For some of us, the impulse to philosophize is bound up with a realization of our broken world and our patchwork lives. But among those of us for whom this is true, there is a further division: for some of us, the breaks and the patchworks are problems, something to be solved; for others of us, they are mysteries, something that we live through. Marcel famously distinguishes problems from mysteries; I am using his distinction—but I will not try here to provide a full account of the distinction, rather only an anticipatory sketch. I need the sketch because it will aid me in my continuing reading of Merleau-Ponty’s “RM”. I will say a bit about how momentarily.
Central to Marcel’s distinction is this: a mystery is something whose true nature can only be grasped from the inside; no objective statements can be made about it from outside, for it is our situation, ours to live through. We cannot get outside of it. A problem has no inside/outside contrast, so to speak; it is something I confront, something I find complete before me. I can therefore, as Marcel puts it, “lay siege to it”. A problem is an object before me, inert; it is “voiceless”. I can take an interest in it or not, but whether I do or not is a matter for my unconstrained decision. A mystery is something that presents itself to me; it “speaks”; I respond or I refuse to respond. A problem is always coordinate with a technique, a way of handling, treating, working on or solving it. A mystery transcends technique. Progress, as a notion, belongs to the problematic; is has no truck with the mysterious. We make progress on a problem as we come to know things of which we previously were ignorant. But the knowledge/ignorance contrast gets no real hold on a mystery; to the extent that it may seem to, each new acquist of relevant knowledge only to deepens the mystery.
One important result of this distinction is that it makes available a new term of philosophical criticism, namely the degrading of mysteries into problems. We might think of this as a form of metaphilosophical reductionism. Degrading is perennially tempting, because it allows us to normalize philosophy, to tame it. Often, we degrade without realizing it: we take something to have the form of a mystery while we deny it the power thereof. Degrading permits us to be philosophers by acquisition, by having a philosophy (if you know the passage, think here of Marcel’s joking talk of “Marcelism” early in vol. 1 of The Mystery of Being), instead of requiring us to be philosophers only by maintaining ourselves in relation to mystery (since you will know it, if you have been following the blog, think here of Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between teaching the absolute and teaching our absolute relation to it.)
I know that all this is far from clear, but I will continue to develop the distinction in later posts. For now, bear in mind that what we think of Montaigne the skeptic will be quite different if we take Montaigne to be so-called because of his response to problems or because of his response to mysteries.