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It is a significant idea of Buber’s that the ego or essence of a person is to be found in his capacity for experiencing the tension that is everywhere generated between pole and pole. The ego is that which grasps and unites contraries and allows them to produce their full effect; the deeper the opposition and the wider the separation that it can call up and allow to become productive, the more fully does the ego realise itself and the higher does it stand in the scale of personality. That is the peak towards which men struggle along the way of realisation, ‘when he realises the unity of the world in the unity of his soul. He must first experience the tension of the world in the unity of his own soul’. And ‘ Experiencing as its own both freedom and subjection together, the soul creates the ego which embraces both freedom and subjection as its functions. In timeless oscillations between content and form, the soul calls up the ego, of which content and form are members. Always present in permanence and change, the soul awakens the ego, whose gestures are permanence and change’. The ‘I’ here is the ego of the world. In it unity realises itself’. Only when we look back from this realisation of the ego, do we see how impersonal is the fragmentary ego of the man whose life is given over to orientation.
For Buber, with his religious rather than philosophical outlook, the unity that man must try to realise in his understanding of the universe is a matter of action, not of knowledge. The person who achieves the most profound realisation brings unity into being. ‘True unity cannot be found, it can only be a deed’. Daniel is permeated by a distrust of the competence of pure cognition – not explicitly stated but fundamental to the work nevertheless. The distrust is made explicit in the essay I and Thou. In that book, Buber elaborates in a successful and highly individual way the distinction, already drawn, between a conceptual ordering of experience and the intuitive sinking of the self in the object of experience, typical of the religious attitude. He now conceives the distinction in terms of the contrast between ‘asserting’ and ‘addressing’. To the best of our knowledge, he is the first religious thinker to have done so. It would appear that epistemology has either overlooked or, at any rate, has never made use of this basic distinction. And yet we can see at once that we have here a fundamental principle that distinguishes between mental attitudes so that the much discussed ‘subject’, the I of all epistemological and metaphysical arguments, appears in an essentially different light when considered in relation to its ‘equals’ or when it is considered in relation to something ‘other’.
The non-ego that is opposed to the ego can be either another ego or a thing – it can be ‘thou’ or ‘it’. All knowing, all establishing or speaking about something, whether a person or thing, is an assertion. The whole range of philosophy and science, all communication about everyday matters make up the vast domain of assertion. We can guess from this Buber’s great objection to all previous definitions of the religious, namely that it is futile to set out with the intention of grasping religious reality with the mental apparatus of the assertive form. The appropriate relation of the human spirit to religious reality is not one of description, saying that it is such and such, as is done in orientation. But then, is not assertion all embracing, or, at least, does it not embrace all that is within reach of the human mind? Is not describability the hallmark which shows that we are dealing with reality? Because they believed in this universal competence of assertion, people were forced to look for a specific form of assertion for that expressly religious awareness and took the stammering account of the mystical as the, however imperfect, mode of assertion about religious experience.
Is there, then, another attitude of the mind to the world besides assertion? Buber believes that there is. Indeed, not only does such an attitude exist, in his view it is even more authentic and penetrates more deeply into reality; we do not merely use our faculty of observation; it engages our entire being. That is what happens when we speak, not about something, but to someone. Perhaps insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that all assertion is speech in the third person – it might be more accurate to say ‘in the third thing’ – that it talks about something or reports and that can never carry the same weight for us or make the same claim on our self as when we speak in the first or second person. Indeed, the use of the words ‘I’ or ‘Thou’ is characteristic of all speech that concerns essentials. Our attitude of mind in seeing relations between persons, in questioning, inviting, refusing, communicating, agreeing, is altogether different from a relationship between a person and a thing. Language and consciousness reflect this distinction. It immediately follows from this consideration that, if logic is to cover the whole domain of language, the ‘logic of assertion’ is not adequate.