Marcel, Gabriel (1889–1973)

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Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher, dramatist, and critic, was born in Paris. His father, a highly cultured man, held important administrative posts in the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Musées Nationaux. Marcel's mother died when he was four. Raised in a home dominated by the cultured agnosticism of his father and the liberal, moralistic Protestantism of his aunt, and nurtured in a scholastic system concerned only with intellectual achievement, he later sought refuge in a modified type of idealism. The shaking experiences of World War I, during which he was an official of the Red Cross concerned with locating missing soldiers, brought home to him the failure of abstract philosophy to cope with the tragic character of human existence. His conversion to Catholicism in 1929 did not substantially alter the direction of his thought, although it intensified his conviction that the philosopher must take into consideration the logic interior to faith and hope.

Relationship to Existentialism

Marcel's name has most often been linked with "theistic existentialism." Because of the ambiguities of this term and the association of existentialism in the popular mind with Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy, to which his is almost diametrically opposed, Marcel has preferred the designation "Neo-Socratic" for his thought. This should not obscure Marcel's contributions to existential philosophy or his similarity to other thinkers who are ordinarily associated with it.

Before publication of the major philosophical works of Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, Marcel introduced into French philosophy, in his essay "Existence and Objectivity" (1925) and in his Metaphysical Journal, many of the themes that later became central to existentialism. Often making use of an independently developed phenomenological method, he dealt with such themes as participation, incarnation, man as being in the world, and the priority of existence over abstraction (the cogito ) as a starting point for philosophy.

Marcel's critique of idealism and his defense of faith resemble Søren Kierkegaard's critique of G. W. F. Hegel; Marcel, however, refuses to allow that faith is an irrational leap or that the individual stands alone in his faith. Heidegger and Marcel explore much of the same terrain in seeking to restore the "ontological weight to human experience" (Being and Having, p. 103). They share a common view of the nature of truth and language. Marcel, however, unlike Heidegger, includes within his ontology the assurance of fulfillment that is part of faith's apprehension of God as Absolute Presence. In many ways Martin Buber has been Marcel's closest contemporary philosophical relative. Each has independently developed a philosophy of dialogue and communion in which the distinction between the relation of an I to a thou and an I to an it or a him plays a central part.

Philosophical Method

A great injustice is necessarily done in any summary account of Marcel's thought, for the charm and the convincing power of his conclusions are inseparable from his itinerant, tentative, and exploratory philosophical method. One of the most characteristic features of his thinking is the vigor with which he combated the spirit of abstraction and the conceptual sclerosis that he believes is an occupational hazard of systematic and academic philosophers. But despite his rejection of systematic philosophy, Marcel's work is based on an underlying principle of unity, or more accurately an underlying vision, which, seen dimly from the beginning, has been progressively more clearly apprehended. This vision, which is essentially both Platonic and Christian, expresses itself in the conviction that within the temporal and transient order homo viator is given a foretaste of eternal realities.

Marcel's philosophical explorations cannot be divorced from his dramatic writings or from his experimentation in music. His plays are not philosophical in the sense of being popular forums for the presentation of worked-out ideas. Rather, they present complicated situations in which persons find themselves trapped, challenged, and confused; and thus indirectly they explore the nature of the exile into which the soul enters as it becomes alienated from itself, from those it loves, and from God. Marcel believes that in music one finds a foretaste or presentiment of the perfect harmony and communion toward which all authentic human existence strives. Philosophy shares both in the tension that is the essence of drama and in the harmony which is the essence of music. Its starting point is a metaphysical "dis-ease" like that of a person in a fever who shifts around searching for a comfortable position. This search for a home in the wilderness, a harmony in disharmony, a transcendent source of assurance in a transient life takes place through a reflective process that Marcel calls secondary reflection.

The Nature of Thinking

Marcel distinguishes two degrees or types of thinking, primary and secondary reflection. Primary reflection is characterized as abstract, analytical, objective, universal, and verifiable. The thinking subject in primary reflection is not the individual human person but the thinker qua mind (the Bewusstsein überhaupt ). Primary reflection deals with the realm of the problematic. As the etymology of "problem" (pro-ballo ) suggests, the distinguishing feature of the problematic approach to reality is the separation of the questioner from the data about which he questions. The data of primary reflection lie in the public domain and are equally available to any qualified observer. Once a problem is posed, primary reflection proceeds to abstract from the concrete data any elements that are not relevant to the solution of the particular problem under consideration. When a solution or an explanation has been found, the original curiosity and tension that motivated the thinker are alleviated.

Primary reflection, as exemplified in scientific and technical thought, has allowed us to possess and manipulate our world more completely and is therefore indispensable to human culture. However, intellectual and moral confusion results when primary reflection becomes imperialistic and claims the right to judge all knowledge and truth by criteria appropriate only to the realm of the objective and the problematic. When this happens, abstraction gives way to "the spirit of abstraction," the use of techniques gives way to technocracy, and the inexhaustible riches of a kaleidoscopic world are forced to conform to a black-and-white logic.

