In this paper I will point to a few themes common to the philosophies of William James and Gabriel Marcel, showing that their very different approaches in fact enrich and complement each other. I will first focus on James’s concept of anhedonia and then show how this state of mind can be described in Marcellian terms. In the background of the discussion will be James’s notion of the vague. Special attention will be paid to Marcel’s distinction between problem and mystery, which will offer a new understanding of anhedonia. The comparison between the two philosophers will culminate in the suggestion that a proper understanding of mystery and vagueness makes possible a existentially significant theory of hope.


Anhedonia and the Broken World:

William James and Gabriel Marcel on Vagueness and Mystery



In his Reinstatement of the Vague, Gavin remarks that the closest parallel to James’s concept of the vague outside the American tradition “can be found in the works of Gabriel Marcel, who distinguishes between a ‘problem’ and a ‘mystery.’” The domain of the vague perhaps extends further than Marcel’s notion of the mysterious, but, Gavin points out, James “surely would have agreed with Marcel’s overall stance here.”[1] In this paper I will point to a few themes common to James and Marcel, showing that their very different approaches in fact enrich and complement each other.

In what follows, I will first focus on James’s concept of anhedonia and then show how this state of mind can be described in Marcellian terms. In the background of the discussion will be James’s notion of the vague which, as Gavin points out, refers to “a situation that has not degenerated into an overly false clarity, and to one that does not intend to come up with final certainty.”[2] Marcel’s distinction between problem and mystery, central to his philosophy in general, will offer a new understanding of anhedonia. The comparison between the two philosophers will culminate in the suggestion that a proper understanding of mystery and vagueness makes possible a existentially significant theory of hope.


Anhedonia as an Existential Theme

James discusses the term anhedonia in the Varieties. He cites Ribot who first proposed the term to designate a condition of “passive joylessness and dreariness, discouragement, dejection, lack of taste and zest and spring.”[3] Happiness, joy and affection are no longer experienced intimately from within, but have become concepts, definable but not felt. The feelings of joy and interest that used to come readily can still be recalled, but only in a removed and detached fashion. Somehow the individual has come to stand outside of his or her own life, alienated from the inwardness that used to be self-evident and unproblematic.

James refers to Tolstoy as an example. Tolstoy described how he experienced a “passive loss of appetite for all life’s values,”[4] and lost the sense that life had any meaning whatever. This resulted in a “transformation in the whole expression of reality.”[5] The world looked to Tolstoy “remote, strange, sinister, uncanny.”[6] To the person suffering from anhedonia, the world is “unhomelike,”[7] a world in which one no longer knows how to live; Tolstoy himself describes this state in The Death of Ivan Iljych. It serves to give two additional examples to show how the feeling of anhedonia is not an isolated notion but rather an existential theme recognized by philosophers from different traditions. The first instance of what James describes as an “incapacity of joyous feeling”[8] that will serve the discussion at this point is taken from Gabriel Marcel’s play Le monde cassé. In this play, Christiane, a successful and attractive woman, seemingly without any cause for complaints, expresses her feeling of alienation and detachment to a friend:


Don’t you have the impression that we are living… if we can call that living… in a broken world? Yes, broken like a watch that has stopped. Its mainspring no longer works. To all appearances nothing has changed. Everything is in place. But if you put the watch to your ear… you hear nothing. Remember, the world, or what we call the world, the human world… used to have a heart. But it seems that heart has stopped beating.[9]


As for Tolstoy, the world to Christiane has become “unhomelike,” a place that seems familiar but only on the surface; upon closer inspection, the meaningfulness that used to be self-evident has disappeared, leaving the world as something arbitrary and dead, without a heart. The world is still there, but all the things have lost their meaning. The feeling that what was taken for granted before is broken, that one is, as it were, afloat, without anything standing out, is similar to what Sartre calls la nausée. The protagonist of Sartre’s novel La Nausée, Roquentin, comes to the realization that “Things are entirely what they appear to be – and behind them... there is nothing.”[10] Everything has become indifferent and nothing stands out. Compare the following passage:


