Learning – I-Thou

Martin_Buber_55Martin Buber whose thinking informs this session’s Learning section, grew up in Vienna at the end of the last century. He wrote I and Thou in 1923. In 1933 he resigned his university professorship and worked to support his fellow Jews. In 1938 he moved to Jerusalem where he lived till his death in 1965.

Here is a summary of his book I and Thou:

I and Thou is divided into three sections. The first part of the book examines the human condition by exploring the psychology of the individual human. Here Buber establishes his crucial first premise: that human beings have two distinct ways of engaging the world, one of which the modern age entirely ignores. In the first of these, which Buber calls “experience” (the mode of ‘I–it’), a human being collects data, analyzes it, classifies it, and theorizes about it. The object of experience (the It) is viewed as a thing to be utilized, a thing to be known or put to some purpose. In experience we see our object as a collection of qualities and quantities, as a particular point in space and time. There is a necessary distance between the experiencing I and the experienced It: the one is subject, and the other object. Also, the experiencing I is an objective observer rather than an active participant in this mode of engaging the world.

In the second part of the book, Buber examines human life on the societal level. He investigates both society itself and human beings as they exist within society. In this mode, which he calls “encounter” (the mode of I–You), we enter into a relationship with the object encountered, we participate in something with that object, and both the I and the You are transformed by the relation between them. The You we encounter is encountered in its entirety, not as a sum of its qualities. The You is not encountered as a point in space and time, but, instead, it is encountered as if it were the entire universe, or rather, as if the entire universe somehow existed through the You. We can enter into encounter with any of the objects that we experience; with inanimate objects, with animals, and with human being. With human beings the phenomena of encounter is best described as love. We can also, however, enter into encounter with a being that cannot be the object of experience: God.

This type of encounter is the subject of the third section of the book. Building on the conclusions of the first two sections—that human being has two ways of engaging the world, and that modern society leaves human being alienated by valuing only the first of these—Buber tells us how to go about building a fulfilling, meaningful society (a true community) by making proper use of the neglected second mode of engaging the world, and by using this mode to relate to God.

All encounters, he begins by telling us, are fleeting; it is only a matter of time before any You dissolves into an It again and as soon as we begin to reflect on the You it becomes an It. Love, then, is a constant oscillation between encounter and experience, and it does not wholly fulfill our yearning for relation. In every human encounter that we undergo, we feel that there could be something more, something more lasting and more fulfilling. This “more” is encounter with God, or absolute relation. We cannot seek our encounter with God, but can only ready ourselves for it by concentrating both aspects of our self (the I of experience and the I of encounter) in our souls. If we ready ourselves for encounter it will definitely occur, and the proof that it has taken place will be in the transformation that we undergo; after absolute encounter we come to see every other being (nature, animals, people) as a You. We come to feel affection for everyone and everything, and to have a sense of loving responsibility for the whole course of the world. This transformation, Buber tells us, is divine revelation. It is salvation. Filled with loving responsibility, given the ability to say “You” to the world, a human being is no longer alienated, and does not worry about the meaninglessness of life. Such a fulfilled and complete person will help others to reach this goal as well. they will help to build an ideal society, a real community, which must be made up of people who have also gone through absolute relation, and are therefore willing to say “You” to the entire world.

This summary is an edited and reduced version of the summary on the Spark Notes website.