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Gabriel Marcel

Writer and Philosopher
1889 to 1973

Gabriel Marcel was born in Paris on 7 December 1889, the son of a French diplomat. When he was only four years old his mother died. He was raised by his father and his mother’s sister, who eventually married. He was brilliant in his studies and shone particularly brightly when he discovered philosophy. In his early years of philosophical reflection, he leaned toward idealism, in part due to the tremendous influence his mother’s death had upon him. It is believed that he felt his mother had an enduring 'spiritual presence' in his life, which contributed to a perception of a world of seen and unseen things that he subsequently entertained (despite his father and stepmother’s ardent agnosticism).

In 1914 at the outset of the First World War, Marcel joined the French Red Cross. The horrors of war pushed him away from idealism toward a more concrete (existential) humanism. He kept notebooks during the war and beyond, and it became apparent that he was developing strong existentialist tendencies—most notably under the influence of Soren Kierkegaard. His notebooks were published in 1927 as Journal Métaphysique. He continued to keep notebooks throughout his life.

Marcel’s academic career was somewhat sporadic. He taught philosophy at a number of reputable establishments, including Sens, Paris, Montpellier and, later, Aberdeen (1951–1952) and Harvard (1961–1962). He delivered his Gifford Lectures, entitled ‘The Mystery of Being’, at Aberdeen in 1949 and 1950. (They would be published under the same title in two volumes in 1951). The lectures took up existentialist themes and were concerned heavily with the notion of Mystery, in attempts to guide his audience toward an understanding that it was this (i.e., Mystery) precisely that enabled the possibility of a wider view of reality, and could direct humankind toward eternity.

Marcel converted to Christianity in 1929 and his philosophical reflections soon led him to a reputation as a Christian existentialist. However, philosophy was only one of his interests. He was also highly regarded as a dramatist, critic and professional editor.

After the First World War Marcel married Jacqueline Boegner, who tragically died in 1947 from a terminal illness. They adopted a son, Jean. Despite the great impact Jacqueline’s death (like that of his mother) had upon him, Marcel continued to write and work. In 1964 he was awarded the German Peace Prize, highlighting something of the international renown he had accrued throughout his career.

Marcel died in Paris on 9 October 1973.

Among his works are Journal Métaphysique (1927), Être et avoir (1935), Du refus a l'invocation (1940), Homo viator: prolégomènes à une métaphysique de l'espérance (1944), La Métaphysique de Royce (1945), Existentialisme chrétien (1947), The Philosophy of Existence (1948), The Mystery of Being (1950), Les hommes contre l'humain (1951) Le déclin de la sagesse (1954), The Influence of Psychic Phenomena on My Philosophy (1956), The Philosophy of Existentialism (1956), Présence et immortalité (1959), La dignité humaine et ses assises existentielles (1964) and Martin Buber: l'homme et le philosophe (1968).

  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen