Gabriel Honoré Marcel (December 7, 1889 – October 8, 1973) was a French philosopher, playwright, and Christian thinker. He has often been referred to as a “Christian existentialist,” although he preferred to be known as a “Neo-Socratic” or “Christian Socratic” thinker. Although he wrote roughly thirty plays and earned his livelihood mostly as a writer, critic, and editor, he is best known for his philosophical work. His style of philosophy was intentionally unsystematic and personal, preferring the way of concrete, descriptive analysis to formal argumentation or logical demonstration. He considered reality to be an “ontological mystery” which one could only come to “know” through an unsystematic, participatory way of reflecting as opposed to the impersonal mode of scientific abstraction. In investigating various existential themes, Marcel’s work centered upon issues concerning the individual person, freedom, and human dignity. He was particularly critical of modern social institutions and technology for their dehumanizing effects upon individuals.
Marcel's treatment of the being of each individual person as a mystery brought forth a more humble view of the self, which paradoxically makes the self available to others for genuine inter-subjective relations, where each subject can acquire a true, dignified self. According to Marcel, the presence of being people thus experience becomes open to "the transcendent," and the phenomenon of "hope" consists in it. His existentialist approach to God is not "a distinct apprehension of God as someone other" (Marcel 1964, 167). Rather, it shows a descriptive yet profound path to experience God.
Marcel was born on December 7, 1889 in Paris. His mother died when he was only four, and he was raised by his father and maternal aunt. Although later his father and aunt would marry, Marcel never forgot the loss of his mother or the loneliness he experienced as a child. In his later writings, he occasionally reflected upon this loss and in fact once referred to his childhood as a “desolate universe.”
Despite this darker side of his youth, the young Marcel excelled in school and performed at the highest academic level. At the university, he received a rigorous training in philosophy, and in 1910, he obtained the aggregation in philosophy at the unusually early age of 21. Initially Marcel was drawn to philosophical idealism, particularly the work of Schelling, F. H. Bradley, and the American philosopher Josiah Royce. The impact of World War I, however, would greatly shift Marcel’s thinking. During the war he served as a Red Cross official and his duties included relaying information about missing soldiers to the next of kin. The brutal realities of war and Marcel’s willingness to reflect upon them led him to turn away from idealism and all philosophical systems which did not take into account the fundamental “brokenness” of the world. In fact, it was through this notion of “a broken world” that Marcel directed his studies, both as a playwright and as a philosopher. This, in turn, led to his inquiries into basic existential themes, which were aspects of reality that cannot be neatly categorized within an abstract system.
After the war, Marcel taught at a number of secondary schools, and throughout his life he would often teach in stints at universities, such as the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Harvard University. Primarily, however, Marcel earned his income as a playwright, editor, and critic. He worked as a drama critic for various literary journals and served as an editor for Plon, the major French Catholic publisher. Though Marcel would become better known for his philosophical work than his plays, he was often surprised and frustrated that his plays received so little attention. Also, the idea of dialogue, which was of primary importance in his philosophy, held a practical as well as theoretical place in Marcel’s life. For many years, he hosted “Friday evenings,” a weekly discussion group through which he met and influenced important young French philosophers, like Jean Wahl, Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1929, Marcel converted to Catholicism at the age of forty. Although raised as an atheist, his thought throughout his thirties had turned in a more religious direction. But it was not until the French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac posed the question to him, “But after all, why are you not one of us?” that Marcel converted. He never intended to be an "Catholic" philosopher representing the Church, and his way of philosophical pursuit continued. But the notions of “call” and “response” would become important themes in Marcel’s later work. In 1949-1950, Marcel gave the Gifford Lectures, which was later published as The Mystery of Being (1951), and in 1961-1962 he gave the William James Lectures at Harvard, which was published as The Existential Background of Human Dignity (1963). Marcel’s other major philosophical contributions include Being and Having, Man Against Mass Society, Homo Viator, Creative Fidelity, and Tragic Wisdom and Beyond. Marcel died October 8, 1973, in Paris.
As a philosopher, Marcel has often been referred to as a “Christian existentialist.” He repudiated the term “existentialist,” however, largely due to the fact that existentialism as a philosophical movement was associated primarily with the atheistic and voluntaristic thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. For this reason Marcel preferred to be known as a “Neo-Socratic” or “Christian Socratic” thinker. Nevertheless, like other ‘philosophers of existence’ (Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Sartre), Marcel was preoccupied by certain existential themes that centered upon the human person (existent). These themes included the uniqueness of the individual, human freedom, and the ethical relations of intersubjectivity.
As with other existential thinkers, Marcel critiqued various aspects of modern society. He was particularly critical of technology for its dehumanizing effects, in treating human beings as mere objects or things. For example, the economic idea of “human resources” treats individual persons as mere “assets” or “liabilities” to be bought and sold. Also, while he recognized the benefits of technology in developing new vaccines and new means of mass production in the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing, Marcel warned of a "technological mindset." This mindset thinks of the natural world merely as something to be manipulated and exploited, rather than as something to engage or participate in. Moreover, this technological mindset is often applied to oneself as well. One can view oneself only in terms of the various functions one performs. One is a banker, a lawyer, a carpenter, or a plumber. One is a husband, a wife, a member of the local Country Club or the First Presbyterian Church. Although there is of course a legitimate place for performing these functions, Marcel was worried that one can see one’s self only in terms of these functions. What is ignored, according to Marcel, is the fundamental dignity of each individual person, a kind of mysterious worth at the center of each human being which cannot be easily summed up or defined. This, in turn, leads to the sense of the mystery of being itself, or what Marcel called the “ontological mystery.”
