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I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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I and Thou | Main Ideas


Redemption Is Found in the Dialogic Relationship between Persons

Front and center in Martin Buber's philosophy is that people can find redemption, or salvation, in dialogue when they speak to each other from the totality of their being. By redemption or salvation, Buber does not mean guaranteeing oneself a place in heaven, but rather reaching the state of being fully human. In Part 1 of I and Thou, Buber distinguishes between I-You and I-It. In Buber's view, people are always in relation to someone or something; no one stands alone in this world. I-You relations include those with another person as well as those with God as an eternal You. When a person enters the I-You relation, they use the primary word pair, "I-saying"—the totality of their being—to God, a person, or even a thing, confronting the Other in all their totality. Humans take a stand in the Word (I-You) when, as spirit, the Word occupies a place between themselves and the persons and things of the world. The philosopher Robert E. Wood says the I meets the You in the Between, the psychic and spiritual space between them, which can also serve to unify them.

In addition to I-You relationships, people engage in I-It relationships. In fact, most of the time people live in the It-world of objectification. Human beings cannot help but objectify both persons and things because each center of consciousness is a subjectivity, and to understand other subjects for the purpose of successfully navigating the world, an I must turn all others into objects of perception as innumerable Its. When human beings go into objectification mode, various types of Its proliferate: for example, I-It, It-It (when objectifying both self and others), We-We, and Us-Them. All It relations require the I to put distance between itself and its objects for the purpose of manipulating or managing them in the phenomenal, or sensory, world. Nonetheless, there is always the possibility of an It becoming an I, and most times people are in and out of I-You and I-It relations. However, there is a need for people to develop the I-You relationship, which is becoming increasingly hidden as civilization advances and as the manifest world becomes more sophisticated and technological.

The Realm of Experience Lies in the Past, While the Relational World Is in the Now

An encounter with a person or thing as part of an I-You relation always takes place in the present. When speaking from one's whole being, the I lives in the present, moving beyond itself to encounter another whole being as a You. A true I-You encounter has something in common with the Zen concept of "beginner's mind," in which a person opens themselves without judgment or preconception. Staying in the present and keeping at bay the flood of thoughts that accompany even the smallest action in the world is a difficult feat. This is why Martin Buber says people go in and out of the I-You relation. When we meet another person in the realm of the Between (neither in ourselves nor in that other person, but within a psychic or perhaps metaphorical space of suspended judgment) we live in the now, and we get a glimpse of the Other as themselves, absent of our continual projections.

On the other hand, most of the time we live in the realm of I-It. This is not a bad thing, in Buber's view, because it would be impossible to function even on the most primitive level without separating our own subjectivity from the phenomenal or manifest world and viewing everything in that world as an object of our experience. Without I-It relations, there would be no culture, no civilization, and no art—although as Buber points out, art should indicate the ability of human beings to transcend the It-world and enter I-saying. (I-saying is addressing the Other with the totality of one's being.) In any case, once we deal with the world as subject and object, or I-It, we enter the realm of experience, which necessarily exists in the past. Experience is what has happened already, even if it happened only a moment ago. Without experience it would be impossible to separate one's subjectivity from the subjectivity of others or from the phenomenal world.

God Is the Eternal Thou (You)

Martin Buber's ultimate purpose is to point the way toward unity with God, which is the eternal Thou (You) that can never be an It—can never be objectified. Buber's deity is a personal God, both in the world (immanent) and outside the world (transcendent). As philosopher Walter Kaufmann explains in the prologue to his translation of I and Thou, "God is no object of discourse, knowledge, or even experience." He can be spoken to, and we can listen to God. We can address God and be addressed by God. The Hebrew name for God means "He is here" or "He is present," yet God cannot be seen. While Buber's text focuses on You, God is always present in the Between when an I encounters a You.

In Part 3 Buber notes the existence of three spheres in which the world of relation (I-You) is built: life with nature, on the threshold of language; life with other humans, where relation enters language; and life with spiritual beings, where relation both lacks language and creates language. Although relations with others is a "portal" into the eternal, so too can "lonesomeness" become a portal, and "intercourse with oneself" can change into "intercourse with mystery." In "the castle of separation," a person may conduct a conversation with themselves to enjoy their own soul, but this is an inferior sort of spirituality in Buber's view, and a person may fall into the error of thinking God is within and speaks to that person. Rather, God "embraces us and dwells in us, [and] we never have him within. And we speak to him only when all speech has ceased within." God is an eternal presence that cannot be possessed. God is the eternal "primal phenomenon, present in the here and now."

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