I – Thou Relationship In Gabriel Marcel: An Existentialist Analysis

I – Thou Relationship In Gabriel Marcel: An Existentialist Analysis

CHAPTER ONE

  • INTRODUCTION
  • Life is a Mystery and not a problem; it is never an existentialist puzzle to human mind.  In allowing man to partake in this mysterious nature of life whose effects or manifestations are familiar to all, man ought to participate in a mutual relationship with the other, thereby  respecting and preserving life.

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In other words, to live a meaningful and authentic existence, one must establish a loving and mutual (reciprocal) relationship with other human beings, which must respect a qualified treatment of the other as (thou than it) genuine and as one who has a personal right, sacredness and dignity that must be kept respectfully.

For the success of the above viewpoint, care should be taken to avoid any form of life of estrangement.  Such life of estrangement is scarcely worth living.  To transcend this life of estrangement, one has to detach oneself from solitary life and enter into a committed life thereby looking upon oneself, the others, and even at the world not as a strange or perplexing existence.

Existentialism being one of the models of philosophy advocates for a life of commitment which gives focus and sense of direction to one’s life. On the strength of this, Gabriel Marcel, the leading religious existentialist in Europe, considering our state of life in a relational level, propounded the theory of I-thou relationship.  Francis J.C. quotes Marcel as saying:

“The meaningfulness and the authenticity of one’s existence as an ‘I’ is totally conditioned by the generosity with which I make myself available in mutual love, fidelity, faith and disponibility to thou”.1

It is obvious and clear that the authenticity of one’s existence to the other is absolutely anchored on one’s genuiness, openness to the other who is the only unique way of oiling one’s existence.  Thus, it does not give much confidence for being exceptionally sensitive, thoughtful and honest without the other.

I-Thou relationship therefore, is a total commitment to the other which involves inter-subjectivity, Fidelity, Disponibility, Faith, Hope and Love.  It concerns the hidden and the mysterious nature of “being” itself.  This type of relationship is predominantly innate to man rather than theoretical.  Mysterious in the sense that there is no room for particular involvement, objectification and thingfication of the individual.  As opposed to a problematic or problem-solving type of relationship that verifies and lacks involvement.

The nature or content of I-Thou is non-verifiable, rather it is ontologically mysterious.  This notion of mystery central to I-Thou, if not given a due consideration, can be devalued by the technocracy of the functionalzed world.  Marcel committed himself to the breaking down of such barriers by placing a priority to human values as against the functional values of technology.  For a brilliant success in I-Thou relation, there should be a personal commitment to the absolute and eternal Thou.  This act of genuine relationship and commitment is possible only when it is rooted in the absolute and unconditioned Thou, God – the giver of I – thou in its fullness.

For Marcel, a lasting relationship must take to heart the above tenets in order to have a clear viewpoint about life as a mystery and not a problem.  This work therefore, is an exposition and analysis of his thoughts which suggest an alternative to genuine contemporary relationship.

1.2           CLARIFICATION OF TERMS

In the course of this work, there are some technical terms used by Marcel that are strange and known to the initiated alone.  The ‘thou’ of Marcel depicts a partner or the other in relationship.  Mystery is not as in theological terms, but as an act of being involved or part of one’s problem than parting away or trying to solve such a situation by any easy method.  This is the height of his second reflection.  To solve this problem demands a sense of reflection and not thinking alone.   Problem is the wrong attitude towards the difficulties confronting me and my partner, which I never wanted to be a part of.

Ontology refers to the idea of “being,” and the value attached to it just by virtue of the fact that one exists.  Creative fidelity is that faith, trust, love and hope we have for our beloved ones which does not manifest itself on the plane of physical presence alone, but is also effective in the absence of the other.  With such fidelity, the memories of our beloved departed ones are kept in us with passion.  It is a nostalgia which reproduces itself especially with our distant loved ones.

The Absolute ‘Thou’ suggests the transcendental God. Availability is translation to the term “Disponibilite”.  The ‘functionlized and technological man’ is the man who is used as a means to an end and not as an end itself, the man that is valued for his functional and technological worth and values, for what he does and not for what he is.

The mastery of the above terms will help the readers of this work to follow without much stress and cost.

