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

12 - Ambiguity



Merleau-Ponty's references to “ambiguity” appear throughout his works, most frequently in Phenomenology of Perception, and so it is not surprising that the concept of ambiguity is often understood to be central not only to his earlier but also to his later philosophy. In what follows, I shall first offer an analysis of specific passages from Phenomenology of Perception where Merleau-Ponty invokes the ambiguity of human experience to illustrate what his noted commentator, Alphonse de Waelhens, calls his “philosophy of the ambiguous” in the second French edition of The Structure of Behavior. I shall then show how Merleau-Ponty's descriptions of ambiguity directly influence Simone de Beauvoir's understanding of the ambiguity of human existence as the ground for existentialist ethics. Finally, I shall suggest that the notion of ambiguity, as he develops it throughout his oeuvre, provides a crucial link among other key concepts he introduces including anonymity, reversibility and the flesh.

Merleau-Ponty’s conceptions of ambiguity

One of the most famous passages in which Merleau-Ponty appeals to the ambiguity of human existence appears in the middle of Phenomenology of Perception in the chapter entitled “The Body as Expression, and Speech” when he addresses the age-old question regarding whether it is nature or culture that has the primary influence on human conduct:

Everything is both manufactured and natural in man, as it were, in the sense that there is not a word, not a form of behavior which does not owe something to purely biological being — and which at the same time does not elude the simplicity of animal life, and cause forms of vital behavior to deviate from their pre-ordained direction, through a sort of leakage and through a genius for ambiguity which might serve to define man.

(PP: 189, emphasis added)

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