Marcel distinguished between two ways of attaining knowledge. The first was to consider it as a problem. This is the approach taken by science, in which the scientist tries to understand something through the method of abstraction. This approach is taken both by empirical or natural scientists (through the use of techniques such as statistics or other mathematical formulations) as well as philosophical science. Regardless, the thing under investigation is treated in terms of its general nature. For example, in inquiring about a human being, one simply knows what is general or common to all human beings. Moreover, in treating the subject of inquiry as a problem, the investigator uses a method of impersonal argumentation or formal demonstration to “prove” the theory. This kind of analysis in which one dissects, abstracts, and separates, Marcel called primary reflection.
But for Marcel there was a form of secondary reflection. This kind of reflection approaches the subject not as a problem but as a mystery, and doing so it unites rather than separates. Similar to the method of phenomenology, Marcel’s secondary reflection approaches the subject through a concrete descriptive analysis. Marcel, however, rejected the more formal or systematic method of phenomenology developed by Edmund Husserl and instead employed a more natural or personal kind of reflection. In doing this, he often turned to everyday examples. In this way, he tried to reveal the basic structures of human experience by describing the implicit or hidden aspects or meanings which are often concealed or overlooked. In fact, one of his former students, Paul Ricoeur, recalled how during the seminars held in his home, Marcel would not allow students to elaborate or criticize a particular text until they had introduced the topic via their own concrete experience. Marcel also avoided the use of technical terminology and preferred a more natural and ordinary language, which he considered to be more vital and alive.
One reason Marcel’s way of thinking is called Socratic is that, for him, philosophy is viewed as a constant questioning. No technical method can ever conquer this mystery of reality. Rather, one has to participate in it by engaging and so questioning it with one’s entire being. For this reason, Marcel did not write systematic treatises, but wrote in different forms such as philosophical diaries, which were filled with fragments, personal reflections, self-questionings, and various stops and starts. Again, like Socrates, Marcel viewed philosophy as an open-ended dialogue with both others and oneself. But given this absence of a systematic method he was frequently criticized for lacking philosophical rigor. Defenders of Marcel will respond, though, that the unsystematic approach is the very key to opening the door to the ontological mystery.
One of Marcel’s greatest philosophical contributions in employing his descriptive, personal style of analysis was in the realm of ethics and intersubjectivity. According to him, when one treats the being of another as a mystery, one does so with a sense of humility ("ontological humility") by which to be able to see the fundamental dignity of the other. This leads to abandonment of one's self, dynamic openness, "disponibilité" (availability), and "creative fidelity" to others. This way, Marcel called for a greater responsibility to others, but not merely through the traditional notion of doing good deeds, but primarily by being humbly present or open to others, again with one’s whole being. Through this availability, a dynamic and creative encounter happens between people, in which they “make contact.” One's relationship to others, which develops this way, actually helps one to acquire a true self and is open to "the transcendent" which is not beyond experience but within experience. It is a moment of holiness. Marcel's description of how different individual beings can authentically relate to one another to experience the transcendent is perhaps something we need to realize for peace in society today. Marcel, in fact, did not merely write about this phenomenon of disponibilité but practiced it as well. Many have noted the aura of self-prensence he displayed in both his public lectures and personal interactions with others.
Finally, Marcel analyzed the phenomenon of hope. Like other existential thinkers, Marcel made the distinction between fear and dread, where fear is being afraid of some particular thing or object, while dread is the basic existential anxiety or angst one feels apart from fearing any specific thing. Dread, then, is one of the fundamental ways of relating to the world. In a similar contrast, Marcel distinguished between desire and hope. Desire is when one wants or seeks; some particular thing or object. Hope, however, is an open-ended expectation in which one anticipates without knowing exactly what it is he is waiting or hoping for. It is here that Marcel’s analyses take a specifically religious, and even Christian, form, in that such hope, he believes, is not something one can dictate or create by oneself alone. Rather, it is a grace which one receives. In his own words, "the only genuine hope is hope in what does not depend on ourselves, hope springing from humility and not from pride" (Marcel 1995, 32).
Throughout his life, Marcel continued his work as a playwright and drama critic. Through his plays Marcel explored various human situations in all their intensity and complexity. A common theme in his dramatic works was the interpersonal dynamics in family situations where tensions emerged due to the struggle between carrying out one’s duties while striving to fulfill personal aspirations. Far from being divorced from his philosophical work, the ideas expressed in his plays were closely connected to his theoretical work. In fact, some themes which first found expression in dramatic form would years later, after much reflection, be taken up in philosophical form. Finally, Marcel was an accomplished musician and composer. He believed it was music, in fact, which above all could tap into and express this ontological mystery.
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