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The Mystery of Being: Reflection and Mystery

1948 to 1950
University of Aberdeen

Gabriel Marcel, a Christian existentialist, gave two series of Gifford Lectures under the titleThe Mystery of Being. In them, he attempts to lead us through his reflections on the nature and purpose of philosophy, the concerns of metaphysics, and the purpose of and need for authentic religious faith to meet the needs of incarnate beings.

In Lecture I, Marcel introduces his approach to philosophy, indicating the spirit of reflection under which the subsequent lectures ought to be understood. He distinguishes two notions of ‘research’. One involves a prior notion that is the goal of the research and in which the result can be detached from the research. The other is research that is indissolubly linked with the result: an investigation without pre-notion. Philosophical research, as Marcel pursues it, has as its origin a certain kind of disquiet in the ego of the seeker; it is concerned with questions that cannot be answered simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

In his second lecture, Marcel draws upon an excerpt from one of his own plays in which the heroine talks of her sense that we are living in ‘a broken world’. He builds on his remarks in Lecture I and rejects the concept of truth as involving a universal technique of extraction in which there is a pre-notion, transmissible to anyone. Such a striving after this type of unity, he thinks, leads to increased socialisation of human life, in which we are units identifiable through cards and documents, and to the extension of the powers of the state, which aims to enforce such unity. Such a unified world is broken because it has lost the real unity of brotherhood and privacy, creativity and reflection.

Lecture III introduces the theme of transcendence. For Marcel, transcendence is the exigence at the heart of philosophical research as discussed in Lecture I. He sees this exigence as an existential experience of a certain non-satisfaction by a being smothered by the broken world. Philosophic research is conscious transcendence, and is consequently the process of replacing unsatisfactory experience with an increasingly pure mode of experience. From this, Marcel moves into a discussion of truth in the next lecture, characterising truth as a value striven for. Truth is the light by which we control the urge to view reality as we desire it to be, the light seekers move toward.

In Lecture V, Marcel distinguishes primary and secondary modes of reflection. Primary reflection is decompositional and analytic; when reflecting on the self in this mode, Marcel believes that one is led to treat the body as an object linked with or parallel to some other entity that might be termed ‘soul’. Secondary reflection, on the other hand, leads to the transcendence already discussed; it allows us to recover on a higher level a unity that had been lost on the lower. Through secondary reflection, according to Marcel, the self evades the kind of definition sought on primary reflection, and finds ‘subject’ and ‘object’ to be inseparable and recognised through a fundamental ‘act of feeling’. The next lecture examines feeling as a mode of participation, and shows that the notion as he uses it cannot be reduced to an instrumental relation. Marcel illuminates his point by describing the artist: through his actions, he contemplates, and in doing so, he participates in a reality. So this ‘act of feeling’ is a mode of participation, but in this participation, one exceeds the limits of feeling.

Lectures VII and VIII are concerned with the notion of participation as being in a situation, and the relation of the self to life. One can contemplate and recollect both to turn inward and stretch outward. One’s situation is not merely an ensemble of events external to the self, but neither does one merge into them and view life as fatality or destiny. Here Marcel introduces the notion of creative development, which occurs through free activity as soon as there is life, or rather, as soon as there is ‘being in a situation’. In life, one may recognise circumstance and situation as a call to creative development. The following lecture asks, on the basis of these thoughts, what answer can be given to the question ‘Who am I?’ The answer, Marcel thinks, is to be found by enquiring into one’s own life; he concludes that a life cannot be simply identified with a narrative or a consciousness of it. In responding to a certain call, in articulating one’s life based on a reality that gives it meaning and purpose, is to both give and fully realise life.

As Marcel attempts to show in the preceding two lectures, he finds it impossible that anyone could give an objective answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ Lecture IX attempts to move towards an existential understanding of meaning and purpose in life. Marcel looks to a realm beyond consciousness, pointing out that one must transcend the conscious self to understand the depth of identity. There are two directions in which one can move: in relation to others, and in relation to one’s self. Marcel suggests that the ego can become closer to itself the more it is with the other and not consciously directed at itself. In relation to one’s self, one engages in secondary reflection, and strives for the subjective understanding of the ego that cannot be given any objective account.

The final lecture turns to the notion of mystery, particularly presence as a mystery. At the end of the previous lecture, Marcel discussed the relation of one’s idea of the self to the depths of time. This leads him to discuss the mystery of family, in particular, the kinship of father and son, where he sees a deeper reality than the biological. The ‘other’ to which we are related—a subject—becomes an object, but a being whose presence is mysterious. Philosophical research is articulated on mystery and, in this, there is a region Marcel describes that opens out onto eternity.


The Mystery of Being: Reflection and Mystery

The Harvill Press Ltd.
  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen