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Adrian Scott
Adrian Scott

The Philosophy Of Gabriel Marcel



Marcel completed his DES thesis[b] (diplôme d'études supérieures [fr], roughly equivalent to an MA thesis) and obtained the agrégation in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1910, at the unusually young age of 20. During the First World War he worked as head of the Information Service, organized by the Red Cross to convey news of injured soldiers to their families.[5] He taught in secondary schools, was a drama critic for various literary journals, and worked as an editor for Plon, the major French Catholic publisher.[6]




The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel


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For many years, Marcel hosted a weekly philosophy discussion group through which he met and influenced important younger French philosophers like Jean Wahl, Paul Ricœur, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel was puzzled and disappointed that his reputation was almost entirely based on his philosophical treatises and not on his plays, which he wrote in the hope of appealing to a wider lay audience. He also influenced phenomenologist and Thomistic philosopher Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), who drew on Marcel's distinction between "being" and "having" in his critique of technological change.[10]


The "theistic existentialism" of the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel is too little known in the English-speaking parts of the world, and too often assimilated uncritically to the philosophy of Sartre, to which it is in many respects diametrically opposed. Marcel preferred to call his thought "Neo-Socratic" to avoid this confusion.


Marcel strove for continuity in his philosophy. He developed his theme of the priority of existence over abstraction, for instance, from the cogito of Descartes. And although his critique of idealism and his defense of faith resemble Kierkegaard's criticism of Hegel, Marcel denies that faith is an irrational leap or that the individual stands alone in his faith.


This volume is the first comprehensive study of Marcel's thought. The variety and quality of the critical essays, as well as the immediacy of Marcel's own autobiography and replies (which take the form of personal letters) make this volume a major event in religious and cultural as well as philosophical thought. _n/philosophy_marcel.htm


Absent from the canon of work done on time are contributions from French existentialist Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). For those unfamiliar with Marcel's thought, the absence might seem trivial: perhaps time is not something existentialists are known to write seriously about, favoring instead talk of our lived-experiences as bodies. For those acquainted with Marcel, the inattention paid to Marcel's conception of time cannot be taken as a slight -- 'time' just does not seem to be a main theme in his work. Or, so I thought, prior to reading the first monograph ever written that is dedicated to Marcel's philosophy of time.


Tattam does not defend any of these equally-fascinating interpretations over the others (the one tangible mark that this book is a version of a doctoral dissertation). This minor complaint is partly offset by the strong reasons she does offer for rejecting each. The most obvious take on Marcel's conception of time is the first position introduced, i.e., that it was inherited from his philosophical father, Bergson. Tattam shows, however, that Marcel ultimately rejected Bergson's notion of eternity in favor of an understanding of the consciousness of reality as a progression (31). As a philosopher of the concrete, Marcel would be drawn to a phenomenological view of time that is both contingent and inconsequential (le temps) as well fluid, valuable, and tied to the lives of others (éternité (63)). But, Tattam ends up faulting such a read of Marcel because he fails "to recognize the intimate link between the question of time and the question of Being. Time may not exist as an entirely separate ontological . . . object from human reality . . . but this does not mean that it can be considered without reference to ontology" (81). The construal of Marcelian time as Lévinasian draws unusual philosophical support from Marcel's theatre pieces. Tattam argues that the methodological shift in presentation from philosophy to theatre (a shift, it should be noted, that is not chronologically borne out in Marcel, since he wrote philosophy simultaneously with his dramatic, literary, musical, and political pieces) "could be interpreted as a kind of Lévinassian move away from traditional, totalizing metaphysics, in order to engage ethically with the lived, intersubjective time of reality" (125). Both Lévinas and Marcel realize "the uncertainty and ambiguity of temporality cannot be escaped, for these are what actually define human experiences of normativity and intersubjectivity" (144), and yet, Tattam rejects a Lévinassian view of Marcelian time on the basis that Marcel is "unable to escape the lure of eternalizing narrative, unable to face up to the unsettling instability of time" (145).


