Printer Friendly

Against ideology: Gabriel Marcel's philosophy of vocation.

The twentieth century saw the rise of multiple ideological frameworks, each claiming to provide authoritative answers to the questions of human life. These ideologies ranged from the horrors of fascism to the banality of consumerism; they filled the past century with varying and incompatible solutions to life and its questions. In the midst of these competing "isms," Gabriel Marcel set out on his own search for questions and answers. In so doing, he rejected the ideological systems he encountered and sought instead to come to a concrete understanding of the human as person. This philosophical endeavor grounded his beliefs, his style of writing, and the questions that interested him. Marcel tried to come to an understanding of what a person is meant to do with his or her life, and the intimacy of this question led him to explore the concept of vocation as a guide to the life of the individual.

Vocation offers a personalist perspective on human life that emphasizes the intersubjective reality of each person. For Marcel, vocation opens us up to the reality that the human person is homo viator, a pilgrim and wayfarer. Ideologies cannot speak to this reality because they objectify the individual in a closed system of functionality. To be homo viator is to be in relation to the transcendent while living in the immanent world, a stance that emerges from a sense of having been called. More accurately, persons experience many callings that form the vocation of homo viator. To understand the concept of vocation, this article will first examine Marcel's critique of the accounts of life offered by ideological thinking, creating an understanding of his style and approach to philosophy. By exploring what Marcel rejected, I hope to clarify and investigate his approach to vocation. This can best be done by examining Marcel's book Homo Viator: An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Hope (1952), on the basis of which I will explore Marcel's description of captivity, journey, and vocation. Marcel rejects objectifying ideologies because they serve as an abstract means of understanding human life, and he moves to an understanding of the individual person as a self on a journey. This journey begins when the person responds to his or her interior vocation to selfhood, while seeing vocation as intimately related to the callings of others, and as originating from the transcendent call of the Absolute Thou.

Ideologies and Systems: The False Abstractions of "Objective" Thought

Gabriel Marcel lived in a century and a cultural milieu in which he could not ignore the force of ideological thinking that had left untold millions dead and that permeated all areas of culture, politics, and economics. Marcel opposed the spirit of these ideologies because he came to see that ideologues fail to take the human person and his or her relation to the transcendent as the focus of their reflection. The key flaw of ideologues is their denial of the truly personal in that they are systematic, objectivizing, and reductive.

Marcel thought that ideology obscured a proper understanding of the human person through its failure to grasp the phenomenon of mystery, reducing mysteries to mere problems. Clarifying the distinction between these two concepts--mystery and problem--was foundational to Gabriel's philosophy of vocation as well as to his rejection of ideology. For Marcel, the human person meets both problems and mysteries in life. A problem is something that exists separately from me. The self is not personally involved in the problem nor does it implicate the being or vocation of the self. Kenneth Gallagher explains that like an object, "a pro-blema is something which is thrown in my path, something which is met along the way." (1) In this sense, the problem lies separate from me as a thing to be grasped and used and is open to various general solutions. These solutions merely require technique, which breaks down the problem into component parts to create generalities. Finally, technique-based problem solving does not involve myself qua self. In fact, the goal with problems is to find a solution that can be repeated anywhere, at any time, by anyone.

Mysteries are questions from which the "I" cannot separate itself. Marcel explains that a mystery "is a problem that encroaches on its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem." (2) A person cannot contemplate the question without contemplating himself or herself, being implicated in both the question and the answer. In this sense, to detach myself from the issue is to fail to actually approach the mystery. One must engage in the question with the knowledge that the answer changes my sense of self. This means that one is not looking for the right technique to find a solution. I am not something to be solved and neither are other people. I am a mystery to be lived and contemplated and others are presences to be encountered. Mysteries break down the barrier between self and otherness. Mysteries are "a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and its initial validity." (3) Mystery opens the person to the question that lies before them. For a person to ask what humans are meant to do is to ask what the self is meant to do.

Ideological systems are predicated on the denial of mysteries, turning the world into an environment of problems. In such a formulation the truly personal is lost, and with it any true meaning to the word vocation. Marcel maintained the mystery of the human person as central to our understanding. This means that reducing all understanding to the purely abstract is untenable. People are not abstract; they are concrete beings in a particular place and time. Marcel writes of the general trend of philosophy: "A gravely erroneous conception of philosophy ... has helped to strike it with barrenness; this erroneous conception consists in imagining that the philosopher as such ought not concern himself with passing events, that his job on the contrary is to give laws in a timeless realm, and to consider contemporary occurrences with the same indifference with which a stroller through a wood considers the bustling of an ant hill." (4) The goal of the philosopher should be to focus on the mystery of being in all its aspects. To systematize is to devolve into the merely problematic. For Marcel, abstract ideological thought "is in play whenever the conceptual structures of a person's thought begin to dominate the person who is doing the thinking." (5) In such a process, persons become problems to be solved either on a collectivist level (Marxism, Fascism) or an individualist level (consumerism, behaviorism). This reduction allows systematic thought to create the impression of having the format to solve all problems. However, because systematic thought eliminates the mysterious and therefore the personal, it cannot offer an adequate explanation for the self.

