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Martin Buber: I and Thou (extracts)

To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks. [+] Comment

Comment [BS1]

As human beings we always relate to world, we are never just an I, we are always either I-It our I-Thou – depending on our attitude towards the world (things, animals, human beings, spiritual entities – if we believe in such).

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words. The one primary word is the combination I-Thou. The other primary word is the combination I-It (…). Hence the I of man is also twofold. For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.

Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations. Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence. Primary words are spoken from the being. If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it. If It is said the I of the combination I-It is said along with it. The primary world I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being. (…)

The life of human beings is not passed in the sphere of transitive verbs alone. It does not exist in virtue of activities alone which have some thing for their object. I perceive something. I am sensible of something. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think something. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone. This and the like together establish the realm of It. But the realm of Thou has a different basis. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.

It is said that man experiences his world. What does that mean? Man travels over the surface of things and experiences them. He extracts knowledge about their constitution from them: he wins an experience from them. He experiences what belongs to things. But the world is not presented to man by experiences alone. These present him only with a world composed of It and He and She and It again. I experience something. (…) O accumulation of information. It, always It! [+] Comment

Comment [BS2]

Here we kind of see in a different way the difference between a thick and a thin description. A thin description categorizes, stigmatizes, it explains things in terms of typologies. It tries to find rules. A thick description wants to understand the meaning that can never be fully understood.

The man who experiences has not part in the world. For it is “in him” and not between him and the world that the experience arises. The world has no part in the experience. It permits itself to the experienced, but has no concern in the matter. For it does nothing to the experience, ant the experience does nothing to it.

As experience, the world belongs to the primary word I-It. The primary world I-Thou establishes the world of relation.

[+] Comment

Comment [BS3]

Here comes Buber's great example of the tree. Based on his consideration of a tree he illustrates the difference of I-It and I-Thou. Can you see, hear, realize the distinction reading this passage?

I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, such of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air - and the obscure growth itself. I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life. I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law – of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and separate. I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation. In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution. It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree is now longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. To effect this it is not necessary for me to give up any of the ways in which I consider the tree. There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisible united in this event. Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole. The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it – only in a different way. Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual. The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad

Comment [BS4]

Dryads are tree nymphs in Greek mythology – mostly in relation to oak trees.

of the tree, but the tree itself.

[+] Comment

Comment [BS5]

Do you remember similar experiences in your life? Where did you encounter I-Thou moments or where did you experience I-It? Try to think of specific incidents (When? Where? With whom? How did you feel? What values could or couldn't you live? Who were you? What did those experiences do for you? How did they impact you?).

What was characteristic for those I-It and I-Thou moments?

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things. Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exist except himself. But all else lives in his light. Just as a melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the colour of his hair, or of his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou. [+] Comment

Comment [BS6]

We can set categories for cultures (like Geert Hofsteede's cultural dimensions) but that doesn't completely or fully explain what that particular person in that particular culture is all about. Another author who challenges the reductionist division of people by race, religion, culture and class is Amartya Sen (Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny).

And just as prayer is not in time but in prayer, sacrifice not in space but space in sacrifice, and to reverse the relations is to abolish reality, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I do not meet with him at some time and place or other. I can set him in particular time and place; I must continually do it: but I set only a He or a She, that is an It, no longer my Thou. So long as the heaven of Thou is spread out over me the winds of causality cower at my heels, and the whirlpool of fate stays its course. I do not experience the man to whom I say Thou. But I take my stand in relation to him, in the sanctity of the primary word. Only when I step out of it do I experience him once more. In the act of experience Thou is far away. Even if the man to whom I say Thou is not aware of it in the midst of his experience, yet relation may exist. For Thou is more that It realises. No deception penetrates here; here is the cradle of Real Life. (…)

  • What, then, do we experience of Thou?
    • Just nothing. For we do not experience it.
    • What then, do we know of Thou?
    • Just everything. For we know nothing isolated about it anymore.

The Thou meets me through grace – it is not found by seeking. But my speaking of the primary world to it is an act of my being, is indeed the act of my being. The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it. Hence the relation means being chosen and choosing, suffering and action in one; just as any action of the whole being, which means the suspension of all partial actions and consequently of all sensations of actions grounded only in their particular limitation, is bound to resemble suffering. The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou. All real living is meeting. [+] Comment

Comment [BS7]

It is up to us how we want to encounter otherness! In order to understand we have to be courageous enough to open up (usually things we are not familiar with are threatening). We have to have the attitude of I-Thou. We have to speak I-Thou with our whole being...).

The relation to the Thou is direct. No system of ideas, no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between I and Thou. The memory itself is transformed, as it plunges out of its isolation into the unity of the whole. No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou. [+] Comment

Comment [BS8]

That means letting go of preconceived notion about another culture – that can be hard because we learned so much – consciously and unconsciously… Especially when it comes to conflict resolution we have to try to see the human being, not what we learned about the culture we he or she comes from.

