expressions, which we feel correspond more or less closely to what we think, feel, or wish to express. Intention is the key word here: one’s language is fundamentally the expression of what one intends to project of oneself. Language, fundamentally a play of correspondences, is an approximation, rarely exactly matching: “their actual meaning [of our thoughts] always exceeds what was meant during their genesis” (Lewis 1966, 27). Then, la pensée [est] dans la parole, “thought [is] within speech:” speech and thought cannot be differentiated, set in an order, and language is this combination, the parole-pensée (25). One radical consequence must be drawn: if thoughts come to being through speech, then thoughts do not exist outside of words.

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His argument is intriguing and somehow controversial: thought emerges, or even exists only through speech, and at the time of speech. “The most familiar object seems curiously indeterminate until we have found its name; the thinker is not sure of his idea until he has formulated it”

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Merleau-Ponty’s concern for the corporal finds its place in his conceptualization of language. He explains that la parole is the ‘body’ of la pensée and of meaning, just like our bones and skins are the ‘body’ of our self, of our identity: “Meaning is caught up in la parole and la parole is the exterior existence of meaning” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 212). The mot (word) or parole is the sign, the presence of a thought in the world, just like my body is the sign of the presence of myself as a subject. Without a word, a thought cannot be known. Speech as a “linguistic gesture” is analogous to “physical gestures” like the move of a limb. In turn, we understand other subjects’ language like gestures, that is, we interpret their linguistic gestures similarly to the way we try to make sense of their physical gestures (Lewis 1966, 29). These grids of interpretation come from culture, which is, for Merleau-Ponty, nothing but the parole, the habits and practices of this tentative joining of an intention with available significations, for a specific human community (Lewis 1966, 32). In turn, this parole-made culture influences individuals to the point of determining their identity: language “presents or rather it is the positioning of the subject in the world of meanings” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 225). This means that to Merleau-Ponty, one’s subjectivity is not just communicated through language but that it actually takes place in language. For my subjectivity to acquire a meaning (even just a name, a social role, a profession, a type of relation to relatives, etc.), I, the subject, must surrender to and be “inspected” or “molded” by language.

Merleau-Ponty’s later view on language further attack the Idealist assumption: “when we claim to know an idea, we really claim no more than to be able to organize coherent statements around it, a capacity which depends on a certain style of thinking” (Lewis 1966, 39). In other words, humans do not recognize and value a piece of knowledge as being of quality for its inherent, abstract and logical evidence, but through the fluidity and elegance of an expression. That is, knowledge exists necessarily in a language, and the value of knowledge depends fundamentally on style. Merleau-Ponty here rejoins Heidegger for whom poetry, the most aesthetically concerned of all forms of language, constitutes our easiest entry to language as language, liberated of all its utilitarian or referential conceptions (Heidegger 2001). The detour through Heidegger’s poetry highlights the quality of language as matching, joining, a process that is profoundly aesthetic in nature.




  1. The page numbers from Phenomenology of Perception refer to the French edition of 1945. The English translations are borrowed from Lewis’ article.