Category Archives: Existentialism

Buber on misapotheosis

Martin Buber, in his Introduction to Pointing the Way makes an extremely important distinction between two forms of religiosity:

In this selection of my essays from the years 1909 to 1954, I have, with one exception, included only those that, in the main, I can also stand behind today.

The one exception is ‘The Teaching of the Tao,’ the treatise which introduced my 1909 translation of selected Talks and Parables of Chuang-tzu. I have included this essay because, in connection with the development of my thought, it seems to me too important to be withheld from the reader in this collection. But I ask him while reading it to bear in mind that this small work belongs to a stage that I had to pass through before I could enter into an independent relationship with being. One may call it the ‘mystical’ phase if one understands as mystic the belief in a unification of the self with the all-self, attainable by man in levels or intervals of his earthly life. Underlying this belief, when it appears in its true form, is usually a genuine ‘ecstatic’ experience. But it is the experience of an exclusive and all-absorbing unity of his own self. This self is then so uniquely manifest, and it appears then so uniquely existent, that the individual loses the knowledge, ‘This is my self, distinguished and separate from every other self’. He loses the sure knowledge of the principium individuationis, and understands this precious experience of his unity as the experience of the unity.

When this man returns into life in the world and with the world, he is naturally inclined from then on to regard everyday life as an obscuring of the true life. Instead of bringing into unity his whole existence as he lives it day by day, from the hours of blissful exaltation unto those of hardship and of sickness, instead of living this existence as unity, he constantly flees from it into the experience of unity, into the detached feeling of unity of being, elevated above life. But he thereby turns away from his existence as a man, the existence into which he has been set, through conception and birth, for life and death in this unique personal form. Now he no longer stands in the dual basic attitude that is destined to him as a man: carrying being in his person, wishing to complete it, and ever again going forth to meet worldly and above-worldly being over against him, wishing to be a helper to it. Rather in the ‘lower’ periods he regards everything as preparation for the ‘higher.’ But in these ‘higher hours’ he no longer knows anything over against him: the great dialogue between I and Thou is silent; nothing else exists than his self, which he experiences as the self. That is certainly an exalted form of being untrue but it is still being untrue. Being true to the being in which and before which I am placed is the one thing that is needful.

I recognized this and what follows from it five years after setting down this small work. It took another five years for this recognition to ripen to expression. The readers for whom I hope are those who see my way as one, parallel to their own way towards true existence.

I’ve called the confusion of the unified self with the All-Self misapotheosis.

I do not believe that Taoism is a religion of misapotheosis, but I do think that the shift from an ecliptic mode of existence to an authentically existential one does lead one through a “soliptic” mode — an philosophically-induced autism — that frees a soul from onerous conceptual obligations and liberates it to reconceive existence in a more spontaneously intuitive mode.

This soliptic state produces so much pleasure it tempts a soul to a life of permanent alienated bliss, defended by an attitude of “contemptus mundi” toward whatever threatens to re-obligate it. Many spiritual people are imprisoned by this liberation and never escape it.

Knowing from a distance

My life as a design researcher goes like this, over and over: My client hires us to do design research. The organization is full of smart people who know the organization’s business inside and out. They believe they know roughly what is happening with their customers and their employees. Mostly they just want us to fill in some knowledge gaps. So we go out and interact with real people in their homes and workplaces. There we learn that the situation is quite different from what the client thought, that the problem has been misframed, and that the most important insights aren’t located in the knowledge gaps, but rather where nobody thought to look.

It’s not like this every time. Some organizations understand people better than others. But it is like this often enough that I am highly skeptical of claims to know from a distance. It is hard enough even to know close-up!

And when people seem unaware of the difficulties of distant knowledge and have too much confidence in their ability to piece things together based on sifting hearsay, I suspect they lack the kind of healthy relationship with reality that allows us to know truth.