Martin Buber

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Martin Buber

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At this point, a serious problem can arise. We are inclined to forget that all of our information ultimately comes from individual experience of actual events and that all orientation ultimately springs from realisation. We forget the real and remember only the schematic, putting the map in place of that which it represents. We slip into a second-hand existence – third and even fourth-hand – into an existence in which we know what to expect from things and from man; but we do not know what things and man are in themselves. Worse, just as beings outside of ourselves lose their full reality, so we, too, lose part of our reality. We become fragments of real people.

How does this come about? Orientation, by superimposing on the complexity of the human world a schema that will enable us to find our way about, teaches us to see in things and man features that are familiar. But in doing so, it also trains us to overlook a fundamental feature, characteristic of the reality that these things constitute, namely their polarity. There is a rift that cuts across the world of reality, a duality and opposition discernible everywhere, extending even to the soul of man. That duality appears in cosmological principles, in becoming and being, matter and spirit, substance and form, life and death, reason and will; it also appears in every schism and faction in human society and in the division within our own spiritual nature.

Orientation makes light work of this fracture in reality; systems of every variety are offered to render division harmless. Monistic, theological, epistemological and mystical orientation all have ready names of pairs for this deep rift, names intended to conjure away the abyss that splits all being, to save man from experiencing it with his whole soul. Monists, for instance, speak of subject and object or of consciousness and things and declare the dualism to be an illusion. Christians, speaking of a gulf between man and G-d, say that it is bridged by their belief in salvation. Epistemologists speak of a gap between idea and experience, bridged by their conceptual constructs even though they still need to accept them in real life. Mystics speak of a division between the illusionary and the real world, thus making the duality itself an illusion and deceiving themselves and others as to the depth of the genuine, experienced contradiction in all its forms. That also applies to all who aim at a mediation, an accommodation or smoothing out of the conflicting principles. All lighten the weight and blunt the edges of the reality of opposites that must, however, again and again break the shallow compromises, since in the compromise neither of the opposites is allowed its due right.

People who are led the furthest away from reality on the vast battlefield of hostile groups are probably those who embrace a party. Buber, in a later work, describes them as ‘those wearing conceptual spectacles, who were taught by everything that taught them to see, not human beings but bourgeois and proletarian, the educated and the uneducated, fellow-countrymen and aliens, supporters of the party and enemies of the party, those true to the faith and those who oppose it…’ And, by reducing others to schematised characters in a play, we soon become ourselves such semi-living marionettes. As soon as we anchor ourselves to a single point in the turmoil, our particular point of view, our willing and striving impulse throw opposites out of perspective. Our own personality, our self is thereby stunted, diminished by that which is actually alive in those opposite to us.

Here we reach the main features of what Buber took to be the pattern of modern-day civilisation, the signature of the time, made up of a revolt against life, together with irreligion and irreality, seen by him as a unit. Clearly he does not fight against conceptual orientation as such; it is, as we have seen, indispensable and its most important product, science, cannot be thrown out. The question that preoccupies Buber in his philosophical critique of culture is that of the relation and balance between the two dominant methods of ordering things and getting inside of them. Man and his world have become somewhat unreal and Buber attributes this lack of reality to the lack of balance between the two methods, to the uncontrolled dominance of the orientational way of seeing, of thinking and acting, over the other kind of conscious activity, the one directed at the sources of reality and selfhood.