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How To Escape The Dangers of Overthinking

Philosopher Martin Buber on why thinking about the Other is objectifying them.
dangers of overthinking
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

"Thinking hurts"  this is how the German philosopher Georg Simmel is said to have consoled his students. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) would give this ironic remark of his teacher an ethical twist by noting that "thinking" can also hurt others.

For in our encounter with our fellow human beings we often tend to allow established categories of thought to determine how we relate and perceive them. In doing so, Buber held, they in effect become objects of thought, an "It", rather than indivuals whose existential reality is impervious to the markers that thought constructs.

To be sure, these markers  concepts and categories  may be intrinsically benign and essential to navigating the multiple by-ways of life. We need them to recognise others and position them in the sociological landscape of everyday life: the other may be a physician, an electrician, a priest, a rabbi; elderly, young, tall, slim. But these markers, as indispensable as they may be, cannot comprehend that distinctive existential reality of the other.

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"Unbounded by the objectifying thrust of thought, the I-Thou relation thereby removes the other from the comparative grid of concepts and categories that subject the other to judgment."

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Through constructs of thought, one but "travels of the surface of things ... One extracts knowledge about their constitution from them. ... I perceive something. [...] I think something. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone. This and the like together establish the realm of It."1

But we may also relate to another as a Thou  the second person pronoun denoting intimacy, mutual trust, and, and above all, respect for the existential singularity of the other. Unbounded by the objectifying thrust of thought, the I-Thou relation thereby removes the other from the comparative grid of concepts and categories that subject the other to judgment, evaluation, and typological designations. Meeting the other as a Thou, the other is no longer cast primarily as a person of colour, a Muslim, a foreigner, a professor, a homeless individual, female, gay or straight.

 "Just as a melody," Buber writes, "is not made up of notes, not the verse of words nor the statue of lines," so it is with a human being. "What do we know of a Thou? – Just everything. For we know nothing isolated about it anymore."2

To be sure,from time to time the constitutive parts of a melody must be analysed, "tugged and dragged [apart] till their unity is scatterd into many pieces, so with the person to whom I say Thou. I can take out of him the colour of his hair, or of his speech, of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou."

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"In relating to the other as a Thou, we behold the existential presence of the other, which comes to the fore in the moment when one 'meets' -- meets as opposed to perceives – the other."

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As a Thou the other is not an Object of thought, but a Presence awaiting a response – a response by which one is also present to other. The ensuant dialogical, Buber testifies, may be beyond words. "For where [unreserved response] ruled, even wordlessly, between men, the word of dialogue has happened sacramentally."4

In relating to the other as a Thou, we behold the existential presence of the other, which comes to the fore in the moment when one "meets“  meets as opposed to perceives  the other. In relations that endure over time  such as with one’s life-partners, children, co-workers  the I-Thou meeting is to be continually renewed, for the existential reality of the other is not static but continuously unfolds with the rhymths of life.

Accordingly, the I-Thou meeting cannot be mediated by thought. "No system of ideas, no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between the I and Thou. ...No purpose, no lust, and anticipation intervene between I and Thou."

5 As Buber learned from the Daoist sage Tschuang-Tse, true knowledge is attained not by virtue of one’s thoughts but by woe-wie  no-action; a non-intentional, non-calculating, non-deliberate manner of being the world. In adhering to the "path" of wo-wie one is sponaneously and wholly open to the moment, the here and now  and thus open to the Thou, the presence of the other.

The path of wo-wie  to be attentive to the address of another and encounter her as a Thou  is an existential challenge to the cognitive postures that we have adopted as "armour" in which have "encased" ourselves. We seek security in the world-It, paradoxically to fend-off those who would treat us an It. To shed the protective shield of It requires trust in others, and, above all in oneself, the courage to let go of one’s intellectual armour, and to meet the other as a Thou. Trust is thus said to be a gift of love, of a mutual delight in, and respect for the unique otherness of each being.

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