Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch? I and Thou is Martin Buber’s most well-known book, originally published in German in 1923. Its aim is to make everyday life a sacred experience. I’m not sure that anyone has fully understood the book; perhaps that explains its hold after so many years. In many places it reads more like poetry than theology or philosophy.
We don’t exist in any important human way except as part of a relationship. “In the beginning is the relationship,” says Buber (p 69). Trees and animals can be part of a I-thou pair, and a human can be a part of an I-it pair. Buber would perhaps reject the term “pair.” It’s just I-thou, or I-you, more than one, less than two as the Tao puts it.
Buber’s childhood encounter with his favorite horse best explains the I-thou relationship for me. Horses can be thou’s, and as anyone who has been around horses knows, they are big, even massive, animals. As such the horse is intensely other: other than me, other than human.
When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvelously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. (Buber, Between Man and Man, p 11)
It is almost as if an exchange of vitality took place, Buber absorbing the horse’s strength without subtracting anything from the horse. That’s an I-thou relationship, and about it there is always something sad, “the melancholy of man” as Buber puts it (p 89). Why? Because any response to the experience, such as Buber’s awareness of his hand on the horse’s mane, causes the experience to vanish. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can have the experience, but you can’t think about it and have it at the same time. Thinking is the enemy of experience. But there is no alternative. Just as one enters an I-thou experience, so must one leave it. Only God remains (p 128).
Touching is like talking . . . sort of
Most people think about Buber as the man who made dialogue central. We are not just subjects, but subjects who engage other subjects in dialogue. Before Buber, most philosophers emphasized vision over speech, and subject over object. In a sense Buber goes back to Plato, who also made dialogue central.
I don’t disagree with this dialogic interpretation of Buber, but hardly anyone has noticed that several of his leading examples are about touch, not speech. Not just Buber’s account of the physicality of thou when stroking his horse, but even his view of redemption, is accounted for in terms of touch. Consider Buber’s account of a particular Baal-Shem (a legendary Hasidic rabbi).
The man was here and everywhere, possessed of manifold being and overspanning presence. Now his arm clasped round the body of the trees, the animals clung to his knees and the birds to his shoulders. Then lo, comfort had come into the world. (Buber, 1955, p 70)
Touch is in between, and it isn’t
As a philosopher of dialogue, Buber is a philosopher of the in between: the space between I and Thou. What resides in that space is separateness and relatedness at the same time. Touch is a little more complicated. What lies between touch? Does touch lessen the boundary between you and me, or does it heighten it, for it is the last stop between beings? And the first stop too. When we are very young our capacity for dialogue is minimal, and most relationships are experienced in terms of being held, cuddled, lifted up, nursed, and so forth.
More die from the lack of touch than the lack of words. Not just babies, but all of us. Touch is the medium through which we reach out, console, love, and are loved in return. Touch is also a medium of aggression, including the obliteration of otherness.
Nothing I have just said is new. But philosophers have become so caught up in subject-object language that an entire aspect of Buber’s work has gone missing. Touching and being touched are the creation and restoration of “betweenness,” the residence of God.
Buber writes less about individual I-thou relationships than one might imagine. His primary aim is to analyze certain tendencies in modern society, particularly the tendency to turn I-thou relationships into I-it relationships. Consider, says Buber, the language of so-called primitive people, meaning those who are poor in objects, and whose life develops in face-to-face relationships of strong presence (p 69). The result is that “man becomes an I through a thou.” (p 80) This was and is always true, but the thou is becoming weaker, less present, in the contemporary world, as the it becomes more.
In sick ages [like our own] it happens that the it-world, no longer irrigated and fertilized by the living currents of the thou-world, severed and stagnant, becomes a gigantic swamp phantom and overpowers man. (p 102)
People want certainty, which leads men to flee from everything “unreliable, unsolid, unlasting, unpredictable, and dangerous” to a world marked by possessing things. You may treat your iPhone as a thou, but it will always remain an it, and you will become more it-like if you forget this.
God and Redemption
Buber doesn’t write much about God until part 3 of I and Thou, where he refers to God as the eternal Thou. The basic idea seems to be that every I-thou relationship is mediated by God, who is everywhere, the eternal in between. Recognizing the importance of touch doesn’t change this much, except to remind us that God is not just pure spirit. Buber is not writing about a traditional God when he says that whenever an atheist lovingly addresses the most important human thou in his life, then he or she is addressing God (p 124).
Many who write about Buber’s I-thou relationship render it almost as a spiritual encounter, a tendency made stronger by the use of thou to translate the German “du.” * Thou has a biblical connotation, a legacy of the King James translation. Of course, the I-thou relationship is spiritual, but it is an embodied spirituality in which touch is as important as prayer.
If this is so, then we should be especially troubled by the rise of I-it relationships, for the world is doubly impoverished by the loss of both God and thou. You might respond that for Buber they are essentially the same. I wouldn’t argue with you.
* I-thou, or I-you? The problem starts with the book’s title. I and Thou is how the book has been known since its 1937 translation into English, but the title is misleading. Ich und Du is the original German title. Ich is almost always translated as I, and presents no problem. Trouble is, we have no English equivalent of du, which is the German familiar for you. I would say du to my friends and family, Sie or you to everyone else.
The problem, as Walter Kaufmann (1970) argues in the introduction to his translation, is that thou has religious connotations, and Buber is not writing about religion, at least as it is conventionally understood. Instead of thou, Kaufmann translates du as you. But that doesn’t really work either, for the Ich/du relationship is an intimate one, and “hey you” is hardly an invitation to friendship. There is no good solution to the problem. I am going to continue using thou to render du, but otherwise rely on Kaufmann’s translation, which uses you. Curiously, Kaufmann’s translation uses “Thou” in the title, but nowhere else, presumably because I and You is both off-putting and unfamiliar.
I translate human relationships as I-thou (if they are), and our relationship to God as I-Thou.
Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, translated by Maurice Friedman. Harper and Row, 1955.
Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner’s, 1970. Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers refer to this edition.
Martin Buber, Between Man and Man. Martino Books, 2014. [reprint of the 1947 edition]
Maurice Friedman, Encounter on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber. Paragon House, 1993.