Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who was born and died in Paris, was one of the leading Christian existentialists of the twentieth century. Two of his ideas that I find fascinating are his notion of the broken world, and the distinction between a problem and a mystery.
The Broken World – According to Marcel we live in a “broken world,” where “ontological exigence” is ignored or silenced. What he means is that exigencies, crises, difficulties, and pressures plague our being. This doesn’t imply that the world was once intact, rather that it is broken in essence—both in its past and present. In the here and now, our being is characterized by a refusal to reflect, imagine and wonder, which leads us to deny both the tragic and the transcendent. Marcel believed this is primarily due to the functions we play in modernity—functions that reduce us to automatons who lose a sense of wonder about being.
This ontological exigence, this desire of being for transcendence, meaning, coherence and truth, derives from the sense that something is amiss or lacking in the world. Marcel claims this longing is not mere wishing, but an urge or appeal that springs forth from our very nature. Without this sense of longing for transcendent meaning, one doesn’t notice that the world is broken. In this sense exigence is a good thing.
Commentary – I do think we live in a broken world; there is something deeply wrong with being. But I think Marcel’s mistaken when he says that we cannot live well without an appeal to transcendence. For Marcel transcendence is beyond us, and experiencing it involves “a straining of oneself towards something, as when, for instance, during the night we attempt to get a distinct perception of some far-off noise.”1 I assume this noise is Marcel’s God. As my readers know I acknowledge the longing, but doubt the existence of the object of Marcel’s longing. Still, the object of Marcel’s longing is amorphous, so Marcel is a mystic. I too can say that reality is mysterious.
Problems and Mystery – The broken world contains multiple problems which are capable of solutions. With data and technology we can solve problems. But we do not completely participate with a problem as a unique individual. We could substitute one scientist for another and the problem wouldn’t change—it exists independently of the scientist. And solutions to problems become common knowledge which can be rediscovered by anyone.
But we are intimately involved in a mystery. It is a sphere in which the distinction between what is inside and outside of me loses significance. When dealing with mysteries subjectivity matter, a mystery is one’s own. Moreover, mysteries can’t be solved; they are meta-problematic. (Hence the well-known aphorism attributed variously to Marcel and others: “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.”) Mysteries are ineffable, incommunicable, and yet our subjectivity is built upon participating in them. I can have a problem—I can possess it—but essentially I am a mystery, for my mysteries involve my being. Ultimately, to truly confront mystery according to Marcel, one must open themselves up to the avenues designed for this purpose—religion, art, and metaphysics.
Commentary – There are some scientific problems we have solved—how the species evolved—and there are unsolved problems—how to reconcile relativity and quantum theories. Whether the unsolved problems are different from unsolved mysteries is debatable. And whether there are some essentially unsolvable, problems or mysteries—incapable of being understood in principle—raises deep issues in philosophy of language and epistemology. Still, I’m not sure if the problem and mystery distinction holds.
But whether we call them problems or mysteries there is much that is unknown and perhaps unknowable. I agree then that there are mysteries, but I’m not sure what to make of it when mystics talk of them. Perhaps mystics should heed Wittgenstein’s advice: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” So if we do talk about mystery, we would do well not take our musings too seriously.
And yet there is something so compelling about a mystery …
1. 1951a, The Mystery of Being, vol.1, Reflection and Mystery. Translated by G. S. Fraser. London: The Harvill Press.