Secondary reflection is concrete, individual, heuristic, and open. Strictly speaking, it is concerned not with objects but with presences. Its contemplation begins not with curiosity or doubt but with wonder and astonishment. Hence, it is humble in its willingness to be conformed to categories created by that on which it is focused. It remains open to its object as a lover does to his belovednot as a specimen of a class but as a unique being. This openness is not a methodological principle as in scientific thought but arises from the possibility of something new being created in the relationship. Secondary reflection is dialogical, not dialectical. Rather than searching for information about the other and dealing with it abstractly, secondary reflection seeks the revelation of total presence, whether the presence be that of my body, the world, the other person, or God. Thus, secondary reflection is brought to bear on data or questions from which the thinker as existing person cannot legitimately abstract himself: "Am I free?" "Is there meaning and value in life?" "Can I commit myself to this person?" In other words, secondary reflection is concerned not with problems but with mystery.


According to Marcel, a mystery initially appears to be merely a problem that is difficult to solve. Reflection shows, however, that in dealing with a genuine mystery the distinction between subject and object, between what is in me and what is before me, breaks down. Faced with questions about freedom, the meaning of life, the existence of God, and so forth, no objective standpoint can be found from which a universally valid answer may be discovered. This does not mean that mystery is unknown or unknowable and lies in a realm of vague feelings over which thought has no grasp. Rather, knowledge of mystery presupposes an immediate participation, or what Marcel also calls a "blinded intuition," but this participation is understood only with the aid of a conceptual process. Unaided intuition is not an adequate philosophical instrument. However, secondary reflection penetrates into the mystery of existence and being only when it works in conjunction with love, fidelity, faith, and the other "concrete approaches." It yields a kind of knowledge and truth that, if unverifiable, nevertheless is confirmed as it illuminates our lives. Two foci of mystery may be distinguished, although never separated, in Marcel's thinking. The mystery of existence is dealt with in "concrete" philosophy and the mystery of being in "concrete" ontology.

Concrete Philosophy

Marcel denies that the detached, disincarnate, Cartesian cogito provides a possible starting point for a concrete philosophy. It is with the existing subject, the incarnate being who is already in the world, that philosophy must begin. The experience of the inexhaustible concreteness of the existing world can be neither deduced, doubted, nor demonstrated. Existence is not a thing, a quality, or a discrete content of thought that can be isolated and pointed out; rather it is that in which the subject participates and from which thought begins its quest for meaning. The assurance of existence that we have is not of the intellectual order but is an outcome of our direct participation in the world via sensation and feeling. Because sensation and feeling are inseparable from the body, our knowledge of existence is tied up with our being incarnate.

Incarnation is the "central given of metaphysic," the absolute starting point for an existential philosophy, because it is on the analogy of my experience of my body that the world is understood. I project into the world the sense of density and presence that I experience when I become aware of my own body. The world exists for me only in the measure that I am related to it in a way similar to the way in which I am related to my own body.

As I am not even ideally separable from my body, I am likewise inseparable from my situation. Those habitual surroundings and historical conditions that shape my life enter into the very fiber of what I am. Insofar as I recognize that my situation enters into the constitution of my being, and hence that I am not able to abstract myself from it completely and view it with the objective detachment of a spectator, I may speak of the family that nurtured me or of an illness that shaped me as having a mysterious character.

A concrete philosophy must also affirm the immediacy of our being with others. The principle of the intentionality of consciousness, Marcel holds, applies in our relations both to persons and to the world. Philosophy begins not with I am but with we are.

The significance of this intersubjectivity will be determined by the type of relations that characterize one's life. The self who treats other persons as objects to be manipulated and used is condemned because of its egocentricity to live in a world lacking in ontological depth, and hence it will be prey to despair when the thrill of possession wears thin. To endeavor to allow the other person to become present as a thou is to enter into a relationship within which the assurance of fulfillment is received.


No word used by Marcel is more difficult to define or richer in meaning than being. It refers neither to the sum total of all objects that exist nor to some universal substratum underlying all particulars. Being is eternal and inexhaustible. It is "that which does not allow itself to be dissolved by the dialectics of experience" (Metaphysical Journal, p. 181). Only by participation in being can isolation, despair, and tragedy be overcome. The quest for being is thus identical with the quest for salvation. To deny being is to say that "all is vanity," that nothing has intrinsic worth. To affirm being is to declare that corresponding to the deepest exigency of the human spirit is a fulfillment of which an earnest is given in experiences of creativity, joy, and love.

