Merleau-Ponty's philosophy provides an important reworking and extension of Edmund Husserl's ideas of intersubjectivity. This reliance on Husserl, however, opens Merleau-Ponty's account of relations with others to criticisms made by Emmanuel Levinas, who claims that phenomenology fails to account for the alterity or absolute otherness that, for him, lies at the heart of intersubjectivity. In this chapter I shall defend Merleau-Ponty against this criticism. The analysis proceeds as follows: first, I provide an overview of Husserl's account of intersubjective experience, the starting point for Merleau-Ponty's early approaches to the question; second, I touch upon the most significant criticisms of this account, notably those of Levinas and his emphasis on the absolute alterity of the Other; and, finally, I examine the evolution of Merleau-Ponty's own theory of intersubjectivity and the extent to which it can avoid these criticisms, as represented by the account he provides in his major uncompleted work, The Visible and the Invisible.
Husserl and the problem of intersubjectivity
As Husserl realized, the public nature of the lifeworld and the presence of other subjects within it poses a surprisingly serious problem – some would say, the problem – for any phenomenology. Since all consciousness for Husserl is intentional, and all intentional consciousness is “constituting” – i.e. the perceptual world of objects and forms is rendered present due to the subject's synthetic activities alone – there is simply nothing immediately apparent to indicate that experience should possess the public nature that it in fact does. At a transcendental level, the subject's constitutional activities are by definition internal to consciousness and, hence, private.