Martin Buber’s book I and Thou was an eye opening experience for me. The book is about two modes of existence, two ways of existing: I-Thou and I-It. Do you see how the I isn’t by itself?; it’s either partnered with Thou or It. Here’s the catch: partnering with Thou makes the I a certain kind of I, and partnering with It makes that I a certain kind of I. Thus, the I is like the shape water takes in a certain container, and the Thou and the It are different shaped containers. And just as water loses all its shape if not related to a container of some kind, the I loses its shape (its very identity!) if not related to either Thou or It. All I want to do in this blog is scratch the surface and whet the appetite, because there is so much more in the book than what I’m about to say. So, what are these modes of existence?
1. I/It – this is the mode of experience. This mode of experience is basically the scientific frame of mind, and you don’t have to be a scientist to have it. The experiencer objectifies what it observes. So, say, you experience and observe a human being. A human being is a species of mammal, homosapien, located at a certain point in space and time. Human being is now classified. Or, say, Einstein experienced and so observed certain data and came up with the Theory of Relativity. Anytime you tally or figure something or classify it or deduce it, you are in this mode. After you figure everything you need to know about it, you can use it for your own ends. After Marx figured out, say, something about how economy works, he was able use that to realize his utopia: humans can be reduced to social units in a class. This mode is necessary to survive and is probably the driving force behind what begot Evolution as not just a theory about our origins but a theory about what we essentially are as humans. It is the mode that begot technology as we know it.
2. I/Thou – this is the mode of encounter and relationships. Buber thinks this is the mode where we are really human. In this mode, you don’t try to know your data to master it, you open yourself to it to encounter it: this is done by relating to it. You can encounter anything: nature, humans, God, art, animals, plants, insects, atoms, architecture. When you encounter these things, you participate in them with every fibre of your self or soul or being. The effect is one of inner transformation, not just of you, but of what you’re relating to as a result. Buber brings up the concept of the dialogical, which is just another way of saying conversation or dialogue, because the encounter happens in the relation between you and the Thou you’re relating to, whereas experience (I/It) only happens within the I – here, you’re not wanting an answer from the It, a conversation with It: you just want to know about it to use it or master it for your ends. But in the dialogical, there is shared metamorphosis, just as the work of art and the artist change and morph and revamp as the work of art manifests. As a result, I don’t see the Thou as a point in the universe to be classified or used, I see the whole universe into and out of the Thou. Do you see how Buber turns the universe inside out through poetic slight of hand? The Thou becomes the universe for me within and because of the dialogical, the encounter, dialogue, conversation, relationship.
Another key difference is that encounter in the I/Thou is in the present, whereas experience in the I/It is in the past. Why? Because encounter, in turning the universe inside out, also turns inside out time and space of which the universe is made up. In encounter, you are released for the moment from the flow of time itself. The key, however, is to not notice it is happening when it happens: the minute you think about it, or reflect on it, you’re whisked back to the realm of experience. That is why these moments of encounter are so passing, so evanescent.
Therefore, Buber believes we can’t know God though this experience and reason, we can only know God through encounter, having a relationship with that which we desire to encounter with all our might. The down side is, because of the nature of what encounter is, you can’t break it down any more clearly using language. It is known by being awoken in consciousness through the encounter itself in a leap of faith. And it is awoken by that which is encountered in the leap with the resulting inner metamorphosis. This is why metaphor pervades Buber’s book. Metaphors aren’t literal language; they point beyond themselves to something other; but a pondering of the metaphor signals an encounter with that something other and the understanding of the spiritual truth is awoken in contemplation by the mutual transformation.