Merleau-Ponty was an intensely political thinker, who took seriously his role as a public intellectual and wrote as a man of the Left. He published many books and articles on politics, including astute analyses of current events as well as more general reflections on the direction of collective life in the mid-twentieth century. While he was not a political theorist in any conventional sense, he believed that philosophers have a civic responsibility to engage with contemporary issues, providing the critical distance and interrogative zeal that journalists, activists or the public typically lack. They have a duty “to demand enlightenment” and “to explain the manoeuvres, to dissipate the myths” that constitute everyday political life, while also aiming “to inspire a politics” by experimenting with new concepts and forms of coexistence (EP: 63; HT: xxix; TD: 12).
Paradoxically, it is the very concreteness his existentialist commitments required that helps explain the relative neglect of Merleau-Ponty's political studies today, despite renewed interest in other aspects of his philosophy. His concerns are no longer our own. Yet I would argue that just as one cannot grasp the full import of his interventions without understanding something of the philosophy that orients them, nor is it possible to appreciate his philosophy without recognizing the political concerns that motivated it. Associating the modern lifeworld with a rationalist mode of being-in-the-world, he condemned its ethos of subjective mastery, its tendency to reification and closure, and its proclivity for nihilism. But he found one of its most tragic manifestations in the excessive violence that modern political regimes practise in their pursuit of humanism.