Discussing “On the Ontological Mystery” (1933) about our need for meaning, featuring Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan. Against the emphasis in our lives on our functions (our jobs and duties) and our technological approach to problems that stresses practical solutions, Marcel asserts that we all have an “ontological need,” which is a need for some content in our lives that is not merely accidental and contingent.
Marcel distinguishes “problems” that we’ve broken down into elements that can be analyzed and solved technologically from “mysteries” that are the problems in our lives that have not been falsified through analysis. These are more fundamental, “meta-problematical,” and required as an underlying ground for the more technical approach.
These mysteries include all the perennial philosophical problems, including what the value of life is, the mind-body relation, the problem of evil, true love, and more. For example, what is hope? Marcel says that hope is an assertion that “there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me, which cannot but will that which I will, if what I will deserves to be willed and is, in fact, willed by the whole of my being” (p. 28). So if your loved one is gravely ill, you might hope (have faith) that they will be OK, despite the data. We have a fundamental need for feelings of this sort, and if we insist on being “reasonable” in such a circumstance and merely looking objectively at the likelihood of a positive outcome, we’re missing out on something, being less than human.
The technical point of view is very valuable, but we need to understand that it’s not our originary position as human beings, but an abstraction that we engage in for particular purposes. This originary position is not merely a primitive state that the scientific worldview has overcome, but is fundamental such that we can’t even think scientifically if we weren’t also underlyingly in this less articulated position.
Though Marcel is Christian, Christianity comes up explicitly only in a small way in this essay. For instance, he places great importance to the idea of “presence,” giving the example that some people that you talk to really are present to you: It’s not just that they’re listening carefully or willing to help. Someone can do those latter things and yet still not be present to you, not really available, not making a human connection. Marcel then uses this idea of presence to talk about our relation to the dead: Having a dead loved one continue to be an active force in your life is not just about preserving a static memory of them, like a photograph. The fundamental notion of “Being With” is possible not just between people but with the dead. Clearly Marcel wants to extend this to be able to admit that God is simply “present” to a faithful believer, but he doesn’t actually use that example in the text.
Buy the book or read it online. It’s the first essay in a collection that includes (in the second essay) a specific critique of Sartre, so that makes it clear how Marcel’s existentialism is unlike Sartre’s.