Toward a Critical Ethical Reflexivity: Phenomenology and Language in Maurice Merleau-Ponty


  • Stuart J. Murray,

  • Dave Holmes

  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared

Address for correspondence: Prof. Stuart J. Murray, Carleton University, Department of English Language & Literature, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5B6. Canada. Email:


Working within the tradition of continental philosophy, this article argues in favour of a phenomenological understanding of language as a crucial component of bioethical inquiry. The authors challenge the ‘commonsense’ view of language, in which thinking appears as prior to speaking, and speech the straightforward vehicle of pre-existing thoughts. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1908–1961) phenomenology of language, the authors claim that thinking takes place in and through the spoken word, in and through embodied language. This view resituates bioethics as a matter of bodies that speak. It also refigures the meaning of ethical self-reflexion, and in so doing offers an alternative view on reflexivity and critique. Referring to the Kantian critical tradition and its reception by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, we advance a position we call ‘critical ethical reflexivity’. We contend that Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of language offers valuable insight into ethical reflexivity and subject formation. Moreover, his understanding of language may foster new qualitative empirical research in bioethics, lead to more nuanced methods for interpreting personal narratives, and promote critical self-reflexion as necessary for bioethical inquiry.