Thursday, 14 February 2013

Bergman on Dialogical Philosophy

Shmuel Hugo Bergman’s little-known but intensely readable primer, Dialogical Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Buber, presents a series of lectures given by Bergman in 1962. In his ‘Preface’, translator Arnold Gerstein – aptly, I sense – describes Bergman’s original language as ‘a semiformal but elegant conversational Hebrew that is compelling to students and philosophers alike’. The intimacy of Bergman’s lecturing style thus mirrors that of his subject: the dialogue. Nathan Rotenstreich, in his ‘Foreword’, maintains that the term ‘dialogical philosophy’ is ‘undoubtedly taken from Martin Buber’; both Rotenstreich and Gerstein, however, note that for Bergman it is Kierkegaard who emerges as ‘the central link in the history of the philosophy of the dialogue’ (in Gerstein’s words).

Later sections of Bergman’s study address other thinkers of central importance to Weimar era philosophy: Eugen Rosenstock, Franz Rosenzweig. Yet the first and by far the longest part of the book focusses on Kierkegaard’s thought. In some introductory statements prefacing this part, Bergman suggests the affinity of dialogical thinking to existentialist thinking: ‘What distinguishes any genuine dialogue is the fact that the participants are individuals, each bearing their own specific and generic traits. They are not abstractions but men of flesh and blood.’ On the following page Bergman adds a caveat: ‘The philosophy of dialogue which we will discuss in these lectures is not the same as “existentialism,” since not every existential philosophy stresses the dialogical factor; however, the two schools are identical with respect to the position of the individual within the philosophical system.’ As Bergman puts it later, ‘With this stress on the importance of the individual self, the single man in all his existential individuality, Kierkegaard lays the foundation for what has subsequently been called dialogical philosophy.’ But, as Rotenstreich rightly observes, Bergman’s treatment of dialogical philosophers’ relationship to existentialism is ultimately of lesser importance than the emphasis his book places on ‘the centrality of man’s individuality and the relationships and encounters between individuals and with God’. Bergman notes, for instance, that Kierkegaard’s dislike for German Romanticism’s ‘tempestuousness and exaggerated subjectivism that isolated man’, meant that he ‘strenuously sought the way to religion through the use of subjective irony’.

Crucially, in connection with Weimar political philosophy’s decisionism, Bergman shows how Kierkegaard’s thinking of the decision forms an aspect of his thinking of man’s emergent relationship with God, repeatedly referring to ‘the autonomous activity and self possession [sic] which are necessary in order to probe the true meaning of religion’. Because, as Bergman writes, for Kierkegaard ‘Real action is in the internal decision of man’, therefore for him ‘Man’s relation to God is not direct or objective; it is an inner relation, a relation of risk’. For Kierkegaard, as Bergman notes, within the moral and religious dimension of life ‘direct communication is impossible’. ‘In order to see God, one must break the direct-passive relationship. Man’s inner nature then bursts forth in an independent act, and he confronts the reality of God.’ 

Bergman emphasizes that the I-Thou relation, the relationship of man to man, is the concern of post-Kierkegaardian dialogical philosophy:

‘Actually, in spite of the tremendous importance of dialogue for Kierkegaard, the major dialogue for him is between man and God. The dialogue between man and man has no function in religious life because religious man leads a solitary life and cannot disclose to others the task that is imposed on him.’

Bergman’s attention to the importance of religious ‘silence’ or ‘speechlessness’ reappears within the context of his discussion of the modality of ‘non-Socratic learning’ within which, for Kierkegaard (as Bergman puts it), ‘a genuine mutual relationship between God and man is created’: learning as divine revelation.

‘The relationship between man and man is invariably Socratic – that is, it will always be such that one man, when he teaches another, even when he teaches him about revelation and faith, can only be an agent or a midwife. He cannot take the place of direct revelation, which comes through God as teacher.’

Commenting on Kierkegaard’s Repetition, Bergman stresses how ‘the essence of revelation’ involves a recreation of man by God, and that ‘God alone can recreate man’. ‘The learner is given something that was not within him and for which he was unprepared, and so the moment in which he receives the doctrine or revelation is of crucial importance.’ It is here that Bergman evokes the sort of divine revocation of speechlessness ‘which is expressed among Jews in the prayer: “Oh Lord, open thou my lips and my mouth may declare thy praise”’. We remember how Bergman wrote of how in relation to God, man’s ‘inner nature […] bursts forth in an independent act’: ‘Man enters this personal dialogue with God only through God’s action.’ It is as if the spiritual release afforded by the human decision is matched by – though it does not have the power to solicit – a divine revocation of our silence.

For instance when it juxtaposes Ferdinand Ebner’s view that (in Bergman’s words) ‘Man’s spirit is in its essence a receiving spirit dwelling in a relationship to a giving spirit’, with Wilhelm von Humboldt’s argument that (as Bergman puts it) ‘logos finds its way to our physical life and awakens it to the life of the spirit’, Bergman’s book foregrounds the position that ‘language is the revelation of God to man’. Noting that ‘this viewpoint predominates in the thought of Rosenstock, a friend of Rosenzweig’, Bergman explores the philosophy of language presented by Rosenstock in his Angewandte Seelenkunde [Applied Psychology], a text published in 1924 (but largely written some years before).

