Gabriel Marcel and American Philosophy: The Religious Dimension of Experience by David W. Rodick
In Gabriel Marcel and American Philosophy, David W. Rodick investigates Gabriel Marcel's relationship to classical American philosophy—more specifically, to Josiah Royce's idealism, William James's radical empiricism, William Ernest Hocking's empiricism, and Henry G. Bugbee's experiential naturalism—to provide Marcel scholars and scholars of classical American philosophy with a fruitful perspective for understanding Marcel's thought (x, 18–19). He also seeks to capture Marcel's dynamic and concrete approach to philosophizing along with examining its "relevance to the contemporary world—a world in which philosophy, confined to the ivory tower, remains at risk of becoming somewhat of a caricature of itself" (xi). In addition, Rodick contends that "Marcel's most important legacy is his sustained commitment to unity of Christian philosophizing" (13). By Christian philosophizing, he means conducting philosophical inquiry in the spirit of "seeking truth wherever it may be—searching for insights wherever authentic intellectual experience is found" (45). Such philosophizing aims to "[reach] a level of understanding sufficiently universal to be appreciated by non-Catholics and even by non-Christians, so long as there is a commitment to what is essential" (13).
Rodick begins this monograph by briefly summarizing in chapter 1 the content to be presented in chapters 2–7. In chapter 2 Rodick characterizes Marcel as a Jamesian radical empiricist who sought to better understand the presence of l'inverifiable, the unseen and unverifiable, at the heart of our intersubjective experience (19–21). He then explains precisely why Marcel was disappointed [End Page 75] with Royce's idealism—that it could not adequately account for the possibility of our directly and immediately experiencing others, much less account for our actual unmediated encounters with them. Yet Marcel admired Royce's conception of loyalty and its practical import for how we live in the world. Marcel sought to keep the practical import of Royce's conception of loyalty, but without "the idealistic leitmotiv of Royce's thought" (28), that is, the view that there is an actual trans-empirical Absolute in which all beings are unified within one spiritual life (26–27).
In chapter 3 Rodick argues that La Métaphysique de Royce (Royce's Metaphysics) and, to a lesser extent, Marcel's 1912 article, "Les conditions dialectiques de la philosophie de l'intuition," show why Marcel went from being dissatisfied with idealism in the early 1910s to abandoning his commitment to idealism by 1915. Rodick contends that Marcel's early interest in idealism originated from his experiential recognition that our world is a broken one and that we need to be saved from the world's brokenness. He had believed that idealism could save us from that brokenness by providing us with a comforting sense of spiritual unity with others. Marcel's commitment to idealism waned, however, when he realized that the spiritual unity promised by idealism is too stifling and promises us a false sense of security. Yet even after Marcel's break with idealism in the mid-1910s, Royce's idealism still appealed to Marcel because Royce took the apparent brokenness of the world seriously and sought to overcome that brokenness by having people act to form more inclusive communities.
In chapter 4 Rodick puts Marcel in conversation with other Royce scholars by imagining how Marcel would respond to the ongoing debate over whether Royce's thought underwent major transitions throughout his career or remained the same despite the changes in its formulation. Rodick refers to these two positions as the transition thesis and the continuity thesis. Proponents of the transition thesis contend that Royce's thought underwent transitions over the course of his career. The most noticeable transition occurred with his Peircean insight of 1912. This is when Royce integrated Charles Sanders Peirce's triadic logic and semiotics into his idealism. He reconceived his idealism so that it became one in which finite human persons live and have their being in the Absolute and where their actions are signs of the Absolute, but without themselves or their actions being reducible to being merely temporary manifestations of the Absolute (60). Proponents of the continuity thesis, on the other hand, contend that the main ideas of Royce's thought were already present in his published works in the 1880s. Whatever shifts occurred in Royce's thought over the years were clarifications, revisions, and expansions of those ideas already present in his works from the 1880s. As such, these [End Page 76] shifts are not, nor should they be, regarded as transitions in Royce's thought. Rodick considers Randall Auxier to be the most prominent proponent of the continuity thesis, and he criticizes Auxier's interpretation of Royce's thought accordingly.
