Episode 71: Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

On Buber's 1923 book about the fundamental human position: As children, and historically (this is his version of social contract theory), we start fully absorbed in relation with another person (like, say, mom). Before that point, we have no self-consciousness, no "self" at all, really. It's only by having these consuming "encounters" that we gradually distinguish ourselves from other people, and can then engage in what we'd normally consider "experience," which Buber calls "the I-It relation," wherein we can reflect on and manipulate the world.

Buber thinks that unless we can keep connected to this "I-Thou" phenomenon, through real, mature relationships (dialogue!), and maybe also through art and the appreciation of nature (we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how, as he says, you can really have an I-Thou encounter with a tree), you're spiritually dead, treating everyone as objects and sporting a thin, pissy sense of self to boot. If you get get in the groove, on the other hand, you'll come off all shiny and ethical and ready to transform the world. Sweet! Oh, and by the way, the "Thou," every thou, ends up also being a direct line to God, so all you "spiritual but not religious" folks are theists after all. Nyah nyah!

Mark, Seth, and Wes are rejoined by verbose lawyer Daniel Horne to hash through this difficult and possibly mystical text. Read more about it and get the book.

End song: "Luscious You" by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Download it free.

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  1. says

    We have a developed community focused solely on the self illusion called ‘liberation unleashed’.
    Check it in your free time!
    also Susan Blackmore neatly explained this phenomenon here

  2. Profile photo of Tammy says

    At 47., thought Seth wrestled through the “inner/outer” subjective or individual experience nicely, moving to defend what he feels Buber feels (I and Thou) must move outwardly through engaging the world as a way of “being,” with Mark bringing in aesthetics.

    Re: a tree as an object without objectifying, being in relation with, there was an article in the NYS by Gordon Marino. A commenter wrote about guitarist, Jeff Beck, in relation with his guitar as an expression of being in touch with himself. In that sense, a guitar (like a tree) is an object Beck was in relata with, not objectifying as an it. Remember years ago discussing Beck’s song “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” similar themes and thinking the comment was spot on.

    I am really enjoying this discussion, appreciate your humor, and will have to listen a few times

  3. Profile photo of Philip C. says

    Thank you PEL! Pleased to hear this particular text covered, because it has long remained in my overwhelming extended want-to-read list and this episode has inspired me to bump it up to high priority. For future discussions regarding self-other relations, I hope you consider Emmanuel Levinas’s and Lacan’s as a psychoanalytic point of comparison. Both are demanding reads.

    My initial scattered thoughts and reflections (mostly extra-textual references):

    1.) David mentioned (around 33) Buber’s contention with “Hegelian Monism,” but I wish he elaborated a little, as it still remains unclear to me how exactly Buber distinguishes his conception of self-other relations from the dialectical relation put forward by Hegel’s master/slave dynamic. Both seem to maintain that the I or self cannot be grasped independent of an other to pit against (the Other revokes one of a sense of selfhood), though I guess Hegel stresses more a dialectical tension between self and other, while the I-thou relation proper remains irreconcilable and does not allow for an Hegelian aufhebung? I’ve never heard the term “monism” used outside the context of theology, so I’m not exactly sure what David was getting at there.

    2.) Perhaps I’m misconstruing Buber and/or Kant by combining two completely disparate philosophical enterprises, but I cannot avoid comparing what Wes and David commonly referred to as “empathy” (for lack of better term?) to Kantian respect (Achtung). I recall from one episode (forgot which) the distinction raised between knowing info about bats–that they perceive the environment via echolocation, etc.–and our limited capacity to imagine what it would feel like to live and perceive the world as a bat. This distinction between knowing and being (i.e. ontic vs. ontological relation) lies at the heart of Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena (I interpret the noumenal object “in itself” as knowing an object as God might, i.e. ontologically.) From this acknowledgment of our own limitations–the notion of a world exterior to our own being, and limitations of our imagination to project our own being onto that which remains wholly other (what was referred to as an “openness to a great unknown” at around 59)–that we might gain a sense of respect (Achtung) rather than simply consider objects and people only in ways they remain useful to us. So long as we consider noumena as exteriority in the broader sense, I’m not sure if I agree with David’s contention that Buber was strictly opposed to the notion of noumena (1:40). This notion of respect of course also ties into one’s relation to God which Mark turned the discussion towards later. Of course, I haven’t read the text so I could be way off here. Side note: the tension between ontic and ontogenic conceptions of self would later play a major role in Lacan’s notion of identity formation in the mirror stage.

