“I have said, in the first volume of my Gifford Lectures, The Mystery of Being, that we are living in a world which seems to be founded on the refusal to reflect.”1
– Gabriel Marcel
In the first part of my essay “Philosopher’s Adagio,” I focused on the relationship between reflection on the nature of eternity and existential reflection on man’s inner life. The idea is simple: Does existential reflection about the self say anything substantial about objective reality? This is a practical concern, especially in lieu of the criticism levelled against the possibility of self-knowledge by positivists who refute the self.
Postmodernity has annihilated the idea of human nature. Along with this has come the destruction of the self. Taken at face value, at least judging by the standards of scientism in postmodernity, the alleged refutation of the self is an off-shoot of scientific discovery. Yet a thoughtful approach to this question shows refutation of the self to be an example of subjectivism that prides itself on the destruction of genuine subjectivity. Marcel can enlighten us here:
“I concern myself with being only in so far as I have a more or less distinct consciousness of the underlying unity which ties me to other beings of whose reality I already have a preliminary notion.”2
One of the contentions of positivists today is that the idea of essence, as the ground of the human person, must be abolished on account of that essence effectively isolates postmodern man from the world. What does it mean to shun the world? What exactly do we mean by the “world?”
In a vague and sinister way, the world, as the basis of social/political discourse in postmodernity, has been turned into the seat of balkanization by proponents of the “all is political” mantra. This is the dominant supposition of positivism’s political wing.
One thing that can be said to expose the banal and inauthentic notion that the world is everyone’s problem is to demonstrate how this idea is imbued with the totalitarian impulse. To deny the responsibility and duty that individuals have for their own existence is tantamount to stripping man of free will. Existential reflection today finds itself at the nexus of exercising duty to oneself and sheepish, inauthentic regard for abstract social/political categories.
Subjectivism and Hyper-Rationalism
Subjectivism leaves nothing to the imagination. Imagination is a trait that belongs solely to entities endowed with subjectivity. As such, imagination is an aid for prosperous living, e.g., Socrates’ good, moral life. It is not difficult to realize that what is meant by subjectivism today is consistently confused with subjectivity. Subjectivism conceives human life to be merely biological, always at the mercy of external, environmental conditions, including the social/political.
Subjectivism employs an odd logic, if one is to be identified at all, that directs human energy into solely sensual channels. Subjectivism’s conception of man is rooted in the acceptance of animal life as constitutive of man’s biological condition, and assumes that biology is the determining factor of human existence. This is one reason why subjectivism is a form of sensualism.
Animal and vegetative life is conditioned by physical processes and limited accordingly thereby. The difference between animal life and subjectivism is that subjectivism knows itself to be other than animal life. However, subjectivism does not appropriate its own suppositions about animal life in good faith. This is one glaring definition of inauthenticity, as far as existential reflection is concerned.
On the other hand, subjectivity grounds the human person in essence through self-awareness of possibility and limitation. The latter enables man to envision the lived-experience in a manner that transcends the worldly and reactive realm of animal behavior. Imagination is only one human trait that enables man to embrace the lived-experience through existential reflection. Morality is another.
Authenticity is a condition of the human person that self-reflection seeks to attain. While man may not be able to sustain authenticity throughout life, what matters most is that authenticity augments the merely biological. We must be clear on this point: as a form of sensualism, subjectivism is not equivalent to subjectivity. While subjectivism is captivated by self-absorption – not to be confused with self-awareness – self-absorption blindly embraces a bloated form of hyper-rationalism.
It is subjectivity as existential reflection that taps into self-knowledge. In Modernity on Endless Trial, Leszek Kolakowski addresses the self-absorbed goals of subjectivism in light of hyper-rationalism in a chapter entitled “On Modernity, Barbarity, and Intellectuals”:
“Heidegger spotted the root of our descent into impersonality in the oblivion of metaphysical insight. Jaspers associated the moral and mental passivity of seemingly liberated masses with the erosion of historical self-awareness and the subsequent loss of responsible subjectivity and of the ability to base personal relations on trust. Ortega y Gasset noticed the collapse of high standards in the arts and humanities as a result of intellectuals being compelled to adjust themselves to the low tastes of the masses.”3
Homo Viator and Subjectivity
Gabriel Marcel’s conception of existential reflection and subjectivity reflect his ideas on personhood. As an existential personalist, Marcel’s thought brings to light all that has been lost of man’s essence, and what this entails for the possibility of meaning and purpose in human existence in postmodernity. He achieves this by taking on the criticism of positivists about the self.
Marcel points out that if there can be no knowledge of the self, then clearly positivists paint themselves into a corner by claiming that only objective knowledge is possible.
What is objective knowledge without existential subjects to appropriate the value of the former? Why can’t positivists have it both ways? Marcel’s contention, and that of philosophers of existence, posit that objective reality only makes sense because there is an existential agent (subjectivity) for whom objective reality is a problem. Technical know-how is a problem for man because it engages man with the physical structure of human reality. This form of knowledge is about objective reality inasmuch as knowledge of particular aspects of reality relate to man’s physical condition.
