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Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman

Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 19: Buber’s Theory of Knowledge

‘I have no inclination to systematizing,’ Buber has said, ‘but I am of course and by necessity a philosophizing man.’ (From a letter from Professor Buber to me of August 11, 1951.) The real opposition for Buber is not between philosophy and religion, as it at first appears to be, but between that philosophy which sees the absolute in universals and hence removes reality into the systematic and the abstract and that which means the bond of the absolute with the particular and hence points man back to the reality of the lived concrete -- to the immediacy of real meeting with the beings over against one. (Cf. Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ pp. 44 ff., 49 f., 53-63.) Human truth is participation in Being, writes Buber, not conformity between a proposition and that to which the proposition refers. It cannot claim universal validity yet it can be exemplified and symbolized in actual life.

Any genuine human life-relationship to Divine Being -- i.e. any such relationship effected with a man’s whole being -- is a human truth, and man has no other truth. The ultimate truth is one, but it is given to man only as it enters, reflected as in a prism, into the true life-relationships of the human person. (Martin Buber, ‘Remarks on Goethe’s Concept of Humanity,’ Goethe and the Modern Age, ed. by Arnold Bergstraesser [Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1950], p. 232 f.)

In existential thinking man vouches for his word with his life and stakes his life in his thought. ‘Only through personal responsibility can man find faith in the truth as independent of him and enter into a real relation with it.’ The man who thinks ‘existentially’ brings the unconditioned nature of man into his relation with the world. He pledges himself to the truth and verifies it by being true himself. (Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One,’ p. 81 f.; Images of Good and Evil, p. 55 f.)

Many who see the importance of Buber’s thought for such realms as ethics and religion fail to see its radical significance for epistemology, or theory of knowledge, and many criticize it on the basis of other, incompatible epistemologies without knowing that they are doing so. The significance of Buber’s theory of knowledge lies in the fact that it expresses and answers the felt need of many in this age to break through to a more humanly realistic account of the way in which we know. The independent springing up of other writers who have sought to answer this need in a similar way is as much a testimony to the significance of the general trend of Buber’s thought as is the rapidly increasing number of thinkers who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him.

(Among those who have been particularly influenced by Buber in their epistemology are Gaston Bachelard, John Baillie, Ludwig Binswanger, Emil Brunner Friedrich Gogarten, Karl Heim, Hermann von Keyserling, and, in part, Nicholas Berdyaev and Dorothy Emmet. [Cf. John Baillie, Our Knowledge of God {New York: Scribners, 1939}], pp. 161, 201-216, Gaston Bachelard, ‘Preface’ to Je et Tu trans. from Ich und Du by Geneviève Bianquis, pp. 7-15, Ludwig Binswanger, Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins [Zurich: Max Nichans Verlag, 1942]; Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, Gifford Lectures of 1947, First Part: Foundations [London: Nisbet & Co., 1948], chap. iii -- ‘The Problem of Truth’ Emil Brunner, Wahrheit als Begagnung, Friedrich Gogarten, Ich glaube an den dreieinigen Gott; Karl Heim, Glaube und Denken and God Transcendent; Graf Hermann Keyserling, Das Buch vom Ursprung, chaps. ‘Das Zwischenreich’ and ‘Instinkt und Intuition’; Nicholas Berdyaev, Solitude and Society, trans. by George Reavey [London: Geoffrey Bles, 1938], ‘Third Meditation, The Ego, Solitude and Society,’ especially pp. 67-85; Dorothy M. Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking [London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1949], chaps. iii, ix, x, especially pp. 207-215. See also Leslie Allen Paul, The Meaning of Human Existence [Philadelphia&New York: J. P. Lippincott Co., 1950], chaps. iv and v. Where facts of publication are not given above, see Bibliography section -- ‘Works other than Buber’s on Dialogue and the I-Thou Relation.’)

(Those who have arrived at a dialogical or I-Thou philosophy independently of Buber and without influencing him include Ferdinand Ebuer, Eberhard Grisebach, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, Franz Rosenzweig, and Max Scheler. The thought of Marcel, the French Catholic existentialist, bears remarkable resemblance to Buber’s even in its terminology, but, according to Marcel’s own statement to Buber when they met in Paris in 1950, he was not influenced by Buber’s Ich und Du in writing his Journal Métaphysique. On the other hand, it is incomprehensible that I. M. Bochenski speaks of Marcel’s use of the I-Thou philosophy as ‘eigenartig’ -- peculiar to Marcel -- and does not even mention Buber or Ferdinand Ebuer, both of whom wrote in German several years before Marcel’s earliest writing on ‘je et toi.’ [Cf. Innocentius M. Bochenski, Europäische Philosophie der Gegenwart {Bern: A. Francke Verlag, 1947}, pp. 178-185, in particular p. 184. Bochenski mentions Buber in the 2nd edition, but inadequately.] The merging of Marcel’s and Buber’s influence can be seen in Maurice Nédoncelle, La Réciprocité des Consciences [Paris: Aubier, Editions Montaignes, 1942]. Aubier, Editions Montaigne also published Marcel’s Étre et Avoir [1935] and Homo Viator [1944] and Je et Tu, the French translation of Buber’s I and Thou [1938]. (Cf. Ferdinand Ebner, Das Wort und die geistigen Realitäten; Gabriel Marcel, Journal Métaphysique, 2nd Part; Marcel, Being and Having, pp. 104-111, 149-168, 233-239; Paul Ricaeur, Gabriel Marcel et Karl Jaspers, pp. 151-185, and especially Part II, chap. ii, ‘Le "toi" et la "communication"’;

Eberhard Grisebach, Gegenwart. Eine kritische Ethik; Karl Jaspers, Philosophie 11, Existenzerhellung; Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, trans. by Ralph Manheim [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950]; Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Angewandte Seelenkunde; Franz Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung.] For facts of publication not given see Bibliography, Section -- ‘Works other than Buber’s on Dialogue and the I-Thou Relation.’)

(For resumés, discussions, and attempted syntheses of the general trend in the direction of a dialogical theory of knowing, cf. Rosenstock-Huessy, Der Atem des Geistes, Part I, ‘Eine neue Wissenschaft,’ esp. chap. i and Bibliography; Rosenzweig, ‘Das neue Denken’; Baillie ,Our Knowledge of God, chap. v, # 17, ‘The World of Others’; John Cullberg, Das Du und die Wirklichkeit [Uppsala: Uppsala Universitets, 1933, Vol. D, Part I, ‘Historisch-Kritischer Teil,’chaps. i-iv; Hermann Levin-Goldschmidt, Philosophie als Dialogik, first half and Bibliography; Simon Maringer, Martin Bubers Metaphysik der Dialogik im Zusammenhang neuerer philosophischer und theologischer Strömungen [Köln: Buchdruckerei Steiner, Ulrichgasse, 1936] and Buber’s ‘Nachwort’ to Die Schriften über das Dialogische Prinzip, op. cit. This ‘Nachwort’ is Buber’s only historical treatmed of the movement and his place in it. His critique of Jaspers and Grisebach is of especial importance).

In its traditional form epistemology has always rested on the exclusive reality of the subject-object relationship. If one asks how the subject knows the object, one has in brief form the essence of theory of knowledge from Plato to Bergson; the differences between the many schools of philosophy can all be understood as variations on this theme. There are, first of all, differences in emphasis as to whether the subject or the object is the more real -- as in rationalism and empiricism, idealism and materialism, personalism and logical positivism. There are differences, secondly, as to the nature of the subject, which is variously regarded as pure consciousness, will to life, will to power, the scientific observer, or the intuitive knower. There are differences, thirdly, as to the nature of the object -- whether it is material reality, thought in the mind of God or man, pantheistic spiritual substance, absolute and eternal mystical Being, or simply something which we cannot know in itself but upon which we project our ordered thought categories of space, time, and causation. There are differences, finally, as to the relation between subject and object: whether the object is known through dialectical or analytical reasoning, scientific method, phenomenological insight into essence, or some form of direct intuition.

Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ philosophy cuts underneath all of these distinctions to establish the ‘I-Thou’ relation as an entirely other way of knowing, yet one from which the I-It, or subject-object, relation is derived. Buber agrees with Kant that we cannot know any object in itself apart from its relation to a knowing subject. At the same time, through the presentness and concreteness of the meeting with the ‘other,’ Buber avoids the pitfalls of the idealist who removes reality into the knowing subject, of Descartes who abstracts the subject into isolated consciousness, and of Kant who asserts that we cannot know reality but only the categories of our thought.

Although the I-Thou relation was independently discovered by others, some even before Buber, it is he who gave it its classical form, and it is he also who clarified the difference between the I-Thou and the I-It relations and worked out the implications of this distinction in a systematic and thorough-going fashion. The German theologian Karl Heim has spoken of this distinction between I-Thou and I-It as ‘one of the decisive discoveries of our time’ -- ‘the Copernican revolution’ of modern thought. When this new conception has reached fuller clarity, it must lead, writes Heim, ‘to a second new beginning of European thought pointing beyond the Cartesian contribution to modern philosophy.’ (Heim, Glaube und Denken, 1st ed., p. 405 ff.; Heim, Ontologie und Theologie, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, neue Folge XI (1930), p. 333.)

Buber’s I-Thou philosophy implies a different view of our knowledge of our selves, other selves, and the external world than any of the traditional subject-object theories. From Buber’s basic premise, ‘As I become I, I say Thou,’ it follows that our belief in the reality of the external world comes from our relation to other selves. This view is also held by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Ludwig Feuerbach, Ferdinand Ebuer, Gabriel Marcel, Max Scheler, Karl Löwith, and many others. (Ludwig Feuerbach, Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft [1843], # 64-66; Karl Löwith, Das Individuum in der Rolle der Mitmenschen, Ein Beitrag zur anthropologischen Grundlegung der ethischen Probleme [Munich: Drei Masken Verlag, 1928]. On Jacobi see Buber’s ‘Nachwort’ to Die Schriften über das dialogische Prinzip, p. 287 f. See p. 162, n. 1, above.) This social conception of knowledge is of fundamental significance because it means a complete reversal of the former direction of thought which derived the relation between persons from the relation of the knowing subject to the external world. According to this earlier and still popular way of thinking, we know the external world of the senses directly and other selves only mediately and by analogy. Thus it is thought that the child has direct knowledge of material things through his senses and that through the smiles and gestures of other persons (originally associated with his desire to make use of them) he arrives at a knowledge of them as persons. These theories overlook the fact that the I is not an I, the self not a self, except through its meeting with the Thou. The feral child brought up by the wolves has a human body and originally a human brain, but it is not human: it does not have that distance from the world and other selves which is a necessary presupposition for its entering into relation with a Thou and becoming an I. The child who does come to know others as persons does so through his meeting with persons and through the innate potentiality of becoming a person through meeting (this is what Buber means by speaking of the ‘inborn’ and ‘a priori’ Thou). It is only because the meeting of the I and the Thou precedes the child’s awareness of himself as I that he is able to infer the meaning of the actions of others. (I and Thou, p. 27, Baillie op. cit., pp. 207-218; Herbert H. Farmer, The World and God [London: Nisbet & Co., 1935], pp. 13-19; Heim, Glaube und Denken, pp. 252-269, God Transcendent, pp. 9l-101; Paul, The Meaning of Human Existence, pp. 130-140.)

On the basis of his relationship with others, the child then comes to a knowledge of the external world, that is, through his social relationships he receives those categories that enable him to see the world as an ordered continuum of knowable and passive objects. This is the process which Buber has described as the movement of the child from the I-Thou to an I-It relation with people and things. The child establishes what is ‘objective’ reality for him through the constant comparison of his perceptions with those of others. This dialogue with others is often a purely technical one and hence itself belongs to the world of I-It, but the compelling conviction of reality which it produces is entirely dependent upon the prior (if forgotten) reality of the meeting with the Thou.

In pointing to the prior reality of I-Thou knowing, Buber is not setting forth a dualism such as is implied by Nicholas Berdyaev’s rejection of the world of social objectification in favour of existential subjectivity or Ferdinand Ebner’s relegation of mathematical thinking to the province of the pure isolated I (‘Icheinsamkeit’). (Cf. Berdyaev, Solitudeand Society and Slavery and Freedom; Ebner, Das Wortund die geistigen Realitäten, p. 16 and chap. xii -- ‘Das mathematische Denken und das Ich’) To Buber I-Thou and I-It alternate with each other in integral relation. It is important, on the other hand, not to lose sight of the fact that though the world of It is a social world which is derived from the world of Thou, it often sets itself up as the final reality. Its sociality, as a result, becomes largely ‘technical dialogue’ with the social understood either as an organic, objective whole or as the mere communication and interaction between human beings who may in fact relate to each other largely as Its. Here is where Buber’s terminology shows itself as clearer than Heidegger’s ‘Dasein ist Mitsein’ (existence is togetherness) and Marcel’s understanding of knowledge as the third-personal object of the dialogue between a first and a second person. Both of these thinkers tend to confuse the social nature of I-Thou with the social nature of I-It, the reality of true dialogue with the indirect togetherness of ordinary social relations. (Marcel, Journal Métaphysique, pp. 136-144; Löwith, op. cit., Sec. II -- ‘Strukturanalyse des Miteinanderseins,; Cullberg, Das Du und die Wirklichkeit, chaps. iv, vii-x. Heim, Glaube und Denken, pp. 342-349. The attempts of Löwith, Heim, Cullberg and others to combine Heidegger’s ontology with the I-Thou relation are essentially vitiated by the basic difference between this ontology and that underlying a thoroughgoing dialogical philosophy. This has become increasingly clear as Buber has developed and made explicit his own ontology in ‘What Is Man?’ [Between Man and Man] and ‘Distance and Relation.’ See Buber’s critique of Heidegger in ‘What Is Man?’ [Between Man and Man, pp. 163-181] and ‘Religion and Modern Thinking, [Eclipse of God, pp. 94-104].)

