Merleau-Ponty Circle

International Merleau­-Ponty Circle to be held at WPI Oct. 1-3 • You’re probably familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, but what about their collaborator Maurice Merleau-Ponty? If he’s not on your radar, you will have plenty of opportunities this week to learn how this 20th century French philosopher’s theories are more popular and relevant than ever, when the International Merleau-Ponty Circle meets October 1–3 at WPI.
September 30, 2015

The conference, “Twenty-First Century Body: Thinking Merleau-Ponty In and Out of Time,” will include presentations from approximately 25 scholars working in a variety of disciplines, an art exhibition on the conference theme, opening and closing receptions with musical performances, and myriad opportunities to engage in conversations about Merleau-Ponty’s place at the dawn of the 21st Century.

Jennifer McWeeny, associate professor of philosophy, and her colleagues have been planning the schedule of events since they won the bid to hold the conference at WPI three years ago.

Hosting a philosophy conference—especially one that features art and music events—may be unusual for WPI, but this one “is deeply related to science and engineering,” says McWeeny.

WPI was chosen to host the 40th anniversary meeting in part because its program is “unique in thinking about ethics and using technology in ways that are thoughtful and benefit the planet,” McWeeny says. In particular, the officers of the Merleau-Ponty Circle were impressed by WPI’s requirement that every student have a minor in humanities to enhance their study of science and engineering, she adds.

Merleau-Ponty, a friend and collaborator of existentialists Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, is most famous for the theories he set forth in a book titled,The Phenomenology of Perception,published in 1945. His concept that we perceive our world through the body flew in the face of the accepted philosophical tradition set forth by Descartes: that we experience consciousness solely through the mind.

Rather than fade away, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophies have steadily gained popularity and relevance over the years, says McWeeny.

“When you read them now, it’s almost as if he could describe 21st Century life,” she says, noting that when she completed her dissertation on Merleau-Ponty in 2005, there were just a few resources on his work available, whereas now there are hundreds.

Today, Merleau-Ponty’s theories are being used in the feminist and transgender communities (how you are perceived due to your looks, way of dressing, and physical attributes), technology (such as the perception of hard and soft in virtual reality), art and architecture (how a body moves through space), ecology (humans’ relationship with nature), science (thought as a bodily process), and many more.

The conference invites the community to experience Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy as “a whole body experience,” says McWeeny. “It’s definitely a conference that embodies his model as well as talks about it,” she says.

In addition to the Merleau-Ponty Circle presentations, events include the WPI Architecture & Laboratories pre-conference tour; Five-Senses Fete Opening Reception featuring robots improvising to music; a dance performance choreographed using Merleau-Ponty’s theories; the Twenty-First Century Body Art Exhibition Opening Reception featuring juried artworks from around the world; and a costume ball with music provided by the WPI Jazz Ensemble and participants dressed as famous luminaries from the early 20th century.

All events are free and open to the WPI community, with the exception of the costume ball (reduced-price tickets are available for students and underemployed). For more information, visit the conference website:

This event is sponsored by WPI’s Humanities & Arts Department, WPI’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the International Merleau-Ponty Circle.