martin-buber Parousia Magazien Rick Davis


Martin Buber Parousia Magazine


Richard Paul Davis

Crystal Lake, Illinois

Abstract: This essay raises several epistemological questions hitherto undiscussed in Buber scholarship, including i) if all knowledge is derived from the I-Thou realm of human experience, what is the status of theoretical knowledge?; ii) Does Buber hold that human knowledge represents the world as it really is in itself?; iii) How is one to characterize our knowledge of the I-Thou relation itself?.  The paper illustrates that many standard criticisms of Buber are based on a failure to adequately consider these questions, and argues that, although Buber did not address these questions directly, he can develop satisfactory responses to them.

Martin Buber's philosophy of "I-Thou" and "I-It" relationships is regarded by many as a genuinely far-reaching breakthrough in modern thought.  Charles Hartshorne has written that we would be "immensely poorer without" Buber's fundamental insights, and pays him the significant tribute of recording that "we are forever in his debt."  Emmanuel Levinas pays tribute to Buber's penetrating analysis of relation, and the act of distancing.  In fact, Buber's identification and development of the I-Thou and the I-It realms of knowledge is regarded as so significant that Karl Heim has been moved to describe it as a "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy. 
    ​Yet Levinas and several others have drawn attention to what they regard as important criticisms of what may be broadly described as the epistemology of Buber's position.  While accepting the profundity inherent in Buber's analysis of I-Thou relationships, and his revelation of the superiority of the I-Thou realm of human knowledge over the I-It realm of human knowledge, many commentators have doubts about the epistemological status of these insights.  In particular, there is at least the suggestion in Buber's philosophy that the I-Thou relation is fundamentally an experienced relation, which, by its very nature, can lay no claim to universal validity.  According to Maurice Friedman, Buber's theory of knowledge is characterized by its insistence on the insight that truth involves participation in Being, and not conformity between particular propositions and that to which the propositions refer.  Truth, conceived in this manner, Friedman believes, cannot claim universal validity, but it can be exemplified and symbolized in actual life.  This in essence, according to Friedman, is what Buber's philosophical work attempts to explain and illustrate.
    ​The problem with this approach to truth is that it cannot be made "objective" in the manner required by philosophers so that it can be laid down as a body of certain knowledge available to all for examination.  An obvious criticism of Buber's view, according to Malcolm L. Diamond, is that human beings can attain certain knowledge only in those matters which do not concern the fundamental problems of human nature and human destiny, for these fundamental problems are immersed in the waywardness of ephemeral encounters.  According to Diamond, "loyalty, love, commitment to God, man and country, are incapable of empirical verification."  Diamond contends that the I-Thou relation identified by Buber is one about which questions concerning its validity continually arise because of its ephemeral, non-empirical nature. 
     ​Charles Hartshorne has attempted to state another problem with Buber's epistemology in a more formal way.  He asks: "What . . . is the logical structure of the contrast between I-Thou and I-It?  [I-Thou] is a mutual or reciprocal relation, affecting both terms.  If this is made a formal requirement, then the only possible relation with anything in the past is I-It."  Levinas raises a quite different problem when he says that Buber's "pure spiritualism of friendship does not correspond to the facts," and that he fails to take human individuality seriously enough in his analysis of the I-Thou relation.  Levinas also suggests that Buber's phenomenological descriptions are not supported by appeal to abstract principles.  These criticisms taken together may seem to count against Buber's philosophy making any lasting contribution to the theory of knowledge.
    ​These are fair and reasonable critical points to raise about Buber's position, yet I think that in the end they mostly fall wide of the target.  I believe these critical points actually have their origin in deeper epistemological questions we must ask of Buber.  This will become clear after we have identified these deeper questions.  I want to suggest that the main questions one should ask about Buber's epistemology are questions which get to the heart of what is distinctive about his epistemology.  These questions are: i) if all knowledge is derived from the I-Thou realm of human experience, what is the status of theoretical knowledge, such as philosophical, scientific, theological and mathematical knowledge?; ii) Does Buber hold that human knowledge represents the world as it really is in itself?; iii) How is one to characterize our knowledge of the I-Thou relation itself?; and iv) Does Buber even believe in "knowledge," if the term is understood to include a correspondence between beliefs or propositions in one's mind, and their objects in the external world?   As we shall see, Diamond's criticisms involve (i) and (iv), Hartshorne's point is primarily related to (iii), and Levinas's objections are related to i), especially the nature of the I-Thou relation, and also to iii).
    ​I will try to illustrate in what follows that these questions are legitimate questions, and that Buber can develop a quite satisfactory response to most of them.  In my view, he does not address these questions very well in his work, or make his answers to them clear, and this has in part contributed to misunderstandings.  It is the case also that these particular questions have been much neglected in Buber scholarship, and it is hard to find any detailed discussion of them.  Yet I think it is fair to say that they are among the most crucial questions one needs to ask about Buber's thought, and, since his epistemology can generally handle them, it does represent a genuine contribution to philosophy.
    ​Before going any further, I wish to say a word about the term "epistemology."  I suspect that Buber would be uneasy with this term, and would be inclined to reject it.  Yet I believe that it is an appropriate term to use when discussing that aspect of his work which is our present focus.  I mean by "epistemology," a philosophical examination into the nature of human knowledge and justification, and despite Buber's restricted use of the term "philosophical" to refer to a branch of the I-It realm of knowledge (as we shall see), it will still be appropriate to describe his position as an epistemology, and to ask of it the epistemological questions I have identified above.  Of course, I also need to emphasize that the term is not designed to trap him into accepting categories he rejects. (This will become clear in our discussion.)
    ​It is crucial at the outset of any consideration of Buber's general epistemological position to realize that he begins his mature thought by drawing attention to the basic ontological structure of human experience: "The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude."  The twofold attitude is, of course, comprised of the dialogical I-Thou relationship, and the monological I-It relationship.  To put the issue more clearly, these are the two ways of knowing in human experience, and it is part of the great legacy of Buber's thought that in his analysis of human knowing he has undertaken a realistic, accurate and philosophically valuable account of the ways in which we arrive at our knowledge, ways which are intimately bound up with how we experience the world.
    ​Buber's move beyond the traditional division of the knowledge of reality into an exclusively subject-object epistemology is developed and explained through his phenomenological description and analysis of the I-Thou relation in human experience.  Because of space limitations, I will not spend a great deal of time providing an exposition of Buber's account of the I-Thou relation; this part of his thought is well known, and need not occupy us too much.  Further, there are many excellent studies of this relationship.  The crucial issue for my view is the epistemological implications of his I-Thou analysis.  Buber's basic claim is that the I-Thou relation is a relation which can only be spoken with one's whole Being, i.e., it can be known only through the experience of genuine relation with the Other.  Buber characterizes the I-Thou relation as one in which the basic feature of the ontological structure of human existence is revealed to the human subject.  It is not, however, revealed in conceptual knowledge, for such knowledge limits and confines, by its very nature.  What this means is that when we talk about the I-Thou relationship in conceptual terms, something is inevitably lost in the descriptions.  This is because the actual experience of the I-Thou relation is beyond conceptual knowledge; it is fundamentally an experienced relation.  As he puts it, "Nothing conceptual intervenes between I and Thou . . . ." (IT 62).  In the case of the I-Thou relation, any attempt to fully express it conceptually would be futile and would serve only to distort an experience which is inexpressible.  Yet it is one of Buber's central insights that, although inexpressible, the I-Thou relation, which, according to him, is possible between life with others, life with nature, and life with God, can be fully revealed and therefore "known," in the actual experience of the relation by the human subject.
    ​The I-Thou relation, though the primary aspect of the ontological structure of our Being, is often eclipsed by the second, and secondary, aspect of that ontological structure, an aspect which is characterized by I-It relations.  The I-It relation can be known fully through conceptual knowledge for it deals with objects which have instrumental use in that they can be possessed, manipulated, exploited, etc.  Complete mastery of the relation is possible at this level, because all reciprocity, mystery and the inexpressible otherness of the "object" is abstracted in an act of conceptual domination.  Further, for Buber, the I-It world, or the world of objective knowledge and therefore of philosophy, theology, mathematics and science, is derived from the I-Thou world (EG 31).  Since the fundamental aspect of our ontological structure is revealed in the I-Thou relation, it is no surprise that it is this relation that we first experience as a child.  Indeed, we long for it: "The innateness of the longing for relation is apparent even in the earliest and dimmest stage.”

