The reader of Merleau-Ponty can trace a thread running through his writings, from the earliest The Structure of Behavior up to the unfinished and posthumously published The Visible and the Invisible. This thread weaves together the philosopher's commitment to phenomenology and lived experience, along with psychoanalytic theory and its preoccupations with the regions of human life that transcend rational and deliberate planning and thought. These two strands may at first sight appear to derive from differing if not radically opposing worldviews. Classical phenomenology, founded by Edmund Husserl, is a philosophy of consciousness where the totality of human activity is modelled on intentional acts of the ego as it relates to objects. A paradigmatic example of such a relation is visual perception, where the eye provides the subjective pole from which rays of gaze issue, while the perceived object, such as a cube, provides the terminus of the gaze. Even though it is the object that is the deliberate focus of visual perception, the perceiving subject is necessarily co-present. Acts of consciousness are therefore controlled by a central agency, which attends to its object in view of obtaining clear knowledge.
Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, unveils regions of human life that are not subject to deliberate control, which are not transparently known, and to which it is difficult to ascribe an individual agent acting purposefully to attain a predetermined goal. Dreams, slips of the tongue, neurotic symptoms, belong to the murky domain of the unconscious, and so seem by definition to transcend the narrow confines of phenomenological consciousness.