homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!

I and You: a short appreciation of Martin Buber’s ‘Ich und Du’

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

When I was in college, I was crazy about Martin Buber. Well, really, I was crazy about Friedrich Nietzsche, and I was dating an evangelical Christian, provisionally going to her church, so I needed a way to put the two together. Buber’s book Ich und Du (I and Thou) was it.

It’s tricky to translate, in one of those “here are some basic differences between English and German” ways. German has two pronouns for you; “du” is the informal one, “sie” the plural or formal. “Sie” is also a third-person pronoun. But “du” is the way you address God, so it winds up turning into “thou.” Still, there’s nothing all that archaic about “du”; you’d call your pets “du.” Kind of like how Freud’s “ich” and “es” become “ego” and “id,” but are really just “I” and “it.” It’s a weird bit of business.

Anyways, Aeon has a new essay on Buber’s I and Thou by a grad student, MM Owen, that’s making me think of picking up Buber again. Here’s his breakdown of the basic insight.

Human existence is fundamentally interpersonal. Human beings are not isolated, free-floating objects, but subjects existing in perpetual, multiple, shifting relationships with other people, the world, and ultimately God. Life is defined by these myriad interactions ­- by the push and pull of intersubjectivity. This conception ties to Buber’s belief in the primacy of the spoken word. One of his life’s great projects was the 37-year process of producing an idiosyncratic German translation of the Bible wherein, to do justice to its oral roots, the text was divided into ‘breath measures’. For Buber, the act of speech embodied the deep-set interrelatedness of human beings. In speech, as in life, no ‘I’ is an island.

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook - typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche - as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’