The Surplus of Signification: Merleau-Ponty and Enactivism on the Continuity of Life, Mind, and Culture

Hayden Kee


This paper provides a critical discussion of the views of Merleau-Ponty and contemporary enactivism concerning the phenomenological dimension of the continuity between life and mind. I argue that Merleau-Ponty’s views are at odds with those of enactivists. Merleau-Ponty only applied phenomenological descriptions to the life-worlds of sentient animals with sensorimotor systems, contrary to those enactivists who apply them to all organisms. I argue that we should follow Merleau-Ponty on this point, as the use of phenomenological concepts to describe the “experience” of creatures with no phenomenal consciousness has generated confusion about the role of phenomenology in enactivism and prompted some enactivists to ignore or turn away from phenomenology. Further, Merleau-Ponty also emphasizes the stark distinction between the vital order of animals and the human order to a greater degree than many phenomenologically inspired enactivists. I discuss his view in connection with recent research in developmental and comparative psychology. Despite the striking convergence of Merleau-Ponty’s visionary thought with the most recent findings, I argue that he somewhat overstates the difference between human experience and cognition, and that of our closest animal kin. I outline a developmental-phenomenological account of how the child enters the human order in the first years of life, thereby further mitigating the stark difference between orders. This results in a modified Merleau-Pontian version of the phenomenological dimension of life-mind continuity which I recommend to enactivism.


Merleau-Ponty; enactivism; phenomenology; philosophy of psychology; comparative psychology

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