This meeting of the I and the Thou in the child's experience even precedes the child's awareness of himself, according to Buber.  It is only later that the split comes in the relation, firstly, when I affirm my own existence, and, secondly, when the second aspect of our being, the conceptual dimension, makes itself manifest.  Buber expresses it thus:

. . . the longing for relation is primary, the cupped
hand into which the being that confronts us nestles;
and the relation to that, which is a wordless
anticipation of saying Thou, comes second.  But the
genesis of the thing is a late product that develops
out of the split of the primal encounters, out of the
separation of the associated partners--as does the
genesis of the I. In the beginning is the relation--
as the category of being, as readiness, as a form
that reaches out to be filled, as a model of the
soul; the a priori of relation, the innate Thou

    ​This is the gradual process of the child's movement from an I-Thou world to an I-It world, and the child gradually establishes for himself or herself the world of "objective" reality.  Nevertheless, this objective world, according to Buber, while playing its own central role in the acquisition of knowledge and in human experience generally, is dependent upon and derived from the prior meeting with the Thou.  The danger is that in the move from I-Thou to I-It the original structure of Being is likely to be forgotten and the I-It world established as the realm of truth.  Buber's thought on this point is not that far removed from Heidegger's quest to retrieve the meaning of Being from our state of forgetfulness, a state which is motivated by our obsession for conceptual mastery of experience.  Of this, we shall have more to say later.

    ​It is helpful at this point to distinguish between two senses of the word "knowledge," and to point out how they are significant for understanding Buber's thought.  Buber does not make this distinction himself explicitly, yet it will serve to help us answer our question about whether Buber believes in knowledge.  We can distinguish between knowledge at the I-It level, and knowledge at the I-Thou level.  At the I-It level, the term "knowledge" describes the relationship between the beliefs in our mind and the objects in the external world.  So, for example, at this level I can say I know that I have just graded a stack of exams.  My belief that I graded the exams corresponds to what actually happened in the external world.  I have knowledge of this fact.  This is the way the term "knowledge" is usually understood in modern epistemology.  Yet, at the level of the I-Thou experience, I think Buber would allow that we have "knowledge" of the I-Thou experience too.  However, it is not a propositional knowledge, or a knowledge which involves agreement between our beliefs and the objects in the world.  It is not an agreement between my belief that the I-Thou experience is real and profound, and the fact that it is real and profound, for example.  It is a deeper kind of knowledge than this--where I know that the I-Thou experience is real and profound because I actually experience it, not because I am matching up a propositional belief with an experience.  In this sense, this second type of knowledge is non-conceptual, but nevertheless real and an essential part of human existence.  This is perhaps Buber's main argument in the whole of his thought.

    ​Yet a second observation is also crucial.  This is the point that I-It knowledge is derived from I-Thou knowledge.  So Buber concludes that I-It knowledge is not the only type of knowledge, and it is not even the main type of knowledge.  We might put this differently by saying that the realm of I-Thou knowledge is ontologically primary for Buber, in the sense that all other types of knowledge must be understood in terms of it, and it is not understood in terms of any other realm of knowledge.  However, the actual nature of the derivation of I-It knowledge from I-Thou knowledge is a key (and controversial) claim, and must be elaborated further.

    How is the I-It world in general derived from the I-Thou world?  Buber's answer to this question is very similar to that of many other existentialist philosophers, who held that human subjectivity was not only important, but that it had profound epistemological significance.  While the existentialists differed among themselves over how to develop this view, Buber holds that we first participate in reality, and then conceptual knowledge involves a stepping back from or an abstraction from this more fundamental level of human existence.  According to Buber, the subject lives at the level of I-Thou, the level of Being, and at this level is not primarily a thinking subject.  This realm is ontologically basic; it is the realm where the subject's experiences take place at the level of existential contact, and not at the level of abstraction.  The (conceptual) meanings of our experiences at the basic level of I-Thou can later, and then only partially, and with great difficulty, be abstracted by the intellect and presented as "objects" of knowledge available for all to consider.  In short, the basic level of I-Thou is not fully accessible to conceptual or theoretical thinking.  This is important because there is a strong tendency in modern thought to reduce everything to the level of I-It. 

      ​At the level of I-It, we operate with conceptual generalizations and the use of abstract thinking.  This is the kind of reflection which seeks functional connections and which is operative in the sciences, mathematics, and "theoretical thinking" of any kind.  It involves a "standing back" from, or abstraction from, our fundamental involvement with things, with nature, with others and with God (hence Buber's critique of traditional theology), and engages in an enquiry which proceeds by means of disinterested concepts, which have shareable, public, and, therefore, universal content.  One of Buber's main epistemological claims is that the level of I-It cannot give an accurate or full description of the level of I-Thou; the I-Thou level is therefore superior to I-It. 

    ​The experience of the I-Thou relation for Buber also indicates that it is in intersubjective relations, i.e., in the meeting between I and Thou, that the I truly finds self-"knowledge," or self affirmation.  As I become I, I say Thou.  This again affirms the absolute primacy of the I-Thou relation as the basic feature of the ontological structure of human existence.  Without the I-Thou experience, there is no knowledge, the I does not fully know itself, and conceptual knowledge is deficient because it is unaware of its origin from and dependence upon the I-Thou relation.  In this case one who possesses conceptual mastery of the objective world in isolation from the I-Thou experience, or who sets up the I-It world as the primary ontological realm, has cut themselves off from Being, and, therefore, from truth.

    ​Given this brief characterization of the fundamentals of Buber's "dialogical" philosophy, we are in a position from which to focus on the specific epistemological issues raised by his analysis.  My aim here is to consider--assuming that his general analysis is broadly correct--how he would deal with our three remaining questions.  What about our question, as to what is the status of theoretical knowledge, such as philosophical, or scientific knowledge, if it is derived from the I-Thou realm?  This question gets its import from two concerns: first, what does it mean to say that such knowledge is derived, and second, does the fact that such knowledge is derived compromise in any way its claim to objectivity?  While Buber does not directly address these concerns, I believe his position on the first point is broadly similar to Marcel's and Heidegger's. 
    ​According to Marcel, the subject is fundamentally an embodied being in a situation, and is not solely a thinking or knowing subject.  This is because the subject is always located in a specific context by virtue of its particular embodied situation in the world.  Therefore, the objects which are the subjects of conceptual analyses in any kind of abstract thinking are first of all experienced in the actual world.  Then they are abstracted and presented in a series of concepts as objects for all to consider.  For example, take this desk that I am now writing on.  I experience (i.e., know) this desk primarily at the level of existential contact, and not at the level of abstraction.  In this sense, the desk has a particular meaning for me which it does not have for anybody else.  This meaning is bound up with my fundamental situation in existence.  In this way, my context as an experiencing subject defines to an extent how I experience objects in the world.