Ideologies, then, work on a reductive framework that eliminates aspects of personhood that do not fit their framework. Persons are reduced to only one aspect of their being. They become an economic problem, a racial problem, a psychological problem, or a career problem. Marcel writes, "As soon as we accord to any category, isolated from all other categories, an arbitrary primacy, we are victims of the spirit of abstraction." (6) To be human is to face all of these problems and yet to be greater than their sum. In an ideological or abstract conceptualization, the mystery of the self is eliminated, thereby obscuring the conditions in which "I become conscious of myself as a person." (7) To approach reality as a system is to rid the self of its personhood by abstracting the self from the situation in which it finds itself. The systematic approach is a way not only of stepping back from but of stepping out of the self and my concrete situation as an incarnated person. This may create a more functional world, but it reduces the person to an object.

By reducing the world to mere functionality, the ideologue objectifies others and the self. This is the flaw of supposedly "objective" truths. Marcel did not reject objective truths; however, he argued that they pose particular difficulties. This is not a form of subjectivism; rather, for Marcel, subjectivity also has a proper realm. John O'Malley explains the connection between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity. He writes of a certain false attitude toward truth.
   Its keynote is insularity. The "insularization" of the subject of
   inquiry can have drastic consequences where the person is in
   question. It can issue either in extreme objectivism or, and this
   correlatively, in an extreme subjectivism. If it issues in
   objectivism, experience is purged of its personal savour and,
   consequently, of the presence of anything that might irreducibly be
   termed person.... If it issues in subjectivism, the self is either
   imprisoned fast in solipsistic solitude or it divides into an
   absolute and concrete ego, between which it is difficult to forge
   any real and lasting links. (8)

For Marcel, there is a realm of truth between or above the objective and subjective and it is in this realm that we avoid insularity.

The universal is not objective; it is intersubjective. It exists in the shared space that connects persons. Marcel powerfully claims, "What is real is I myself, meditating about the destiny of my brother." (9) The real does depend on the self's subjective perception of it; it is universal because subjectivity cannot be detached from those with whom the self exists. Ideology cannot offer access to the intersubjectivity of universal truth, and a philosophy that is not based on a sense of shared humanity cannot speak truthfully to us of the universal. Thomas Michaud explains that "Universal truth expresses a non-contingent reality which bears transcendent significance. But achieving such a truth is an ongoing task which is performed under the sign of fraternity, of community. In other words, to participate in this task, it is necessary to recognize and assimilate such universal values as fidelity (loyalty), charity and especially hope." (10) Such a process is a lived philosophy that "cannot constitute a closed system" because it "passes beyond it in every direction." (11) The universal as intersubjectivity lies in the realm of mystery, not problem. It exists in the concrete reality of the connections that exist between persons.

One possible objection to the claim that Marcel's personalism overcomes the problem of ideology is the charge that his Christian commitment is a form of ideology. At the very least, it seems to provide a systematic account of the world and time. Marcel was a convert to the Catholic Church, but he did not consider Christianity to be an ideology. He did not directly address the matter of whether Christianity was an ideology; however, Christianity as a nonideology is implicit in his description of the nature of ideology. Christianity upholds mystery, transcendence, the person, and the communion of persons. In so doing, it strikes a stance radically opposed to both hard and soft ideologies.

In Creative Fidelity, Marcel describes the difference between opinion, conviction, and belief. Opinions and convictions are held in the realm of the problematic; belief in the mysterious. The key difference is between conviction and belief. Conviction can be understood as a kind of belief, but it is a belief that states, "I believe that." Belief in the fuller sense is to say, "I believe in." This dynamic is personal inasmuch as I do not merely believe in a collection of ideas or precepts. Rather, "belief in" is "belief in thou." Marcel explains it as a kind of extension of credit. He writes, using the term X to designate the person believed in, "I am in no way separable from that which I place at the disposal of this X.... Actually, the credit is, in a way, myself. I lend myself to X." (12) This giving of oneself in the action of belief applies to my intersubjective relationship with others. But beyond my connection with human persons, it applies to the relationship of the believers who in the act of faith give themselves to God. While Christianity has an important creedal element, it is essentially a relationship of credo in unum Deum. Furthermore, the God whom Christians believe in is not a deistic one. For a Christian to believe is to believe in the person of Christ and to believe in the communion of persons that is the Trinity.

However, despite the importance of transcendence, mystery, personalism, a hermeneutic of belief in, and the nonreducibility of the sign of Christianity, there is still the threat that Christianity can devolve into an ideological stance. I would term such a devolution christianism. This may take many forms, such as certain strains of evangelical thought, dogmatic integralism, or arid forms of scholasticism. The very existence of christianism indicates that a falling away or corruption has occurred, and such a stance is likely to be hostile to philosophy. An ideological fall is a threat to any school of thought that allows itself to descend into systematizing or objectifying thought. Just as the philosopher must constantly undermine abstractions in the name of the real, so too the believer must defend his or her faith against the ever-present possibility of reducing belief into various christianisms.

The Rejection of Ideological "Final Solutions" in Philosophy and Literature

In his writing, Marcel addresses the horrors of totalitarian ideologies. The worst of these horrors was the Nazi Final Solution that used the philosophical elimination of the personhood of Jews as the justification for the program of genocide in which the regime engaged. The concept of a "final solution" is worthy of examination. (13) Final solutions are the goals of all ideologies. Ideologues view the world as an environment of problems; therefore, all that is needed is the grand technique to solve these problems. The search for a final solution influences the overall approach to the mysteries of life, and the structure and style of such an approach is determined by underlying ideological commitments. Marcel was attentive to this issue and therefore in the style of philosophy he cultivated, he developed modes of writing that enabled him to remain open to the mysteries of human life.

Marcel incorporated the denial of a final solution as a goal in his reflections on philosophy. He writes, "A philosophy worthy of the name ought to attach itself to a given concrete situation in order to grasp what the situation implies." (14) Marcel's philosophy moves back and forth from concrete example to reflection. He describes his musings as "a series of mediations, in their essence dramatic or to be more exact musical." (15) His writings are like a musical piece that states its original theme in the form of an example, then improvises, restates, and returns to this theme.

As a consequence, Marcel's writing took on a meditative or even journal-like approach. Thomas Michaud writes of Marcel's philosophy that it "is 'essentially itinerant.' To be-in-truth is an ongoing task, and therefore the communication of truth is possible only as an 'itinerant narrative.' Truth is revealed and shared as a type of story, or better, a drama, which however has no definite end. The dramatic scenes can individually and even collectively express truths but can never communicate the final, whole truth. What it means to be-in-truth is constantly evolving as one's dispositional values of charity, fidelity, and hope continue to mature." (16) Michaud's explanation opens the meaning and style of Marcel's writing. Marcel not only avoids giving a systematic explanation of truth and value, he refuses to do so. Philosophy for Marcel is "an aid to discovery rather than a matter of strict demonstration." (17) Marcelian structure has a closer resemblance to itinerant life, as it is lived, than to systematic approaches.

Life is experienced as both a linear and nonlinear process. Persons move forward in time but are constantly cycling back in the recollecting action of memory that informs their present and guides their future. For Marcel, the idea of a final solution is a betrayal of the timeliness of life. The human person is (as has been noted) homo viator, a pilgrim on the way. This way is a kind of wandering, but with direction. It is a mystery to us in this life because a person can only partially understand the past and cannot know the course and destination of his or her future. Marcel's philosophy--and style--is a forward-moving endeavor that folds back on itself in a process of reflection that ascends to truth without trying to conquer it.

Marcel uses instances from life to form a part of the drama or narrative of each of our lives. The individual does not experience the world as the unfolding of ideas but rather as a kind of self-created and self-forming narrative. Marcel criticized a philosophy of abstract ideas that seem "precisely to miss what is irreducible in the human drama and the very fact that all human life develops in the manner of a drama." (18) This is why literature can open up meaning. Life is lived and understood as drama and story, and so it's easy to see why literature emerges from human experience. Marcel's examples are like short stories. Literature can speak to philosophy because literature can speak to life.

This is especially true of the novel. Marcel explains the novelist's ability to represent the universal as expressed in the concrete. He writes, "The novelist communicates directly to us something which ordinary conditions of life condemn us merely to glance at.... It is through the novelist's power of creation that we can get our best glimpse of what lies behind and under the reverberatory power of facts." (19) For Marcel, the novelist, dramatist, and philosopher have a shared mission of revealing the universal in the concrete. This process is one that has no final solution; rather, it opens one to a journey with no fully known destination.

Marcel on Homo Viator: The Beginning of the Journey

We have seen that ideologies cannot speak to personalist questions, and this is especially true of the mystery of vocation. Ideologies fail to speak to the essential questions that lie at the core of the human person and are at the center of a subject's lived experience. What am I to do with myself? What should I do with this life that I have and that I am? Ideologies offer a response to these questions only in the context of a closed system, which proposes the right technique to solve the problem of the individual's career and thereby offers a final solution to the self's life. Such a technique is not personal but an "objective" systematization of selfhood and vocation, because it does not hinge on the qualities of a person. Rather, ideologies focus on the position of the individual within the objective system of functions. Ideologies claim to offer final solutions to these questions; however, they have no final solution that can replace the vocation of selfhood. Life is a kind of drama or narrative; it unfolds not as a series of postulates but as a journey that the self undertakes in communion with others.