I glance around the room and a violent disgust floods me. What am I doing here? [...] Why are these people here? Why are they eating? It’s true they don’t know they exist. I want to leave, go to some place where I will be really in my own niche, where I will fit in.... But my place is nowhere; I am unwanted, de trop. [...] Now I know: I exist – the world exists – and I know that the world exists. That’s all. It makes no difference to me. It’s strange that everything makes so little difference to me: it frightens me.[11]


In both instances, excitement and interest have ceased and all enchantment is gone. Christiane’s broken world reflects Tolstoy’s mindset: “Things were meaningless whose meaning had always been self-evident.... ‘I felt,’ says Tolstoy, “that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped.... It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life.’”[12] Tolstoy, like Roquentin, feels like he is too much, superfluous, de trop. Roquentin’s feelings in the restaurant correspond to the description Tolstoy gives of the despair he experiences in which questions like “Why should I live? Why should I do anything?” have no answers but merely underline the “meaningless absurdity of life.”[13] What is lacking in anhedonia is “a zest, or a meaning, or an enchantment and glory to the common objects of life.... It may be a mere vague enthusiasm, half spiritual, half vital, a courage, and a feeling that great and wondrous things are in the air.”[14]


Anhedonia and the Broken World: Problem and Mystery

Earlier, Gabriel Marcel’s play Le monde cassé was cited in to show that Marcel in his work presents his own version of anhedonia: the experience of the broken world. In one of his philosophical works, Le mystère de l’être, Marcel describes the opposition between living in the fullest fashion, “with zest,” James would say, and the state in which “I seem to myself as if I were a dead man; I drag myself along, I seem to have survived my living self.” Many roads can lead to this state:


What began as a creative activity can become a mere professional routine, the interest that I take in things and events can become blunted, and flat, and stale; the happenings of real life may come to arouse in me nothing more than the utter indifference with which I watch one episode succeed another in a really bad second-feature film. Whatever happens, it’s all one to me, I couldn’t . . . care less.


Marcel, who also gave the lectures of which Le mystère de l’être is made up in English, uses the English word “tediousness” which, he claims, “conveys this feeling perfectly.” MB162 The indifference which marks this tedium can become all-encompassing: “when tedium becomes general, when it seems to spread itself over the whole field of existence, it becomes something more than tedium, it becomes despair.” MB163 In an earlier work, Position et approches, which originally appeared in the same volume with the play Le monde cassé, Marcel described despair as “the act by which one despairs of reality as a whole. At the root of despair there is always this affirmation: ‘There is nothing in the realm of reality to which I can give credit – no security, no guarantee.’ It is a statement of complete insolvency.” OM27 The terminology used by Marcel to describe the scale that leads from tediousness to despair is similar to the passages dealing with Tolstoy’s state of mind as they are found in James’s Varieties; in both cases, words like “flat,” “dead,” “stale” and “blunted” convey the feeling of indifference which can easily turn into a state of complete apathy and depression. It is perhaps impossible to pinpoint the place on this scale where tediousness turns into despair, but an excerpt from Heidegger’s Was ist Metaphysik? can further illuminate what is at the root of this phenomenon as a whole:


No matter how fragmented our everyday existence may appear to be, however, it always deals with beings in a unity of the “whole,” if only in a shadowy way. Even and precisely then when we are not actually busy with things or ourselves this “as a whole” overcomes us — for example in genuine boredom. Boredom is still distant when it is only this book or that play, that business or this idleness, that drags on. It irrupts when “one is bored.” Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals beings as a whole.


Despair concerns reality as a whole; one feels like there is nothing which makes a difference, nothing meaningful which offers some kind of safety or guarantee.

