Gabriel Marcel

views updated May 14 2018

Gabriel Marcel

French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) described man's place in the world in terms of such fundamental human experiences as relationships, love, fidelity, hope, and faith. His brand of existentialism was said to be largely unknown in the English-speaking world, where it was mistakenly associated with that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel's view of the human condition was that "beings" are beset by tension, contradiction and ambiguity. He was also interested in life's religious dimension and was considered the first French existentialist philosopher.

Gabriel Marcel was born in Paris on Dec. 7, 1889, the only child of a distinguished diplomat. His mother died when he was 4, and he was raised by an aunt whom his father married. Although he had little visual memory of his mother, Marcel described her continued "spiritual presence" during his youth as an important influence on his thoughts—giving rise to an awareness of the "hidden polarity between the seen and the unseen." At the age of 8 he began writing plays, and as an adult he would achieve a reputation as a playwright as well as a philosopher. Marcel's plays, which flesh out the basic issues of his philosophy, were performed in the early 1920s. Starting in his youth he also displayed a keen ability to play music—an avocation which would also influence his thinking.

Moved Away From Traditional Philosophy

Marcel received his degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1910 and married professor Jacqueline Boegner in 1919. Together they adopted a son, Jean. Marcel lived and taught for a time in Switzerland, where he began writing his Metaphysical Journal (1927). The journal reflects a movement away from traditional academic philosophy and was influenced by Sören Kirkegaard, in whom Marcel was deeply interested. In some ways, the book is overlooked in serious examinations of Marcel. Another publication from Marcel's diaries was Being and Having (1935).

Developed "Spirit of Abstraction"

During World War I Marcel was a Red Cross official whose job was obtaining news of wounded and missing soldiers and contacting their relatives. These intensely demanding encounters with people were a living source of Marcel's highly concrete and personalistic philosophy, and of his lifelong suspicion of what he called the "spirit of abstraction."

During the war Marcel wrote his thorough study of the American philosopher Josiah Royce, Royce's Metaphysics (1956), and taught at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. He taught philosophy at the University of Sens (1919-1923) and then returned to Paris, where he continued his philosophy research, wrote plays, and contributed to leading periodicals as both a philosopher and a theater critic.

Converted to Catholicism

Marcel's philosophy was always preoccupied with the religious dimension of life, but his upbringing had been religiously agnostic (uncertain as to whether one can really know that God exists), and he was not formally a believer. In 1929, however, an open letter from the distinguished French Catholic writer François Mauriac challenged Marcel to admit that his views suggested a belief in God. His subsequent conversion to Catholicism gave a new dimension to certain aspects of his philosophy. But he remained a strikingly independent thinker whose ideas were formed before his conversion—and as such could be regarded as important indicators of certain Godly aspects of the human experience. Marcel became a leader in French Catholic intellectual circles, and his Paris home was the locale for stimulating discussion among leading European intellectuals of all persuasions.

Was Compared to Sartre

During World War II Marcel lived in Lyons. After the war he lectured in France and other countries. Following the war his "Christian existentialism" aroused sharp contrasts between his work and the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel was fond of improvising at the piano throughout his adult life, but it wasn't until 1945 that—with his wife's encouragement—he undertook to write formal compositions. His wife died in 1947. Marcel continued his creative endeavors, however, as well as teaching and traveling.

Late in life Marcel became associated with Moral Re-Armament, which he discussed in Fresh Hope for the World: Moral Re-Armament in Action (1960). Among his chief philosophical works are The Mystery of Being (1951); the Gifford Lectures for 1949-1950 at the University of Aberdeen; Homo Viator (1951); Man Against Mass Society (1951); Being and Having (1957); The Existential Background of Human Dignity (1963); and the William James Lectures at Harvard for 1961-1962.

At the Frankfort Book Fair in 1964, Marcel received major international recognition in the form of the German Peace Prize. He died in Paris on Oct. 8, 1973.

Marcel's essential dramatic and philosophical insights can be summarized in the difference between a problem and a mystery. He believed that once a problem is solved it is dismissed from consciousness, whereas a mystery always remains alive and interesting. Problems, Marcel believed, are resolved using "primary reflection"—which is abstract, analytical and objective. Mysteries, on the other hand, are approached with "secondary reflection," which concerns itself with deeper personal insights.

Along with Martin Buber, Marcel is one of the founders of 20th-century dialogue-oriented I-Thou philosophy.

Other philosophical writings of Gabriel Marcel include: The Philosophy of Existence (1948); The Decline of Wisdom (1955); Philosophical Fragments (1965); The Funeral Pyre (1965); Searchings (1967); Problematic Man (1967); Presence and Immortality (1967); Tragic Wisdom and Beyond; Including Conversations Between Paul Ricoeur and Gabriel Marcel (1973); and The Participant Perspective: A Gabriel Marcel Reader (published 1987).

