French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) described man's place in the world in terms of such fundamental human experiences as relationships, love, fidelity, hope, and faith. His brand of existentialism was said to be largely unknown in the English-speaking world, where it was mistakenly associated with that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel's view of the human condition was that "beings" are beset by tension, contradiction and ambiguity. He was also interested in life's religious dimension and was considered the first French existentialist philosopher.
Gabriel Marcel was born in Paris on Dec. 7, 1889, the only child of a distinguished diplomat. His mother died when he was 4, and he was raised by an aunt whom his father married. Although he had little visual memory of his mother, Marcel described her continued "spiritual presence" during his youth as an important influence on his thoughts—giving rise to an awareness of the "hidden polarity between the seen and the unseen." At the age of 8 he began writing plays, and as an adult he would achieve a reputation as a playwright as well as a philosopher. Marcel's plays, which flesh out the basic issues of his philosophy, were performed in the early 1920s. Starting in his youth he also displayed a keen ability to play music—an avocation which would also influence his thinking.
Marcel received his degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1910 and married professor Jacqueline Boegner in 1919. Together they adopted a son, Jean. Marcel lived and taught for a time in Switzerland, where he began writing his Metaphysical Journal (1927). The journal reflects a movement away from traditional academic philosophy and was influenced by Sören Kirkegaard, in whom Marcel was deeply interested. In some ways, the book is overlooked in serious examinations of Marcel. Another publication from Marcel's diaries was Being and Having (1935).
During World War I Marcel was a Red Cross official whose job was obtaining news of wounded and missing soldiers and contacting their relatives. These intensely demanding encounters with people were a living source of Marcel's highly concrete and personalistic philosophy, and of his lifelong suspicion of what he called the "spirit of abstraction."
During the war Marcel wrote his thorough study of the American philosopher Josiah Royce, Royce's Metaphysics (1956), and taught at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. He taught philosophy at the University of Sens (1919-1923) and then returned to Paris, where he continued his philosophy research, wrote plays, and contributed to leading periodicals as both a philosopher and a theater critic.
Marcel's philosophy was always preoccupied with the religious dimension of life, but his upbringing had been religiously agnostic (uncertain as to whether one can really know that God exists), and he was not formally a believer. In 1929, however, an open letter from the distinguished French Catholic writer François Mauriac challenged Marcel to admit that his views suggested a belief in God. His subsequent conversion to Catholicism gave a new dimension to certain aspects of his philosophy. But he remained a strikingly independent thinker whose ideas were formed before his conversion—and as such could be regarded as important indicators of certain Godly aspects of the human experience. Marcel became a leader in French Catholic intellectual circles, and his Paris home was the locale for stimulating discussion among leading European intellectuals of all persuasions.
During World War II Marcel lived in Lyons. After the war he lectured in France and other countries. Following the war his "Christian existentialism" aroused sharp contrasts between his work and the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel was fond of improvising at the piano throughout his adult life, but it wasn't until 1945 that—with his wife's encouragement—he undertook to write formal compositions. His wife died in 1947. Marcel continued his creative endeavors, however, as well as teaching and traveling.
Late in life Marcel became associated with Moral Re-Armament, which he discussed in Fresh Hope for the World: Moral Re-Armament in Action (1960). Among his chief philosophical works are The Mystery of Being (1951); the Gifford Lectures for 1949-1950 at the University of Aberdeen; Homo Viator (1951); Man Against Mass Society (1951); Being and Having (1957); The Existential Background of Human Dignity (1963); and the William James Lectures at Harvard for 1961-1962.
At the Frankfort Book Fair in 1964, Marcel received major international recognition in the form of the German Peace Prize. He died in Paris on Oct. 8, 1973.
Marcel's essential dramatic and philosophical insights can be summarized in the difference between a problem and a mystery. He believed that once a problem is solved it is dismissed from consciousness, whereas a mystery always remains alive and interesting. Problems, Marcel believed, are resolved using "primary reflection"—which is abstract, analytical and objective. Mysteries, on the other hand, are approached with "secondary reflection," which concerns itself with deeper personal insights.