The best moment of the book is Chapter 3, in which Tattam frames the Marcel-Ricœurian notion of time as a "phenomenologico-hermeneutic reading" wherein "time and eternity are both part of the structure of human temporality" (100). What sets this chapter apart is that it takes what is superlative about Marcel's philosophy (his notion, for example, of personal identity, or of how to account for "my life"), Ricœur's philosophy (the 'emplotment' of temporal order that introduces a necessity which unifies contingency), and marries them in a narrative structure of personal identity that acts "as a transcendent mediator between the tensions of unity and difference (eternity and time) that I experience in myself" (98). If time is to become "mine" for Ricœur, I have to create a narrative of myself that "does more than just establish humanity, along with human actions and passions 'in' time," it also must "recollect it" (101). For Marcel, secondary reflection is the same dynamic, creative act that must be performed in order "for it to be possible to grasp the significance of my life over and above chronology, over and above my life as understood through primary reflection" (101). The phenomenologico-hermeneutic interpretation of time makes, Tattam argues, narrative the key to a unified notion of identity over time, since narrative is fundamental to an individual's experience of the self, and to a grasp of time and eternity.


It is unclear that the views of unsystematic philosophers who offer relational pictures of the world ought to be systematized by others, and even more, that they ought to be criticized when they don't fit into a dialectical mode of thought. Although Tattam reminds the reader at several points that Marcel fought against an abstract method of philosophy, there are moments when she does attempt to fit his views into a system and then faults him when those attempts fall short. The best example of this is in Chapter 2. Tattam constructs a diagram that depicts the "progress" of being "up this pente, from mere existence toward être -- Being proper" (62). The "pente de l'existence" model exhibits a horizontal axis (le temporel, aspects of an embodied life) that intersects with the vertical (l'éternel, an ascension of being) at the point of freedom. She argues that Marcel's hedging between existence and être has the consequence that "a rigid binary is instituted between the ontologically authentic and inauthentic" (63) -- an odd assertion given the model she just provided showing a gradational view of freedom and ontological authenticity. She then complains that, "Marcel's terminology lacks rigor, obscuring matters further than is warranted; and his philosophical language is particularly nebulous where time and eternity are concerned" (70).


Putting aside the seeming incongruity of valuing a philosopher's thought for resisting disjunctive classification and then rejecting the view for it, the pull to locate Marcel's metaphysics in a binary fashion ought to be avoided. That isn't just good general pragmatic advice -- since attempts to do so will frustrate those who want to be true to Marcel's texts -- but would have been usefully remembered for Tattam's project specifically. For example, when she enters the fray over whether Marcel's phenomenology and ontology are strictly distinct with regard to the fact of existence (a binary that can be set aside when evaluating Marcel's oft-equivocal metaphysics), Tattam stumbles into questions that she is unable to successfully tie to Marcel's view of time. These include short discussions of ethics, phenomenology of experience, love, personal identity, the relationship between philosophy and theology, etc, throughout each chapter. In moments, Tattam seems aware that these side issues permeate the book. She notes:


My concern with the book's engagement with other issues is the degree to which those other issues really are guided by the theme of time. Very good work has been done in the past decade on Marcel's metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, so this book could have been uniquely positioned to tie each of those crucial Marcelian themes to the concept of time. Instead, such little space is devoted to these side areas, without tying them into (what is meant to be) the guiding theme of time, the effect is distracting. For example, from discussing Marcel's equivocation between existence and être, Tattam means to transition to ethics by saying, "The other major complication regarding the status of Marcel's philosophy is the ethical concern that his arguments also appear to convey" (68). She spends exactly one more paragraph discussing intersubjectivity and ethics (a crucial tie, certainly, in any exegesis of Marcelian ethics) before ending with, "in other contexts Marcel asserts that the role of philosophy is one of 'explication,'" and picking up the next paragraph with "Time and eternity are not exempt from such difficulties" (70). It is a minor curiosity that only two paragraphs are spent on ethics here, but the stronger problem is that those two paragraphs appear to be arbitrarily sandwiched into a treatment of transcendence and eternity. 041b061a72


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