Primary and Secondary Reflection

The distinction between two kinds of questions—problem and mystery—brings to light two different kinds of thinking or reflection. The problematic is addressed with thinking that is detached and technical, while the mysterious is encountered in reflection that is involved, participatory and decidedly non-technical. Marcel calls these two kinds of thinking “primary” and “secondary” reflection. Primary reflection examines its object by abstraction, by analytically breaking it down into its constituent parts. It is concerned with definitions, essences and technical solutions to problems. In contrast, secondary reflection is synthetic; it unifies rather than divides. “Roughly, we can say that where primary reflection tends to dissolve the unity of experience which is first put before it, the function of secondary reflection is essentially recuperative; it reconquers that unity” (Marcel 1951a, p. 83).

In the most general sense, reflection is nothing other than attention brought to bear on something. However, different objects require ifferent kinds of reflection. In keeping with their respective application to problem and mystery, primary reflection is directed at that which is outside of me or “before me,” while secondary reflection is directed at that which is not merely before me—that is, either that which is in me, which I am, or those areas where the distinctions “in me” and “before me” tend to break down. The parallels between having and being, problem and mystery, and primary and secondary reflection are clear, each pair helping to illuminate the others.

Thus, secondary reflection is one important aspect of our access to the self. It is the properly philosophical mode of reflection because, in Marcel's view, philosophy must return to concrete situations if it is to merit the name “philosophy.” These difficult reflections are “properly philosophical” insofar as they lead to a more truthful, more intimate communication with both myself and with any other person whom these reflections include (Marcel 1951a, pp. 79-80). Secondary reflection, which recoups the unity of experience, points the way toward a fuller understanding of the participation alluded to in examples of the mysterious.

Existentialism Existentialism is a philosophical movement that rejects any predetermined role for human beings. Unlike tools, which are designed in order to fill some preconceived role (for example, a knife's preconceived role, or essence, is to cut), human beings are capable, to some extent at least, of deciding for themselves what constitutes their own essence.[17] Although they didn't use the term, the 19th-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are widely regarded as the fathers of existentialism. Their influence, however, has extended beyond existentialist thought. Two of the targets of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche's writings were the philosophical systems of Hegel and Schopenhauer respectively, which they had each admired in their youths. Kierkegaard thought Hegel ignored or excluded the inner subjective life of living human beings, while Nietzsche thought Schopenhauer's pessimism led people to live an ascetic, or self-hating, life. Kierkegaard suggested that truth is subjectivity, arguing that what is most important to a living individual are questions dealing with one's inner relationship to life.[22][23] Nietzsche proposed perspectivism, which is the view that truth depends on individual perspectives. Although Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were among his influences, the extent to which the German philosopher Martin Heidegger should be considered an existentialist is debatable. In Being and Time he presented a method of rooting philosophical explanations in human existence (Dasein) to be analysed in terms of existential categories (existentiale); and this has led many commentators to treat him as an important figure in the existentialist movement. However, in The Letter on Humanism, Heidegger explicitly rejected the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre became the best-known proponent of existentialism, exploring it not only in theoretical works such as Being and Nothingness , but also in plays and novels. Sartre, along with Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, all represented an avowedly atheistic brancssh of existentialism, which is now more closely associated with their ideas of nausea, contingency, bad faith, and the absurd than with Kierkegaard's spiritual angst. Nevertheless, the focus on the individual human being, responsible before the universe for the authenticity of his or her existence, is common to all these thinkers. Existentialism is a term that has been applied to the work of a number of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, took the human subject — not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual and his or her conditions of existence — as a starting point for philosophical thought. Existential philosophy is the "explicit conceptual manifestation of an existential attitude" that begins with a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophy, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience. Existentialism emerged as a movement in twentieth-century literature and philosophy, foreshadowed most notably by nineteenth-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche Friedrich Nietzsche though it had forerunners in earlier centuries. In the 20th century the German philosopher Martin Heidegger Martin Heidegger influenced other existentialist philosophers such as Sartre, Beauvoir Beauvoir and Camus Camus Fyodor Dostoevsky Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka Franz Kafkaalso described existential themes in their literary works. Although there are some common tendencies amongst "existentialist" thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them (most notably the divide between atheistic existentialists like Sartre and theistic existentialists like Tillich); not all of them accept the validity of the term as applied to their own work. Gabriel Marcel Gabriel Marcel , long before coining the term "existentialism", introduced important existentialist themes to a French audience in his early essay "Existence and Objectivity" (1925) and in his Metaphysical Journal (1927). A dramatist as well as a philosopher, Marcel found his philosophical starting point in a condition of metaphysical alientation; the human individual searching for harmony in a transient life. Harmony, for Marcel, was to be sought through "secondary reflection", a "dialogical" rather than "dialectical" approach to the world, characterized by "wonder and astonishment" and open to the "presence" of other people and of God rather than merely to "information" about them. For Marcel, such presence implied more than simply being there (as one thing might be in the presence of another thing); it connoted "extravagant" availability, and the willingness to put oneself at the disposal of the other. Marcel contrasted "secondary reflection" with abstract, scientific-technical "primary reflection" which he associated with the activity of the abstract Cartesian ego. For Marcel, philosophy was a concrete activity undertaken by a sensing, feeling human being incarnate — embodied — in a concrete world. Although Jean-Paul Sartre Jean-Paul Sartre adopted the term "existentialism" for his own philosophy in the 1940s, Marcel's thought has been described as "almost diametrically opposed" to that of Sartre. Unlike Sartre, Marcel was a Christian, and became a Catholic convert in 1929. French Roman Catholic existentialist philosopher, dramatist, and critic, who insisted that individuals can only be understood as embodied and involved in specific situations. In his first book, Metaphysical Journal (1927; trans. 1952), Marcel argued for a concrete philosophy that recognized that one's incarnation in a body and one's historical situation essentially condition who one is. Marcel distinguished primary reflection, which deals with objects and abstractions and reaches its highest form in science and technology, from his own method, "secondary reflection," which concerns those aspects of human existence, such as one's body and one's situation, in which one participates so completely that one cannot abstract oneself from them. Secondary reflection contemplates "mysteries" and yields a kind of truth (philosophical, moral, and religious) that cannot be scientifically verified but is confirmed insofar as it illuminates one's life. Marcel, unlike other existentialists, emphasized participation in a community rather than human isolation. He expressed these ideas not only in his books but also in his plays, which present complicated situations in which people find themselves trapped and which lead either to isolation and despair or to a fulfilling relation to other persons and to God. Myself, I remember reading one of his articles, but I never really considered him significant to my interests. So I'm afraid I can't help you more. First Part of the Essay (until paragraph 12): Why does Gabriel Marcel begin the essay by talking about reflection? What does this have to do with philosophy? What three examples of everyday instances of reflection does Marcel give? What do you think is the point of raising these examples? According to Marcel, how do some people in the present (whom he describes as “romantic”) typically view the relationship between reflection and life? What is the basis of their opinion about the relation (or lack thereof) between the two? Marcel differentiates several possible ways/contexts of using the word “life.” Why is this necessary in order for him to support his assertion that reflection is an a real part of human life? What is the difference between primary and secondary reflection? Second Part of the Essay (paragraphs 12-25): In order to understand the difference between primary and secondary reflection better, Marcel decides to illustrate it by applying it to the example of the self. He says though, that this is no just any simple example or illustration, but that it is “an actual way of access to a realm that is assuredly as near to us as can be, but that nevertheless…has been, through the influence of modern thought, set at a greater and greater distance from us.” What do you think Marcel means to say? Marcel says that the question “Who am I?” is “the question upon which, really, all the other questions hang.” What do you think this means? Marcel claims that some people feel uneasy when they fill up identification forms (think for instance of the ACET form, or making a resume, or filling up an application form). How does he describe the experience of filling up a form? Why would such an experience cause a person to be uneasy? Why would filling up a form be an example of primary reflection as applied to the self? *Related exercise to do on your own: Think back to your experiences of filling up identification forms. Try to remember what the experience was like–not just in terms of what you wrote down in the form, but rather, in terms of describing the experience itself. What were you thinking, feeling? Did you like or dislike the questions? Were you answering the questions quickly, or thinking over each question? What else do you remember?

Descartes’ Meditations could be an illustration of the views that Marcel describes as “total skepticism” and “relative/mitigated skepticism.” Why does Marcel say that these views are problematic? Marcel calls the experience of being oneself the “existential indubitable.” He describes the “I exist” as an “indissoluble unity.” What does he mean?

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