You and I, I and It: Martin Buber’s I and Thou

Originally Published on Medium by Justin Richards

How beautiful and legitimate the vivid and emphatic I of Socrates sounds! It is the I of infinite conversation, and the air of conversation is present on all its ways, even before his judges, even in the final hour in prison. This I lived in that relation to man which is embodied in conversation. It believed in the actuality of men and went out towards them. Thus it stood together with them in actuality and is never severed from it. Even solitude cannot spell forsakenness, and when the human world falls silent for him, he hears his daimonion say You.”

(Martin Buber, I and Thou, 1996)

Martin Buber wrote a book that in English has been called I and Thou. Thou is a tragically misleading translation: thou is distant, archaic, a remnant of a time of kings and lords, of Shakespeare and of King James. Buber’s book did not intend this distance, instead, he intended to convey the most intimate and closest relation possible when he said, in German, du. Lover’s whispers and mother’s lullabies say You, friends call out to You, even the clerk at the corner store greets You. No one says thou in the ordinary course of their day, but You surrounds us.

We are also surrounded by It, by things. It is from the durability of these things that a world of use emerges, a world of safety, security, and sureness. We count on things, our lives depend on things, things can make us comfortable. Things are everywhere.

Martin Buber describes a twofold world that emerges from out of the twofold attitudes of human being. This duality unfolds from out of what Buber calls the basic words, which are word pairs, there is I-It and there is I-You. “Basic words … by being spoken they establish a mode of existence.” I-It establishes a mode of existence as experience, as an experience of some particular thing, of an object. I-You establishes a mode of relation, one stands within a mode of relation and a relation is between an I and a You. Saying It or You establishes the world of It or of You.

The It world is not only a world of experience and objectivity, but also a world of use and order. Experience divides things into discrete quanta in a Cartesian space time grid, and It divides things into categories of usefulness, of purpose. The It world has been the object of study of modern philosophy, and if You are familiar with Kant you will correctly hear a connection between what Buber and Kant both call erfahrung, experience.

The It world combines “experience, which constitutes this world ever again, and use, which leads it towards its multifarious purpose — the preservation, alleviation, and equipment of human life.” The ability to confront a world of discrete things is an indispensable aspect of human life and survival. The objectification of the world of experience is not evil, but, “when man lets it have its’ way, the relentlessly growing It-world grows over him like weeds, his own I loses its actuality, until the incubus over him and the phantom inside him exchange the whispered confession of their need for redemption.” We can neither do without the It world, nor can we, if we wish to live without despair, spend all of our lives in the experience of objects.

Albrecht Dürer — “Pine” (1495)

Buber speaks about the many ways that you can contemplate a tree. You “can accept it as a picture, a rigid pillar in a flood of light” and experience the tree aesthetically as some beautiful thing. It is also possible to “feel it as a movement, the flowing veins around a sturdy striving core” and to experience the tree as a living process. A tree can be seen merely as an “instance” of its species. You can further abstract from the actual presence of the tree and “recognize it only as an expression of … those laws according to which a constant opposition of force is continually adjusted” or, “dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers.” All of these ways of contemplating a tree separate a discrete chunk of experience from the tree that is before us in body no less than a carpenter who is only looking for material to put to use. “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It”.

Buber makes it clear that as the tree ceases to be an It it does not lose any of the aspects of experience that we were but a moment ago contemplating. When a tree is addressed as a You all of those myriad experiences of the tree are joined. When we leave the It world we leave behind the separation that the It world allows, instead, we confront the tree exclusively and indivisibly. What is true of the tree is equally true of every he or she or it that has been divided from the presencing world. “He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”

When a person says You, and really means You, the I that speaks enters into an immediate and intimate relation with the You. Just as the You one addresses fills the world “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with ones whole being.” It should be clear that when relating to a tree no less than to a person, that this is no meeting of souls, but if there is soul, it too is collected into a totally present I relating to a fully present You. No things, means or divisions penetrate the relation, the whole of Being is gathered in unison. This is not a mystical fairy tale, but the life of the body, the development of both the human race and of every single human being.

“In the beginning is the relation.” To show the priority of relation over experience Buber looks to the sentence-words of “primitive peoples” whose objective world of experience has not begun to overwhelm the relation from out of which it grows.

“The Fuegian surpasses analytic wisdom with a sentence-word of seven syllables that literally means: ‘they look at each other, each waiting for the other to offer to do that which both desire but neither wishes to do.’ In this wholeness persons are embedded like reliefs without achieving the fully rounded independence of nouns or pronouns. What counts is not these products of analysis and reflection but the genuine original unity, the lived relationship.”

The primitive sentence, Buber admits, is only a suggestion of the truly primal, before an I emerges from the “original relational event [where] the primitive man speaks the basic word I-You in a natural, as it were still unformed manner, not yet having recognized himself as an I.”

The emergence of the I in the truly primal human is echoed in the development of every child born into, and who must learn to live in, the modern world. In the womb every child lives in a pure natural association with the mother, both bodily and in “the life horizon” the child exists entirely in relation to the mother. However, “the womb in which it dwells is not solely that of the human mother” rather “every developing child rests, like all developing being, in the womb of the great mother — the undifferentiated, not yet formed primal world.” Buber points to this original relation as the inspiration for the great wealth of myths, whose exact details vary the world over, but which all speak of the origin of the world from out of the womb of the great mother goddess.