1.3           PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

Today, we are living in the midst of irrationalism and inconsistency as witnessed in many areas of life: such as the families, marriages and other aspects.  As a result, it seems the center can no longer hold.  It is, therefore, the purpose of this ground project to remould and re-evaluate most of our ideas in contemporary and existential issues, as mentioned above, using Gabriel Marcel’s “I-thou” authentic existence as a firm edifice. It equally suggests ways of being meaningfully and creatively responsible in our affairs with the other while not seeking utilitarian satisfaction from a  relationship.  Minds are strengthened up following this work on what real friendship should be while advocating for a committed and sacrificial union with the other.

1.4           SCOPE OF STUDY.

Having established the purpose of this study namely; the re-moulding of our contemporary and existential issues, the scope of this study then falls within the range of relationship between ‘I-Thou’ as an existence with other entities and ‘beings’ in the world.  This study exposes what genuine relationship should be in the perspective of Gabriel Marcel’s analysis and exposition of “I-Thou” as a prototype.  It also incorporates God, the absolute and eternal thou, our societal life and life in the family which it sets to re-evaluate.

  •        METHODOLOGY

Since the anthropocentric period, many philosophers have devised methods in the study of man: Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, Boros dialogical interpretation, Marcel’s analytical method and others.

It is my intention to adopt Marcel’s analytical, expository and practical method in the course of this study.  Consequently, this work is made up of four chapters.

Chapter one deals with general introduction with an over-view of Gabriel’s life and philosophy.

The second chapter will examine properly, Marcel’s significant I-Thou, I-absolute Thou, Notion of mystery and idea of problem and the existentialist’s approach to I-Thou.

Chapter three dwells on other aspects of I-Thou, such as Fidelity, Hope and Love; man in the functionalized and technological world, and lastly presence as inter-subjective relationship.

The last chapter (four) centers on the evaluation and conclusion of the work. It suggests an alternative to genuine contemporary relationship.  Then comes the Bibliography.

  •        AN OVER-VIEW OF GABRIEL’S LIFE AND PHILOSOPHY.

A general remark about Gabriel’s life and philosophy makes it easier to understand his ideologies clearer.  Copleston  calls him:

A peculiar elusive thinker, a philosopher whom it is extremely difficult to summarize.2

Born in Paris, in 1889, and was brought up in a well-off family of civil servant.  He lost his mother when he was only four years old and was privileged to be raised by an aunt whose physical presence juxtaposed with his dead mother’s spiritual presence, and this influenced his concept of creative fidelity.  He worked for the Red Cross during the First World War. This experience shaped his view of human relationship and confirmed a religious conviction by which he was converted to Catholicism in 1929.3  Marcel regretted the agnosticism of his father who was brought up as a Catholic, and had ceased practicing his religion at an early age and had taken the position of the late nineteenth century agnostics.4  Raised therefore in a home dominated by the cultural agnosticism of his father and the liberal Moralistic Protestantism of his aunt, Gabriel saw and confirmed that he was not living an authentic life.  Not minding his delicate health situation, he endured  unhappy and lonely home life.  It is therefore not surprising the emphasis on “the other” and the desire and need of Love, Friendship and Fidelity in him as a life-long quest.

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Lescoe, quoting Marcel, recounts how he (Marcel) had observed to him,

Nothing is lost for a man – I am convinced of this and firmly believe it, if he experiences a great love or a true friendship: But everything is lost for the one who is alone.5

The nostalgic memories of the past preceded his relational philosophy of commitment, the I-Thou. He insisted that to be genuine in our interpersonal relationship we must be totally and unreservedly available to the other.6  He left behind a plethora of works among which are: Being and Having 1965, creative fidelity 1964, the mystery-of Being, reflection and mystery, the philosophy of existentialism, 1968 and many dramatic works.

As a matter of fact, he provides us with a full and undespairing zeal in participating in the world with the interest of the other at heart.  He therefore, summons people to be available (disponibilite) a stance best manifested in absolute fidelity or commitment to a “thou”.

