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Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman

Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 10: All Real Living Is Meeting

The first part of I and Thou consists of an extended definition of man’s two primary attitudes and relations: ‘I-Thou’ and ‘I-It.’ These two attitudes are very similar to the ‘realization’ and ‘orientation’ of Daniel. The I of man comes into being in the act of speaking one or the other of these primary words. But the two I’s are not the same: ‘The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p.3.)

The real determinant of the primary word in which a man takes his stand is not the object which is over against him but the way in which he relates himself to that object. I-Thou is the primary word of relation. It is characterized by mutuality, directness, presentness, intensity, and ineffability. Although it is only within this relation that personality and the personal really exist, the Thou of I-Thou is not limited to men but may include animals, trees, objects of nature, and God. I-It is the primary word of experiencing and using. It takes place within a man and not between him and the world. Hence it is entirely subjective and lacking in mutuality. Whether in knowing, feeling, or acting it is the typical subject-object relationship. It is always mediate and indirect and hence is comprehensible and orderable, significant only in connection and not itself. The It of I-It may equally well be a he, a she, an animal, a thing, a spirit, or even God, without a change in the primary word. Thus I-Thou and I-It cut across the lines of our ordinary distinctions to focus our attention not upon individual objects and their causal connections but upon the relations between things, the dazwischen (‘there in-between’). Experiencing is I-It whether it is the experiencing of an object or of a man, whether it is ‘inner’ or ‘outer,’ ‘open’ or ‘secret.’ One’s life of interior feeling is in no way elevated above one’s life with the external world, nor is the occultist’s knowledge of secret mysteries anything else but the inclusion of the unseen in the world of It. ‘O secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It!’ (Ibid., p.5.)

‘The I is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly.’ What at one moment was the Thou of an I-Thou relation can become the next moment an It and indeed must continually do so. The I may again become a Thou, but it will not be able to remain one, and it need not become a Thou at all. Man can live continuously and securely in the world of It. If he only lives in this world, however, he is not a man, for ‘all real living is meeting.’ This meeting with the Thou of man and of nature is also a meeting with God. ‘In each process of becoming that is present to us . . ., in each Thou we address the eternal Thou,’ ‘the Thou in which the parallel lines of relations meet.’ This does not mean that one substitutes an abstract concept of ‘God in man’ for the concrete man before one. On the contrary, it is only when one meets a man as Thou that one really remains concrete. When one faces a human being as one’s Thou, he is no longer an object among objects, a nature which can be experienced and described, or a specific point of space and time. ‘But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., pp. 17, 11, 6, 8.)

In the meeting with the Thou, man is no longer subject to causality and fate, for both of these are handmaidens of the ordered world of continuity and take their meaning from it. It does not even matter if the person to whom the Thou is said is the It for other I’s or is himself unaware of the relation. The I-Thou relation interpenetrates the world of It without being determined by it, for meeting is not in space and time but space and time in meeting. ‘Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about.’ Though I-Thou continually becomes I-It, it exists during the moment of meeting as direct and directly present. ‘No deception penetrates here; here is the cradle of the Real Life.’ (Ibid., pp. 12, 9.)

The present of the I-Thou relation is not the abstract point between past and future that indicates something that has just happened but ‘the real, filled present.’ Like the ‘eternal now’ of the mystic, it is the present of intensity and wholeness, but it is not found within the soul. It exists only in so far as meeting and relation exist. In contrast, the I of I-It experiences a moment, but his moment has no present content since it is filled with experiencing and using. His actions only have meaning for him when they are completed, for they are always means and never ends in themselves. Similarly, he knows objects only when they are installed in the ordered world of the past, for he has no interest in their uniqueness but only in their relations to other things through which he can use them. (Ibid., p.12 f.)

The experiencing of It is planned and purposeful. Yet the man who experiences It does not go out of himself to do so, and the It does not respond but passively allows itself to be experienced. The Thou, on the other hand, cannot be sought, for it meets one through grace. Yet the man who knows Thou must go out to meet the Thou and step into direct relation with it, and the Thou responds to the meeting. Man can only enter relation with the whole being; yet it is through the relation, through the speaking of Thou, that concentration and fusion into the whole being takes place. ‘As I become I, I say Thou.’ This relation means suffering and action in one, suffering because one must be chosen as well as choose and because in order to act with the whole being one must suspend all partial actions. (Ibid.,p. 11)

Ideas are not outside or above man’s twofold attitude of I-Thou and I-It, nor can they take the place of Thou. ‘Ideas are no more enthroned above our heads than resident in them.’ They are between man and what is over against him. ‘The real boundary for the actual man cuts right across the world of ideas as well.’ Though many men retire into a world of ideas as a refuge and repose from the experience and use of the world of things, the mankind which they there imagine is no less an It and ‘has nothing in common with a living mankind where Thou may truly be spoken.’ ‘The noblest fiction is a fetish, the loftiest fictitious sentiment is depraved.’ (Ibid., p. 13 f.)

