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Right-wing Existentialists

Creative Fidelity

by Gabriel Marcel, translated, with an Introduction, by Robert Rosthal
Farrar, Straus, 61 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Daniel: Dialogues on Realization

by Martin Buber, translated, with an Introduction by Maurice Friedman
Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 144 pp., $4.00

In our tradition, philosophy is commonly regarded as an attempt, however fatuous, to “explain” the nature of things. Such a view is illusory. Every great historical philosophy, at its inception, has been first of all a protest against the way things are. And the deeper, the more “metaphysical,” a philosophy, the more radical its protest and the more sweeping, if also paradoxical, its demand for change. Nor is this generalization any the less true because some philosophers, such as Plato, have believed that the only effectual change which men can make is a transformation of their way of looking at the world. The situation is no different now; only the perspectives of legitimacy—or “common sense”—and hence the direction of philosophical alienation, have shifted. For two and a half millenia, the controlling popular culture remained overwhelmingly sacerdotal, at once authoritarian and sentimental, incurably prone to allegory, myth, and supernaturalism. Throughout this period, accordingly, philosophy constantly served as a stalking-horse for “reason” and “enlightenment” and as broodmare to the sciences, preening itself at the same time as a foundational super-science in its own right. Now, however, that it has become evident even to generals of the army that the controlling activity of the human mind is positive science and science itself the paragon of reason, not only the philosophical defense—or “explication”—of science, but even its advocacy of the autonomous intellectual authority of reason, have become works of purest supererogation. On the contrary, the primary human problem for the once incurably autistic animal is to persuade himself that he is more than a datum, an object of inquiry, a material for technological manipulation.

As one might guess, therefore, existentialism, which is our own agonized philosophy of protest (and hence, one is tempted to add, our only authentic philosophy), makes its first pitch with a flat, unargumentative, self-assertive repudiation of the “objective,” neuter image of man which a scientific methodology and world-view appear to entail. Says the existentialist (and at this stage it matters little whether one is talking of “religious” exisentialists like Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel or “atheistic” ones like Jean-Paul Sartre), “If I am, or am to be, an object, a process, a pure phenomenon, then ‘I’ am a fraud. And if scientific thought thus requires me to regard ‘myself’ as a fraud, then science is not a boon to mankind but a curse, and its product, enlightenment, is an evil.” For existentialism the great task is the defense of subjectivity.

Obviously, such a philosophy is prone to eccentricity and obscurantism. It is also guilty of an obvious fallacy: clearly it does not follow from the fact that a man is, or treats himself as, an “object” for certain purposes that he must regard himself only as an object. Never mind; the existentialists may at least claim the qualities of their faults. For here, make no mistake, is a philosophy with a philosophical point to make. And here is a charter of philosophical as well as spiritual freedom. How agreeable to find philosophers who decline to serve as front-runners for the existing order—any order. How attractive are philosophers who believe they have something of their own to do and to be something not usurped by the scientist, the linguist, the psychiatrist, or the social-worker. Of course what the existentialists have to offer is worthless as a theory about what there is; but then so are Genesis and the Bill of Rights. Who cares? If existentialism has nothing to tell us about human behavior, then neither do the behavioral sciences add one quarter-inch to our sense of ourselves as individuals and persons. To each its own.

In the stereotyped rationalistic senses of the terms, the drift of existentialist thought is not recognizably “metaphysical” or “ontological,” although its use of such expressions, along with “being” and “existence,” is both habitual and unrepentant. But neither, if we remain within the middle ranges of such concepts as “the ethical” or “the moral,” can one properly characterize existentialism simply as a disguised moral philosophy, although problems of personal relations are of fundamental concern to most existentialists, and although the point of existentialist remarks, like that of moral discourse, is largely determinative rather than descriptive. In the wide sense in which Mr. Norman Podhoretz has lately urged us to think of “imaginative literature,” the existentialists’ writings have an interest akin to that of imaginative literature. Nor is it an accident that the existentialists have often employed (with varying success) the novel, the play, the dialogue, and the dithyramb in presenting their ideas. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that existentialism is “literary philosophy.” And the classification of the works of the existentialists under the rubric of “imaginative literature” would be quite misleading if imaginative literature were conceived in purely “aesthetic” terms. The existentialists insist on their sovereign right to the use of the golden words “truth” and “knowledge,” though the truth and knowledge they afford is more like that of a revelation than a factual description. For us, his readers, the existentialist proves himself as a philosopher mainly by his power to guide us toward those acts of self-scrutiny, self-mastery, and self-transcendence that Socrates regarded as the essence of philosophical activity.

In this connection it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the most enigmatic, as well as the most interesting, of linguistic philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, also viewed philosophy not as a theory but as an activity. Many of his successors have regarded philosophical activity as a kind of semantical therapy. But the linguistic philosophers seek only to remove those mental kinks induced by other philosophers’ misinterpretations and misuses of words. They would bring us back to common sense by helping us to see through the interminable arguments and the insoluble verbal puzzles of traditional philosophy. The existentialist’s therapy has a deeper aim. Here again the comparison with Socrates is more apt. For the concern of the existentialist, like that of Socrates, can be grasped finally only as religious. For both, the clarification of thought is always ancillary to the redemption of men.