Marcel begins his work Homo Viator with the claim that man must be "acutely conscious that his condition is that of a traveler." (20) In the context of Marcel's Christian personalism, this is a nonideological journey because its destination is one literarily beyond and therefore not limited to a closed system. The ideologue seeks to construct a final solution employing techniques in the immanent world. However, even within immanence the ideologue misunderstands reality, for the self does not experience life as having a final destination. This can be recognized by the simple experience that time does not stop in my life. Each day is followed by another, which requires new responses to the world and to others.

Marcel begins his explanation of the personal journey with his elucidation of the "not-at-homeness," that is the first step of the journey. The origin of these experiences lies in ontological exigencies. Marcel articulates our not-at-homeness in various ways depending on the perspective taken in his essays. Sometimes he refers to metaphysical uneasiness; at other times he refers to the perception of a broken world, or he speaks of ontological exigencies. In Homo Viator, he begins his account of the journey with a description of captivity.

The captivity Marcel describes is one in which the self feels restrained from a kind of fullness of life. Marcel explains, "I would consider myself a captive if I found myself ... pledged by external constraint," which involves "restrictions of every kind touching my personal actions." (21) These restrictions may allow freedom of movement but they prevent a "rising to a certain fullness of life." (22) This feeling of restricted access to the fullness of life may take on differing forms. However, experience indicates that all persons share this drive for fullness, even if it is expressed in different ways. It is the beginning of various movements outside of captivity. Many of these movements toward fullness are self-defeating. Ideologies offer collective techniques to fill the emptiness that captivity traps us in; however, they misunderstand or distort the personal mystery of a subject's desire for fullness. Technique cannot solve a metaphysical uneasiness because these ideologies do not speak to the uniqueness of the self.

This perception of captivity is the beginning of a person's openness to the other, to vocation, and to transcendence. Marcel writes, "All captivity partakes of the nature of alienation.... In tearing me out of myself, it gives me an opportunity of realizing far more acutely than I should have done without it, the nature of that lost integrity which I now long to regain." (23) The realization that the self has not achieved the fullness of life is the core of our alienation. In discovering that the self is alienated from fullness, a person becomes able to respond to the call of fullness. However, it is possible to smother the perception of being confined. It is also possible to misinterpret this alienation and see it as a drive for various false stances towards life, for example, Marxism, Fascism, consumerism, and so forth, each of which offers its own counterfeit of fullness by focusing on one specific aspect of human life while ignoring others. It becomes clear upon this reflection that ideologies misinterpret and obscure our captivity, and also offer false solutions when this metaphysical uneasiness is recognized. On the other hand, when the self listens to its exigencies, it can begin the journey that makes the self a homo viator. By becoming homo viator, the self is able to open itself up to its vocation.

Marcel on Vocation

Vocation is a term that rarely comes up in philosophical discourse. Even in Marcel's writings, the concept is rarely thematic; however, it is essential for an understanding of Marcel. Marcel attempts to respond to the failure of ideologies to answer the personalist question, "What am I to do with my life?" He proposes the vocations of human life as part of the answer. It flows through his writing and ideas like a theme in a musical piece, essential even if understated. Marcel explores the three interrelated types of vocation: the interior call, the callings of others, and the summons of the transcendent.

Vocation is often thought of as a term to describe one's career. For Marcel, the term means far more than just what job one selects; vocation is at the center of the personhood of each individual. In fact, one cannot understand what it means to be human without considering vocation. Marcel notes that part of the uniqueness of human beings is their potential to either fulfill their vocation or to fall short of it.

Marcel explains that the human condition can be explained in two different ways, arguing that "the human condition" is "a certain vital and spiritual order which we cannot violate without exposing ourselves to the loss not only of our equilibrium, but even of our integrity." (24) The second sense that Marcel cites is simply that of human nature. Marcel writes that "a characteristic of man's condition in the second sense is that he is able to fall short of his condition in the first sense." (25) Each individual is able to fulfill his or her vital or spiritual condition and therefore to fulfill his or her nature. Conversely, anyone can fall short of this fullness of their humanity. It should be noted that despite the possibility of falling short of the fullness of our human calling, in no sense can we speak of people losing their humanity. We are each on a journey. Since none of us has achieved a final solution, none of us can negate our own or anyone else's humanity. Here Emmanuel Mounier, a leading personalist, offers an insight into vocation, namely, that it maintains the "significance of every person such that he is irreplaceable in the position he occupies in the world of persons." (26) No one can negate this irreplaceability of the vocation of each person.

In what sense can a person fall short of the spiritual or vital condition? Marcel argues that there is the potential for both fullness and emptiness in the human person. For Marcel, fullness and emptiness are key philosophical concepts that people experience. Personhood is a matter of fullness or striving for fullness, and self-awareness is required for personal fullness. Marcel writes that the self must become aware of the conditions under which "I become conscious of myself as a person." (27) Full personhood is not a given. Brian Treanor explains that for Marcel "'Being human' is a vocation rather than a nature, it is in a responding to the call ... that we become fully human." (28) This is the vocation of being human. It is not something that is merely a priori; rather, the self must achieve the vocation it is given.