    3.) Seth mentioned the influence of Buber on later thinkers such as Levinas. Having read (or struggled through) Levinas as an undergrad, I found Buber’s take on self-other relations somewhat refreshing in that it never adopted a wholly anthropocentric thou relation. Perhaps I simply did not have a decent grasp of Levinas, but I struggled with the problematically vague way that Levinas attempted to negotiate the anthromorpic Other with the more abstract otherness. In one essay he lauded space exploration as the human instinct to push outwards towards radical exteriority (perhaps he was reacting against the undertones of Heideggerian rootedness in Hannah Arendt’s lamentation of Sputnik in the opening of ?) In Levinas establishes an other-centered ethics that feels arbitrarily anthropocentric, in fact he criticizes Heidegger for adopting such and abstract notion of Being that it seems to push aside the face-to-face relation with the Other as human being. If there ever comes a day when PEL examines Totality and Infinitely hope someone addresses this issue.

    4.) Lastly, David Abram’s book comes to mind as more tangible application of the empathetic I-Thou relation. Abram emphasizes what he calls “reciprocity” (though I dislike his choice of word here) from non-western Animism to Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger’s phenomenology. Where one can possibly draw ethical implications again deals with respect (Achtung), in this case the reverence the sacrifices necessary to sustain life, e.g. feeling empathy for the animals killed for consumption, not simply treating them as objects (it) for one’s own pleasure. Even for non-living objects, the sense of respect for their place within ones’ own life makes them sensitive to their surrounding environment. Abrams’ thesis hinges on the aesthetic, in terms of engaging oneself with the sensual world. In this last regard, we can also apply Buber’s I-Thou relation to aesthetics, where we place emphasis on how inanimate objects (art objects) change us and engage us sensually. We treat the art object as a Thou rather than an It (at least idealistically; in practice art objects function as commodities just as any other product.)

    Those were my thoughts. Cheers!

    • Profile photo of Philip C. says

      Apparently I don’t understand how to use HTML tags. Tried to fix it so it wasn’t half italics. Whatever. Sorry. Also ran out of time to edit it before i could fix it. the abbreviated title tags don’t seem to work either. It’s supposed to say David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous, Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, and Lacan’s Encore (Le Séminaire #20)

  4. says

    Buber’s categories are not evinced by psychological considerations because his point was to apply the categories to the ontological status of relationships, not to the level of experience.

    It’s a confusion to think of Buber’s work as theological rather than phenomenological, because well, that’s wrong- he doesn’t have any doctrinal presuppositions, but his writing does presuppose in depth familiarity with phenomenology. He denied being a theologian.

    I’m surprised one of you thought this was easier than Levinas, I found this much harder. Hopefully Levinas is where you’re headed next.

  5. Profile photo of Lynda says

    I was introduced to Buber decades ago and have been working with the ‘I-Thou’ since then. I thought then and still think now that to see ‘Thou’ in everything from one’s spouse to the pebbles under our feet and Vlad the Impaler (leaving out you-know-who) is to recognize that we are all in the world/universe/multiverse together and whether we, in our smallness, define our relationships as good or bad those relationships are all working together to make the Whole. It helps. A sort of tipping your hat to the enemy, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, and acknowledging kinship before you’re forced to drive the stake through his heart.
    I just listened to the podcast this evening. Great!
    Mixing metaphors,

  6. Jennifer says


    As I was listening to your podcast, I was wishing I could jump in as you all seemed to struggle through his ideas on nature, and clarify what I think the author was getting at, in the I-thou “dialogue” with nature. I will start with an example of a tree in my yard, that had been cut back by the prior homeowner, in an un-natural, and unsightly way. My first instinct was that it was ugly. As I considered it though, I thought of the tree-who did not chose it’s shape or form, and though it was cut back and unsightly, it still grew. It lived. To me, it became a metaphor of life, in a physical form-a reminder that we exist in a life in which we are shaped by others, to suit their needs, that all choices are not ours to make, and we sometimes live with the scars that my seem unsightly to others, but we do live. That we can see what we do to others, in what we do to nature, and we can see what nature does to, and for us. We must have a relationship with it and respect it. To disregard nature is to disregard our own selves because we are interdependent. THAT is, I believe, the “dialogue” with nature, in which we can add context to our lives as part of a greater whole.

    In animals, we can see great empathy for us, and for one another, as well as the natural response to fear and mistrust. Ferel colonies of domestic cats tend to favor fearful cats, while gentle docile cats are better domestic partners. Empathy and trust go hand in hand, and competition for survival does not favor the most empathetic-so they are rare in ferel colonies, but more common in domestic breeds such as a siamese.

