Gabriel Marcel opposed the idea of "all experience as coming down...to a self's experience of its own states." (The Mystery of Being, Vol. I: Reflection and Mystery (St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, 2001) p. 51) Accordingly he states that, "I shall therefore lay it down as a principle, to be accepted in the whole of my subsequent argument, that, before it is anything else, consciousness is above all consciousness of something which is other than itself..." (p. 51-2)
This is a portentous principle, but how might it be justified? Doesn't it contradict the familiar idea of self-consciousness?
Marcel, of course, does not deny that we have a sense of self as the subject of our experience. What he denies is that we can create an object out of that subject in order to study it and specify its nature. This view is basic to his argument, as the quote above implies. For if the vehicle of our awareness of the world cannot be subjected to the kind of scrutiny by which we understand the world, then our awareness of the world will always be experienced as--at root--a mystery. Hence, The Mystery of Being as Marcel's title.
In defense of Marcel's principle, consider the negative conclusion of Richard Rorty's influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: After 400 years of effort no one has been able to cash in the metaphor of human experience "mirroring" the world. Thus we are left with a practical, a pragmatic, orientation toward our ideas, and purported philosophical explanations are only speculations. Marcel makes the point this way:
"...we have to recognize the need to postulate a non-mediatizable immediate, which is the very root of our existence." (p. 109--emphasis in original) If we are to accept this as fact, it seems that we can only return to Marcel's earlier claim that "consciousness is above all else consciousness of something which is other than itself..." (P. 51-2) and acknowledge it as the principle Marcel announces it to be.
If we do so there is indeed a portentous result: all our ideas about the meaning of the life we experience are potential faiths while none are philosophical or scientific in the sense of being backed up by a reasoned understanding.
This is important, I think, in several ways, but I will focus on only one. It might seem that the only safe conclusion about the meaning of life given the mystery at its core would be to deny any framework larger than what can be mediated through one's experience and adjudicated by science or philosophical analysis. But if "...consciousness is above all else consciousness of something which is other than oneself..." and one seeks the meaning of the life one is conscious of--can one seek the meaning of any other life?--then the very thing one's experience can never provide is its own meaning! One must adopt a meaning, choose a meaning, believe in a meaning, if life is to have a meaning. Moreover, to refuse to do so is to refuse to organize one's life in a meaningful way--at least to the extent that a person is self-consistent in their refusal. And the only alternative to this refusal is faith. Not necessarily religious faith, but faith in the sense of belief where epistemic risk is involved. In fact, life on a meaningful human level is inherently risky. We are creatures of faith: Homo Fide.
Would Marcel approve this "etude," this attempt to extrapolate from his careful exposition ? Frankly, I do not know. More importantly, I do not know whether my analysis is adequate to the subject. What I do know is that thinking about this subject is a worthy pursuit.