In his work, we understand the fact that he is a personal thinker in the sense that he reflects on the personal experiences he had and which was very special to him. Those experiences formed the nucleus of his philosophical discourse on this “I – Thou” relationship. As a philosopher of his time, he reflects on experiences such as love, hope, presence and fidelity.   According to Copleston:

This reflections of him do not take the form of exposing “results,” they are rather a series of explorations of various themes.7

He distinguishes two modes of thoughts, primary and secondary reflection.  On the primary reflection, objectification and idea of problem “go together”: Here we have a problem – solving thinking that aims at knowledge which is universal, abstract and verifiable, excluding thereby the personal, the particular and the contingent aspect of thoughts as being irrelevant to its purposes.  As such, it involves only a partial relation between the thinker and his object.  Marcel’s second reflection is not concerned with a “problem” but with a mystery.  The second reflection therefore, and the notion of “mystery go together”.8  It is such that seeks a wider and richer understanding of the meaning of human existence by a return to the unity of experiences within which the mystery of being is apprehended.  Primary reflection exemplifies itself in objectification, the problematic I-it relationship, which reduces a person to mere object.  While secondary reflection entails participation, the mysterious and I-Thou relationship-the level and realm, which illuminate authentic human existence.

Above all, the basis of Marcel’s thought and ‘being’ cannot be an “I am” rather “we are.”9  Obviously, there cannot be a systematized summary of Marcel’s thought which can convey a wholesome spirit of him.

CHAPTER TWO

  • MARCEL’S SIGNIFICANT I-THOU

2.1           EXISTENTIALIST’S APPROACH TO I-THOU.

Existentialism has appeared as a philosophical reaction against the scientific humanism that prevailed in the early part of the nineteenth century.1 One could be correct not to call it a philosophy, but a type of philosophy.  It is so flexible that it appeared widely in differing forms, such as the atheism of Sartre, the Catholicism of Marcel, the Protestantism of Kierkegaard, the Judaism of Buber and the orthodoxy of Berdgaeu.2  The term “Existentialism” is more often used as a general name for a number of thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who made the concrete individual central to their thought.  Just for this confidence, Omoregbe titled existentialism, ‘the most influential philosophical movement in this century’3 and suggest that it is better to describe it as a movement rather then as a school.  In a broader sense, it arose as a backlash against philosophy; such a relational critique on traditional philosophy that exalts the individual by concentrating on the profundity and potentialities of human action and dynamism.  Hegel’s abstractions and absolute idealism accord no importance to the individual man and the concrete realities of existence.  Thus, the existentialists made the individual man and his life experience, the central point of their philosophy in order to bring philosophy down to earth and make it bear on concrete human experiences.

Two main levels or thoughts of existentialist (philosophy) may be distinguished as follows:  first, the religious (theistic) as delineated by the father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1853), Marcel (1889-1973) and Karl Jaspers of (1883-1969).  The second is the atheistic as expounded by its most articulate contemporary spokesmen J.P. Sartre and Hiedgger who seem to be a “Vagus” in the classification of tenets. Significantly, what runs through in both lines of thought is their firm believe in human action and dynamism.  That is the meaning of Hiedgger’s “togetherness,” Jaspers’ communication and Marcel’s – Buber’s “Thou.” The main themes of existentialist philosophy are all drawn from human experiences.4  Existentialists generally reflect on, and write about the same themes on various aspects of human experience such as: man and the world, the others, authentic and inauthentic existence, freedom and choice, responsibility with commitment. These atheists and theists agreed that traditional philosophy was too academic and remote to have any adequate meaning for life.

From this vantage point of view, let us now delve into the approach of these existentialists’ thinkers towards “I-Thou.”  In the philosophy of Heidegger, man, Dasein is continually in advance of himself.  Man for him is “being” in the world who stands the chance of realizing himself in relation with-other things and persons.  He goes further, to explain that:

Man exists as a ‘being’, who is necessarily preoccupied or concerned with the others.5

Following this Heideggerian line of thought, it then implies that man realizes his own possibilities and constitutes the world as a meaningful system of objects standing in intelligible relations to one another and to man himself.6  The individual comes to discover himself as an individual subject only as a ‘being’ in relation with other person.  He advocates social interdependence; according to him:

Being in the world is being-with … not as an isolated ego, but as a being that is necessary, inter-related with the world of things and the world of persons.7

