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.

In both books, although more complexly and powerfully in the earlier work, Marcel has some fresh things to say about the hoary old problems of “mind and body” and of “other minds.” For him, both problems are completely intertwined. If I am uncertain of the reality of my body I am bound also to have doubts about the “existence” of other minds, but if I have doubts about the latter my assurance of the former will be dissipated also. For Marcel, moreover, these problems emerge not simply as logical puzzles about certain abstract conceptual’ relationships (although on that score it should be noted that he has things to say that surprisingly anticipate what some fashionable linguistic philosophers have lately been saying about them), nor even as “epistemological” perplexities about the possibility of our knowledge of “the external world”; as he views them, they become “existential” problems which, one way or another, may afflict anyone who, however gratuitously, loses his sense—I should call it his moral sense—either of his “affective unity” with his own body or of the inescapable and inviolable presence of other persons. That is to say, the individual for whom the mind-body problem is a serious one is already threatened with the loss of his own sense of identity and of personal destiny. The serious dualist is precisely one to whom the reality of his own body is as problematic as that of any other and who, accordingly, constantly has to reassure himself that he has one by running through a series of ever more complicated arguments which always leave him more skeptical than he was before.

The idealist moves one step further: he has now “translated” his body into a mere bundle of ideas or “impressions,” a notion which, as Hume long ago perceived, must leave him in the end with nary a self to do the bundling. If my body is a set of “vanishing impressions,” then so am I; and if that is all “I” am then it can make no sense to speak even of my own self-fulfillment, not to mention my duty or loyalty to anyone else. According to Marcel, it is through my concrete awareness of my body, and hence my assurance that it is my body and that it is my body, that I become, in his suggestive phrase, an “incarnate being.” Only so, however, can I matter to myself, and only so can I grasp what it means to be a living and hence mortal being.

Also like Buber, Marcel regards self-awareness and self-assurance, which at the same time involves awareness and assurance of the presence of one’s body, as a social experience. Correspondingly, the attenuation of my sense of the reality of other minds (or selves) is accompanied inevitably by an attenuation of my sense of my own selfhood. And to the extent that I conceive the bodies of other persons as mere objects that serve problematically as external signs of “private,” sealed-off experiences which I can never share, my sympathies for others gradually dry up, and, in consequence, my own incarnate being ceases “ontologically” (again I should prefer to say “morally” or “religiously”) to be. In sum, so long as “your body” means to me only “that body” or “that object,” my own body tends to mean, at most “this body” or “this object,” until, in the end, I lose all possession of myself. As Buber puts it, I am an “I” only to and in the presence of a “thou.” The distinctive Marcellean emphasis here, which may or may not have something to do with his conversion to Christianity, appears as an insistence upon the indispensability to this dialogical relationship of the incarnate reality of our bodies. Esse, says Marcel est co-esse.

Like most philosophers, and hence (I am disposed to say) Protestants, Marcel is wiser in his affirmations than in his denials. Although he does not perceive how deeply this depends upon an analytical explication and defense of the full integrity of ordinary language, Marcel rightly defends the categories of subjective thought and expression embedded in it. But he is entirely indiscriminate in his attack, which is directed not just against objectivism, but also against the indispensible forms of thought comprehended by the categories of objectivity and rationality. He fails, in fact, to see that the language of subjectivity is itself pointless and even meaningless except in a world of discourse where objective thought is also understood and respected. Subjectivism is, morally and religiously, no less perverse, or even insane, than objectivism. Like most existentialists, Marcel himself remains philosophically a provincial who lacks the many-sided culture which sympathetic study of the full range of twentieth-century philosophy affords. He speaks with respect and affection of the American idealists; had he read with equal care the American pragmatists and the English linguistic philosophers he might have discovered bases for a more durable, if abrasive, philosophical fellowship.

