23 November 2013

PlayBook: I and Thou by Martin Buber

Some ideas are difficult to express with only one word. For example, some clocks merely tick while others tick-tock. Even as you read this, you can hear the different sounds in your head. Take a second:

Tick, tick, tick, tick

(Pause. Clear your head. Ready?)

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock

There’s a difference and I am compelled to make the distinction by using a single word for the first sound while using a hyphenated word for the other. I suppose I could use a string of words to describe the latter idea, but it conveys a denser meaning to use the shorter hyphenated form. I say tick-tock and you instantly know what I mean.

Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher, has written a short but brilliant treatise that asserts the world in which we live is an entirely hyphenated world. Existence is intrinsically relational—whether that relation is with nature, other people or God.

The title of the book is I and Thou but it could have also been titled I-Thou or I-It.

To say the word “I” presupposes an “other” to whom (or which) we relate. We cannot say “I” without having some other thing or person form the context that gives meaning to that “I”.  Here, I’ll try it.

“I ran.”

At first, it seems the sentence is devoid of any referent. Beside the “I” there is no other object or person directly mentioned.

But try to imagine “running” without the ground. Or try to imagine “running” without an origin or destination. We do not run to nowhere. Even nowhere is somewhere. And we cannot run on or in nothing. If you imagine running in the sky, you are still running in something. Even nothing is something. The statement “I ran” begs the question:

“to whom?” Or

“on what?” Or
“in what?”

Even the sentence “I am” is unimaginable without referent. We know no “I” without another thing or person. I can never escape the fact that I am conditioned by other people or things. The world in which we live is a world of relation. It is quite literally defined by relation. Even the concept of non-being can only be construed in juxtaposition to the idea of being. Ironically, nothing needs something.

To express this metaphysic of relation, Martin Buber says we may describe how we live in this world with two “primary words.” As one would expect in a world of relation, the words in question can only be expressed as hyphenated words (like the word tick-tock). Buber says the “primary words” to describe this world of relation are twofold:



Don’t let your eyes deceive you. You are not looking at three separate words here. Buber is not saying the world is composed of…


No, we live according to one of two paradigms: an I-Thou paradigm or an I-It paradigm.

Either way, there is relation signified in each “primary word.” The two primary words are used to express distinctions in the characteristics of each respective relation.

In I-It the relation can be described as a Subject-Object relation. In I-Thou we have two Subjects in relation. Think of Buber’s ideas as “a grammar of existence.”

The word “I-It” denotes a way of living that treats other things or people as Objects. The word “I-Thou” expresses a way of living that regards everything and everyone as holy, mysterious, and uncontrollable. That person in front of me in the checkout line at the supermarket is a person: I can encounter them but I can never fully understand them. They are not an Object to be controlled; they are a Person to be loved. My response to this mystery evokes awe and reverence for the other. I can only describe them as a “Thou” because of this—and their “Thou-ness” makes me keenly aware of my own mystery. This way of relating to others manifests a reality that is hard to describe because of its immense beauty. If we were to describe it with a single word, we’d have to resort to Buber’s “primary word”:  I-Thou.

Here’s how Buber puts it: “All real living is meeting.” (26)

“Individuality makes its appearance by being differentiated from other individualities. A person makes his appearance by entering into relation with other persons.” (67)

From this simple grammar Buber draws profound, far-reaching conclusions. Even our relation to so-called objects (such as a tree, a mountain, the ocean, or a pebble) is affected. If we regard each “object” reverently we can establish an “I-Thou” relation even with a small daffodil. The pursuit of scientific progress is affected by this posture; gaining knowledge in order to control changes an I-Thou posture to an I-It posture.

Our pursuit of profit-making is changed; our relation to money can no longer be colored by greed when we respect both the constructive and destructive potential of amassing wealth.

Buber saw first-hand what happens when political philosophies are colored by an I-It relation: he was one of the German-Jewish academics persecuted by Hitler’s Nazi regime. He personally witnessed an imposition of the rule of law for the sake of controlling others and extinguishing divergent ideas. Whole systems of government flow from either I-It or I-Thou relations. Often, entire nations experience periods when they fluctuate between the two realities. We catch glimpses of I-Thou relations only to have hope diminished when I-It takes over.

These two primary words have implications for interpersonal relationships as well. Parental and spousal relations come to mind immediately. Having been married for 22 years, I’ve seen first-hand that I can never fully understand my wife, nor control her. She is holy and mysterious. I encounter her but I can never master her. When I try to control her, I treat her as an object, a thing, an It. But she is a Thou. She herself is her own I and the only way to revere her “Thou-ness” is to let her be an I.

In this relation, I discover another mystery: When I move from I-Thou to I-It in relating to another person I see that my “I-ness” is also changed. Buber puts it this way: “The I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.” (67)

In the case of the former, the I is expansive, gracious, joyful, free and freeing. In the case of the latter, the I is small, petty, controlling, lustful and untrusting.

The difference is made when we live in grace. Buber again: “Grace concerns us in so far as we go out to it and persist in its presence; but it is not our object.” (78) Even grace cannot be controlled. In fact, when we try to control grace, grace ceases to be grace for us.

We try to control grace, however, because we fear the hurt that may come with living in free grace. When we encounter the other just as they are, we must admit, it will sometimes hurt. Living by the  I-Thou relation always carries two uncontrollable sides to it: “The Thou confronts me. But I step into direct relation with it. Hence the relation means being chosen and choosing, suffering and action in one…” (78)

So, there are implications for the world of people and things. We discover that even “things” are not just “things” when we see them through I-Thou eyes.

This is even true of that Person or Thing which our eyes cannot see. So, Buber speaks of God: “Many men wish to reject the word God as a legitimate usage, because it is so misused. It is indeed the most heavily laden of all the words used by men. For that very reason it is the most imperishable and most indispensable. What does all mistaken talk about God’s being and works…matter in comparison with the one truth that all men who have addressed God had God Himself in mind?” (77)

Even atheists believe in God, Buber states: “But when he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be godless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses God.” (78)

“Believers”, on the other hand, have a different set of misconceptions to overcome in order to embrace the “Thou-ness” of God. On the one hand, believers often seek to divide God from the world (dualism). On the other hand, some believers speak of “seeking God in (or by) the world” (pantheism). Both, in fact, establish an I-It relation with God, Buber says. God (the only I whose I-Thou way of being never fluctuates) is the One who is ever-near but who cannot be caught or controlled.  We encounter God but we can never fully understand God. For this reason, Buber asserts that it is more accurate to say that “the world is in God” than to say that “God is in the world.” This means that wherever we go we encounter God, but God is not someone we can put in a box. Buber describes this phenomenon eloquently:

“He who enters on the absolute relation is concerned with nothing isolated any more, neither things nor beings, neither earth nor heaven; but everything is gathered up in the relation. For to step into pure relation is not to disregard everything but to see everything in the Thou, not to renounce the world but to establish it on its true basis. To look away from the world, or to stare at it, does not help a man to reach God; but he who sees the world in Him stands in His presence. ‘Here world, there God’ is the language of It; ‘God in the world’ is another language of It;…but to…include the whole world in the Thou…this is full and complete relation….

“Of course God is the ‘wholly Other’; but He is also the wholly Same, the wholly Present. Of course He is the Mysterium Tremendum that appears and overthrows; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.

“If you explore the life of things and of conditioned being you come to the unfathomable, if you deny the life of things and of conditioned being you stand before nothingness, if you hallow this life you meet the living God.” (80-81)

Because of this, Buber describes the practice of the  I-Thou relation as prayer. “Two great servants pace through the ages, prayer and sacrifice. The man who prays pours himself out in unrestrained dependence, and knows that he has—in an incomprehensible way—an effect upon God, even though he obtains nothing from God…” (83)

Notice that the I-Thou relation is distinct from the idea of absorption. There is a sense of Otherness to the giving-and-receiving unity. Buber cites Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John when Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of the Father” while also saying “I am Thou and Thou art I.” “The Father and the Son, like in being…are the indissolubly real pair, the bearers of the primal relation, which from God to man is termed mission and command, from man to God looking and hearing, and between both is termed knowledge and love. In this relation the Son, though the Father dwells and works in him, bows down before the ‘greater’ and prays to him.” (85)

The two are distinct, yet one in relation. The Father and Son form a single word; in Buber’s grammar that word is I-Thou.

It is what we long for: a world in which people and things can be distinct and free but one in love. PlayFull describes this metaphysical aspiration as play. It is why we do what we do, to help people relinquish the desire to make Its of Thous, to play together. It is why our mission states we want to help others “play from the inside-out”—for play is ultimately a process of the heart.


Our PlayBook series features short reviews of books we recommend to help others lead playful lives. Click here for a list of otherPlayBook reviews and thank you for reading.

Quotations above are from:

Buber, Martin. I and Thou (New York, Scribner: 1986) 

1 comment:

  1. Troy, very good review of Buber's book! Thank you for applying his insights.