An Exploration of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” is an inquiry into how our relationships with others shape our reality. His main thesis, which runs throughout the course of the book, is that there are two different modes in which we encounter the world, namely through ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ relationships.

Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in more detail.

I-IT

I-It relationships are entered into to achieve some sort of external goal or purpose. Through these type of encounters we engage others with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. For those familiar with the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people are treated as means to achieve an end.

With the rise of political and economic bureaucracies, shift towards urbanization and the proliferation of global corporations of the modern era, I-IT relationships have become the predominant mode of interaction in our day to day lives.

They arise when mass institutions transform individuals into mere objects. Consequently, we become subsumed by our particular roles that we play within society.

Think of how politicians look at individuals as voters or companies view the general public as consumers. Moreover, the complexity and uniqueness of each human is stripped away when we see the statistics of those who have passed away from the ongoing pandemic.

As Buber writes,

Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life. That institutions yield no public life is felt by more and more human beings, to their sorrow: this is the source of the distress and search of our age.

Of note, Buber recognizes that at some level I-It relationships are needed for modern society to function. Increased efficiency brought about by socioeconomic institutions have resulted in great material improvement and increased quality of life. However, he warns that living life and existing exclusively in the I-It mode ultimately leads to alienation. Our longing for genuine relationships goes unmet and we consequently feel disconnected and separated from others and the world around us.   

I-THOU

On the contrary, the I-Thou relationship is based on mutuality, empathy and being together with someone or something in the present moment. These encounters transcend analytic thought and the categories or roles we assign to others. In these moments, we see individuals as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ or as ends in themselves. Namely, in this mode of existence we see the beauty and complexity of another human being. 

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experience world. Not as a thing among the ‘internal’ things, not as a figment of the ‘imagination’, but as what is present.

Although temporary and fleeting, these moments are entered into with one’s full presence and attention. Those involved in the I-Thou relationship are mutually transformed and become merged into the experience and life of the other.

We are momentarily put into the shoes of someone else and see the world as they do.

I-Thou moments are not limited to encounters with other humans but can be extended to being in relation with nature or other sentient beings. Writing from the tradition of Jewish Hassidism, Buber notes that the ultimate I-Thou connection, which he calls the Eternal Thou, is to be in relation with God.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

For those interested in ‘I and Thou’ I must admit that at times it was a difficult read. Buber writes in aphorisms using poetic and esoteric language that requires one to go over the text a couple of times to understand.

Nonetheless, I found that the concepts explored in the book are increasingly relevant in our hyper technological age. With the advent of social media and exposure to 24/7 news outlets, it is easy to look at other humans as just statistics, numbers or likes on our Instagram posts. Through this type of thinking, we fail to realize the common humanity and uniqueness of others. Each being on this planet is as complex and interesting as each and everyone of us.

‘I and Thou’ reminds us that a much deeper and authentic type of relationship can exists of others. When we see the world as someone else does. When our ‘self’ transcends our body and becomes merged with the world around us. We can’t live forever in these moments, but we can always be prepared for when the next moment arises.

True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is lived in the past

Martin Buber, I and Thou
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

*Quotes taken in the article are from the Walter Kaufmann translation of the book.

28 thoughts on “An Exploration of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

  1. So imagine how frustrating it is to encounter today’s rising popular ideology that everyone is an ‘it’ (individuals representing various combinations (intersectionality) of group identities) and so all human interaction involves power hierarchy and positioning and conflict over dominance between these ‘its’. To try to reclaim the ‘thou’ for all people and try to promote it is intolerantly met with moral character vilification and even laws based on the accusation that doing so, respecting the ‘thou’ inherent in all rather than as representatives of the various ‘its’, is ‘hate’ speech, that making such utterances are causing ‘harm’ to all those representatives. Furthermore, staying silent is ‘violence’. One must be willing to ‘do the work’ and help impose this ‘it’ ideology on everyone in all ways in order to someday obtain the inevitable utopia it will magically achieve where any sense of ‘thou’ has been utterly vanquished. How obtaining that kind of ‘social justice’ end is any different from any other form of totalitarianism is a mystery to me. But then, I’m not an it. I’m a thou.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. try to reclaim the ‘thou’ for all people and try to promote it

      Does “the ‘thou'” require reclamation? Is it not our birthright as human beings? The principle has been proclaimed, perhaps even as long as humanity has existed. In fact, one word alone encapsulates the precept/concept of it nicely: Namaste.

      today’s rising popular ideology that everyone is an ‘it’

      This ideology is neither rising nor popular, as I understand it, in that it is an historical development — a development that has been much criticized for leading to “the atomization of society” and, perhaps, even over-criticized to the point that nearly everyone appears to be suspect of being narcissistic, in the spiritual sense of the word, today. I’m convinced this flows from confusion between the ideology of individualism and the process of individuation (to borrow a term from Jung). It’s a confusion which appears to be intensifying even as it wanes.

      We’ve all been made subject to that confusion as well as historically conditioned by it. In fact, one of my favorite authors, R.W. Emerson, appears to have been confused between them himself from time to time. No one is utterly immune to its pernicious effects, imho, but the fact that we have become consciously aware of it gives me hope that we will rise above it in time.

      For some odd reason, I’m reminded that some here may be interested in David Loy’s The Suffering System and Maria Popova’s A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves, both of which I find refreshingly insightful.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “Does “the ‘thou’” require reclamation?”

        It does in the sense of seeing and treating people as we would like to be treated, as individuals first and foremost rather than as representative cogs of some machined group identity. By this reclamation, I mean taking back and owning the seeing and treating of individuals as individuals, as if skinless, genderless, ageless, religion-less, culture-less individuals who have a mind and character unique to each. It’s hard to do – especially when we are inundated with messaging to treat people differently based on certain group characteristics. So this reclamation requires constant exercising to be maintained (what I consider principled treatment of turning the Other into Me) in spite of the onslaught of directives and policies and social expectations and even laws to do otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. as if skinless, genderless, ageless, religion-less, culture-less individuals

        Problem with that is: none of us are “skinless, genderless, ageless, religion-less, culture-less,” etc. In other words: we are not all the same. Uni-formity is not in our nature.

        You may be interested in Rosenstock-Huessy’s Multiformity of Man.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. True, but surely you understand why Lady Justice (from the mythological figure Justicia) is blind-folded, so as to not be influenced/seduced by irrelevant additions like added consideration for skin, gender, age, religion, culture, ethnicity, or whatever other group label one is trying to introduce to upset/tilt/favour/privilege the scales she holds. This is EXACTLY what liberalism is trying to maintain – individual EQUALITY and rights in law for all – versus the push for group EQUITY and various rights and obligations and special privileges and exemptions dependent on and defined by these in law. The former is liberalism writ large and is a process, an arc, towards this ‘more perfect union’, towards fulfilling the promissory note laid out in 1776 to attain this throughout the liberal democracy. The latter is today’s ‘progressive’ movement and it leads inevitably towards fulfilling the promissory note of attaining Animal Farm for all.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Interesting. I have no problems with the “progressive” movement…aside from the fact that an awful lot of people in it have strange ideas about what “progressive” means, which is to say, they seem to think it means “incremental.” “Liberals” (writ large) is a bit of different story as is Conservatives (writ large).

        But, then, I’m an environmentalist (writ small) and have long counted both “conservatives”and “liberals” among my most ardent allies.

        I must admit, I don’t get the whole “liberal vs. conservative” thing. Since when did “versus” come to mean “at war with” versus “as opposed to,” exactly?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. This confusion you exhibit about these terms and what they actually mean is reason why we really need to teach what Enlightenment values are, how they inform the fundamental laws and institutions of the liberal democratic State, how they apply today, and why they remain of central concern to maintaining a liberal democracy. There’s a reason liberalism and liberty are co-joined terms; not because of some accidental spelling or more recent political partisan interpretation we are told (especially by capitalizing the first letter) that we need to believe represents the (small) case, but because of the meaning contained in their shared root… a personal meaning in its applied use in our daily lives across all other fields of activity and human interaction against which we can accurately judge what we are told they supposedly mean today.

        When one understands what these principles are, and the values we hold based sharing them with others, one can then much more easily recognize just how manipulated are those who do not but who unfailingly fall for the façade, for the preferred narrative, fall for the theft of language and meaning, fall into becoming camp followers of some populist, some closet Dear Leader who will lead us out of our group-based oppression… if only we would give up our individual liberal values in law and replace these with group-based legal hierarchies… for the good of all, of course… and roll over for today’s softer, kinder version of socially justified totalitarianism. I think it’s true that “If you are willing to abandon your principles for convenience and social acceptability, they are not your principles; they are your costume.” I think there’s a lot of dressing up these days.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. we really need to teach what Enlightenment values are

        “Enlightenment values,” eh? We already teach those, don’t we?

        Trouble is: “The Enlightenment” happened long ago in Western history. Have we not moved on since?

        Like

      7. I think the West and the model for liberal democracy is under growing attack from within. I think the success of this attack is cause for great concern.

        If one speaks to people who have lived under totalitarian rule, one will be shocked to hear the same thing over and over again: this is how it starts, this is what it looks and sounds like at the beginning, this is how it becomes embedded, this is how people willingly teach themselves to self-censor and go along to get along with whatever lies they are told. What’s true doesn’t matter. Only the ideological narrative and the belief in its righteousness is what matters. The ‘right’ side of history.

        And we’re naïve to think it won’t, can’t, and isn’t happening right here right now.

        It’s not a Left Right thing: it’s an element of both. The Right has been held accountable for its alt-Right excesses. It’s the Left that refuse to see the same in its ranks. But is recognizable when we’re asked to replace individual autonomy and legal equality with group-based equity, whether that’s religious groups or ethnic groups. We recognize the extremity in language when respect is demanded under the banner of ‘diversity’ for sameness of results or ‘evidence of discrimination’ is taking place, for intolerance of those who will not ‘do the work’, who fail to kneel when compelled to do so by violent demonstrators, who enable ‘systemic violence’ against lower-tiered power groups when they stand against this bullying, who call this censoring and cancelling and deplatforming and boycotting of voices because they are not welcome to do so as ‘inclusion’ and ‘protecting free speech’. And so on. You know the lingo.

        As I’ve said online for almost 30 years now, when someone tries to insist that up means down and black means white, we know we’ve entered the fictional world of post modern thinking. And a fundamental part of that is accepting, is going along with, a post-truth world where a lie is now a positive belief using alternative facts, where everyone has the ‘right’ to have their ‘own’ truth, their selected ‘group identity’ that must be respected not just by others but compelled by law to do so. This is the rising tide of a totalitarian ideology regardless of the political or social or religious garb it may appear in.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. The debates surrounding CRT are unsurprisingly volatile and contentious as they’re centered around a theory most of us never have even heard of, much less are sufficiently familiar with to understand properly. Educators and students are caught in the middle of those debates and, as barry notes below, “much modern politics is all about ‘I-It’. So, yeah. No surprises there.

        I’m personally a little more concerned about what Sheldon Wolin termed ‘inverted totalitarianism.” I don’t think it’s a “specter” anymore, if it ever was just a specter, and its roots can be traced straight back to the Enlightenment itself, imo. I don’t think a post about Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” is the proper place to vent my frustrations with it, though. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Admittingly, I didn’t think the post about Martin Buber’s ‘ I and Thou’ would lead to discussions about identity politics. Nonetheless, the Maria Popova article article is a great resource on a future article I plan to write about the ‘self’ alluding to modern pychology and buddhism.

        If we view the self as a network as per the article, https://aeon.co/essays/the-self-is-not-singular-but-a-fluid-network-of-identities, it enables us to ‘include and transcend’ simplistic notions of identity and perhaps even engage in some constructive dialogue

        Liked by 2 people

      10. This I-Thou framing is not only an ancient idea repackaged untold number of times and in various ways but derives from a function of our neuroanatomy recently called ‘mirror neurons’. These neurons activate to create a means by which we can ‘experience’ something firsthand but is actually second hand (something we see or hear or imagine or dream). This seems to be the root biology necessary for empathy and compassion, the means by which we are able to ‘put ourselves in someone else’s shoes’, so to speak. The neurology also allows us (well, most of us, anyway) to separate our preferences and desires and urges from instant action to some level of consideration before action is undertaken. And, yes, females usually have a larger and more more complex and more robust mirror neuron network than males! It’s a key sex-based difference in the brain’s development.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    I was drawn to Martin Buber’s ideas of I-Thou while at unversity in the 1960s. Here is a great post by Andrew on the subject. How often do we treat others as objects rather than as other subjects with whom we can empathise?
    Of course, much modern politics is all about I-It, treating people as objects. Those who seek empathy and treating others humanely, as opposed to cold hearted objectivity, are tarred as woolly hearted liberals.
    Similarly, I-It dominates many people’s attitude to the natural world, rathre than being embedded in the wonder. Which is of course why we have a global ecological crisis.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Those who seek empathy and treating others humanely, as opposed to cold hearted objectivity, are tarred as woolly hearted liberals.

      In all fairness, those who seek empathy and treating others humanely as opposed to cold hearted objectivity are just as often tarred as stone-hearted conservatives, thanks to their supposed leadership, for the same reason: the age-old ‘game’ of Divide and Conquer.

      I find it helps when a distinction is drawn between what some are referring to as “small [letter]” as opposed to “capital letter” ‘this and that “identity fragment,” as Popova puts it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I actually recently read I and Thou, but didn’t really understand much of it. I put it back on the shelf thinking I should reread it in the future. This definitely helped me understand the book a bit better. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed it is not an easy read. I’ve sort of looked up some background info prior to diving in to get some better context. Nonetheless, I think his ideas/contributions are interesting

      Liked by 1 person

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