Gabriel Marcel

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2455

Article abstract: Marcel was a major figure in the mid-twentieth century development of French philosophy, as well as a significant dramatist. He was the first French thinker to explore phenomenological and existential themes in depth and, along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, became a key influence on the post-World War II French intellectual scene.

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Early Life

Gabriel Marcel was born on December 7, 1889, into a Parisian bourgeois family. His father had a distinguished career as a government official, diplomat, and curator, holding the rank of councillor of state and eventually holding posts in the Bibliothèque National and the Musées Nationaux. Marcel’s mother died when he was four, an event that had a powerful formative influence on him in registering both the irrevocability of death and the mystery of abiding presence. His upbringing took place in an atmosphere essentially devoid of religious experience, his father being a cultured agnostic and his stepmother (his mother’s sister) a nonreligious Jew who converted to a liberal humanist Protestantism. Young Marcel was thus reared in an environment whose basic values reflected those of the French Third Republic—reason, science, and ethical conscience.

Marcel was an early and brilliant academic achiever, passing his agrégation in philosophy at the very early age of twenty in 1910. This qualified him to teach at the lycée level in the French educational system, which he later did sporadically. He never earned a doctorate, however, or became a university professor. Part of the reason for this was the impact of World War I. He worked for the French Red Cross, with the job of locating missing soldiers and communicating information concerning them to their relatives. As for so many other young men during World War I, Marcel’s experiences were a great shock, disturbing the securities of the rational bourgeois universe of his early years and bringing home starkly to him the tragic character of human existence. After this, his prewar philosophical training, highly abstract in character, came to seem arid and mechanical, and he now sought a more concrete mode of philosophy, better able to do justice to the intimacies of human experience not touched by abstract forms of thought.

If World War I was the occasion for a philosophical conversion for Marcel, the decade of intense intellectual searching that ensued after the war’s end culminated in the decisive event in his spiritual life—his conversion to Roman Catholicism on March 23, 1929. Marcel had for years been concerned with philosophical investigation of the character of personal existence and the experience of faith so that his conversion was a culmination of, rather than a turn from, the spiritual quest occasioned by his philosophical conversion. It also placed him in the company of a number of other distinguished French intellectuals who converted to Catholicism in the years of the Third Republic, among them Paul Claudel, Charles Péguy, and Jacques Maritain.

Marcel’s struggle against that systematic spirit that had characterized much of French philosophical inquiry after René Descartes built upon the anti-Cartesian turn in French thought associated with the work of Henri Bergson. Three of Marcel’s writings of the period 1925 to 1933 signaled his emergence as a major new intellectual voice in French philosophy: “Existence et objectivité” (1925; “Existence and Objectivity,” 1952); Journal métaphysique (1927; Metaphysical Journal, 1952); and “Position et approches concrètes du mystère ontologique” (1933; “On the Ontological Mystery,” 1948). All the major themes of his mature work are adumbrated in these texts. Variations on the themes that Marcel had begun to articulate within the framework of his emerging philosophical viewpoint received exposition in a series of nine plays that he wrote in the years between 1914 and 1933. He later insisted on the intimacy of his philosophical and dramatic works, through which the concrete examples on which much of his philosophical reflection rested received theatrical embodiment in dramatic characters.

Life’s Work

Marcel called one of his books Homo Viator: Prolégomènes à une métaphysique de l’espérance (1945; Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, 1951), and the title captures several enduring themes of his mature work. Homo viator means man en route, or man the journeyer. The phrase reveals Marcel’s belief both that the task of the philosopher is always an exploratory one, a searching along the paths of human experience for those key themes that he must patiently explore, and that the philosopher’s task itself mirrors the life situation of every human individual. Hope was one of those crucial experiences—faith, exile, fidelity, trust, witness, and despair were others—that Marcel conceived it to be the purpose of the philosopher to interrogate because they had been dismissed by the dominant schools of modern philosophy as inaccessible to or unworthy of philosophical scrutiny.