   ​ Marcel elaborates this view by distinguishing between primary and secondary reflection, and between problem and mystery.  He argues that the realm of conceptual knowledge (or primary reflection) typically deals with problems of various kinds.  Problems require conceptual generalizations, abstractions, and an appeal to what is universal and verifiable in human experience.  However, the realm of the problematic cannot give an adequate account of what Marcel's calls the being-in-a-situation of the human person, the person's fundamental involvement in the world at the level of personal experience.  This involvement takes place, according to Marcel, in the realm of mystery, a realm where the distinction between subject and object breaks down.  Many of our most valued and profound experiences occur at this level, e.g., of hope, love, fidelity, and faith.  These experiences are all mysterious because they intimately involve the questioner in such a way that the meaning of the experience cannot be fully conveyed by means of an abstract conceptual analysis.  From the philosophical point of view, such experiences can be recovered by means of secondary reflection, a general term which refers to both the act of critical reflection on primary reflection, and the realization or existential assurance of the realm of mystery, beyond primary reflection. 

    ​Heidegger holds that dasein's (human being's) fundamental ontological state is that of a being-in-the-world.  This way of experiencing the world is ontologically basic, and the "theoretical attitude" involves a standing back from, or abstraction from, this basic level, and is derived from it.  Heidegger illustrates this point further by appeal to the distinction between the realms of ready-to-hand, and present-at-hand.  At the level of being-in-the-world, we deal with the objects of our experience in practical, everyday ways, as "equipment" or as "tools" for our projects.  They are said to be "ready-to-hand."  In my office, for example, my desk becomes part of a totality; it tends to disappear as an "object"; I am usually not even "aware" of the characteristics of the desk as I become "absorbed" in my various projects (for example, grading exams).  It is crucial to note that I do not simply regard the desk as being in a context; it is in a context by virtue of its function in the totality of my office surroundings.  Nor am I regarding the desk from the theoretical or conceptual attitude when I am engaged in a particular project.  Yet the ordinary course of human experience will prompt me from time to time to regard the desk from the theoretical point of view; for example, it might become "conspicuous" by breaking, for example.  In this case, I will abstract from my context of grading, and look upon the desk as "present-at-hand," as isolated from the context in which it had a more fundamental meaning.  Heidegger goes on to argue that once we understand in detail the nature of these two realms of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand, and their relationship, our approach to epistemology, among other things, will be radically changed.  Now Buber, I think, would broadly agree with the thrust of both these accounts by Marcel and Heidegger.   

    ​So, applying this general approach to Buber, what happens at the level of abstraction is that I set aside all that is personal and contextual in my experience of the desk, and I look at the desk solely as an abstract object.  I have a concept of the desk which captures essential features of the desk--its shape, color, texture, what it is made of, etc.  This is the abstract meaning of "this desk" captured in conceptual knowledge, and, of course, concepts have universal, public content.  This is why everybody has essentially the same abstract concept of the desk.  We could move to a further level of abstraction to the concept of "desk in general," and so forth.  (This is the level of I-It for Buber, the level of primary reflection for Marcel, and the level of present-at-hand for Heidegger).  So my abstract understanding of the desk is then derived from the more fundamental way I experience it, and represents a particular way of looking.  We might say that for Buber (as for Heidegger and Marcel) we understand the world from the top down (i.e., first from the experience of the desk at the top, all the way down to the conceptual abstraction of the desk), rather than from the bottom up (from the conceptual abstraction of the desk as basic up to our experience of the desk).

    ​This brings us to the second concern, which gets to the heart of the question about the actual status of conceptual knowledge.  We must ask whether Buber believes that theoretical knowledge is objectively true?  Or does it merely represent a perspective on reality, perhaps one of a variety of different perspectives, all of which might have a certain legitimacy?  This question is absolutely crucial, especially since most continental philosophers (with the exception of Marcel) give the latter answer to this question.  Does Buber believe that scientific theories, and by extension, philosophy, theology, etc., all simply represent different ways of looking at the world, whose content could vary depending on who is doing the looking and what they are looking at?  In short, does he believe that, say, scientific theories are relative to the context, or even conceptual framework, of the individual, and so have no claim to objective validity (as Lyotard suggests in The Postmodern Condition)? 

    ​I think this is one of those areas in which Buber's thought is vague, and he does run the risk of coming too close to a kind of relativism.  He certainly appears at times to relativize all truth claims to the human perceiver who is making the claims.  However, let us not forget that he is perhaps led into this by his attempt to emphasize that conceptual knowledge is neither the only, nor the main, category of knowledge.  But not only does he run the risk of relativism (an impossible position to defend), but he also runs the risk of committing what I call "the sin of relativism"--contradicting himself by making objectively true (context-independent) claims, and then claiming that it is illegitimate to make such claims.  Even one of Buber's best known commentators seems to think Buber comes close to relativism.

    ​While Buber is guilty of not facing up to this problem in his work, and also of doing much to encourage the interpretation that he is a relativist, I believe he did not see himself as a relativist on this issue, and that he can establish a fairly adequate defense against the charge of relativism.  One of the main reasons he escapes the charge of relativism, and can be given the benefit of the doubt is because of his commitment to key distinctions and insights in his work.  For there can be no doubt that he is claiming that the I-Thou relation is objectively real, that it is distinct from the I-It relation, and also that the I-It relation is not the main way to knowledge.  These are all objectively true, context-independent, claims; he clearly does not believe that one can reject them from some other epistemological standpoint.  We might call them essence distinctions, as are all the substantive (metaphysical) claims he makes in his description of the I-Thou relation, and of the I-It realm, and so on.  He is not trying to hide the fact that he is making these claims, or attempting to obfuscate the issues by using an excessively obscure writing style (like the deconstructionists).  Yet we might still wonder if he ends up in relativism about theoretical knowledge.

    ​I think Buber's position can be defended against the charge that it leads to relativism about scientific, philosophical, theological knowledge, etc.  For Buber can argue that the level of I-It is the level of objective knowledge.  This is because the concepts employed at the theoretical level are objective in two crucial senses.  First, they represent essential features of the objects of experience (at an abstract level) as they really are in the objects, and second, these essential features are also objective in the crucial sense that they are understood by everyone in the same way.  So, to continue with our example of the desk, my (and indeed everybody's) conceptual analysis of the desk will involve concepts which adequately represent essential features of the object in question as they really are, e.g., the shape of the desk, its measurements, texture, what it is made of, its features, etc.  Also, my wife (and indeed anybody) will understand conceptually these features in the same way as I understand them.  Hence, this knowledge is objective because, first, it adequately represents essential features of the objects of experience just as they are in themselves, and, secondly, it represents these features in the same way for all, regardless of each person's particular experiences at the I-Thou level.  In The Eclipse of God, Buber writes that "a skeptical verdict about the ability of philosophy to lead to and contain truth is in no way here implied.

    ​The example I have discussed is a simple example of conceptual abstraction, but Buber's insights apply also to all types of conceptual knowledge, including more complex types, such as theories.  Theories consist of organized bodies of concepts, between which there will usually be complicated logical relationships; but these concepts are still abstracted from experience.  So theories too will be objectively true (if they adequately represent reality) in the sense just described.  A scientific theory, for example, would be objectively true if the parts of reality represented by the concepts utilized in the theory are represented just as they really are.  Of course, theories where the concepts did not match up with reality would be false, would misrepresent reality.  Further, everyone's conceptual understanding will usually not be at the same level; clearly a Heisenberg would understand the atom at the conceptual level in a much deeper way than most.  But the main point is that the concepts in our thinking--at whatever level of abstraction--do, if our thinking is correct and true, adequately and objectively represent the objects of which they are the concepts.  This is just a sketch of a way in which Buber can argue against the charge of relativism, but I believe it is a fruitful one, and one consistent with his thought.

    ​This discussion naturally moves us on to our question of whether human knowledge represents the way the world really is, for Buber?  This question is quite tricky for a philosopher coming from Buber's epistemological standpoint because an important distinction must be made before he can properly address it.  (Otherwise, we will be guilty of implicitly assuming that the I-It level is in fact the main level of knowledge.)  If Buber's general epistemology is correct, I suggest that the meaning of the phrase "things as they are in themselves" now becomes quite blurred.  This is because the answer to the question about "things as they are in themselves" will become relative to the point of view one takes, either that of I-It knowledge, or that of the I-Thou knowledge.  For, if a question about things as they are in themselves is asked from the point of view of conceptual knowledge (the "theoretical attitude"), then a description of our abstract concept of the thing will be sufficient for an understanding of the nature of the thing.  That is to say, if one believes, as Descartes did, that the "theoretical attitude" is the primary way to knowledge, and that this involves selecting those features of things in the external world which are naturally presented in conceptual knowledge, then a description of our abstract concepts is what is required when one asks a question about things as they are in themselves.  If, however, one asks what are things like in themselves from the point of view of the I-Thou relation, one is asking for a phenomenological description of the meaning of the thing in the external world as it is defined in relation to a particular subject.  There is no guarantee that this meaning will be the same for all, although it will be similar, though not identical.  This is i) because many people have similar situations and experiences, though never identical situations and experiences, and ii) because the abstract analysis of the object will be the same for all, as I pointed out above.  Of these two perspectives, I-Thou and I-It, the first one is nearest the truth for Buber, because the second is derived from it, and the first is derived from no other "point of view" of the objects of our experience. 

