Thursday, March 24, 2011

Martin Buber's I-Thou Relationships

In the midst of creating my last blog post; Objectifying Others, I was given a ten page paper to complete about Martin Buber’s I and Thou relationships. I smiled at the coincidence, for Buber and I share some of the same perspectives when it comes to the ways in which people interact with one another. The following is an excerpt from that paper:

We live in a world of objects; of things. We desire ownership, finding fulfillment in acquiring worldly possessions, priding ourselves of these possessions and seeking refuge in them. Yet we are left without sustenance. We long for something more, and struggle with trying to discover what this something  is.

Our culture has taught us how to use the world around us for self-gratification. We interact with possessions as if expecting them to meet our fundamental needs. Unfortunately, this mentality has extended into our interpersonal relationships. By being taught how to use material goods for self gain, we have unconsciously learned how to do the same thing with each other; interacting with one another in the same manner. People have turned into things; objects for us to use in order to sustain ourselves. Unfortunately, the very act of seeing each other as objects has prevented us from finding meaning. We are unable to find that which we really seek, that which our souls find sustaining. In seeing each other as objects, we have lost relationship. And it is relationship that makes us human.

Martin Buber addresses this issue by discussing I-It versus I-Thou relationships. For Buber, an I-It relationship is a subjective relationship where the It is experienced and utilized by the I. An I-Thou relationship refers to the joining of identities that occurs when two people come together in an authentic, meaningful way.

An I-It relationship represents the world of experiences. When we experience the world, the experience does not take place between the world and ourselves; rather, the experience happens within us. For example, they way we experience sound has to do with how our brain interprets the sound waves coming from the external environment. The experience has very little to do with the outside world, and has everything to do with the individual doing the experiencing. The world, although available to be experienced, does not participate in that experience. “It permits itself to be experienced, but has no concern in the matter” (Buber, 2004, p. 13).

The I-Thou relationship represents the world of relations. In an I-Thou relationship, we do not experience one another, rather we stand in relation to one another. This relation does not happen within the I or the Thou, rather, it happens between the I and Thou. When we stand in relation with one another, the I is shared, and the Thou is accepted. Meaning happens in I-Thou relationships because this is a place where walls come down, masks come off, and real connection occurs. In a sense, by joining with another, we are able to meet ourselves; thus finding meaning.

What is meaningful can only be acquired through what is real. Connection to It is not real connection at all. We cannot have connection with an object. We can only have connection with another. It is here, and only here, where true sharing of self can exist. For the individual who lives in I-It relationships, “his life never attains to a meaning, for it is composed of means which are without significance in themselves” (Friedman, 2002, p. 77). For the individual in an I-Thou relationship, meaning is attained because the joining is significant.

As I’ve mentioned before, the way relationships are understood and acted out in our society is reflected in the language we use. We ignorantly say phrases like “the object of my affection” and “my better half” without thinking about what these simple phrases imply. These phrases imply I-It relationships. These phrases are about what the other person is in regards to the self, that is, how the self experiences them. If the It in these phrases were to no longer be experienced by the I in the same way, their value would change dramatically in regards to the I. This is because their relationship is based on how the I is experiencing them. “I am experiencing you as the object of my affection, but if our situation changes, and I no longer experience you as such, your value to me changes”. For so many people, love “cling(s) to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its content, its object” (2004, p. 19). Love is about what the I experiences, and relationships are conditioned based on this experience.

In contrast, I-Thou relationships are not about experience. They are not about us giving our affection to someone or having our needs met by another. To meet Thou, one must step out of oneself; out of the realm of experience. To meet Thou, one must be open and still, without expectation, without a future plan or an alternate motive. As long as our language speaks of others in context of the role they fill for the self, we can never be in I-Thou relationship. 

So how do we create I-Thou relationships as opposed to I-It relationships? For Buber, Thou is not found by seeking, rather it is met through grace. The moment that we start to seek; the moment that we start to look for someone to fulfill a role for us, or meet a need, we are setting up a predisposition for an I-It relationship. Thou is found by existing in the moment and allowing I to be authentic and real. Thou is found when there are no expectations, no hopes or assumptions. The present is the only thing that matters, and in the present, one is able to join with the other by giving up their I, not by satisfying it. For an I-Thou relationship to occur, there can be no end goal, there is no trying or creating, there just is. This is freedom. It is in this freedom that Thou can be found; not by actively seeking, but by gracefuly allowing.

Books Cited:
Buber, M. (2004). I and Thou. T&T Clark LTD: London.
Friedman, M. S. (2002). Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue. Routledge: London.


  1. These are deep thinking and complex ideas. I am not sure I totally followed the concept so I read a little more about Buber on Wiki. It is good to engage in some philosophical thought but it is not easy reading at least not for me especially before just going to bed :-) I may have to revisit this when my mind is sharper.

  2. Buber is definetly not an easy read. I read him a few times, then read someone else (Friedman) who translated him. Even passages in Friedman took a few takes.
    Even though Buber's thoughts are complex and his language is difficult to understand, his words are definetly worth pondering.
    Sometimes that which is the most difficult, is the most gratifying ;)

  3. Imagine how the world would be if we were in I-Thou relationships with one another. Can we be in I-Thou with ourselves. Relationship with the self is the most important.. I enjoyed this very much and found some youtube videos as well.