Martin Buber

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Martin Buber

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Unbelief has no place in this system of thought and – even more significant – neither has doubt. Buber looks out upon the extra-religious world from within a compound where religious experience is accepted without question; the contrast enables him to see the religious situation more clearly. He does not look into the religious compound from a profane world, still less does he develop religious contents from profane knowledge or attempt to combine the two in one comprehensive method. In theological language, he looks upon knowledge from faith, not upon faith from knowledge. As a consequence, his approach to the problem and his mode of expression are those of entreaty rather than logical argument. By a masterly use of language and with the help of vivid imagery, he sets out before the reader this autonomous religious reality which, for him, is the reality. At the same time, Buber’s preference for this mode of expression does not mean that there is no place for logical argument or for a valid appeal to factual evidence within his framework. Indeed, Buber’s earliest and essentially philosophical work, Daniel, contains a distinction that one might well term epistemological, important both in philosophy generally and for Buber’s specific purpose: he gives a description of religious reality by separating out that which does not belong to it – or rather, that which, in so far as it claims to exist in and for itself, does not belong to it – namely the sphere of science with its method and the sphere of the unreflective hurry and bustle of everyday life.

The distinction that Buber makes here is between an orienting and a realising attitude of man towards the things that surround him, By orienting we wish to see our way through the myriad impressions that the world heaps upon us; we seek to obtain a clear picture of the natural order, to classify things and master their properties and to understand them in order to use them. In short, we want, in Buber’s pregnant phrase, to know our way around (Bescheid wissen). With this purpose in mind, we cannot afford to spend much time on the individual thing. We seek out what it has in common with other things, abstracting from its individuality and making it the representative of a species. Even where it is the only one of its kind, it is this kind that interests us – for that determines its place in the system of other kinds, i.e., in the order of nature. We take no more interest in the individual, be it thing or person, than does an official who only thinks of people in so far as he is concerned with them in his official capacity.

In realising we open our eyes to the individual and we become gradually aware of all that is unique in the thing or being before us. It is transformed for us from a number, an example or an instance into something rich, coloured, living and unclassifiable that fills our whole horizon while we contemplate it. We give it all our attention and sympathy, living in it as does a child, captivated by something that comes into its young experience, absorbed and, for an instant, living in it. Such participation is actually impossible for the one who is taken up with orientation. It is too much to demand of a human being that he should give himself up in this way to each and every thing he meets. And yet, it is only this complete attention to a thing that reveals to us its reality; only then do we see it as it really is. Only by the full realisation of a particular content of our consciousness do we enter the domain of reality.

The kind of reality that orientation grasps is sketchy, fleeting, colourless, as are statistics; it is as superficial and relatively unsubstantial as the two-dimensional shadow cast by an actual being of flesh and blood. All the same, this orientational activity of the mind is indispensable; we cannot find our bearings without it. The exigencies of our lives and of science demand that reality should be replaced by a map or chart.