Martin Buber – I and Thou (Notes)

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s book for August 2021 is Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’. My copy is the translation by Ronald Gregor Smith, who translates the original title ‘Ich Und Du’ as ‘I and Thou’, rather than I and You. Between the ages of three and fourteen, Buber lived in Lvov, Galicia with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, who clearly influenced his thinking and direction. Solomon Buber was a scholar of Jewish Law and a deeply religious man. From 1924 to 1933, Martin Buber lectured in Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. In 1938 he left Germany to join the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between 1897 and 1923 Buber’s interest lay in mysticism; between 1923 and 1938 in dialogue and the dialogical relationship with nature; and between 1938 and 1965 in attentive silence and a deepening recognition of ‘the eternal’.

It is easy to recognise ‘I and Thou’ as a profound and beautiful book, but it is not easy to read. Ronald Smith acknowledges this in his Preface, where he writes:

‘To the reader who finds the meaning obscure at first reading we may only say that I and Thou is indeed a poem. Hence it must be read more than once, and its total effect allowed to work on the mind: the obscurities of the one part (so far as they are real obscurities, and not the effect, as they must often be, of poor translation) will then be illumined by the brightness of another part. For the argument is not as it were horizontal, but spiral; it mounts, and gathers within itself the aphoristic and pregnant utterances of the earlier part.’ (p.xiii)

I and Thou (published in 1923) is a short book, only 95 pages long including the Postscript which was written by Buber in 1957 to answer questions raised about the ideas he expresses in the book, but it reads like a long book, as it includes so many aphorisms which need careful thought and attention. This is not a book that can be skim read. I had to go to secondary sources, which I have listed under References at the end of this post, to help me make sense of the text.

The book is written in three parts which, put simply, cover how we address or speak to each other, how we address or speak to Nature/the world/society, and how we address or speak to God.

Buber starts the book by explaining that there are two modes of engaging with the world, which he describes through the use of two word pairs, I-It and I-Thou. Buber calls these primary words, which do not signify things but intimate relations. It is not possible to be an I outside of these relations.

‘There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and I of the primary world I-It ‘ (p.3)

‘When a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it.’ (p.4)

Buber’s overarching concern is that we are trapped in a world of ever increasing I-It communication and dialogue, where we hold ourselves apart from the Other, and treat each other like objects to be manipulated. (I think Iain McGilchrist would describe this as treating each other as ‘things’. There are so many parallels between Buber’s and McGilchrist’s work that I am really surprised that I can find no reference to Buber anywhere in McGilchrist’s first book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

In the first part of his book, Buber explains that  I-It is the language of objectification, where the primary temporary modality is the past.

‘The I of the primary word I-It, that is the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of content, has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been.’ (p.10)

Buber calls the I-It mode of engaging with the world, the mode of ‘experience’ (which covers both inner emotions and sensory experience), where the I is an objective observer, cataloguing, calculating, analyzing, and describing, rather than being in active relation Buber tells us that I-It does not make for a ‘whole’ human being. For this we also need I-Thou.

For Martin Buber ‘… he who lives with It alone is not a man’ (p.24). Man needs ‘I-Thou’ relationships, where we communicate with our being rather than with words. I-Thou is about mutuality, seeing someone in his or her depth, speaking to the Other with your entire being, saying Thou with all that you are, standing in present relation, in the here and now – not completely separate, but not completely fused, maintaining just enough balance between close and distant to retain a sense of who you are.

In this beautiful passage from p.6 of his book, Buber sums up the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, by considering a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.…….

Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, p.6)

I-Thou experiences cannot be willed. They are given to us by grace (God’s grace), but we have to be open to I-Thou experiences and choose to enter these moments.

In Part 1 of his book, Martin Buber considers how, at an individual level, we tend to objectify each other (I-It) rather than enter into mutual relation (I-Thou). In Part 2 Buber extends this to thinking about society as a whole. His thoughts about how advances in society since the time of the Industrial Revolution have led us to being trapped in an I-It world, are as relevant today as when he wrote the book. All our institutions (school, work, marriage etc.) can reinforce the I-It mode of attending to the world, which Buber says is stagnating as a result.