Marcel’s method in approaching philosophical questions was always open, probing, and intuitive, what he called “concrete.” Rather than publish systematic treatises, he published his philosophical workbooks, his daily journals of philosophical investigations, and his philosophical diaries—thinking in process. Later these “drillings” into the depth of human experience could be worked up into philosophical essays and given extended development, perhaps finally to receive fully organized treatment, as in his Gifford Lectures in 1949-1950, Le Mystère de l’être, published in two volumes, Réflexion et mystère and Foi et réalité (1951; The Mystery of Being, 2 vols., 1950-1951), or his William James Lectures at Harvard in 1961-1962, The Existential Background of Human Dignity (1963). Yet always Marcel’s concern was to deny that the detached, disembodied cogito of Descartes could be the appropriate beginning for philosophy as he conceived it. For him philosophy began more in wonder and astonishment than in curiosity and doubt, and the exploratory texts that constitute the bulk of his philosophical oeuvre were better vehicles than systematic treatises for capturing these foundational philosophical experiences.

A distinction crucial to Marcel’s philosophical stance is the one that he made between primary and secondary reflection. Primary reflection is the realm of abstraction, objectivity, and universality; this is the world of the analytically verifiable, best exemplified in modern scientific and technological thought. The great threat from primary reflection for Marcel was that the spirit of abstraction was too likely to become imperialistic, tyrannizing over all domains of human experience. Hence, he opposed primary reflection to secondary reflection, the latter being the realm in which emphasis falls on the intuitive, on participation, and on dialogue. Herein Marcel emphasized over and over the possibility of human beings’ penetrating the mystery of existence through confrontation with “presence” and “mystery” rather than with the “object” of primary reflection. He rejected any relationship of the philosopher to reality that could be described as that “of an onlooker to a picture.” Rather, Marcel developed a “concrete philosophy” in which secondary reflection, approaching the world, the self, and other human beings through love, or fidelity, or hope, or another “concrete approach,” could yield a knowledge that would illuminate human life as it is lived, although a kind of knowledge not verifiable by the techniques of primary reflection.

It is appropriate to characterize Marcel’s sense of the necessity for a full, open relationship between beings, or between a person and what he or she confronts—a mystery or a presence—as dialogical. It is a relationship well characterized in the terms “I” and “thou,” made popular through the work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. To establish such a dialogical relationship with others and with the world demands a disponibilité, an availability or readiness of the self toward others and the world, as well as an involvement or engagement with the world. The origin of such a relationship lies in the experience of the body, of human incarnation. The self projects into the world its sense of bodily presence as it becomes aware of its own body, and this bodily experience becomes the prototype for the way the world exists for the self. Just as the self cannot be separated from the body, so too it is inseparable from its situation in the world. It is impossible to abstract completely from those concrete situations that are constitutent of the human self, although one of the great temptations of primary reflection is to accomplish just such a complete separation of self from situation. Thus, a self that is open to the world, that can establish dialogical relations with it and with others, can develop a participant knowledge of great ontological depth, something denied to the self that treats others as objects to be manipulated.

Marcel’s sensitive probing of existential experiences revealed to him a deep-seated “exigence,” or impulse, at the base of all human life, which he described as an impulse to transcendence. He was convinced that this “ontological exigence” in human beings testified to the existence of an inexhaustible presence that he called “being.” His analyses of human experiences convinced him of the presence of this inexhaustible being, although it could only be approached obliquely through phenomenological description. Thus Marcel’s mature philosophy came to rest on the assurance that through openness to such crucial human experiences as love, fidelity, and hope it was possible to approach God in a fashion identical with the approach of his concrete philosophy to other persons. Through concrete human experience, being itself could be approached and the human “ontological exigence” proven to be more than what the French existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre had called it: a “useless passion.”

