Merleau-Ponty and Levinas: Traces of Childlike Peace in a World at War

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Summer 1-1-2014


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name





McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Fred Evans

Committee Member

Lanei Rodemeyer

Committee Member

Brian Schroeder


child development, ethics, intersubjectivity, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, originary peace


Because Emmanuel Levinas distanced himself from Maurice Merleau-Ponty's philosophy for a more radical account of the self as primordially oriented by a radical passivity and asymmetrical ethical obligation to the other, few secondary sources have articulated the clear influence Merleau-Ponty had on the trajectory of Levinas's thought. Further, Levinas's more radical account of intersubjectivity raises three primary concerns: (1) Levinas resorts to a form of Platonic dualism when he depicts the other as beyond culture, history, and the physical appearance of the body; (2) there are questions as to whether the phenomena warrant his later view that the self is grounded in a radical passivity and an utter noncoincidence between self and other; (3) his ethics based on an infinite, asymmetrical obligation for the other conflates any kind of self-regard with egoism, thus creating a scenario in which my infinite concern for the singular other stands at odds with concerns of equality and justice.

Drawing on the work of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, I develop a hybrid account of intersubjectivity. Echoing the work of Adriaan Peperzak, I depict the self-other relation as "chiastic asymmetry" that stresses that the asymmetry in Levinas's thought and the mutuality in Merleau-Ponty's must be seen as equiprimordial. Peperzak neither considers Merleau-Ponty's thought, nor does he provide a phenomenological description of chiastic asymmetry. The parent-child relationship provides this explanation by highlighting how ethics is cultivated simultaneously in both the child and the caregiver, and thus, both responsibility and mutuality constitute the self-other relation. In addition, the study of the parent-child relation (1) offers a phenomenological analyses of passivity and sensibility that decenter the autonomous, self-reflective cogito that is prioritized by Descartes, Kant, and Husserl and (2) stands in contrast to the predominant accounts of intersubjectivity that are grounded in self-interest, indifference, or shame, as represented by Hegel, Heidegger, and Sartre. This alternative account seeks to preserve the alterity of the other and unearths an originary posture toward the other that is peaceful and positive.

After considering Levinas's and Merleau-Ponty's respective roots in Husserl's thought (chapter 1), I respond to Levinas's criticisms of Merleau-Ponty in the areas of language, history, aesthetics, and embodiment (chapter 2). Then, I turn to their respective accounts of the parent-child relation, supplemented by current empirical research in child development, to establish my account of chiastic asymmetry (chapter 3). After explaining how chiastic asymmetry offers an alternative to the views set forth by Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, and Hobbes (chapter 4), I conclude by considering how intersubjectivity as chiastic asymmetry might serve as a basis for a peaceful politics that reframes the use of violence and suggest its conceptual presence in the thought of Enrique Dussel, Desmond Tutu, and Miroslav Volf.





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