Rodick argues that Marcel's interpretation of Royce's idealism in Royce's Metaphysics is preferable both to the continuity thesis and to the transition thesis in that it accommodates both the continuity and the transitions in Royce's philosophy. Marcel enables us to acknowledge that Royce's idealism is a sustained attempt to understand the mystery of our existence, even as his understanding of our relationship with others and with the larger environing world underwent a few major transitions over time (63). After reading this chapter, some readers may conclude that Marcel's interpretation of Royce's idealism is not preferable either to the continuity thesis or to the transition thesis. In fact, Marcel's interpretation of Royce's idealism in Royce's Metaphysics could be read plausibly as a sophisticated version of the transition thesis.
In chapter 5 Rodick describes Hocking's influence on Marcel's thought. He addresses how Marcel's early encounter with Hocking's criticism of modern western idealism and Hocking's theory of intersubjectivity in The Meaning of God in Human Experience (1912) convinced Marcel that we directly and immediately experience other people. For both Hocking and Marcel, we exist within "a pervasive qualitative 'whole'" that "provides the aboriginal, a priori 'background-continuum' out of which experience emerges" (74). Since we reside in this whole, the thinking goes, our bodies are positioned to grant us epistemic and conative access to one another and to the non-human world (74–75). Our bodies are also the means by which we can communicate our thoughts with others and express our ideals and values to them through our actions (79–80). Furthermore, we all share the same human destiny. It is our collective destiny to learn that we are not trapped in a solipsistic existence of our own making. Rather, we are selves who can reflexively reach out beyond ourselves, appreciate our dependence on others in the social and natural world, and gradually realize that we are persons who are socially related to one another as we participate in the ground of our being, namely God (82–83).
In chapter 6 Rodick explores the similarities between Marcel and Bugbee's philosophical orientations. They both began their philosophical inquiries by carefully paying attention to their lived experiences and then exploring how those experiences disclose something universal. Many of their philosophical inquiries began with observations about concrete human experiences, but they gradually transitioned into explorations of our yearning to be more than objects in a materialistically and technologically determined world. They identified this yearning as a yearning for being, or what Marcel calls l'exigence ontologique [End Page 77] (99). They further explored how this ontological yearning ought to motivate us to become more spiritually available to one another and to the larger world (100). Marcel calls this kind of spiritual availability, disponibilité. As we become more spiritually available to others, we gradually recognize how our existence is dependent on the same spirit that sustains everything else, that is to say, being (L'Être). We also become more willing to resist the urge to transform everything into an object for our use. In addition, we become better at appreciating beings for what they are, and not for their utility (99–100). For Marcel, Bugbee, and Rodick, being spiritually available in this sense is a welcome alternative to the "vague sense of being bereft" prevalent in our modern broken world (11). Rodick also notes that Bugbee's The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form (1958) was written in a spirit and style similar to Marcel's own writings. Bugbee himself credited Marcel's Gifford Lectures, The Mystery of Being, for motivating him to write in his own voice rather than in the style of academic philosophy (99).
In chapter 7 Rodick discusses the religious dimension of Marcel's philosophy in explicitly Christian terms, describing it as a philosophical expression and exploration of several Christian theological concepts, such as faith, sin, syneidesis, and koinonia. He also translates the content of a couple of these theological concepts into secular philosophical terms in the spirit of Christian philosophizing. Rodick, for example, translates sin into secular philosophical terms when he writes: "Sin is an ontological condition […] in which a human being postulates itself as the center of existence" (107). He then briefly explains the dangers of being-in-sin in secular philosophical terms (108). Yet even his secular description of sin is dependent on a Christian understanding of sin. Rodick would need to offer non-Christians a more substantive explanation for why the Christian concept of sin refers to a universal human phenomenon before it can be regarded as an ontological feature of human existence. The same is true for the other theological concepts discussed in this chapter.
After reading Gabriel Marcel and American Philosophy, one can no longer contend that "[sketching] a picture of Marcel from the standpoint of his relationship to classical American philosophy" is "something yet to be done successfully" (xi). Rodick has done it successfully. He has also captured some of "Marcel's dynamism, concreteness, and relevance to the contemporary world" (xi) in this monograph. Unfortunately, he does not adequately explain why Christian philosophizing is Marcel's most important legacy. This is far from being a serious flaw, however. It would be unrealistic to expect a short monograph to provide readers with enough concrete illustrations of Marcel's Christian philosophizing to evaluate adequately whether "Marcel's most important legacy is his sustained commitment to unity of Christian philosophizing" [End Page 78] (13). I hope that this review will inspire readers, especially Marcel scholars and scholars of American philosophy, to read Rodick's book and be persuaded to study Marcel's relationship to classical American philosophy. The reward for doing so is worth it.