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Against Ideology: Gabriel Marcel’s Philosophy of Vocation
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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...

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