Ich und Du

Learn this: “The I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.”

I first read Martin Buber’s I and Thou (Ich und Du in the original German) some 45 years ago. It sat on my shelf with little attention until I made my way back to a new understanding of Buber’s central premise – the importance of the relation expressed when I acknowledge you in meeting. Buber probes this relation in far greater depth than I managed in a previous blog.

The book is short, just 120 pages in the small paperback translation that I read. It costs about $7.50 as an e-book, and I highly recommend that you read it entirely. It begins with these words:

To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I-It wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

Hence the I of man is also twofold.

For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.

Buber is concerned with the kind of person each of us will become. I am different, he says, when I encounter Thou, from what I am when I experience It. It signifies a world that we experience and use. People can and do become for us objects in that world, when we only recognize those people as others, signifying things apart from myself, rather than Thou of the relation I-Thou.

A less obvious point is that Thou, for Buber, is not always a human person. He glances into the eyes of a housecat, and for the briefest moment he senses connection with the cat.

The beginning of this cat’s glance, lighting up under the touch of my glance, indisputably questioned me: “It is possible that you think of me? Do you really not just want me to have fun? Do I concern you? Do I exist in your sight? Do I really exist? What is it that comes from you? What is it that surrounds me? What is it that comes to me? What is it?”

In the following passage, Buber extends the I-Thou relation to primordial chaos as the crucible of personhood:

Every child that is coming into being rests, like all life that is coming into being, in the womb of the great mother, the undivided primal world that precedes form. From her, too, we are separated, and enter into personal life, sleeping free only in the dark hours to be close to her again; night by night this happens to the healthy man. But this separation does not occur suddenly and catastrophically like the separation from the bodily mother; time is granted to the child to exchange a spiritual connexion, that is, relation, for the natural connexion with the world that he gradually loses. He has stepped out of the glowing darkness of chaos into the cool light of creation.

Buber tells us that the world of Thou is not set “in the context of space and time.”[1] But he will not allow the common interpretation of timelessness. Too often otherwise competent philosophers or theologicans yield to the lazy thought that timeless signifies eternally the same, and a concept initially conceived as unbound by time becomes something static, effectively less than time. Instead Buber envisions the world of Thou as discontinuous when viewed from the world in which we must live, the world of things that we experience and use. “Every Thou in the world,” he says, “is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually to re-enter into the condition of things.”[2]

The depth of Martin Buber’s thought exceeded my ability to understand when I first read him many years ago, as I approached adulthood. It still does.

Somewhat similar ideas, more accessible to me then and formative to my development, were expressed by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician and psychiatrist. Tournier made a critical distinction between a person and a personage. We think we know the person, but generally it is the personage whom we see and evaluate. Tournier compared the personage to the driver of a car whose hands move the steering wheel left and right to stay within a driving lane as the road curves around fields and hills. At a certain moment, however, the car approaches an intersection, and the driver becomes a person who slows down and decides whether to take a crossroad left or right, or to move farther down the main road.

As Tournier put it, “We have the same driver, making the same movement with his steering-wheel, but this time the significance of his action is of quite a different order. In the first case his action is automatic and recurrent; in the second it is an isolated act of the will…. We can understand then how it is that the person always eludes objective investigation, that it is always the personage that one finds. Science comprehends only the automatic aspects of the living being, which thus appears to it to be nothing more than a collection of automatic phenomena.” Tournier emphasized that the person operates discontinuously and irreproducibly.[3]

By the time Tournier wrote down those ideas in Switzerland in the early 1950s, the work of Martin Buber had been available in German for more than 2 decades. One must consider that Tournier had been influenced by Buber, as were many others.

Buber believed strongly in the capacity to will. I’ll close this blog with his description of human choice –

The fiery stuff of all my ability to will seethes tremendously, all that I might do circles around me, still without actuality in the world, flung together and seemingly inseparable, alluring glimpses of powers flicker from all the uttermost bounds: the universe is my temptation, and I achieve being in an instant, with both hands plunged deeply in the fire, where the single deed is hidden, the deed which aims at me – now is the moment! [4]


Next post:  Saying Thou to the Universe

Previous post:  An Island Rising

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Header photo:  cc0 Public Domain from Pixabay.

[1] Buber, M. I and Thou. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1958, p. 33.

[2] Ibid, p. 17.

[3] Tournier, P. The Meaning of Persons. Harper & Row, New York, 1957, quote from page 93.

[4] Buber, pp. 51-52.

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