I'm wondering if the "I-Thou" can include more than just human beings. Specifically I'm thinking of the koan where someone asks Zhaozho, What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west, and he replies, the oak tree in the garden.
I think it's interesting to make that comparison with the oak tree in the garden. You're right that "I-Thou" is not confined just to other people. Although that certainly seems to be the paradigm of it. He does talk about "Thou" in relation to nature and imagined forms, I believe is the phrase. And I think we're going to get God in there at some point as the ultimate "Thou". I think it's hard, for now, to understand what it is to be in a "Thou" relationship to nature. Except that there's a way in which we're talking about mutual influence or engagement. Not just having an experience of nature. Right? He's very much against the idea of reifying special experiences.
But the oak tree in the garden is not an "I-Thou" experience, I would say, because it becomes an experience of non-separation. You enact being a tree, right? You merge with the tree. There's no sense of a retaining of distinction. And I think that's the challenge of Buber. That he says something is lost if you go too quickly into identity, right? Into oneness and that kind of non-separation.
That's where I want us to be careful. Not to just immediately assimilate him into something we are already familiar with in Zen, because I think he is trying to do something different that we may neglect.
Is that fair to say?
Yes, it is. I think part of what pulled me into the oak tree in the garden is that, as that little dialogue goes on, the person, person says to Zhaozhou, "You shouldn't teach by using objects." And Zhaozhou says, "I'm not teaching by using objects." So I think I was hearing that, but I think you're right. I mean, it is the "I-Thou", which I don't understand, is something different than that, that becoming, so to speak, the tree.
Yes. And when he says, "I'm not teaching using objects," I think he's saying - there are no objects. There's nothing separate from me.
So I would like us to be a little confused about what "I-Thou" means and keep that an open-ended question. And again, sort of not rush in our parochial Zen way, to think that of course, we understand it from our own perpective.
In our group, we actually ended up talking about language. Coming to a foreign country, learning a different language, and sometimes it's harder to pronounce different words because of the different backgrounds we bring with ourselves. The type of ways we roll our tongues, or know how to pronounce a sound or a word.
So when I am learning about "Thou", it's very hard for me to enter into a space where I don't bring with me my perceptions or what I have learned before to make sense of this concept. In the past, when I read this book, long ago, my ideas were more aligned with Christianity, with God. So I understood that "Thou" was God, and had this impression, the "Thou" is a state of grace. But I don't know if I am already stepping into some type of understanding just so I can get some control of this, or make sense of this concept out of what I have learned in the past.
Well, I think that we're all doing that to some extent. I started last week using Axel Honneth and György Lukács and the ideas of reification as a way into the "I-It", and as I tried to comment on these first few pages, I'm immediately thinking of Heiddeger and Sartre.
So I think we can't help but meet things in terms of what we already know, and then try to revise that as we go. It can be an example of what gets called a hermeneutic circle. You initially form some sense of what the whole thing means, in order to understand any individual sentence. Then as you proceed, you use your understanding of each individual sentence to gradually revise your sense of what the whole thing means. But it's always a kind of ongoing, self-reflective, self-correcting, process of revision.
In a sense, we're going to approach Buber through our ideas of God or Christianity or Judaism or Zen or philosophy, and then we try to keep saying, well, what is he saying that's unique or different? Not just how can we assimilate him into what we already know. I was drawn to it because there's a way in which he, in a sense, is defiantly dualistic. Right? Maintaining the "I-Thou." Not collapsing it into to oneness. Maybe that's something to pay attention to.
He says, "When 'Thou' is spoken, the speaker has no thing, he has indeed nothing, but he takes his stand in relation."
I think he's saying that it's just the relation. It's not then taking the next step of relationship to what. And I think it's very hard for us to understand or think of relation without taking that next step of relationship to something. Even if you're thinking of the "Thou" as God, people tend to make that God into something, and then it becomes an "It", and then you're in that "I and it" not the "I and Thou."
I I think that's right. What we are trying to figure out is what is the quality of that unbounded relation? What does that even mean? Right? I think that it's easy for these things to sort of drift off into fine sounding quasi-mystical phrases, but we would like to try to get a sense of what's it really mean to say "Thou." What kind of relation is that, that's different?
I thought I understood part of what he was saying to be that any concept that we have or any experiences we have as part of the "It" and not "Thou". That completely loses me in terms of how to grasp this or any part of this.
Well, that would be one question, whether conceptualization is the basis for making an "It". In which case we would end up drawing another Zen parallel where we think that we have to have immediate, pre-cognitive, aconceptual encounters to get out of "I-It." He certainly wants to get out of transitive instrumentalizing encounters. I'm not sure his agenda is specifically anti-conceptual in that way, but I think that's certainly a candidate for what he means. And one we naturally tend to assume.
I thought he was saying also that even any experience that we have is part of the "It."
Well, he's certainly suspicious of turning experiences into "It". And in that sense, the dilemma can be that experiences are always private and have no relational element to them. They become my experience, my inner life, my true self, you know, my moment, my sensation. And so I think he's trying to point to something outside of "my." Right? He says the "I" doesn't exist except in relation to an "It" or a "Thou". And experience or just subjectivity is not the alternative that he's talking about. There's typically a dichotomy set up between subjectivity and objectivity. So he doesn't want "I-it" to just be associated with objectivity as if subjectivity is the alternative.
This reminds me of studying physics and Einstein's belief in God.
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I think the question is how do you move from a rationalized, mathematical equation picture of the universe to a picture that contains a "Thou", which in some sense means a personal God. Not just the order of the universe or how it all makes sense. You know the Greeks had the idea of the logos or reason as a sort of animating organizing feature of the universe, but they didn't personalize it. They would've said that was sort of the logical structure of reality. That reality made sense, but they didn't necessarily assume there was a single personal deity behind that. Uh,
Well Einstein didn't believe it was a personal God, because all he was looking for was, according to him, to find out how God thinks. And that's what he was dealing with. But he didn't consider it as a personal God. It was just God.
Well, that, that's hard to know what that means for me. But as we go along, we may want to try to figure out what does "Thou" mean and what does God mean.
My ears pricked up when you were talking about Sartre - of it for it - and the idea of freedom. I don't know whether Buber was directing his ideas to achieving freedom, but the question then for me became freedom from what? Freedom for what?
Now we got Isaiah Berlin in the mix! I don't know that freedom is particularly the central word for Buber than it is for Sartre. Buber uses this idea of bounded versus unbounded, but for Sartre, it has more something to do with our choice or will. And I'm not sure that's the case for Buber.
But that's again, sort of one of these interesting comparisons. And, you know, one of the things I was trying to do by bringing some of these other people in is again, trying to put Buber in some kind of cultural or philosophical context, that these are questions that other thinkers of his time are addressing from their own way. We shouldn't just think of Buber as this mystic, floating free of history and culture and his time. These are questions that we can see raised by these different philosophers in different ways. And I think, in background, his own big influence may have been Kierkegaard. So he's not working in a vacuum as somebody who's writing about relation and we should not assume that.
Just a small point actually, but when he talks about, "I-Thou", I think it's easy to kind of freeze that notion in a way, and to remember that relationship is always changing and it's fluid, right?
I think that's right. When it stops changing, it becomes an "It", right? You've objectified the person, they become completely predictable rather than a kind of open field of possibility or potential, right?
Yeah. That's so hard to do because we create these expectations and notions of, of who the person is.
I think that's right.