This is an essay I wrote for FREN125 - French Existentialism. I have no idea what I got for it because shortly after writing it I decided life is meaningless and futile
, and in order to give my life meaning I needed to node rather than pay attention to my grades. Or something.
While hard-linking all the relevant concepts, it struck me that this essay is singularly appropriate to what's going on at everything2.com, even if only sometimes... anyway, here is essay.
Function and Presence
By Leith Mclean
“Discuss the notions of misplaced functionalism and presence as Marcel defines them. What grounds do you think he has for believing that a relation of presence, based on mutual availability, should be able to survive the eroding pressure of misplaced functionalism and misused technology?”
Gabriel Marcel begins his treatise ‘On the Ontological Mystery’ with a characterisation of the human being in whom the ontological sense (the sense of being, or of oneself as presence) is lacking. His ‘definition’ of misplaced functionalism is fundamentally this view of a human, which I shall discuss at greater length further on. To Marcel, presence is the inverse of this view of a man, and, as it is presence that is experienced most rarely, and functionally is the most common way of seeing those around us, I shall do as Marcel has done and introduce the notion of presence by way of contrast only after an exhaustive description of what it means to view a person functionally, although the contrast with presence is essential to understanding how such functionalism can be misplaced. Following this, and as an introduction to the next part of the essay, I will examine the ‘relation of presence’.
As for the grounds on which Marcel may claim that a relation of presence can survive the isolating powers of technological abuse and the functional view of humanity, I hold that it is in the fundamental availability of the individual that the chance for a relation of presence lies, and it is this that influences the way in which technology is treated by that individual and not vice-versa. Though the functional view of mankind certainly precludes the possibility of a relation of presence, if dogmatically adhered to, it is not the prevailing attitude towards human beings that determines how the individual sees themselves and those around them. Included in the very definition of presence are the restrictions such misplaced functionalism places on a relation of presence.
Firstly, then, the notion of function. It is not simply the role fulfilled in society that Marcel terms ‘function’ (this is a subset, ‘social function’), but also the actions performed as a matter of private life – sleeping, eating, conversation and sex included. These he terms vital functions, and considers them to be as much functions as the others (later on, I shall show that what is important to the notion of misplacement of function is not that these functions are paid attention to, as obviously many are simply necessary, but that such functions are viewed as all there is to a person). Most of modern life is conducted by viewing the people we encounter as simply fulfilling their social functions: the bus driver drives me to university, the lecturer lectures, the shop-clerk sells me a lighter. The crowds of people I pass remain unknowns. I generally seek nor allow any more from them. Intellectually, I am fully aware that these people have lives completely independent of the role they play in mine, that they genuinely are people and not mere agglomerations of functions, but this is not how I experience them. Thus functionalism (which is not Functionalism in its strict sense of a universal principle, but rather a certain mode of experience) is not necessarily the intellectual treatment of people as their functions, but also the experience of them as such, though I may know in my mind that, of course, they are people also. Marcel plainly sees this as an impoverished and depressing way of regarding people, calling it empty and sad. The reason for this is by comparison with another way of experiencing people (I will use the word ‘experience’ a lot, for in my mind it is essential to an understanding of what Marcel means when he says all of this – he is describing certain experiences of other people and oneself) that Marcel also describes, that of presence.
Though he goes on at length about mysteries and problems, and they are indeed central to his thinking, all that need be understood of them here is that the objectively verifiable belongs in the realm of the problematical, and Marcel considers the experience of ‘presence’ to lie in the realm of the mysterious. It is thus beyond objective verification.
When it comes to the question of exactly what this ‘presence’ is, Marcel is far from specific (and justifiably so, I believe). Presence, to Marcel, is the experience of a person as ‘present’ in some sense other than that of the functional, whether it be oneself or another. It is not just the knowledge of this but also the experience of the presence. Presence is a feeling of an individual, the truth behind the cliched ‘a person and not a thing’. That is, not as a person who does such-and-such for or with me, but simply and absolutely as an actual presence that transcends any notion of ‘function’. The experience of another as presence is rightly regarded as objectively unverifiable, as it is exactly that: an experience.