Having considered the importance of others, he warned about the risk of becoming absorbed or immersed in the crowd consciousness at the expense of personal identity and responsibility.  The authentic self is therefore, not an isolation of oneself from others, but a realistic cohabitation and mutual association with others. He distinguished between the I-it and I-thou relationships in saying that a person is never a mere object.8

  1. Macquarrie following Jean Paul Sartre, observes that,

We meet a philosopher with whom individual beings seem to weigh more than communal being.9

The idea of ‘being’ in Sartre is such that it is private, self-identical and ‘being’ in-itself.  For him, the individual as free subject is essentially isolated and alone.10 It is in this isolation that he creates his world and his values.  In Sartre’s philosophy there seems to be a void of social responsibility.   He could be justly accused of withdrawing into self-centered isolation.11 He insists strongly on self-commitment, (concentrating on self rather than on thou).  The theistic current in existentialism emphasizes man’s openness and personal communion with other persons and with God.

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This emphasis however, can be seen in the philosophy of Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Marcel and Buber. Copleston affirmed that it is through the conscious appropriation of relation, to the finite and to the infinite thou that such emphasis of the theistic thinkers comes to perfection.12  Jaspers, sees existence as something individual and personal.  He appeals to the individual to recognize his peculiar character as potential existence.  Jasper thinks that it is largely in and through what he calls “Communication” that one comes to realize one’s own possibilities.13  Inauthentic existence is caused by refusal to link up with the transcendent ‘via’ philosophic faith in ‘thou’.  He sees I-thou from another angle he calls crowd mentality which makes one to dodge his responsibility.  He insists on the peculiar character of the human person such that there will be no mix-up with “thou” on his liberty or power of self-transcendence.14

Kierkegaard (1813-1855) sees the need for thou commitment in his theory on three phases of life experience.  The aesthetic stage where man is controlled by passion and pleasure or intellectual pursuits as means of satisfaction.  Here man is looking for fulfillment from his outside activities and within himself – and this is not ultimately satisfying.  He therefore suggests that only “commitment” leads to a possible authentic life experience.  Commitment to thou and some arbitrary absolute which serves as a way out of the aesthetic into the second or ethical stage where consciousness and morality help us to achieve selfhood, until the final stage where one commits oneself to the Being who is able to satisfy one’s needs completely (God).

MARTIN-BUBER (1878-1905) devoted his intellectual energies to contemplate the meaning of life.  He came out with a philosophy of relationship, similar to that of Marcel he called “Ich und Du”: I-Thou.15

He believes that one emerges only through an encounter with others and that the very nature of “I” depends on the quality of the relationship with the other.

Through out his scholarly work in philosophy, he sought to reawaken our capacity for I-Thou relation.16  Little wonder his reflection on the relations between people developed into his most famous work “Ich und Du.” His philosophy, just as in Marcel’s, we see two fundamental modes of relating to others.  Buber named these two fundamental attitudes “I-Thou” and It.”  In the common mode of I-It, people are experienced as objects or in Kantian terms, as means to an end, and the “I-Thou” mode in which I do not experience “the other”, rather the other and “I” enter into a mutually affirming relation which is simultaneously, a relation with another and a relation with God, the eternal thou.” (What Marcel called the absolute thou).”17

At this point, we need not to be told that, prior to every ontical inquiry, there lies an ontological inquiry.  Also every inquiry has its presuppositions.  So, Gabriel Marcel’s philosophical quest took its shape and birth from the fact that (for him) the “being” of man is such that it presupposes a relation with other beings.  It is therefore from this relational level and commitment with the other as already propounded by the existential thinkers that we are going to study Marcel in this piece of work, made of collections of observations and notes. Hence there is no doubt that existentialists have greatly emphasized human relationship, stressing the fundamental significance of interpersonal relationship.

  • I-THOU RELATIONSHIP

It was Omoregbe who observed that there is a natural tendency in man to be egocentric at the expense of others.18 The egocentric man uses others as means for the projection of his ego in order to gain recognition, loosing sight of the fact that the human person proceeds on his courses through life, not independently of others, but in some sort of response to them.

