Joshua Schwartz

Approaching Closeness: The Haptic Transformation in Buber’s Dialogical Philosophy


[T]here is almost no ecstatic who has not interpreted his I-experience as God- experience... In the experience of ecstasy itself there is as yet nothing that points either inward or outward. Whoever experiences the oneness of I and world knows nothing of I and world. –Martin Buber, Ecstatic Confessions

Following the horrors of World War I, or so the story goes, a former student of Martin Buber (1878-1965) came to speak with his teacher. The philosopher, however, was too absorbed in mystical contemplation, pulsing with the chlorophyllic cycles of the leaves on the trees. Unable to capture the fullness of his erstwhile mentor’s attention, the young man, who had come to Buber seeking counsel while in a state of mental distress, takes his leave in frustration. Herr Doktor Professor hears soon after that his former student had ended his life. According to this widely cited yet never proven bizarro-hagiography, this was the moment Buber left mysticism behind in favor for his embrace of a philosophy of dialogue and social thought. This essay seeks to ground our understanding of Buber’s shift as an inner development in his thought, according with a broader theoretical positioning that extends from the mind to the body and back. In short, Buber’s mysticism accords with other western mystical (and ontotheological) traditions in privileging the sense of sight, as the most subtle and least corporeal of sensory faculties, providing a more direct route of access to the considered objects noetic content, while the dialogical emphasis of his later thought seeks to philosophize through touch, seeing the haptic dynamic as a concrete embodiment of his new path in social-thinking.

The unity discussed above is the telos of Erlebnis (inner experience), which provides one with access to the transcendent experience of the utter oneness of divinity in which all of reality shares. Erlebnis is “an experience which grows in the soul out of the soul itself, without contact and without restraint, in naked oneness.” This experience is radically interior, not subject to the capricious variations of the sensory world and thus able to access the radical oneness of Divinity. The way to actualize the presence of God in reality is through this ecstatic communion with the purest depths of one’s own soul, through Erlebnis. Unitive mystical consciousness does not (indeed, cannot) recognize a difference between the self and God (and the world). Indeed, the experience of ecstasy comprises a double movement, one of burrowing deep, deep within one’s own soul, which leads one to step beyond the ego. While the original meaning of ecstatic “stepping out” most likely had to do with some kind of out-of-body experience, Buber’s understanding of ecstasy brings one beyond the finitude and individuation of self, into the true unity of the Divine. Phenomenologist of mysticism Elliot Wolfson elucidates, “[Erlebnis] is a lived-experience of unity, a unity which... is first experienced as the unity of the I and then as the unity of the I and the world.” By deepening one’s inner experience, one transcends (or expands) the ego and comes into unity with the All. This inward trajectory submerges one in the expansive unitive divinity of one’s soul, and in so doing isolates the mystic in his very inner experience of ecstasy. “One’s unity is not relative, not limited by the other; it is limitless. One’s unity is solitude, absolute solitude: the solitude of that which is without limits. One contains the other...” In a seemingly paradoxical conjunction, ecstasy is both isolating and unifying. The self shucks off its differentiatedness and realizes the true unity of God in the All. There is no relation with the other because there can be no relation with the other, since the unity of the Divine is absolute, comprising self, other, and world.

In reading Buber’s mystical philosophy, one is struck by the anti-sensory stance he appears to take. The ecstatic mystical experience occurs in a drawing into oneself, away from the world. Still, despite the apparent anti-somaticism in his early work, Buber nonetheless privileges sight as fundamental to the inner experience, consonant with the sweep of Western mysticism, as a discourse. This favoring of sight is consistent with Buber’s anti-sensory phase, since sight has been traditionally identified as a sense that transcends the sensuous. Aristotle privileges sight as the most superior of the senses, since it provides the most perfect access to knowledge. As evident in common parlance, the word “see” is utilized to signify understanding, showing the easy slippage between knowledge with sight. Indeed, as Foucault noted in The Birth of the Clinic, “[T]o see was to perceive… the act of seeing, having attained perfection, was absorbed back into the unbending, unending figure of light…” Sight can similarly slide beyond the embodied realm of the senses into the mystical realm of gnosis, which is beyond ephemerality.

