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Existentialism & Culture

Sartre, Kafka & Buber On Identity

Stephen Small on defining other people and ourselves.

We live our lives in the shadow of other people. Others fill and to a significant degree constitute our world. After many centuries of history we remain social animals, but our identity and its origins remain an issue for us. Although we easily imagine ourselves alone on a desert island, we cannot imagine having an identity without having had contact with other human beings. We intuitively recognize that other people are a mirror in which we come to see ourselves. Conversely, other people are shaped by our presence in their lives. We too are guides, mentors and teachers, and on occasion, bad examples for others. I will attempt to illuminate some of those issues by reference to the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Martin Buber (1878-1965), and the novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

Sartre recognized the influence of other people in the making of one’s self. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre characterized the ‘Other’ [person] as an indispensable mediator between myself and me. It is arguably the case that we know ourselves largely by what others say and think about us. We are not funny if silence follows our telling jokes. We are not handsome if most people do not find us attractive. We are not tall if others tower over us. Others become the metric by which we are measured. And yet we often defy such measurement: boundaries set by others make excellent springboards for a leap into identities not otherwise pursued. And so, whether we embrace or reject what others would have us be, we cannot escape the formative influence they have upon us.

Encounters with other people can be a mixed blessing. Failed expectations and miscommunications are frequent. One reason for this is that we understand others only incompletely. The gaps are filled with our imaginings, hopes, and fears. Ironically, the more we know about others, or others know about us, the more vulnerable we can become. In matters of this sort Sartre appears to take a very negative stance. His play No Exit explicates the dark side of human interaction. The three main characters in it have recently arrived in hell. All have committed misdeeds in life of which they are unrepentant or still rationalizing. Hell proves to be a surprising place, for brimstone and torture instruments are absent. None are needed. The three torment each other with their words, exploiting each other’s shame. They are locked in a drawing room together for all eternity. The play concludes with a definition of hell as “other people.” Sartre is dramatically emphasizing that the source of much of our discord is the actions, innuendo and words of our fellow human beings.

Aside from the person-on-person aspect of identity formation, the impact of society on the shaping of individual identity is also key. Dissent from established norms and widely-held beliefs remains generally unwelcome by them. Even in a liberal democracy, others want and expect us to resemble them in attitude, appearance and practice. Their displeasure at our departure from the norms is made evident to us in ways both subtle and overt. However, in a truly oppressive r égime, the coercive element becomes decidedly more pronounced and the mode of bringing deviants to heel is likely to be violent. In his novel The Trial, Franz Kafka portrays the ‘they’ acting against a nondescript sort of individual. Kafka creates a sinister world in which the protagonist Josef K is defined as ‘the accused’ but is never informed of the charges against him. Although K tries to retain his identity as a respectable banker, he is drawn by his interaction with neighbors, middling court officials and a priest further into the role of ‘the accused’. He ultimately accepts his fate. Executed by a perversely obscure court system, K dies still ignorant of the charges against him. The Trial portrays not only the malevolence that can underpin the rule of law, but the ordinariness of evil in society.

On the brighter side of human interaction, other people can and do help to define us in positive ways. Familial ties and bonds of friendship can inspire interest in mutual welfare. Martin Buber in his book I and Thou, offers a stratagem for facilitating such behaviors in all people regardless of the relationship. His stratagem is a therapy for living in an often-uncaring world. Its key is how one defines and engages others, and the notion that solutions must begin with us. First we must recognize and embrace the need for empathy. Next, we must avoid treating others as objects or as a means for the fulfillment of our self-interests. Lastly, Buber asks us to engage with others as simply an end in itself. Albeit a simple and transparent thesis, it is worthy of remembering as we encounter others, for we might transform each other in ways humanists have long dreamed of.

These ideas of Sartre, Kafka and Buber continue to inform our understanding of the human condition, especially the problems surrounding the social construction of individual identity. Although there are no precise solutions for the human condition in their writings, there are a host of thought-provoking ideas, many of which are worth reflection, even if they’re not prescriptive self-help templates. It is inescapable that what people think influences their behavior; so we might all benefit from a close reading of the aforementioned texts with the self-imposed caveat that only our own thinking can provide a call to action. We must also remember that we can never fully get past the biases of our particular place and time. The effects of both nurture and nature will linger on in us. Nevertheless we can strive to transcend our present limitations regarding how we define Others. For just as we hear ourselves in the voices of our parents, spouse and friends, we in turn echo their voices. By closely listening to all ‘Other’ voices, we may come to hear their voices in our own.

© Dr Stephen C. Small 2009

Stephen Small is a retired US Army officer, and is presently Professor of Military History at the American Military University, Manassas Park, Virginia.

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