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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: February 2013

15 - Affect and sensibility



It is curious that a thinker as interested in embodiment, psychology and sense-perception as Merleau-Ponty did not explicitly develop a philosophical account of the emotions or devote at least one of his several essays entirely to the subject. While keen observations concerning emotional phenomena appear throughout his writings, affectivity is typically taken up only in relation to one or another of his more explicit themes or interests – for example, art, childhood development, relations with others, erotic or expressive embodiment. Indeed, affectivity is so interfused with sense-perception in the living experience Merleau-Ponty tries philosophically to capture that it is somewhat difficult to imagine how he might have thought them apart. Perceived objects are simultaneously evocative. “The body which possesses senses is also a body which has desires” (EP: 197). Together they comprise our sensibility, our means or manner of opening on to a world we are already “in” or “of” (l'en-être).

Before positioning Merleau-Ponty relative to certain mainstream theories and existential thinkers on affectivity, some terminological clarifications are in order. Merleau-Ponty did not draw distinctions between affective phenomena. Recognizing that it may be impossible to sharply differentiate emotions from motives, attitudes, behaviour or character traits and that it is difficult to categorize affects because their manifestations are complex and elusive, the following provisional distinctions, some from psychoanalytic terminology, can serve our purposes.

“Affectivity” is a comprehensive, generic term for psychological experiences that are felt and fluctuate with respect to each other.