Marcel claims that “life in a world centered on function is liable to despair because in reality this world is empty, it rings hollow.” OM12 The words “empty” and “full” were used by James as well to show the contrast between the depressed dullness of anhedonia and the joyful richness as it was experienced by, for instance, Walt Whitman. With his distinction between mystery and problem, Marcel offers a way to further explore this contrast between fullness and emptiness.

            In Position et approches, Marcel notes that a functionalized world is, “on the one hand, riddled with problems and, on the other, determined to allow no room for mystery.” OM12 A world full of problems is the result of what Marcel calls a “degraded rationalism” which holds that “cause explains effect and accounts for it exhaustively.” In this world, everything is explained in terms of the “purely natural” which has as its consequence “the atrophy of the faculty of wonder.” OM13 It is exactly this wonder, the feeling, as cited above, “that great and wondrous things are in the air” that is absent in anhedonia. James agrees with Marcel’s view on “degraded rationalism” which prevents us from taking existence as, in James’s words, “a brute fact to which as a whole the emotion of ontologic wonder shall rightfully cleave, but remain eternally unsatisfied.” A world devoid of Marcellian mystery and Jamesian vagueness is marked by a “purely natural” approach. Marcel would agree with James that, as James puts it in his essay “The Sentiment of Rationality,” “wonderfulness or mysteriousness [should] be an essential attribute of the nature of things.” SR75 Wonder, mystery, and vagueness, however, have no place in a world in which everything can be explained: nothing is mysterious because, in principle, every question has an answer. The reason why this world eventually leads to anhedonia, or, to use Marcel’s word, to despair, is that it allows no room for the conviction that there is something more or something else, the fringe or “ever not quite” mentioned by James. As Marcel formulates in discussion with Ricoeur: « C’est cette conscience d’une impossibilité de réduire l’existence à quoi que ce soit d’autre et même de la mettre en question. » To put existence into question simply does not make sense (n’a vraiment aucun sens) because the question implies a possibility which is not available to us :  « la possibilité de nous abstraire en quelque sorte de l’existence, de nous placer en dehors d’elle pour la regarder. » E21

            Marcel demands that mysteries are not reduced to problems. The issue to be addressed, then, is the meaning of these apparently opposite terms, mystery and problem. In Position et approches, Marcel gives a first brief account of this distinction: “A mystery is a problem which encroaches upon its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem.” [15]OM19  One of the examples that Marcel likes to use in order to explain what he means by a mystery is the so-called “problem” of evil:


In reflecting upon evil, I tend, almost inevitably, to regard it as a disorder which I view from outside and of which I seek to discover the causes and the secret aims. [However,] evil which is only stated or observed is no longer evil which is suffered: in fact, it ceases to be evil. In reality, I can only grasp it as evil in the measure in which it touches me – that is to say, in the measure in which I am involved . . . . Being “involved” is the fundamental fact; I cannot leave it out of account except by an unjustifiable fiction. OM19


A problem turns out to be a question, a riddle external to oneself: it is something I can put in front of me, take apart, and solve if I have the proper equipment, mental ability, perseverance, etc. Examples of problems are most easily found in the technical sphere where things that are broken can be fixed: the problem presented to me by my broken bicycle can be solved, if not by me then by someone with the proper know-how. Every problem, to use the language of the passage above, is a “disorder which I view from outside”: I can turn my bicycle upside down, walk around it, remove and replace broken parts. The crucial point of the passage cited is that the “problem of evil” should not be called a problem at all because in thinking about it, I lack the independence that characterizes my search for answers in the case of the broken bicycle. A mystery is a problem in which I am involved, and in respect to which I cannot take an outsider’s point of view. As soon as I presume to study a mystery from the outside, like I would study my bicycle, what I am investigating is no longer a mystery, but a mystery reduced to “purely natural” elements, i.e. a problem.