As every child has to emerge from the womb they also must emerge from the pure natural association along the lines of a natural discreteness. The child realizes one day that the mother is somehow separate, and she first learns to say You before she says I. For a time the child remains an I in relation to a You, until the I learns to separate itself further. The child begins to delineate, to draw lines around and between*, discrete objects, the I learns It and He and She. “The man who acquired an I and says I-It assumes a position before things but does not confront them in the current of reciprocity … now he experiences things as aggregates of qualities … now does he place things in a spatio-temporal-casual context; only now does each receive its place, its course, its measurability, its conditionality.”

The modern philosophical tradition has focused nearly exclusively on the objective world of experience, an I and Its. Psychology may have rediscovered the world of relation, in Freud and Winnicott for instance, but treats it as a lost world, a preconscious, unconscious and subconscious world. For Buber the I that says You is no less conscious than the I that says It, and is no less worthy of philosophical investigation.

Our investigation would surely be mistaken if it tries to take an easy route out of the duality and declare that we must apply one basic word to the world of things and another to the world of other people. Buber repeatedly admits that it is impossible to always bring forth ones whole being and embrace other people in the mode of relation, “it would consume us.” Even between the most intimate of lovers and the closest of friends, necessity intrudes with its means and calculations. The You who only a moment ago the whole world appeared in her light will again become an It; “every You must become an It as soon as the relation has run its course or is permeated by means, the You becomes an object among objects.”

Buber is careful to lay out a difference between the relation of love and the feelings of love that accompany it. “Feelings one ‘has’; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love.” In a life of love the feeling endures through countless oscillations between I-You to I-It and back again. Whoever ceases to return from the necessities of life into a relation of love, revealing ones You and embracing the other You with ones whole being, has forgotten the fact of love. “Love is responsibility of an I for a You.”

There is only one relation for Buber that always remains an I addressing a You and this is the relation to God. “By its very nature the eternal You cannot become an It.” God is pure relation which comes into being in every relational act, and, one can enter into a relation to God, but God can never become an object of experience and remain God. Buber’s God does not require belief, belief belongs to the world of objects, and no orientation towards an object can substitute for the absolute relation to an eternal You. The atheist who enters into authentic relations with his fellow humans has more to do with God than the believer who remains forever firmly in the world of experience. This God “wants” only one thing; that you enter into relation, and remain an I related to a You. Buber decries all “doctrines of immersion”, from the Jewish mystical tradition that he intensely studied, to ideas of ego dissolution arriving from the East. “What has to be given up is not the I but that false drive for self-affirmation which impels man to flee from the unreliable, unsolid, unlasting, dangerous world of relation into the having of things.”

Gustav Klimt — “The Kiss (Lovers)” (Detail) (1908)

Where the world of relation becomes most unreliable is when it reaches out into the future, and what Buber says of the creation of art is no less true of any decision. The It world also reaches into the future, but does not treat the future as an authentic tense, It deals with the future in the same way it deals with the past; the past is an object wholly determined by causality. But, an artist does not create an object whose presence is wholly determined, an artist confronts material and an image, a form. “What is required is a deed that man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is unleashed and the work comes into being.” The artist relates to the form, which is just one of infinitely possible forms, and with a strength of will sets about actualizing the particular form that she has decided upon, hoping for the alignment of will and grace.

“Free is the man who wills without caprice. He believes in the actual, which is to say: he believes in the real association of the real duality, I and You. He believes in destiny and also that it needs him. It does not lead him, it waits for him. He must proceed towards it without knowing where it waits for him. He must go forth with his whole being: that he knows. It will not turn out the way his resolve intended it; but what wants to come will come only if he resolves to do that which he can will. He must sacrifice his little will, which is unfree and ruled by things and drives, to his great will that moves away from being determined to find destiny.”

“The fiery matter of all my capacity to will surging intractably, intertwined and seemingly inseparable, the alluring glances of potentialities flaring up from every corner, the universe as a temptation, and I, born in an instant, both hands into the fire, deep into it, where the one that intends me is hidden, my deed seized: now! And immediately the menace of the abyss is subdued; no longer a coreless multiplicity at play in the iridescent equality of its claims.”

Although Buber directly confronts the antinomies of reason that are raised by a being who must oscillate between two worlds, a world of experience and causality and a world of relation and freedom, he offers no solution but to stand firmly within the antinomy and oscillation itself. Freedom must be established again and again and ever again abandoned for a world of causality. It is in the fluctuation between I-It and I-You that humanity persists, but perhaps within this alternation we can see the true genius of that gem of Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative. If every You must at some point become an It, if every relation eventually becomes permeated by means and necessity then, no doubt, we can at least remember to treat the person confronting us as an object “as an end also and never only as a means” (Kaufmann). Buber asks us at these times to be like “a man who knows that he cannot actualize the You in some pure fashion but who nevertheless bears witness of it daily to the It.”

About the author: Justin Richards is nobody interesting, just a grad school dropout doing concrete work — and the occasional garden — but who cannot stop incessantly thinking nevertheless. He likes skateboards. Find more of his writing on Quora.

Works cited and consulted:

I and Thou, Martin Buber, translation and introduction by Walter Kaufmann, 1996.

Martin Buber’s Ontology, Robert E. Wood, 1969.

Martin Buber, Michael Zank and Zachary Braiterman, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

*I stole this thought from John Brady

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