I and Thou

Martin Buber

Book cover

When rating “I and Thou,” I can’t help but have in mind the story of the docent at the Uffizi who told an unimpressed tourist, “Madame, it is not the paintings that are on trial. It is you.” This book has been so influential on Protestant theologians, and it seems clear to me from reading it that Buber is a genius. That said, it is written in a very difficult style and at times I didn’t feel that I really understood what he was saying. The translator claims that the book is “untranslatable,” and I found myself reading at about half my normal rate just to try to stay with Buber.

All of that aside, though, this short book is both wonderful and deep. Part of why my reading rate slowed down is that I was constantly stopping to transcribe sentences into my notebook. (I was reading a library copy, otherwise I would have just underlined…though that certainly hadn’t stopped a previous reader of this particular copy.) Although his style is quite complex, the basic thesis of the book is pretty simple (I think): there are two types of relationships that define human experience: “I-It” and “I-You” (the “Thou” is an archaism from a prior translation that I’m glad this translator dispensed with). “I-It” is characterized by understanding your counterpart as a collection of enumerable qualities, and the world of “I-It” is the world of experience; “I-You” is characterized by being open to the fullness of the other, and the world of “I-You” is the world of relation. Buber sees the “I-You” mode as fundamentally human, and the “I-It” mode as fundamentally inhuman–though he also recognizes that it is impossible to remain continuously in the “I-You” mode. He also argues that the only proper or true relationship with God is an “I-You” relationship, and that true community only exists between those who say “You” to a common center and say “You” to one another. (Buber is Jewish, but his line of argumentation is pretty ecumenical.)

This seems to me to be basically right, and not only in the sense that I feel intellectual assent toward it, but also in the sense that I can test and observe its operation in my own life. I am an introvert by nature, and as such, when I am going into a social situation I often fret about what I’ll say or what topics we can talk about. I think this fretting is a symptom of “saying It,” and when I start feeling it, I try to remind myself that all I need to do is to say You to the other. (By the way I don’t think this is just a problem for introverts…extroverts say It in their own ways.)

It is tempting to see Buber’s argument as just another way of formulating Kant’s categorical imperative, but I think it is fundamentally different. As just one difference, there are many ways of treating another as an end in which you are still saying It to them. I think a good illustration of this can be found in debates over education reform. I see progressive educational approaches as attempts to maximize the ability of teachers to say You to their students; on the other hand, the modern charter-school model of achievement–which I believe is genuinely devoted to serving students as an end–is at heart saying It to the students.

Finally, although I can’t claim to have achieved a real “I-You” relationship with God, I do think I see what Buber is saying at work in my church. One of the things that I liked about it when I first started going is that I never felt nervous about being there, never felt like I had to justify myself, never worried about what was going to happen. Having read Buber, I would now say that this is because people there are usually (though not always) saying You to me.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars