i and thou

Martin Buber with his wife Paula
What's the deal with Buber's I & Thou?

The deal can be understood in terms of the defining difference between a) I-It and I-You relations - and also in terms of the relation between b) relationship itself and the individuals related. That much is common wisdom.

A quick note on b). Buber has it that relationship precedes the individuals in it. But surely that's sensu stricto nonsense. (The concept of a relation presupposes that of relata.) Just as much nonsense as the idea which he is challenging - that the individuals precede the relationship. What in any case I suspect he really meant to say was that, a la Heidegger, they are equiprimordial. I'll take it that this is what b) is all about: that I am the person I am in my relationship to you, and our recognition of one another partly constitutes us; I do not obtain independently of my relatedness. In the rest of this post I'll focus on a).

In an I-It relationship I approach the other as an object. OK, but what does that mean? It's not good enough to rely on a flabby pre-understanding of 'object' vs 'person', or of en soi vs pour soi, or of 'intersubjective' vs 'subject-object relations', to get us into Buber's categories. Surely we want instead to take something back from his thought to enhance our reflective understanding of, just, what is most helpfully meant by encountering someone as either an object or a subject. And in any case, Buber's Thous pertain not just to people or subjects of experience but in some sense, he tells us, to cats and trees as well. Or can I rely on something I read in Kant: that to relate to another as to a You is to see her also as an end in herself and not just as a means to an end of my own? This I think comes closer to it, but doesn't capture all that much of the meaning - and there'd be no point to the Buber if we could just rely on the Kant. Similarly we definitely don't find in Kant a conception of the human subject which is equiprimordial with that of the relationship - so the other (b) relational aspect of Buber's I-Thou is off the table there. (We definitely don't want to end up thinking that to understand an Other as such is to see her as importantly like Me!) Furthermore: sure, I grasp that you have your own ends, and I don't subordinate you to mine. But: what is the essential form taken by an encounter with a being with her own ends which encounter itself recognises just that about the other? That's what we want to know.

Here's a first distinction which looks psychological but which I think can also be grasped in an ontological register: that between being touched or moved by something and that of having a thought about something. I'd also now like to put another couple of contrasting pairs of terms on the table before moving on to the discussion. The second, owed to Piaget, is the distinction between assimilating in judgement something encountered to something already understood, and accommodating the shape of one's understanding to something new. The third, owed to Heidegger, is that between a conception of truth as adequatio or correspondence of judgement and object, and truth as alethia or truthful expressive revelation.

Here is one way to encounter, say, a tree. I go for a walk in the woods, and find a good one. I measure how tall it is, how broad it is. I estimate its age. I identify its species from its leaves and fruits. I perhaps think of what use it could be put to as timber, or as a tree house, or as a shady spot for a picnic. In these ways I encounter the tree as an It, and - let's be clear - there's nothing wrong with that.

But then I get chatting to a deep ecologist. (A 'deep ecologist' is not a profound biologist but someone who thinks of the natural world as possessing sui generic (non-instrumental) value.) And I learn from him that the tree is scheduled to be cut down because it is in the way of someone's building project. I feel sad because I won't be able to show it to my daughter, we won't be able to build a treehouse there, we won't be able to go on picnics under its boughs. He however feels sad that the tree is going to be cut down - punkt. This magnificent tree, this majestic tree, with its age and dignity, the life it has 'led' intersecting and making possible and itself being made possible by all the insects and algae and bacteria and birds and plants that live in and around its roots and branches, this dignified tree that has 'stood' here quietly, solidly, through the ages, this lively tree which pulses in its leaves and fruits with the cycles of the seasons... He lists such properties of the tree not because any of them make the tree valuable - as if the value lay more in the properties than in their bearer - but because, he tells me, he is trying to paint a picture which will help me, impoverished instrumentalist aspirant that I am, see the tree under the aspect of a being with intrinsic value.

Let's suppose he succeeds. Now I start to look at the tree differently. Regarding the tree I wake to wonder. I thereby become open to what we can call its Being. ... Wait - don't get put off by talk of wonder and 'Being'; instead let's understand together what's being talked about. ... Let's consider for
example the different state of mind of someone who is painting an expressive picture of the tree, or who is writing a poem about it. It is possible to do a semblance of either of these activities in an I-It mode: you are commissioned to write a poem about the tree, you putatively discharge your commission by finding some pithy observations and fragments of science and natural history and folklore that can be wrapped up in words that scan and rhyme. Or, you paint a picture which is a near-perfect 'photographic' resemblance of the tree. In neither of these activities do you give the tree a voice. You use your own voice to talk about it. But this isn't poetry or art. We (the reader, the viewer) are not yet addressed by the tree in the art. You (the wannabe artist) have just expressed yourself; you haven't yet expressed the world - or, better, allowed yourself to function as expressive mouthpiece for the (Being of the) tree.

This is the distinction I'm getting at: between me having a thought about the tree - making a judgement of some sort, assigning a species to a genus or a truth value to a proposition - the sense of which proposition is intelligible independently of an encounter with that which the judgement is about - and giving voice to the tree, allowing myself to be touched by it, allowing the weft of my mind to accommodate to the tree's presence, resonating to that presence, being informed by rather than about it. The tree poet is not expressing judgements about the tree, but rather voicing the encounter with it. He is not offering representational truths about it - his propositions are not independently intelligible and then made true or false depending on whether things are the way he suggests (adequatio). Instead he truly expresses the tree, becoming its mouthpiece, accommodating himself to its Being, receptive to its distinctive nature (alethia). (Buber called this 'inspiration'.) Here truth is like the 'truth' of a completely straight line: his words are true in the sense that a tight string is true. When we meet here with a failure of truth we don't meet with inaccurate representation but with a distorted voice, a defence mechanism, disingenuity, false consciousness, a kink in the line.

The person who avows a desire is not reporting their desire but expressing it. They may offer a pretend avowal though, or their avowal may partly distort the desire which finds its way to the verbal surface in garbled form. So too someone who 'avows' the being of tree - someone who invokes it through alethic poiesis - is not issuing a report of their findings, but instead letting the tree speak. The poet may fail in her poetic task, but this failure will not be a matter of false representation but rather of some kind of an intrusive narcissism which distorts the simplicity of avowal with something sentimental or hyperbolic which comes not from the tree's nature but from their own. As Buber has it, their voicing of the tree offers us a revelation of its presence or, as Heidegger might put it, an unconcealment of its Being.

I-It relations are far easier. We are less vulnerable in them. We can just stand back and speak about, rather than lean in in openness and be affected. We can impart or gather information about, rather than ourselves becoming in-formed by, the other.

If we are in an I-It relationship with another we are not vulnerable to intrusive projective identification and comparable enactments. That vulnerability is constitutive, I believe (but what do you think?), of the possibility of real I-You relating, but it's also an openness and vulnerability, a primal wound that lets in both the light (love) but also the darkness (gaslighting, projection, etc.).


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