    What I think the author was getting at was that in order to make those connections, we cannot avoid living with nature, and with one another, sharing both good and bad. If we live only in painless luxury, we tend to look at the world as the “it,” as a place designed for us, rather than a place that is shared with us. Here is where the Judeo-christian faiths do the most harm in guiding our way of life. The Native American Indian traditions are more clear in their connection with nature than the western traditions, and I felt the author was arriving at some of those understandings of nature, by a different path.

    The last part of the podcast referred to the concept of the yin yang of balance of good and evil, in which good provides the balance to evil, the understanding that good can exist in the center of evil, and evil at the heart of goodness.

    The more I listen to the PEL podcasts, the more I’m inclined to believe that, in any tradition, “all roads lead to Mecca,” in the search for the balance between I-thou harmony. All seem to isolate bits and pieces, but I think we are ready for a “unified theory” that explores the common themes and insights of all of the faith and philosophical traditions.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Jennifer,

      I like this, and you may well have the best interpretation. But the objections I have to this line of thinking (treating “dialogue” the same as dialogue) run as follows:

      1. If viewing a tree can provoke the kind of I-Thou experience identical to that of discourse with people, then…what about viewing a photograph of a tree? Or reading a poem about a tree? Or simply reflecting on the word “tree” as you read it on this blog? If one can have an “I-Thou” meeting with a non-sentient being, then why not have it with an abstract concept? And yet, because understanding abstract concepts requires the “I-It” mode of thought, then doesn’t that break down? But if not, then what is the limit case for when you simply can’t engage in an “I-Thou” encounter any longer? If cats and trees are suitable interlocutors for “dialogue,” then why not the Mona Lisa, or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? But if you can do that, then how can one contemplate something like a theory without using abstract “I-It” thought?

      2. Once you start reflecting on what a tree represents to you, whether as a metaphor for life, or a reminder that we exist in a life with others, etc., then how is that a dialogue, as opposed to “mere” contemplation or reflection? I wouldn’t equate contemplation or reflection with dialogue. And I don’t think Buber would, either, insofar as he criticized Kierkegaard’s emphasis on solitary reflection for just this kind of “error”.

      3. Perhaps to summarize the first two objections, how would you know you’re not simply projecting your own notions on to objects, and therefore not truly engaging in dialogue with them at all? And if we are to say that’s OK, in fact necessary, with non-sentient objects like trees, then wouldn’t that therefore also be OK with people?

      The real problem I have isn’t with your assessment, but with Buber’s arbitrary split between “I-It” and “I-Thou”, combined with his elevation of “I-Thou” and denigration of “I-It”. Buber’s two modes pose — to my view — a false choice. (It’s the same complaint echoed by Buber’s second translator, Walter Kaufmann, but it’s an obvious enough objection that one need not cite any authority to raise it.)

      • Profile photo of Philip C. says

        Excellent point Daniel. I think it somewhat parallels the issues I had with Levinas in distinguishing between the anthropomorphic Other and the abstract otherness. Is it really described by Buber as a dichotomous “split” or more of a spectrum with two immeasurable poles? In other words is the It/Thou more of an either/or split or more of a soft “more”/”less” quality? I have yet to read the original text so this is still all up in the air for me.

  7. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    The I-Meow

    Ok, It doesn’t get better than that (you should do a ‘Best of PEL’ moments): I-Thou, I-Meow.

    One thought, is that perhaps Buber is describing a really inter(personal/animal) moment with an animal to (perhaps) highlight what humans do when encountering one another at the I-Thou as a distinction from the surprise when that same thing happens with an animal which is not used to such an experience. Also, after continuous human-animal interactions, perhaps the cat/dog/etc who is most astonished at such a postitive continuous behavior (what, you don’t want to eat me? or a similar fear response based on predatory anticipation of animals–see Horse Whisperer, etc.), perhaps the cat will reduce the fear and neurologically rewire connectability with a human as an expectation rather than fear (God forbid you are a lizard or a bird, i.e. the animalization of the animal).

    Many reactive issues have been raised by Philip (respect (Achtung), phenomena-noumena,etc., as a Kantian trying to make sense out of the issues you confronted with Buber), which are not surprising, as Buber seems to be focused more on his existential concern of the I-Thou than clarifying either metaphysics or ontology, which is common with existential philosophers, including Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, as in “Didn’t I already explain my non-Kantian, experiential positon to you already?”