Desire itself is transformed as it plunges out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about. (…)

The present, and by that is meant not the point which indicates from time to time in our thought merely the conclusion of “finished” time, the mere appearance of a termination which is fixed and held, but the real, filled present, exists only in so far as actual presentness, meeting, and relation exist. The present arises only in virtue of the fact that the Thou becomes present. The I of the primary word I-It, that is the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of “contents”, has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been. The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring. The object is not duration, but cessation, suspension, a breaking off and cutting clear and hardening, absence of relation and of being present. True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past. [+] Comment (…)

Comment [BS9]

Again, here Buber challenges us to let go of old concepts, of categories we use to order and understand our world and to open up that the other can enter the realm of relation, can be present and present him/herself in her/his own right.

But the mankind of mere It that is imagined, postulated, and propagated by such a man 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. (…) The man who leaves the primary word unspoken is to be pitied; but the man who addresses instead there ideas with an abstraction of a password, as if it were their name, is contemptible. (…)

This is part of the basic truth of the human world, that only It can be arranged in order. Only when things, from being our Thou, become our It, can they be co-ordinated. The Thou knows no system of co-ordination. But now that we have come so far, it is necessary to set down the other part of the basic truth, without which this would be a useless fragment – namely a world that is ordered is not the world-order. [+] Comment

Comment [BS10]

It is important for us to be able to order our world, to find explanations, to categorize. However we have to be careful to think that a world ordered it the world order. Sometimes we believe so much in our explanations about other people that we don't give them room to show who they really are.

The world of It is set in the context of space and time. The world of Thou is not set in the context of either of these. The particular Thou, after the relational event has run its course, is bound to become an It. The particular It, be entering by entering the relational event, may become a Thou. These are the two basic privileges of the world of It. They move man to look on the world of It as the world in which he has to live, and in which it is comfortable to live, as the world, indeed, which offers him all manner of incitements and excitements, activity and knowledge. In this chronicle of solid benefits the moments of the Thou appear as 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 – in short, uncanny moments we can well dispense with. For since we are bound to leave them and go back into the “world”, why not remain in it? Why not call to order what is over against us, and send it packing into the realm of objects? Why, if we find ourselves on occasion with no choice but to say Thou to father, wife, or comrade, not say Thou and mean It? To utter the sound Thou with the vocal organs is by no means the same as saying the uncanny primary word; more, it is harmless to whisper with the soul an amorous Thou, so long as nothing else in a serious way is meant but experience and make use of. It is not possible to live in the bare present, indeed only in it may life be organised. We only need to fill each moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn. And in all the seriousness of truth, hear this: without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.

Comment [BS11]

Deep, irreducible difference, is crucial for the development of our identity. “Through the Thou a man becomes I”, writes Buber. Therefore we are always responsible for the other – and we must protect what frightens us.

[+] Comment

Comment [BS12]

In how far could Buber's dialogical principle, the tension between I-It and I-Thou, be of help to understand difference and encounter conflict in meaningful ways?


Martin Buber: I and Thou (2nd edition, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith). New York/USA 1958: Charles Scribner's Sons, extracts of part one, pp. 3-34


Summary: Buber's Dialogical Principle, the two attitudes toward otherness

Human beings exist always in relation. We can have two attitudes, to ways to relate: I-It and I-Thou. I-It is important to order our world, to make sense of what we experience, to explain what we encounter. We categorize. We need I-It to utilise things. The world, however, is more. Only through I-Thou moments do we realise who we are as unique human beings. Only through entering the realm of the Thou will be able to understand otherness – it can't be reduced to theories about them.

Example: There are many theories of Muslims about Christians and many notions of Christians what Muslims are all about. People view each other in light of those reductionistic understandings. That only deepens the gulf between cultures and traditions (see Samuel Huntington's book of the Clash of Civilisations) instead of seeing the uniquely human face that can't be categorized or cut down to seize. We are more than culture, race or religion.

Further questions for your preparation for the one day workshop:

Having studied two challenging theories please carefully read the following questions in preparation for the face to face portion of the course.

  1. What is culture for you? Metaphor, Saying, Image? What comes to mind (emotion) first?
  2. What is conflict for you? Metaphor, Saying, Image? What comes to mind (emotion) first?
  3. What values do you have around culture and conflict?
  4. How do you typically deal with conflict ? How did you learn how to deal with conflict? How does your culture traditionally deal with conflict? In how far does that influence you?
  5. Where (to whom) would you go when you when confronted with conflict? Why would you go there? What is it that makes you trust that person will be able to help you?
  6. Can you think of a scenario (typical case that you may encounter) where you would have liked to know how to deal with difference and conflict (arising out of that). In what kind of scenarios you think this course could help you to deal with difference and conflict?

We invite you to share your questions, comments and impressions on the “Questions and Comments” Wiki page.

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