‘… in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of fens, over-powers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world.’ (p.38)

Buber talks about knowledge, art and teaching as all needing more I-Thou relation. Knowledge has become about accumulating concepts, art about analysis and making money, and teaching about imparting knowledge. All focus on the I-It, rather than being open to relation. We should recognise that I-Thou is the locus of all genuine creative activity, all spirituality and all becoming in transcendence.

Interestingly Buber says that there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to make money or obtain power. There is nothing inherently I-It in economics and politics, it’s the way we live them out. Man’s will to profit and power are fine so long as they are not dominated by It. He explains this as follows. ‘Man’s will to profit and to be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with, and upheld by, his will to enter into relation.’ (p.35) Buber envisions a society (community) in which human beings have a loving responsibility to all other human beings, including those they have not met. This is a new sort of community built on absolute encounter with the eternal Thou, that is, with God.

In Part 3, Buber focusses on the eternal Thou, that is, on our relation with God. I found this part of the book the most difficult to follow, maybe because it is impossible to describe God. God cannot become an It. God must always be a Thou.

The eternal Thou can by its nature not become It: for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds, not even in the measure of the immeasurable, or the bounds of the boundless being; for by its nature it cannot be understood as a sum of qualities, not even as an infinite sum of qualities raised to a transcendental level; for it can be found neither in nor out of the world; for it cannot be experienced, or thought; for we miss Him, Him who is, if we say ‘I believe that He is’ – ‘He” is also a metaphor, but ‘Thou’ is not’. (p.77)

As Buber explains, all attempts to find God in the It world have reduced the idea of God to something which could not possibly be the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient creator of the universe.

He explains that the active solution to a world dominated by I-It, where man feels oppressed by causality, powerless, and as though he is living a meaningless life lacking in freedom, is to enter into relation with God. Why? Because whilst each human experience inevitably peters out into experience, the eternal Thou can never degenerate into an It.

But to encounter the eternal Thou (God) we must be ready for it in both active and passive terms. Actively, we must truly want this encounter, we must let go of thinking we are in control and we must hold I-It and I-Thou in harmony; passively we must wait for God to meet us.

When we enter into relation with God, we enter into relation with everything else in the world. Our encounter with God is both exclusive and inclusive, exclusive because we fully enter into the relation, inclusive because we are relating not only to God but also to the whole Universe.

Buber is not able to describe an encounter with God, but he does say what it is not. It is not a feeling of dependency. God needs us as much as we need God. It is a mutual relationship. It is not an immersion of union between ourselves and God. It is important that we retain our individual selves (whilst losing the drive for self-affirmation) and keep the encounter in a dialogical relation between two separate beings. It is not logically coherent but involves logical conflicts and paradoxes. Paradox is an essential component of the religious moment. We should not substitute the idols of knowledge, power, artistic beauty and erotic love with God. Religious relation is not idol worship of the right idol, and religion is not a crutch, but requires strength and willpower. We cannot predict, control or understand the world. Saying Thou to God transforms us. We lose all duty and obligation. We are filled with loving responsibility for the whole world.

Buber believed that the way forward, away from a domination by I-It relation, is to build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God. He pointed out that these communities have existed in the past but gradually their need for continuity in space and time resulted in relating to God as It. But if we can build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God, the everyday life becomes holy and divine encounter is involved in every act of daily life. We need to bring the holy into everyday life through building of community and relation with God.

‘The world of It is set in the context of space and time.

The world of Thou is not set in the context of with either of these.

Its context is in the Centre [God], where the extended lines of relations meet – in the eternal Thou.’ (p.69)

18-08-21 Update

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network discussion on Martin Buber’s I and Thou was introduced by Amanda Fulford is Professor of Philosophy of Education, and Head of the Department of Professional Learning at Edge Hill University, who posed the following provocations for discussion:

  • Criticisms have been levelled at Buber’s I and Thou that his language is overly obscure and romantic. Walter Kaufmann makes this claim in his translator’s introduction to the work. Given this, is there a risk that the reader is seduced into thinking the text is more profound than it actually is? Does this undermine the central distinction in I and Thou?
  • Is there a hierarchy in Buber’s work that elevates the I-Thou (and thus denigrates) the I-It? What would this mean for certain ways of knowing?
  • Can I-Thou relations be extended beyond human others, and what would this mean for our relationships with, say, animals, or the environment?

