On Feb. 1 we up again with previous guest and PEL blogger (and Twitter/YouTube master) Daniel Horne to discuss Martin Buber. Buber is known as a religious existentialist, much like Kierkegaard, which means he’s concerned with our fundamental relation to reality, and thinks that our individual attitude has some impact on our being, on whether we’re living “authentically” or not.
For Buber, this means recognizing the fundamental orientation or experience as interpersonal, and specifically one-on-one. As with Hegel, we don’t start out as fully formed egos, little balls of greed with desires and maybe rights, but in sort of a formless mass with the rest of humanity, just a part of nature. We don’t get self-consciousness, or real personhood, until we’re recognized by another. But while Hegel’s picture of this is of a life-or-death struggle between master and slave, Buber thinks it’s a matter of love, of connecting with someone so that their subjectivity “fills the sky,” so that all the rest of the world you see (metaphorically) through their eyes or, better yet, in their light. Through this process I see myself: this is how the “I” is formed.
Buber thinks that these I-You experiences (“Thou” is just a bad translation; the “You” in German is “Du” which is familiar, intimate, without the archaic overtones that “Thou” has in English) are fleeting. As soon as I stop connecting with you and start to see you as an individual person, contrasted with other individual people, and thinking about your particular qualities, then I’ve made you into an “It” instead of a “You.” So once we have self-consciousness, then we have I-It relations, which includes the whole of science and reason. I-You is the primal relation, like Quality for Pirsig or the primacy of perception for Merleau-Ponty. Buber was very familiar with Eastern traditions as well, so while he denies that it’s mystical, it does sound Taoist.
So this human relation is epistemically primary, a necessary grounding for science (something like this seems the primary lesson from phenomenology like Merleau-Ponty’s). It also has ethical implications, with its echoes of Kant’s doctrine that we not treat people as means, but only as ends in themselves. But it’s not a matter of reasoning out ethical rules, and Buber despite being known as a Jewish thinker eschewed the rule-based aspect of Judaism and wanted to create a simpler, more common-sense version of it made primary our personal relationship with God. Much as for Schleiermacher, for Buber, scripture is something inspired by the same kind of religious feeling that we all have access to, and we should engage in dialogue with it instead of tried to read it as making literal, binding factual and moral claims. The I-You relationship is the template for our relationship with God, Buber says: through every You we experience the Eternal You. This even applies to atheists (from p. 76):
But when he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be godless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses God.
The upshot is a call to be spiritual and centered, embracing this world, not the otherworldly, acting ethically through awareness of the constant presence of God. Though this might sound like Spinoza’s view of God as all the universe, the important element is again, we can have a personal relationship with this.
So this is where it gets tricky. The Hegelian doctrine of self is common to a number of thinkers in this tradition, but for Buber, it’s not just other people that we can have the I-Thou experience with, but scenes of nature, or works of art, particularly ones that we’re making at the time. So apparently the real reaction of the think we’re relating to isn’t essential, which brings up the question of what’s even required when we’re with other people: Buber makes it clear that the teacher-student or psychotherapist-patient relationship can also be personal and healing in this way, but in those cases, the healed most assuredly is not taking up the position of the healer. Add to this that some of Buber’s examples (given through other works; I and Thou came fairly early in his career and he spent some time trying to explain it through other works, even though he felt himself to have produced the original in a kind of spiritual inspiration and didn’t want to edit it to clarify things) of I-Thou are meeting eyes with across a crowded room or sitting next to someone at a bus stop without talking, and Buber has introduced a lot of room for us to be deceived and self-indulgent in merely thinking that we’ve had such an experience.
However, as a phenomenologist, Buber can’t really allow the question in of whether we could be deceived, and so even the existence of God becomes not something amenable to evidence or really an objective matter at all. However, he insists that it’s not subjective either; the place that this phenomena occurs is before there is such a distinction to be made, before there is a subject which is then experiencing the world. All that latter talk is within the realm of the I-It, and it’s current society’s near-total obsession with that perspective that makes us so spiritually poor and politically and morally messed up.