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I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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I and Thou | Part 1 | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Martin Buber begins Part 1 by providing important terms he will use to discuss his philosophical view on the nature of being. Specifically, the world is twofold, following the twofold attitude of mankind, which is best described with the pronoun pairs I-You and I-It. (Walter Kaufmann points out in his own prologue to the translation of Buber's text that the I-It concept also includes I-He and I-She, along with We-We, Us-Them, and It-It.)
  • The two basic word pairs (I-You and I-It) describe a person's way of being in the world. In saying only the word "you," a person necessarily implies I and You, since a relationship requires two people. Similarly, saying "it" implies I-It, since an object (It) must be observed or experienced by a subject.
  • Only I-You can be spoken with one's whole being, and Buber will explain why as his treatise unfolds.
  • Human life largely consists of goal-directed actions, or activities that have a purpose or an object. All these activities are necessary, and they occur in the realm of I-It. Therefore, a person can objectify another as a he or she. For example, this objectification of a person occurs when we want something from the Other or we desire to do something to or for the Other.
  • On the other hand, when a person operates in the realm of You, by saying "you," they have no agenda and are not attempting to objectify the Other.
  • Any It has a border and borders other Its. On the other hand, there are no borders around You. In saying "you," a person receives nothing, but stands in relation.
  • When people say they experience the world, they traverse the surface of phenomena—things as they are perceived in the material world—and bring back knowledge of their own condition, which they call experience.
  • Experience is the realm of It, because people experience a thing—an It. If that something is a person, that person is properly an It, because they must be made into an object for someone to experience them.
  • The same is true for inner experience, in which people are also in the realm of I-It. People may fool themselves into thinking their inner experience is somehow mysterious, but there is no special dispensation for internal objects in the form of thoughts laced with information.
  • Those who experience, either externally or internally, are not participating in the world. Their experience is in them, not between them and the world. Furthermore, the world does not participate in this experience; rather, it allows itself to be experienced.
  • Moving to the realm of relations, Buber says that experiences alone do not bring the world to people. "The basic word [Buber considers the pronoun pair a single word] I-You establishes the world of relation."
  • There are three spheres in this world of relation. In the first sphere, life with nature, the You spoken to creatures "sticks to the threshold of language," which is to say that human beings cannot communicate with nature through human speech.
  • In the second sphere, life with human beings, the I-You relation enters into language.
  • In the third sphere, life with spiritual beings, the I-You relation both creates language and is carried on without it. While we cannot hear a spirit, we still feel addressed.
  • In relation to a tree—in the realm of nature—we may begin by seeing it, feeling its movement, assigning it a species, determining its way of life, and so forth. When we do any of these things, the tree remains an object for us. But with the help of will and through grace, we can be drawn into relation with the tree so that it ceases to be an It. "The power of exclusiveness" ceases in the viewer. Buber's point is not that the tree is imbued with consciousness, but rather that the I is equally real in the I-You relationship, whether the person is in relation with a person or a tree.
  • Relation is reciprocity. In an I-You relation to a tree, the tree must deal with us as we deal with it. We have no experience of the tree's consciousness, if it exists, and do not encounter the soul of a tree. Rather, we encounter simply the tree itself.
  • When we confront another person as a You, that person ceases to be one among many of either gender.
  • As such, this You "fills the firmament," but not by obscuring everything else. Rather, "everything else lives in his light." Naturally, this You continues to be placed and identified by the person attempting to be in relation with this You. Therefore, this You falls in and out of being a You for the subject attempting to stand in relation.
  • Buber further explains that when we stand in relation to another person in the "sacred basic word" (I-You), we do not experience that person as Other. Rather, we confront that person as a You. On the other hand, when we step out of relation with that person, we then experience him or her and become remote from that Other.
  • We can speak the basic word, I-You, but we cannot encounter that You by active seeking. Rather, we do so only by grace. When the You is encountered, You enters into direct relation with I.
  • Each person requires a You to "become," meaning to become an I (and not a thing). Neither prior knowledge (experience) nor imagination enters this relation, and no purpose exists between I and You. If I encounters only It, then I never becomes a complete human being.
  • True meetings of persons occur in the space between turning another person into an object of perception and experience (It) and simply discerning another person in the present moment without knowledge of either past or future. In saying so, Buber acknowledges that people cannot help but objectify because they are operating in a phenomenal world, but the meeting of persons occurs in those moments in which we suspend judgment and personal projection.
  • Only as the You becomes present does presence come into being. That is to say, the I in the I-It pair is surrounded by contents, or experience, and must necessarily live in the past. (I-It encompasses I-He or I-She.) On the other hand, presence "confronts us, waiting and enduring." While our ability to stay in the present may be fleeting, presence itself is not.
  • A genuine meeting of persons occurs only in the true present, which Buber defines as that moment in which the I, existing in the present without preconceived objects or ideas, confronts the Other who is also existing in the present.
  • This meeting of I and You is the basis of love. While feelings dwell in a person, a person dwells in love.
  • Love involves taking responsibility for another as a You so that lover and beloved, no matter what kind of loving relation they are engaged in, are rendered equal on the soul level. In such a relation there is reciprocity, in which the I acts on the You and vice versa.
  • "The Between," in Buber's view, is the realm in which I-You encounters take place.
  • Taking one's stance in the Between is how one responds to a You: with authentic responsibility, which is also love.
  • Buber calls the "sublime melancholy" of human beings the fact that every You cannot help but become an It in the world. I-You lasts only until You becomes another object, even one that is most cherished.
  • "Genuine contemplation never lasts long," Buber says, and the natural being revealed in the Between once again becomes something that can be analyzed.
  • Primitive people live in a world of relation. Buber equates the idea of mana—mystical or spiritual power so named by Polynesian people—with the original meaning of Brahman, the Sanskrit word for "One Ultimate Reality," as well as with spiritual concepts like grace found in early Christianity.
  • A primitive person's understanding of spiritual power in the world and a feeling of connection with it are the precursors of the You. The development of "I" begins when a person steps outside of relation with the world and perceives what is outside of themselves as objects of human consciousness.
  • Thus, the first I-It word of separation is spoken, and a person becomes aware of their awareness.
  • At the same time, humans do not lose their inborn longing for relation, which forces them to turn back toward their feeling of connection with the power of You inside them. As human beings mature, I-You relations become possible with what is outside of individuals, particularly with other people.
  • In summary, "man becomes an I through a You." At first the You is internal, but it eventually breaks its bonds and "confronts its detached self for a moment like a You—and then it takes possession of itself," entering the realm of self-consciousness.
  • Next, the self-conscious I uses objects for itself. The It-world is necessary for people to live, for it offers stimulation, activity, and knowledge. However, if a person lives only in the It-world, they can never be fully human.
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