Vocation is the call to the person to become fully himself or herself; it is his or her personality. Personhood is what marks humans as more than just organisms. The self is called inasmuch as a person is summoned to become a subject. To quote Marcel, "Personality is vocation." (29) Marcel explains that this "is true if we restore its true value to the term vocation, which is in reality a call, or more precisely the response to a call.... It depends, in fact, on me whether the call is recognized as a call." (30) Marcel is indicating the devaluation of the term vocation into mere occupation or job, recognizing instead that vocation is personality only inasmuch as it is truly a call. Vocation is both subjective in that it is unique to the individual person and intersubjective in that it is a response to something that comes to us from outside and above. However, the self can ignore this call and in so doing attempt to negate it, as is dramatized, for instance, in the biblical story of the prophet Jonah. Marcel compares vocation to the creative process of an artist. It has both a subjective or internal aspect but also corresponds to some exterior demand or gift. He explains, "That which is essential in the creator is the act by which he places himself at the disposal of something which, no doubt in one sense depends upon him for existence, but which at the same time appears to him to be beyond what he is and what he judged himself capable of drawing directly and immediately from himself." (31) The act of creation depends on the human creator and yet, in some sense, transcends or passes beyond the limits of self. It is not as simple as a dense or isolated self-creating itself ex nihilo. The artist creates from the materials given, in response to a preconscious intuition of self, and in response to an exterior calling.

It may be helpful to explore the difference between Marcel's understanding of vocation and Sartre's exclusive emphasis on authenticity. Both thinkers were concerned with how the individual becomes a subject in the fullest way. The difference can be seen with respect to the self-creation of the subject. For Sartre, the self creates himself or herself separate from any calling of transcendence or of the other. Rather, the self carves itself into an essence that works as a model for all other persons. Sartre states, "The first effect of existentialism is to make every man conscious of what he is, and to make him solely responsible for his own existence" (emphasis mine). (32) Sartre's understanding of the human person is nonvocational because there is only the demand of the self as judge of the self-creation.

For Marcel, selfhood is profoundly vocational because it is not merely a response to my abstract idea of who "I" am. Rather, it is a response to a call that is both inward and exterior. Vocation is not a problem to be worked out like a career or job application. The self cannot be detached from the principle of vocation because a person cannot detach himself or herself from the question of vocation. To think of a calling is to think of "I myself" and what it is that "I" am called to. Mystery is the beginning of a realization that the barrier between the self and the world is porous. The data of vocation invades the self because it is both a part of the self and exterior to the self. Personhood cannot be thought of in isolation from alterity, because this negates the sense of tension within vocation. Vocation is the seat of my selfhood and yet it cannot be detached from the call of others. For Sartre, authenticity to one's self-created self is the key to ethics, but for Marcel, such an approach leads to a solipsistic subjectivity. The tension of the called life is essential to the drama of Marcel's philosophy.

This tension is due to the call of authenticity and the countervailing call of the other. For Marcel, authenticity is essential, but it cannot be a rigid attachment to a set model that the self has established at any one point. Moreover, vocational understanding of the human person defies any kind of final solution. To be called is not a solitary event but an unfolding drama of self-creation in response to interior exigencies and exterior summonses. Marcel sought to avoid both the errors of the objectivity of ideologies and the subjectivity of Sartre, and he therefore rejects an objective standard of personhood. He writes, "The more totally an action involves the personality of the agent, the more it is of the nature of a vocation, and the more it is unique by its essence so that there can be no question of the agent repeating it or of others imitating it from the outside." (33) Marcelian personalism refuses to negate or reduce the nonrepeatability of each person. Clearly peoples' lives are similar and overlap. And, there are universal values that when violated obscure the personhood of the violator. Despite these similarities and shared ethical standards, no person can be said to inhabit the personal vocation of the other.

Who then can judge the authenticity of vocation? Marcel argues that the person can, but only to a limited extent. Marcel again compares vocation to the artistic action: "Only the artist himself can know whether he has responded to the inner call or whether on the contrary he has remained deaf to it." (34) However, the individual cannot fully know this. "He can only know this to a certain degree." (35) There is no set pattern or technique for human life and because of this, one person cannot judge another person without potentially violating the truth of the other's vocation.

It may seem at this point that vocation is merely a matter of living authentically by my own interior calling, but this is not what Marcel means. Authenticity is inadequate as a standard because it does not encapsulate vocation and the call of the other. However, authenticity as a guide does offer protection against the distortions of ideologies, which would seek to apply objective techniques that reduce the individuality of the person. The other provides a counterbalance to the authentic interior call--for Marcel, the self cannot be thought of in isolation from others. Marcel writes of vocation that "strange as it may seem, in this matter it is true to say that it [vocation] comes both from me and from outside me at one and the same time; or rather, in it we become aware of that most intimate connection between what comes from me and what comes from outside, a connection which is nourishing or constructive and cannot be relinquished without the ego wasting away and tending towards death." (36) How can this be? How can it be said that there is an intimate connection between what is within me and what is without? This is the case because vocation is a philosophical mystery. A vocation of selfhood is not isolated from the constant calling of others, and therefore a person's intersubjectivity underlies their subjectivity. A person does not build himself or herself in isolation; identity is influenced by the call of those with whom we live in community.

