Marcel and Heidegger on the Proper Matter and Manner of Thinking

By Engelland, Chad | Philosophy Today, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Marcel and Heidegger on the Proper Matter and Manner of Thinking


Engelland, Chad, Philosophy Today


Heidegger came to France for the first time in 1955, and was welcomed into the Chateau Cerisy-la-Salle where a certain number of philosophers and students had gathered in order to benefit from his presence.

-Gabriel Marcel

Our talk does not set itself the task of winding up a fixed program. But it would like to prepare all who are participating for a gathering in which what we call the Sein des Seienden appeals to us.

-Martin Heidegger to the 1955 gathering

In everyday usage, "mystery" often signifies that which is not known even if it is in principle knowable: "I don't know-it is a mystery to me." The "to me" indicates that it is in principle knowable even though as a matter of fact (purely accidentally) it is not known. We also speak of mystery novels or detective novels where the puzzle is to be solved. The inviolable nature of this genre is that the novel ends one page after the mystery has unraveled and thereby dissolved. What we speak of as mysterious is usually superficial, being based on a lack of genuine acquaintance: "He has such a mysterious character." Implied is that he is hiding something (a secret life, an affair, a career as a super hero) which revealed would do away with the mystery even if he would still remain "complex." In this, the "to me" is still implicitly attached; he is mysterious to me, though he is not in principle mysterious. Here, mystery is but the name for the unresolved problem. We can mention, in this regard, the television program "Unsolved Mysteries," which highlights crimes and phenomena that are in need of explanation and thus dissolution as mysteries: a "solved mystery" would be a poor mystery indeed.

Our survey of this network of usage has yet to bring us to an enduring mystery, a mystery that is in principle mysterious and not accidentally so.1 Such a mystery cannot be approached apart from a consideration of the manner of thought appropriate to it, for the matter of mystery calls forth a very particular manner of thinking and this manner of thinking is what first enables the matter to show itself for what it truly is: mysterious. (Manifesting mystery as mystery does not dissolve mystery into transparent lucidity.)2 In the last century, both Gabriel Marcel and Martin Heidegger labored to carve out the proper matter and manner of thinking.3 The proper matter insofar as they struggled to free for thinking the mystery of being, that which is most worthy of thought. The proper manner insofar as they struggled to articulate the specific character of a thinking that would be adequate to this mystery.4 To this end, both engaged in an ongoing polemic with modern technology and its dominant mode of thought: problem-solving (Marcel) or calculative reasoning (Heidegger). Both thinkers sought to free thinking from a representational mode of thinking and a technical mode of problem solving by turning to the positive mystery of being, to its in principle inexhaustible wondrousness-even if their understanding of that mystery differed greatly. Marcel, thinker of the person and the concrete, understands the domain of mystery as opened in interpersonal agape; Heidegger, thinker of Dasein and then Ereignis and Lichtung, understands the domain of mystery as opened by the free (though non-personal) appropriation of being. Marcel's mystery is mysterious because of its over-fullness and consequent impossibility of being given; Heidegger's mystery is mysterious because of its withdrawing negativity and consequent impossibility of being given. We then ask: Is this a lovers' quarrel over being in which both belong to the Same5 or is there rather an essential difference between them?

Marcel on Reflection and Mystery

Mystery as the Matter of Thought

Marcel first names the mystery of being in contradistinction to the problem of being in a journal entry from 22 October 1932.6 The mysterious, enlightened emergence of this fundamental distinction frees mystery from the domain of the problematical, liberating it for thought.

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