Chapter 9: Threshold of Dialogue

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

Chapter 9: Threshold of Dialogue

In addition to Hasidism, Kierkegaard, and Dilthey, the most important influences on the development of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy were Ludwig Feuerbach and Georg Simmel. Buber states in ‘What Is Man?’ that Feuerbach gave him a decisive impetus in his youth. Unlike Kant, writes Buber, Feuerbach postulates the whole man and not cognition as the beginning of philosophizing, and by man he ‘does not mean man as an individual, but man with man -- the connection of I and Thou.’

‘The individual man for himself,’ runs his manifesto, ‘does not have man’s being in himself, either as a moral being or a thinking being. Man’s being is contained only in community, in the unity of man with man-- a unity which rests, however, only on the reality of the difference between I and Thou." (Between Man and Man, op. cit., p. 136 f. Cf. Feuerbach’s Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft [1843], # 61, 33, 34, 42, 64-66.)

Simmel, too, is concerned with relation -- the relation between man and God, between man and man, and between man and nature. He finds in the concept of the divine the substantial and ideal expression of the relations between men, and he draws an analogy between the relations of man and God and those of man and man which comes quite close to Buber’s own I-Thou relation. To ‘believe’ in God, according to Simmel, means not just a rational belief in His existence but a definite inner relation to Him, a surrender of feeling and direction of life. In the same way to ‘believe’ in a man means to have a relation of trust to the whole man, a relation which takes precedence over any proof concerning his particular qualities. On the other hand, there is a one-sidedness and absence of mutuality in Simmel’s idea of relation which sets it at some distance from that of Buber. The important thing to Simmel is that the individual call up unused potentialities in himself. (Simmel, Die Religion, op. cit., pp. 22 f., 31-5, 39 f., 67 f., 75.) This emphasis on the psychological and emotional effects of relation is one that is utterly foreign to Buber, for it tends to remove reality away from the relation back into the individual himself.

Particularly illustrative of the gradual development of Buber’s dialogical thought is his progressive reinterpretation of the feeling of unity with certain objects of nature. In Buber’s essay on Jacob Boehme (1900) this feeling of unity is used to illustrate the idea of man as the microcosm, or little world which contains the whole. In ‘Ecstasy and Confession’ (1909) it is used to illustrate the oneness in ecstasy of the ‘I’ and the world. In Daniel (1913) it is used to illustrate the unity which is created and realized in the world. And in Ich und Du (1922) it is used to illustrate the I-Thou relation, an event which takes place between two beings which none the less remain separate. Two of the specific experiences which Buber mentions in the essay on Boehme -- that of kinship with a tree and that of looking into the eyes of a dumb animal -- are later used in I and Thou as an example not of unity but of the I-Thou relation. Yet the emotional content of the experiences as described in the two works is almost identical! (‘Ueber Jakob Böhme.’ op. cit., p. 252f.; I and Thou, op. cit., pp. 7f., 96f.)

In Ereignisse und Begegnungen (‘Events and Meetings’) (1917) we find the link between Buber’s philosophy of realization and his philosophy of dialogue. What the learned combination of ideas denies, writes Buber in this work, the humble and faithful beholding to any thing confirms. Each thing and being has a twofold nature: the passive, appropriable, comparable, and dissectible and the active, unappropriable, incomparable, and irreducible. He who truly experiences a thing that leaps to meet him of itself has known therein the world. The contact between the inexpressible circle of things and the experiencing powers of our senses is more and other than a vibration of the ether and the nervous system -- it is the incarnate spirit. And the reality of the experienced world is so much the more powerful, the more powerfully we experience it, realize it. There is a common reality which suffices for the comparison and ordering of things. But another is the great reality which we can only make into our world if we melt the shell of passivity with our ardour and strength until the active, bestowing side of things leaps up to meet us and embrace us. The world cannot be known otherwise than through things and not otherwise than with the active sense-spirit of the loving man.

The loving man is one who takes up each thing unrelated to other things. For this hour no other lives than this thing which is alone loved in the world, filling it out and indistinguishably coinciding with it. Where the rationalist draws out the general qualities of a thing and places them in categories, the loving man sees what is unique in a thing, its self. This is the active side which the circle of world comprehensibility misses. In the beloved thing whose self he realizes, the loving man confirms the mysterious countenance of the all. (Martin Buber, Ereignisse und Begegnungen [Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1917], ‘Mit einem Monisten,’ pp. 28-35. Reprinted in Hinweise, pp. 36-43, and in Pointing the Way under the title ‘With a Monist,’ pp. 25-30.)

The ‘loving man’ of Events and Meetings is similar to the realizing man of Daniel. But now the twofold nature of life no longer applies to man alone but is inherent in things themselves. The emphasis, moreover, is not on the unity of things, not even the realized unity of Daniel, but on the meeting between man and what is over against him, a meeting which never becomes an identity. Because this is an encounter and not a perfect unity and because the encounter takes place not between man and passive objects but between man and the active self of things, man is limited in his ability to form and shape the world and hence to overcome the evil in himself and in the world. But he is also greatly aided, for the active self of things responds to his loving experiencing of them so that the force of the world joins his own force to bring his deed to effectiveness.

Buber says in this book that he is not a mystic, and this statement is supported by the emphasis on the life of the senses in many of its essays. (Cf. ‘Der Altar,’ ‘Bruder Leib,’ ‘Der Dämon im Traum,’ and ‘An das Gleichzeitige.’ These essays are all reprinted in Hinweise, pp. 18-35 and 118-120, and in Pointing the Way under the titles ‘The Altar,’ ‘Brother Body,’ ‘The Demon in the Dream,’ and ‘To the Contemporary,’ pp. 11-25, 59-60.) According to Buber’s own later testimony, a personal experience played a decisive part in this conversion from the ‘mystical’ to the everyday. Once after a morning of ‘religious enthusiasm’ he was visited by a young man. Though friendly and attentive, he was not present in spirit. Later he learned that the young man had come to him for a decision. As we are told that he died not long after, we may imagine that the decision was life or death. The elder man answered the questions that the young man asked, but not the ones he did not ask. He did not meet his despair by ‘a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.’ This was, says Buber, an event of judgment.

Since then I have given up the ‘religious’ which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy; or it has given me up. I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens. I know no fullness but each mortal hour’s fullness of claim and responsibility. (Between Man and Man, ‘Dialogue,’ p. 13 f. ‘It was in the late autumn of 1914, and he died in the war,’ wrote Buber to the author on August 8, 1954.)

Simple immediacy and togetherness, writes Buber, is the most effective form of action. More powerful and more holy than all writing is the presence of a man who is simply and directly there. Productivity is only true existence when it takes root in the immediacy of a lived life. It is the ruling belief of our time that production is the criterion of human worth. But illegitimate production, production without immediacy, is no criterion, for it is not reality but delusion. The overvaluation of productivity is so great in our age that even truly productive men give up the roots of a genuinely lived life and wear themselves out turning all experience to value as public communication. The productivity that is already present in the perception of the artist and the poet is not a will to create but an ability to create. It is the formative element of experience which also accompanies all that befalls the non-artistic man and is given an issue by him as often as he lifts an image out of the stream of perception and inserts it in his memory as something single, limited, and meaningful in itself. But if in perceiving a man already cherishes the intention of utilizing, then he disquiets the experience, deforms its growth, and destroys its meaning. He who meets men with a double glance, an open one which invites fellowship and a secret one which conceals the conscious aim of the observer -- he cannot be delivered from his sickness by any talent that he brings to his work, for he has poisoned the springs of his life. (Ereignisse und Begegnungen, pp. 66-76. Reprinted in Hinweisse, pp. 36-43, and in Pointing the Way under the title ‘Productivity and Existence,’ pp. 5-10. Although it is only with Ereignisse und Begegnungen that Buber’s thought becomes really dialogical, there are a number of hints of dialogue and explicit uses of the ‘I-Thou’ terminology in his earlier writing. In his essay on Boehme in 1901 Buber writes that Boehme’s dialectic of the reciprocal conditioning of things finds its completion in Ludwig Feuerbach’s sentence: ‘Man with man -- the unity of I and Thou -- is God.’ [Ueber Jakob Böhme ‘ p. 252 f.] In ‘Lesser Ury’ [1903] Buber writes: ‘The most personal lies in the relation to the other. Join a being to all beings and you lure out of it its truest individuality.’ [Juedische Kuenstler, ed. by Martin Buber, Berlin: Juedischer Verlag, 1903, p. 45 f.] In 1905 Buber uses the term ‘I and Thou’ in a discussion of the drama and of the tension of the isolated individual [Buber, ‘Die Duse in Florenz,’ Die Schaubichne, Vol. I, No. 15, December 14, 1905], and in the introduction to Die Legende des Baalschem [1908] he speaks of legend as ‘the myth of I and Thou, the inspired and the inspirer, the finite who enters into the infinite, and the infinite who has need of the finite.’ Again in ‘Ekstase und Bekenntnis’ [1909] he speaks explicitly of the ‘I’ that creates a ‘Thou.’ In his later essays of this early period the I-Thou terminology becomes more frequent, especially, as we have seen, in his treatment of community and of theophany. For Buber’s own discussion of the development of his dialogical thinking and the circumstances under which he wrote I and Thou [including his statement that he did not read Rosenzweig and Ebner’s books till later because of a two-year period of ‘spiritual askesis’ in which he could do no work on Hasidism nor read any philosophy], see his ‘Nachwort’ to Martin Buber, Die Schriften über das Dialogische Prinzip [Heidelberg: Verlag’ Lambert Schneider, 1954]. For a far more extensive treatment of the influences on Buber’s thought and the development of his early thought than is possible here see the present author’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, ‘Martin Buber: Mystic, Existentialist, Social Prophet,’Part I -- Introduction, and Part II -- The Development of Buber’s Thought, The University of Chicago, June 1950. University of Chicago Library, Microfilm T 809.)

This double-minded need to exploit life instead of live it makes impossible true life within oneself. It also makes impossible true communication between man and man, for only that man who is simply and directly present can directly communicate with others.

Already in 1916 Buber made his first draft of I and Thou, but it was in 1919 that he ‘first attained decisive clarity.’ In the light of his new understanding he undertakes to explain those parts of his earlier writings which now appear to him inexact or conducive to misunderstanding. Religious reality, he writes, is not what takes place in ‘inwardness,’ as is generally thought today, but what takes place between man and God in the reality of relation. The statement that whether God is transcendent or immanent does not depend on God but on man is consequently inexact. It depends on the relation between God and man, which, when it is actual, is reciprocal action. Also unsatisfactory is the statement that God arises out of the striving for unity. ‘God’ cannot arise, only the image of God, the idea of God, and this also cannot arise out of the human but only out of the meeting of the divine and the human. The form in which men recognize God and the conception which men have of Him cannot, to be sure, come into being without the cooperative participation of the creativity of a human person, but what is at work there is no myth-projecting fantasy but man’s way of going forth to the meeting. The meeting with God does not rise out of ‘experience’ and therefore out of detached subjectivity, but out of life. It does not arise out of religious experience, which has to do with a division of the psychic, but out of religious life, that is, out of the whole life of men and of peoples in real intercourse with God and the world.

The concept of the realization of God is not inexact or improper in itself, writes Buber, but it is improperly applied when one speaks of making God out of a truth into a reality. It can thus mislead one to the opinion that God is an ‘idea’ which only through men becomes ‘reality’ and further to the hopelessly perverted conception that God is not, but rather becomes -- in man or in mankind. This opinion is perverted not because there is no divine becoming in the immanence, but because only through the primal certainty of divine being can we come into contact with the mysterious meaning of divine becoming, the self-division of God in creation and His participation in the destiny of its freedom.

By the same token the summons of our human existence cannot be to overcome the division of being and reality in order to let the divine take seed, grow, and ripen in the perceptible world. We cannot hold with the concept of a reality which is relative and far from God. This concept comes from a division between the ‘thinking’ and the ‘feeling’ relation of the ‘subject’ and makes out of this psychological and relative duality of functions an absolute duality of spheres. If we comprehend ourselves in the God-world fullness in which we live, then we recognize that ‘to realize God’ means to make the world ready to be a place of God’s reality. It means, in other, holy words, to make reality one. (Reden, op. cit., pp. xi-xix.)

Henceforth the emphasis in Buber’s thought is not, as heretofore, on the process of realization but on the meeting of God and man and the theophany that illuminates human life and history as the result of that meeting. Only in this development, which has here reached mature expression, has Buber gone decisively beyond the subjectivistic and time-centred vitalism of Nietzsche and Bergson. Only through this final step has he reached the understanding that, though the external form changes, the essence of theophany -- the meeting between man and God -- remains the same. ‘God wills to ripen in men,’ Buber has written. Yet it is not God Himself who changes and ripens, but the depth and fullness of man’s encounter with God and the ways in which man expresses this meeting and makes it meaningful for his daily life. If God were entirely process, man could not know where that process might lead. There would be no basis then for Buber’s belief that the contradiction and ugliness of life can be redeemed through the life of man in the world.

Buber’s shift in emphasis to the two-directional meeting of God and man leaves no further room for the concept of an impersonal godhead coming to birth in the soul. God is now, to Buber, the Eternal Thou whom we meet outside as well as within the soul and whom we can never know as impersonal. This does not mean that Buber’s new I-Thou philosophy is irreconcilable with the metaphysics of the Kabbalah and Hasidism, but only with his earlier interpretations of that metaphysics. Man’s power to reunite God with His Shekinah, Buber writes in a mature work, has its truth in the inwardness of the here and now but in no way means a division of God, a unification which takes place in God, or any diminution of the fullness of His transcendence.’What turgid and presumptuous talk that is about the "God who becomes"; but we know unshakably in our hearts that there is a becoming of the God that is.’ (Hasidism and Modern Man, op. cit., Book V, ‘The Baal-Shem-Tor’s Instruction in Intercourse with God,’ pp. 215-218; I and Thou, p. 82.)

Buber’s new position thus does not exclude a becoming of God in the world but only the concept of God as pure becoming or as ideal which is not yet reality. If creation were not divine, if God were not immanent as well as transcendent, then we would have a gnostic division between God and the world which would leave the world for ever cut off from God and for ever unredeemable.