Martin Buber –Concept of “I” and “Thou”

                                 All real living is meeting. (Buber 1958: 24-25) 


Martin Buber Austrian/Jewish Philosopher 1878-1965 Jewish theologian and philosopher, born in Vienna. He studied philosophy at Vienna, Berlin, and Zürich, then became attracted to Hasidism, founding and editing a monthly journal Der Jude (1916–24). He taught comparative religion at Frankfurt (1923–33), and directed a Jewish adult education programmed until 1938, when he fled to Palestine to escape the Nazis. He became professor of social philosophy at Jerusalem, where he wrote on social and ethical problems. He is best known for his religious philosophy, expounded most famously in Ich und Du (1923, I and Thou), contrasting personal relationships of mutuality and reciprocity with utilitarian or objective relationships.

 Buber’s theoretical focus can be split into two stages

Mysticism (1897-1923) – where his interest lay in people’s ability to transcend  profane conceptions of reality.

Dialogue (1923- 1938) – that reflects Buber’s move away from the supremacy of the ecstatic moment to the unity of being and a focus on relationship and the dialogical nature of existence (perhaps most strongly linked to his book I and Thou).

Martin Buber’s I and Thou (Ich und Du, 1923) presents a philosophy of personal dialogue, in that it describes how personal dialogue can define the nature of reality. Buber’s major theme is that human existence may be defined by the way in which we engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with God.

Buber’s best known work I and Thou, , presents us with two fundamental orientations – relation and irrelation. We can either take our place, , alongside whatever confronts us and address it as ‘you’; or we ‘can hold ourselves apart from it and view it as an object, an “it”‘. So it is we engage in I-You (Thou) and I-It relationships

I-You involves a sense of being part of a whole. The “I” is not experienced or sensed as singular or separate; it is the “I” of being.

The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, not can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; and as I become the I, I say Thou

The meeting involved isn’t just between two people or between someone and the world. Buber believed that ‘every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou‘ In other words, each and every I-You relationship opens up a window to the ultimate Thou

The I-Thou relation is a direct interpersonal relation which is not mediated by any intervening system of ideas. No objects of thought intervene between I and Thou.1 I-Thou is a direct relation of subject-to-subject, which is not mediated by any other relation. Thus, I-Thou is not a means to some object or goal, but is an ultimate relation involving the whole being of each subject.

Buber,  holds that human beings may adopt two attitudes toward the world: I-Thou or I-It. I-Thou is a relation of subject-to-subject, while I-It is a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings are aware of each other as having a unity of being. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings do not perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, but engage in a dialogue involving each other’s whole being. In the I-It relationship, on the other hand, human beings perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, and view themselves as part of a world which consists of things. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.

Buber elaborates that human beings may try to convert the subject-to-subject relation to a subject-to-object relation, or vice versa. However, the being of a subject is a unity which cannot be analyzed as an object. When a subject is analyzed as an object, the subject is no longer a subject, but becomes an object. When a subject is analyzed as an object, the subject is no longer a Thou, but becomes an It. The being which is analyzed as an object is the It in an I-It relation.

 Babur explains that the subject-to-subject relation affirms each subject as having a unity of being. When a subject chooses, or is chosen by, the I-Thou relation, this act involves the subject’s whole being. Thus, the I-Thou relation is an act of choosing, or being chosen, to become the subject of a subject-to-subject relation. The subject becomes a subject through the I-Thou relation, and the act of choosing this relation affirms the subject’s whole being.

Buber argues that, although the I-Thou relation is an ideal relation, the I-It relation is an inescapable relation by which the world is viewed as consisting of knowable objects or things. The I-It relation is the means by which the world is analyzed and described. However, the I-It relation may become an I-Thou relation, and in the I-Thou relation we can interact with the world in its whole being.

In the I-Thou relation, the I is unified with the Thou, but in the I-It relation, the I is detached or separated from the It. In the I-Thou relation, the being of the I belongs both to I and to Thou. In the I-It relation, the being of the I belongs to I, but not to It.

I-Thou is a relation in which I and Thou have a shared reality. Buber contends that the I which has no Thou has a reality which is less complete than that of the I in the I-and-Thou. The more that I-and-Thou share their reality, the more complete is their reality.

Accordingly , God is the eternal Thou. God is the Thou who sustains the I-Thou relation eternally. In the I-Thou relation between the individual and God, there is a unity of being in which the individual can always find God. In the I-Thou relation, there is no barrier of other relations which separate the individual from God, and thus the individual can speak directly to God.

Buber also explains that the I-Thou relation may have either potential being or actual being. When the I-It relation becomes an I-Thou relation, the potential being of the I-Thou relation becomes the actual being of the I-Thou relation. However, the I-Thou relation between the individual and God does not become, or evolve from, an I-It relation, because God, as the eternal Thou, is eternally present as actual Being.

 Martin Buber contends that the I-Thou relation between the individual and God is a universal relation which is the foundation for all other relations. If the individual has a real I-Thou relation with God, then the individual must have a real I-Thou relation with the world. If the individual has a real I-Thou relation with God, then the individual’s actions in the world must be guided by that I-Thou relation. Thus, the philosophy of personal dialogue may be an instructive method of ethical inquiry and of defining the nature of personal responsibility.

