Weeks 23-24 March 22 – April 5 , 2013
Gabriel Marcel: Man Against Mass Society
In the 18 and 19 centuries, there was a distinct Anglo-speaking philosophical
tradition (analytic) that was not concerned with philosophy in non-Anglo countries. Nietzsche
and Marcel were writing in different traditions (Germany and France): continental (European)
philosophy in the early 20 century. Nietzsche's influence was strongly felt, especially by E.
Husserl and his phenomenology. Continental philosophy describes existentialism and
phenomenology as inseparable and everything in modern continental philosophy stems from
it. Marcel was an existentialist, but didn't want to call himself that. He was a lower profile
Existentialism is the philosophy of existence, and of human existence in particular.
They ask questions about the existence of something. What does it mean to be a human
being (in the most fundamental sense)? What is the human condition?
Existentialism began before Nietzsche by a Christian believer/philosopher Soren
Kierkegaard. Marcel is also a Christian existentialist. All existentialists reading Nietzsche and
Kierkegaard (more Nietzsche) ask the same questions. These questions are necessary to ask
Phenomenology is a method of enquiry. It means to describe your lived experience of
something in painstaking detail while trying to bracket as much of your assumptions as
possible (like Descartes tried to do). Nietzsche, Husserl, and Marcel thinks it is impossible to
bracket ourselves (remember Nietzsche's perspectivism).
All knowledge is interpretation and is limited by certain points of view. So, the method
is to describe what you perceive (the object of your conscience) – the things we perceive,
imagine, dream, and remember, but still while trying to bracket yourself and let the
phenomena shoe itself to you.
Marcel was born in Paris. His mother died when he was 4 years old so he was raised
by his aunt and father. He didn't enjoy school until he studied philosophy. In 1910 he received
his doctorate in philosophy. His own views were first influenced by German idealism, then
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (but more Kierkegaard). He read Nietzsche and wanted to take
his philosophy further and in a different direction.
Marcel lived through both World Wars. In World War 1, he worked for the French Red
Cross. He married and adopted a son. His wife died in 1947.
He taught philosophy in highschools, but was mainly a drama critic. He published many
works of drama as well as philosophy.
He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1939, so he is classified as a Christian
existentialist. He rejected the title “existentialist” because it was coined by Sartre and Marcel
had many differences in philosophy.
Marcel wanted his philosophy to being with concrete, ordinary, lived experience, not
abstractions. The point of philosophy is to try to understand human experience, working up nd th
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from life to thought, then down to life again. Like Dewey, we begin with practice, ask
theoretical questions to create theories to have a better handle on experience.
He critiques philosophical approaches that idolize abstractions. When your head's in
the clouds you lose connection with the world of ordinary human experience. Philosophers
are prisoners of their own abstractions. They have the tendency to invent ideas and become
too enamoured in them. We lose ourselves in the realm of ideas and forget to bring them
back down. Marcel is a critic of many other philosophies of his time.
Man Against Mass Society (1952)
This book was written in immediate aftermath of World War 2, where life could end at
any time. The Nazis could come and take control at any moment. Marcel's thoughts in this
book begin in World War 2. For example, at the beginning of chapter 3 Marcel talks about the
contemporary sense of disquiet and unease.
Marcel saw his philosophical role as a cultural physician. He was pessimistic of the
modern world, partly due to the context of World War 2, but it is much more than that. What's
happening to human beings in the modern world is a deeply rooted crisis. Marcel sees it as a
metaphysical/existentialist crisis of meaning. Nietzsche saw it as nihilism – no more sense of
“scared”. Most existentialists agree.
The crisis is also invisible for the most part. It is not in the headlines and we are not
directly confronted with it. We have to go deeper to see the crisis, but we can see the outward
symptoms. Marcel wants to find the problem, not just the symptoms. Marcel agrees that the
problem is nihilism, but Nietzsche doesn't give a solution.
