Two Ways to View the World
There is a philosopher named Martin Buber from Germany with a theory on the nature of human interaction. Buber claims that when it comes to how you view & interact with the world — there are two options.
You either view the other as an object or a subject.
He called the philosophy “I & Thou” (or “I & You”).
You have your existence and then you have how your existence engages in relationship with the existence of others around you.
Because you see yourself and recognize that you are a subject — you are an “I”. You have depth and emotions and intentions and feelings and thoughts and dreams and shortcomings. We see through our eyes with an understanding of our identity in all of its dimensions. You are able to look at yourself and recognize the totality of your being.
As humans, that’s where we start.
That is the first part of the lens we have.
The question is — how does your “I”, your ‘self’, relate to everything else?
Well, Buber would say you have two options.
“I & It” — Object
First, you look at yourself and say “I”, but then you look at another and say, “It”.
Other beings and creatures are things to be experienced and used. They are pieces in your life that exist to be utilized and manipulated for yourself. When you engage with them, there is no depth of dimension; they are simply characters in your story that you use, receive, & consume from to fulfill whatever agenda you might have.
Others are objects.
Two dimensional things that exist for your benefit.
This perspective is like you having your first person lens and everything else is the equivalent to a video game being played for your benefit. Essentially, you are the center of the world and all else exists around you. It would be what we call ‘ego-centrism’.
This is the first option for how you relate to the world.
But then, there is another, more holistic option.
“I & Thou” — Subject
Second, you look at yourself and say “I”, but then you look at another and say “Thou” (or “You” for a more modern dialect).
Essentially, you look at another being and view them the same way you view yourself. You assume that, just as you have your lens and depth and dimensionality to your being…so do they.
They aren’t an object, but a subject.
Not something to be manipulated and used, but interacted with.
It begins with a healthy view of the “self” and then attributes the attitude you have towards your existence to everything else. You see a person and realize they, too, have hopes and dreams and goals. They have vulnerabilities and shortcomings and feelings. They have a history and an existence that parallels your own.
The ancient Stoics called this a cosmopolitan view of the world — that you exist as a citizen of the common world of which you are one part.
You are an “I”.
And they are a “You”, not an “It”.
Which One Describes You?
When you hear these descriptions, which one embodies how you approach the various beings that make up the world around you?
- Is the world simply full of characters in your story? Or is the world full of characters together in a common story?
- Are you the only person that matters? Or, put differently, are you the one who gets to decide who matters & which dimensions of the world are important? Or are we interdependent — a common village woven together like a mutualistic web?
We will either be inward or outward focused — pulling the world into our small schemes or moving out into the larger scheme of our humanity.
Why Your Perspective Matters
Here is the challenge of this philosophy — it compels us into an empathic relationship to every single thing where we transcend our singular lens of myopic self-centeredness and move from ‘ego-centric’ to ‘world-centric’.
If the world is not an object, then we are not at the center. And if the world is full of subjects with depth and intentionality — people who are sojourning through the world in the same way you are — it ought to change how we relate and interact with all of those fellow subjects.
- Competition becomes collaboration.
- Manipulation becomes mutualism.
- Seeking advantage of the other becomes seeking healing for all of us congruently.
When you see the world as you see yourself — when you love the other in the same way you love yourself — you enter into the biological, psychological, and sociological reality that we are more connected than we may have previously imagined.
And this could change everything about our human experience.
Psychologically, we see this with George Herbert Mead’s social psychology theory of “The Social Self” in which he describes the inescapable reality that your identity is intrinsically shaped by the social sphere around you. The world is like a mirror where your understanding and manifestation of your ‘self’ is a reflection of all the other selfs surrounding you. Essentially, you don’t exist on an island, rather you live in an entangled web of interconnection with everything else.
Or we could look at the human genome project and our anthropological heritage or the mystical reality of argon atoms or the biological component of mirror neurons and its impact on our seemingly natural human capacity for empathy.
We are predisposed to see, feel, and experience the world in conjunction with our fellow sojourners.
Learning, again, from the Stoics — they claimed the world exists as an “oikeiosis” — the perception that all things are part of one’s own self while, at the same time, one’s own self is part of the world at large. We are like one giant family, one entangled, interconnected web of a global village and, therefore, how you treat your inner circles ought to translate into the posture with which you treat even the very outermost circles.
Seeing the world as “subjects” — as a ‘thou’ instead of an ‘it’ — forces us to transcend ourselves for the good of the whole in a way that embodies a pure, innate wholeness that we seem to be naturally meant to exist within.
Your perspective, then, will create a particular kind of world.
The question is, “Which one?”
A world of subjects?
Or a world of objects?
And the effects are exponentially stark in contrast:
Can you imagine if we actually took this seriously? Because as soon as you begin to lean into this, certain things become impossible:
- Sexual harassment.
- Economic disadvantage.
- And, honestly, any form of oppression.
When you view the world as “subject”, what sincerely becomes impossible is just plain old selfishness and while, yes, most of these are ideals and we must figure out how to navigate the ambiguous world that isn’t quite here, just by making this our goal, just by taking this perspective of life on as the engine of our existence, it slowly begins to change everything.
A world of subjects will create this experience.
A world of objects will create the opposite.
How you view the world & the perspective you have of life around you is one of the most important decisions you can make.
Which Posture Will You Decide?
Every “thing” that you look at.
Every piece of the world.
Every being and creature.
Will you look at them and say “object”?
Or will you look at them and say “subject”?
“I” and “It”
or “I” & “You”?
Viewing everything as fellow subjects with an oikeiosis, cosmopolitan, interconnected empathy who exist the same way you do will certainly change how you interact with everything.