Notes on Martin Buber’s “I & Thou”

What follows are the general notes I made for myself about Martin Buber’s I & Thou while preparing a presentation on that book.

General Summary

A Dialogical Philosophy: Buber’s central idea is that man becomes whole not in relation to himself but only through a relation to another self; this is the “I-You” relation. According to Buber, this is a “dialogical” philosophy: “There is no I as such but only the I of the basic word I-You and the I of the basic word I-It” (54). He finds that the isolation of the consciousness, posited first by Descartes and accepted and extended by the likes of Camus and Sartre, is an artificial separation. The “I” cannot be separate from the rest of the world nor other people. In fact, the I is defined by its relations with other people and things—the external world: “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You,” (62). The You allows the I to become I.

Characteristics of the “I-It” relation: takes place in space and time; one-sided; characterized by “experiencing”/“knowing”/“using;” can never be spoken with the whole being; subject-object duality; does not know the actuality, the whole of something.

Characteristics of the “I-You” relation: always spoken with the whole being; takes place outside of space and time but in the wholly present; “participating” as opposed to “experiencing,” mutual; knowledge of something’s actuality, not of its qualities. Essentially, in an I-You relation (the “encounter”), which two entities must enter into together, one knows something in its entirety, without breaking it down into its qualities or subsuming it under a universal, whereas I-It relations are defined in terms of same and different, breaking the other down into its qualities, rather than seeing it as a whole. 

The Duality of “I”: The difference is best seen in the differences between the two “I’s” of the pairs: when a man says “I,” he means either the “I” of the I-It or the “I” of the I-You. The “I” of the I-It is conscious of itself as a subject, setting itself apart from other egos and seeking to possess things; its purpose is living. The “I” of the I-You is a person, conscious of itself as “subjectivity,” defining itself not in opposition but in relation to others; its purpose is relating (111-112). Men are composed of the duality of these two “I’s” and “how much of a person a man is depends on how strong the I of the basic I-You is in the human duality of his I,” (115).

The “True Community” and the “Eternal You”: The I-It and the I-You attitudes expand into two respective worlds, both of which are necessary to human life: we cannot function without the I-It, but we can only become fully human through the I-You as the I-You gives our I-It relations meaning (85, 99). These two worlds are in constant tension and the history of modernity is the history of the gradual expansion if the I-It world. This is the “sickness of the age” (104) according to Buber, as when man becomes a function of his experiencing and using, he divides life into two districts—institutions and feelings, neither of which leads to “actual life.” People who live by this distinction tend to think that a community is born out of the freedom of feelings in revolt against institutions. However, a “true” community, according to Buber, requires that all people stand in “living, reciprocal” relation to a “single living center” and also that they must stand in living, reciprocal relations to one another (94). These are the factors which bind together the constancy of institutions and the changeability of feelings.

What then is this living center? The eternal You, that which all “You’s” are but a glimpse of: this is Buber’s idea of God. Every culture has a different name for the eternal You and originally those names referred to it in its actuality. But man used the names to try and possess the You—to contain it in time and space so that they might handle it and make its meaning apparent—and, in so doing, man turned the You into an It, making the name (“God” or whatever name the culture uses) hollow (161-162). That is the paradox of the I-You relation; that “the more powerful the response [to the spirit], the more powerfully it ties down the You and as by a spell binds it into an object… all response binds You into the It-world” (89). But if we do not respond, the You cannot manifest itself. So then, the relation is truly mutual: God needs us and we need him; we are both dependent and free (130). So then, the idea of seeking God is pointless because the eternal You is accessible at all times and in all places. Nor must one renounce or transcend the world in order to find God; not so: there is no tension between God and the world we live in. To think of a separation is “it-talk”: in comprehending the You, the I-You relation bathes the world in its light, allowing us not to renounce the world, but see it as it should be seen: in reaching the eternal You, everything is one and one comprehends everything (127, 157).

If we prepare ourselves for the true encounter with the eternal You, it will happen, and we will see the world as it should be seen: everything will be a You, not an It. The eternal is not our encounter itself, but rather the moment we come out of it and see the world with new eyes. For we take with us from the encounter everything we received and we carry that glimpse of the eternal with us and it endows us with the ability to see the potential in every It to be a You. It is the ability to say “You” to the world that allows man to build a true community and be fulfilled. This is our revelation and salvation.

Various Analyses

Like Tillich, Buber posits a view of religion accessible to and participated in by not only those who consider themselves religious, but anyone—whether they believe in “God” or not—who is able to reach this “eternal you.” This broad view of religion cuts out any sort of mediator (as in the church) and even implies a critique of man’s institutions of religion as they are those responsible for the “hollowing” of the name for the eternal You.

Buber’s concept of freedom is paradoxical: we are both free and unfree, dependent and independent. Any man who reaches the eternal you, achieves freedom, for the I-You is outside causality. Man can only do this though, if he seeks to encounter the You and does not run from it to hide behind “fate,” which only exists if one believes it does. Buber says that we must “sacrifice” our little will to our great will in order to achieve this freedom in the eternal You. Our little will is what man often thinks of in thinking of freedom: this is the will of the everyday, governed by man’s drives and by objects. This will is not free. However our will to relation, to the eternal You is free because it brings freedom. In order to achieve freedom, we must not be self-willed, but must will towards a community, which recalls de Beauvoir’s idea that we must will others free in order to will ourselves free. For both these thinkers, our freedom is inextricably bound up in the people around us and in our relations with them.

Buber also tells us that man is not naturally evil, so long as his natural drives towards power and profit remain connected to his primal drive towards relation.

It is the simultaneous greatness and tragedy of man that the I-You relation can only be ephemeral. It does not last, the You must necessarily return to being an It. But, though that we cannot rest in the I-You relation is tragic, it is also the source of man’s particular power: in leaving the I-You relation, we take with us the potential for the beauty of the You. This ability to see the potential in the It for the You after coming out of the I-You relation is an ability particular to man and is our true defining factor. Though we leave the relation, we come out of it with a new appreciation for the world, a new way of seeing it in its actuality and this is the key element of Buber’s philosophy: the proper way to live is in communion and relation with everything around us, participating in the world as it is, not as we understand or want it to be.


1. It seems that Buber’s emphasis on the I-Thou relation has two functions: to underline the need for authentic human relationships in order to counteract the progressive spread of the It-world and to make a connection between inter-human relations and our relation to God. Does the I-Thou relation really have these two separate functions, which appear to function on different levels entirely? If so, are they incompatible? The first seems to be more of an ethical function as it regards how we should behave towards others, while the second is not a prescription for action, but rather more definitional, as it simply concerns the ways God is known.

2. If an atheist who thinks himself godless can in fact adresses the eternal You with his entire being and achieve Buber’s “salvation,” what does that look like? For a religious man, this is the encounter with God, finding God, for which he prepares himself by “concentrating his soul.” What form, then, would this take for a man who thinks himself godless? If an atheist can reach the eternal You, how would he do it?

3. Buber tells us that our “revelation” is our “salvation,” but not a “solution.” What does he mean by that? Do we not need a solution? Is there no solution? Or, if there is, what might it look like?


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