Themes in Part One
The Spirit of Abstraction
Marcel is in opposition to the spirit of abstraction (ideas, theories). These are not
particular objects, but are categorized into one item (many pieces of paper are summarized
into “essay”). Marcel warned about the abstractions we're thinking in and the spirit of
abstraction – the tendency of philosophers to get lost in the realm of abstractions and to think
that a category or idea has more being than actual objects. This is not just in philosophy, but
in 20 century culture. It begins with the Greeks (Plato's forms in which reality is second to
forms, or Aristotle's belief that what's ultimately real is essences). We should not aware more
reality or importance to abstractions than the real world, especially since abstractions are just
a product of the human mind.
Marcel has a horror of abstraction worship and of violence. He thinks the two are
connected. For example, an abstraction is “the enemy” in war. In order to kill people, we must
make soldiers stop seeing the enemy soldier as a human being, but as “the enemy”. It
dehumanizes them and takes away their individuality. It makes them into a thing, not a
person. This is only made possible by the spirit of abstraction. There is a necessary
connection between violence and the spirit of abstraction.
This is not an innocent or amusing thing. It is dangerous to become separated from the
Problems and Mysteries
Marcel makes the distinction between a problem and a mystery. Dewey said that all
thinking is problem solving. But Marcel says that thinking is a lot more than problem solving, nd th
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especially in existentialism when questions have no solutions. For example, how do we think
about human mortality? There is no solution to mortality, but we still have to think about it.
Death is a mystery that demands to be thought about, especially as you come closer to
it, unless you don't want to live an examined life. It's not a problem because it doesn't have a
solution, so it's a mystery. Similarly, evil is not a problem and does not have a solution. It's a
part of us and belongs to our condition just like love and friendship. It's a mystery.
A problem is something outside of us; an obstacle in our walking path. We stand to a
problem as subject to object. When we encounter a problem, we think to solve it. But life,
death, friendship, love, evil, history demand to be thought about, but don't have a solution.
They are a part of us and our being, not disembodied. When we are thinking of a mystery
we're not trying to solve a problem (we can't eradicate the evil inside us), instead we learn to
cope with it. A mystery isn't something unknowable, but unsolvable.
“What, then, is a mystery? In contrast to the world of the problematic which, I repeat, is
wholly apart from me and in front of me, the world of mystery is a place where I find myself
committed, and, I would add, not partially committed, not committed in regard to some
determinate and specialized aspect of myself, but committed as a whole man in o far as I
achieve a unity which, for that matter, by its very definition, can never be grasped in itself,
grasped as something apart from me; this unity is not an object of knowledge but of my
creative impulse and my faith. As soon as we postulate the notion of mystery, we abolish that
frontier between what lies in the self and what lies before the self, a frontier which, as we saw
just now, could be thrust back or restored to a former position, but without ever ceasing to
reconstitute itself at every moment of reflection” (67-68). A mystery is within me and requires I
impose some meaning.
The notion of a mystery is religious one and Marcel is a religious believer but knows he
can't just rely on religious belief in philosophy. He should try to bracket his religious beliefs in
philosophy. He can't just take over religious ideas, he has to present the notion of a mystery in
a more secular way. He uses examples and a somewhat new definition of mystery. Usually,
we think of mysteries as something we don't know yet (as is often said in science and
technology). A mystery is not specifically a religious notion and should not be taken to mean
what's not known yet, but what can not be known ever.
Mysteries (death, love, etc.) are not solvable problems in themselves. We can solve
related problems (like disease and pain) but not the problem itself. For example, some forms
or instances of suffering may be solvable, but suffering is a part of the human condition.
Profound suffering happens to everyone sooner or later. It is not a problem, it defines human
existence. Similarly, love can lead to problems, but overall it is a mystery.
Modern culture doesn't have the tools to think about mysteries intelligently. Philosophy
in its highest form should address these urgent questions. But God is dead and religious
belief is in decline. Marcel wants to end religious superstition, but we need a way to think
about these questions. When science and technology dominate, we can only think about
things as problems. It flattens out mysteries and deprives them of meaning. The human
condition is to search for understanding and what things mean, but we no longer have the
tools to understand mysteries. Instead we try to find solutions, but that's impossible.
