Buber: The Incompleteness of the Self
By Connor Hocking
Our real selves exist not in isolated thought, but only in relationship to other selves.
Modernity cherishes freedom, but it comes at a cost. Over the past few centuries, society has given us increasingly more say in how we live our lives: what to think, how to court, whether to pray. But when each of us can choose the path of life that seems most suited to us, some of us end up choosing divergent paths that rarely intersect, and though we have unprecedented liberties, many of us wander through life very alone. We view ourselves as liberated individuals, free to pursue our own destinies in life, so long as we leave room for others to pursue theirs too. In thinking this, however, we view ourselves as free agents loosed from communal ties.
This trend towards loneliness was well underway when Martin Buber wrote I and Thou almost a century ago in 1923; a short but powerful book, it affirms the central need for relationships in a meaningful life. Relationships are so important for Buber that he even thinks of them as primary in a fundamental sense, and describes the individuals that form them as bearers of relationship—like two pillars holding up one arch.
Buber begins his book by laying out the two fundamental attitudes or orientations we can take: the I-It and the I-Thou, elsewhere described as the attitudes of experience and relationship, respectively. The I-It and the I-Thou correspond to different “basic words” for Buber. The I of the I-It is not the same as the I of the I-Thou, for one may only speak the I-Thou with one’s whole being, whereas one can never speak the I-It with one’s whole being.
The I-It, or experience, is for many of us our default orientation. It is the mode of regarding things or people as objects of study or means to our own ends. Viewed from this orientation, objects are bounded and knowable and governed by intelligible laws. This attitude is not necessarily manipulative or malicious—Buber acknowledges that this orientation is a requirement for daily life—but he also stresses that a complete life must also contain the I-Thou, the mode of relationship. The I-Thou is, tragically, beyond what most of us achieve in our day-to-day interactions with others, even our loved ones. The I-Thou is completely unmediated by intention or conceptualization. It is the raw, uncanny encounter with another self—not any preconceived notion of the self, but the radical, felt acknowledgment of that person as another being. Buber stresses that this is not our idea of the person or any characterization of him or her, such as being blonde, being intelligent, or being a good person; rather, it is the encounter with the person as that person, not as a collection of attributes shared by others.
“When I confront a human person as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among other things, nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, He is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”
It is in these moments of genuine relationship with others that we glimpse God: “Extended, the lines of relationship intersect at the eternal Thou … Through every single Thou the basic word addresses the eternal Thou.” Even those who do not believe in God address him when they address someone with their full devoted being. And whenever we address God directly, we do so only as a Thou, for God is the Thou whose very nature prevents him from ever becoming an It.
The It is ascendent in history; the Thou becomes rarer and rarer. As cultures develop, the world becomes more a reservoir of resources to use for our own purposes, and less a network of living beings in relationship. But we are not without hope: the tension that comes from this alienation allows us to spring back into the Thou, and the Thou to explode into our world. “The theophany comes ever closer … History is a mysterious approach to closeness. Every spiral of its path leads us into deeper corruption and at the same time into more fundamental return.” And when we return, whether as individuals or collectively, we encounter the revelation that has been given to all ages—given a thousand times, yet perennially new.
Connor Hocking is a graduate of Saint John’s College in Annapolis. He works for the CLT.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this piece, check out our other posts on the blog, like this author profile of James Baldwin, this student essay on the peculiar qualities of zero, or this review of Professor Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought.