Marcel on Being

I’ve been looking at Marcel’s The Mystery of Being (1950). “[I]t is not possible to treat all experience as coming down in the end to a self’s experience of its own states…. we shall see… how difficult it is to succeed in getting a direct glimpse of whatever it is that we mean by self.” (Vol. 1, p. 63-64; emphasis in original). “I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody, a particular individual and not a particular individual” (p. 106). “This self to which I have to be true is perhaps merely the cry that comes out to me from my own depths — the appeal to me to become that which, literally and apparently, I now am not” (p. 176). Properly speaking, we should not say that our self exists, as this would make it a thing among other things.

Marcel says Truth should not be reduced to what is the case; it is an illumination. He distinguishes between primary reflection, which is objectifying, and secondary reflection, in which we ourselves are part of the reflection. In secondary reflection, we are participants rather than spectators. For example, “my” body is not some thing that I have, but rather something in which I am involved. More problematically from this writer’s point of view, he adds that my body is to me a sort of “non-mediatizable immediate” (p. 135).

To be is to be in a situation, understood in the participatory rather than the objectifying sense. We navigate situations by active processes of recognition and reconnoitring. “[A] being that can say, ‘My situation’… is not… self-contained; on the contrary, such a being is open and exposed” (p. 178; emphasis in original). “My life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of my life… fundamentally and essentially it refuses to tally with itself” (p. 206). We should not represent a life as a series of movie stills.

Being is also being with, or togetherness with others. “[I]ntersubjectivity plays its part also within the life of the subject, even at moments when the latter’s only intercourse is with itself” (p. 224).

We should distinguish between an object and a presence. A presence lies beyond the grasp of any possible prehension, and can only be invoked or evoked. A rose in a poem is present to us in a way that a rose in a seed catalog is not. A mystery for Marcel is something that transcends the realm of technical solutions, in that we cannot hold it at arm’s length and objectify it, because it involves our own very being. Every Marcelian “presence” is mysterious in this way. “A felt quality… is not a mental object” (p. 231). Truth is not a thing, but a spirit. It is in this sort of way, he says, that essence should be understood.

In approaching the question of what Being is, “I have to think not only for myself, but for us… for everyone who may have contact with the thought which is mine” (Vol. 2, p. 6). We must exorcize the ego-centric spirit. “A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself… must be hetero-centric” (p. 9). He contrasts “we are” with “I think”. “[T]he intelligible milieu… is only the projection on an ideal plane of what existentially speaking presents itself to us as the intersubjective nexus” (p. 12). “[I]t is literally true to say that the more exclusively it is I who exist, the less do I exist” (p. 38; emphasis in original). He equates a transcendental ego with solipsism, but says that Being is not reducible to intersubjectivity, either.

Ontology for Marcel is concerned with acts of judgment associated with the “is” of predication, rather than with objects. He contrasts the “fullness” of truth with “the hollowness of a functionalized world” (p. 47). Fullness is not to be confused with totality, and being cannot be reduced to totality. Any fullness of truth involves secondary reflection, from which we cannot separate ourselves as participants. Being cannot be indifferent to value. Faith must be distinguished from opinion; it is a matter of believing in, not believing that. Real prayer, he says, is possible only where intersubjectivity is operative.

A free act is one that “I come to think of, after the event, as having helped to make me what I am” (p. 131). “[W]e are concerned here with a certainty which I am rather than with a certainty which I have… I am a living testimony” (p. 144). Just as there is creative fidelity, there is creative testimony, but the creativity in question involves an active receptivity, not a simple production.

Marcel’s invocations of “being” and “existence”, as well as of “presence” and of “ontology” all seem rather different from the standard, representationally oriented usages of these terms, to which I have expressed various objections. He also did not engage in anything like Heidegger’s dubious historiography of a “forgetting of Being”.

Early in the book, he seemed to reject “what is” questions as inherently objectifying. I think that questions of what and why are most naturally treated as matters of open-ended interpretation, and that ontology, epistemology, and all manner of specific technical disciplines can be subsumed under hermeneutics, which is in turn subsumed under ethics. From my perspective, what Marcel would have regarded as objectifying perspectives can thus be subsumed in a way that undoes their objectifying character.

Although Marcel’s style of exposition and vocabulary are very different from Aristotle’s, the broad spirit of his perspective seems very close in important respects. To a greater extent than most other philosophers, Aristotle and Marcel each in their own way brought to the fore an emphasis on concreteness and the way we encounter things in life. (Marcel’s pessimistic view of “what is” questions is perhaps the most significant difference. Aristotle also did not have explicit analogues of Marcel’s “presence” and “mystery”.)

While I am uncomfortable with Marcel’s top-level characterization of my relation to my body as an un-mediatizable immediacy because I think it involves the mediation of something like the unconscious level of Kantian processes of synthesis, I very much like the ethical contrast of being and having that informs the details of his account of this. Marcel doesn’t explicitly say as I do that “being” is primarily an ethical concept, but his account seems open to such an interpolation. (See also Ricoeur on Embodiment; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities; Being, Consciousness.)