The eternal Thou is not an object of experience, and is not an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something which can be investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object. However, the eternal Thou can be known as the absolute Person who gives unity to all being.

I-It involves distancing. Differences are accentuated, the uniqueness of “I” emphasized. Here the “I” is separated from the self it encounters. Buber believed that there had been a movement from relation to separation, that there was a growing crisis of being or existence in ‘modern’ society. He believed that the relationship between individuals and their selves (see selfhood), between people, and people and creation was increasingly that of I-It. As a result it was becoming more and more difficult to encounter God. 

.Buber’s writings about what he discovered by living life in relation to others have profoundly influenced all of us who are interested in interpersonal communication.

Martin Buber whole thinking is concerned with the relationship, with the intimacy between” I” and “THOU”. Martin Buber is one of the most profound thinkers of our age. But remember, profundity is not all; whatever the depth it is only the other end of the superficial , the shallow. Real depth comes when one is neither shallow nor deep , when both shallowness and deepness disappear. Martin Buber has come upon something very profound, he says that life’s truth lies in the interrelationship between “I” and “thou “.

An atheist, a materialist , believes that only matter is; there is nothing than matter; there is nothing other than matter. His world does not consist of “I” and “thou”, it consists  of “I “There is no place for . “thou”  .because for “thou” is necessary that another person possess a soul. So an atheist’s world is confined to the relationship between  “I” and ‘ it’ . “That is why it is such a complex world, where on the one hand it he calls himself “I” and as such invests himself with a soul, he deprive others of this I-ness and reduces them into things “its “ .A MATERIALIST REDUCES EVERY MAN AND EVERYTHING INTO MATTER. If I believe there is no soul then for me you are nothing more than matter.How then can I call you “ thou “? Because only an alive man , alive with a soul, can be addressed as  “ thou “.

Therefore Martin Buber says a theist’s world is comprised of “ I “ and “”thou “ not “I “ and “It “.It is a theist’s world only when my “I “ addresses the world as “thou “.but even a theist is ,in his depth, nothing more than an atheist, because he divides the world into “ I “ and “thou “.Thus it looks as Buber,s world is the world of a dualistic theist. But it is not true , because dualistic theism has no meaning. In a sense, an atheist is non-dualist because he says that only matter is, So is a spiritualist who says that only one is, and it is spirit. And I think it is easier to attain to oneness , nondualism from the hypothesis that there is only one ; it is very difficult to come to monism from the hypothesis that there are two-“I “ and “ thou “.

In this sense, a dualist like Buber may find himself in a more difficult  situation than an atheist. Materialist is a non-dualist, a monist, and if someday he comes to know that there is  no matter, that only soul is then he will have no difficulty in being transformed. EVEN AS AN ATHIEST  HE  ACCEPTS THE ONENESS  OF EXISTENCE ; He does not accept the dualistic interpretation. But a dualist’s problem is more difficult. He believes that existence is dual ; it is matter and soul together. And such it would be extremely difficult for him to attain to non-dualism, to the oneness of all existence.

Buber is a dualist. He holds that the world is comprised of “I “ and “thou “.His dualism is human, because he cancels “ it “ and give it the status of “thou”  with a soul. But it remains a dualistic approach nonetheless. There can  only a relationship between “I “ and “thou “;there can not be  unity ,a oneness between them. However deep and intimate the relationship, there is always some distance between “I “ and “thou “,even if the relationship is really intimate-the very fact of relatedness devides the two ,they are not one but two.

Love, as a relation between I and Thou, is a subject-to-subject relation. Buber claims that love is not a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relation, subjects do not perceive each other as objects, but perceive each other’s unity of being. Love is an I-Thou relation in which subjects share this unity of being. Love is also a relation in which I and Thou share a sense of caring, respect, commitment, and responsibility

Remember a relationship is a double-edged sword which cuts both ways; it unites and divides at the same time. If you and I are related, it means we divided as well.. The point of meeting is also the point of parting. A bridge joins the two banks of a river and divides them too. In fact, whatever joins two persons or things is bound to divide them; it is inescapable, there is no way to avoid it. Two persons can relate with each other, but they cannot be one; relationship is not unity.

Even in a love relationship, the division between the lovers remains. And as long as there is a division, a separateness, love cannot be fulfilled. That is whyall lovers are dissatisfied, discontented. There are two kinds of discontent in love. You are discontented if you do not find your lover and you are discontented even if you find one.

When you find someone you love and who loves you, you realize that in spite of the meeting, ,a distance remains and nothing can be done to mitigate the pain of this separateness. So very often a person who does not find his love is not as miserable as one who finds it.One who does not find can still hope to find, but the one who has found is robbed of all hope—his discontent and despair are much deeper. Infact, no meeting can be real , because two make a meeting, and as long as there are two entities, unity or oneness is impossible.

Martin Buber speaks of a deep relationship between “ I “ and “ thou “ and it is very humanistic. And in a world which is becoming increasingly materialistic in every way, this concept seems  very religious., but it seems that Buber is just attempting a compromise; If “ I “ and” thou “ can not unite they can at least  maintain some relationship .Religion stands for the non-dual ,indivisible and integrated oneness of existence .


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To Mrs. Sudha Rani Maheshwari, for being the scribe of this article.

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