“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
– E M Forster, The Machine Stops
Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Jewish philosopher best known for integrating traditional Judaic thought with existentialism and other modern influences. His I and Thou is one of those little books that can utterly transform your worldview in just a few pages. It has some of the concentrated linguistic power of poetry or mathematics. Given its mystical religious overtones, that makes it feel somewhat dangerous to me — I can’t entirely embrace what it is saying, but fear that its linguistic spell might overpower my usual defenses.
The book turns on the idea that there are different stances an individual can take, and that these stance have correlates in the deep structure of language. In Buber’s scheme, there are two “basic words” a person can speak: I-it, a word and resulting world in which an individual interacts with and experiences individual objects, and I-you, a word that creates the world of relation. (Buber’s translator, Walter Kaufmann, takes some pains to explain that I-you is a much better translation of the original German Ich und Du; “thou” is much too formal a term, suitable for addressing God perhaps, but not an intimate human being).
Buber’s dualistic scheme is oversimplified, of course. Walter Kaufmann provides an entertainingly skeptical prologue, pointing out that there are many more stances available to man, rather than just two, and that it is the oldest trick in the world for philosophers to reduce the available options to two and then promote one of them while denigrating the other:
The straight philosophers tend to celebrate one of the two worlds and deprecate the other. The literary tradition is less Manichean… Ich und Du stands somewhere between the literary and philosophical traditions. Buber’s “It” owes much to matter and appearance, to phenomena and representation, nature and means. Buber’s “You” is the heir of mind, reality, spirit, and will, and his I-You sometimes has an air of Dionysian ecstasy. Even if I-it is not disparaged, nobody can fail to notice that I-You is celebrated
- Kaufmann, p 18
Buber doesn’t view the I-It world as evil in itself, and acknowledges that it is necessary to sustain life, not something to be scorned. But it is clear that his heart, his aim, his values, all are in the other world of I-you. He says that as humanity progressed through the advancement of material civilization, it was in danger of displacing the other world entirely, leaving hollowed-out people incapable of true relationships. “When man lets it have its way, the relentlessly growing It-world grows over him like weeds” (p96) The cultural phenomena that he noticed in the 1920s have only been take to new extremes since then.
Holism and Soulism
The You encounters me by grace — it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed…
The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.
All actual life is encounter.
Buber’s viewpoint is both holistic and religious. As such, it raises my reductionist hackles. The scientist in me doesn’t want to hear of some level of reality that can’t be broken down into simpler interacting parts. What is this “whole being” that he speaks of? I’m skeptical that it exists, although perhaps that just reflects poorly on me – whole beings can see other whole beings, perhaps I am merely partial, deficient in some wholiness.
In his holism there is a lot of resonance between Buber and the metaphysics of Christopher Alexander (of Pattern Language fame), who is also convinced that “wholeness” is fundamental to the structure of reality. Both of these writers I find maddeningly tantalizing and fascinating, even as I struggle to accept their worldview which is so opposed to what I have always been taught and largely believe. My reaction to Buber, Alexander, and almost all religion is something similar: torn between skepticism, and an insistent nagging feeling that maybe there is something there after all, something which is of fundamental importance that must be attended to.
Reductionism may be a true and proper approach to the scientific understanding of the universe, but it fails as a guide through actual life. We don’t interact with other people, by analyzing them into components. We all may be composed of physical processes and independent drives, but it simply doesn’t work to relate to other human beings as physical processes. There is clearly something wrong with that approach. I can’t say exactly what that wrongness is, but Buber may provide some clues:
The life of a human being does not exist merely in the sphere of goal-directed verbs. It does not consist merely of activities that have something for their object.
I perceive something. I feel something. I imagine something. I want something. I sense something. I think something. The life of a human being does not consist merely of all this and its like.
All this its like is the basis of the realm of It.
But the realm of You has another basis.
Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.
– I and Thou (p54)
Buber’s approach here (and it is really the only mode of religious writing that works for me at all) is apophatic: he describes his mystical (though embodied) ideal by all the things it is not: goal-directed, perceiving or sensing particular objects, possession. It’s something that is not any of those things, though what it is remains essentially elusive.
Buber vs the fragmentary self
Buber was a religious man who took the reality of Thou very seriously. I am not, or not very, and consider the Thou more as a useful fiction. But where I find myself in harmony with Buber is in his quasi-algebraic analysis of the relation between grammar, metaphysical stances, and their parts and symmetries. If “Thou” is a fiction, then “I” is a fiction as well. They take form and tremble on the edge of reality together, they partake of a similar sense of the sacred. Fictional does not mean unreal or trivial or dismissable.
I like to put Buber’s viewpoint up against those of psychologists who emphasize the disunity of the self (Freud, Marvin Minsky, George Ainslie). Their work exposes and theorizes the fragmentary nature of mind, how it is composed of parts that are often in conflict with each other, how such conflicts are settled, and how a largely fictional unitary self is constructed out of these warring mechanisms. Partly they are motivated by scientific curiosity, but there is also a therapeutic motivation. Most of the time the machinery works so well that we aren’t aware of it, but the disordered mind exposes its mechanisms. Ainslie based his work on a theory of addiction, the most obvious case of a mind in conflict with itself.