The I-Thou relation is a direct knowing which gives one neither knowledge about the Thou over against one nor about oneself as an objective entity apart from this relationship. It is ‘the genuinely reciprocal meeting in the fullness of life between one active existence and another.’ (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ p. 46.) Although this dialogical knowing is direct, it is not entirely unmediated. The directness of the relationship is established not only through the mediation of the senses, e.g. the concrete meeting of real living persons, but also through the mediation of the ‘word,’ i.e. the mediation of those technical means and those fields of symbolic communication, such as language, music, art, and ritual, which enable men ever again to enter into relation with that which is over against them. The ‘word’ may be identified with subject-object, or I-It, knowledge while it remains indirect and symbolic, but it is itself the channel and expression of I-Thou knowing when it is taken up into real dialogue.

Subject-object, or I-It, knowledge is ultimately nothing other than the socially objectivized and elaborated product of the real meeting which takes place between man and his Thou in the realms of nature, social relations, and art. As such, it provides those ordered categories of thought which are, together with dialogue, primal necessities of human existence. But as such also, it may be, like the indirect and objective ‘word,’ the symbol of true dialogue. It is only when the symbolical character of subject-object knowledge is forgotten or remains undiscovered (as is often the case) that this ‘knowledge’ ceases to point back toward the reality of direct dialogical knowing and becomes instead an obstruction to it. When I-It blocks the return to I-Thou, it poses as reality itself: it asserts that reality is ultimately of the nature of abstract reason or objective category and that it can be understood as something external, clearly defined, and entirely ‘objective.’

When this has taken place, the true nature of knowledge as communication -- as the ‘word’ which results from the relation of two separate existing beings -- is forgotten. ‘Words’ are taken to be entities independent of the dialogue between man and man and the meeting between man and nature, and they are either understood as expressions of universal ideas existing in themselves or as nominative designations for entirely objective empirical reality. The latter way of seeing words attempts to separate the object from the knowing subject, to reduce words to sheer denotation, and to relegate all ‘connotations’ and all that is not ‘empirically verifiable’ to subjective emotion or ‘poetic truth.’ The former retains the true symbolic character of the ‘word’ as something more than a conventional sign and as something which does refer to a true order of being, but it misunderstands the nature of the symbol as giving indirect knowledge of an object rather than as communicating the relation between one existing being and another. Metaphysical analogies, as Dorothy Emmet has shown, are analogies between relationships rather than between one object which is familiar and known as it is in itself and one which is either abstract or unknown. (Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking, chaps. v, ix. On ‘the Word’ see Emmet, pp. 224-227; Ebner, op. cit., chaps. ii-viii, x-xiv; Rosenstock-Huessy, Angewandte Seelenkunde and Das Atem der Geistes, Romano Guardini, Welt und Person [Wurzburg; Wekbund-Verlag, 1950], pp. 107-111; Löwith, op. cit., 2. Abschnitt, ‘Miteinandersein als Miteinander Sprechen,’ # 24-32.) A symbol is not a concrete medium for the knowledge of some universal, if not directly knowable reality -- though this is the way in which most writers on symbolism from Plato and Plotinus to Urban, Coomaraswamy, and Jung have treated it. (Cf. Wilbur Marshal Urban, Language and Reality [New York: Macmillan co. 1939], Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism; Carl G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul [1932], Psychology and Religion [1938], The Integration of the Personality [1940], and The Secret of the Golden Flower [with Richard Wilhelm] [1931]. It is instead a mythical or conceptual representation of a concrete reality. It is first of all the product of the real meeting in the actual present of two separate beings; only when it becomes abstract and universalized is that meeting forgotten.

