I and Thou

Martin Buber’s I and Thou begins with the claim that “to man the world is twofold.” Human beings exist and interact with the world in two different ways. These ways are the “I-Thou” relation and the “I-It” relation. The first kind of relation, he says can only be spoken with the whole being, the second is never spoken with the whole being.

This book has been criticized for not being rigorous enough or well argued enough. At times I felt the force of these objections, the book has an almost mystical or even apophatic feel to it. Perhaps this is because of the nature of the subject matter. If Buber is right, that there is a difference between relating to things in an “I-Thou” manner and an “I-It” manner, then perhaps the reason that it is difficult to analytically nail down what Buber is saying is due to the fact that the “I-Thou” relation cannot be analyzed in the same way the “I-It” relation is analyzed. By definition, analyzing an “I-Thou” relation would end up turning that relation into an “I-It” relation. The moment one enagaes in analysis, one converts the object of inquiry into a mere object rather than a “thou” which one dialogues with.

This problem, i.e. turning the subject of inquiry into an “it,” reminded me of the ontotheological problem brought up by a number of theologians. While I think that some theologians and philosophers, like Marilyn McCord Adams and Sarah Coakley, have shown that there isn’t an ontotheological fallacy, I believe that Buber draws our attention to a genuine problem: it is too easy to treat God as an “it” rather than a “thou.”

Theologically, one interesting feature of I and Thou is that Buber posits the existence of an “eternal Thou.” It is difficult to know what to make of this eternal Thou (which Buber says “men have called God.”) The Eternal Thou is the Thou which all Thous seem to participate in. Moreover this eternal Thou is wholly other (or else it would be an I and not a Thou) and at the same time it is wholly present. Genuine prayer is an engagement with the Eternal Thou in dialogical form. Yet, when prayer attempts to get something from God, prayer becomes “magic” and begins to treat God as an it instead of a thou.

While Buber’s work has interesting implications for the doctrine of God, especially Trinitarian theology, my interest in I and Thou is mainly in it’s implications for theological anthropology. This philosophical anthropology—Buber positions this as a work of philosophy and not necessarily theology—builds on the notion that humans exist in three relations. The first relation is our life with nature, our second is our life with others, and our final is with “intelligible forms.” Each of these relations, are in some way, “compassed in the eternal Thou” yet, the Eternal Thou “is not compassed in them.” (101)

Furthermore, Buber indicates that personhood is a relational concept. He says, “The I of the primary word I-It makes its appearance as individuality and becomes conscious of itself as subject. The I of the primary workd I-Thou makes its appearance as person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity. Individuality makes its appearance by being differentiated from other individualities. A person makes his appearance by entering into relation with other persons.” (62) This idea seems to be quite foundational for a lot of contemporary theological anthropology. Personhood, many claim, is a relational notion. Persons are constituted by personal relations. Buber’s argument seems to be that a self only emerges as it distinguishes itself from other “thous.” Without a “thou” there is no personal I.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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