A Winters Tale

Simon Smith


Looking up from my books I let my eyes wander to the grimy window and the chilled world outside. Trees stripped by a snarling November, stand guard at intervals, casting ragged shadows across the buildings opposite, bare bones unwarmed by the knife-edged sunlight. I watch the people, tightly swaddled in scarves and heavy coats; there are few hats these days, bright red ears are given up mercilessly to the coming winter. Listening to the solid rap of their footsteps on the pavement I sit back and chew on the end of my biro. Curiosity uncurls in my living room. As Marlow [1] once said; questions to be considered, got their tongues hanging out waiting to be asked.

These heavy coats and scarves that trundle past my window; how do I know that there are people inside? The figures hurrying past, with destinations and purposes - places to go, people to see - but how do I know that they are people and not carefully constructed automata? After all, if they can do it in California [2], why not Brighton?

Taking a mental step back from the window I switch on the glaring light of introspection and attempt a review of the evidence that suggests that there really are people like myself; conscious agents, 'selves' rather than Hollywood actors. Though Solipsism may loom, I shall take a stand on what I know. I shall not let my eyes see nor my ears hear that which I cannot account for. Even if that does mean abandoning any shred of common sense I may have acquired.

This, in essence, is how philosophical anthropology generally starts. The inquirer begins, in isolation, to ponder the notion of others, similarly isolated, and the concept of the 'individual' takes centre stage in the discourse. For Descartes, the result was a thinking thing; for Kant - who reopened the case in the first place - it was a rational animal; all Hume found was a loose bundle of ideas and impressions held together, it seems, only by the remarkable capacity for misunderstanding the meaning of human existence.

Turning, however, to a more phenomenological approach one can see that for writers such as Sartre, Camus and Buber, the question itself, when framed like this, seems to make little sense. For Buber in particular; if an attempt to discover what a person is begins with the idea that this 'person' - to be fully understood - must be abstracted from their situation, individuated and seen, ultimately, as only contingently a member of the larger group of individuals we call a species, it cannot succeed. This whole approach emerges, it seems, as a result of philosophy taking it's cue from the natural sciences and it is in this misconception that we can see the self move from being a person to being a concept. There is no logical reason why a concept cannot be analysed in abstraction but to withdraw a human being from the concrete modes of living in which she naturally exists is fundamentally mistaken. Like Sartre, Martin Buber's philosophy offers a picture of humanity that can account for existence as a life lived in the world.

We can see here that there has been a subtle shift in the nature of the question; where traditionally, the focus has been upon substance or the character of the 'thing-hood' that 'person' possesses, this approach begins, as Heidegger did, with an attempt to understand the meaning of 'being'. There is a relatively simple answer to "what is a person?" It is, "I am". To make any real progress we must ask what this means.

To grasp this idea of a subjective, conscious self, it is important to first understand how I became one.

The concept of reciprocity that Buber presupposes, once again, firmly grounds the self in context as a person. There is a sense in which what - or who - I am is defined by what I do. That is to say, my status as a human being is most obviously instantiated by my taking part in human activities. That I not only can take part in these commonly recognised activities, patterns of behaviour, language use [3], but that I understand them as such, is presupposed by the existence of the 'other' which I began by questioning. I did not invent the language in which I frame these questions; I did not develop the framework within which my actions acquire significance either for myself or others. I was taught how to act, how to manipulate and control my environment; most importantly, perhaps, I was taught how to speak. In seeing the significance of this one may also be able to see the significance of the expression 'Mother Tongue'. It is the language that I have been taught which nurtures me into existence as a self and allows me to take part in the reciprocal nurturing of others. There was no moment of psychic combustion; for Buber a person does not spontaneously burst forth into existence; she is not spilled haphazardly into a world of givens, putting them together like some kind of psychological building blocks in order to build a notion of self.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre offers a similar analysis of the active involvement of the 'other' in my coming to self-awareness. For Sartre, the self only becomes truly conscious as a "Being-for-others" as can be seen in his discussion of "The Look". It is at the point when I become aware of myself, no longer as an observer of my world but as an object of observation for others, that I become aware of myself as a self. Further, it is in the bare spotlight of the other's gaze that I am defined as a person, both psychologically and morally. It is here, both for myself and the 'other', that I am irreversibly made to be. However, the conflict that emerges between my own and the other's view of myself - so clearly expressed in Sartre's play No Exit - which is the point of departure for Buberian philosophy.

While, for Sartre, my defining characteristics are given wholly by the other's presence, Buber attempts to show that this object-object relation cannot sustain the weight of a developing self. In addition, there is a sense in which Sartre's position appears to be circular since if the 'other' is defining my identity - as a voyeur, a philosopher or a pervert, for example - then surely they are also, to some extent, defining how I view them.

To return to the idea of being 'taught' to be a person; when my parents gave me a language to use, I was not given a list of tightly determined concepts and expression which I was then permitted the use of in particular patterns. I was not taught to speak or think in one particular mode. Rather, I was, to a great extent allowed the run of the linguistic structures to which I was being introduced; I was given the freedom to construct and develop my use of language as far as I wished. I was not made, but I was given the tools to make of myself what I will. Once again, in being made to make myself, I was nurtured into being in order that I may, in my turn, become a nurturer.

The Sartrean Individual, still haunted by solipsism, does not freely enter into these reciprocal relations. As identity and its meanings are imposed, we find no sense of mutual recognition - the significance of Buber's repeated use of the term meeting becomes apparent - and the 'other' can only ever be seen as just that: other.

The relation that Buber describes in I and Thou is a conjunction - firmly opposed to Sartre's adversarial disjunction. It is a dialogue, a meeting where I ask and offer complicity; and it is this active reciprocity that is expressing the truly human contact of the term I-Thou.