Dramatizations include: Three Plays: (A Man of God, Ariadne,. The Votive Candle) (1965); Double Expertise (translated to English, 1985); and Fanal: Two Plays by Gabriel Marcel (translated to English, 1988).

Further Reading

Further information on Marcel is in Vincent Miceli, Ascent to Being: Gabriel Marcel's Philosophy of Communion (Desclee, 1965); Seymour Cain, Gabriel Marcel (Hillary House, 1963); Sam Keen, Gabriel Marcel (John Knox Press, 1967); Kenneth T. Gallagher, The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (Fordham University Press, 1962); Clyde Pax, An Existential Approach to God: A Study of Gabriel Marcel (Martinus Nijhoff, 1972); François Lapointe, Gabriel Marcel and His Critics (Garland Pub., 1977); Hilda Lazaron, Gabriel Marcel the Dramatist (Smythe, 1978); Joe McCown, Availability: Gabriel Marcel and the Phenomenology of Human Openness (Scholars Press for the American Academy of Religion, 1978); Neil Gillman, Gabriel Marcel on Religious Knowledge (University Press of America, 1980); Pietro Prini, Gabriel Marcel (Economica, 1984); Paul Arthur Schlipp and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds., The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (essays) (Open Court Publishing Co., 1984); A.J.L. Busst, ed., French Literature and the Philosophy of Consciousness: Phenomenological Essays by Ian W. Alexander (University of Wales Press, 1984); Ved Prakash Gaur, Indian Thought and Existentialism: With Special Reference to the Concept of Being in Gabriel Marcel and the Upanisads (Eastern Book Linkers, 1985); Katharine Rose Hanley, Dramatic Approaches to Creative Fidelity: A Study in the Theater and Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (University Press of America, 1987); David Applebaum, Contact and Attention: The Anatomy of Gabriel Marcel's Metaphysical Method (Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, 1987); Donald Traub, Toward a Fraternal Society A Study of Gabriel Marcel's Approach to Being, Technology and Intersubjectivity (P. Lang, 1988); Mary D. Howland, The Gift of the Other: Gabriel Marcel's Concept of Intersubjectivity in Walker Percy's Novels (Duquesne University Press, 1990); Denis P. Moran, Gabriel Marcel: Existentialist Philosopher, Dramatist, Educator (University Press of America, 1992); and Gerald Hanratty, Studies in Gnosticism in the Philosophy of Religion (Four Courts Press, 1997).

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas-Austin, maintains seven boxes of archival documentation related to Marcel. They are available to researchers.

The following are scholarly articles on Gabriel Marcel: Thomas C. Anderson, "The Nature of the Human Self According to Gabriel Marcel" Philosophy Today (Winter 1985); Joseph Godfrey, "Appraising Marcel on Hope" Philosophy Today (Fall 1987); Preston Browning, "Walker Percy and Gabriel Marcel: The Dialectical Self in The Moviegoer" Renascence (Summer 1988); Thomas Michaud, "Secondary Reflection and Marcelian Anthropology" Philosophy Today (Fall 1990); and Danne W. Polk, "Gabriel Marcel's Kinship to Ecophilosophy" Environmental Ethics (Summer 1984). □

Marcel, Gabriel

views updated Jun 27 2018


Christian existentialist philosopher; b. Paris, Dec. 7, 1889; d. Paris, Oct. 8, 1973. Since his father was at one time French minister to Stockholm, Marcel benefitted from a multilingual milieu and from extensive foreign travel. He studied at the Sorbonne but did not complete his doctorate, and as a philosopher was unusual in not pursuing an academic career. He did some teaching, but for most of his life devoted himself to free-lance intellectual work as essayist, critic, editor, and lecturer. Marcel wrote that unpleasant aspects of his childhood, including the death of his mother when he was four, led him to take up idealistic philosophy in an attempt to transcend his situation. But experiences as a Red Cross worker in World War I, he wrote, shattered his idealism and turned him toward an existentialist approach.

Though he had little religious influence in his upbringinghis father being a Catholic-turned-agnostic and his stepmother a Protestant whose religion was primarily ethicshe began developing a deep interest in the religious dimension of experience. In 1929 he converted to Catholicism and later came to exert a considerable influence in Catholic intellectual circles.

Rejecting the atheistic existentialism of Camus and Sartre, he moved along lines closer to such theistic existentialists as kierkegaard and buber. Although usually reckoned among existentialists, Marcel himself did not relish this designation. He was largely an underivative thinker; not only was the influence of the progenitor of existentialism, Kierkegaard, next to nil, but the direction of Marcel's thought was quite fully determined prior to that of other 20th-century existentialists such as heidegger, jaspers, and sartre. He also rejected the systematic approach of academic philosophy and developed what he called "concrete philosophy," contending that a philosopher must do his work as a participant in life rather than as an observer. The author of several plays, he found drama a congenial form in which to express his existentialist viewpoint. He was also a composer of music. It is symptomatic of the radically integral character of his thought that he ranked music as one of the most important influences on his philosophy. In 1933 he became involved in Moral Re-Armament and in 1958 edited a book of testimonies, Fresh Hope for the World, in which he and others expressed support for the movement.

