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

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