The difference between Buber’s understanding of the symbol and that of the modern logical positivist, who also rejects Platonic universals, can be seen most clearly in Buber’s use of the term ‘signs.’ Buber, as we have seen, portrays the total moral action in terms of ‘becoming aware’ of the ‘signs’ and responding to them. The ‘signs’ are just everything which we meet, but seen as something really addressing us, rather than as objective phenomena. A ‘sign’ is ordinarily defined as a conventional or arbitrary symbol whereby everybody may derive the same meaning from a thing, and this is the meaning which the logical positivist gives to ‘symbol.’ This would apply equally to red lights, algebraic symbols, and the prediction of future events on the basis of tea leaves or the stars. What Buber means by ‘sign’ in contrast, is something which does not speak to everybody but just to the one who sees that it ‘says’ something to him. Moreover, the same thing may ‘say’ different things to different people, and to a man who rests content to be an ‘observer’ it will say nothing at all. This ‘saying’ is thus nothing other than the ‘I-Thou’ relation whether it be the full, reciprocal I-Thou relation between men or the less complete and non-reciprocal relation with nature or in artistic creation and appreciation. Our inherited mechanisms of defence protect us from seeing the signs as really addressing us. ‘Becoming aware’ is the openness which puts aside this perfected shell in favour of true presentness, that is, of being willing to see each new event as something which is, despite all resemblance to what has gone before, unique and unexpected. (Between Man and Man, ‘Dialogue,’ pp. 10-13, The Education of Character,’ p. 113 f.)

One must understand the full significance of this presentness if one is to understand the symbolic function and the dependent and mediate reality of the I-It relation (Karl Heim has made Buber’s distinction between the presentness of the l-Thou relation and the pastness of I-It the basis for his whole philosophy of dimensions and hence in turn of his theology. He has shown the way in which the present flows into the past and from this the way in which what has become past may again become present reality. He has misunderstood the full significance of Buber’s distinction, however, when he identifies the present with the I and the past with the It -- and an important part of his epistemology is based on this identificafion. [Glaube und Denken, 1st ed., chap. iii, pp. 200-278; God Transcendent, chaps. iv-v.] Real presentness cannot be identified with the I, for the I does not exist in itself, but only in relation to a Thou or an It. Presentness exists, moreover, not in the I but between the I and the Thou. I-It, on the other hand, is always past, always ‘already become,’ and this means that the I of the l-It relation is as much a part of the past as the ‘object, which it knows.) What takes place in the present is ordered through the abstracting function of I-It into the world of categories -- of space and time, cause and effect. We usually think of these categories as reality itself, but they are actually merely the symbolic representation of what has become. Even our predictions of the future actually belong to the world of the past, for they are generalizations based on the assumptions of unity, continuity, cause and effect, and the resemblance of the future to the past. Nor does the partial success of these predictions show that we have real knowledge of the future, for we do not know this ‘future’ until it is already past, that is, until it has been registered in the categories of our knowledge-world.

It is the presentness of the I-Thou relation which shows most clearly the logical impossibility of criticizing I-Thou knowing on the basis of any system of I-It. Although psychology, for example, may show that many human relations which are thought genuine are actually neurotic projections from the past and hence I-It, it cannot question the fundamental reality of the I-Thou relation nor establish any external, ‘objectively’ valid criteria as to which relations are I-Thou and which I-It. The reason it cannot do this is that it is itself an ordered system of knowledge. As such, it observes its phenomena after they have already taken their place in the categories of human knowing. Also, in so far as it is scientific, it excludes the really direct and present knowing of I-Thou. This knowing, when it reaches its full development in ‘seeing the other,’ or making the other present (which surely happens again and again in really effective psychotherapy), is itself the ultimate criterion for the reality of the I-Thou relation.

The presentness of the I-Thou relation is also fatal to the attempt of logical positivism to relegate ethics, religion, and poetry to subjective emotion without real knowledge value. Seen in the light of Buber’s dialogical philosophy, this is nothing other than the attempt of subject-object, or I-It, knowledge to dismiss the ontological reality of the I-Thou knowing from which it derives its own existence. This means that it judges the present entirely by the past as if there were no present reality until that reality had become past and therefore capable of being dealt with in our thought categories. It also means that it abstracts the knowing subject from his existence as a person in relation to other persons and then attempts to establish an ‘objective’ impersonal knowledge abstracted from even that knowing subject.

Still another illustration of the importance of the distinction between the presentness of true becoming and the pastness of having become is the tendency of many thinkers to identify the inheritance of tradition with the forms into which tradition has cast itself. (See, for example, T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition Of Culture [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951].) On the basis of a misleading biological analogy, they think of society, the family, the church, or the law as a living organism and of the individuals of the past, present, and future as cells in this organism. This way of thinking is a distortion of the true way in which tradition is actually inherited, namely through each individual’s making that part of the tradition his own which comes alive for him as Thou. What is more, the fact that it is a distortion is hidden by the false appearance of presentness and dynamism which the biological analogy lends. This analogy, like all social application of evolutionism, is actually entirely a matter of the past and of static categories of cause and effect -- in other words of the I-It, or subject-object, way of knowing.