In the case of the “atheistic” or (if we may be permitted a useful analogy to the nineteenth-century Hegelians) “left wing” existentialists like Nietzsche and Sartre, their religious intention appears most obviously in their obsession with “the death of God.” It appears also in their febrile efforts to find in personal relations, in sex, in artistic creation, in social revolution, or, summarily, in “the resistance” sources of individual renewal, dedication, and faith. It may be seen, above all, in their incessant harping upon first and last things, upon life and death, upon the conditions of our sense of the significance of being.

More traditionally religious or (to continue the analogy) “right wing” existentialists such as Kierkegaard and, in our time, Marcel and Buber, are often harshly critical of the Inauthentic “religious” practices of the historical “church” (or synagogue). Nevertheless, they usually manage (in Buber’s phrase) to maintain some sort of “dialogical” relationship with it. For them the Bible still has the status of a holy book, and the word “God” is still available as a holy and proper name. And when they speak of their God it is as if to a living person. Whether they fancy the person in question to be a kind of substance that exists “up there,” rather than merely “down here” with the rest of us, is of quite secondary importance; the point is rather that while they may despair of themselves in relation to him, they do not, like the atheistic existentialists, altogether despair of him. “He,” if only a figure of speech, does not entirely stick in their throats.

On the right wing, Buber is of course by far the most celebrated of Jewish existentialists, and Marcel, if not perhaps so preeminent in his own kind, has the most independent mind among Catholic existentialists. Quite apart from their underlying religious conservatism, both writers have much in common. For one thing, their philosophical backgrounds are similar: both were influenced by the post-Kantian transcendentalism and idealism that dominated philosophical thinking during the greater parts of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. (Marcel, curiously, has been influenced by the American idealists Royce and Hocking.) Yet both have broken decisively with idealism, and especially with the “objective” pan-logism of Hegel which Kierkegaard so bitterly parodied. Both Marcel and Buber are not only antirationalists, but also indifferent, or hostile, to science itself. In their view the intellectual discursus essential to scientific analysis is, as it was for Bergson, inimical to the metaphysical and religious sense. Like Sartre, both Marcel and Buber have experimented with literary genres other than the essay and the treatise. Yet, unlike him, neither of them is truly a man of letters. And although both of them conceive the basic mode of significant human existence in “dialogical” (and hence dramatic) terms, the fact, is that unlike Sartre, who is instinctively and authentically a dramatist, Marcel and Buber have essentially undramatic, meditative minds. It is no accident that Marcel, in explicit contrast to Sartre, regards the concept of being as more fundamental to his “ontology” than that of acting. Even more than Buber, he is imbued with a vein of mysticism that disposes him to brood, somewhat vegetatively, over the “ontological mystery.”

Most of these traits are in evidence in the books here under review. In Marcel’s case we have to do with two works of widely different dates; the first, Creative Fidelity, being an important collection of lectures and essays first published in France in the first year of the Second World War, the second, The Existential Background of Human Dignity, containing the William James Lectures which Marcel delivered at Harvard in 1961-2. There are inevitably some differences in tone, emphasis, and quality between these works. The first, superbly translated by Professor Rosthal, provides, along with the fine Metaphysical Journal, perhaps the best introduction to Marcel’s philosophy, and one finds there his so-called “concrete approaches” to philosophical questions, the ever-recurrent themes of faith and belief, fidelity and infidelity, “incarnate being” and “ontological mystery,” and, finally, the distinctive note of a convert to Catholic Christianity who, at the same time, seeks a way to reconcile his new orthodoxy with his wish for tolerance, for fellowship and peace. The Existential Background covers much of the same ground, although the “convert” is less in evidence, and the tendency to digress is even more pronounced. In fact this book is perhaps best viewed as an old, occasionally weary, philosopher’s own retrospective show of his life’s work, including his works for the theater.

In both works, Marcel makes a great point of the non-systematic character of his thought. He has only distaste for philosophies which profess to “build a system” or to “construct (or reconstruct) a conceptual scheme” of things. Of his own work he speaks on the contrary as of a mole-like “digging,” or as a “drilling” whose aim is to uncover, not only the meaning of a form of words like “my experience” (the concepts that interest Marcel belong largely, as one might guess, to what the English quaintly call “the language of psychology”), but the poignancy of the form of life which such a phrase, in use, characteristically reflects. However, his “concrete approach” is not to be confused with a style of writing like Santayana’s or Bacon’s which, regardless of its subject matter or method, is always richly figured; rather it is the product of an apparently instinctive conviction that significant philosophical reflection should always address itself to an ever deeper, more extensive probing of what is involved in our thinking and feeling about particular predicaments which confront us in our own lives. Other philosophers have employed imaginative experiments in order to illustrate some general principle or theory in ethics, say, or theory of knowledge. Marcel on the contrary means never really to range from the experiment, although in the process of his thinking about it it may (and should) gradually come to appear in a very different light. Here precisely is the whole point of his “approach,” for the sort of “understanding” that Marcel craves is not speculative but, in a practical sense, creative. Marcel has said that he prefers to be known as a “neo-Socratic” rather than as a Christian existentialist. I am not sure that the point of the remark has been fully understood. At any rate, I take him to mean by this not simply that his thinking, like a dialogue, is forever unfinished (on this score the same can be true of scientific system building) but rather that what he, like Socrates, is after is not a doctrine but self-awareness and self-transcendence.

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