Similarly, the act of relation is not emotion or feeling, which remains within the I. Pure relation is love between the I and the Thou. Feelings accompany love, but they do not constitute it. ‘Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love.’ And the Thou dwells in love as well as the I, for love ‘does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its "content," its object.’ To the man who loves, people are set free from their qualities as good or evil, wise or foolish and confront him in their singleness as Thou. Hence love is not the enjoyment of a wonderful emotion, not even the ecstasy of a Tristan and Isolde, but the ‘responsibility of an I for a Thou.’ (Ibid., p. 14 f.)

Hate sees only a part of a being. If a man sees a whole being and still hates, he is no longer in relation but in I-It, for to say Thou to a man means to affirm his being. ‘Yet the man who straightforwardly hates is nearer to relation than the man without hate and love.’ (Ibid p. 16.) Such a man really has in mind the person whom he hates as distinct from the man whose hatred and love does not mean its object but is void of real intention. (I am indebted to Professor Buber for this interpretation.) The world of the primitive man, even if it was a hell of anguish and cruelty, was preferable to a world without relation because it was real. ‘Rather force exercised on being that is really lived than shadowy solicitude for faceless numbers! From the former a way leads to God, from the latter only one to nothingness.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p 24.) Thus though a full I-Thou relationship can only mean love, it is better to hate men than to treat them entirely as objects to be known or made use of.

I-It is not to be regarded as simply evil, however. It is only the reliability of its ordered and surveyable world which sustains man in life. One cannot meet others in it, but only through it can one make oneself ‘understood’ with others. The I-Thou relation, similarly, is not an unqualified good. In its lack of measure, continuity, and order it threatens to be destructive of life. The moments of the Thou are ‘strange lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes, loosening the well-tried context, leaving more questions than satisfaction behind them, shattering security.’ Yet the moments of the Thou do what I-It can never do. Though not linked up with one another, each is a sign of the world order and an assurance of solidarity with the world. The Thou comes to bring man out to presentness and reality. If it does not meet one, it vanishes and returns in another form. It is the ‘soul of the soul’ which stirs within the depths. Yet to remove it into the soul is to annihilate it. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it. ‘But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them.... It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity.’ (Ibid., p. 33 f.)

The child must find for himself his own world, says Buber, through seeing, hearing, touching, and shaping it. This world is not there ready-made. It rises to meet his senses, thus revealing the essential nature of creation as form. In this process the effort to establish relation (with a Teddy-bear, a tea-pot, it does not matter) comes first and is followed by the actual relation, a saying of Thou without words. Only later is the relation split apart into the I and the thing. Hence ‘in the beginning is relation,’ ‘the inborn Thou’ which is realized by the child in the lived relations with what meets it. The fact that he can realize what is over against him as Thou is based on the a priori of relation, that is, the potentiality of relation which exists between him and the world. Through this meeting with the Thou he gradually becomes I. Finally, however, he loses his relation with the Thou and perceives it as a separated object, as the It of an I which has itself shrunk to the dimensions of a natural object. (Ibid., pp. 25-28)

Thus in the silent or spoken dialogue between the I and the Thou both personality and knowledge come into being. Unlike the subject-object knowledge of the I-It relation, the knowing of the I-Thou relation takes place neither in the ‘subjective’ nor the ‘objective,’ the emotional nor the rational, but in the ‘between’ -- the reciprocal relationship of whole and active beings. Similarly, personality is neither simply an individual matter nor simply a social product, but a function of relationship. Though we are born ‘individuals,’ in the sense of being different from others, we are not born persons. Our personalities are called into being by those who enter into relation with us. This does not mean either that a person is merely a cell in a social organism. To become a person means to become someone who responds to what happens from a centre of inwardness.

To be fully real the I-Thou relation must be mutual. This mutuality does not mean simple unity or identity, nor is it any form of empathy. Though I-Thou is the word of relation and togetherness, each of the members of the relation really remains himself, and that means really different from the other. Though the Thou is not an It, it is also not ‘another I.’ He who treats a person as ‘another I’ does not really see that person but only a projected image of himself. Such a relation, despite the warmest ‘personal’ feeling, is really I-It.

In the German original the I-It relation is the Ich-Es Verhältnis, the I-Thou relation the Ich-Du Beziehung. This difference between Verhältnis and Beziehung, though not carried over in the English translation, is important in indicating the two stages of Buber’s insight into man -- first, that he is to be understood, in general, in terms of his relationships rather than taken in himself; second, that he is to be understood specifically in terms of that direct, mutual relation that makes him human. (Cf. Philip Wheelwright, ‘Buber’s Philosophical Anthropology,’ in Maurice Friedman and Paul Arthur Schilpp, editors, The Philosophy of Martin Buber volume of The Library of Living Philosophers [New York: Tudor Publ. Co., 1961].).

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