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

4 - Existentialism: the “new philosophy”



In 1948 Maurice Merleau-Ponty published Sense and Non-Sense, a collection of essays on art, philosophy and politics. Two of these essays, “The Battle Over Existentialism” and “A Scandalous Author”, involve a vigorous defence of Jean-Paul Sartre, whom critics were attacking as a “corrupter of youth”, a “demoniacal novelist”, a “voice of filth, immorality, and spinelessness”. Merleau-Ponty responded to this sort of name-calling, inviting instead a serious study of Sartre's work: “If it is true that many young people are welcoming the new philosophy with open arms, it will take more than these peevish criticisms, which deliberately avoid the question raised by Sartre's work, to convince them to reject it” (SNS: 71). Sartre, he continued, is challenging “classical views” of our relation to our natural and social surroundings. “The merit of the new philosophy”, Merleau-Ponty tells us,

is precisely that it tries, in the notion of existence, to find a way of thinking about our condition. In the modern sense of the word, “existence” is the movement through which man is in the world and involves himself in a physical and social situation which then becomes his point of view on the world.

(Ibid.: 72)

The classical primacy of cognitional relationship between subject and object is now to be replaced by an actional and involved relationship. This has apparently confused Sartre's Catholic critics who accuse him of materialism, as well as his Marxist critics who accuse him of idealism.