Gabriel Marcel

Having discovered a major convergence between the work of Paul Ricoeur and what I have been doing here, I’m also looking into his mentor, the philosopher and playwrite Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel held famous Friday evening philosophical meetings that included Ricoeur, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean Wahl, Nicolas Berdyaev, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. At one point, he accepted the description “Christian existentialist”, but later he repudiated the term “existentialist”, preferring the term “neo-Socratic”. He was close to Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the personalist movement and the journal Esprit.

To an unusual extent, Marcel centered his philosophy directly on concerns he found to arise in life. He was a significant contributor to the early 20th century quest for a renewal of values in the face of the newly emerging technologically based mass society. Marcel always said he did not intend to present a philosophical system, but rather a path of inquiry that would that would at the same time be a spiritual path.

He sought to develop an alternative to Cartesian views of subjectivity, which he considered to result in a depreciation of the broader concerns of life. He emphasized a distinction between “being” and “having”. For Marcel, our beliefs and the things we care about are not things we “have”, but rather should be considered as part of our being. He emphasized believing in rather than believing that.

Marcel spoke of “ontological exigence” as a need for what he called transcendence, and insisted that this transcendence must be experienceable, but that it is experienced as something entirely beyond our grasp. He distinguished between external “problems” that do not involve the questioner’s being, and instances of “the mysterious”, in which the question does involve the questioner’s own being. These uses of “being” strike me as mainly ethical in import.

He spoke of commitment in terms of a “creative fidelity” that creates a self, and essentially involves remaining open to the other. He stressed the importance of hope as a form of “active patience”. I relate this broadly to Brandom’s emphasis on trust.

Marcel’s strong concern with ethics does not seem to have explicitly emphasized ethical reason as such, but I have already noted that his student Ricoeur combined the ethical concerns of Marcel and Lévinas with a more classical approach grounded in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Marcel on Being.)