The contrast between the presentness of I-Thou and the pastness of I-It also provides us with a key to the most misunderstood and most often criticized part of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy -- his assertion of the reality of the I-Thou relation with nature. (John Cullberg has cited this part of Buber’s thought as proof that he still posits a mystical or aesthetic unity which in fact negates the true ‘otherness’ of the Thou. Hermann Levin-Goldschmidt has used it to prove that although Buber talks of dialogue, he has not in fact left the mystical monologue which projects a Thou on to things which obviously cannot be a Thou. [Cullberg, op. cit., pp. 39-46, 162-167; Hermann Levin-Goldschmidt, Hermann Cohen und Martin Buber, Ein Jahrhundert Ringen um jüdische Wirklichkeit, Geneva: Editions Migdal, 1946, pp. 72-76].) What Buber’s critics on this point overlook is that the reason that objects are It to us and not Thou is that they have already been enregistered in the subject-object world of the past. We think that we know the ‘real’ objects although usually we know them only indirectly and conceptually through the categories of I-It. Consequently, we find it difficult to understand Buber’s meaning when he says in ‘Dialogue’ that all things ‘say’ something to us. Similarly, because we tend to associate ‘person’ with the human body-mind individual abstracted from his relation to the Thou, we forget that he is only a ‘person’ when he is actually or potentially in such a relation and that the term ‘personal’ applies as much to the relationship itself as to the members of the relation. As a result, we cannot help suspecting Buber of ‘animism’ or mystical ‘projection’ when he speaks of an I-Thou relation with non-human existing beings: we can only imagine such a relation as possible with things that have minds and bodies similar to ours and in addition possess the consciousness of being an I.

In the presentness of meeting, however, are included all those things which we see in their uniqueness and for their own selves, and not as already filtered through our mental categories for purposes of knowledge or use. In this presentness it is no longer true (as it obviously is in the ‘having become’ world of active subject and passive object) that the existing beings over against us cannot in some sense move to meet us as we them. Because these existing beings are real, we can feel the impact of their active reality even though we cannot know them as they are in themselves or describe that impact apart from our relation to it. This ‘impact’ is not that which can be objectively observed by any subject, for in objective observation the activity of the object is actually thought of as part of a causal order in which nothing is really active of itself. It is rather the ‘impact’ of the relation in the present moment between the human I and that non-human existing being which has become real for him as ‘Thou’. This impact makes manifest the only true uniqueness, for that inexhaustible difference between objects which we sometimes loosely call ‘uniqueness’ is really nothing other than a product of our comparison of one object with another and is nothing that exists in the object in itself.

Though natural things may ‘say’ something to us and in that sense have ‘personal’ relations with us, they do not have the continuity, the independence, or the living consciousness and consciousness of self which make up the person. A tree can ‘say’ something to me and become my Thou, but I cannot be a Thou for it. This same impossibility of reciprocity is found in the work of literature and art which becomes Thou for us, and this suggests by analogy that as the poem is the ‘word’ of the poet, so the tree may be the ‘word’ of Being over against us, Being which is more than human yet not less than personal. (Cf. Between Man and Man, ‘Dialogue,’ p. 14 f. 170) This does not mean, however, any monistic or mystical presupposition of unity between subject and object. Quite to the contrary, this view alone allows to non-human existing beings their true ‘otherness’ as something more than the passive objects of our thought categories and the passive tools of our will to use.

Artistic creation and appreciation, like the I-Thou relation with nature, are modified forms of dialogue which by their very nature cannot be reciprocal. The artist, or ‘onlooker’ as Buber calls him, is not intent on analysing and noting traits, as is the observer, but instead sees the object freely ‘and undisturbed awaits what will be presented to him.’ He perceives an existence instead of a sum of traits, and he makes a genuine response to this existence. This response manifests itself as creation of form rather than as an answering with one’s personal existence of that which addresses one. Yet it retains the betweenness, the presentness, and the uniqueness which characterize the true I-Thou relation as distinct from I-It. (Ibid., pp. 8 ff., p. 25)

In his latest writing Buber has laid greater emphasis than ever before on the difference between our knowledge of other persons and our knowledge of things. We have in common with every thing the ability to become an object of observation, but it is the privilege of man, through the hidden action of his being, to be able to impose an insurmountable limit to his objectification. Only as a partner can man be perceived as an existing wholeness. To become aware of a thing or being means, in general, to experience it, in all concreteness, as a whole, yet without abridging abstractions. But man is categorically different from all things and from all non-human beings. Though he is perceivable as a being among beings and even as a thing among things, he cannot really be grasped except from the standpoint of the gift of spirit which is his alone among all things and beings. This spirit cannot be understood in isolation, however, but only as decisively joined in the personal existence of this living being -- the person-defining spirit. To become aware of a man, therefore, means in particular to perceive his wholeness as person defined by spirit: to perceive the dynamic centre which stamps on all his utterances, actions, and attitudes the tangible sign of oneness. Such an awareness is impossible if and so long as the other is for me the detached object of my contemplation or observation, for he will not thus yield his wholeness and its centre. It is only possible when I step into elemental relationship with the other, when he becomes present for me. For this reason, Buber describes awareness in this sense as personale Vergegenwärtigung, making present the person of the other. (‘Elements of the Interhuman,’ op. cit., p. 109 f. 171)