Participation and Presence. The leitmotiv of Marcel's philosophy is the notion of participation; this slowly emerged as Marcel defined his thought in opposition both to Descartes and to the early influence of the German idealists. The aspiration toward system so prominent in the idealists was not acceptable to him, for a system would be available only for a thought that could view reality as a detached observer. However, the human self is not a spectator of reality, but a participant: for man, "to be" is to participate in being. Hence, too, there is no problem of breaking through to realism, for the Cartesian private ego is an abstraction: the concretely experienced self is "founded" by participation and can claim no precedence over other selves.

Human thought tends to withdraw from the immediacy of participation, to treat the presence there met as an object confronting an autonomous subject, or, as Marcel says, to transform being into having. Man even thinks of his body as something that he "has," whereas the primordial experience of incarnation is better conveyed by his saying "I am my body." An object, in Marcel's sense, is something that one can regard as external to himself. Here is the basis for Marcel's already classic distinction between a problem and a mystery. A problem is an inquiry into an object in this strict sense, typified by the scientific inquiry. But some data do not permit objectification of this type. The meaning of being, for instance, cannot be revealed objectively. For one cannot treat being as "outside" oneself: being includes the self that thinks it. The question of being is thus a mystery and not a problem. Again, all influences that crystallize man's habit of conceiving the real in an exclusively objectified way weaken his awareness of being. Thus the very virtues and successes of the present rationalist-technical civilization constitute a threat to the sense of mystery. For the more man treats reality in an objectified manner, the more he is tempted to regard himself, too, as an object, a set of functions that can be tabulated and manipulated. It is no accident that, in an age often succumbing to this temptation, human existence is emptied of depth and falls prey to anxiety and absurdity.

Human Communion. Marcel attempts in his"concrete philosophy" and in his plays to recover by "secondary reflection" the presence that objectifying primary reflection has forsaken. In particular, he attempts to recover the special dimension of being revealed in human communion. That is why he concentrates on novel philosophical themes such as love, hope, and fidelity. For it is in these experiences that the "thou" is delivered to the perceiver; and the "I-thou" relation is a pivotal form of participation. The "thou" is not an "it," a characterizable object about which one speaks, but a unique presence; and this makes possible a unique self-presence. The tenuous and fugitive nature of this communion, stressed also by M. Buber, is the prevailing theme in Marcel's plays: openness to the "thou" is the human access to the peace of being, but egoism and insincerity wall one up in his own self.

In awakening to the ontological plenitude of human communion, one awakens to the aura of the eternal and inexhaustible that pervades communion. It is among Marcel's deepest convictions that the transcendent dimension of human existence cannot be revealed to an impersonal thought; rather it is the intelligible epiphany of an authentic human existence. God is the Absolute "Thou" who lurks in the truncated experience of presence felt in human communion. To "prove" the existence of God is simply to raise to speculative recognition a truth already present to participation. Marcel speaks of a "blinded intuition" of the plenitude of being, but this intuition is not an object of vision. It is a presentiment or intimation: it is like the artist's creative idea that is revealed in the work itself. The intuition of transcendence must be read back out of the works it makes possible: chiefly this reading-back is accomplished in the "I-thou" experiences. Finally, the truth of transcendence is not something that is imposed upon a person "automatically." Since, in the area of mystery, the presence affirmed cannot be externalized vis-à-vis the singular self, the affirmation of such a presence involves personal singularityand hence personal freedom. The transcendent haunts human existence as an appeal, and one's recognition of its presence is at the same time a creative response.

Works. Marcel's main philosophical works are Metaphysical Journal, The Mystery of Being (2 v.), Being and Having, Homo Viator, and the essay "On the Ontological Mystery." Among his plays are: Un homme de dieu, Le chemin de Crête, Le dard, and La soif (Les coeurs avides ).

Bibliography: r. troisfontaines, De l'existence à l'être: La philosophie de Gabriel Marcel, 2 v. (Namur 1953). k. t. gallagher, The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (New York 1962). s. keen, Gabriel Marcel (Richmond, Va. 1967). g. marcel, The Philosophy of Existence, tr. m. harari (New York 1949). d. appelbaum, Contact and Attention: The Anatomy of Gabriel Marcel's Metaphysical Method ([Pittsburgh, Pa.] 1986, c1987). j. c. mccown, Availability: Gabriel Marcel and the Phenomenology of Human Openness (Missoula, Mont. [1977]). c. pax, An Existential Approach to God: A Study of Gabriel Marcel (The Hague 1972).

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