The Distinction between Problem and Mystery (Marcel)

The Distinction between Problem and Mystery (from Existentialist Thought: Gabriel Marcel, by Ronald Grimsley, 1955, Cardiff 1967)

To raise the question of Being is to reveal the limitations of all pure ‘problems’. A problem is in some way outside us, something apart from our intimate experience and something towards which we adopt a merely impersonal attitude. Hence it can become an object of general knowledge and public inquiry. As ‘ob-jective’ a problem confronts me in the manner of an obstacle which has to be overcome. In scientific investigation it seems possible to make a clear-cut distinction between the subject which interrogates and the object which is being examined, between what is in me and what is before me. In this way a problem emerges as something definite and specific and of a fixed pattern. This is revealed through the way in which we believe that a given problem may be resolved in terms of a ‘solution’ which can be tested and verified in experience. There is a ‘universal reason’ or ‘thought in general’ capable of laying down certain conditions necessary for the acceptance of any particular solution as valid. When those conditions have been satisfactorily fulfilled, we say that the solution has been ‘verified’. It is normal to suppose that such verification is carried out by a mind of a ‘depersonalized subject’ and that one investigator ought to be able to reach exactly the same conclusion as another. This is an essential condition for the establishment of any kind of objective knowledge, the search for which always entails, says Gabriel Marcel, a certain form of concupiscence by which the world is brought to myself and compelled to submit to a set of techniques considered suitable for dominating it.

As soon as we begin to inquire about Being we are faced by a different situation. Whereas the objective problem is conveniently located in a region which is apart from us, questions about Being immediately make us realize that in some intimate and perhaps perplexing way we are implicated in it from the very outset. In fact I cannot separate the question: What is Being? from the further question: Who or what am I? Whenever I interrogate Being I also have to ask: Who am I who ask this question concerning Being? Since questions concerning the totality of Being always involve my own existence and since questions about myself also involve an interrogation of Being, we are forced to admit the insufficiency of the distinction between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ as it emerges in questions concerning limited aspects of the physical world and man in his natural aspects. The conventional distinction must be transcended. It is this general consideration which prevents Marcel from speaking of the ‘problem’ of Being. We are here dealing not with a problem but with a ‘mystery’.

The ‘mystery’ of Being brings us to the region of the ‘metaproblematical’ where it is necessary ‘to transcend the opposition of a subject which would affirm Being and of Being which is affirmed by this subject’. The very antithesis involved in the subject-object relationship is only possible, in the first place, through the existence of a ‘metaproblematical’ sphere which gives priority to Being over knowledge. A cognition is always enveloped by Being and therefore in some sense ‘within’ Being. A mere theory of knowledge and an epistemological distinction between subject and object can never account for the full depth of a mystery which springs directly from Being itself. A mystery is really a ‘problem which encroaches upon its own data’ – and therefore ‘transcends itself as problem’. In whichever way the polarity of the questioner and the object of his question be conceived in the case of a mystery, we are forced to recognize the existence of a kind of reciprocal penetration of the inquiring self and the ontological reality to which it is related. This interpenetration makes it quite impossible to reduce the question to the level of those usually treated in terms of rational categories.