Bergman focusses on the concept of ‘true speech’ – revelational speech – which Rosenstock developed as a result of his view that, as Bergman phrases it, ‘The word, “logos,” is a revelation of divine presence’:

‘In speech [for Rosenstock] there are two levels, reflecting the distinction between true and ordinary speech. The two levels are the compulsion (or necessity) of speaking, and the ability to speak. True speech is not voluntary or arbitrary; it is not a matter of will but a necessity whose force causes speech to spring forth. True speech springs forth almost against the will of man, and thus all true speech is revelation.’

With this idea that ‘The word is given to man or forces itself upon him’, Bergman clearly echoes his earlier commentary on Kierkegaard – where he wrote of how ‘Man’s inner nature then bursts forth in an independent act’. It is as if Bergman’s exegesis of the philosophers’ views of the experience of revelation has become as compulsive and involuntary as the experience itself. Yet though for Rosenstock ‘true speech’ entails that (as Bergman puts it) ‘the speaker is entirely subject to his own speech’, this does not mean that for Bergman such involuntary revelational speech divorces the speaking/spoken subject from his own existential individuality. The example of revelational speech which Bergman provides – the Jewish hermeneutic practice of ‘the law of intra-linear parallelisms in the Book of Psalms’ – is itself, Bergman observes, ‘grounded in distress and necessity’.

‘In prayer Israel encircles the prayer leader, who passes in front of the Ark, while others release him by repeating the prayer which he has recited with such total self-absorption and compulsion that he does not hear it. The congregation repeats his prayer, paralleling it by half-lines in such a way that he can and must hear what he has prayed, and in this way they free him from his distress. This is true speech.’  

At the end of his book Bergman returns to this logic of call and response – of sacred language or prayer and hermeneutics – which characterizes revelational speech, noting how Buber (in his ‘The History of the Dialogical Principle’) situated the event of call and response at the core of his thinking influenced by Hasidism:

‘[…] the question of the possibility and reality of a dialogical relationship between man and God, thus of a free partnership of man in a conversation between heaven and earth whose speech in address and answer is the happening itself, the happening from above and the happening from below, had already accosted me in my youth. In particular since the Hasidic tradition has grown for me into the supporting ground of my own thinking, hence since about 1905, that had become an innermost question for me.’

The de-individualizing tendency within the dialogical philosophy of language treated by Bergman emerges clearly however, when he discusses Rosenstock’s idea of ‘liturgical grammar’. Bergman glosses Rosenstock’s notion of calling as recreation: ‘Rosenstock says that liturgical grammar would change Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” to read, “God, you have called me, therefore I am.”’ Bergman underlines how ‘The calling comes first and establishes the “I.”’ He also stresses the scriptural precedence for the idea that ‘only from the “Thou” can the “I” be created’. ‘The classic example is I Samuel, 3:5, where young Samuel turns to Eli and says: “Here am I for thou called me.”’ Within Bergman’s study of dialogical philosophy therefore, there seems to be a tension between his emphasis on the involuntary (and even de-individualizing) aspect of religious experience, and his emphasis on the contrasting ‘autonomous activity and self possession [sic] which are necessary in order to probe the true meaning of religion’ – on an individual’s decisive, committed, risk-taking experience. This tension seems to me to be resolved, though, by Bergman’s ongoing attention to the concept of redemption as recreation: that is, to a redemption of man by God which precisely enables man’s exercise of personal agency.

Bergman’s reading of Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption suggests that ‘the redemption of the world must be perceived as a vital process, as the animation of the world’. This sort of redemption is evoked again within Bergman’s account of Buber’s notion of the state of ‘realization’, which Bergman describes as ‘the perception of reality in its immediacy, when one leaps into it, as it were, and identifies with it’. Towards the end of his book, Bergman relays the illustration of realization offered by Buber in one essay in his 1913 Daniel, Dialogues on Realization – a precursor of Buber’s I and Thou of 1923:

‘Buber illustrates this with the example of a Swiss pine […]. If […] I open myself to the tree with all my energy directed toward it, if I assimilate it, as it were, commit myself to it, then I am transformed and I become the tree itself. […] I experience a particular tree. I identify myself with it, without surrendering my unique position. I succeed, in other words, in conjoining the two, myself and the tree. I have access thereby to the mystery of reality. […] Entering the mystery of reality is […] a higher state of activity which I initiate and through which I open myself and transform my energy into a magical strength that fascinates and gratifies, while quieting the chaos around me. […] This is the great miracle of realization which this essay attempts to describe. Something of the philosophy of the dialogue emerges here, because the true dialogue also has the same openness and commitment along with the self-preservation of the person speaking.’