Another choice example can be found in Buber’s Daniel. In describing a mystical unitive experience, Buber writes,

...I walked upon the highway, saw a piece of mica lying, lifted it up and looked at it for a long time... And suddenly as I raised my eyes from it, I realized that while I looked I had not been conscious of “object” and “subject”; in my looking the mica and ‘I’ had been one; in my looking I had tasted unity...

While the next line precludes the experience of unity as a permanent state, the experience of unity is associated with the act of sight. It was precisely in the dynamic of seeing the mica that Buber felt differentiation melt away. Hence, we can see that in Buber’s mystical phase, vision was excepted from his critical stance towards phenomenal perception and experience and, instead, was understood as a means of achieving ecstatic union.

While Buber’s early, mystical thought centered on the possibility of achieving absolute oneness, his later thought took a dialogical turn, which could only be enacted through two distinct beings relating one to another. In the opening pages of I and Thou, Buber famously describes what he calls “two basic words” through which one’s world is refracted, that of I-It, and that of I-Thou. The primary grounding of our experience is itself characterized by absolute duality. Like a magnet, each pole of the dyadic word comes along with its partner. Unlike in his earlier stage of mysticism, the I is here not enough to encompass all; rather, it is primordially characterized by being in relationship with an/other. As Buber says, “There is no I as such but only the I of the basic word I-Thou and the I of the basic word I-It.” Whereas the expansiveness of the ecstatic self negates the ontological reality of any other, the dialogical self simply cannot exist without the existence of the other, in relation.

Along with the shift from ecstasy to dialogue comes another correlated transposition, that from experience to encounter. The dialogical philosophy of I and Thou can be seen as a rejection of mysticism’s focus on inner experience as a mechanism that leads to ultimate meaning. Experience of the world is now associated with I-It, clearly inferior to the mode of relating of the I-Thou. It is a distinctly appropriative move, one that seeks to take the experience of others up into oneself, thereby displacing the other from a space of significance. In an I-It relationship, one’s experience of the other displaces the other itself, thus precluding the possibility of real dialogue. Buber writes, “Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is ‘in them’ and not between them and the world.” Like the mysticism left behind, experience (and I-It relations in general) are characterized by a lack of a real encounter with the other, since experience is, at its basis, solipsistic. In contrast, experience is irrelevant in the true encounter with the You, the I-Thou dynamic. Regarding the I-Thou encounter, Buber writes, “What, then, does one experience of the You? Nothing at all. For one does not experience it.”

In encountering the You, one does not gain experience of it, which would then replace and thus displace the one encountered. Seeking to burst through the seeming totality of experience in human encounter, with its attendant solipsism, Buber argues that the encounter with a You must be based in dialogue, but such dialogue cannot take place on the basis of experience, since the entity with which one would then relate is merely the product of one’s own imagination, not the reality of the Other.

The encounter of the You cannot be captured as an experience but rather must remain sacrosanct, remaining in between the two partners in dialogue. The real content of the dialogical encounter dwells the in the space in between. The mutuality that characterizes the I- Thou encounter can only happen in this in-between-space; otherwise the relation could not be truly between two equal members, which would preclude true reciprocity and dialogue. In discussing human relations, Buber correlates “love” to encounter and “feelings” to experience.

One “has” feelings; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or object; it is between I and You...

