For Sartre it is the will of the free agent alone that confers on life its status as surmountable or insurmountable.

Sartre’s test-case concerning human freedom focuses on a hypothetical climber considering a crag and the feasibility of climbing it as an analogy for life’s choices; the natural environment offers a situation which is responsive to the climber’s projected intentionality. The crag accordingly appears ‘not scalable;’[1] ’Thus the rock is carved out on the ground of the world by the effect of the initial choice of my freedom’ he says.[2] The rock-face acquires significance from the climber’s purposive intentions, however Sartre acknowledges that such human freedom cannot determine ‘whether the rock ‘to be scaled’ will or will not lend itself to scaling. This is part of the brute being of the rock.’[3] Nevertheless, though the brute in-itself of the rock-face stands as an external ‘basic reality’, it possesses no determinate character as motive for the climber; resisting or cooperating are not intrinsic to the in-it-self but constituted by or disclosed in the climber’s projecting freedom. Describing a dynamic relation between the agent and the situation which he terms ‘the coefficient of adversity of the given’, Sartre states that ‘The rock will not be an obstacle if I wish at any cost to arrive at the top of the mountain…’ it will discourage me however ‘if I have freely fixed limits to my desire of making the projected climb.’[4] I choose, the world responds, and external to me there can be no limitation to my free choice.

Though Merleau-Ponty concedes that a rock’s unclimbable status, or indeed any other attributed status, is necessarily derived from human meaning-making, even without conscious intentionality such as a decision to climb them ‘these mountains appear high to me, because they exceed my body’s power to take them in its stride….’[5] Whilst I find it convincing that underpinning my identity-sense there is a living body or natural ‘self’ ‘which does not budge from its terrestrial situation and which constantly adumbrates absolute valuations’, too simple a telling of Merleau-Ponty’s position will not account for new and puzzling situations my unthinking embodied intentionality cannot resolve which consequently arrest my attention. Indeed such a telling would fail to recognise my conscious compensation, prior to a situation, for my known genetic, psychological or cultural dispositions that experience, or others, construe to be potentially controlling. Indeed this ‘attending to’ seems altogether different from the perceptive attention posited here.

For Merleau-ponty there is a pre-thetic tension between the agent and the motivations of the given world.

For Merleau-ponty there is a pre-thetic tension between the agent and the motivations of the given world.

Merleau-Ponty, rightly in my view, reinstates the body alerting us to the prethetic role of the intentional arc saying,  ‘Insofar as I have hands, feet, a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent upon my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way which I do not choose…. not of my own making, they originate from outside me, and I am not surprised to find them in all psychophysical subjects organized as I am’.[6] The efficacy of this intentional arc is not a consistent, determinable factor even so; a mindful person may override their state of being, perhaps having acquired from childhood a disposition that mistrusts or rationalises embodied intentionality, or even despises the body’s promptings. Consequently, though Sartre may wrongly assume that a transcendent human presence affords meaning to a world which it is unfettered by, Merleau-Ponty overlooks the human capacity to be driven by calculated or calibrated decisions from a very early age. Though we may indeed comprise ‘systems of body intentions’ before being persons, our identity-sense is also holistically attuned and our habitual engagement with the world may develop over time, reluctance to move intuitively without conscious assessment of an environment.

In the main however I accept that in a basic way our embodied interests and skills pre-structure our interactions with the environment. Though a Heideggerian projective or purposive intending in the world eventually dominates, at a pre-thinking perceptual level we can be sensitive to the initial hindrances or enablings that things entail for us. Why otherwise do tall people stoop or insecure people unwittingly sit facing the door through which newcomers enter? The questioning being must recursively engage with the environment prior to thought or conscious recalibration. Its freedom is constrained by this recursivity.

The key to the divergent emphases of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty is of course in the weighting given to embodiment. Though Sartre regards human beings as embodied subjects whose lives are only comprehensible as situated contingently within time and place within the world, Merleau-Ponty regards embodiment as a primordial embodied disposition wherein situations motivate and responses  are generally ready-made.