    ​This brings us to our final question about Buber's epistemology: how is one to characterize our knowledge of the I-Thou realm itself (and also of the I-It realm)?  In short, what kind of knowledge is Buber trying to communicate to us in his own philosophical works?  Is it I-Thou knowledge, or I-It (propositional) knowledge?  The answer is obviously the latter, since his key point is that the I-Thou relation can only be fully known in experience, and that we can have only an inadequate conceptual grasp of it at the level of I-It.  This means then that philosophy is not unnecessary or irrelevant to a consideration of the I-Thou realm.  This point is of great importance in any adequate treatment of Buber's epistemology.  Buber is obviously a philosopher, and has communicated his insights in a philosophical way.  So Diamond's odd claim that in human life the truth about human nature cannot be made "objective" already appears problematic.  In fact, Diamond seems unduly worried that because Buber's I-Thou relation is not empirically verifiable, it will be rejected as not being philosophically defendable.  But why should empirical verification be the criterion of truth?  Hasn't Buber shown that there is in fact a deeper and more fundamental feature of the ontological structure of human knowing which cannot be objectified in a manner that would make it obviously verifiable independent of the experience?  However, this is not to say that we cannot reason objectively about the I-Thou relation, nor that every claim to inexpressible experience (including fanatical claims) must be tolerated.  After all, isn't Buber in his philosophical works reasoning objectively about the I-Thou relation?  There is also a confusion in Levinas's reading of Buber concerning this issue.  Levinas asserts that Buber's descriptions are all based on the concrete reality of perception and do not require an appeal to abstract principles for their justification.  But this seems an incorrect rendering of Buber's view, for what else is Buber's account of the I-Thou relation but an abstract principle, or attempt to convey something of this relation, on a philosophical level?  Indeed, in his concern for the structure of the I-Thou experience, Levinas seems to forget that the I-It experience also has a structure ("the double structure of human existence" {EG 44}), and that the relationship between I-Thou and I-It has a structure, and this oversight tends to distract him from an appreciation of the fundamental philosophical position that Buber is advancing.

    ​It is true that Buber cannot describe fully what the I-Thou relation involves because this realm must ultimately be experienced to be truly known.  Nevertheless, he can to some extent describe the structure of human experience philosophically to reveal that I-Thou relations are possible, valuable and ontologically superior to the I-It relations.  It is then up to us to recover, or retrieve, this experience for ourselves.  In short, the answer to the question of how we can know the I-Thou realm since we cannot think it, is that it must, after the philosopher has identified the I-Thou relation in his or her experience, be "thought," "inadequately conceptualized", "approached" in the I-It realm, where, of course, the intellect, and philosophy, operate.  It is possible, that is, to describe or conceptualize certain experiences (albeit inadequately) which must ultimately be experienced to be fully known.  It is possible to form at least an inadequate concept of the I-Thou experience to the extent that it can be discussed at a  philosophical level.  This is exactly what Buber is attempting in his philosophy.  This is a point which is missed by Diamond, as Buber himself points out:

I-It finds its highest concentration and
clarification in philosophical knowledge, but
that in no way means that this knowledge contains
nothing other than I-It, is nothing other than I-It.
. . .That which discloses itself to me from time to
time in the I-Thou relationship can only become
such knowledge through transmission into the I-It
sphere . . .

This is an excellent statement by Buber of the general position outlined above, and illustrates that Diamond has failed to appreciate the epistemological depth of Buber's view.
    ​Buber's identification of the features of the ontological structure of human experience, which is the foundation of his general epistemological position, makes clear the inappropriateness of Hartshorne's request for the logical structure of the contrast between I-Thou and I-It.  Hartshorne, in approaching Buber's ontology in terms of its "logical structure" is in danger of making the world of I-It, of "objective" knowledge (i.e., of logic, the natural and social sciences, and philosophy) the primary ontological realm of knowledge.  Whereas, for Buber, the I-It realm is a necessary, but secondary, area of experience dependent upon and subservient to the I-Thou dialogical relationship (in the way described above).  For the fact is that I-Thou cannot be judged on the basis of any system of I-It, because, as Friedman has put it:

[I-It systems] . . . observe [the] phenomena after
they have already taken their place in the cate-
gories of human knowing . . . It excludes the really
direct and present knowing of I-Thou.  This
knowing . . . is itself the ultimate criterion for
the reality of the I-Thou relation.

Conceptual knowledge, which belongs to the I-It realm, represents a secondary level of knowing precisely because it is the I-Thou relation which represents the primary mode of our ontological structure.  It is in this mode that we come to know the world, and it is only then that we can come to describe the experiences in conceptual knowledge.  I-It knowledge is, in fact, the "objectification" of the real meeting which takes place in relation to man and his world in the realms of nature, social relations, art and religion.  If this is the case, it is obvious that something of the experience will inevitably be lost in the transition to conceptual knowledge.  The similarity here to Bergsonianism is obvious.  But more of that later.  It is clear, however, that it is only in the I-It realm of conceptual knowledge that the I-Thou would become an I-It.  This means that we have an inadequate conceptual grasp of the experience, not that we have made the experience into an It.  The experience is independent of the concept insofar as it is an experience, and there is no reason, pace Hartshorne, that the experience could not be continuously sustained over a period of time.   It is important to emphasize that Buber is not saying that we have an experience and then we abstract from it, and something is lost in the abstraction.  This is a trivial truth.  He is saying that our fundamental involvement is at level of I-Thou, and all conceptual knowledge is an abstraction from this level.  This has implications for the nature of abstract knowledge in general, specifically that it is not the most basic form of knowledge.

