The I, the We, the Other, and transcendence

I picked through several books today without getting traction in any one of them. I started with Richard J. Bernstein’s The New Constellation: Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity looking for references to Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas (who is generally considered Buber’s heir). I was looking for a summary of their differences, mostly to see if there is any similarity in Levinas’s view on Other and my own. I was also interested in how Bernstein situated Levinas in his understanding of Postmodernity. I began and abandoned Levinas’s Totality and Infinity last year, and I am considering picking it up again.


I refer to Bernstein for my sense of the postmodern landscape because I trust him as one of the “good postmodernists”, which means he has given skepticism its full, horrific due (thus “postmodernist”) but that he responds to the destruction of truth (as moderns have conceived of it) by seeking some kind of ground upon which reality can be secured, not only privately but socially (thus “good”). For me, the “bad postmodernists” are the ones who use unrestrained skepticism to insulate themselves from all appeals from their fellow subjects, whether the appeals are directly subjective (that is ethical or aesthetic or psychological) or indirectly subjective (that is, objective or empirical) by depriving conversation of any shared factual points of reference. “Bad Postmodernity” has a tendency to “slide into an attitude that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness that cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss”. “Bad postmodernity” is my term. Berstein simply places quotes around “Postmodernity” to indicate modes of thought that imitate the forms of Postmodernity without participating in the substance of the thought which actually does stand beyond the horizons of Modernity. Interestingly, Bernstein excludes both Derrida and Foucault from pseudo-Postmodernity, and presents them in a generous light that makes them seem worth reading.


I’m in an uncomfortable, intellectually tractionless state right now. This happens to me once or twice a year. I pick around through various books, trying to pick up the scent of where I need to go next.

I think maybe these are the times I’m supposed to summarize where I am.

I’m running short on time this morning, so I will list some of my fundamental views. (I consider these views – a sort of social-existentialism – triggered by Bernstein. These kinds of thoughts began to crystallize for me in 2005, following a deep perplexity arising around the meaning of the I Ching trigrams. I semi-resolved it through reading Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Anyone who knows something about the I Ching and Bernstein’s fusion of hermeneutics and pragmatist thinking should be able to see fairly easily how I synthesized them.) The views:

  • Denial of the existence of truth is often (and I’ve been caught at times saying “always”) a defense against the impingement of the Other.
  • The impingement of the Other is experienced as a change in one’s self.
  • A change in one’s self is not experienced primarily as a change in one’s own qualities as an individual person-among-people, but as a shift in the entire world on the whole and in many parts simultaneously. In other words…
  • A change in the entire world is a holistic change.
  • Subjectivity pervades the entire world, and for practical purposes is the whole world; it is not localized in an individual’s mind.
  • Inter-subjectivity is experienced as change in one’s subjectivity and the whole world, attributable to the influence of the Other.
  • A radical change in subjectivity is impossible to understand prior to the change: it is transcendent. It is understandable only in retrospect.
  • Anxiety (or angst or dread) is the premonition of a radical change in subjectivity.
  • Perplexity is the yet unfinished radical change in subjectivity – in the whole world, which is in disarray.
  • The impulse to defend oneself against impingement of the Other is the fending off of anxiety in the face of the transcendent.
  • The Other is transcendent. The relationship with the Other, the We is also transcendent.
  • An I knows the Other in participation in We.
  • We is a greater self, a whole within which an I is a part.
  • By participating in We, an I senses its situation within greater Selfhood.
  • A We is embedded in yet greater We.
  • The concept of an ultimate We points to the personhood of God.
  • The image of God: The self composed of instincts; the friendship composed of selves; the being that arises where “two or more gathered”.


I’m recalling a Nietzsche quote:

Where are the needy in spirit? — Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own! Now and then, however, I enjoy an even higher festival: when one is for once permitted to give away one’s spiritual house and possessions, like a father confessor who sits in his corner anxious for one in need to come and tell of the distress of his mind, so that he may again fill his hands and his heart and make light his troubled soul! He is not merely not looking for fame: he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! To possess no advantage, neither better food nor purer air nor a more joyful spirit — but to give away, to give back, to communicate, to grow poorer! To be able to be humble, so as to be accessible to many and humiliating to none! To have much injustice done him, and to have crept through the worm-holes of errors of every kind, so as to be able to reach many hidden souls on their secret paths! For ever in a kind of love and for ever in a kind of selfishness and self-enjoyment! To be in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed and renouncing! To lie continually in the sunshine and gentleness of grace, and yet to know that the paths that rise up to the sublime are close by! — That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!

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