Marcel returns to the same example in Creative Fidelity where he again observes that “many metaphysical problems appear as degraded mysteries.” In Creative Fidelity, Marcel copies a passage from his Être et Avoir (1932) in which he describes the distinction between mystery and problem more fully:


A problem is something which one runs up against, which bars the way. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery, however, is something in which I find myself involved, whose essence therefore, is not to be completely before me. On this level it seems as though the distinction between the in me and the before me loses its meaning. [EA 145]


Again Gavin helps us understand the close resemblance in philosophical sensitivity between James and Marcel in phrasing the central point as follows: “We are participators in life rather than spectators at the game of life.” James shows us, Gavin continues, that we are always going to find ourselves “involved in experience.” 18 Connecting Gavin’s remarks to what I have discussed so far, James and Marcel clearly agree that in the case of a Marcellian mystery, “I am by definition led beyond any ‘system for me.’ I am involved in concreto in an order which by definition can never become an order or a system for me.” CF69

As has become clear, the denial of mystery and vagueness leads to despair and anhedonia. The question to turn to now is what the acceptance and affirmation of Marcel’s mystery and James’s vagueness should lead to. In what follows I will therefore offer some preliminary remarks on a theory of hope true to both philosophies.


Conclusion: The Will to Hope

“Hope,” Marcel states in Position et approches, “consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.” This mysterious principle “cannot but will that which I will, if what I will deserves to be willed and is, in fact, willed by the whole of my being.” OM28 This assertion is opposite to the feeling of meaninglessness expressed by for instance Roquentin in La nausea, or Christiane in Le monde cassée. Marcel explains: “I assert that a given order shall be re-established, that reality is on my side in willing it to be so. I do not wish: I assert; such is the prophetic tone of true hope.” OM28 The assertion of hope and the “certainty without evidence” which marks this attitude bears resemblance to William James’s ideas in The Will to Believe. James calls this text “an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” WB717 In order to explain and defend the right to adopt a believing attitude, James distinguishes between live and dead hypotheses. An hypothesis is the name given to “anything that may be proposed to our belief” and “a live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to whom it is proposed.” WB717 The belief in a mystery, whatever it may be, is a live hypothesis to the believer. The belief then comes as the assertion described by Marcel above, because the believer takes reality to be on his or her side.           

Hope is itself a mystery, as well as an attitude indicating an openness towards mystery. As has been shown, every mystery can be ignored or converted into a problem. When hope is treated as a problem, it is “regarded as a desire which wraps itself up in illusory judgments to distort an objective reality which it is interested in disguising from itself.” Hope, and here again Marcel is in agreement with James, is marked by the conviction that, despite (the lack of) evidence, there is a principle at the heart of reality which is “in connivance with me.” Hope may assert itself and even be, Marcel writes, prophetic; it is essentially open to what may come, and recognizes that even though reality is fundamentally on its side, the way in which this fact may eventually show itself is uncertain. I suggest that hope can be described as assertive yet insecure, prophetic yet open. This prophetic quality corresponds to James’s claim that sometimes the belief in a fact can help create that fact. This belief should not be confused with facile optimism, but should be regarded as a difficult task. The vagueness and mystery of reality compels a response, and because “reality exceeds logic,” we not only can but must “believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.” WB733 Hope is demanding precisely because it deals with mystery, with the fringe, the more, the “ever not quite” of experience.


[1] Gavin, 4

[2] Gavin, 3

[3] VR145

[4] VR149

[5] VR151

[6] VR151

[7] VR152

[8] VR147

[9] Marcel, Gabriel. Gabriel Marcel's Perspectives on the Broken World. Milwaukee, WI, USA: Marquette University Press, 1998. p 46. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/fordham/Doc?id=2001869&ppg=46

[10] Sartre, La Nausée, 96.

[11] Sartre, La Nausée, 122.

[12] VR153                                             

[13] VR155 “this feeling of dread was mitigated by the hope of finding the assistance of some one [God].” VR156

[14] VR505

[15] [example: mysterious unity of body and soul]