A recognition of the implications of the I-Thou relation for epistemology would not mean a rejection of those essential and eminently useful objective techniques which the social sciences have developed. These sciences cannot dispense with objectification since science as such deals only with objects. However, they can recognize that the discoveries of science are themselves products of true scientific ‘intuition,’ or rather ‘confrontation.’ Objectification necessarily follows this discovery, but it cannot take its place. (From a letter from Professor Buber to the writer, December 4, 1952.) What is necessary, therefore, is that we overcome the tendency to regard the subject-object relation as itself the primary reality. When this false objectification is done away with, the human studies will be in a position to integrate the I-Thou and the subject-object types of knowing. This implies the recognition that subject-object knowledge fulfills its true function only in so far as it retains its symbolic quality of pointing back to the dialogical knowing from which it derives. The way toward this integration has been indicated by Buber himself in his treatment of philosophical anthropology, psychology, education, ethics, social philosophy, myth, and history.

Walter Blumenfeld, in a book based on Buber’s ‘What Is Man?’, suggests that in order to be accepted as valid Buber’s anthropology would have to be grounded on empirical psychology and an objective and scientific hierarchy of values, in other words, on pure subject-object epistemology. (Walter Blumenfeld, La Antropologia Filósofica de Martin Buber y la Filosofia Antropológica, Un Ensayo, Vol. VI of Colección Plena Luz, Pleno Ser [Lima: Sociedad Peruana de Filosofia, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Publicaciones del Cuarto Centenano, 1951], pp. 18-25, 97-102, 108-113, 120-126, 138, 141-150.) In so doing he fails to see the integral relation between Buber’s anthropology and his I-Thou epistemology. Although philosophical anthropology cannot replace the specific disciplines dealing with the study of man, neither can those disciplines be entirely separated from it. If the basic purpose of the study of man is defined by the image of man as the creature who becomes what only he can become through confronting reality with his whole being, then the specific branches of that study must also include an understanding of man in this way, and this means not only as an object, but also, to begin with, as a Thou.

It may be objected that Buber’s concern for man’s wholeness prejudges the conclusions to be reached or that it is not a ‘value-free’ method. These objections are likely to be reinforced in the minds of those who make them by the qualifications which Buber sets for the philosophical anthropologist: that he must be an individual to whom man’s existence as man has become questionable, that he must have experienced the tension of solitude, and that he must discover the essence of man not as a scientific observer, removed in so far as possible from the object that he observes, but as a participant who only afterwards gains the distance from his subject matter which will enable him to formulate the insights he has attained. (Between Man and Man, ‘What is Man?’, pp. 124 f., 132 f., 180 f., 199 f.)

The tremendous prestige of the scientific method has led many to forget that science investigates man not as a whole but in selective aspects and as part of the natural world. Scientific method is man’s most highly perfected development of the I-It, or subject-object, way of knowing. Its methods of abstracting from the concrete actuality and of largely ignoring the inevitable difference between observers reduce the I in so far as possible to the abstract knowing subject and the It in so far as possible to the passive and abstract object of thought. Just for these reasons scientific method is not qualified to find the wholeness of man. It can compare men with each other and man with animals, but from such comparison and contrast there can only emerge an expanding and contracting scale of similarities and differences. This scale, consequently, can be of aid in categorizing men and animals as differing objects in a world of objects but not in discovering the uniqueness of man as man.

The objections to Buber’s method of knowing what man is stem for the most part from the belief that there is no other way of knowing than the subject-object, or I-It, and hence that any knowing into which the whole man enters must be a poor combination of ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ in which subjective emotion corrupts the otherwise objective power of reason. It is, in fact, only the knowing of the I-Thou relation which makes possible the conception of the wholeness of man. Only I-Thou sees this wholeness as the whole person in unreasoned relation with what is over against him rather than as a sum of parts, some of which are labeled objective and hence oriented around the thing known and some subjective and hence oriented around the knower. A great novelist and great psychological observer such as Proust still does not give us the insight into the essence of man that we find in the novels of Dostoievsky and the poetry of Blake. Proust’s world was preponderantly made up of subjective emotions and objective observations, whereas Dostoievsky and Blake first participated fully in what they experienced and only later attained the distance which enabled them to enter into an artistic relationship with it and give it symbolic and artistic expression.

