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 became a key influence on the post-World War II French intellectual scene.
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 where the 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 (the secondary level), which he later did sporadically. He never earned a doctorate, however, or became a university professor. During World War I, he worked for the French Red Cross, locating missing soldiers and communicating information concerning them to their relatives. Marcel’s war experiences were a great shock, disturbing the securities of the rational bourgeois universe of his early years and starkly bringing home 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 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 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 the systematic spirit that had characterized much of French philosophical inquiry after philosopher René Descartes built on the anti-Cartesian turn in French thought associated with the work of philosopher 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 and Objectivity,” Metaphysical Journal, and “On the Ontological Mystery.” All the major themes of his mature work are evident 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, which were the theatrical embodiment in dramatic characters of the concrete examples on which much of his philosophical reflection rested.
Marcel called one of his books Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, a title that 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 one 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, which were published in two volumes as The Mystery of Being, or his William James Lectures at Harvard in 1961-1962, which were published as The Existential Background of Human Dignity. Yet always Marcel’s concern was to deny that the detached, disembodied Cogito (“I think”) 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...
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