In fact, Buber presents us with two Primary Words: I-Thou, and I-It. Fundamental is the realisation that there is a sense in which these terms must precede our ordinary understanding of the world. 'Ordinary', here is intended to include not only the everyday-ness of which we are a part, but also our rationalising and classifying tendencies as human agents. That these 'primitive' expressions represent dialogues can be most clearly seen in the form Buber has chosen to describe them; I-Thou is a dyadic, a conjunction of two only conceptually separable terms to form a single primary word.

By using the terms I-Thou and I-It Buber is attempting to show that the relations that they signify are themselves the conscious conjunction, the meetings, in which the self is irrevocably engaged. One should also be aware that these relations are not separate or distinct worlds, in the manner of Kant's phenomena and noumena, but rather they are attitudes in which we, as persons are free to take a stand. They are options that are always open to us.

I-It is the relation of the individual to a world of objects; I-It is the relation in which the active agent, the acquirer of knowledge takes her stand. In this relation, understanding emerges from accreting of sums of qualities in order to define and delineate the world as a collection of things. In short, it is world of objects and explanations of objects.

In I and Thou Buber asserts that this relation, although an integral part of the human condition, cannot be spoken with the whole being. It is not a complete relation and so the primary word I-It can only be taken as an attitude expressing limited engagement with the world. What Buber is getting at here is the notion of the person as an observer and experiencer. While he clearly recognises the active and pro-active role this individual takes in their understanding, this cannot be a meeting in the sense of I and Thou since the world of I-It is regarded as the object of knowledge and experience.

There is a sense in which this 'It' has taken over the passivity that was so intrinsic to the Humean analysis of the individual. It is taken up for examination and classification, for deconstruction and description as 'a loose bundle of named qualities'. Furthermore, I do not simply play my part in speaking the primary word I-It; I also take my place in it as something to be understood. In effect, Buber is arguing that I am not simply a gestalt - either as I am experienced by the 'other' or myself - and to assume that either this is all that 'I' am or 'It' is cannot do justice to the full scope of human contact that is available.

Although it may appear that Buber is attempting to get some sort of essentialist doctrine off the ground here, an essence that transcends our ordinary understanding, that underlies the substance of either the self or the world, this, I think, would be a grave misinterpretation. What is being discussed here is a more or less complete view of a person. In taking my stand in the I-It there is something that is not fully disclosed and it will remain so unless I can recognise the reality of the relations of which I am a part. It is this limited and incomplete relation that, not unlike Nietzsche's exhortation to 'overcome' ourselves, Buber is urging us to transcend to the I-Thou. This transcendence is not a going beyond the world - again, one should avoid the obvious analogy with Kant here - but rather a sense of 'depth transcendence'. One need not step outside the world to find a meaning for I-Thou; it's meaning is in the conscious relations in which we take a part.

The word Thou is a term of respect, a recognition of equal value. In taking a stand in such a relation the individual is no longer simply an 'individual' but is, rather, an element of the unity in which I-Thou consists. It is in this meeting of subjective, active selves that true consciousness comes into being. In dialogue I and Thou are disclosed to one another as standing in reciprocal complicity with one another. It may even be possible to argue that what Buber is suggesting goes beyond the notion of conjunctives.

That Buber is not talking about I and Thou is clear; it is a combining of these, only conceptually separable, notions in a tighter unity than can be adequately expressed other than by regarding this as a primary word. There is a sense in which I-Thou cannot be divided into its parts while maintaining the integrity of the expression and the fundamental character of the meeting. This is not to say that it is in any, particularly a divine, sense absolute or inviolable. When I turns away from Thou, as it inevitably will, in attempting to classify and describe the relation in which it stands - and thereby draw limits around it - it is here that the I-It is birthed into conscious experience.

In conjoining the self and the 'other' in this way, as a primitively social unit, Buber has shown that mankind is a connatural animal. Spiritually, psychologically, it is in the dialogue between I and Thou that the reciprocal relation allows an understanding of myself - i. e. my-self - as coeval with others. It is this that is signified by the Primal Word.

I-Thou cannot be experienced as such in that it cannot be the object of experience - that is, experienced in the way we experience I-It - it can only be met. In preceding I-It, I-Thou must also precede experience and it may be that language, which is too often a part of I-It, is perhaps inadequate to express the significance or meaning that is to be found in this meeting. There is no easy paraphrase for I-Thou.

What I have found, then is far more subtle than the notion of personal identity we usually meet when philosophy begins its reductive dissection of the individual. The I is fully realised in I-Thou, but this is not the I-Self that is at the heart of introspection. What I have found is not some Cartesian ego that is individuated - and therefore isolated - or even the re-united body and mind that constitutes a person among other people; a 'me' as opposed to a 'you'. The self that is at the centre of Buber's philosophy is an I that exists only as it stands in relation to a Thou standing over against it.

While many philosophers may hold deep reservations about the mystical or spiritual implications that Buber is drawing out of a phenomenological view of humanity's place in the world, one intuitively feels that a life lived in this way, lived as a fully conscious life is profoundly and intrinsically religious in character.

Putting down my pen I turn back to the window, the rumble of traffic provides a background hum for the people living out their lives on the other side of the glass. The self that I found naked and alone under the spotlight of my introspection has become a phantom, fading to a washed out grey as the afternoon sunshine creeps across the floor of my living room. When I found that the ghost in my head couldn't speak, the spotlight didn't seem so bright after all, nor the unlit corners quite so dark. Curiosity has curled up and gone back to sleep. I have a friend who has no interest in philosophy whatsoever. I think Ill go and tell her about Martin Buber.

  1. Philip, not Christopher.
  2. Cali-fornicate(sic)?
  3. Which is itself perhaps the most fundamental form in which conscious existence acquires significance.

© Simon Smith 2000


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