    ​The other central question, of course, about Buber's thought is whether he is right in his claims about the I-Thou realm of knowledge and its superiority over the I-It realm.  His defense of this position is rendered problematic to some extent since he is partly appealing to an experience to make his point, and not to a conceptual argument.  How can we prove that Buber's I-Thou philosophy is, in fact, the correct account of the ontological structure of human beings?  The answer it seems to me is that one cannot "prove" it, but that the I-Thou relation must be experienced for oneself, and then one will have all the assurance one needs.  But this is likely to be of little value as a response to the skeptical philosopher.  And we have the related problem of finding a way to rule out other experiences being claimed as I-Thou experiences.  One area Diamond is particularly worried about is fanatical nationalism: "Uncurbed by the cold light of detached I-It knowledge, it runs rampant, wreaking havoc throughout the world."  What is needed here is a more detailed description of what is involved in the I-Thou relation so that it can be more easily recognized in its manifestations in our experiences, and also a description of those experiences which are not I-Thou experiences.  Buber has not been as forthcoming on these matters as one would wish.  This is partly because of the fact that he nowhere gives a sustained, full description of the I-Thou relation. 

    ​It is interesting to note here, by way of contrast, the manner in which Marcel attempts to circumvent this problem in what is an essentially similar epistemology.  Marcel, in his division of human knowing into secondary reflection (I-Thou) and primary reflection (I-It), attempts to describe the former, superior realm in terms of some concrete examples of recurrent central human experiences, love, fidelity, hope, and faith.  He does this throughout his work, but most profoundly in his plays, where his artistic ability is obviously appropriate to the attempt to express the inexpressible.  Indeed, Marcel makes a penetrating remark in a discussion of Buber's work:

. . . the fundamental intuition of Buber remains
to my mind absolutely correct.  But the whole
question is to know how it can be translated
into discourse without being denatured.  It is
this transposition which raises the most serious
difficulties, and therein probably lies the
fundamental reason why the discovery of Feuerbach
recalled by Buber remained so long without fruit
. . . In my Journal Metaphysique I attempted to
show by a concrete example how this authentic
meeting manifests itself phenomenologically.

Marcel's attempt at a phenomenological description of the I-Thou relation and of a phenomenological and philosophical account of the I-It realm, and its relation to the I-Thou realm, seems to be a fruitful way to proceed in an elaboration of Buber's insights.  In this manner, the correct I-Thou relations can be specified and the pseudo-relations recognized and the philosophical account of the ontological structure of human knowing can be made manifest.  Buber has recognized (as the following remark illustrates), as did Marcel, that his own (inadequate) account of the relation between I-It and I-Thou and of the nature of the I-Thou relation will lead to difficulties of the kind mentioned by Diamond:

No system was suitable for what I had to say
. . . I witnessed for experience and appealed to
experience.  The experience for which I witnessed
is, naturally, a limited one.  But it is not
to be understood as a "subjective" one.  I have
tested it through my appeal and test it ever
anew.  I say to him who listens to me: "It is
your experience.  Recollect it, and what you
cannot recollect, dare to attain it as
experience."  But he who seriously declines to
do it, I take him seriously.  His declining is
my problem . . . I have no teaching.  I point to reality.

   ​ Perhaps some will find this answer in the end not quite satisfactory, and it is evident that Buber has not fully clarified the implications of his epistemology.  Yet the genesis of a new approach is obvious.  The fact that his work may be identified with a broad Bergsonian view is also testimony that he has not specified adequately the relationship between experience and concepts.  His work, unlike Bergson's, does not imply that experience is a flow to which concepts are forever inadequate, since, for Bergson, they continually impose discrete moments on the flow thereby distorting its true (experienced) nature; rather, Buber's work implies that some "knowledge," i.e., of the I-Thou relation, can only be inadequately conceptualized since the relation must be fully experienced to be "known."  But he is perfectly well aware that other knowledge can be fully conceptualized in the I-It realm.