No tools for understanding mysteries means we can't reflect. We search for experts to
solve our suffering (like psychotherapists). Suffering is a part of our condition, so we have to
find the meaning in it. This is the direction reflection should take. Love is a life-transforming,
important experience that demands to be thought about – what does it mean? Evil is a part of
the human condition, not a problem. Nothing can be done about it, it's part of us. nd th
Weeks 23-24 March 22 – April 5 , 2013
A problem is something I stand to at arm's length, subject to object, confront it outside
of us. A mystery is a part of my being. There is no space between me and what demands to
be thought about.
When we convert a mystery to a problem, we flatten it out, then wonder why we can't
find a solution. We should cope with it, find some meaning in it, but we can not fix it. There is
no method, we work without one when we find meaning and ask big questions (which makes
this kinds of philosophy hard). No one can do this for you. You must find the meaning in your
own life, which is difficult because we don't have the tools to do so anymore, which makes it
unanswerable. If we can't think about it, we end up with no meaning in our lives. We need to
get back a sense of mystery.
Marcel's concept of freedom in the modern world is partly-time bound (post WW2
France). Marcel has deeper, larger worries about commitment to freedom. Freedom is the
most important political value, and is under threat.
Human freedom by the mid 20 century is in deep trouble. The basic problem is that
freedom is eroding slowly without us seeing it. Deeper threats are invisible. We take freedom
for granted and other competing political values (like equality and security) begin to replace it.
There is a tension between freedom and equality. The pursuit of socio-economic
equality (lthe welfare state) undermines freedom and vice versa. Government's pursue
equality more and more, so left-of-centre (socialist-ish) becomes the dominant political
philosophy, meaning that freedom comes second. We care more about equality than freedom
when making decisions. Similarly, governments are more and more concerned with security
(economic, national, energy, etc.).
Security in ancient times came from religion. If you appease God, God will provide for
you. Now that religion is receding, we search for a new source of security to fill the void. We
expect the State to deliver security in all its forms. For example, we expect economic security.
In our economy, no one is economically irreplaceable. Economic insecurity is a part of life.
Yet, if a government allows unemployment rate to become too high, we kick them out and
vote someone else in. We also expect national security, but no matter how big a country's
military, they are never absolutely secure nationally. Energy security reflects how we need
energy, but governments attach the word “security” to it to make it sound more important. We
have a quest for security, but the State can't provide it. The human condition is to be insecure.
Terrible misfortune can befall anyone at anytime.
We have these illusions that security is possible or that freedom is always there.
Freedom is not something we can take for granted. For example, after 9/11 there was the
“Patriot Act” which involved wire tapping, surveillance, and gave new powers to the police,
military, and government. It was introduced as a temporary measure, but it's still around today
and it compromises human freedom by giving institutions power justified by an increase in
national security. This is a more obvious example, but smaller, less noticeable examples
happen all the time. We don't lose freedom in one fell swoop, but in small increments that are
compensated for in a gain in security, equality, etc.
Technology is Marcel's dominant concern. He is not an opponent of technology, he
thinks it is a sign of progress of human reason, but technology has downsides that we don't
notice. It cost us our freedom. We don't notice it, but it is not a small price. Technology and nd th
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science are now a worldview and we take an uncritical view of it. We think it's good because it
serves our purposes efficiently. We think new technology is better because it is more efficient.
But it comes at a high price. It costs us our freedom.
Freedom is not only an abstraction and not purely a principle. We must consider what it
takes in real terms for freedom in human existence (come up with a concrete interpretation of
what freedom is). Marcel was writing about freedom in post-WW2 France. Are we free now
that the war against Hitler is over? Not entirely. Remember that God is dead. Man is in his
death throes. Humanity faces the possibility of extinction, especially with nuclear weapons.
Humanity is jeopardized by degradation (our humanity is threatened to be taken away from
us). Marcel is trying to explain what's happening to us as a species in a larger sense (cultural
undercurrents that aren't easily noticed).
In totalitarian states (think 1984) some individuals are compelled to act against their
will. For example, they may be psychologically manipulated to confess to crimes they did not
commit because it is in the interest of the State. Or they may be forced into the military.
In the Nazi concentration camps, humans were dehumanized before they were killed
as part of the Nazi's strategy. Prisoners were forced to abuse other prisoners, which degraded
themselves in their own eyes (they violated their own conscience). Everyone has a self-
understanding (as a rational, dignified, individual). To degrade people you strip them of this