Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of the most original and important philosophers of the past century. Yet in many ways the full scope of his contribution is becoming clear only now, more than forty years after his death. His impact on philosophy, psychology, and criticism has been enormous, although his intellectual reputation was initially somewhat overshadowed - first by the greater notoriety of his friend Jean-Paul Sartre and then by structuralism and poststructuralism in the latter half of the century. As a result, in part due to his premature death, Merleau-Ponty's presence in contemporary intellectual life has remained strangely elusive. His influence has cut across disciplinary boundaries, yet it has tended to move beneath the surface of mainstream scholarly and popular intellectual discourse.
As a result, perhaps understandably, academic and nonacademic readers alike have been slow to appreciate the real depth and significance of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, which cannot be neatly pigeonholed in familiar conceptual or historical categories. He was a phenomenologist above all, yet he differed in fundamental ways from the three other major phenomenologists, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. Unlike these philosophers, Merleau-Ponty availed himself of empirical data and theoretical insights drawn fromthe biological and social sciences, although he was not a psychologist, a linguist, or an anthropologist. He could fairly be called an existentialist, although that label has come to seem less and less informative in hindsight, embracing as it did such a disparate array of literary and intellectual figures.