In his book, The Way of Response (ed. N.N. Glatzer. Schocken Books:NY, 1966), Martin Buber urges us to be more careful, considerate and contemplative of how we use the word “we.” Also, the late Richard Rorty, American pragmatist philosopher, has a relevant notion of “we-ness” for us to consider and compare with Buber.
Buber goes right to the point and says there are two main types of attitudes that some people have that create hurdles for achieving “we-ness.” Firstly, there are people who do not take personal responsibility for their own existence and resort to the collective, society, for protection from the consequences of their irresponsibility. Secondly, there are other people with self-absorbed attitudes, individuals who consider themselves autonomous and answerable only to themselves. Both attitudes shun one aspect of the person in society, the former is dishonest to himself and the latter is dishonest to society. Buber says, “The clearest mark of this kind of man is that he cannot really listen to the voice of another; in all his hearing, as in all his seeing, he mixes observation. The other is not the man whose claim stands over against his own in equal right; the other is only his object.”(p.86) When a person treats another person as an object, he discriminates against him. Here, Buber alludes to a subject he has written extensively about in his book I and Thou. In that book, he analyzes and discusses the notion that every person, an “I” or subject, has a relationship to all things that is an “I – It” relationship, a relationship of a person to an object. However, every person finds meaningfulness in life in “I-Thou” relationships. All of our relationships with other persons are bringing us closer to God, the Eternal Thou, and every person’s relationship with every other person is of spirit and mind, shared experiences of each other and an encounter with God.
We might think of a similar notion of “we-ness” espoused by Richard Rorty in his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Rorty says that people tend to create a stark juxtaposition of subjects, a comparison of “we” versus “them.” He says, the “them” group is easier to be cruel to, to appear sub-human. This is an obstacle to social peace. So, Rorty suggests that the word “we” should include more and more subsets of the human population until everyone is appreciated and identified as part of “we.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Rorty suggests the following: Rorty’s metaphilosophical critique, then, is directed not at particular techniques or styles or vocabularies, but toward the idea that philosophical problems are anything other than transient tensions in the dynamics of evolving, contingent vocabularies.”(Ramberg, Bjørn, “Richard Rorty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/rorty/>.) Here, we could include the word “we” as a word that in fact is subject to a huge variety of interpretations and transient tensions and is evolving, and not part of the “perrenial” philosophical problems of which Rorty’s criticizes.
Similarly, Martin Buber is critical of the contemporary and loose usage of words, especially loaded words such as “we.” He says, “In our age, in which the true meaning of every word is encompassed by delusion and falsehood, and the original intention of the human glance is stifled by tenacious mistrust, it is of decisive importance to find again the genuineness of speech and existence as We.”(p. 86) Sometimes, one can be so accustomed to falsehood in speech, whether from political figures, from marketers, television commercials, pharmaceutical advertisements, etc., that one might become cynical or suspicious of others whom we actually know. It sounds like Buber is calling on every person to be genuine, to be responsible for himself and his duty to contribute to the community. He continues, “This is no longer a matter which concerns the small circles that have been so important in the essential history of man; this is a matter of leavening the human race in all places with genuine We-ness.”(p.86) In other words, Buber seems to be suggesting that we cannot wait for a political or social elite class to do this, a sort of “trickle-down we-ness.” Rather, he implies, that all persons, today, are responsible for sharing and educating others about this attitude of “we-ness,” extending it to every person, in all places, in all societies. However, Buber warns, “Man will not persist in existence if he does not learn anew to persist in it as a genuine We.”(p.86) In other words, humanity’s continued existence must include inclusiveness, extending kindness, genuineness, openness and hospitality to all persons, thus assuring the survival of humanity.
In conclusion, Buber reminds us of the importance of the hierarchy of being. He says, “But he who existentially knows no Thou will never succeed in knowing a We.”(p. 86) In other words, paraphrasing Buber, who is implicitly referring back to the “I-Thou” versus “I-It” juxtaposition: if a we want to succeed in creating a society of “we,” we should first re-cognize our relationship with God, in order not to fall into an “I-It” relationship with others, objectifying “them” as Rorty would say.