    In addition to Kant vs. phenomenology, Buber brings his existential encounter with God/I-Thou as a phenomenon to deal with.

    You can’t make it happen, it must find you but you have a choice (not a rational position, but the choice here refers to being open to the I-Thou experience versus being closed, in denial, whether emotionally and/or cognitively). He uses his primordial experience of intimacy with God (better than the mis-meeting with his mother), his subsequent meetings with people, and all other experiences with Nature, animals, E=MC2 (since they are extenstions of his God experience who shows up everywhere his I-Thou shows up.

    Granted, he could have presented a better metaphysics and ontology, but he was apparently on the warpath against not just Kantian reason, but against the same as Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger: the false objectification of reason which destroys the I-Thou.

    Seth–did you say that you were looking for a take-away from Buber, in the form of his ethics, as what founds his value (and all others?) for you. Isn’t the take-away of Levinas to “Live ethically and die,” similar to the take-away of Kant and the categorical imperative?

    Kant” ‘If Jesus [Abraham/Mohamed] should appear, walking down 5th Avenue, what we need to ask is does is behavior conform to the character of the categorical imperative.”

    I think you were all on target identifying the role of empathy/dialogue as the basis of Bubers work: I-Thou.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      I think I was asking about the ‘take away’ from the I-Thou experience. I took an interpretation that the I-Thou experience was ecstatic – simply something you have to experience, can’t come to through reason, etc. It is also post-hoc not something you can capture in words. So my question was what directive does one get from the experience or how does one come away from the experience with some kind of practical guidance on how to live life?

      • dmf says

        Seth, I don’t think that we can separate such altered-states from the specific lives/trajectories of the people who have them to find out what they mean (if anything) as/for/in themselves. If we take a sort of Huston Smith experiential/non-cognitive approach I think we miss at least part of what attracted Buber to Heidegger’s thinking which was explicitly about Denken and so philosophical and not just psychological if you will, not that we need to give Buber the final word on the subject but just to be careful about putting words in his mouth.
        You might be interested in:

        • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

          I don’t disagree. I was throwing it out to the team for discussion. It’s always a question of how specific ethical action can be derived from transcendent experience. I think the right answer for Buber is that it’s unique to the individual (the Jewish “particular”) as you say. But that is not satisfying to most philosophical types.

          • dmf says

            certainly one of the tensions in all attempts to “naturalize” phenomenology, recently there has been a lot of philosophical hay made out of St.Paul’s conversion experience by folks like Critchley and Zizek after Badiou which is not totally separated from discussions after Heidegger on moods. I bet that Sean Kelly from Harvard would talk to you guys about his book with Dreyfus on the subject of All Things Shining, let me know if you would be interested in following up with that at some point.

    • Profile photo of Philip C. says

      Amen! Glad I’m not alone in this. And maybe also a page explaining how to use HTML tags. Maybe I’m just a silly buffoon but I can’t seem to figure out how to do italics etc. I probably should reserve the comment for the “Site Feedback” forum though.

      I realized my post above was also supposed to say Hanna Arendt’s The Human Condition.

      • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

        Hey Philip. We’ll put something up in the Citizen’s area at some point, but here’s a quick intro. HTML tags have two parts – the ‘opening’ and the ‘closing’. The opening signals what is going to be applied to the text or image that follows, the closing signals the end of whatever is applied. Both opening and closing are bracketed by “< " and ">“, with the only difference being that the closing has an additional “/” in the bracket. So structurally:

        <some html tag>text text text</some html tag>

        Note the “/” at the beginning of the last part, the closing. That tells the page that the tag being applied to ‘text’ should stop being applied. So if you wanted to put something in italics you would do the following:

        <i>This is in italics</i>

        You can do a google search to see what all the tags below are but “i” is for italics, “em” for bold (emphasis). Hope this helps.

  8. Kyle H says

    A quote from Emile Cioran made me think of an i-thou engagement with another being yet not in dialogue.
    “When we see someone again after many years, we should sit down facing each other and say nothing for hours, so that by means of silence our consternation can relish itself”

  9. Kevin says

    Hey fellow partial examiners Love the podcasts and especially this one. To me the I-thou is simply that fleeting feeling we get when the universe and our relationship with it seems utterly perfect. Like we were meant to be at that exact place at that exact time and there is nothing we would change about it. Suddenly desire disappears. We feel whole. There are many ways to describe it. The problem seems to be we can’t manufacture it. As soon as we seek it its gone, because again we are in desire. So what to do? We have to do something with our lives. Have some goal. But again goals imply desire so we are stuck. I see the only way out is not to seek the I-thou. We don’t have to. It’s always there in the background. And if you can’t feel it its BECAUSE your looking for it. Imperfection in life is an illusion. Or more like a sickness inflicted on us by our imagination of perfection. And this is coming from a 33 year old unemployed college graduate. So I’m not saying this from a place of privilege. To me our unhappiness, or lack of an I-thou, would be like a fish in the ocean looking for water. It can’t find it because it’s always there. Any thoughts?