Marcel, emphasizing this, makes clear the importance of authentic interpersonal relationship characterized by the encounter of “I-Thou.  The achievement of this “I-Thou” relation is anchored in man’s ability to open up his innermost being to others in love, participation, faith and communication.  On this plane of I-thou, man sees himself as obliged to the other and owes him a responsibility by his actions. There is also a true preservation of the other in one’s uniqueness. It is a relation that permits a respect for the other and always has the willingness to put oneself at the disposal of the other.   One attains this height by transcending the narrowness of one’s egocentricism whereby I consider the other as thou and meet one another not only freely but, lovingly and no longer as an object.

Lescoe commenting on this says:

We must recognize that each of us in order to “grow” must open up to the other different ‘beings’ and must be capable of meeting them without allowing himself to be dominated or neutralized.”19

 

The fraternal man of Marcel is he who is in union with his neighbour; he is enriched by everything which enriches his brother. Gabriel Marcel insists that this encounter or meeting is not a mere interaction; it is also a reciprocal intercourse of I-Thou whereby the two get to know each other as persons.

Early enough in his career, he explored the metaphysical nuances of different modes of relationship.  He distinguishes relations between “I- thou” and I-it.  Martin Buber popularized this mode in his work “Ich und Du” (I-thou) which starts from world of experience rather than abstract concept, “experience which points to what is human in man.”20  The essence of man, which is unique to him, can be directly known only in a living relation.  So, I-Thou exists only in our world of experience because man exists and ‘I’ exist only through a relationship with the other.  In this relationship, there is a possible conception of the wholeness of man.  Alluding on the above statement Buber writes:

A man is truly saved from the one not by separation but only by being bound up in genuine communion21

Marcel therefore saw the treatment of ‘Thou” as ‘it’ (thingnification) in such a way that it reduces the dignity of man to mere object, a dramatized man – machine.  The parties in “I-It” relation are not with one another; they remain closed to deep creative interchange.  But in “I-Thou,” the parties are present to each other in a mutual openness and self-given as exemplified in Lescoe’s work:

It is in the qualification, in a spiritual openness and availability to the other that the process of my self- actualization take place.22

In truth, Marcel acknowledged the I-thou relationship as an authentic inter-personal relationship.  He also realized that there might be a period of short-comings when one fails to regard the other as a thou.  Thus the question lies in how quick we are in turning back to this genuine communion.  But man’s being is set towards the absolute and unconditional thou.  Man aspires to an absolute self-commitment and to absolute fidelity and loyalty.  This was at first instance aspired towards the sphere of human relationship.  But reflection shows that this involves the invocation of the absolute thou who is the ground of all being and value.  He alone is sacred and possesses eternal fidelity.  J. Macquarrie holds that:

We relate to God precisely by turning towards the other and find the eternal thou-through the finite.23

For him, God is best known only in interpersonal relations and involvement in the life of human community.

Inferentially then, the thou is not restricted to the empirical. Here, the descent into personal relationship is the same as ascent into transcendence.  In Marcel’s exploration of the relationship which arises in the plane of I-Thou, man discovers God as the personal transcendent absolute.  He becomes conscious of the orientation of his personality towards the other, and the absolute thou-God.  Within the wider context of I-thou relation, Marcel recognized the emergence of the I-Absolute.

  • I – ABSOLUTE THOU RELATIONSHIP
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Man is effectively a human person only through and through self-transcendence, actual and conscious communion with other human beings and God.  Marcel discovers God as the personal Absolute who gives significance and value to those personal relationships which arise on the plane of inter-subjectivity24

On the plane of I–thou, one’s exigencies or demand for being is partially satisfied.  But in communion with another and in fidelity towards another, one transcended the relation of having (an object) and is in the sphere of ‘Being’-which is set towards the absolute and unconditioned.  This requires the invocation of the absolute ‘thou’ who is the ground of all being and value and who alone makes eternal fidelity possible.25  It is in adoration and prayer, total commitment to God that every relationship discovers God as the personal transcendental absolute.

I should be inclined to say in a very general fashion that I-thou of Marcel records one of the most poetic aspect of his philosophy according to which God appears to humanity not as the abstract and impersonal ‘Him’ but as an essentially knowable thou.26

And so, in our desire for the absolute thou, one must enter into communion with the other ‘via’ one’s spiritual availability, love and fidelity.  Of course, the more God is for us, the more we are; in that way we can see the intimate relation that unites us.  This act of genuine commitment is something transcendental in its very nature because it is beyond our own limited power.  It is necessary at this point to note that our fidelity becomes possible towards our fellow men because God Himself is present to us in faith.  Adding flesh to this, Lescoe writes:

Because of this Absolute and unconditioned fidelity, the other partial fidelities are made possible 27

From this same standpoint, we are advised to display real fidelity towards our fellows.  We must give ourselves completely to God who is the faithful one, who serves as a ground for the fidelity which we exhibit towards our neighbour.