In Sartre’s fable of the hiker, a walker unlike his companion, after hours of walking in the hot sun, gives up, throws his rucksack down, and lies beside it. Both thinkers could accept the cause to be the hiker’s singular decision to quit rather than the external effects of pain or fatigue. After all, hikers engage with pain and fatigue differently. Both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty would agree that the fable affirms that while the hiker could have behaved differently, doing so would entail them modifying their way of being in the world.

For Sartre the questioning being treads a path of complete and utter self-determination.

For Sartre the questioning being treads a path of complete and utter self-determination.

Is the decision to go on entirely ours to make. Merleau-ponty does not think so.

Is the decision to go on entirely ours to make? Merleau-ponty does not think so.

Sartre regards the human being as entirely free so to disengage from this way of being, whereas Merleau-Ponty posits an accretion of meaning which attaches to a person and calls this the ‘sedimentation of our life’. Borrowing from Husserl he argues for a stance towards the world which due to its repeated reinforcement  acquires a ‘favoured status’ for us, so for example an inferiority complex which has been operative and reinforced for twenty years is habituated and entrenched.[7] Because Sartre disputes that anything outside of freedom can restrict it, our lives are characterised and progressed by unfettered specific choices. For Merleau-Ponty, however generalities and probability are phenomena which furnish diverse ways I can ’make my abode in’ attitudes and patterns of action which ‘genuinely incline although they do not compel’.[8] Though I may be an accomplished climber I may be defeatist, cautious, full of bravado or consistently methodical. My ‘abode’ in an inherited or habituated accretion of meaning renders determining factors something internal I must work with rather than something eternal I must work against. This embodied middle-way, suspended between the psychic and the physiological, Merleau-Ponty recognises as ‘categorically impossible’ for Sartre’s ontology.[9]

Sartrean freedom denies the textures of embedded lived existence such as my self-esteem or my personal pain threshold. It denies also the extent and nature of my historical or cultural memory; the inherent immediacy these have and how I live through them are ironed out and equalised. One cannot consequently be sensitive to these experiential textures or conceptually attuned to their potent contribution to existential choosing. These bodily experiences are not a part of the external in-itself of the world however but experience’s textures that are intentional, already rendered purposive or significant and already defining in our engagement with nature.

Human identity, as I have argued, animates the accretion of meaning attaching to each singular life; the purpose or significance one seeks in the world is coloured and shaped, enabled and delimited by our incipient behavioural tendencies and once found modified by them. Pain, fatigue, self-esteem and world-awareness for example, in varying ways give character and direction to our activity. My interaction with this experiential texture is therefore an internal motivation more foundational than a thought-through response; indeed, I identify myself in its tendencies.

Human freedom rests upon our harnessing of involuntary body intentions which contribute to the formation of generalised attitudes toward the world, these in turn comprise the involuntary, but constantly reviewed  background for specific choices. Freedom contributes to identity in its appropriation of the background array of involuntary intentionalities available for conscious willing. My life accrues meaning in the choices I make, and the choices I make are demarcated by the behavioural tendencies I have inherited or habituated in conjunction with the specific situations with which they resonate.

The questioning being inherits the meanings which accrue to its life; these are audited freely, but the mechanisms for auditing may also be inherited or prompted externally.

The questioning being inherits the meanings which accrue to its life; these are audited freely, but the mechanisms for auditing may also be inherited or prompted externally.

Of course inherited traits, habituated tendencies and generalised attitudes, as the seedbed from which our choices grow, take time to emerge and are the gradual sedimentation of a recursive socio-historical process. Intersubjective embeddedness in the world, in institutional forms such as a language, family, race, class, or nation, each with its own history, is an essential aspect of our situatedness.

These lenses through which we perceive the world and so appropriate it, precede any particular choosing on our part. For Sartre however such institutional realities represent alienation from others because each person so situated finds themselves in the presence of meanings they did not initiate.[10] Though society institutes relations of all kinds that one inherits, for Sartre they are nevertheless maintained and appropriated as externals, significant or allied to one’s purposes solely through free choice.

Consider says Sartre, a labourer in 1830, who patiently endures his poverty as inevitable, though he can choose to acknowledge oppression of the ‘working classes’ as his own unjust lot, it requires adoption of a different lens if it is to motivate his rebellion. Freedom must appropriate  a different possible condition or horizon, attainable by revolution, against which his own condition is signified as unbearable and avoidable.[11]  Thus motivating conditions are aspects of one’s actions, not their antecedent causes. Sartre’s assessment is that a worker becomes ‘working class’ not because of economic conditions or economic forces but through appropriation of a transcendent opposition which brings them into the living foreground prior to the free choice to revolt. Not so, responds Merleau-Ponty.

Whether we align ourselves with others, or make self-interested choices, the rich fable of free will is enough to render us accountable. Freedom is not free floating.

Whether we align ourselves with others, or make self-interested choices, the rich fable of free will is enough to render us accountable. Freedom is not free floating.

Sartre’s view is of course problematic and in the previous chapter I discussed the relationship that the questioning being has with the ‘basic facts’ of existence. Exploitation can steal a person’s health despite contentment with one’s lot. For Merleau-Ponty, Sartre’s account fails to explain the emergence of the labourer’s class-consciousness and the reality of social intersubjectivity. History is spiced with provocations to enact free choice, and this is illustrative of the recursive exchange between generalised and individual existence;[12] the Labourer in 1830, aware of the improved working conditions afforded workers in different trades after agitation for them, may consequently feel exploited and motivated to protest. His life is lived in a shared world resonating with class-consciousness.

The labourer’s self-understanding  as a worker or a bourgeois, is indeed aligned to an appropriative alliance with a possible revolution and the meaning-making accompanying it, however the labourer’s evaluation is not transcendent of his environment even if his aspirations are, but springs from his present and past intersubjective coexistence in a shared world.[13] The questioning being is free within a constraining network of intersubjective intentionalities; each human identity acquires its singularity in the place ‘between’ self and others rather than in existential autonomy. Interconnected at a primordial level in involuntary intentions joining us through our bodies, we collaborate and conflict, and consequently, attain conscious singularity.

Acts of freedom of course entail temporal change. For Sartre the past is in itself a mere contingency whose meaning I appropriate in my present. Nevertheless, like Merleau-Ponty and unlike Husserl, he recognizes that our ‘temporalization’ contains no absolute moments. There is a structure of becoming in which the present fuses a projected future with a retained past.[14] Problematically however, this becoming,  does not happen to me as a consequence of my temporal embodied and embedded existence in the world. I am instead a pure, individualised and disembodied consciousness, and each moment is a creation indebted to nothing outside of choice itself. Ironically this unfettered freedom renders voluntary deliberation a ‘deception’, for nothing is ever permanently appropriated, it must be chosen again and again.

For Merleau-Ponty, it is conditioned choice precisely that is truly effective and affords me the freedom I have. The certain significance of nature and history which my situation offers and my identity accrues does not limit my access to the world, but rather is my means of communicating with it.[15] Rehabilitated in the world, the questioning being, through its whole-body interrogation of experience, communes with that world in recursive engagement. Identity is won by means of an indebted and contextual freedom, not through the creative acts of consciousness alone, but in a recursive intentional collaboration with the environment and others. The questioning being is embedded concernfully within nature and prompted by it to express culturally and historically some of its possibilities.


[1] Sartre, J. P. BN, 488, in Compton, ibid, 581

[2] Sartre, ibid

[3] Sartre, 488, in Compton, ibid

[4] Sartre, ibid, in Compton, ibid, 582

[5]  Merleau-Ponty, PP, 439-40, in Compton, ibid, 582

[6] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 439-40 in Compton, ibid

[7] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 441-442, in Compton, ibid, 584

[8] Compton, ibid

[9] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 122, in Compton, ibid

[10] Sartre, BN, 520, in Compton, 585

[11] Sartre, BN, 435, in Compton, ibid, 586

[12] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 449-50, in Compton, ibid, 586

[13] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 446-7, in Compton, ibid

[14] Sartre, BN, 465-6, in Compton, ibid, 586

[15] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 455, in Compton, ibid, 587


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s