Buber's I-Thou Insight

"The 'I-It' relationship is characterized by the fact that it is not a genuine relationship because it does not take place between the I and the It. When another person is an It to me, I am, first of all, perfectly alone. I gaze at him and view him from every possible direction, I observe his place in the scheme of things, and I find elements that distinguish him from them. All of this, however, takes place within me; I am judging and I am observing, and the external world is relevant only to the extent that it enters my being."

-- Michael Wyschogrod, Essay on Buber

One of the best synopses of Buber's thinking, and of his chief work Ich und Du in particular, can be found in Michael Wyschogrod's essay in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1 (New York, 1967). Below is an excerpt of Professor Wyschogrod's article.

"Buber's basic insight, an insight that runs through all of his work and that determines his approach to everything he touches, is the realization that there is a basic difference between relating to a thing or to an object which I observe, and to a person or a 'Thou' that addresses me and to whose address I respond. In its simplest form, this is the difference between the way people usually relate to inanimate things on the one hand and to living persons on the other. Inanimate objects are watched, while persons are spoken to.

"However, the distinction cannot be drawn simply on this basis. A person as well as an inanimate thing can be viewed as a thing, or, in Buber's terminology, an 'It.' Whenever we take an 'objective' attitude toward a person, whenever we view him as part of the world and caught in its causal chain, we are in an 'I-It' relationship, even though the object happens to be a person. The 'I-It' relationship is characterized by the fact that it is not a genuine relationship because it does not take place between the I and the It. When another person is an It to me, I am, first of all, perfectly alone. I gaze at him and view him from every possible direction, I observe his place in the scheme of things, and I find elements that distinguish him from them. All of this, however, takes place within me; I am judging and I am observing, and the external world is relevant only to the extent that it enters my being.

"It is otherwise in the 'I-Thou' relationship. Here the relationship is genuine because it is between me and the Thou that addresses me. This Thou is no longer one thing among other things of the universe; the whole universe is seen in the light of the Thou, and not the Thou in the light of the universe...the I of the I-It is a different I from that of the I-Thou because it is not the I as such that has pre-eminent reality, but the relations of I-It and I-Thou. The I appears and is shaped only in the context of some relationship with either an It or a Thou and can never be viewed independently of such a relationship.

"Buber further states that the I-It relationship is maintained with only part of ourselves in it. There is always a part of us that remains outside the relationship and views it from some vantage point. In the I-Thou relationship, on the other hand, our whole being must be involved. Should I attempt to hold back any part of myself, I will find myself in an I-It situation because there will be a part of me that is not participant but spectator, a sure sign of the I-It. This means that the I-Thou relationship carries with it much greater risk than the I-It, since there is no withholding of the self possible, as in the I-It. In the I-It situation the part of the self that remains outside the relationship cannot be injured by the other party because he cannot reach it. In the I-Thou relationship there is no such security because the Thou of the I is addressed with the whole of the I, and any response elicited necessarily pertains to this total I. In the I-Thou relationship, therefore, everything possible is risked without any defensive position being left to which the I can withdraw in case of need."

 

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A Complaint Against Intellectuals

 

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