Love is the relationship between the two members in which the two beings dwell. Unlike a feeling, love (the encounter with the other) does not reside in any one member; it can only exist in that very coming together. While in his mystical thought, the Divine dwelled in the isolated depths of the soul, in Buber’s dialogical philosophy, God only becomes fully realized in the Between. This between space is worked out most fully in Buber’s later essay, “Distance and Relation.” The very title itself intimates the need for space in between the two relating parties if there is to be a relationship at all. Setting at a distance is primary to relating to the other, for there must be a real and unimpeachable difference established if each is to be able to relate as a distinct being who then comes together with another. After all, they can only come together if they were first at a distance. Buber writes, “Only when a structure of being is independently over against a living being, an independent opposite, does a world exist.” Buber’s theory of the between (zwischen) presages Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the invisible, the chasmic dehiscence in and through which one finds oneself in relation to the Other. Thus, for there to be a coming together in dialogical relation, there must be absolute negation and thus the independence of each of the parties from the other, a difference which cannot be compromised. The only way to have a dialogical encounter is to initiate it through ensuring the space between. According to Buber, the unique importance of touch was that it was the only sense that allows one to conceive of a coming together without compromising independence. The coming into contact with the other through touch allows for a model of uniting which is not coterminous with a subsuming of alterity. Touching is a coming close, a bringing together that bridges the gap dividing two bodies, which is not the subsuming of one body into another. Proximity does not, indeed cannot, imply a merging in which the two entities become one; otherwise dialogue could not proceed. Indeed, this bears out on the most basic physical level, as objects’ electromagnetic field makes it that two entities never actually touch, on the molecular level, otherwise they would bond to each other and would not be able to maintain separateness. In this way, the distance in relation in maintained, even as it is closed.

One of Buber’s most famous passages can be found in his late essay, “Dialogue,” in which he describes his relationship with a beautiful dapple gray horse. When he was eleven, during the summer, Buber would sneak into his grandparents’ stable and stroke the neck of this beautiful beast. He writes,

...I must say that what I experienced in touch with the animal was the Other, the immense otherness of the Other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of [other animals] but rather let me draw near and touch it. When I stroked the mighty mane... and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me.

This encounter with the Other was mediated by the sense of touch, a coming into contact which allowed the young Buber to commune with the animal and thus encounter the alterity of the Other, a kind of familiar strangeness. The stroking of the mane communicated the otherness of the beast, but the reciprocality of the relationship allowed for intimacy. Buber treasures being given the permission to approach, as he recognizes the otherness at play, “and yet” the horse allowed him to come into contact with it, to enter a dialogical relationship. It is curious that Buber’s entré to dialogue is through an encounter with a creature unable to utilize speaking language. Indeed, such a telling encounter may betray the Romanticism evident in Buber’s thought, which supported a belief in spiritual communion, whether in conjoined presence or even hermeneutics. Is all that is left in such an encounter what Buber imagined the horse to be (his experience of the horse), or, worse, a concretized image of what he needed the horse to be? We cannot discount these critical interventions, but I also want to pose the possibility of an opening of Buber’s haptic dialogism.

Specifically, it was his sense of touch that brought Buber into contact with the very life- force of the horse. It is in the stroking of the mane, the very sensations in his skin, that Buber is able to feel the “vitality” of the beast, the utter truth of the “something that was not I.” As in his earlier thought, the dialogical Buber also believes that we have some kind of access to the noumenal, previously through the mystical ecstasy of Erlebnis, now in the I-Thou encounter. Here, the categories of intuition are associated with the structure of the self; the noumenal can be identified with the reality of ontological otherness, of being other than the self. It is precisely the dynamic of touch that brings us into contact with the undeniable reality of the being of others. Contact cannot be identified with knowledge, since it cannot be appropriated into the self; it must remain in the in-between. If that is the case, then Buber’s use of the word “experience” to refer to his stroking the horse’s mane is surprising, given the critical stance on experience in his later, dialogical writings, as outlined above. While Buber’s mysticism championed inner in contrast to outer experience, the stroking of the mane can be nothing other than Erfahrung, the very phenomenal, sensory experience denigrated in his earlier thought. However, here, Erfahrung is recast and transformed. Experience in this case cannot be the taking up of sensory knowledge of the other, which displaces the Thou as a site of meaning. Sensory perception is here re-appropriated and championed as a means of coming into contact with the other, with touch being the prime example of such worldly encounter. Perception does not (cannot) yield information about the Thou to the I, but it can divine the presence of an Other. In this way, sensory “experience” has, in the dialogical encounter, shifted from epistemological to phenomenological; perception’s role is not to ascertain knowledge of the other, but rather to bring one into contact with it. I do not claim that touch is essentially dialogical, since it too can be used for the sake of solipsistic experience. Indeed, it is precisely when Buber gives in to his own personal experience that the pristine dialogical relationship is broken and lost. He writes,”once... it struck me about the stroking, what fun it gave me, and suddenly I became conscious of my hand The game went on as before, but something had changed, it was no longer the same thing.” Hence, touch is double-edged. It can either provide for one an experience of that which is touched, which initiates an I-It relationship, or it can lead one to an awareness of an alterity, thus initiating an I-Thou relationship. Touch can either lead us to the other or to ourselves.

