Martin Buber (1878—1965)


Towards Fuller Relationships – Part 1

By Ran Lahav


Martin Buber, a Jewish thinker who was born in Austria and later lived in Israel, is famous for his philosophy of relationships. His writings made an impact on several fields such as philosophy, psychology, counseling, and religion. Unlike many other thinkers, Buber envisions a self-transformation that is not an inner transformation. It is not a change inside me, but rather between me and others. This is because, according to him, relationships are a central aspect of who we are. A person is never an isolated atom, but always a person-in-relation. My identity as a person is based on my relationships with my friends and family members, with colleagues and neighbors, with trees, animals, nature, even with God. These relationships are an essential part of who I am—I cannot be separated from them.

Buber distinguishes between two kinds of relationships: I-It and I-You. In I-It relations, I relate to the other person as an “It”—as a thing. I regard him as something that is out there in front of me: as something which I think about, something which I experience or know, manipulate, desire, try to help or exploit. If, for example, I think to myself: “I wonder what he is feeling now” then I am in an I-It relationship.

In contrast, I-You is a relationship of togetherness. In I-You relations I am with the other person (or with an animal, a tree, etc.). I do not try to understand him, I do not use him, I do not experience him, I do not examine him from a distance—I am in full togetherness with him, and no distance separates between us. Although we continue to be two people and not one (relationships can exist only between two different individuals), we are fully with each other. This togetherness involves my entire being, unlike I-It relations which involve only limited parts of me: only my thought for example, or only my curiosity, etc.

To understand Buber’s idea of I-You, you can think, for example, about those special moments when you sit quietly with your friend or lover. No word is spoken between you, you are not trying to impress him, to analyze him, or even to understand him—you are simply with him. To give another example, in some magical moments in nature, you are totally with the forest around you. You don’t try to identify the names of the trees, you don’t try to compare or analyze, you are simply with nature, totally, in your entire being.

Here is a relevant passage from Buber’s famous book I-Thou:

[The following texts are taken, with minor simplifications, from Walter Kaufmann’s translation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1970)]

When I meet a human being as my You, and say to him the basic word “I-You,” then he is not a thing among things, nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other “Hes” and “Shes,” a dot in the grid of space and time. He is not a condition that can be experienced and described, or a bundle of specific qualities. Neighbor-less and seamless, he is You, and he fills the entire sky. This is not to say that there is nothing except He, but everything else lives in his light.

Just as a melody is not composed of tones, and a poem is not composed of words, and a sculpture is not composed of lines (…) so it is with the human being to whom I say You. I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his kindness (…) but then he would immediately stop being You.

For Buber, in I-You relations I express my full being, and I am therefore authentic. In contrast, I-It relations are distant, fragmentary, partial, alienating. They are necessary for practical purposes—I cannot be all the time in full togetherness with every bus-driver, with every colleague, with every neighbor. But although it is impossible to maintain the I-You all the time, this relation is a source of meaning and value to all my interactions, and to my life in general. As Buber says:

Without It, a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with It, is not human.