<< back to All Teachings

I and Thou (Talk 3 of 4)

Talk on Martin Buber's Philosophical Work "I and Thou"

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Feb 01, 2006
In topic: Philosophy
"For Buber, we are created moment by moment by what we encounter." Buber's philosophy is discussed as a "philosophy of relationship and dialogue." "Buber is saying there is no such thing as a person without a person-in-relation."
Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.


I and Thou

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Talk 3 of 4  February 1, 2006 

Abridged and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Note: When quoting Buber, Norman has substituted gender neutral language for Buber's typical use of the masculine pronoun, which was current at that time.


Buber continues his discussion of the I-You:   

This, however, is the sublime melancholy of our lot that every You must become an It in our world. However exclusively present it may have been in the direct relationship—as soon the relationship has run its course, or is permeated by means [practical considerations] the You becomes an object among objects, possibly the noblest one and yet one of them, assigned its measure and boundary. 

Remember that he talks about the I – You relationship as the totality of the universe. There is an exclusivity in the relationship of that moment. In the I – You there is no boundary. 

Buber writes, “The actualization of the work involves a loss of actuality.” Here, he is talking about an art work or the equivalent. You are in the I – You relationship when you are making art. Once you actualize it, you finish it, and it becomes another object in the world. So when you actualize something, it involves a loss of actuality.   

Genuine contemplation never lasts long; the natural being that only now revealed itself to me in the mystery of reciprocity has again become describable, analyzable, classifiable—the point at which manifold systems of laws intersect.  And even love cannot persist in direct relation; it endures but only in the alternation of actuality and latency.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

In Buddhist meditation texts, mental states are momentary, even though we think of them as lasting for hours. That which we love becomes, from time to time, another object in the world.

The human being who but now was unique and devoid of qualities, not at hand but only present, not experienceable, only touchable [describing the I – You moment of relationship], has again become a He or a She, an aggregate of qualities, a quantum with a shape. Now I can again abstract from him the color of his hair, of his speech, of his graciousness; but as long as I can do that he is my You no longer and not yet again. 

Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least enter into thinghood again and again. In the language of objects: every thing in the world can—either before or after it becomes a thing—appear to some I as its You. But the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life. 

The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly. Only it is not always as if these states took turns so neatly; often it is an intricately entangled series of events that is tortuously dual. 

 I think the tendency is to say, Oh darn, how come I am not able to be in the I – You all the time? Or more often? How come there is all this I – it? There must be something wrong with me?  But Buber says that this is the nature of It; this is the sublime melancholy of our lot. This is how it is for us. We do not need to evaluate how many minutes of the day we are in the You, and how many minutes of the day we are in the It; rather, that we are open to the You when it comes. When the I-You goes, and when we return to the It, as we inevitably will do, we would be forgiving of that, and we would be ready for the next encounter. 

Let’s move on to his summation of the contrast between the I-You and I-It state at the end of the first section. He says, 

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. 

He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others—an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed. 

You know this world is right there. You can feel it next to your skin. The good news is it makes sense, it’s reliable, it stands in space and time. But Buber says, ‘[the world] remains primarily alien both outside and inside you.” So even our feelings and our thoughts and perceptions, when they are part of this It-world, become alien to us. The world, “permits itself to be taken by you,” because you can manipulate it, “but it does not give itself to you.” There is no feedback; you are not in relation to it. It’s not giving you anything. It’s not in relation to you, and so it is alien. 

Without it [the It-world] you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” So we need this world, but this is the only reality for many people. And it’s not enough. 

The alternative, the second attitude, is that “[m]an encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and every thing only as a being.” Moment after moment, we confront what is in front of us. “What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically.” Just wash your bowls, right? What’s the instruction in this monastery? Just wash your bowls. In your bowls, everything is there. The entire universe is there. 

Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. The encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order. 

The world that appears to you in the I – You relationship is unreliable, because it appears always new. It is always fresh. You never know what to expect. Beginners mind. 

