Marcel and Phenomenology: Can Literature Help Philosophy?

By Sweetman, Brendan | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Marcel and Phenomenology: Can Literature Help Philosophy?


Sweetman, Brendan, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


GABRIEL Marcel (1889-1973) is widely regarded as one of the most significant Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century. He is also a convert to the Catholic faith, finding it not only spiritually but also intellectually more congenial than alternative worldviews and systems of meaning. In this article, however, I wish to focus less on the specifically Catholic dimension of Marcel's thought than on his Christian existentialist view of the human person, and on his view that literature can complement philosophy in the attempt to convey certain types of philosophical truths. I am more concerned with Marcel's view that existentialist thought must inevitably reach religious conclusions, and that in reaching these conclusions, and especially in the attempt to express one's insights, the philosopher can very profitably turn to literature for assistance with this task.

There are, in fact, two questions here that we should keep distinct. We can ask if literature can help philosophy in general, and we can ask if literature can help the Christian philosopher in particular. I am mostly interested in the latter question in these brief reflections, and this is appropriate since Marcel is a Christian philosopher at heart. The term "Christian philosopher" has several connotations, and I want to be clear about how I am using it here. In this article, by "Christian philosopher" I mean a philosopher who argues philosophically to Christian conclusions, and who then attempts to explicate the meaning of various Christian ideas, themes and experiences, such as fidelity, forgiveness, mystery and faith. I am interested in Marcel's view that literature, broadly conceived, can help in these tasks.

This is a particularly interesting question to raise with regard to Gabriel Marcel because he argues explicitly for the general inadequacy of philosophy to capture the full truths about reality. He further suggests that art, literature and music can help us to further explicate these truths. These disciplines can provide a deeper insight into certain kinds of human experiences than philosophy can. It is no accident that Marcel was a playwright as well as a philosopher, and also something of a musician. Indeed many existentialist philosophers were writers, including Sartre and Camus. They agree with Marcel that art, literature and music complement philosophy, but do not replace it.

I will begin by giving a brief overview of Marcel's main philosophical claims, emphasizing his critique of Cartesianism and his views about the limits of philosophy. Second, I will illustrate the points made in the first part by reference to some concrete cases, first from Marcel, and then from Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair. Third, I will conclude by considering an objection to Marcel's view about the limits of philosophy, and to his claim that literature can come to the assistance of philosophy.

MARCEL is usually characterized as an existentialist philosopher (sometimes as a theistic or a Christian existentialist). The term "existentialist" refers to the view that philosophical inquiry must properly begin with the concrete lived experience of the individual subject in his or her concrete situation in existence. This starting point will turn out to have important implications for human knowledge and meaning. Marcel was motivated toward existentialism by a dissatisfaction with the philosophies of Cartesianism, idealism and empiricism, and a determination to offer a realist alternative to them, by his belief that non-conceptual knowledge plays a significant role in human experience, and by his recognition of the importance of literature, art, music and other creative works for illuminating philosophical truths.

Marcel begins by rejecting the Cartesian view of the self. Descartes regards the self as a mind gazing upon a world, i.e., as a spectator of the world. (1) The assumption in Descartes's work is that if, say, I have an idea of a house, the idea is clear and distinct, a simple substance that does not imply a body and a world. …

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