A central theme of politics is the tension between the primacy of the individual or the group. How this conflict is resolved, bears directly upon the kind of policies that are implemented and accepted in most societies. Martin Buber was a deeply religious man and equates religion with interhuman relations and the performance of loving deeds.
“Buber’s two foundation notions, on which, as it has been said, his entire conceptual and existential edifice rests, are in fact two composite words: I-It & I-Thou, the attitude of I-It, of subject-object. It is an objective and procedural attitude that allows us to experience the world and our place in it, to learn, to plan, to manipulate and to use in order to survive and to progress. It is an attitude of distancing with the I over here, and everything and everybody else, the It, over there, to be observed, calculated and used.
In contrast, the I-Thou attitude is highly personal, direct and relational. It establishes communion between the I and the rest of creation, including our fellow humans.”
While a concentrated analysis of Buber will reveal a sincerity rarely found in a religious thinker turned social critic, the inescapable conclusion that he puts forth is that social relationships, not individuals, are pre-eminent. He calls the human relation a primal notion in his famous lines, 'in the beginning is the relation' and 'the relation is the cradle of life' . For Buber he claims: “the relational reality, the in between, the reciprocal bond, the interpersonal - cannot be decomposed into simpler elements without destroying it. Given the primacy of relationships, unless we use our freedom to help others flourish, we deny our own well-being. Since social relations constitute our existence as persons, morally right action intends community building. The sacredness of life must, therefore, be understood in sociological terms.”
In “Between Man and Man”, Buber writes: “Man is in a growing measure sociologically determined”. Maurice S. Friedman in his work, The Life of Dialogue cites the following: “In the technical, economic, and political spheres of his existence he finds himself ‘in the grip of incomprehensible powers’ which trample again and again on all human purposes. This purposelessness of modern life is also manifested in the worship of freedom for its own sake. Modern vitalism and Lehensphilosophie have exchanged a life-drunk spirit for the detached intellect against which they reacted. Progressive education has tended to free the child’s creative impulses without helping him to acquire the personal responsibility which should accompany it. This sickness of modern man is manifested most clearly of all, however, in the individualism and nationalism which make power an end in itself. ‘Power without faithfulness is life without meaning,’ writes Buber. If a nation or civilization is not faithful to its basic principle, it can know no real fruitfulness or renewal.”
To Buber’s credit he is an opponent of collectivism. When he states: “Collectivism is typical of our age in giving the appearance but not the reality of relation . . . Collectivism imperils ‘the immeasurable value which constitutes man,’ for it destroys the dialogue between man and God and the living communion between man and man.,” he is a defender of social justice. However, his immersion within his own group and Jewish identification, contrasts with the most pronounced and pivotal assertion in Christian Western Civilization. Namely, the sovereignty of the individual as the embodiment of a personal relationship with God and the basis upon which all social relationships rest.
Since Buber elevates the group as the preeminent unit, his union is influenced by his ethnic cultural identity. The distinction that separates Christians from the Jewish faithful, often reflects the difference towards the inclusion factor. If the individual is the measure of humanity, the requirement to assimilate into any group would be artificial.
As opposed to traditional Zionism, Buber offers a potentially healing philosophy which has significant personal, communal, and global implications. The goodwill he presents to bridge the gap between individual tolerance and special status is his significance. Buber can be a healing force when applying his empirical and phenomenological understanding of God as a quest for relational amelioration, stability, and redemption.
He is correct when he professes: “It is only the sick understanding of this age that teaches that the goal can be reached through all the ways of the world. If the means that are used are not consistent with the goal that has been set, then this goal will be altered in the attainment . . . The person or community which seeks to use evil for the sake of good destroys its own soul in the process.”
However, this section from Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One’ misconstrues the essence of individualism: “These two types of illusory confirmation correspond to the false dichotomy which dominates our age, that between individualism and collectivism. Despite their apparent opposition, the individualist and the collectivist are actually alike in that neither knows true personal wholeness or true responsibility. The individualist acts out of arbitrary self-will and in consequence is completely defined and conditioned by circumstances. The collectivist acts in terms of the collectivity and in so doing loses his ability to perceive and to respond from the depths of his being. Neither can attain any genuine relation with others, for one cannot be a genuine person in individualism or collectivism, and ‘there is genuine relation only between genuine persons.’ ”
Buber does not recognize the difference between Freedom and Liberty. The individual attains meaningful social purpose only through conduct that achieves responsibility to his own community. Notwithstanding, Buber’s absorption within his own narrowly defined group, the individual represents the uniqueness of the singular choice to rise above the debasement of human nature. The group he relates to is not universal nor does it represent of all of mankind. The notion that any group can become a substitute for the ultimate standard - individual responsibility - negates the heritage of Western Civilization. Our communal tradition can benefit our chosen group, only when the individual declares their consent to accept the self imposed constraints that respects the value of his neighbor and each distinct person within his selected society.
While Buber’s insight is correct that “the very nature of value as that which gives man direction depends on the fact that it is not arbitrarily invented or chosen but is discovered in man’s meeting with being”, the danger in accepting his interpretation that the group is the measure of that benefit and supersedes the individual is fatally flawed.
Society is not global, it’s local. Harmony among distinct peoples is enhanced when each different group is able to achieve social justice among their own kind. The individual is the bedrock and the group is the soil upon which future purpose will grow. Meaning is consummated individually, not cumulatively. The I-Thou is still defined by the I-It. Noble intent can only be realized one soul at a time. Social relations are subordinate and groups are accountable to the individual. Buber has value if viewed within this context. God creates each person, man fabricates the groups. Who do you think did it better?
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