Hence: love is commonly correlated with the dialogical relation. It can be no mere accident that both love and touch are simultaneously associated with the I-Thou relation. As noted above, while sight was the sense most commonly exempted from embodied status, touch was traditionally grouped with the “lower senses” and seen as the most basic and primitive sense of the body. In De Anima, Aristotle writes, “Neither light nor darkness nor sound nor smell has any effect on bodies, but rather on that in which they are… But the tangible objects… do affect them directly…” Thus, touch is the sense most deeply rooted in the body. This is borne out through common sense as well, since touch is the most fleshy of the senses. Unlike the Freudian conception of Eros, a desire driving to consume the other, Buber’s understanding of love is the coming together of two independent beings, a unity in parts. In Textures of Light, a study of touch and vision in continental philosophy, Cathryn Vasseleu writes, “The intensity of alterity is a delight in the frivolous, in the evasion of form and fixity of meaning. Carnal intimacy is the diffusion of formal identity which is sought in the elusiveness of the an encounter which cannot be located, fixed and given form.” Touch skips and glances, gliding off slick surfaces, never able to get a full grip. In this way, absorption and eros are exclusive of one another. If the other is absorbed into the self, there is no possibility of tension, of desire, since there is no other exterior to the self with which one could have any kind of relation. The ironic in this distinction is telling, since, in physical experience, vision is a sensory dynamic achieved over distance, while touch enters its participants into a dangerous contact zone. However, the vicissitudes of force belie this very point, since the unethical application of touch can only be achieved through manipulation of an/Other’s body and must resist the force of the Other. Sight, however, since it is removed and individual, is sanctioned and only liable to the limits of one’s own imagination. Thus, love, for Buber, which exemplifies the most ethical staging of dialogue, must be the mutual desire between the two dialogical partners, which is described most immediately by two bodies touching one another.

The dynamic of touch is, for Buber, the primary way to express one’s yearning for another, and it is through this desiring touch that one encounters the other. Buber writes, “…and at times when there is obviously no desire for nourishment, soft projections of the hands reach, aimlessly to all appearances, into the empty air toward the indefinite.” This desire is not for oneself (i.e. for one’s own nourishment) but rather for the other, for there to be an other with which one can have a relationship. Here, the image of hands groping blindly in the dark, hoping to press into an/other, is a foundational image in Buber’s conception of the possibility of dialogue. Vision is negated, since the relation between I and Thou must be immediate, not conditioned by prior knowledge, which would limit the possibilities of what the encounter could even be and thus not allow for true dialogue. One reaches out simply because one deeply wants to encounter an/other, so that one can come into relation with that other. Mark Paterson, in his article “Affecting Touch,” underscores that “touch is not enclosed self-identity.” Touch touches nothing if there is nothing to touch. The very beginning of touch, the reaching out into nothing, is itself fundamentally an expression of a desire to come into contact with an/other.