At this point I should say that I would find Marcel’s thinking much easier to get to grips with if he had not said that this experience was purely subjective. While I accept this claim of the experience, the only basis I have is my own experience. I think that this particular passage was an attempt to buttress a failing idea of God against the increasing unbelief of his contemporaries, and that in order to be consistent he must acknowledge the subjective nature of the ‘proof’ behind this claim, leaving the discovery to his reader and allowing them, to borrow a phrase from Merleau-Ponty, the primacy of their perceptions. The experience of presence, though it certainly possesses a quality that is far beyond the isolation that ‘pure subjectivity’ implies, is nonetheless a personal experience. Marcel is wide open to critiques when he says both that presence is a mystery, and hence not available for objective verification, and that it is not purely subjective. Likely, though, Marcel would point out that it is a mystery and so the paradox is acceptable. For you to experience another as a presence, that person must be ‘available’ to you. Again, Marcel is unclear here as to his meaning, though it is easily enough deduced, even if in a somewhat circular fashion. For you to feel another as a presence, that person must be able to be felt by you as a presence. The act of making oneself available does not itself guarantee a presence to others, indeed Marcel tends to the experience of presence as being ‘granted’ rather than, say, achieved or obtained. Though this also reeks of Christian apologetics it is also an accurate description, in that there is no real technique to discovering someone as a presence, they must be available, as must you, and the circumstances must be in some way right. What constitutes this ‘availability’ is not specified, indeed it is likely such a complex of things that any such specification would be incomplete. To be available to presence is, in part, to acknowledge the possibility and validity of such a feeling, and it is here that the notion of misplacement with regard to functionalism begins to make sense.
With a notion of presence as transcendent and independent of function, and based on availability, we can begin to see how functionalism may be misplaced. That is, when it is treated in its absolute sense as a universal principle. When it robs one, in other words, of the possibility for the experience of others or oneself as actual entities rather than mere ‘technics’. When it inhibits one’s availability by being a rule by which one views others rather than simply another possible experience of others. It strikes me that it would be in a way ludicrous to expect everybody to experience everyone else as presences, as it would just take so much eye contact that I’d never make it from one bus-stop to another. In the context of Marcel’s thought also it is ludicrous, as he refers to presence as granted rather than achieved, no technique will make it come. The individual is not to be ‘blamed’ for failing to experience everyone as the people they are. Functionalism becomes misplaced, then, when it precludes the experience of presence by diminishing one’s availability.
A relation of presence is one that is based on presence rather than function. If a relation of presence is truly to be a relation, the feeling of presence must be two-way. This is the truly objectively unverifiable part of the philosophy, as no matter what another says I can never be sure, to the degree required by true objectivity, that they are actually experiencing my presence and not simply saying they are. By attempting to objectively verify such a relation, one questions the validity of the only experience that can be treated as data in the matter, that of one’s own experience of the presence of the other, and is in this way a true mystery in the Marcellian sense, that of a problem that intrudes on its own data. For such a relation, each participant must be available, from the requirements for presence. We begin to get an idea of the problem faced as the functional worldview begins to take precedence and abuses of technology distance people further from one another.
Even so, misplaced functionalism and technological abuse are not insoluble difficulties for relations of presence. Indeed, they need not be difficulties at all. Although it is patently true that misplaced functionalism, in the individual in question, will render relations of presence impossible, as it denies the validity of the experience on which the relation rests, thereby making the person unavailable, this is a difficulty that is taken into account by the definition of presence itself. Of course if one is incapable of feeling presence one will not be involved in such a relationship. This is not, however, where I believe the question to be heading, nor where I perceive Marcel’s difficulties with modern life and the rise of technology to be seated. As the attitude of functionalism rises in prevalence within society, relations of presence will become less common. However, the prevailing attitude of society has nothing to do with an individual relation of presence. Relations of presence will not withstand misplaced functionalism if it intrudes into the relationship itself, but there is no reason to suppose this would happen.
It seems to me that the difficulty lies with the notion of technology as reinforcing misplaced functionalism, and again I believe this is a misdirected attitude. Certainly if technology is misused in the context of presence it will make relations of presence impossible, this is by definition. Again, this is an individual issue. There is nothing in the mere existence of technology to suggest its misuse, any more than there may be in the existence of another member of the human race. It is in man that the worm is to be found; technological abuse is symptomatic of a functionalised worldview and not its cause. Though technology does indeed make functional communication easier without changing the difficulty of communicating presence, the uses to which it is put will depend on the availability of the user and not vice-versa. As more and more people communicate perfunctorily and at a distance from one another, relations of presence indeed grow fewer by comparison, however technology as it stands and is used today shows no sign of actually negating the tendency of certain beings to be available to one another. The situation in George Orwell’s 1984 is of course a different matter entirely, but again it is in man that the problem lies.
It is my belief that the abuse of technology is a symptom of misplaced functionalism rather than its cause. While a relation of presence may indeed be precluded by misplaced functionalism, technology itself is no object in the tension between availability and function in each of us.
Many books have contributed to the formation and interpretation of the ideas presented in this essay, but the only direct source material used was the writings of Marcel in the course handout, ‘On the Ontological Mystery’ and ‘A Metaphysical Diary’, though no direct quotes have been used.