The notion of I-Thou was developed by the twentieth-century, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878 – June 13, 1965). It appeared in his famous work of the same name I and Thou. The term refers to the primacy of the direct or immediate encounter which occurs between a human person and another being. This other being might be another person, another living or inanimate thing, or even God, which is the Eternal Thou. Buber contrasted this more fundamental relation of I-Thou with the I-It relation which refers to our experience of others. Such experience is our mediated consciousness of them which happens either through our knowledge or practical use of them. Through these two basic notions Buber developed his interpretation of existence as being fundamentally “dialogical” as opposed to "monological."
In I and Thou Martin Buber, like many existential thinkers of the same period, preferred a concrete descriptive approach (similar to certain aspects of phenomenology) as opposed to an abstract, theoretical one. In fact, the original English translator of the text, Ronald Gregor Smith, referred to Buber as “a poet,” and indeed the work I and Thou is filled with striking imagery and suggestive metaphors which attempt to describe the I-Thou encounter rather than explain it. Buber was very much influenced by his Jewish heritage and in particular the narratives of the Torah as well as Hasidic tales. Thus, he favored concrete, historical, and dramatic forms of thinking to logical or systematic arguments. Such an approach, however, often drew sharp criticism from those who thought Buber overly romanticized our subjective or emotional experiences.
Buber understands human existence to be a fundamentally relational one. For this reason, one never says “I” in isolation but always in or as some kind of relation. His claim throughout I and Thou is that there are two basic ways we can approach existence, namely, through an I-Thou relation or through an I-It experience. He considers the I-Thou relation to be primary, while the I-It is secondary and derivative. Initially, one might think that an I-Thou relation occurs only between human persons, while the I-It experience occurs only between a person and an inanimate object, such as a rock. But this is not what Buber means. Neither relation depends upon the being to which one is relating, but rather each relation refers to the ontological reality of the “between” which connects (or disconnects) the beings which are relating. While the I-Thou refers to a direct, or immediate (non-mediated) encounter, the I-It refers to an indirect or mediated experience.
In being a direct or immediate encounter the I-Thou relation is one of openness in which the beings are present to one another such that a kind of dialogue takes places. Such a dialogue need not be engaged only in words between human persons but can occur in the silent correspondences between a person and beings in the world such as cats, trees, stones, and ultimately God. Buber describes these encounters as mutual such that what occurs between the I and the Thou is communication and response. This encounter requires a mutual openness where this “primary word” of I-Thou is spoken and then received through the response of one’s whole being. Such a response, though, is not a self-denial where one loses oneself in an immersion into the social or collective whole. Rather Buber describes it as a holding one’s ground within the relation, whereby one becomes the I in allowing the other to be Thou. In this way, then, a meeting takes place, which Buber refers to as the only “real living.”
Buber also explains that the I-Thou encounter cannot be produced at will and by the action of one’s own agency. Rather it is one that occurs spontaneously in the living freedom which exists between beings. Nonetheless, one can obstruct such encounters, by swiftly transferring them into an I-It experience. For Buber, then, one must be vigilant with a readiness to respond to these living encounters whenever and wherever they offer themselves. For this reason, he says, “The Thou meets me through Grace – it is not found by seeking.”
When the I-Thou relation occurs within the encounter between human beings, not only is the other not an “It” for me but also not a “He” or a “She.” For any kind of determination restricts the other within the bounds of my own consciousness or understanding. In contrast, in the I-Thou relation I encounter the Thou in the singularity of his or her own uniqueness that does not reduce to him or her to some kind of category. In this way, I enter the sacredness of the I-Thou relation, a relation which cannot be explained without being reduced to an I-It understanding. Thus, the encounter simply is. Nothing can intervene in the immediacy of the I-Thou relation. For I-Thou is not a means to some object or goal, but a relation of presence involving the whole being of each subject.
The I-It experience is best understood in contrast to the I-Thou relation. It is a relation in which the I approaches the other not in a direct and living immediacy, but as an object, either to be used or known. Here the I rather than enter into the immediate relation with the other stands over and against it and so analyzes, compares, or manipulates it as a mediated object of my consciousness.
Buber uses an example of a tree and presents five separate ways we might experience it. The first way is to look at the tree as one would a picture. Here one appreciates the color and details through an aesthetic perception. The second way is to experience the tree as movement. The movement includes the flow of the juices through the veins of the tree, the breathing of the leaves, the roots sucking the water, the never-ending activities between the tree, earth and air, and the growth of the tree. The third way is to categorize the tree by its type, and so classify it as species and from there study its essential structures and functions. The fourth way is to reduce it to an expression of law where forces collide and intermingle. Finally, the fifth way is to interpret the tree in mathematical terms, reducing it to formulas which explain its molecular or atomic make-up. In all these ways, though, the tree is approached as an It: something to be understood, known, or experienced in some manner.
Although the I-It relation holds less ontological worth, it is not in itself negative or “bad.” For it is a necessary aspect of our existence that we treat things (sometimes other people) in this way. For such knowledge can be used for practical purposes as well as having various speculative, scientific, or artistic value in our intellectual knowledge or aesthetic experience. Nonetheless, Buber does refer to the inevitable transition of all I-Thou relations into an I-It as a kind of sadness or tragedy. Thus, he says, “without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.”
For Buber the I-Thou relation is ultimately a relation with God or the “eternal Thou.” For this reason his thought has often been termed a “religious-existentialism” and even “mystical.” As with all I-Thou encounters the relation to God must be a direct and immediate one. For this reason, Buber rejects both the “God of the philosophers” whereby God’s existence is proven through logical and abstract proofs and the “God of the theologians” whereby God is known through dogmatic creeds and formulas. For both systematic approaches to God are I-It relations that reduce God to an object which is known and understood. God, however, can only be approached in love, which is a subject-to-subject relation. Like all I-Thou encounters, love is not the experience of an object by a subject; rather it is an encounter in which both subjects mutually share in the immediacy of the relation. Since the ultimate Thou is God, in the eternal I-Thou relation there are no barriers when man relates directly to the infinite God.
Finally, Buber saw the relation to the eternal Thou as the basis for our true humanity. Like other twentieth-century thinkers, Buber was concerned with the scientific and technological forces that can lead to dehumanizing aspects of contemporary culture. The renewal of this primary relation of I-Thou is essential, then, in overcoming these impersonal and destructive forces and in turn to restore our basic humanity. Given his emphasis upon relation, and in particular human relations (to God, other people, and the things in the world), Buber’s philosophy has often been called a philosophical anthropology.
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