A second, related emphasis of Marcel’s appears in his preoccupation with problems of “fidelity.” There is no space to describe his laborious, endless mastication of the cud of human infidelity and disloyalty. One of Marcel’s masters, Royce, used to talk about “the loyalty to loyalty” as the basic ethical commitment. Whatever Royce may have intended by it, the phrase conveys just the opposite of what Marcel seems to have in view. From Marcel’s existentialist perspective, any morality of principle which demands that I act not only in accordance with but for the sake of an idea, is anathema. Fidelity to a principle, in his view, amounts not just to a sacrifice, but to a betrayal, of a “thou,” i.e., an individual person who is truly an incarnate being. In The Existential Background Marcel again returns to what is virtually his paradigm case of a problem of fidelity, a “simple example” first introduced in his book, Being and Having. This is the situation of someone who, perhaps on the spur of the moment, makes a promise to a sick person laid up with an incurable disease. Marcel’s treatment of this case is almost Proustean in the richness of its “phenomenological description” of the complex fluctuation of feeling, the trains of excuses and resolutions that might indeed occur in consequence of such a promise. As Marcel shows, the heart of such a problem is not a question of feelings, or even of “judgment,” but of decision: it is in fact (although he doesn’t see this in the metaphysical perspective it deserves, for if he did he would see that his opposition to Sartre is not as complete as he thinks) what one decides and does in such a case that finally reveals what one is. What is so characteristically Marcellean here is not just that he evidently could in good conscience betray a cause, a party, a movement, or a way of life, for a promise made impulsively to an individual person, but that he is so profoundly repelled by those who could not. Not only does he not think that love of “humanity” is a good thing; it is not for him a form of love at all. The very metaphor, if that is what it is, makes him break out into a metaphysical sweat.

Marcel’s individualistic personalism is appealing when viewed as a protest against the unconscious spreading automation of human affairs that is, or seems to be, inherent in all our modern institutions. But he does not perceive that his own point of view remains an impossible abstract ideal until it is provided with its own historical and institutional conditions of realization. It does not occur to him that a protest closely analogous to his own occasioned the breakdown, during the Reformation, of the very church to which he gives his religious loyalty. I do not, certainly, begrudge him that loyalty; I ask him only to consider whether other universalistic, impersonal, or even “totalitarian” institutions may not also serve both as forms and as guarantors of genuinely “incarnate being.” As wise old Hegel might have explained to him, Marcel’s conception of concreteness is exceedingly myopic. So also is his oddly unfunctional notion of human individuality and personality. Human life of any sort is impossible on an eyeball to eyeball basis. If Cordelia absent is still a person, although present to us only in idea, so also may be the millions that comprise “humanity” or, for that matter, the unborn multitudes that comprise “our future.” Incarnate being is where we put it, as Marcel, of all men, should realize. He excoriates what he calls “the fanaticism of the ideal.” But without ideals, there can be no such thing as fidelity, creative or otherwise.

Marcel confesses unrepentantly to being a “bourgeois,” once again perhaps in glancing rebuke to Sartre, the rationalist and Marxist, who has so often sacrificed, or betrayed, individual men to “the proletariat” or “the people.” The observation is shrewd and it is more central than he may realize. Indeed, I sometimes think that he has fabricated an “existential background” (or ontology) neither of Christian nor of human dignity, but rather of the dignity of well-to-do, middle-class “private persons” whose whole lives are (and can be) centered in intimate personal relations. It is not however an ideal which I, for one, automatically equate with “incarnate being.”

