Friday, July 10, 2009

Extreme Humanism and the Name(d): A Leap over the Threshold of Language (Part II of IV)

World comes to the fore within Heidegger’s exploration of the humanity of human beings. Significantly, the etymological origins of world tend more toward time and historicity (as in “the age or life of man”) than the currently standard conceptualization of location and positionality (as in “citizen of the world”). In Heidegger’s use, however, world is never merely the earth as opposed to the heavens or the realm of the spirit; it does not indicate a realm of beings at all but rather “the openness of being” (“Letter” 266). This use is not quite the same as that in his lecture course, where he proposes, “Let us provisionally define world as those beings which are in each case accessible and may be dealt with, accessible in such a way that dealing with such beings is possible or necessary for the kind of being pertaining to a particular being” (Concepts 196). If world is defined—no matter how provisionally—according to accessibility of beings to other beings, then the dumb animal is not entirely deprived of it:

If by world we understand beings in their accessibility in each case, if such accessibility of beings is a fundamental character of the concept of world, and if being a living being means having access to other beings, then the animal stands on the side of man. Man and animals alike have world … . The animal thus reveals itself as a being which both has and does not have world. (Concepts 199)

This tension among human beings, animals, world, and language/silence is not unique to Heidegger. But whereas Heidegger limits the animal’s access to language (“they lack language”), Buber opens up the possibility of standing in relation with dumb animals within language—or within the dialogue, to keep within Buber’s terminology. In fact, Buber opens up the dialogue for all of nature—be it stone or tree—as well as the supernatural (the divine). Here, however, I limit the scope of my discussion to dumb animal as distinct from the languaged human being.

Buber begins his text with a description of the world: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude” (53). This twofold attitude mirrors the two basic word pairs that he can speak: I-Thou* and I-It. While I-Thou can only be spoken “with one’s whole being” (54), I-It establishes a subject-object dichotomy and hierarchy where the subject is privileged, thereby leading to the alienation of modern human beings. A subject I cannot expand into its fullness within the fullness of its relation to an other (who is also fully expanded within the self-same relation) if everything other is only objectified and treated or encountered as mere object (as an It).

For Buber, there is no difference between “being I and saying I” (54). But is Buber’s inter-subjectivity (that is, the I-Thou relation) yet another shoddy humanism that keeps human beings from the destiny of their being? From my understanding of Buber’s text, he does not resort to the anthropocentric fallacy of privileging human beings over other beings: the Thou expands beyond the merely inter-personal to include nature, works of art, as well as the divine. Furthermore, Buber posits an ontology based solely on relation: “All actual life is encounter” (62). In this way, he too dismisses subjectivity by favoring neither a subjective I nor a subjective Thou. Instead he privileges the mutuality of the relation between the two subjects, all the while aware that this ideal mutualism can degenerate into the monologic objectification and instrumentalization of an I-It. I expands because Thou is boundless and (in a Levinasian sense) wholly other (as opposed to being merely the other of the I). The I does not exist except insofar as it is in relation to either a Thou or an It.

Buber maintains that the first sphere of relation is life with nature: “Here the relation vibrates in the dark and remains below language. The creatures stir across from us, but they are unable to come to us, and the [Thou] we say to them sticks to the threshold of language” (56-7). In the 1957 Afterword to I and Thou Buber expands his notion of threshold beyond language to that of mutuality:

Animals are not twofold, like man: the twofoldness of the basic words I-[Thou] and I-It is alien to them although they can both turn toward another being and contemplate objects. We may say that in them twofoldness is latent. In the perspective of our [Thou]-saying to animals, we may call this sphere the threshold of mutuality. (173)

Peter Atterton clarifies this expanded notion in his 2004 essay “Face-to-Face with the Other Animal?” Atterton explains that Buber

sought to distinguish the relation to nature from the relation that exists between persons through the introduction of the term threshold (Schwelle). The plant and mineral world (“from the stones to the stars” [IT, 173]) were said to be at the “pre-threshold” (Vorschwelle) of mutuality; the animal at the threshold; and the human at “over-threshold” (Überschwelle). (263-4)

Only between human beings is complete mutuality possible, but everything in nature has some capability for mutuality: “it is clear that the regions of nature—from rocks to plants to animals—are still defined in terms of their capacity for mutuality, and that is presumably the reason why Buber felt he could simply revise the twofold ontology of I and Thou [in his Afterword] rather than abandon it altogether” (264). If this is the case, then Buber’s dialogic ontology cannot be limited by the merely anthropocentric notion of dialogue, just as Heidegger’s language is beyond the merely linguistic. But is Buber’s threshold ontologically different from Heidegger’s abyss? Can Buber’s threshold serve as a bridge between the human being and the animal, or between the world of the human being and the tentative world of the animal? How is it that Heidegger is so eloquent a thinker when it comes to how human beings are able to stand in relation to architecture, poetry (poetizing), works of art, and even to being itself, but he seems unable or unwilling to address the issue of human beings standing in relation to other living beings—much of the focus of Buber’s work?


* I use Atterton’s “I-Thou” (Ich-Du) instead of Kaufmann’s “I-You” in order to maintain consistency.

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