This is something I wrote for a faculty discussion group at Cornerstone:

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Jewish-German philosopher who played a large role in the renewed appreciation of Hasidism, or mystical Judaism, in the twentieth century. Buber developed a personalist (or dialogic) philosophy from his study of this strain of ecstatic Judaism, and his central statement of that philosophy is his book I and Thou. It is inarguably one of the most influential and profound works of theology/philosophy/literature to be written in the last seventy-five years. However, Buber was not just an ivory-tower thinker lost in the world of his ideas; by all accounts he was an extraordinary human being who never shied away from human contact. Numerous stories have been told of his almost supernatural interpersonal skills – his unfeigned humility, his sincere interest in the problems of those who sought him out, and the ways in which short conversations with him brought about fundamental changes in many peoples’ lives. In other words, he was a philosopher who lived out his philosophy in very tangible ways.

I and Thou (Ich und Du in German) was mistakenly considered to be a work of existential philosophy by those Europeans and Americans who first encountered it in the middle of the twentieth century. Existentialism, along with Freudianism, provided the intellectual categories for serious writers and thinkers at the time, and it would have been difficult for them to read him in any other way. The irony is that I and Thou is actually the polar opposite of an existentialist text. Its similarities to the works of Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre are either superficial or just a matter of stylistics. In fact, I and Thou turns the whole existentialist dilemma on its head. In contrast to Sartre, Heidegger, etal., Buber does not see individuals as existing (Dasein) in an utterly contingent and absurd world where they perpetually struggle for authenticity; instead, he asserts that persons are fundamentally constituted through their relations to others – or in a more primal sense, through their longing for relation. His pithy formulation, “Man becomes an I through a You”, contradicts the existentialist maxim that becoming is the work of the free, yet isolate, self. Moreover, if Buber were to be fruitfully compared to any other thinker, a better candidate might be Karl Marx, since Buber’s philosophy is an implicit denunciation of what customarily happens to individuals in a hyper-competitive capitalist society.


People shouldn’t be treated like objects.

It is tempting to boil I and Thou down to this simple thesis and leave it there. It’s an ethical and ontological statement of belief which anyone who’s been formed by the Judeo-Christian heritage would readily affirm. Indeed, most people in the West have an implicit commitment to the notion that we all are, in some sense, made in the image of God, and that we should respect and honor the personhood of others in our daily interactions. Yet unfortunately, we still continue to create systems, bureaucracies, and institutions that encourage us to treat people as objects and not as persons. Or, in Buber’s language, as “its” and not as “you’s”. How do we reconcile these facts? And why do we constantly act against our deepest intuitions?

Is it perhaps because we don’t really understand the basic terms we are using?

I and Thou begins with an affront to our individualist notions of the Self:

“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.

The basic words are not single words but word pairs.

One basic word is the word pair I-You.

The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.

Thus the I of man is also twofold.

For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.”

Buber starts his book by positing a duality at the heart of identity.  In a quietly radical way, he contends that the I, or Self, is determined by its relation to the world, thus making its essence contingent upon its “attitude”. Later on in the book Buber admits that we must often consider others from within the perspective of “I-It” in order to make our way in the world and provide for basic needs. However, he says that when we do so we are not acting as human beings. Moreover, when we do so, our ability to love becomes merely a latent possibility and not a living reality.

But what does it mean to encounter the world and other persons from the attitude of “I-You”? Is it a mystical feeling, or is it something less fleeting? And how is it qualitatively different from the attitude of “I-It”?

Buber begins by discussing the difference between experience and commitment. He says that we experience things in the world primarily as its, he’s, or she’s; and that we use these “things” in accordance with their histories, or in terms of what we have known them to be in the past (reification). However, a whole-hearted, bodily commitment of ourselves to a thing or person transforms that it, he, or she into a “you”, which then (although we can never guarantee this) opens us up to reciprocation from the other. Therefore, we can relate to the world either in terms of objectification or in terms of relation. And while the difference between the two may sometimes be unclear to the empirical observer, this difference refers to entirely distinct ways of being.

To paraphrase Buber: seeing a person as a You is not to see the person as a You among other You’s (this is only reducing the concept of You to an It-ness). No, to see a person as a You is to see the whole world in the light of, or colored by, that person. In other words, our relations affect how we see the trees, the sky, our parents, and the government. Furthermore, the person is not seen as a collection of qualities that add up to the whole person. Rather, the person is seen as a whole that transcends his or her cumulative qualities. While one can later consider these qualities separately, the initial recognition of personhood is not attained through such analysis. A You is not known in terms of particulars, but as a presence – a wholeness – that elicits an embodied, creative response. Furthermore, for Buber, it is only in relation that we are actually alive as persons. Or as he puts it: “All actual life is encounter.”

One must be careful not to reduce this “encounter” to a mere set of feelings. If “encounter” is in fact another way of talking about love (and Buber explicitly makes this equation), it is a singular fact that maintains its singularity despite the many different types of feelings that may accompany it. As Buber puts it, “Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love.” Another analogy that he uses to explain his point is that of the artist and her creation. The artist encounters her work-in-progress (painting, sculpture, etc.) as a whole that she commits herself to, but which reciprocally works upon her to enable its completion. Still another analogy would be the teacher who loves his students and allows himself to be changed by them. Buber asserts, “Relation is reciprocity. My You acts on me as I act on it. Our students teach us, our works form us.” Again, it is something much deeper than changeable feelings, for at its base, “love is responsibility of an I for a You.”

Buber supports his arguments by noting the ways in which primitive peoples and infants encounter and process the world (the language of primitive peoples is dominated by relational terms; the infant innately seeks physical contact with the mother); however, I think he is more pertinent when he identifies the precise defects in the modern way of encountering (or experiencing) the world. These defects, he claims, stem from our stubborn adherence to a Cartesian view of the self. We like to think that the I (or the ego) is primary and relation is secondary. We tend to see the world and other people as things to know about, rather than to know. Hence, for modern people the world is made up of objects – indeed the world is our object – and thus, according to Buber, it “remains primally alien both outside and inside [us].”

However, for Buber, relation is the primary category of being, and the Cartesian ego is something that can only emerge once relation has been severed. It is an empty I, though; for Buber sees relation “as readiness, as a form that reaches out to be filled, as a model of the soul…” To put it in a starker way, without relation there is no significant reality. Time becomes just a set of dots on a line; and space becomes the abstract field upon which we coordinate our discrete endeavors. Nothing is more or less significant than anything else. So even though we need to know about the world in order to preserve our existences, if we never succeed in knowing, or truly encountering, the world and one another, those existences ultimately rest on nothingness itself.