My Experience with the I and Thou reading by Martin Buber

Martin Buber was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist, and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between “I-Thou” and “I-It” modes of existence. One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships.  My first encounter with Martin Buber’s writing was in reading the World Youth Alliance Certified Training Program, in Chapter 2. This chapter basically explores the concept of human dignity. The idea of the dignity of the person is the foundation of the human rights project and is at the core of the work of World Youth Alliance.

My first encounter with Martin Buber’s writing on the I and thou relationship was quite confusing as I did not understand what exactly he was talking about, as philosophy was not my forte.  However, as I re-read the dialogue I slowly understood what he was trying to portray in a bigger picture using words like I-Thou and I-It

I –Thou

‘Thou’ does not stand for God as many would initially assume this, rather ’Thou’ refers to ‘You’ the presence of uniqueness and wholeness in a person that is the outcome of genuine listening and responding. The I –Thou relationship is a two sided affair when both the individuals enter into the conversation with their unique whole being.

“ The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.”
― Martin Buber, I and Thou

The relationship is reciprocal, yielding, and momentary leads to clarity and lacks permanency. I –Thou establishes a world of relation and is always in the present, that which is happening (an event).

I –Thou relationships occur during relations with nature, humans or with spiritual beings. It arises both at moments of genuine dialogue or indifference.
I –It

‘It’ can also refer to ‘he’ or ‘she’. It regards others as objects with which one interacts to gain knowledge or experience. The focus is on conceptualizing, manipulating and accumulating things. The relationship is one–sided, there is control and occurs in space and time. I–It establishes a world of experience and is rooted in the past.

“True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is lived in the past.”

Buber believes that these two basic word pairs are essential to understanding how one responds or communicates to another. I refer to one or the other life stands that we take in a conversation. Both the basic modes are necessary and the act of choosing one or another when responding to someone contributes to building a world of meaning. I do not exist by itself. It takes on a form based on its relation with elements outside itself (the other). The other is viewed as the wholly ‘Thou’ or the objectified ‘It.’

Therefore after understanding all what Martin Buber actually meant in his writing, it is highly evident that one never says “I” in isolation but always in or as some kind of relation. In simple words, Buber recognizes that the value of an individual is revealed through his relationships with others. Chapter 2 of WYA’s Certified Training Program, therefore, is fundamental to understanding and articulating the concept of the dignity of the person.

Written by Leila Kamweru, a batch 1 2017 intern at the WYA Africa regional office.