Primary and Secondary Reflection
The distinction between two kinds of questions—problem and mystery—brings to light two different kinds of thinking or reflection. The problematic is addressed with thinking that is detached and technical, while the mysterious is encountered in reflection that is involved, participatory and decidedly non-technical. Marcel calls these two kinds of thinking “primary” and “secondary” reflection. Primary reflection examines its object by abstraction, by analytically breaking it down into its constituent parts. It is concerned with definitions, essences and technical solutions to problems. In contrast, secondary reflection is synthetic; it unifies rather than divides. “Roughly, we can say that where primary reflection tends to dissolve the unity of experience which is first put before it, the function of secondary reflection is essentially recuperative; it reconquers that unity” (Marcel 1951a, p. 83).
In the most general sense, reflection is nothing other than attention brought to bear on something. However, different objects require different kinds of reflection. In keeping with their respective application to problem and mystery, primary reflection is directed at that which is outside of me or “before me,” while secondary reflection is directed at that which is not merely before me—that is, either that which is in me, which I am, or those areas where the distinctions “in me” and “before me” tend to break down. The parallels between having and being, problem and mystery, and primary and secondary reflection are clear, each pair helping to illuminate the others.
Thus, secondary reflection is one important aspect of our access to the self. It is the properly philosophical mode of reflection because, in Marcel's view, philosophy must return to concrete situations if it is to merit the name “philosophy.” These difficult reflections are “properly philosophical” insofar as they lead to a more truthful, more intimate communication with...