It, You, and What Else?

Reflections on Martin Buber’s vision

By Ran Lahav

As we have seen in the first two videos on Martin Buber, Buber envisions a transformation of our relationships to others: from I-It relations toI-You relations. In other words, instead of relating to others as objects, as things that are external to me, I now relate to them through a full togetherness. This new relationshipis authentic, and it gives authenticity and meaning to my life.

But an important issue arises here: Buber insists, in his book I-Thou, that such a transformation is always temporary.

I-You relations are limited to special moments. They may last a few minutes or hours, but then the togetherness stops, and I go back to the usual I-It mode. This is because to be in I-You means to be fully in the present, and I cannot be in the present all the time. Moreover, the world of I-You has no history, no order and structure, and practically speaking, I cannot survive in it for too long.

However, Buber also suggests that I-You momentshave a long-term influence. As he says (page 82): These moments are immortal, none are more transitory. They leave no content that could be preserved, but their force enters into the creation and into the person’s knowledge, and the radiation of its force penetrates the ordered world and melts it again and again

In other words, when my I-You relation ends—after ten minutes, or thirty minutes, or two hours—I do not return to my previous state. Rather, the episode somehow enriches me even after it has ended.It leaves me with something valuable.

But what is this ‘something’? What is the long-term impact of an I-You episode? How do I now benefit from the fact that two days ago I was in I-You?

Buber’s answer is: The momentary I-You gives me knowledge. I now know that this person (or animal, or plant, etc.) is a You, even if I am no longer in touch with it. I have glimpsed into the hidden world of I-You, and this glimpse has changed my attitudes and behaviors, because I now have a vision that inspires me.From now on I will treat another person as a You, even though I am not presently in the I-You mode, and I will stand ready to become a You for him. After all, says Buber, in order to act in a practical way—to help suffering people, for example, or to work towards a just society, or to educate children—I must be in an I-It world much of the time.Nevertheless, in my practical activityI will “bear witness” to the I-You.

Let us now reflect on Buber’s explanation of what remains after an I-You episode: Is this explanation satisfying?

I must say that I don’t find completely satisfying the idea that I-You moments give us only a memory, only abstract knowledge. I find it unreasonable to think that after I-You happensI go back to my previous world of things, of Its. It seems to me, rather, that an I-You episode may change me in more profound ways than simply giving me a memory. It can open me beyond myself to other people; it can take me beyond my self-centeredness; it can make me receptive and responsive towards others in new ways. After an I-You episode ends, I am no longer in I-You, but neither am I back to I-It.

However, this profound change has no place within the framework of Buber’s philosophy, because his philosophy is based on a sharp dichotomy: There is I-You and there is I-It, and there is nothing in between.It follows that if I am no longer in I-You, I must be completely in I-It.

I suggest, therefore, that we reject this dichotomy. Why not recognize that there are additional types of relationship between those two extremes? Why only two types?

If I am right, then although Buber’s philosophy is deep and insightful, it is not complete. We need to acknowledge more types of relations, a broader range of basic relationships. Buber’s philosophy is an important reminder that our identity depends on our relations, and that in everyday life we move between two extreme poles, the world of Yous and the world of Its. But the area in between those two extremes still needs to be investigated and charted.

[The quotes are from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Martin Buber’s I-Thou, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1970]