Marcel’s Metaphysics of Hospitality

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Toward the end of his Mystery of Being, Volume 1, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the mysterious presence that one person has to another. This presence goes beyond mere ability to reason, perform or accomplish, but simply communicates to us a sense of value or worth. He gives an example of a sleeping child, someone who is completely vulnerable and unprotected and yet we deeply feel its valuable presence. The fact that the child is “utterly at our mercy” is what gives this presence a sense of sacredness.

From the point of view of physical activity, or at least in so far as the notion of physical activity is defined in relation to the possible grasping of things, the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred. And there can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability. This sacredness of the unprotected lies also at the roots of what we might call a metaphysics of hospitality.[1]

Though it is difficult to clearly define the mysterious presence of another human, it is intrinsic to every human interaction. Almost all of us can attest to this sense of presence in our everyday experiences with others. In fact, to disregard the sacredness of the unprotected, as Marcel says, is the most barbaric act we can possibly do. We no longer recognize the mystery of the human and seek to categorize such a being only according to what it can do or perform. The perpetrators of the Holocaust did exactly this: they no longer recognized the presence of another human, relegating them to unheard of treatments, tortures and experiments. The worst crimes in history come from this lack of recognition and this refusal to honor the sacredness of the weak.

We must ask ourselves: Who are the weak today that are being stripped of their dignity? Who are the vulnerable that are being relegated to mere objects for our own gain?

Because we often ignore the mysterious presence of the human and instead define a human based on its “efficiency and output,” we begin to overlook those whose efficiency and output is limited or even non-existent. With an emphasis on what the human can produce rather than its mysterious presence, a metaphysics of hospitality becomes absurd. Marcel writes, “. . . the more this attitude of reverence towards the guest, towards the wounded, towards the sick, will appear at first incomprehensible, and later absurd: and in fact, in the world around us, we know that this assertion of the absurdity of forbearance and generosity is taking very practical shapes.”[2]

Chilling examples of those who find this reverence incomprehensible are not only located in the Holocaust, but in our own cities. The defenselessness of a child, for example, is constantly being taken advantage of and as a result, there are those, like Dr. Gosnell (pictured right), who find children merely dispensable. (Dr. Gosnell is on trial for eight murders, seven babies and one woman, at his horrific medical center. To read more on what he is accused of, see the CNN article here.)

Living out a metaphysics of hospitality means honoring the mysterious presence of the humans around us. And since such presence is often ignored, it means championing the worth of those who are overlooked, the weak, the vulnerable, the defenseless. Such a championing of the weak is beautifully displayed in the recent photo of the new Pope embracing the young boy with cerebral palsy. Embracing the weak is recognizing the mysterious presence which each human, regardless of age or health, embodies.

  1. [1] Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume 1: Reflection and Mystery, trans. G.S. Fraser (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 217.
  2. [2] Ibid.

A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [1] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [2]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [3]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[4] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

  1. [1] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.
  2. [2] Ibid., 145
  3. [3] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.
  4. [4] Ibid., 302