Marcel speaks rather unfeelingly of the ideal of human equality which he, like Nietzsche, seems to think of as based merely on resentment or envy. In its stead he offers an ideal of “fraternity,” such as is possible, in any concrete way, only within the institution of the family or else among friends whose independence, security, and, shall I say, affluence seem presupposed. Marcel fails to see that the moral demand for equality among men need not stem from one’s own sense of inferiority, but from a burning indignation against the forms of inferiority which social systems often gratuitously foist upon otherwise “free and equal” men. Nor does he see that “brotherhood” is hard, or impossible, where “fathers” play favorites. It is precisely because he is so determined to be a bourgeois in a world where the whole existential background of bourgeois forms of civility is disintegrating, that Marcel appears so strangely a-political and a-historical in an era of politics and history. For all his fine-grained scruples, he is in the end a rather querulous thinker who, in his old age, seems loyal mainly to his own career. How resolutely he brings his unperformed, unknown plays to our attention. And, sad to say, how little does he realize the reality of his own resentment. Oddly enough, his conception of human dignity, because it so systematically ignores the whole institutional, social context of personal life is, for me at least, increasingly bodiless and abstract, increasingly boring and even silly.

Martin Buber, on the contrary, seems rather to have improved with age. Daniel, an early work, is a somewhat windy and foggy period piece, full of romantic atmospheric effects that seem a millenium removed from the contemporary world. In fact, Buber was, in my opinion, well justified in declining for so many years to permit publication of an English translation of Daniel. Paradoxically, Buber has far less to say to the common reader when he addresses himself, as in Daniel, to the task of formulating a general philosophy of “realization” than when, as in so many later periodical works he offers his own highly independent reflections upon the concrete problems of modern Jewish life. There, for my part, is to be found the true possibilist “dreaming on things to come.”

As Buber put it in a letter quoted by Mr. Friedman, Daniel “is an early book in which there is already expressed the great duality of human life, but only in its cognitive and not yet in its communicative and existential character. This book is obviously a book of transition to a new kind of thinking and must be characterized as such.” The transition to which Buber here alludes is from a philosophy of something called “realization” to the dialogical religious philosophy for which he is best known. Formally Daniel itself is a series of five rather loosely connected “dialogues,” but it is not only in a philosophical sense that it is a “pre-dialogical” work. The perfunctory questions and remarks of Daniel’s interlocutors amount on the whole only to so many punctuation marks in what are actually five prolonged quasi-Nietzschean dithyrambs. There is to be sure a certain embryonic dialectical development of Daniel’s notion of realization, but one never feels it to be the result of a confrontation between Buber’s dramatis personae.

So far as I can determine, what Buber means by “realization” is a form of experience, which, in contrast to another called “orientation,” affords neither objective information about nor control of one’s environment, human or otherwise, but simply a more intense appreciation of whatever one happens to be faced with. However, the somewhat mystical and even oriental aestheticism of the earlier dialogues gives way by stages to a more dynamic, quasi-dialogical point of view which I find suggestive both of Hegel and of Nietzsche. It is Hegelian in its insistence that every existential unity involves a tension between opposites which cannot finally be removed. It is Hegelian also in its refusal to reject or discard anything as an unmitigated evil. On the contrary, the implication seems to be that anything at all, if only we are sufficiently aware of it, is so far a good. To me such a doctrine is wholly repugnant. There is mixed up with this a quite different attitude, reminiscent of both Nietzsche and William James, of eager, ebullient anticipation of, and readiness for, struggle which the latter once called “the moral equivalent of war.” Such a sentiment, obviously, may turn into something a good deal less admirable. In Buber, it is on the whole free of impurities, and I find it a welcome change from existentialist despair.

On balance, Marcel seems to me to have the more interesting mind, while Buber, if I may say so, is the more attractive human being. Neither is remotely a close thinker. But both are concerned with authentic philosophical problems, and each has his seeming moments of truth. And we may be grateful for their help in making more available a notion of philosophical activity which, in English-speaking countries, is too rarely entertained by academic philosophers. They must be chided for their obscurantism and for a quite unnecessary obscurity which impatient readers are all too likely to identify with existentialism itself. And while we may respect, and, indeed, respond to their impassioned protest against philosophical objectivism, in all its dispiriting forms, we need not on that account accede to their foolhardy distrust both of science and of the forms of thought of which exact science is at once a product and a perfection. The god of the philosophers may not be God himself, but the two at least remain on speaking terms.

This Issue

August 20, 1964