The person's vocation is thus a multitude of callings, which vary in importance depending on the presence of the respective other in my life. Family, friends, religious order, spouse, children, coworkers, and others form a horizon of subjects establishing a multivocal vocation for the person. In Creative Fidelity, Marcel explains, "I must somehow make room for the other in myself; if I am completely absorbed in myself, concentrated on my sensations, feelings, anxieties, it will obviously be impossible for me to receive, to incorporate in myself, the message of the other." (37) The failure to incarnate the call of the other in the self is both an ethical failing and a personal one. A person must make room for the call of the other in order to truly become a self.

This openness to the call of the other is a form of disponibilite, a term that Marcel uses and translates in several different ways. He explains it as openness or availability in that it refers to the way the subject is open to the call of the other. Marcel also explains it as "handiness." By this term, he means that the available person has resources at hand for the other. This should not be reduced to mere financial resources. In fact, persons must make their very selves available for the other; the available self is permeable to the other. The available self becomes open to a giving and receiving that is essential for personhood. If the self negates the message of the other, the self will fail to reach fullness, keeping the person captive in the ego.

Marcel was driven by a concern to explain the conditions under which persons become fully who they are. While this clearly requires an authentic response to my interior call, this interior call is balanced and enriched by the invocation of others. Marcel introduces the word "responsibility" to this dynamic. He writes, "I claim to be a person in so far as I assume responsibility for what I do and what I say.... I am conjointly responsible both to myself and to everyone else, and that conjunction is precisely characteristic of an engagement of the person, that is the mark proper to the person." (38) The engagement Marcel speaks of is the disponibilite to the call of the other that is essential to personhood.

Persons can only establish themselves as persons when they open themselves to others. Vocation is intersubjective because the self cannot reach fulfillment while reducing vocation to an inner call. In fact, as Marcel explains, the interior call and the exterior callings of others flow into each other in a manner that defies clear boundaries. This is the meaning of the truth that "my" life is not "my" own. Marcel explains that "the best part of my personality does not belong to me. I am in no sense the owner, only the trustee." (39) The meaning of this will be drawn out further as this essay explores the relation of vocation and the transcendent. For now, it is important to see that a person's personality, as vocation, is connected to, and in fact dependent on, the call of the other. This requires a constant balance between the interior calling and the alterity of the call of others. The danger of mere authenticity is that I will become trapped in a solipsistic subjectivity that negates the other and therefore renders me incapable of offering either justice or love to those I encounter.

However, there is another threat to vocation related to the otherness. Vocation can be obscured by obsession with the appearance of the self in the eyes of the beholder. There is a danger of becoming a poseur (impostor), one who constantly play-acts for the other. The poseur presents a mask that forms an impermeable wall between persons, but the poseur does not truly encounter the other. By acting for the other, the poseur appears to hear the call of the other but in the end is only acting for the masks presented by others. Marcel explains, "I form my own idea of him and, strangely enough, this idea can become a substitute for the real person, a shadow to which I shall come to refer my acts and words ... to pose is always to pose before oneself." (40) To lose the balance between the interior call and the exterior callings is to fall into two related failings. In one, I ignore the call of the other and therefore cannot achieve the personhood that is dependent on responsibility. In the other, I obsess over the image I present and so replace the other with shadows. In both cases, the person does not achieve the fullness of personhood because the self is lost when true engagement with others is neglected.

Marcel and the Transcendent Vocation

Thus far this article has examined vocation as an interior call and a multivocal summons from the others. There is yet a third aspect: the vocational relationship with the transcendent. Our human exigencies are what begin our movement toward the transcendent. This is part of the reason ideologies fail us, for they negate or reduce the transcendent. Vocation is the positive calling that moves us along the way. It is not a solitary or single call but a set of unfolding callings. For Marcel, each aspect of our vocation is related to the call of the Absolute Thou.

How does the transcendent fit into a discussion of vocation? First, in a mystery that predates even the self's own ability to recollect, the Absolute Thou calls the person into being. The original vocation of the self is its creation. The self cannot separate its interior call ing from God; God calls the self, and God's exterior call and the person's interior calling interpenetrate. Here, Marcel's philosophy reaches the limits of language and knowledge, and opens itself to Christian revelation.

Marcel rhetorically asks, "How can we help seeing that personality is not to be conceived of apart from the act by which it creates itself, yet at the same time this creation depends in some way upon a superior order?" (41) The superior order Marcel speaks of is the transcendent. The individual self is the artist of his or her own personality, but this artwork is a response to the inspiration of the transcendent, which acts as a preconscious guide for the person. Marcel emphasizes that vocation depends on "the transcendent character ... of the standards to which the true man ... must conform his life." (42) The transcendent standards of our vocation are not abstract rules but a relationship with the Absolute Thou. Therefore, for the person to respond to his or her vocation is the beginning of a relationship with the Absolute Thou.

