Publication Details

Lymer, J. M. 2011, 'Merleau-Ponty and the Affective Maternal-Foetal Relation', Parrhesia: a journal of critical philosophy, no. 13, pp. 126-143.


The belief that the emotional state of the mother can impact upon her child’s development during pregnancy is long held and cross cultural. Yet within many developed nations the possibility of a maternal-foetal relation or communication has been poorly understood and not often researched. Recently however it has been found that many maternal affective states such as depression, stress, and anxiety have negative outcomes for foetal development and flourishing.

Consequently, within the contemporary literature there has been the beginning of a shift in thinking, and in some instances a call for more research, into the nature of this suspected maternal-foetal affective communication. By 2004, there was sufficient interest in the phenomenon that Sjögren et al. stated “the development of an emotional attachment to the foetus/future child during the pregnancy constitutes a fairly new field of research.” To date, this body of research remains both small, controversial, and poorly understood.

The primary aim of this paper is to outline a theory of maternal-foetal communication that can be employed in understanding how it is that through gestation, a mother and foetus affectively interrelate, and how this interrelation may account for the kinds of empirical research outcomes that are beginning to appear. In order to do this I will draw upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of body schematic development which I then modify in light of recent empirical research into foetal development.

This paper is divided into three sections. The first two are an exegesis and critique of the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I focus primarily upon Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body schema which for him forms not only the basis of our self-awareness, but also an embodied communion between self and others, especially during infancy. The critique that follows in the second section focuses upon two main issues that have been identified within his philosophy. The first is that of Shaun Gallagher and Andrew Meltzoff, who have argued that the body schema cannot develop post-partum. The second issue has been identified by both Claude Lefort and Dorothea Olkowski, who have separately targeted Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the development of subjectivity as being too individualist and visually based.

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