Reading “RM” 6: Problems vs. Mysteries

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.

7 responses

  1. Pingback: Addendum and Philosophical Life | "Problems of the Spirit"

  2. I find your notion of degrading here, the sort of philosophical criticism you mean it to capture, to be intimately related to the term Diamond is using, following Cavell, in her “Difficulty.” I mean, of course, that of deflection, the kind of defacing, of disfiguration, a difficulty of reality is liable to undergo in the hands of philosophy as it is turned into a “philosophical problem.” I’m using “in the hands of” purposefully here, to echo Cavell’s question about philosophy’s being or not being able to accept Othello and Desdemona back at the hands of poetry. As you remember, Moi’s suggestion was that Cavell is wondering here “whether Shakespeare, and Othello and Desdemona, could ever be recognized as philosophers by other philosophers.” But the question, of course, is why couldn’t they, why Cavell fears they couldn’t. As I’m thinking of it now, with the help of Diamond’s discussion of deflection and yours of degrading, it seems to me that at least part of the question for Cavell is whether philosophy can live the difficulty, the mystery, without taming it and deflecting from it; and whether a philosophy that tries to do exactly that would still be recognized and accepted as philosophy.

    • That’s a fascinating suggestion, Dafi. Let me think more about it. Cavell and Diamond, at least in many places and in many ways, seem to me to understand what they are doing philosophically in relation to mysteries, not problems. But I suspect to do full justice to either (and so to Wittgenstein too) we will need at least another category or two beyond mystery and problem. –If I understand you, it seems that implicit in what you are saying is the idea that literature (poetry) is more often, or at least is better at, coping with mystery than philosophy is (or that at least that is how it may seem to us, when we try to think the distinctions mystery/problem and literature/philosophy simultaneously). But as i said: let me think more about it. And thanks for the comment!

      • Also, what exactly is the relation between Jim’s Cartesian-Kantian distinction, and the distinction between problems and mysteries? (Jim has a distinction in his paper between doubt and boggle. Cora also uses the word ‘boggle’ in her “Difficulty” paper.)

        – Is it that the former distinction captures some of the grammar of the latter? – If so, what does it not capture? Or does the former distinction only captures the grammar of some examples of that latter distinction? – In which case, which examples are not thereby captured?

      • A good question and one I have been thinking about–and, I admit–trying to lay groundwork for addressing. I hope do so in a later post. I will come back to you entire comment there, if I can.

      • Kelly,
        To take up the last point first: I didn’t mean to suggest that literature (poetry) is free from dangers of falsification in dealing with mysteries—nor, of course, that Cavell thinks it is. I only meant to suggest a connection between Cavell’s question and the difficulty philosophy seems to have of staying turned toward mysteries (or other difficulties of reality in Diamond’s sense). How exactly literature fits into the story—I’m not sure. What I’m currently inclined to say, using your own discussion of the problem/mystery distinction, is that whereas, for philosophy, turning the mystery into a “voiceless object” is a major threat, for literature, the difficulty is not so much that of allowing the mystery to speak to us, but of responding to it in such a way that our own voice doesn’t silence that of the mystery itself. The chief danger for literature is, I would say, that of overshadowing the mystery with our own resounding ego. Of course, I’m suggesting that only as an “approximately and for the most part” characterization of philosophy’s and literature’s respective liabilities in the face of mystery. I do not take the dangers to be necessarily exclusive of each other, nor to be exhaustive in any way.
        Regarding your other cautioning, I definitely agree that the range of phenomena that Diamond, Cavell, and Wittgenstein are concerned with is more varied than what can be captured by the two categories of problem and mystery. I believe, e.g., that not every difficulty of reality in Diamond’s sense will be best presented as a mystery, though I do think that there’s an important relation between her notion of a difficulty of reality as the kind of experience “of the mind’s not being able to encompass something which it encounters”, and the notion of mystery. Diamond, in her article, distinguishes between such difficulties of reality in which the inexplicability of what we take to be resistant to our thinking is experienced as painful, and others in which the inexplicability is experienced as awesome and astonishing; and she herself uses the notion of mystery (and also of the miraculous, in Holland’s sense) in connection with the latter kind of difficulties. This seems to suggest one way of thinking of mystery, namely as a sub-category of the broader ‘difficulty of reality,’ where the distinguishing feature is the way the inexplicability of reality is experienced. How much this is in alignment with Marcel’s notion of mystery—I’m not sure. I suspect that mystery is itself a varied concept.

      • Thanks, D! I really didn’t mean to be cautioning you; rather I was reminding myself. What you say “proximally and for the most part”, I agree with, I think. And you may be right that ‘mystery’ is itself a multiform concept. My basic thought was not as sophisticated as yours: I was just thinking that we needed a category of ‘puzzle’ alongside ‘problem’ and ‘mystery’ if we were going to hope exhaustively to sort through Wittgenstein and Cavell and Diamond.

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