For Marcel, the experience of transcendent vocation begins with the experience of ontological exigency. He describes this experience as "not so much an absorbing into oneself of something as a straining oneself towards something as when ... we attempt to get a distinct perception of some far off noise." (43) In different eras this straining has been muffled or ignored; however, it is especially true in contemporary times in which ideologies seek to immantize and objectivize all experience that we might be rendered partially deaf to our vocation. Treanor writes, "The ontological exigence, the need for transcendence, is linked to a certain dissatisfaction. ... Without a feeling that something is amiss, without the feeling of dissatisfaction, ontological exigence withers." (44) This dissatisfaction is the foundation for our search for something higher, above, and beyond. Marcel elaborates, "The exigency of God is simply the exigence of transcendence disclosing its true face." (45) The term Absolute Thou serves to remind the reader that the transcendent is not impersonal; God is a Thou engaged with creation. The call of the Absolute Thou is in one sense in the same order as the call of other subjects. It is the call of a person to whom one must become available (disponibilite).

At this point, we can look at vocation in its two most common usages. The first is religious, usually Catholic, and it refers broadly to vocations of holy orders, religious life, married life, and the single life. The second way it is often used is in reference to one's chosen career. The language of religious vocations does properly orient vocation to the call of the Absolute Thou, even though this usage tends to simplify the concept by limiting it to a few established paths. Vocation as career can be more pernicious. It can indicate a closed ideology that sees only the utility of what one does in one's life. This closed ideology may take the form of communism or capitalism but in either garb it treats the person as only a producer and consumer.

This is not to say that one's career is irrelevant to vocation. Vocation includes career while surpassing it. One's career or careers should flow from one's interior call and the call of others. For many people, career is a primary expression of vocation. Robert Adams elucidates that a vocation is "to be a certain kind of person--and, in the closest connection with that, to pursue certain projects which, in his view, are partially constitutive of selfhood." (46) A vocation is lived out in the pursuit of certain projects such as one's career. The call of selfhood flows into the self's projects and returns to the source as a way of self-formation. The creation of the self occurs in the context of a journey; the steps the self takes flow from its personality but in turn form the self's personality, especially when these projects respond to the summons of others.

Threats to Vocation

Clearly, there is no shortage of threats to the vocation of personhood. Each person faces these threats and no one person wholly overcomes them. These may take such forms as addiction, indisponsibilite, playing the poseur, and so forth. I wish to address three possible obstructions broadly understood: historical, circumstantial, and ideo logical. In the end, we will find that these are not all truly threats to vocation.

As the vocation of personhood exists within the horizon of an individual's existence, the historical obstructions have to do with the limitations imposed by one's specific place and time. A person is always someone in some particular place and time. For instance, a medieval peasant existed in a smaller horizon of possibilities than some people experience in the United States in the twenty-first century. The medieval peasant could not have had a vocation to be a computer specialist because no such position existed in that time. Conversely, an individual in the twenty-first century cannot live as a medieval serf. While historical obstruction does place a certain limit on vocation, it is not a threat to it. Though it may narrow one's possible vocation, it does so only inasmuch as being human inherently requires spatial and temporal limitations.

Circumstantial obstructions involve situations that arise in a person's life that obstruct the ability of a person to pursue a calling. For instance, a person may feel called to missionary life but be faced with serious illness. This is often seen in the tragedy of an early death, which cuts short the vocational life of a person. Once again this is not a threat to a vocation truly lived. A vocation is never abstract but intimately related to the concrete actuality of life, and as such is subject to greater and lesser degrees of realization. Since our inner vocation is connected to the summons of others, we cannot ignore the responsibility we owe them. We must be handy to the others in our lives. Additionally, persons suffering and dying can live their vocation. While they may not be able to pursue their career, they can still fulfill their personality by the way they handle their suffering. Part of the mystery of suffering is that it can offer the opportunity to heroically live one's personhood.

Finally, there are ideological obstructions to one's vocation. These are true threats, and exist in two forms. The first is the threat of an exterior ideology assaulting the ability to live out a vocation. Examples of this are sadly too numerous--concentration camps, gulags, secret police, thought control, and genocide--and here in the twentieth century one is struck by the reality of this threat. Part of the inhuman reality of these examples of ideological violence is that they have and continue to stifle the vocations of so many. Nevertheless, even in such circumstances, people have been able to rise to heroic heights by living the vocation of resistance, which we see in examples as various as Jean-Paul Sartre and St. Maxmillian Kolbe. By virtue of their detrimental effects, these threats of external ideology offer a way to judge the justice of various regimes: Do they foster or negate the vocations of persons within the society?