And our discussion ended with Jessica Lussier (@miss_lussier) raising the following questions for us to reflect on and discuss on Twitter (@PhilofEd):

  • What role does language play in Buber’s I-Thou relation?
  • What role does feeling/affect play in this relation?
  • How might this allow us to extend I-Thou relations beyond the human?

References

Buber, M. Ich Und Du (1923 Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith and published as I and Thou by Bloomsbury Revelations Edition (2013)

Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/ . Retrieved: 05-0821]

Spark Notes Study Guide. I and Thou. Martin Buber. https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/iandthou/summary/

Dodson, E. (2014) Buber in Ten Minutes. https://youtu.be/16Cr82mLhkw

Source of Image:  https://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/

4 thoughts on “Martin Buber – I and Thou (Notes)

  1. Lisa M Lane August 8, 2021 / 6:48 pm

    Thank you so much for the first clear explanation of I and Thou that I have read, being among the many who had trouble understanding the book. I was sidetracked immediately, however, by the fact that he left Germany in 1938, escaping the Holocaust. I could not help seeing a connection between the “It” and the Nazi extermination machine, the absorbing of the human into the “It”, seeing Jewish people as an object so apart from desired experience that they had to be eliminated. So I went looking for connections between his work and that event, and even though it skirted the connection I was looking for, this article that might be of interest to you: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/06/modernity-faith-and-martin-buber .

  2. jennymackness August 11, 2021 / 10:45 am

    Thanks Lisa, for sharing this interesting article, which helps to put Buber in the context of his times. The article also makes it clear that many people have had difficulty in understanding Buber’s work.

    “Even some of his admirers admitted that they couldn’t always be sure of what he was trying to say. ”

    And

    “Such haziness was inevitable, because the questions Buber was trying to answer were the most ineffable ones of human life: What is the meaning of our existence? How can we achieve the feeling of wholeness that we so painfully lack? Above all, Buber asked, how do we find our way to God, now that religious belief has become so challenging for modern, educated people? Anyone who believed it was possible to give crystal-clear answers to such questions would have to be a messiah or a charlatan, and Buber was neither.”

    But, despite finding I and Thou a difficult read, I am pleased that the book was selected by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network for discussion.

  3. Rhonda Riachi August 13, 2021 / 5:38 pm

    Thanks for this illuminating post, Jenny. I have only read parts of Ich und Du, having landed there thanks to the much-missed Prof Tom Kitwood and his wonderful book, Dementia Reconsidered. It was only when I saw the title in German that I realised that “Thou” in this context is the familiar form of “you”, and not the polite and plural “you”. A close, familiar and “equal” relationship is implied by Du.

    BTW I heard Iain McGilchrist speaking recently (see https://scientificandmedical.net/) about his new two-volume work, The Matter With Thngs. I think he engages with Buber in this work, amongst much else..

  4. jennymackness August 14, 2021 / 4:57 pm

    Hello Rhonda – For me, ‘I and Thou’ would be an important book for anyone working in the care sector or any form of care, including teaching, although this might fall short of what Buber intended, which was to appreciate and communicate with the eternal Thou.

    As you say, Ich Und Du can be translated differently as either I and Thou, or I and You, although I think I and Thou is considered the better translation. I can’t say as I don’t speak German, although I read this on a blog:

    “It’s tricky to translate, in one of those “here are some basic differences between English and German” ways. German has two pronouns for you; “du” is the informal one, “sie” the plural or formal. “Sie” is also a third-person pronoun. But “du” is the way you address God, so it winds up turning into “thou.” Still, there’s nothing all that archaic about “du”; you’d call your pets “du.” Kind of like how Freud’s “ich” and “es” become “ego” and “id,” but are really just “I” and “it.” It’s a weird bit of business.” (Source: https://kottke.org/18/03/i-and-you-a-short-appreciation-of-martin-bubers-ich-und-du )

    Thanks for the link to where you heard McGilchrist speaking. I don’t think they recorded him, but maybe they did and only released the recording to members. I will be interested to see whether Buber is referenced in his new book. Are you a member of Channel McGilchrist? You can pre-order the new book there. https://channelmcgilchrist.com/the-matter-with-things/

    I think I did see you in the participant list when McGilchrist talked online at a Resurgence event. It was nice to see a name I recognised 🙂

    Many thanks for your comment.

    Jenny

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