Gabriel Marcel is one of the main figures associated with existential thought in France. His two-volume work The Mystery of Being is the final product of a series of Gifford Lectures that were given in 1949 and 1950 at the University of Aberdeen. Characteristic of The Mystery of Being, and one might say of Marcel’s writings in general, is a philosophical approach that is oriented toward concrete descriptions and elucidations instead of systematic delineations. In this respect, the existentialism of Marcel has greater affinities to the thought of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Jaspers than to that of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel will have nothing to do with the system builders. A philosophical system, even though it may have an existentialist cast, as in Heidegger and Sartre, entails for the Marcel a falsification of lived experience as it is immediately apprehended.

The Concrete

On every page of Marcel’s writings, the reader is forced to acknowledge the author’s concentrated efforts to remain with the concrete. Existential thinking is the thinking of the “involved self.” This involved self is contrasted by the author with the “abstracted self.” The abstracted self, in its movement of detachment, escapes to a privileged and intellectually rarefied sanctuary—an “Olympus of the Spirit”—from which it seeks to formulate a global and inclusive perspective of the whole of reality. Marcel’s concrete philosophical elucidations express a continuing protest against any such Olympian view. “There is not, and there cannot be, any global abstraction, any final terrace to which we can climb by means of abstract thought, there to rest for ever; our condition in this world does remain, in the last analysis, that of a wanderer, an itinerant being, who cannot come to absolute rest except by a fiction, a fiction which it is the duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength.” A person as an “itinerant being”—or as a wayfarer, as the author has expressed it in the title of another of his works, Homo Viator: Prolégomènes à une métaphyqiue de l’espérance, 1945 (Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, 1951)—is always on the way, passing from one concrete situation to another. At no time can he shed his situationality and view himself and the rest of the world as completed. There is no thought or abstraction that can tear itself loose from...

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The leading question in Marcel’s philosophy of the concrete is the question, “Who am I?” Only through a pursuit of this question can humans be liberated from the objectivizing tendencies in modern thought, and return to the immediacy of their lived experience. Reflection will illuminate this lived experience only as long as it remains a part of life. The author defines two levels of reflection—primary and secondary. Primary reflection is analytical and tends to dissolve the unity of experience as it is existentially disclosed to the involved self. Secondary reflection is recuperative and seeks to reconquer the unity that is lost through primary reflection. It is only with the aid of secondary reflection that humans can penetrate to the depths of the self. The Cartesian Cogito (“I think”) is derived by primary reflection, and therefore it is viewed as a mental object somehow united with the fact of existence. However, this abstract reflection is already at a second remove from the reality of pure immediacy. If the “I exist” is to provide the Archimedean point, then it will need to be retrieved in its indissoluble unity as an immediate datum of secondary reflection. Existence, as Immanuel Kant had already shown in his Kritik der reinen Vernunf (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), is not a property or a predicate that can be attached to a mental object. Existence indicates an irreducible status in a given sensory context. Secondary reflection uncovers my existence as it is sensibly experienced in act. This apprehension of my existence in act is what Marcel calls the “existential indubitable.” In asking about myself, I am disclosed as the questioner in the very act of posing the question. It is here that we find ourselves up against existence in its naked “thereness.”

The living body is for the author a central phenomenon in secondary or recuperative reflection. Secondary reflection discloses my existence as an incarnated existence—an existence that is tied to a body that I experience as peculiarly and...

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The immediate encounter with the mystery of being is thus in terms of a lived participation. The idea of participation, says the author, assumed importance for him even in the days of his earliest philosophical gropings. Although the language of participation would seem to betray a Platonic influence, the author makes it clear that the idea of participation includes more than an intellectual assent. Indeed, the foundational mode of participation is feeling, inextricably bound up with a bodily sense. The Platonic dualism of mind and body, with its perfervid intellectualism and depreciation of the senses, could not admit the existential quality of participation that Marcel seeks to establish. Marcel’s favorite illustrations of feeling as a mode of participation are his illustrations of the link between the peasant and the soil, and the sailor and the sea. Here, he says, one can grasp what participation means. The peasant’s attachment to the soil and the sailor’s attachment to the sea transcend all relationships of simple utility. The peasant does not “have” the soil as a simple possession. The soil becomes a part of his being. He becomes existentially identified with the soil. A separation of himself from the soil would entail a loss of identity and a kind of incurable internal bleeding. This bond through participation, expressed in the link between the peasant and the soil, points to the fundamental relation of humans to the mystery of being.

In Marcel’s philosophy of participation, the notions of intersubjectivity, encounter, and community are decisive. In the second volume of The Mystery of Being, the author seeks to replace the Cartesian metaphysics of “I think” (Cogito) with a metaphysics of intersubjectivity that is formulated in terms of “we are.” Philosophical reflection, he argues, must emancipate its inquiry from the solipsism of an isolated epistemological subject or a transcendental ego. My existence is...

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Mystery and Problem

The existential reflections in the author’s two-volume work are geared to an elucidation of various facets of the presence of being. Being discloses itself as a mystery—hence, the appropriate title of his lectures, The Mystery of Being. In the concluding chapter of volume 1, the author erects a signpost for philosophical wayfarers to help them in their metaphysical journeyings. This signpost is the distinction between problem and mystery. A mystery is something in which I myself am involved. A problem is something from which I detach myself and I seek to solve. One is involved in mystery, but one solves problems. Mystery has to do with the experience of presence. Problem has to do with the realm of objects that can be grasped through the determination of an objectivizing reason. A problem is subject to an appropriate technique; it can be diagramed, quantified, and manipulated. A mystery by its very character transcends every determinable technique. Being is a mystery rather than a problem, and the moment that it is reduced to a problem its significance vanishes. By turning a mystery into a problem, one degrades it. When the mystery of the being of the self is subject to a problematic approach, which by definition objectivizes its content, then the personal and subjective quality of selfhood is dissolved. When the mystery of evil is translated into a problem of evil, as is the case in most theodicies, then the issue is so falsified as to render impossible any existentially relevant illumination.

In advancing his distinction between mystery and problem, however, Marcel is not delineating a distinction between the unknowable and the knowable. In fact, the unknowable belongs to the domain of the problematic. It points to the limiting horizon of that which can be conceived through objective techniques. The recognition of mystery involves a positive act or responsiveness on the part of self. It expresses a knowledge that is peculiar to its content—an immediate knowledge of participation as contrasted with an...

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Additional Reading

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.

Cain, Seymour. Gabriel Marcel’s Theory of Religious Experience. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. An astute, interesting evaluation and interpretation of Marcel’s thought on the religious meaning of human existence.

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

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