The second form--the internal threat of ideology--is the most pernicious because in adopting an ideological stance, individuals may stifle their ability to respond to their vocations. This recalls my earlier reflection that all people are faced with the possibility of slipping into ideology, which is why we must take a stance of vocational openness to life. Comparing the Nazi and the victim of genocide, for instance, the Nazi's vocational life is destroyed in a way that is not true for the victim of genocide. The Nazi has corrupted himself from within, whereas the victim of genocide maintains his personhood in the face of horror. These internal threats are especially pernicious in the ideologies of commercialism and scientific humanism, which offer a softer face than the horrors of Nazism but can still subvert the vocation of person by reducing us to consumers or organisms in an environment.

Since vocation is fundamentally a response to the callings of life, in a sense no external force can fully obscure one's vocation. The balance of interior calling and the summons of others and the Absolute other establish the creative tension that can still be lived by the person in a limited historical situation, suffering from cancer, or under threat by a secret police. In the end, the only real threat to personhood comes from the failure of persons to be disponsibile to their vocation and the summons of others. Individuals are compelled to respond to adverse situations and by embracing their vocation, despite such obstacles, are able to transcend tragedy and, in a sense, redeem their vocational lives.


If anything, the twentieth century was a time that demanded an authentic anthropology, a way of beginning to understand the human person. Gabriel Marcel saw this as the center of his philosophical vocation. He responded to the ideological constructs of his time by naming the falsity of objectifying thought and opened a path to a more personalist stance toward life. Marcel sought in his philosophy to open his readers to the reality of their stance of homo viator. He recognized that his beliefs were not a final solution that could be mapped onto the lives of each person. Rather, he hoped to offer insights to his readers and in so doing help people to realize their vocation to selfhood. Marcel did this primarily through his personalist philosophy of intersubjective vocation. In a sense, he acted as a voice calling his readers to their authentic vocation. Philosophy for Marcel was a summoning to a disponsibilite that opens us to our vocation, the summons of others, and the calling of the Absolute Thou. His work is a meditation on the destiny of his brothers and sisters that sought to open us all to the reality of the vocation of personhood.


(1.) Kenneth T. Gallagher, The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (NewYork: Fordham University Press, 1962), 31.

(2.) Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. Manya Harami (NewYork: The Citadel Press, 1968), 19.

(3.) Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery f Being: Reflection and Mystery, trans. G. S. Frasier (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 1950), 2ii.

(4.) Ibid., 36.

(5.) Boyd Blundel, "Creative Fidelity: Gabriel Marcel's Influence on Paul Ricoeur," Between Suspicion and Empathy: Paul Ricoeur's Unstable Equilibrium, ed. Andrzej Wiercinksi (Toronto, Ontario: Hermeneutic Press, 2003), 90.

(6.) Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, trans. G. S. Frasier (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2008), 116.

(7.) Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator: An Introduction to a Metaphysics of Hope, trans. Emma Crawfurd and Paul Seaton (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2010), 12.

(8.) John B. O'Malley, The Fellowship of Being: An Essay on the Concept of Person in the Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (The Hague, NL: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), 8-9.

(9.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 145.

(10.) Thomas A. Michaud, "Introduction: Gabriel Marcel and the Postmodern World," Bulletin de la Societe Americaine de Philosophie de Langue Francaise (Vol. VII, i--2, 5--29), 19.

(11.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 145.

(12.) Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity, trans. Merold Westphal (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 134.

(13.) I hope to examine this term as an expression detached from the Holocaust itself. I recognize the inherent risk of such an approach. However, I believe that the philosophical concept of a "final solution" in part creates the possibility of launching the great evil that was the Holocaust of the Jews.

(14.) Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 37.

(15.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 1.

(16.) Michaud, "Gabriel Marcel and the Postmodern World," 23.

(17.) Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 2.

(18.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 4.

(19.) Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 66.

(20.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 1.

(21.) Ibid., 24.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Ibid., 25.

(24.) Ibid., 48.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Emmanuel Mournier, Personalism, trans. Philip Mairet (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 41.

(27.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 12.

(28.) Brian Treanor, Aspects of Alterity: Levinas, Marcel, and the Contemporary Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 79.

(29.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 17.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid., 19.

(32.) Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, trans. Carol Macomber (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 2007), 23.

(33.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 98.

(34.) Ibid., 123.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Ibid., 17.

(37.) Marcel, Creative Fidelity, 88.

(38.) Marcel, Homo Viator, 15.

(39.) Ibid., 14.

(40.) Ibid., 12.

(41.) Ibid., 10.

(42.) Ibid., 3.

(43.) Marcel, The Mystery of Being: Reflection and Mystery, 47.

(44.) Treanor, Aspects of Alterity, 59.

(45.) Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being: Volume II: Faith and Reality, trans. G. S. Fraser (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2001), 3.

(46.) Robert Adams, "Vocation," Faith and Philosophy 4 (October 1987), 454.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sweeney, Terence
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Previous Article:The mouth of a labyrinth: beauty's invitation to a new violence.
Next Article:Preface.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters