Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Corpse of Objectivity--Second Etude on Marcel

Before diving into the topic of this post, I would like to begin with what at once seems to be a diversion and yet is an inescapable entailment of Marcel's investigations: the significance and relevance of ordinary experience for understanding religious and philosophical ideas. What I mean is that we expect philosophy and theology to pose questions and answers to life's big questions. And big philosophical and religious systems rise. To illustrate just stating the names of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes...and why belabor the obvious by adding names? By sheer contrast it is difficult, at first, to understand Marcel precisely because what he writes about seems not to even be tangential to the Western canon. Where's the relevance? What Marcel does is focus on quotidian things--family relationships, what it means to say something is ours, how one thinks about oneself--and uses those "things" to help us see that philosophy, and more broadly objective thought, cannot grasp even the quotidian experiences of life (let alone the big questions?--I don't know how he would answer, because he doesn't address them, but the bearing of his musings seem to imply that critique). To use a quote cited in the first Marcel post, he shows that "[One's life]...refuses to tally with itself." (167)

For convenience I'm going to do something very un-Marcel like: I'm going to isolate this theme in his thought and label it, as "the self-elusive life force" (SELF) at the core of human consciousness.

In Marcel's words, "...there is this kernel that I feel to be there at the centre; and this kernel is nothing other than the experience--an experience which of its very nature cannot be formulated in intellectual terms--by which my body is mine." (97) In context Marcel was considering what it means to own something.

The clearest example of this "SELF" in The Mystery of Being comes from Chapter VIII, entitled "My Life." There Marcel notes, "My life presents itself to reflection as something whose essential nature is that it can be related as a story..." (154) And, "From...this one might be tempted to draw a very simple...conclusion: that the only thing that can give me an exact idea of what my life has been like will be a [very detailed] diary..." (156) But, "As I re-read it...[my diary] produces a chaotic impression;...has my life really been this chaos? If it has, there is nothing more to say; life and diary are both rubbish dumps. Or at least I am in danger of thinking so; but at the same time I feel a kind of inner certainty that I cannot really have lived such a shoddy...purposeless life. life now that it is no longer being lived [in reflection on the diary entries], has been changed by magic into its own corpse--into a record which no more resembles the life I did lead than a corpse resembles a vigorous, handsome living body." (158)

To capture what has happened to make one's record of one's life seem corpse-like, Marcel grasps another metaphor: "...have I really good grounds for thinking that there remains no more of my life now than there remains of a burnt-out firework...?" (158)

Clearly, the self-elusive life force (SELF) is not captured in the account of one's life. The drive, the life, that lead oneself to do the acts recorded in one's story or diary is the very thing that cannot be captured in recounting the acts. It is the SELF which needs to be represented in the diary, the story, and it is precisely the SELF that is needed to understand the otherwise corpse-like account of one's acts--an account that has the value of burnt-out fireworks.

But any objective account of one's life will necessarily leave out the animating life force that gave purpose and meaning to the acts that can seem so lifeless in retrospect. But that is inevitable. For if one cannot capture one's SELF, one cannot capture a record of oneself.

I will be musing on this aspect of Marcel's thought for some time. But mostly I will be thinking about this: He uses concrete examples taken from life experience to challenge the view that life can be objectively represented in a way that we find satisfying. In contrast to this, we see neuroscience advancing in ways that will have us in better position as we go forward to understand the biology of consciousness. Of that I have little doubt, even as a distant amateur observer. Will SELF survive? I think so, since one's motivations--those interests and desires that motivate us--must be experienced from within the framework of the subject. And that means that SELF puts the self out of the reach of science.

In the next and last Marcel post (taken from Vol. I of The Mystery of Being--I antici8pate more at a later date from Vol. II) we will consider this quote: "The truth seems to be that...there is no middle ground between the subhuman and the superhuman." (166) That is a statement rife with interest from a theological perspective...

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