The Difference between Knowing about and Knowing a Person

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Indirect Knowing

There is a vast difference between knowing about and actually knowing a human being. The first kind of knowledge is indirect, that is, factual, objective, detached and dispassionate. Such knowledge does not require any real personal involvement in someone’s life. It is, using the language of the personalist philosopher Martin Buber, an “I-It” relationship.

Direct Knowing

The second kind of knowledge is direct, that is, experiencing another human being in his or her uniqueness as a person. Such a relationship involves self-transcendence, which is a “moving out,” a choice to move away from oneself, one’s own “world,” and move into another person’s “world.” In doing so, one person discovers another person’s emotional “highs” and “lows,” likes and dislikes. In other words, a human being enters, by virtue of direct experience, into another person’s intellectual, spiritual and emotional “world.”

Existential Encounter

The personal relationship that I am describing, which is the greatest or most enriching of all human relationships, is, in the terminology of existentialism, “an encounter.” Strictly speaking, a human being does not encounter things, such as rock, trees, boats, houses, and objects in outer space. Rather, he or she can only encounter persons. An encounter, then, is, in the words of Viktor Frankl,

“[A] relationship between an I and a Thou – a relationship which, by its very nature, can be established only on the human and personal level.”

It is, indeed, a human tragedy, a form of psychological and social alienation, for a human being to throughout his or her life, knowing all kinds about others but never really knowing someone as a person.

Indirect Leading to Direct Knowing

Of course, knowing about another human being may lead to knowing him or her as a person. However, for personal knowledge to occur, there must be a movement from the factual to the experiential; from the abstract to the concrete and from the general to the specific knowing of a here-and-now person.

There is, then, nothing wrong with knowing many things about others and, in general, the world of objects. But the knowledge of things, as important as it may be, is not nearly as important as the knowledge of persons, for persons are always and infinitely more important than things.


Viktor E. Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, rev. ed. (New York, N.Y.: Washington Square Press, 1978 and 1985), p. 73.

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