In one sense, Marcel’s thinking was a call to restore simple human values—faith, trust, comradeship, love—in a world threatened increasingly by technological abstractions and political alienation. In Les Hommes contre l’humain (1951; Men Against Humanity, 1952), he brought his philosophical views to bear upon an analysis of the social and political world of immediate postwar Europe. He worried that the dominance of technology was leading to a world ruled by despair, without hope; he blamed the increasing violence of the contemporary world on that spirit of abstraction, against which he had conducted a long philosophical struggle. While he never developed anything like a fully articulated social philosophy, his essays on social and political themes exhibit a marked congruence with his more speculative work. In both there are the consistent effort to give meaning and depth to central human experiences, the deep sadness at the varieties of human grief, and the desire to bring together the metaphysical certainty of the convinced Christian with the concrete awareness of real human relationships of the phenomenologist, which characterized Marcel’s life work from beginning to end.


Gabriel Marcel is often characterized as an existentialist, although he himself rejected that term. Such a characterization usually sees him as a theistic existentialist as opposed to the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or Martin Heidegger. While the differences between and among the various existentialist philosophers were many, and Marcel was certainly right to reject any term that served to conflate his views and those of people such as Sartre, whom he vehemently opposed, there is, nevertheless, a grain of truth in applying the label “existentialist” to him. He shared with other existentialist thinkers a passion to engage philosophically with the world of lived human experience, a profound distrust with the abstractions of scientific and technological thought, and a sensitivity to literature and art as perhaps more powerful tools than philosophy for the analysis of human existence. In his essay “Existence and Objectivity” and in his Metaphysical Journal, Marcel was deeply involved with many of the ideas that later became central to existentialism, and these texts were published before Karl Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre had published any of their major works. Thus, Marcel is rightly characterized as the first French existentialist.

Marcel’s thought also demonstrates affinities with other important twentieth century European thinkers. His philosophical method, based on the intuitive approach of his concrete philosophy, in many respects parallels the work of the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, although Marcel worked independently of him. Similarly, Marcel’s dialogical approach to existential concerns is reminiscent of the work of Buber, although here again his work began and was pursued independently of influence from Buber. Marcel’s concern with the philosophical description of bodily experience anticipates as well some of the major emphases in the work of the French thinker Merleau-Ponty. Marcel is also appropriately characterized as the first French phenomenologist.

Marcel belongs to that distinguished group of twentieth century French thinkers whom the historian H. Stuart Hughes has called “philosophers who were Catholics.” Like Péguy and Maritain, Marcel was a convert to Catholicism; like them, he lived in and wrote out of an ambiguous situation in which the society around him opposed the spiritual values to which he was committed. Writing against the grain of his world, Marcel developed a highly personalized, even idiosyncratic, philosophical stance, one he communicated best through essays, diaries, and other fragmentary forms. He himself provided the best descriptive term for his work when he called it neo-Socratic, for, like his chosen Greek forebear, Marcel as a thinker was concerned to show how important it is to pose problems correctly before even attempting their solution. In invoking the person of Socrates, Marcel associated his work with the constant questioning, risk-taking, and ongoing dialogical approach of an earlier homo viator like himself.


Blackham, H. J. Six Existential Thinkers. New York: Macmillan, 1952. The chapter on Marcel situates him in the wider currents of existentialist thought.

Cain, Seymour. Gabriel Marcel. New York: Hilary House, 1963. This is a short introduction to the major themes of Marcel’s thinking and proves a good starting point for further study.

Gallagher, Kenneth T. The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel. New York: Fordham University Press, 1962. Good overall study of Marcel’s philosophical work, with an introduction by Marcel.

Hanley, Katherine Rose. Dramatic Approaches to Creative Fidelity: A Study in the Theater and Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. This is the most extensive attempt in English to relate Marcel’s philosophical and dramatic works.

Heinemann, F. H. Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953. Another good survey of existentialist thinking, with a chapter devoted to Marcel.

Hughes, H. Stuart. The Obstructed Path: French Social Thought in the Years of Desperation, 1930-1960. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. An excellent intellectual history with a chapter on Marcel and other French Catholic thinkers.

Keen, Sam. Gabriel Marcel. London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1966. This work is a good short survey of Marcel’s philosophical work.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds. The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1984. A book in the important Library of Living Philosophers series. Contains a number of essays on Marcel’s work, as well as his own 1969 “Autobiographical Essay.”

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