Along with Martin Buber, Marcel is one of the founders of 20th-century dialogue-oriented I-Thou philosophy.
Other philosophical writings of Gabriel Marcel include: The Philosophy of Existence (1948); The Decline of Wisdom (1955); Philosophical Fragments (1965); The Funeral Pyre (1965); Searchings (1967); Problematic Man (1967); Presence and Immortality (1967); Tragic Wisdom and Beyond; Including Conversations Between Paul Ricoeur and Gabriel Marcel (1973); and The Participant Perspective: A Gabriel Marcel Reader (published 1987).
Dramatizations include: Three Plays: (A Man of God, Ariadne,. The Votive Candle) (1965); Double Expertise (translated to English, 1985); and Fanal: Two Plays by Gabriel Marcel (translated to English, 1988).
Further information on Marcel is in Vincent Miceli, Ascent to Being: Gabriel Marcel's Philosophy of Communion (Desclee, 1965); Seymour Cain, Gabriel Marcel (Hillary House, 1963); Sam Keen, Gabriel Marcel (John Knox Press, 1967); Kenneth T. Gallagher, The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (Fordham University Press, 1962); Clyde Pax, An Existential Approach to God: A Study of Gabriel Marcel (Martinus Nijhoff, 1972); François Lapointe, Gabriel Marcel and His Critics (Garland Pub., 1977); Hilda Lazaron, Gabriel Marcel the Dramatist (Smythe, 1978); Joe McCown, Availability: Gabriel Marcel and the Phenomenology of Human Openness (Scholars Press for the American Academy of Religion, 1978); Neil Gillman, Gabriel Marcel on Religious Knowledge (University Press of America, 1980); Pietro Prini, Gabriel Marcel (Economica, 1984); Paul Arthur Schlipp and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds., The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (essays) (Open Court Publishing Co., 1984); A.J.L. Busst, ed., French Literature and the Philosophy of Consciousness: Phenomenological Essays by Ian W. Alexander (University of Wales Press, 1984); Ved Prakash Gaur, Indian Thought and Existentialism: With Special Reference to the Concept of Being in Gabriel Marcel and the Upanisads (Eastern Book Linkers, 1985); Katharine Rose Hanley, Dramatic Approaches to Creative Fidelity: A Study in the Theater and Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (University Press of America, 1987); David Applebaum, Contact and Attention: The Anatomy of Gabriel Marcel's Metaphysical Method (Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, 1987); Donald Traub, Toward a Fraternal Society A Study of Gabriel Marcel's Approach to Being, Technology and Intersubjectivity (P. Lang, 1988); Mary D. Howland, The Gift of the Other: Gabriel Marcel's Concept of Intersubjectivity in Walker Percy's Novels (Duquesne University Press, 1990); Denis P. Moran, Gabriel Marcel: Existentialist Philosopher, Dramatist, Educator (University Press of America, 1992); and Gerald Hanratty, Studies in Gnosticism in the Philosophy of Religion (Four Courts Press, 1997).
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas-Austin, maintains seven boxes of archival documentation related to Marcel. They are available to researchers.
The following are scholarly articles on Gabriel Marcel: Thomas C. Anderson, "The Nature of the Human Self According to Gabriel Marcel" Philosophy Today (Winter 1985); Joseph Godfrey, "Appraising Marcel on Hope" Philosophy Today (Fall 1987); Preston Browning, "Walker Percy and Gabriel Marcel: The Dialectical Self in The Moviegoer" Renascence (Summer 1988); Thomas Michaud, "Secondary Reflection and Marcelian Anthropology" Philosophy Today (Fall 1990); and Danne W. Polk, "Gabriel Marcel's Kinship to Ecophilosophy" Environmental Ethics (Summer 1984).