At first glance these thinkers seem to be polar opposites from Buber. His focus is on the kind of relationship that can only by expressed by a whole being; while they seem to deny that there even is such a thing. What seems whole is actually composed of warring parts, there is nothing solid there to have an I-you relationship.
Ainslie’s theory of the self holds that the main reason we have one at all is to mediate between our different urges, and in particular to deal with the fact that our preferences are not consistent over time, and that we have a need to make bargains and treaties with future versions of ourselves. Without going too much into the details of his theory (which I confess I only barely grasp) this results in a sort of recursive, chaotic process that both requires and produces unpredictability, in part because predictable rewards lead to satiety:
…when a puzzle becomes familiar your mind leaps ahead to the ending, dissipating the suspense and poorly replaying the cost of attending to it in the first place. … you then have to search for new puzzles or gamble on finding more than just new things of the same kind. Durable occasions must either (1) change so that they remain novel (new problems, new faces, new plots, new decor, or, as the style of puzzle becomes familiar, new styles) or (2) be intricate or subtle enough to defy total comprehension. This is the quality a work of art must have to save it from the obsolescence of fashion, and maybe too the quality needed by an enduring personal relationship.
– Ainslie, Breakdown of Will p169
This suggests to me a connection between the mechanical, componentized view of mind and the Buber’s holistic view. The process of self-creation is inherently illegible to itself and to others, in order to avoid the kinds of predictability that Ainslie is talking about. Selves resist being characterized in instrumental reductive terms, and so demand to be understood in a different frame. Essentially we are forced us to become unpredictable to ourselves and each other, and this dynamic points the way towards a different cognitive style, one suitable for comprehending the deliberately incomprehensible.
Admittedly this is still a far cry from Buber’s mystical vision where all boundaries are erased. It doesn’t make the self any more real, but it suggests why it is that insofar as it is real, it exists in a different way than the mere mechanisms and objects of everyday cognition.
The Asperger’s-tinged world of the present
Computer people (myself included) tend to have a streak of Asperger’s, and one of the syndromes is difficulty in modeling other people and social situations. In psychological jargon, we have something wrong with our “theory of mind module”. This interpretation of Asperger’s is controversial, because similar failures of mechanism are often blamed for much worse things, like sociopathy. (For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that there is in fact an epidemic of mild and undiagnosed Aspergerishness in the computer world –- although there is certainly controversy about whether this a legitimate medical fact. But the nature of nerd culture has unmistakable affinities with the actual condition, whether it is real or simply metaphorical. )
The I-you stance that Buber proposes as the most important thing there is, which does not come easily to anyone, is even harder for us. We tend to take comfort in abstraction and systems rather than the presence of others. But all but the most severely afflicted do not check out of social life entirely. All the high-functioning denizens of Silicon Valley nerddom are solving the problem of being a human at the same time they are solving their problems of how to structure the digital world.
Some learn to compensate for their deficiencies and act more or less normal, others manage to turn their idiosyncrasies into fame and fortune. Temple Grandin, who should know, has diagnosed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as an aspie, which doesn’t surprise me a bit. It would be fascinating to have a real ethnographic/psychological study of Silicon Valley cultural practices that could reveal how the Aspie style contributes to everyday interaction. My unsupported intuition is that it does but in ways that aren’t that obvious, since most people here don’t have it but are influenced by those who do.
I worry, though, that as software eats the world, the Aspergerishness qualities of nerd culture are crudely invading the sacred space of relationship. This is most obvious with Facebook, with its stupidly reductive notion of friendship and clumsy manipulation of the social fabric. I am ambivalent about how important this is. On the one hand, actual friendship, if it is worth anything at all, is not going to be greatly reduced because Facebook abuses the term. On the other hand, I do believe communication media have the capacity to radically reshape thought, so in fact it is a big deal if large swathes of human interaction are mediated by a socially-retarded private corporation.
What would Martin Buber think of Facebook and digital culture more generally? I can’t presume to say, but the quasi-public, performative nature of it I’m guessing would rub him the wrong way. That’s not to say that actual presence and actual relationship can’t flow through electronic media, just as it can work through earlier forms of writing. But Buber’s model of relationship demands at least a temporary exclusivity of attention, and that is something the Internet certainly does not encourage. It provides us with vast quantities of information, amusement, distraction, taking the process of I-It encroachment that Buber talked about to a far greater level than he could have imagined.
Despite this, I find myself (to my own surprise) with a greater faith in the human spirit than many of the critics of technology, like Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, or E M Forster. We aren’t going to be reduced to the I-It by our machines. They may be remaking our social fabric, but I’m pretty sure human presence is strong enough to survive and find new ways to relate. This faith may be related to the quasi-aspie experience – if we have to struggle a bit more than average to achieve our humanity, then that experience of struggle can help the rest of humanity break through the electronic miasma.
Buber himself was something of a difficult character who had trouble with everyday relationships. Maybe he himself had some aspie qualities; maybe he could develop his theory of the I-You because it was not that natural to him as it is to the neurotypical. Perhaps he was like the rare fish who developed a theory of water, or like Moses, who led his people to and saw the promised land, but was not permitted to enter.