The observation of the social sphere as a whole, the determination of the categories which rule within it, the knowledge of its relations to other spheres of life, and the understanding of the meaning of social existence and happening are and remain philosophical tasks, writes Buber. Philosophy does not exist, however, without the readiness of the philosophizing man to make decisions, on the basis of known truth, as to whether a thought is right or wrong, an action good or bad. Thus philosophical treatment of social conditions and events includes valuation -- criticism and demand. Living social thinking only comes to a person when he really lives with men, when he does not remain a stranger to its group structures or entirely outside its mass movements. Without genuine social binding there is no genuine social experience, and without genuine social experience there is no genuine social thought.

Knowledge, for all this, remains an ascetic act. The knower, to be sure, must enter with his whole being into what he knows; he must bring unabridged into the act of knowing the experience which his binding with the situation presents him. But he must make himself as free from the influence of this binding as he is able through the strongest concentration of spiritual power. If this has taken place, he need not concern himself with the extent to which his knowledge is influenced against his will by his membership in a group. On the basis of knowledge won in this way, the social thinker values and decides, censures and demands, without violating the laws of his science. (Martin Buber, Pointing the Way, ‘The Demand of the Spirit and Historical Reality,’ p. 181)

The participation of the knower in the situation which he knows must not be confused with Bergson’s concept of an absolute intuition which gives man a sympathetic knowledge of the world without any separation from it. Bergson no longer abstracts the subjective consciousness from the full human person nor static concepts from the dynamic stream of time, as did the earlier metaphysicians whom he criticizes, but he fails to see the real difference or distance between the I and the Thou. Metaphysical knowledge, according to him, is obtained through an inward turning: the thinker by discerning the process of duration within himself is able to intuit the absolute reality in other things. (Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by T. E. Hulme [New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1949].)

Intuition does not set aside the duality between the beholder and that which is beheld, writes Buber. The beholder places himself in the position of the beheld and experiences his especial life, his feelings and drives, from within. That he can do so is explicable through a deep community between the two, but the fact of duality is not thereby weakened. On the contrary, it is just this division of the original community that lays the foundation for the act of intuition. The intuition which enables us to place ourselves within another person may lessen the difference, but it cannot overcome the tension between our image of the person and the factual existing person. Just as in conversation the tension between the meaning which the word I use has for me and that which it has for my partner can prove itself fruitful and lead to a deeper personal understanding, so out of the tension between the image of a person and the existing person a genuine understanding can arise. The fruitful meeting between two men issues in a breakthrough from image to being. The Thou whom I thus meet is no longer a sum of conceptions, nor object of knowledge, but a substance experienced in giving and receiving.

Intellect operates where we know in order to act with some purpose; instinct operates where we act purposefully without needing knowledge; intuition where our whole being becomes one in the act of knowing. Intellect holds us apart from the world which it helps us use; instinct joins us with the world but not as persons; intuition binds us as persons to the world which is over against us without being able to make us one with it. The vision which intuition gives us is, like all our perceptions, a limited one, yet it affords us an intimate glimpse into hidden depths. (Pointing the Way, ‘Bergson’s Concept of Intuition’ [1943], pp. 81-86. After this book was in proof, I received from Professor Buber ‘Der Mensch und sein Gebild,’ a new lecture on the anthropology of art. The fourth section represents so significant a development in Buber’s epistemology that I feel it should be paraphrased here: Our relation to nature is founded on numberless connections between movements to something and perceptions of something. Even the images of fantasy, dreams, delirium, draw their material from this foundation; our speech and our thinking are rooted in it and cannot withdraw from it without losing their tie with life; even mathematics must concretize itself ever again in the relationship with it. That to which we move and which we perceive is always sensible. Even when I myself am the object of my perceiving movement and moving perception, I must to some extent make use of my corporeality in my perception. The same holds for every other I in genuine communication with me: as my partner, my Thou, he can be comprehended by me in his full independence without his sensible existence being curtailed. It is not so, however, with all that is treated as an object to which I can ascribe no I. I can present all this in its independence only by freeing it from its sensible representation. What remains, is divested of all the properties which it possessed in my meeting with it. It exists, but not as something that may be represented. We know of it only that it is and that it meets us. Yet in all the sense world there is not one trait that does not stem from this meeting. The sense world itself arises out of the intercourse of being with being. [‘Der Mensch und sein Gebild,’ which will be a part of Buber’s forthcoming book on philosophical anthropology, was published by Verlag Lambert Schneider, Heidelberg, 1955.])

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