Consider that the many probes man has sent to outer space, – Voyager I and II, and the Martian rovers – are artificial intelligence that are programed to collect data. As far as Marcel is concerned, these magnificent probes help man better understand human concerns and problems, technically speaking, that man sets up for himself. This is a conspicuous truism, for the kinds of problems that man conceives set in motion the creation of the appropriate machines and artificial intelligence. There is no good reason to deny this. Man has used tools since prehistory.4
The latter validates the claims of science by relating them to man as an observer of human reality. However, postmodern man’s inebriation with science, which has turned into an altar to scientism, places the onus of discovery on scientific techniques and artificial intelligence. Where does this leave concrete man: individuals? Is this another example of postmodern man’s ominous forgetfulness? This is either blatant reductionism on the part of positivists or sophomoric naiveté. What can science signify in the absence of man as creator? Hence, to place science in a hyper-rational bubble that can allegedly support itself as knowledge is naïve at best, and tantamount to bordering on scientism, at worst. How will these concerns frame human thought and existence looking to the future? Thoughtful people understand the perils of annihilating man, free will, the capacity for self-reflection, in short, what C.S. Lewis has called the abolition of man.
Marcel thinks of science as a conduit to assuage human problems, not as technical prowess for its own sake. This is why it is important to understand the tension between technical know-how and existential reflection in the twenty first century as an unprecedented moment in human history. This is what Marcel means by homo viator.
Adagio: Life at Ease
The adagio movement in classical music is a slow temp movement that employs slight dynamic changes, particularly in comparison with the movements that precede and follow it. Adagio means at ease. Adagio movements convey profound pathos that is conducive for reflection. One reason for this is the adagio’s ability to slow down time through a person’s anticipation of what is to come.
Phenomenologically speaking, adagios are a good representation of the immediacy of the lived-experience. Adagios capture a person’s attention by briefly keeping it focused and not wandering off. This enables a person’s pathos to manifest itself, often even surprising our latent capacity to experience heightened emotions. The feeling of joy supersedes objective reality, if only for short durations of time. Yet this is enough to allow man to turn inward in a manner that puts us in communion with the self.
What the adagio does for sentiment in music, existential reflection achieves for the lived-experience by creating a measure of control over, if not separation, from objective reality. This subjective experience is unique to the human person.
But why compare the at ease tempo of an adagio movement to existential reflection? Has man ever been existentially at ease in human history? I am referring to life at ease, not life as ease.
Reflection on the human condition and man’s embodied plight throughout history makes us realize the fleeting and spurious nature of human happiness. This is one manner of thinking of human history. Another is the cyclical, existential re-creation of personhood, much like the mythical phoenix that rises from the fire.
If history is cyclical, this implies that creation and destruction is an ongoing dynamic structure of human reality: history as becoming is an appropriate description of cyclical history. This means that persons experience reality afresh from previous epochs and from each other. This does not mean that the structure of human reality is relative, only that history has many phases that individuals experience in respect to their lived-experience. In addition, the conception that individuals form about history is greatly determined by their capacity to cultivate a heighten pathos.
A cyclical conception of history understands that creation is undone by subsequent destruction; this destruction takes place generationally and individually. In turn, the destructive phases of history eclipse the possibility of understanding by future generations about the hierarchy of values.
Not surprisingly, there is a correlation between a generation’s and individual’s incapacity to cultivate existential reflection – which in itself is a form of heightened pathos – and the pace and intensity of axiological annihilation.
A cyclical conception of history puts on display the contradictory makeup of blind, rudderless becoming. To argue for a vision of history that is both linear and indicative of becoming necessitates a priori knowledge of the ends of history. The latter is not man’s purview.
Ekstasis: Existential at Ease Lived-Experience
Comparison of the at ease tempo of an adagio movement to existential reflection is fruitful, especially in lieu of ekstasis: the displacement of the lived-experience from objectification through a person’s capacity for intuitive and affective experience. This experience is expressive of the attainability of what Socrates means by the good life and the grounding in faith that genuine Christianity promises. However, a word of caution about the difference between ekstasis and the English word ecstasy is warranted.
Ekstasis is a state of joy; a form of man’s being-in-the-world. Albeit, ekstasis is a rare human emotion. It is rare because it is not a state of being that persons attain passively. That is, ekstasis demands a steady cultivation of spiritual and moral pathos that cannot be appropriated overnight, as it were. This is because ekstasis requires engagement with the inner life that shuns the easy-road to worldly pleasure. Ekstasis emphasizes a momentary separation from the mundane and worldly. This is indicative of hope, akin to Sisyphus’ capture of the brief interlude between burden, free will and renewal.
On the other hand, ecstasy conveys sensual pleasure that can be attained from external sources: drugs, alcohol, sex, social-political violence, moral degradation, etc. Ecstasy necessarily falls on the shoulders of sensualism.
Existential epiphany is an important aspect of a person’s being that encounters itself at ease through existential reflection. This entails that persons engage the lived-experience with a concept of human existence that de-emphasizes the mundane exigencies of the here-and-now. Marcel refers to this as engagement with the mystery of being.
At ease existence, like many existential categories, is indicative of a mood or attitude toward life. It is also a stoic embrace of the lived-experience. The quality of life of persons whose life is determined by an at ease perspective creates a buffer zone around itself that helps to assuage human contingencies. The at ease attitude is incompatible with an approach to life where persons lose themselves in order to gain the alleged respect of the world.
1. Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine Press, 2008), 98.
2. Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being: Faith & Reality, Volume II. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1979), 17.
3. Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1990), 11.
4. Paul Herrmann, Conquest by Man. Translated from the German by Michael Bullock. (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1954).
This is the second of two parts with part one available here.