This Absolute-infinite thou forms the bedrock of any genuine inter-personal relationship.  It is in Him that partial relationship finds its perfection and fulfillment.

 

The realm of Absolute thou is vowed not to be a particular being or a created being, but God himself; in whom all the extended lines of relations meet in the eternal “thou” Absolute.  Genuine fidelity, love and hope of I-Thou is essentially possible only when they are rooted in the Absolute thou: God of Marcel.

  • NOTION OF MYSTERY AND IDEA OF PROBLEM.

In discussing Marcel’s work, it is really wise to explore at length his excellent idea of problem and notion of mystery.

In his work, Marcel came to a rigorous distinction between the problem and the mystery which provides one with a significant  clue to his thought.  In the light of this distinction between mystery and problem the question of ‘being’ is not a problem but a mystery; in so far as I am involved in the very question I am, myself a ‘being’.  Omoregbe suggests that one cannot project ‘being’ and treat it as an object, since one participates in that very ‘being’ which one is part of.26

At the background of this distinction noted in Marcel’s work, vis-à-vis mystery and problem, it is observed that many writers, commenting on it, made some contributions.

In an excellent discussion of Marcel by Copleston:

A problem is a question which can be considered purely objectively, a question in which the being of the questioner is not involved.27

Here, Marcel noted that fluctuations in any relationship should not be solved like a mathematical problem.  Rather, shortcomings should be addressed to as a mystery whereby both parties (I-Thou) should humbly seek for an amicable way of resolution.

A “mystery,” therefore, is a step towards an authentic relationship.  It is a question which involves the being of the questioner so that in considering the question or theme, the questioner cannot disregard himself.28

In order to solidify our understanding of what is meant by problem and mystery, Marcel coined what he called reflection; first and second.  This method of reflection is more appropriate for “problems” but not appropriate for “mysteries.”

First reflection, objectification and the idea of “problem go together.”  The term “problem” can be etymologically traced back to Greek prosballo, Latin objectum or to the German word Gegestand.29  In all, it denotes something, which is thrown in front of us.  It is strictly in this etymological sense of something flung in my way, in my path, that Marcel understands “problem.”  Hence, it involves something which can be considered completely objective and which implies an absolute non-involvement on the part of the individual who examines or studies the question.  It is,

Something, which I met, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce.30

Problem so to speak is something purely on the plane of objectivity. Something that can be solved in accordance with mathematical method.

On the level of first reflection according to Copleston:

The concrete unity of pre-reflective immediate experience is broken up”… but it is possible to envisage another type of reflection, the second-reflection.31

This level of reflection tries to combine, so far as this is possible, the immediacy of experience with reflection.  By mystery, therefore, the level of second reflection, Marcel means:

Certain kinds of experiences that are permanently incapable of being translated into objects, (out there) these experiences always include the subjects and these are therefore matters of mystery.32

Mystery as pinpointed for more simplification should not be understood in the theological sense of a truth revealed by God.  It is such that cannot be proved by the human reason alone.”33 The word mystery rather refers to that which cannot be objectified in such a way that the subject can be simply disregarded.

In the final analysis of the mysterious and the problematic, Lescoe attached an ontological tag on them, which I deem necessary to lay bare:

The phrase mystery of ‘being’, ontological mystery as against problem of ‘being’, ontological problem has suddenly come to me in these last few days… a problem is something met with, which bars my passage, it is before me in its entirety, a mystery, on the other hand, is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is, therefore, not to be before me in its entirecty.34

At this juncture, it is understood that the level of mystery, which always involves one’s-person, includes the notion of second reflection which is necessary as soon as communication is established between I-ThouAnd both go into a new sphere where transcendence takes on the aspect of fidelity, hope and love.  On the other hand, problem calls for an abstraction of myself from that which I am studying, and which is to be found in connection with the first reflection

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