Gabriel Marcel's The Mystery of Being

Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being

Gabriel marcel's The Mystery of Being is based on the Gifford Lectures which he delievered at the University of Aberdeen in 1949 and 1950. The first series of lectures is entitled "Reflection and Mystery," and the second series of lectures is entitled "Faith and Reality.".

"Volume I: Reflection and Mystery" is divided into ten chapters, which are entitled: 1) “Introduction,” 2) “A Broken World,” 3) “The Need for Transcendence,” 4) “Truth as a Value: The Intelligible Background,” 5) “Primary and Secondary Reflection: The Existential Fulcrum,” 6) “Feeling as a Mode of Participation,” 7) “Being in a Situation,” 8) “‘My Life,’” 9) “Togetherness: Identity and Depth,” and 10) “Presence as a Mystery.”

"Volume II: Faith and Reality" is divided into ten chapters, which are entitled: 1) “The Question of Being,” 2) “Existence and Being,” 3) “Ontological Exigence,” 4) “The Legitimacy of Ontology,” 5) “Opinion and Faith,” 6) “Prayer and Humility,” 7) “Freedom and Grace,” 8) “Testimony,” 9) “Death and Hope,” and 10) “Conclusion.”

Each series of lectures is outlined in the table of contents at the beginning of each volume. The text consists of explanations of the statements which are made in the table of contents. Marcel does not attempt to construct a complete philosophical system or to formulate a comprehensive set of arguments in order to describe the mystery of being. Instead, he conducts a wide-ranging inquiry into the mystery of being, and he examines all of the results of that inquiry.

According to Marcel, we live in a 'broken world.' The modern world is often in conflict with itself, and thus we have a need to transcend its disunity The need for, or exigency of, transcendence is the source of our attempts to understand the nature of our own existence. Transcendence implies going beyond the limits of ordinary experience.

Marcel explains that to transcend is not merely to go beyond the spatiotemporal limits of ordinary experience. Transcendance is also a kind of vertical ascent over the limits of ordinary experience. Transcendence (i.e. rising above ordinary limits) is opposed to immanence (i.e. remaining within ordinary limits).

Marcel also explains that the exigency of transcendence is intrinsic to human experience. Transcendence does not imply a state of being beyond all experience. To the contrary, the transcendent is capable of being experienced. If the transcendent were beyond all experience, then it could be thought or felt.

According to Marcel, truth is only a single aspect of reality, and is not the whole of reality. Truth may emerge from reality, but reality is more than truth. The fulfillment of truth, or the totality of all truths, may produce an inclusive reality. The universe may realize itself in the fulfillment of truth. However, the universe may also include things which are lacking in truth. Truth is both immanent and transcendent.

Marcel argues that truth is a value or ideal which we may strive for. Feelings may be different from logical propositions in that feelings may be neither true nor false. Judgments of value may be either true or false, but we may not be able to describe a sensation or feeling as either true or false.1

Marcel also argues that philosophic thought is reflective in that it may not onle be concerned with the nature of human existence but may also be concerned with evaluating its own mode of being concerned with the nature of human existence. Reflection may be a process of recalling or reexamining our past experiences in order to understand them. Reflection may transform experiences into concepts.

According to Marcel, primary reflection tends to break down the unity of experience, but secondary reflection tends to restore the unity of our experience. Primary reflection is an analytic process, but secondary reflection is a synthetic process. Primary and secondary reflection are on opposite sides of an existential fulcrum, in the center of which is the question: "Who or what am I?" Primary reflection may discover that "I am not who I am thought to be," but secondary reflection may discover that "I am not merely the negation of who I am thought to be." Further reflection on the question of "Who am I?" may enable each of us to recognize the importance of personal feelings and emotions in defining who we are as human beings. We may discover that who we are cannot be separated from what we feel.

Marcel argues that feeling is not merely a passive function which is made possible by sensory capability. Feeling is also a mode of active participation in the world. Active participation may be either objective or non-objective. Non-objective participation may include subjective participation. However, non-objective participation may also include intersubjective participation. Intersubjectivity (or shared subjectivity) may bring unity to our being in the world.

