Love and Infinity Within the Other

Article by Hannah Frasure, Pomona ‘24

    Humans in the 21st century face what seems to be an insurmountable, growing number of existential threats. Climate change may leave the world uninhabitable; weapons of mass destruction may render it obsolete. Regardless of what is done to prolong human-made annihilation events, the Sun—billions of years from now—will engulf the Earth before ceasing to burn. As a result, there are constant reminders of imminent extinction. If that is our destiny, is courage even possible? What meaning may life have in the face of imminent doom?

    Throughout history, philosophers have addressed these questions, and they remain as important as ever. The answer I propose is synthesized from the phenomenological and existential arguments of Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and G.W.F. Hegel.1 I first endeavor to discover the connection between death and meaninglessness. Then I explore how the self relates to and knows of the existence of other-selves—with those selves referred to as the Other—to understand the origin of the idea of death. Lastly, I come to an understanding that our relation to the Other is also the basis of meaning, and that unconditional love of the Other makes not only meaning possible, but also transcendent, infinite, and eternal existence itself possible—what I refer to as Being and what Buber refers to as God.

    The first step is to undertake an inquiry asking how the idea of nonexistence is concluded from death and why it causes life to lose its meaning. Leo Tolstoy once rewrote a Buddhist fable that illustrates the connection. Walking down a path in the woods, a man becomes aware that a wild animal has begun to chase him. Ahead, he sees a plant with a vine hanging inside a well. The man decides to escape by climbing tdown the vine and waiting for the animal to leave. After he begins the descent, he looks down and sees a dragon at the bottom. Meanwhile, the wild animal has reached the top of the well and paces around it, waiting for him to ascend. Looking up, he sees mice chewing the vine, and beside him, a drop of honey on a leaf. He wonders whether he should lick the honey, since he will fall sooner or later.

    When someone is aware of their fatality, death can become like a wild animal, visibly in pursuit or hiding in unknown places. Everything to rejoice for in life, like honey, has lost its sweetness. Nothing has lasting meaning because of the fate that awaits. Thus, everyone must solve the conundrum of living with the knowledge that they will eventually cease to exist. In The Courage to Be, Tillich explains that "reality has the basic structure of self-world correlation and that with the disappearance of the one side the world, the other side, the self, also disappears."2 Because it is impossible to perceive death immediately, the notion is derived from observing the similarities among its effects on others. When a being dies, it loses the part of its essence that allowed it to exist, so existence must be inseparable from the essence of anything that lives. As a result, when death causes a being to lose its life, death instantiates nonexistence. Therefore, if the existence of a thing is contingent upon its perceivable quality, if the being no longer has the capability to perceive the thing, the thing may no longer exist.

    Moreover, as perception has taught that everything living dies, the self too will die, which means that it is fated to nonexistence. As a result, since the self will become nonexistent, everything is independent of the self, because the self-world correlation will vanish. Thus, the reality is that nothing will exist.

    Tillich goes further by identifying the problem this poses. He explains, "it is not causal necessity that makes fate a matter of anxiety but the lack of ultimate necessity, the irrationality, the impenetrable darkness of fate."3  To return to the fable, the man clinging to the vine believes the jaws of the dragon make it impossible to take pleasure from licking the honey. If man's fate prevents him from enjoying honey, then man exists only to be eaten! If this notion is true, then Albert Camus was wrong to liken the human condition to Sisyphus. Instead, it is more like that of Prometheus, anxiously awaiting the eagle's talons, fated to suffer because his chains are not only to the rock but to his experience of consciousness. It is the absence of an efficient cause for the finiteness of existence, along with the absence of a final cause for why beings have the capability to perceive their existence at all, which is the source of the Prometheus-like agony that Tillich terms ontic anxiety. From everything inferred so far, life has no meaning, so self-awareness necessarily entails suffering.

    However, the inquiry thus far is incomplete. The self-world correlation also implies that the existence of the self is contingent upon the existence of other objects. These objects, it will be shown, are other living beings: the Other. G.W.F. Hegel demonstrates that a being may only have an awareness of itself if there is something else that is not itself.4 So, for a being to have the capability to conclude its own existence, those others must necessarily exist, and the mind must have the ability to perceive their existence. The self and the Other have an interdependent relationship, what Hegel and Buber individually call reciprocity.5  

    Suppose the existence of the self depends upon the actuality of the Other. In that case, the self must conceive of nonexistence because it has the capability to perceive the Other as inactual. To be inactual is to lack the property that instantiates existence. Buber's basic premise is that there are two ways the self relates to the world, (a) the I-It and (b) the I-You. The former relation causes ontic anxiety. For Buber, the essence of the "It" is finiteness. He writes, the "It is only by virtue of bordering on others."6 Under objecthood, the Other does not have an actual existence within the present but is contextualized as a point within the casual chain of spacetime. In short, the "It" is an object, whereas the "I" is a subject. When the "I" encounters the consciousness of the Other as an "It," the Other is no longer a subject, another "I," but an object, and a result, nonexistent. Thus, at this point, it is known that the finiteness of the body, learned from the sensed lack of actuality of the Other in the I-It relation, causes a being to think of itself as finite—or fated to die.

    In the I-It relation, because the "I" sees itself as having the same kind of selfhood as the Other, if the Other is an object, the subjectivity of the individual becomes confined to the same status of that of the Other. That is, of objecthood. As such, the relation becomes one of mutual objectivity. Although the "I" still recognizes its own existence, its existence is that of an object, which has the essence of finiteness. Therefore, in the I-It relation, the "I" gains an awareness of its imminent death because all objects are empirically known to be merely transient. So, a being cannot conceive itself as actually existing when it relates to the world as an "It." Instead, because it perceives itself as an object that will eventually no longer exist, the self does not perceive its existence as anything more than transient. As a result, if a being always engages in I-It relations, it will be doomed to a constant state of ontic anxiety. "I" may never act meaningfully in the world insofar as "I" regard the Other as an "It." The "I" is doomed to the extent that it continues to encounter the Other as an "It," only sensing the Other and the self as powerless objects, which threatens the actuality of their being.

    If "I" relate to the Other as an object, then "I" do not perceive its existence as actual, because the essence of an object is that it is finite. Its existence is merely transitory. As a result, it is impossible for the "I" to conceive the existence of objects that continue after the death of the self. Although an object is present in the I-It relation, the internal cognitive experience of relating to the Other as an object does not let the "I" know of this existence. When I choose to perceive the world as an "It," the previous I-It relations cause the "I" to anticipate the loss of self-world correlation. The I continually relates to the Other as an "It" because the “I” fears its loss, which subsequently induces the knowledge of the death of the self. However, when the "I" relates to the Other as an object, attempting to avoid their fear of the actuality of nonexistence, the "I" ultimately fails because they will never recognize the actuality of existence.

    So, is there a type of internal cognitive experience by which the self may grasp actuality? Buber believes that this experience may be had in relating to the Other as a "You." He writes, "I do not find the human being to whom I say You in any Sometimes and Somewhere... As long as the firmament of the You is spread over me, the tempest of causality cowers at my heels. The whirl of doom congeals."7 To encounter a "You" is to be aware that one has definite knowledge of the presence of an external object. That is, one has the pure awareness of the presence of the Other. Buber writes, "we speak to the [You] only when all speech has ceased within."8 From an awareness of this definite knowledge, the "I" can infer the world continues to exist after the loss of the self-world correlation, something the "I" cannot infer insofar as the world is an "It."  To encounter an "It" is only to be aware that there is an object whose existence is finite. The "I" relates to the Other as "You" through an internal action of the cognition whereby the self, as opposed to perceiving the relation to the Other as a means to an end, is perceived as an end in and of itself. The Other does not have the essence of an object, but the same essence of the self, as a subject. Thus, mutual objectivity transforms into mutual subjectivity, or intersubjectivity, in the I-You. Even as the encounter ends, the relationship itself is still the experience of a being perceiving Being within the Other (as opposed to the nonbeing that is manifest within the "It" of the "I-It" relation). If all actual things share this property, they do not essentially differ, given that their actuality depends upon it. Thus, what one perceives to be the self is merely Being that inheres within a temporal body. The evidence of infinity and eternity is inherent within beings as they necessarily have the property of existence. Ultimately, in the I-You relation, a being no longer perceives itself as finite since it gains the knowledge of the essence of existence in sensing the immediate presence of the Other.

    However, since experience teaches that such encounters seem transitory, self-knowledge is reduced to what it is under the "I-It" relation. Due to inevitable cessation, self-awareness is still seen as a relation between objects, not subjects. Subsequently, the meaning that was made possible in having an “I-You” encounter can no longer be had. So, it seems the self is still resigned to the fate of nonbeing. Nonetheless, a closer examination of the "I-You" relation reveals one possible attitude that one may take to overcome this fate. To encounter the world as a "You," a being must be prepared to love it.

    Love is the mutual recognition of the Being within a being. To return to Hegel, "in love, life is present as a duplicate of itself and as a single and unified self." He continues, "love destroys objectivity and thereby annuls and transcends reflection…and discovers life itself without any further defect. In love, the separate does remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate; life senses life."9 Through love, two beings exist simultaneously, separate and whole. In love, objecthood, or the "I-It" relation, vanishes, and the "You" is seen within the Other, despite physical differences. To love the Other is to sense a property, existence, that is necessarily caused by something independent of both entities.10

    However, since love is an action, and the purpose of an action is to produce an effect, love must occur as an actual event. Since it is only possible to affect something if it is changed following the action, causality may only affect things with the property of existing in spacetime. By inhering within bodies, the relation can become an event, and Being may be actualized. Similarly, Buber states it is through love that a being "[n]o longer [feels] the one, limited by the other; you felt both without bounds, both at once."11 Both beings are present and actual.

    Moreover, to love a being despite the intuitive notion that such an act is meaningless is to affirm the being’s meaning. To love the Other believing that one day both beings will become nonexistent is to triumph over the seeming absurdity of existence which threatens to destroy any meaning. Ultimately, love is the relation which Buber states each being is responsible for having with the Other.

    While "I-You" relations have a duration, the "You" that is innate in the world does not. It is through this knowledge that ontic anxiety can be relieved. Buber explains, "The eternal You is You by its very nature; only our nature forces us to draw it into the It-world and It-speech."12 There is always potential to encounter infinity, as the opposite of a finite presence; the "I-You" relation is always possible. This infinity is the eternal "You," what Buber refers to as "Thou," or God. However, beings will not always encounter this presence because to exist, "I-It" relations are necessary. When the "I-It" relation is seen as the only possible way to relate to the world, the self loses touch with their essence. That is, "whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek."13 That is, even in approaching the world from an "I-You" perspective, one is destined to encounter "I-it" relations. Insofar as a being has unconditional love for whatever they encounter, such a being will always find presence. If a being loves conditionally, they have the attitude that not every Other can be encountered as a "You." This is the critical mistake that induces ontic anxiety. True love recognizes the Being inherent within anything. Through this type of love, one gains the awareness that Being is always present. As a result, they know Being, which transcends death. "God […] the eternal presence, cannot be had. Woe unto the possessed who fancy that they possess God!"14 God cannot be had precisely because it is Being which always exists; Being which is eternal. The earlier intuition, which concluded that the loss of self entails the loss of the world, is incorrect. A world can exist independently of the self, and given the self's ability to consistently recognize Being within itself and the Other through unconditional love, knowing it is merely a form of Being inherent within the world. Thus, nonexistence is something inactual because the essential property of a being, existence, is not lost upon death. Being— God—is something independent of beings, although it depends upon the possibility of them. So, beings necessarily exist as finite within spacetime to love each other, and Being may occur.15  

    However, to come by knowledge about death in such a way is incoherent. Nevertheless, its inevitability still stands, and so intuitively, there is still some part of the self that is lost. Even if one has affirmed the possibility of the world to exist independently of the self, one has yet to address what is lost upon death. Although a part of the self remains—the existence inherent in the self—has another part become nonexistent? The possibility of nonexistence becoming actual would require nonexistence to instantiate its existence to become actual, which is incoherent. For example, at the most basic level, vacuums still inhere within something in order to be a possibility. Even as particles seemingly disappear within quantum vacuums, there is still energy in the vacuum to produce the matter.16 The vacuum must still be inherent within something to be an actuality at all. As a result, the essence of everything, including even of finite selves, is always present. That is, totality is contained within the infinity of existence. Everything that has ever been or will be possible is inherent within Being. Even if nothing had ever been actual, despite the incoherence of such a notion, the totality of everything existent necessarily would have been contained within it in order for anything to have existed, or in other words, nothingness would have the essence of Being.

    This last conclusion, alongside what I inferred about existence, should cause even the most potent ontic anxiety to dissipate. Separate, finite self-aware bodies exist so that, by sensing the presence of other similarly self-aware bodies—referred to as the Other—they may derive knowledge of an actual efficient cause for their separate existences. It is this knowledge that actualizes Being. Since the actuality of Being is contingent upon beings sensing the presence of the Other, there are a multiplicity of beings. Additionally, since beings only encounter the presence of the Other through unconditional love, the actuality of Being is also contingent upon the possibility of love. As love is an action, its possibility depends upon the capability of a being to act, which, in turn, depends upon the possibility of a definite effect being produced. Since the occurrence of an effect depends on a change within space and time, beings must be capable of perceiving those dimensions. As a result, since that perception is only possible if a being has a mind aware of the finiteness of their body, and since the actuality of Being is only possible if beings have the freedom to love, Being is fated to inhere within separate bodies that exist for a finite duration. The anxiety caused by death is an accidental result.

    To return to this paper's origins, Tolstoy's story shows the illusory trap of the "I-It" relation. Neither the wild animal nor the dragon is there in actuality. Instead, what is present always is the essence of Being—a necessarily transcendent being and contains the totality of all beings' essences within its infinity. In every encounter with an existent thing, it is possible to encounter existence itself. It is an error to believe that one must search for existence when at any moment, existence can be found. Even with the knowledge of impending doom, meaning may be rescued if one is willing to stay open to the encounter of immediate presence and love that which they find. As Buber asks, "That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart. But don't you also know that God needs you—in the fullness of his eternity, you?"17 Through "I-You" relations, ontic anxiety is dissipated. To illustrate this, I consider a separate story from Tolstoy.

    A King is seeking answers to three questions: (1) who is the most important one, (2) when is the most important time, and (3) what is the most important thing to do? Since the wisest person in his kingdom is an old hermit, the King endeavors to meet him. Upon encountering the hermit in his garden and seeing the hermit struggle, the King takes over the task for the hermit. As soon as the King finishes gardening, a man stumbles in front of the King and is bleeding to death. The King bandages his wounds. When the King can finally ask the hermit his questions, the hermit tells the King that he already knows the answer. The most important one is the person right in front of you, the most important time is the present, and the most important thing to do is love the person how they need to be loved. Notice the similarity between this conclusion and the plea of Buber: "Let us love the actual world that never wishes to be annulled, but love it in all its terror, but dare to embrace it with our spirit's arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it."18 Insofar as one strives to encounter the subject within every Other, willing the internal cognitive act of unconditional love for every object that is perceived, regardless of whether they foresee the return of that love, they shall find that no longer must meaning be sought in the face of death. Instead, meaning is found everywhere one turns. It is the act of love that affirms the omnipresence of transcendent existence.


1. The original version of this paper equally incorporated metaphysical arguments from The Ethics by Baruch Spinoza due to the similarity between his pantheism and the panentheism of Buber, however, due to brevity, the segments had to be cut. So, I urge readers familiar with Spinoza to especially compare his ideas of (a) bodily finiteness as the basis of the mind's ability to conceive spacetime (5p21, 5p29) as well as eternity (5p30) and (b) the infinite love of God occurring through its expression by finite beings (5p34c) with what is discussed on Buber. They will find a number of similarities. For further reading that is an account of Buber's own thoughts on the similarities of his theology to that of Spinoza's, see: Buber, Martin. The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, translated by Maurice Friedman. New York: Humanities Press International [1960].
2. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1952] 2014), 42
3.  Tillich, The Courage to Be, 42
4.  G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (New York City: Oxford University Press, [1807] 1979), 111
5.  Hegel, G. W. F, "Love" in Early Theological Writings, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975 [1798]), 305, & Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons, [1923] 1970), 58. For further comparative literature on Buber and Hegel, see: Hudson, Stephen. "Intersubjectivity of Mutual Recognition and the I-Thou: a Comparative Analysis of Hegel and Buber.” Minerva - an Internet Journal of Philosophy 14 (2010): 140-155
6. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons, [1923] 1970)
7. Buber, I and Thou, 59
8. Buber,I and Thou, 153
9. G.W.F. Hegel, "Love", 305
10. While this paper does not have the space to address the concerns raised by Hume over the possibility of establishing causality, I believe it will suffice to note that the first part of the Treatise explains that to have an idea of an object is to have an idea of its existence, the very same premise I use. Subsequently, my purpose is to show that what we sense in other beings, their existence, is a universal effect, which makes possible the knowledge of a universal cause. In the fifth section of the Enquiry, such a knowledge is deemed impossible because the "secret nature" of that which we perceive is unknowable, but I believe Hume seemed to have neglected his own observation that anything perceived by has the uniform property of existence. For further reading on this subject, see: Smithurst, Michael. "Hume on Existence and Possibility." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, 81 (1980): 17-37. Thus, what I propose is that given the thing-in-itself exhibits the property of existence, we can infer that it is caused by existence itself (a point which relied on Spinoza). However, I concede that this is a rebuttal which needs further argumentation.
11. Buber, I and Thou, 130
12. Buber, I and Thou, 48
13. Buber, I and Thou, 127
14. Buber, I and Thou, 155
15. Although there is insufficient space to discuss another philosopher, British Idealist J. M. E. McTaggart, known for his argument that time is illusory, wrote an interpretation of Hegel's philosophy in a book called The Further Determination of the Absolute where he presented a similar conclusion: the Absolute Spirit is actualized through the love between a multiplicity of finite beings.
16.  For an argument on the impossibility of a vacuum, see: Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1984.
17. Buber, I and Thou, 130
18.  Buber, I and Thou, 143