You are, therefore I am

Dr. Udo Gößwald
7 min readMar 31


Annibale Carracci, Painting/Oil 1580. Courtesy of Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi.*

Thesis # 2

Each person develops from the knowledge of their own uniqueness the ability to recognize others in their uniqueness and to appreciate and value it.

The Hawaiian greeting „Aloha” means sharing the breath of life with another person. In doing so, the forehead and nose touch while the breath is exchanged with each other. This ritual gesture of the indigenous Polynesian population on Hawai’i is associated with the cultural message of accepting others as they are and at the same time it refers to the life-sustaining element of air that unites all people. We use the oxygen that the plant world produces without our intervention every second and hardly ever think about it. Without it, no animal life would be possible on Earth and humans would not be able to live.

Different cultures have different terms for this breath of life that animates the human body. Indian thought calls it Aum, Chinese thought calls it Qi, Hebrew Ruah, Arabic Ruh, and Greek thought calls it Pneuma. All traditional schools of thought, according to the French-Chinese writer and philosopher François Cheng, also refer to this phenomenon as the soul. He elaborates “that the soul is not only the sign of the uniqueness of each human being, but also gives him a fundamental unity and thus a dignity, a value as a being“. In German-speaking cultural areas the concept of the soul (=Seele) is of minor relevance. However, the colloquial language knows a number of idioms that include the term Seele. Thus it is said that someone has „eine gute Seele” (= a good soul) or two people are „seelenverwandt“(=soul-mates), even a landscape can have “Seele”. The situation is different with the English word soul, which has found its way into everyday language as a musical genre and accepted paraphrase for a special kind of profundity. While the triad body — soul — spirit is still alive in oriental Christianity, it has been largely forgotten in the Western world and the dualism of body and spirit has dominated since the beginning of the 2nd millennium.

What has happened to the human soul? Why does it have so little relevance in Western culture? Perhaps it is no coincidence that we tend to speak of the “wounded” or the “lost soul”. It seems as if the connection to the inner self has disappeared for many centuries. It was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in his autobiographical reveries written in 1776 — which were not published during his lifetime — made soliloquy a central category of reflection again. Unlike Montaigne, Rousseau insisted, he wrote his dreams only for himself. For him, the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski argues, the „initial, tentative attempts, in which he sometimes lost his way in the opinions of others and lost himself in the process, it was always a matter of winning himself back and finding his own voice. Against the temptation of imitation, one’s own thinking and feeling must first be fought for“.

This struggle for one’s own thinking and the sensation of one’s own self is one of the central categories of emancipatory thinking. Hannah Arendt saw the dialogue with oneself as the basis for thinking, echoing Plato, who famously formulated: „The inner conversation of the soul with itself … is thought”. When we think about something, Arendt argues, we discover the “presence of the Other within the individual. For the individual, the Other exists not only outside in the world, but also inside, as that other self with which one enters into conversation by thinking”.

The inner dialogue has an important meaning in Hannah Arendt’s late work, because it is about the question whether someone is able to orient his actions according to whether he can answer for them with his conscience. Self-reference in the sense of reflective thinking is the prerequisite for the individual’s willingness to be accountable to himself. The reference to one’s own self is lost, according to Socrates, when someone does wrong, because then he or she avoids the dialogue with oneself. Psychoanalysis speaks here of the splitting off of the ego. The consequence of this is the absolute negation of one’s own inner world of feelings and thus the readiness, as Hannah Arendt showed in the case of Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the organization of transports to the death camps during Nazi-rule in Germany, to submit unconditionally to a system of extermination. This also means that the male ego in particular merges in its imagination with the National Socialist Volkskörper (=people’s body) to form a collective “we”. Under these conditions, he is no longer able to perceive a “you”, that sees the other as another (person). In this respect, the knowledge of the uniqueness of every single human being, understood as a responsibly acting individual who is aware of the connection to his own self, is the necessary condition to recognize and accept another human being in his or her uniqueness.

In this context, language and the use of words play a decisive role. The American-Irish philosopher Philip Pettit assumes that it is essential whether others give us the space to develop into independent personalities. By means of language, we learn to become thinking beings in exchange with others. In this respect, the uniqueness of human beings is not a static quantity; rather, it is a matter of emphasizing the “becoming” of human existence. Through their special ability to exchange experiences with one another by means of language, human beings have the possibility of “becoming the person one wants to become“. In Pettit’s mind, this is about establishing a society in which there are no longer dependency relationships characterized by domination: “I think in the depths of our hearts and souls we all know that we are at our best when we are on the same level in our interactions with other people and we feel free in our expressions.“ It is only in such free discourse and as a “result of our relationships with other people in the transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood“ that we become who we are.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s bestseller Émile, published in 1762, formulates a pedagogical principle that has not been realized in its radicality in any school model to this day: the teacher has to orient himself or herself according to the learner’s need to learn. From this follows — as practiced by Émile’s tutor — a sensitive and attentive attitude towards the learner. Instead of „teaching“, he tries to “put Émile in situations where he may recognize the need to learn something“. Meeting this need succeeds only if the child is given the appropriate space to develop, while at the same time his unique personality is recognized and valued. This form of interpersonal learning experience is what German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has called „resonant“. It presupposes that the person teaching is willing to step outside the hierarchical schema and create a shared space with the learner that allows for substantive insights and an appropriative experience. The resonant experience is thereby a feedback with the self and at the same time a thinking movement that anchors something inside the learner in a lasting way.

The experience of the interpersonal, according to the Austrian-Israeli religious philosopher Martin Buber, is a “special dimension of our existence”, which is very familiar to us, but of which we are little aware of. Buber sees the value of the interpersonal, as it is expressed for example in a “genuine conversation”, in the fact “that everyone means his partner as this, as just this person. I become aware of him, become aware of the fact that he is different, essentially different from me … and I accept the person whom I have perceived, so that I can address my word in all seriousness to him, precisely as him.“ Thus, to appreciate the other person in his uniqueness, instead of categorizing him or imposing one’s own thinking on him, means to perceive him as a whole in his presentness and to recognize him in his personality. Furthermore, the other is of outstanding importance for the formation of my ego.

In a successful, reflexive and open encounter between the I and a Thou, the “world of relationship” emerges for Martin Buber. Life consists of a sequence of significant encounters. Our I states itself from the encounter with the Other. For Buber, it is no longer appropriate to place the individual I at the center of thought. Rather, he argues, it is time to replace the core Enlightenment idea of René Descartes “I think, therefore I am” with a “You are, therefore I am“. This deeply human thought, that is also the core of the African Ubuntu, means that I need you as a counterpart to recognize myself. Just as you need me to become completely yourself.

* The illustration is taken from the cover of the wonderful book Afrikanische Europäer von Olivette Otele, Berlin 2022. (Verlag Wagenbach)

This essay is written complementary to Thesis #2 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile



Dr. Udo Gößwald

Former museum director, now freelance writer and blogger