Marcel emphasizes that feeling is not passive, and that feeling is participation. However, participation is more than feeling. Participation is active engagement in the world.

According to Marcel, each person may have both an objective identity in the outer world and a subjective identity in the inner world of his or her own thoughts or feelings. A person's subjective identity may be a felt quality of identity which may change in accordance with changes in that person's feelings. A felt quality (or a quality of feeling) may be unanalyzable, because the quality of a person's feelings may be inseparable from the things which that person feels. A felt quality may be a unity of feeling which cannot be dissolved by primary reflection.

Marcel describes contemplation as a mode of active perception which transcends the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. Contemplation is a mode of observation which transcends the difference between the inner world and the outer world. Contemplation is also a mode of participation in the being of whatever is contemplated. Contemplation is an inward regrouping or ‘ingathering’ of mental resources. To contemplate is to gather one’s mental resources in the presence of whatever is being contemplated.

Marcel explains that the exact relation between existence and being may be indefinable. Existence and being may be inseparable insofar as anything which is perceived as being may also be perceived as existing. 2 Being is always ‘being in a situation,’ and thus is always changing. Our own mode of Being is 'being in the world.'

Marcel also explains that we may not be able to provide an objective answer to the question: “What is Being?," because we may not be able to objectively consider our own experience of being. Being may transcend any of our attempts to define it objectively. Thus, ‘intersubjectivity’ becomes an important starting point for any mode of ontological inquiry.

According to Marcel, we are part of, and thus cannot be objective about, our own existence. Existence transcends objective enquiry, and is thus a mystery. Scientific questions may be objectively answerable, and may be considered as problems for which there may be solutions. However, philosophic questions may not be objectively answerable, and may involve mysteries which are part of our own existence. Science may be concerned with problems which we can stand apart from and be objective about, but philosophy may be concerned with mysteries which we cannot stand apart from or be objective about.3

Marcel argues that the mysterious is not the same as the unknowable, and that the unknowable is only the limiting case of the problematic.4 A mystery is not an 'object' of perception, but is a 'presence' which is capable of being recognized.

Marcel also argues that mystery may reveal to us a depth of being which leads to eternity. Eternity is a mystery, and every mystery flows into eternity.5

Marcel distinguishes between faith and opinion by explaining that faith is a belief in something, while opinion is a belief which makes a claim about something. To have faith is not to believe that, but is to believe in.6 Faith may be a belief in a transcendent reality whose existence is a mystery. If we believe in something, then we place our faith in it, and thus we may be changed by faith, and faith may change our sense of our own being.

Marcel explains that faith is associated with humility and prayer. Humility is a mode of being in which an individual acknowledges his or her own imperfections. Humility is also an affirmation of the sacred.7 Prayer is a form of spiritual communication with God. Authentic prayer is not a self-centered request for attention but is a way of uniting ourselves with God.

According to marcel, freedom is the ability to act significantly. Free acts are significant because they help to make us who we are as human beings. Freedom is not merely the ability to make arbitrary choices, because we are not free if everything which we can choose to do is insignificant. Freedom is the ability to make significant choices, and is given to us by God.

Marcel's The Mystery of Being is really less concerned with being than with mystery. Marcel explains that mysteries must be explored if we are to understand our own existence, and he argues that mysteries are capable of being recognized and investigated. His lectures in The Mystery of Being have existential themes, but make a persuasive argument for religious faith.


1Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume I: Reflection and Mystery (London: The Harvill Press, 1950), p. 60.
2Volume II: Faith and Reality (London: The Harvill Press, 1951), p. 30.
3Alasdair MacIntyre, "Existentialism," in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, edited by D.J. O'Connor (New York: The Free Press, 1964), p. 522.
4Marcel, Volume I, p. 212.
5Ibid., pp. 218-9.
6Volume II, p. vi.
7Ibid., p. 86.


MacIntyre, "Existentialism," in A Critical History of Western Philosophy. Edited by D.J. O'Connor. New York: The Free Press, 1964.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being. Volume I: Reflection and Mystery. London: The Harvill Press, 1950.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being. Volume II: Faith and Reality. London: The Harvill Press, 1951.

Copyright© 2001 Alex Scott

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