  10. Profile photo of Mike Guastaferri says

    Hey Kevin,
    Let me first confess that I have not looked at Buber’s “I and Thou” for some time. But I chanced upon your posting as I was browsing through some of the discussions and it struck me that your comments could, with very little modification, have been slipped into the conversation we were having about the Tao in the Intro Readings in Philosophy group. We read the Tao Te Ching, another primarily poetic work that makes it’s own gestures at the ineffable.

    Here is the third verse in Legge’s translation

    3. Always without desire we must be found,
    If its deep mystery we would sound;
    But if desire always within us be,
    Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

    In practice ( at least in my half-assed ecumenical gloss) this works out to be the classical Christian virtues
    with just a little tweaking ( my apologies to St Paul ) :
    Hope, without expectation
    Faith without belief
    and Love without an object

    Should be a piece of cake. No ?

  11. Kevin says

    Hey Mike,
    I do believe the I-thou relationship has tones of Eastern mysticism in it. I also like the translations as they do poetically describe the feeling. But what I find so frustrating about these types of explanations as to the nature of suffering is their simplicity, and therefore the ease in which we should be able to eradicate suffering from our lives. Intellectually the concept makes sense and should in theory have practical application. But why can’t I do it all the time? I try to go throughout my day telling myself to abstain from desire, but it usually never FEELS like enough, like I could have done this different, or spent a little more time with my daughter, or not smoked that cigarette when I promised myself I would quit. It’s like my mind can’t help but judge itself and want to change something. There are moments of bliss but they are so rare. Is that an intrinsic part of human nature, or just another part of our sickness which can be fixed with the proper training and work? I guess in summary, even though we seem to know philosophical truths which would ease our suffering, how can we put them into practice? When I wrote that last piece I sitting in my recliner, looking out my window as the afternoon sunshine was glistening through a passing rain shower and refracting a beautiful rainbow. After I wrote the piece I looked again it had all turned into a dark stormcloud and the feeling was gone. So irritating…

    • Profile photo of Tammy says

      Hey Kevin, if you don’t mind I’d like to jump in–really enjoyed the podcast about Buber. Most especially, follow-up blogs and supplemented material. Check out Daniel Horne’s blog “What Would an I-Thou Encounter Look Like?” I was unaware of the movie “My Dinner with Andre” and thought it was a wonderful visual and artistic expression after reading and listening to additions speakers re Buber on iTunes. This is one of my favorite podcasts.

      I think the idea of “flow” in eastern philosophy is a practice of letting our human feelings do just that–flow. Its about accepting all our different feelings in our humanness. Feelings (I’m not sure if emotions and feeling are the same – anyone feel free to expand my understanding) are a process that starts inside us and instead of reacting or judging, we allow our feelings to workout and observe where they lead.

      I think of it like not reacting but acknowledging our feeling, ie, feeling happy, joy, surprise, delight, sad, angry, hurt, confused, etc. etc., and not repressing them. I think they call this detachment, while allowing space for process. But, my understanding is that when we have feelings (whatever feelings) we don’t judge them good or bad. More, acknowledge feelings are what makes us human, in compassion with our self and with others and let them go valuing the moment and living in the present.

      I was hoping to get clarity re desire reading Deleuze: Difference and Repetition because there have been so many different concepts of desires–are they human needs (I think we can safely assume they are), are they wants (ditto) and what do they mean for ourselves and for others?

      All that said, I don’t think the Eastern philosophy group proposal is a go this month. And, I’m wanting (desiring) to learn what Confucius, Taoist, and Buddhist (in all its flavors) could help in my understanding. Another interesting mystic is Rumi. He seems similar to Buber and other Eastern traditions and mysticism.

      The link below by Michael Dieciuc titled ” The Mystical Mind: The Philosophical and Psychological Significance of Mystical Experiences” is work I’ve utilized. My take is that mysticism is largely misunderstood, and I think they are just part of our human experience.


  12. Profile photo of Adam Birch says

    I loved this podcast. I’d never encountered Buber before but I love some of the ideas you talked about. I’m going to have to check out his writings.


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