    ​Diamond's general misreading of Buber is now obvious.  Diamond argues that when the presentness of the I-Thou relation has faded and the self is again in the I-It realm questions regarding the validity of the I-Thou encounter emerge again.  But Diamond seems to regard the I-Thou relation as an esoteric experience.  He suggests that the I-Thou experience is a fleeting, almost momentary state which cannot be present over long intervals, and also that it is possible to reach a stage when we are no longer experiencing, but recalling (conceptually) the experience, in such a way that we actually doubt the validity of the experience.  But is this the kind of experience Buber has in mind?  Who would say that Diamond's account is an accurate characterization of human love, for example?  Do we immediately forget the experience and assurance of love when the experience is over?  When is the experience over?  Is love fleeting and momentary?  It seems that love, for example, is just the type of experience that is sustained over a long period, that is inexpressible, and that is its own assurance.  This is the nature of experiences apposite to our primary ontological mode.  And this is precisely what Buber is attempting to convey in the I-It realm (i.e., in the realm of philosophy).  As I have said, however, we could benefit from a more detailed description of the experiences.  In defense of the superiority of I-It knowledge, Diamond contends that critics of Buber might suggest that the scientist has, say, humanity at heart in his search for objective knowledge, at least as much or more than does the subject of I-Thou relations.  But what does it mean to have humanity "at heart"?  Does it not mean that the genuine scientist has a certain relation, through individuals, to the body of mankind which is best characterized as an I-Thou relation?  The scientist's programme of work as a scientist is therefore not guided solely by utilitarian concerns that would be the exclusive domain of the I-It world, but also by his or her I-Thou experiences.  In short, in this case the scientist incorporates the proper balance of the I-Thou and I-It worlds in his or her actions, not exalting one (particularly the I-It) at the expense of the other.  And, of course, this relationship between I-Thou and I-It is an integral aspect of Buber's epistemology.

   ​ It is interesting to speculate on why Buber's (and indeed Marcel's) insights did not have more influence on European philosophy if they really do contribute to our understanding of the ontological structure of human beings.  Why hasn't Buber's philosophy, which Heim believes is "one of the decisive discoveries of our time," not had a wider influence?  My view is that Buber's philosophical position would have become the dominant philosophical movement in European thought had not Heidegger developed a remarkably similar view (as we have seen), except for Heidegger's emphasis on the interpretative nature of human understanding, which led him toward epistemological relativism, a position which I have argued Buber avoids.  Heidegger's view was to have great influence, and it is not uncommon to read statements like that made by Joseph Bleicher:

Heidegger's monumental re-direction of philosophy
rests on counterposing . . . propositional truth with
another kind: aletheia (disclosure).  Heidegger
hereby opened up a dimension of experience more
fundamental than that of the methodical
acquisition of beings.

Now at first sight this reads very like a description of Buber's position, and of course it is, since it was Buber who first opened up this new area, not Heidegger, I and Thou being published five years before Being and Time.  However, it must be emphasized again that, although I have tried to show how Buber might defend the objectivity of knowledge, he himself did not attempt to provide a detailed discussion of and argument for the objectivity of knowledge.  This is in contrast to Heidegger who, whether or not one accepts his hermeneutical view, did attempt to argue for it.  Buber conspicuously fails to consider the whole question of the objectivity of knowledge, including the matter of how one might defend this position against a hermeneutical view like Heidegger's.

    ​The relative obscurity of Buber's work when contrasted with the mainstream of European philosophy has led to much oversimplification of his thought, as he himself is well aware.  Emil Fackenheim has pointed out that a person who experienced an I-Thou relation might not even see it as being real knowledge.  Yet, as Fackenheim agrees, this is just plainly false, and stems from a failure to appreciate fully and recognize the profundity of Buber's epistemology.  It is surely true that individuals not impoverished by the I-It world value I-Thou experiences above all else, and clearly recognize that this is the highest form of knowledge.  There are countless testimonies to this fact in literature, poetry and art.  It is, in fact, because of the self-knowledge attained in the I-Thou experience that Buber rejects Levinas's criticism that the I-Thou relation is too spiritual and does not do justice to individuality.  The I-Thou relation, according to Buber, is not especially spiritual; in fact, it seems to be most powerful when the two individuals involved have no spiritual ground in common at all.  And, rather than Buber's claim that it is in the I-Thou relation that the I, or self-knowledge, is most fully obtained, not corresponding to the facts, Buber says it is, in fact, Levinas's own claim, that it is possible to achieve such knowledge before its Meeting with the Thou, that does not correspond to the facts.  For, according to Buber, solicitude arises out of the I-Thou, not before it.  It is only after one has known an I-Thou relation, that one can know true solicitude.

    ​I hope this discussion of Martin Buber's epistemological position has served to illustrate the key epistemological questions raised by his view, how he might respond to them, and that the most frequent criticisms of his work do not do justice to the profundity of his insights, though this is in part fueled by Buber's failure to explicate in a more adequate way the most significant implications of his thought.  I have suggested that the work of Gabriel Marcel is more successful in this latter task.  In conclusion, I would add, however, that even Marcel's work does not achieve this in a thoroughly satisfactory manner.  As I see it, the task of European philosophy in the coming century must be to rediscover the profound insights for human knowledge contained in the work of Buber and Marcel and explicate them in a phenomenological epistemology and ontology.

Richard Paul Davis (Rick) lives in the Chicago area & is a graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary & several other schools.  He is a poet & has worked in market research, sales, volunteer ministries & in many other positions.

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