Marcel on the broken world, problems, and mysteries

Gabriel Marcel (c. 1951).jpg

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who was born and died in Paris, was one of the leading 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.

(Note. This post first appeared on this blog on April 15, 2014.)

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1 thought on “Marcel on the broken world, problems, and mysteries

  1. No Man is a Island, we are all linked together and ideas and more particularly Moods pass between us in ways ways our consciousnesses does recognize as happening!

    “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.”

    I as you, do think that something is broken. irreparably broken for a rapidly expanding Group in society, perhaps soon to be irreparable for everyone!
    Where does the problem lie and can it be fixed? I don’t think it can be fixed as it’s genesis is in the Human mind, and the mind’s propensity for self delusion; Humans want to feel that they are intelligent and important, and they can feel that, if, they have the right props as in; sufficient sycophants and money, with these tools a receptive mind can convince it’s self of anything, even the delusion they can re-engineer Nature it’s self into something that bears their trademark as the New Creator, the new Master of life!
    This Great re=engineering Experiment is happening all around us now, in plants, fish, Birds and in the Human’s minds and physiology, what will be the final outcome of the War to defeat the old ‘eternal’ Nature and supplant it with the Vision of the New God like Humans with their Money and their dreams of making the whole World their plantation and enslaving all of nature to their will!? All this turmoil because some one wants to Leave their mark for eternity to witness and thinks they can!

    “There are some scientific problems we have solved—how the species evolved—and there are unsolved problems—”

    We haven’t solved the problem, how it all began and where did it come from and of greater urgency, how long will it last? C. S. Lewis, and the writers of his time understood that Man, individually and collectively, like all the creatures that preceded him is on a Journey from creation to extinction.

    People feel they have a right to know everything so we invent myths to explain the things we don’t know and the things we can never know!
    The experiment has started, we are the Subjects in the Petri dish but also able to observe some of what is happening, so it really is an interesting time to be alive!

    Marcel’s appeal to transcendence was simply his understanding of the limit’s of His understanding and accepting that fact, no one really knows where they came from or why they are here!

    These things are happening now because now is the time when all the props are available, from a Human perspective there is a lot happening, one Groups money is going down, someone else’s Money is going up, the World is full of Atomic Weapons, social control by media has never been more effective, and without any Supernatural Beings to appeal to many Humans believe anything they are told as long as the ‘teller’ is introduced as a Scientist, Fukushima is poisoning the World at a rate of three hundred tons of radioactive water a day!
    And yet if you are lucky Life is good!

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