“[R]elation is reciprocity.” For Buber, the dialogical relationship is essentially characterized by a sense of mutuality. Touch itself is necessarily and fundamentally based in mutuality, since when one touches, one is always also being touched. Of course, there are varying levels of conscious responsiveness to the act of touching, but the fundamental reciprocity of touching structurally aligns it with both love and dialogue. Buber, too, sees this isomorphic mapping. “In the drive for contact (originally, a drive for tactile contact...) the innate You comes to the fore quite soon, and it becomes ever clearer that the drive aims at reciprocity, at ‘tenderness’ [italics my own].” The desire for contact with an/other manifests itself bodily in a drive to touch that other. However, one wants one’s touching to bring one into a relationship with that other, so an element of reciprocity is of necessity. After all, if one were merely touching something, with no mutual response, then it would not be a relationship at all; one would merely be engaging in bodily contact with an object, not a dialogical partner.

Reciprocity is associated with tenderness, which implies that such com-passion (literally, “feeling with”) is similarly an essential aspect of the relationship with the Other. Tenderness is itself a state of bodily comportment, of sensitivity to touch. When one is tender, one directs one’s touches in a caring, compassionate way. Alternatively, tenderness can also imply a sense of rawness, a state of intense sensitivity, specifically to the sense of touch, as in the case when one’s skin is tender due to a rash or abrasion. So, essential to both touch and mutuality is a sense of vulnerability. Wyschogrod claims that such sensitivity is basic to haptic living. “Flesh... is lived as vulnerability in tactile encounter.” To engage with the other in a relationship, here understood primarily through coming into bodily contact, is to be open to the other, to the effect s/he can have on one. In the reciprocal relationship, one is always both touching and being touched, in all sense of the phrase. In entering into a relationship with the other, one stakes one’s self in the I-Thou encounter, which leaves one’s very being fundamentally vulnerable to one’s partner in this very relationship. Writing of Levinas with words that apply equally well to Buber, Wyschogrod says, “[The Other] has compelled me to let down my guard, has drawn close so that I cannot remain indifferent to him. To remain untouched by another is to refuse to engage in a feeling-act which brings to light the other’s plight, to refuse to empathize with the other.”

As noted previously, the I-Thou dialogue is based on a primary distancing that allows for two independent entities to enter into dialogue relation with one another. However, that distance cannot be maintained as such, as one can only come into contact with the Other by closing the distance between to touch. Touch can only function by means of proximity. While senses such as sight and hearing can only function because of a medium between one and what one perceives, touch has no medium, since it must be in contact with that which it perceives. Only touch brings one into a real relationship with the Other, since it is only through contact that one can have an impact on that which one perceives. Sight and hearing cannot affect that which they perceive. Touch is the perfect metaphor for the dialogical relationship, for Buber, because it is grounded in an overcoming of distance to come into contact with the Other. Returning to the experience with the horse, Buber recounts, “...what I experienced in touch with the animal was the Other, the immense otherness of the Other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of [other animals] but rather let me draw near and touch it.” Drawing near is fundamental to the dialogical relationship and is thus structurally identical to the sense of touch.

However, if the coming together of the two independent members through the overcoming of distance is the basis of the dialogical relationship, as understood through the directive image of coming into physical contact with an/other, how can we maintain their independence if the distance between them, which itself was foundational to the possibility of dialogue, is overcome? Difference between the two members must be preserved if any kind of relationship is to be achieved. It is here precisely that the structure of touch is essential. When the dialogical partner is described as, “not experienceable, only touchable,” touching maintains the Other in its place, while experience displaces and replaces the primacy of the Other with knowledge residing in the interior of the knower. Touching is a coming close, a bringing together that closes the gap dividing two bodies, which is not the subsuming of one body into another. To touch an/other, to come into contact with it, is to join with it without becoming it, without losing one’s alterity. “To be touched is to be singled out.” In touching, one both grasps and is grasped by the Other, entering one into an exclusive circuit of contact, enabled by one’s proximity to the Other. This is the exclusivity of the dialogical relationship, in one is taken up by the very hands of the Other, cradled close, in which one touches and is touched, open and whole.