Saturday, September 13, 2008

Relating to Mystery--First Etude on Marcel

A mystery understood is a mystery eliminated. Therefore, if human life is lived inside a background of mystery, as Gabriel Marcel's The Mystery of Being, Volume One: Reflection and Mystery, suggests, we live within a mystery that cannot be eliminated. (tr. G. S. Fraser (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press 2001) Yet it is a background that cannot be ignored. Our lives are defined at the same level as we confront the mystery of being.

But how does one prove that this is so? Clearly one cannot define the mystery and thereby see that it is in a separate category from all the kinds of thing that we know or might know some day. That would be to absurdly attempt to understand something with the goal in mind of showing that it cannot be understood. The suggested jest is as old as philosophy: consider the parody of Socrates in Aristophanes' Clouds. "...Aristophanes...has introduced a man, whom he calls Socrates, going about and...talking a deal of nonsense..." (Plato's Apology, Jowett tr.)

Marcel avoids this parody in a clever way--as did Socrates, albeit in a different way than Marcel: Socratic wisdom is to know that one is not wise. For Marcel the strategy is to do "philosophical reconnoitring." (140) The idea is to take note of situations in which a person comes up against the mystery of being, and thereby to plot one's relationship to mystery. In fact, Marcel compares his philosophical reconnoitring to getting to know a town with which you are unfamiliar. One just goes out to see what is there and how the town is laid out. (140-1) In the case of the mystery of being, one can at least discover the various ways that one comes to confront it. For Marcel these are called "acts of recognition." (139) As a consequence Marcel produces not a philosophical system, but a philosophical map. (vii)

(In passing it is interesting to note that Marcel used the term "philosophical investigation" to describe his method in work copyrighted in 1950. (5) Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations were not published or copyrighted till 1953. Both Wittgenstein and Marcel created more of a map with their philosophy than anything else--with Marcel locating the presence of mystery in human life and Wittgenstein locating the varieties and limits of meaning in his. I do not know whether Marcel's use of the term derives from Wittgenstein whether directly or indirectly, as Wittgenstein's thoughts in his Investigations had circulated years before their publication...)

Marcel's philosophical reconnoitring is exceedingly clever, as the following plot from his play, L' Homme de Deiu, illustrates. But you need to go beyond the surface facts to the meanings they have in the characters' lives to appreciate Marcel's clever plot. And he has a name for this act of coming to understand the meanings beneath the surface meanings we encounter in our lives: "secondary reflection." (83)

Here are the surface facts of the plot:

1. A kind man is a pastor in a Paris slum.
2. Before his placement in Paris, he had encountered a crisis of faith as a young clergyman in a mountain village--doubting God, his calling to the ministry, is strength to carry out his ministry, etc.
3. His wife had an affair and their only child was born as a result of the affair.
4. In forgiving his wife the pastor makes peace with his self-doubt and religious faith, making it possible for him to serve in the ministry with great effectiveness.
5. The man with whom the pastor's wife had an affair returns, but is dying.
6. The dying man wants to see the couple's girl, whom he knows he illegitimately fathered.
7. The pastor understands the man's need, and grants his request.
8. But the pastor's wife takes the grant to be evidence that the pastor's forgiveness was a professional act, not a personal one (how could such a painful personal act be done?).
9. The pastor becomes infected with his wife's view, and returns to the doubts that troubled him early in his ministry:

"...he no longer knows what he thinks about his act of forgiveness, nor, consequently, what he thinks about himself." (153)

Employing "secondary reflection" we see that the facts are ambiguous--the character's life is ambiguous. His sense of self is not clarified by his personal history. It is his personal history that contains the ambiguity. A vertigo comprised of self-psycho-socio-philosophical-religious doubt results, and as a consequence the man's ability to act with energy and clarity is lost. For his subjective center, his "sense of self," is lost. And it is lost because his life has conspired to confronted him with the riddle of its meaning for him.

Socrates actively sought a wise man and found none; the pastor's life confounded him by confronting him with the question of life's meaning when the possibility of locating that meaning within one's life is impossible.

Today one expects someone to chime in that someday science will understand it all. But just consider how absurd that thought is:

If science someday can explain how every thought and act and situation comes to be in a person's life, including the arising of human consciousness in all of its scope and detail, potential or actual, what it it will have given us is a much more detailed account of the situation outlined above in the plot summary But it will not have answered the question the situation itself poses: How does one establish a coherent sense of self by which to act when a clear understanding of one's life situation leads to confusion, not clarity? That is the situation we are in. (Or are we to suppose that evolution's macro-story guarantees a stable and meaningful life situation for creatures such as us? "Natural history" tells us the exact opposite--that is, on a human level it creates the same "fact-based" vertigo that the pastor's tale does in that particular narrative.)

Clearly questions arise on a human level that science cannot answer--call that human level the level of "philosophical investigation" with Marcel--despite the fact that those questions influence our actions in the world that science investigates. It seems that Kant was correct to place the acting self in the "noumenal" realm--the realm beyond human understanding.

But--and here we return to Marcel's overarching point--philosophy as Marcel and Wittgenstein practiced it can only locate the areas where human values and faiths supply the directions that give direction to our lives on a human level. And it was Marcel's genius in the plot structure of L' Homme de Deiu to drive that very point home with clarity: If the origin of human faith and value is reduced to the facts that history or science can give us, the life direction that a person's faith and value supply are lost. In Marcel's words, "My life...refuses to tally with itself." (167)

In addition to what can be tallied, there is the value that gives direction and meaning to our lives, a meaning and direction that is lost to analysis. That source must be located outside of the facts of our lives, which are the source of the confusion. (The next post will be "The Corpse of Objectivity--Second Etude on Marcel." There I will continue in this line of thought.)
The values and meanings that animate us as human beings must be located in the mystery of being, or literally nowhere, and the mystery of being is real, leaving the possibility of and the need for faith open--the closing of which Marcel calls "vicious philosophizing." (54)

This has been an "etude," a playing with and an elaboration of Marcel's ideas. I will be thinking about his views for a long time, I'm afraid. The one thing that I can say about those views with confidence is that they are worth the time it will take to sort them out.

Here is the vision that Marcel projects for his thought:

"It may be...that this process of reflective self-clarification cannot be pushed to the last extreme; it may be...that reflection, interrogating itself...will be led to acknowledge that that it inevitably bases itself on something that is not itself..." (38)

If so, our thought is based in mystery and points beyond itself.

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