The world that appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it appears always as new to you, and you cannot take it by its word. It lacks density, for everything in it permeates everything else…. It cannot be surveyed: if you try to make it surveyable you lose it.  It comes— comes to fetch you—and if it does not reach you or encounter you, it vanishes, but it comes again, transformed. It does not stand outside you, it touches your ground; and if you say “soul of my soul” you have said too much.

In other words, as soon as you say, The I – You relationship is perfect, It’s already too late. You would have said too much. 

But beware of trying to transpose it into your soul – that way you destroy it. It is your present; you have a present only in so far as you have it; and you can make it into an object for you and experience and use it—you must do that again and again—and then you have no present any more.

 The world is alien, because the It-world doesn’t come toward you. It doesn’t encounter you. You only manipulate it. 

Between you and it, there is a reciprocity of giving; you say You to it and give yourself to it; it says You to you and gives itself to you….[Y]ou are lonely with it. 

This means only you are encountering it face-to-face. 

[A]nd through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that You in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.

We could not survive in the You-world. In other words, the You-world is the part of our experience that gives us meaning, that gives us a real sense of being met, of being held, of being loved, of the world coming to meet us. 

The It-world hangs together in space and time. 

The You-world does not hang together in space and time. 

The individual You must become an It when the event of relation has run its course. 

The individual It can become a You by entering into the event of relation. 

An individual may not necessarily enter into the relation. I think Buber would say that there are some people who don’t enter the relation because of fear, or conditioning, or just never having given themselves to this relation. They can live a whole life where there is not much of a You relationship. 

“These are the two basic privileges of the It-world.” The it-world hangs together in space and time, and any It can become a You. 

They induce man to consider the It-world as the world in which one has to live and also can live comfortably—and that even offers us all sorts of stimulations and excitements, activities and knowledge. In this firm and wholesome chronicle the You-moments appear as queer lyric-dramatic episodes.

 When we feel something deep in moments of reverie, we suddenly stop. We really see the sky; we really see the face of someone we love. These moments appear as strange, off-the-chart moments. They are not the stimulation and excitements of experience. Remember his whole discussion earlier about experience? The I – You is not an experience; it is a relation. An experience can be really fun and stimulating and interesting. But these moments of I – You appear as “queer lyric-dramatic episodes.” 

Their spell may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security—altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable. 

Have you ever experienced that all of a sudden the whole world seems to disappear? In one moment of reverie or real connection, everything seemed to make perfect sense, but in the next moment it’s as if the whole world falls away. This is why a lot of people don’t want to feel these things because it’s too destabilizing. 

One cannot live in the pure present: it would consume us if care were not taken that it is overcome quickly and thoroughly.” We have to return to the It. We can’t always live in these experiences. 

But in pure past one can live; in fact, only there can a life be arranged. One only has to fill every moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn. 

We can live in the pure past, which is the world of It. In fact, it is only in the world of It that you can have an organized life in time and space. It is only there that life can be arranged. But, if that is all it is for you, then your life ceases “to burn.” It is as if the fire in your life has gone out:  “And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.” There’s no meaning, no fire, no warmth in life if life is only experiencing, only enjoying, only living in an objective world of time and space. Without this You encounter, he is saying our life is less than human. 

This is religious life. We crave a life for our spiritual health in which there is an understanding and appreciation of the You encounter, some openness to it, some reference to it. Without that, he is saying, human life is insufficient. 

Spirit in its human manifestation is man’s response to his You. Man speak in many tongues—tongues of language, of art, of action—but the spirit is one; it is response to the You that appears from the mystery and addresses us from the mystery. 

This is essentially what spiritual life is, our response to the You. Whether it is an encounter where we meet in action, whether it is in art, whether it is in human relationship—that meeting is spirit.

 “Spirit is not in the I,” or the It—the objects, “but between You and I.” It’s in the way that we relate to the object when there is a real relationship. “