Martin Buber was nominated for the Nobel Prize 17 times: 10 for Literature; 7 for Peace.
He is primarily known for his work on the philosophy of dialogue, which deals with the complexity of relationships: the different forms, what they accomplish, and how they mature.
Interestingly enough, he didn’t particularly like being described as a philosopher. He saw himself as someone simply interested in direct human experience, and rather than dealing with esoteric ideas and frameworks, he sought to make simple distinctions reflecting reality.
The most famous of his work is a book-length essay translated in English as I and Thou. At first, if you are unfamiliar with his terminology and his distinctions, then his own work, indeed, seems esoteric. This, however, changes when you peel back the first layer.
Buber’s aim was to establish a distinction between how each of us, as subjects, interact with other people (who are separate subjects), as well as with the many objects in the world.
His basic premise was that life is meaningless without relationships. Even so, however, there are many kinds of relationships. Every connection, in fact, is a relationship, and some of these connections, especially those relating to love, are better than others. In his own words:
“Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth. Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses.”
A Relationship of Sensation and Utility
To break down Buber’s terminology, we can start with what he calls the I-It relationships, and these are the kind of relationships that he claims can’t be based in what he sees as real love.
In a simple I-It relationship, you have two entities: a subject and an object. The subject – you – is the I, and the object is the it. This relationship is not a true dialogue but a monologue.
It’s a relationship that is based on sensation and utility and experience. The object in question isn’t real to you as a separate self, but it exists only to satisfy the whims of your wants and needs. To you, it’s a mental representation of reality, not something valuable in the world.
Common examples of I-It relationships may include the different bonds you form with the inanimate objects in your life. For example, you don’t need to treat your phone as something animate. It’s just a part of your environment, there to provide you with some material benefit.
That said, it does often happen that even the relationships we have with other people (who are not objects but subjects themselves) follow an I-It dynamic. Of course, you can still engage in a dialogue in such a relationship, but it’s not a truly honest dialogue.
There is a difference between a conversation that flows and authentically bounces between two different people and one that is flat, transactional, and only occurs to serve a purpose.
There can still be emotion and feeling involved when there is an I-It dynamic, but generally speaking, these manifestations are not engagements within a relationship, but instead, they are expressions of attitude towards an object that has either pleased you or dissatisfied you.
Relationships of sensation and utility are valuable and have a place, but they aren’t the end.
A Living, Non-Discrete Relationship
The other of Buber’s dichotomy extends to what he calls the I-Thou (or I-You) relationships, which are harbors of real meaning and which do, in fact, contain seeds that mature as love.
In an I-Thou relationship, rather than an interaction between a subject and an object, there is a holistic co-existence; a living and non-discrete one between two individual subjects.
They don’t represent each other as rigid mental abstractions in the mind, but they treat each other as people who are engaging in dialogue that goes back and forth in an undefined way. The two authentic beings collide to create something that is beyond objectification.
There is no inherent structure or form that confines an I-Thou relationship. It simply evolves as the two subjects continue to mesh and grow with each other over the course of time.
The purpose of identifying a discrete object in an I-It relationship is so that you can separate it from yourself in order to respond to it. In an I-Thou relationship, however, the lack of boundary means that you, in a sense, are the relationship so you continually respond with it.
Feelings, sensations, and experiences are born within us and move outwardly (I-It); love, on the other hand, according to Buber, exists outside of us and in the space that is created between us (a subject) and another subject. It is born in the outer world and moves inwardly.
When we see someone as a subject rather than an object, we open ourselves up to the possibility of change and transition. There is harmonious growth rather than a transaction.
The synergy that is created by a co-evolution like this transcends what any individual can create in the world by themselves. There is only so much you can do as a lone subject.
All You Need to Know
The beauty of Martin Buber’s work lies in the fact that it sits at a unique intersection of the poetic, the philosophical, and the very real and the very practical. It has its own aesthetic.
In a world that is increasingly connected, the core source of the connections in our life matters. The good ones add more than they take; the bad ones take more than they give.
Buber’s timeless distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships give us a place to start.
They remind us that subject-object relationships, while occasionally useful, are based on a foundation of sensation and utility. They serve a function, and a function isn’t always what is important. It isn’t what creates growth, nor is it what adds true meaning to our life.
A true, sensible relationship can only ever exist in a subject-subject interaction, one with a two-way dialogue and one where non-discrete boundaries allow a new, living entity to create a space of what we call love; a space that reshapes itself as the two parties co-evolve.
Buber did make it clear that in real life, this dichotomy doesn’t exist in a clean way. In reality, pretty much all relationships oscillate between an I-It interaction and an I-Thou interaction.
The goal isn’t to always minimize or eliminate all I-It interactions, either. It’s to be honest about what is important and in which context and to recalibrate your situation accordingly.
Relationships shape everything from how you interact with people and places and things to how you mesh with art and technology and culture. In a way, we are what we connect to.
Many connections in life come into being mindlessly. But the important ones take work.
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I send out at least one new essay every week. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access: