Drawing from Merleau-Ponty’s Conception of Movement as Primordial Expression

in Research in Phenomenology
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In this paper I intend to show that Merleau-Ponty’s conception of movement as primordial expression, whereby movement is a shaping force that can be discerned in the forms it creates, allows us to go beyond the superficial definition of movement as “change of place” and discover its most essential characteristic: that is the expression of a motion—intrinsic to feeling—which can take on the form of either a generative thrust or an act that traces out and sheds light on the reserve of shapes that everything we have felt has silently traced within us. My argument will unfold in three main stages. First, I intend to show that from Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on pictorial movement there emerges a richer and more refined definition of movement that brings together the two meanings of Aristotelian dunamis (δύναμις): potentia passiva, or being acted upon, and potentia activa, or tending towards act. Second, I will show that this particular understanding of movement allows us to uncover the lived dimension of movement that is intrinsic to sense experience and enacts the metamorphosis of our impressions into the expression that reveals to us the carnal obverse [envers charnel] of our experiences of the visible world. Finally, I will show that this particular understanding of movement proves to be a strategy for thinking of both the emergence of sense within the flesh of the world and the advent of history that unravels at its heart.




M. Merleau-Ponty, “Le doute de Cézanne,” in Sens et non-sens(Paris: Gallimard, 1996), translated by Herbert L Dreyfus and Patricial Allen Dreyfus as “Cezanne’s Doubt,” in The Merleau-Ponty Reader,77.


Bernard Berenson, Esthétique et Histoire des arts visuels (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1953), 87, quoted by M. Merleau-Ponty in Le Monde sensible et le Monde de l’expression (Genève: MetisPresses, 2011), 166., hereafter cited as msme, followed by French pagination;extract of lecture translated by Bryan Bannon as “The Sensible World and the World of Expression,” is published in Chiasmi 12 (2010): 33. On the interpretation of this phrase from Bernard Berenson quoted by Merleau-Ponty, see the remarkable analysis by Pierre Rodrigo in his paper “Ontology of Movement: Painting and Cinema according to Merleau-Ponty,” presented at the 38th Annual Meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle on “Movement: in Art, History, Being,” September 26–28, 2013, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, pa. See in particular the following passage: “The image of the vortex drawing a steady figure within movement perfectly illustrates the apparently paradoxical idea of a motionless form which is entirely configured by a movement intrinsic to it, therefore by the internal play of the forces that animate it. What is at stake, in other words, is a form that is eminently moving in its immobility (or that is eminently mobility within its immobility).”


M. Merleau-Ponty, La prose du monde (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 192, trans. John O’Neill as The Prose of the World (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 150 (translation partially modified).


M. Merleau-Ponty, L’œil et l’esprit(Paris: Gallimard, 1993); translated by Carleton Dalleryas Eye and Mind,in The Primacy of Perception,ed. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 185; revised by Michael Smith in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader,ed. Galen A. Johnson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 373. My translations will usually follow the one by Carleton Dallery, but sometimes I follow the one revised by Michael Smith, as in this case. I shall cite these texts hereafter as em,1964, and em,1993, respectively.


Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 229.


E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 303.


Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 229.


Gombrich, The Story of Art, 90.


Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” in The Merleau-Ponty Reader,267–68, hereafter cited as S.


M. Merleau-Ponty, “L’institution dans l’histoire personnelle et publique,” in L’institution, la passivité. Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954–1955) (Paris: Belin, 1993), 124.


Ibid., 269.


Ibid., 90.


H. Wölfflin, Principes fondamentaux de l’histoire de l’art (Brionne: Gérard Monfort, 1984), 269.


Merleau-Ponty, “Bergson in the Making,” in Signs, 187, hereafter cited as bm.


Ibid., 182.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception,282.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le visible et l’invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 180–81; The Visible and the Invisible, 138–39.


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