As defined by Marcel, the question of being cannot be approached objectively and problematically. Being can be affirmed only if I can discover within experience some presence that testifies to being. Two elements in human experience seem to offer such a testimony. First, at the heart of the human condition is an "ontological exigence," an impulse to transcendence that is present in all authentic human life, the exigence to penetrate to a level of experience saturated with meaning and value. The mere existence of such an exigence is no guarantee in itself that a corresponding satisfaction exists. It could be the case, as Sartre says, that man is a "useless passion." But Marcel attempted to show, by way of a phenomenological analysis, that certain experiences of love, joy, hope, and faith, as understood from within, present a positive testimony to the existence of an inexhaustible presence. This assuring presence, which might be called the immanence of being in human experience, is never a possession but is constantly created anew as an I enters into relations with an empirical thou or the Absolute Thou (God). Although the assurance of being never becomes conceptually clear, it provides the illumination making creative, open existence possible.

In what might be called Marcel's ontological personalism, the concrete approaches to being are identical with the approaches to other persons and to God. To enter into a loving relationship requires that a person exorcise the spirit of egocentricity and possession and become spiritually available (disponible ) to others. A vow of creative fidelity is likewise necessary if the unconditional demands of love are to be satisfied. In approaching God, fidelity becomes faith and disponibilité becomes hope. In love, fidelity, hope, and faith man approaches the mystery of being and is overtaken with the assurance that he is accompanied by the eternal fulfilling Presence that he seeks to know.

See also Being; Existentialism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Idealism; Jaspers, Karl; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Personalism; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Thinking.


works by marcel

A thorough and updated bibliography of works by Marcel, translations of his works, and works about Marcel is maintained by the Gabriel Marcel Society at

Philosophical Works

Journal métaphysique. Paris: Gallimard, 1927. Translated by Bernard Wall as Metaphysical Journal. Chicago: Regnery, 1952.

Être et avoir. Paris: Aubier, 1935. Translated by Katharine Farrer as Being and Having. London: Dacre Press, 1949.

Du refus à l'invocation. Paris: Gallimard, 1940. Translated by Robert Rosthal as Creative Fidelity. New York: Noonday Press, 1964.

Homo Viator. Paris: Aubier, 1945. Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York, 1962.

The Philosophy of Existence. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Republished as Philosophy of Existentialism. New York: Citadel Press, 1961. Previously uncollected essays written between 1933 and 1946. Perhaps the best short introduction to Marcel's thought.

Le mystère de l'être. 2 vols. Paris: Aubier, 1951. Translated by G. S. Fraser and René Hauge as The Mystery of Being. 2 vols. Chicago, 1950.

Les hommes contre l'humain. Paris: La Colombe, 1951. Translated by G. S. Fraser as Men against Humanity. London: Harvill Press, 1952. Republished as Man against Mass Society. Chicago: Regnery, 1962.

L'homme problématique. Paris: Aubier, 1955.

Présence et immortalité. Paris: Flammarion, 1959.

The Existential Background of Human Dignity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.


"The Lantern." Cross Currents 8 (2) (1958): 129143.

Three Plays. Translated by Rosalind Heywood and Marjorie Gabain. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958; 2nd ed., 1965. Contains "A Man of God," "Ariadne" (Le chemin de Crête ), and "The Funeral Pyre" (La chapelle ardente ; in the 2nd ed., "The Votive Candle").


Creative Fidelity. Translated, with an introduction, by Robert Rosthal. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1964.

Presence and Immortality. Translated by Michael A. Machado. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1967.

Tragic Wisdom and Beyond. Translated by Stephen Jolin and Peter McCormick. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

works on marcel

Applebaum, David. Contact and Alienation, The Anatomy of Gabriel Marcel's Metaphysical Method. Washington, DC: Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology & University Press of America, 1986.

Busch, Thomas. The Participant Perspective: A Gabriel Marcel Reader. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

Cain, Seymour. Gabriel Marcel. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1963.

Gallagher, Kenneth T. The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel New York: Fordham University Press, 1963.

Lapointe, Francis H., and Claire C. Lapointe. Gabriel Marcel and His Critics: An International Bibliography (19281976). New York: Garland, 1977.

Pax, Clyde. An Existentialist Approach to God: A Study of Gabriel Marcel The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972.

Prini, Pietro. Gabriel Marcel et le méthodologie de l'invérifiable. Paris, 1953.

Ricoeur, Paul. Gabriel Marcel et Karl Jaspers. Paris: Éditions du Temps Present, 1947.

Schilpp, Paul A., and Lewis E. Hahn. The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel. Library of Living Philosophers Vol. XVII. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1984.

Troisfontaines, Roger. De l'existence à l'être. 2 vols. Paris, 1953. Essentially a concordance of what Marcel has said on any subject. Contains a complete bibliography of Marcel's work until 1953.

Samuel McMurray Keen (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)

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Marcel, Gabriel (1889–1973)

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