Martin Buber / I-You vs. I-It

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Martin Buber (1878-1965)

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Jewish philosopher particularly known for his theistic and dialogical existentialism, that is, a form of existentialistic thinking occupied with how we address each other, nature, and God.

His most famous work is his essay “Ich und Du” from 1923 that in English bears the title “I and Thou.” It is considered a classic but beware that large parts of it are (over)written in a poetic and extremely academic language that often obscures the message. Actually, to the point where Martin Buber himself implied that he could not tell its full meaning according to his friend, Walter Kaufmann, that translated the English 1970 edition.

Still, the essay is chockfull of ideas and notions worthy of (and requiring!) many re-readings if you want to catch the full spectrum of his thoughts.

In the following I will present, as briefly as possible, Buber’s key messages. Because of his ambiguity this does pose a challenge and my recap is bound to reflect my reading of Buber. Still, I hope this recap will open your eyes to the fascinating world of Martin Buber whose thoughts have a lot to offer modern man.

A Quick Run-Down of the Key Themes

In “I and Thou” Martin Buber sets out on a grand project musing not only on how human beings interact with each other but the development of self-consciousness, spirituality, art, knowledge, economics and the state, the question of free will and the nature of despots.

In order to touch upon such far reaching and distinct subject matters over the course of only 120 pages, Buber’s considerations goes to the very heart of human existence; How we perceive and interact with the world – from our existence in the womb until death.

I-You (I-Thou) vs. I-it

Elderly woman holds the hand of a young man

Buber’s key assumption is that man, at all times, engage with other individuals, nature and God either in an I-You mode (or I-Thou mode depending on the translation) or an I-It mode. The I-It mode is the relationship between a person and equipment, a ‘functional’ relationship between subject and object, wholly lacking mutuality. The I-You relationship, on the other hand, is a wholly mutual relationship involving a full experiencing of the other, completely based in the present moment.

Importantly, not only is ‘You‘ different from ‘It‘. The very ‘I’ is also fundamentally different in the two situations. The ‘I’ in the I-You relationship is ‘betweenness,’ empathetic and exploratory. Conversely, when relating to ‘It’ one holds back something of oneself: one inspects ‘it’ from many possible perspectives; one categorizes it, analyzes it, judges it, and decides upon its position in the grand scheme of thing. In I-It-experiences you also hold back something of yourself since your actions are based on past experiences and, thus, expectations.

Put succinctly, one may say that in the I-It mode one marvels about the way things are, whereas, in the I-You mode one marvels simply that they are.

This distinction has far reaching consequences.

Experience vs. Relation

Buber distinguishes between experience and relation. Experience is something that takes place in man and can take many forms; a sensation, a feeling, a thought, a rush etc. Experiences take place when man lives in the I-It mode. What is distinctive of an experience is that it is independent of the outside world in the sense that no one else needs to have an experience that is remotely similar in that moment. Yes, others may have a similar experience, but not the same. That particular experience is in the mind of “the experiencer” and him or her only.

A munk prays for a deceased man (Shanxi Taiyuan train station, China)
A munk prays for a deceased man (Shanxi Taiyuan train station, China)

A relation, on the other hand, can only take place between people in the here and now when man engage with existence in the I-You mode. When people relate to one another in the I-You mode they relate with their full being and open up to see the fullness of the other. Whereas an experience may be broken down element by element and described a relation involves such all-consuming presence that nothing can be related from it. The relation exists in a realm beyond vocabulary and lasts only for the duration of the I-You moment. And then, as you recede back into the world of I-It experiences the I-You moment fades into an I-It experience of far less – but describable – intensity.

For Martin Buber, it is only when you relate to your fellow human beings in the I-You mode that you engage in existence with all of man’s potentiality. Not that there is anything wrong with I-It experiences in themselves. I-It experiences are all well and needed. We cannot live in the I-You mode all the time. We also need to plan some things in life, coordinate activities with our fellow human beings, share stories and experiences etc. Actually, I-It activities are vital for survival but if we only live in the mode of I-It we are missing out on the most powerful way man can engage with existence: via relations, via opening up and sharing to the fullest our being while being fully open to the being of our fellow men.

This was the default mode of “primitive” man and how he related to his fellow men, nature itself and God.

Man, Nature, and God

It may sound puzzling that man can engage with nature and God in an I-You or an I-It mode. Human beings can react to our actions, open up or close depending on our opening and closing but how can a tree or a rock react any different to us?

Buber’s answer is a reflection of the radical potency he posits I-You relations represent to man. Yes, the tree, the caterpillar, the rain or the rock may not appear to be affected the slightest by your I-You-relating but they do come “alive” in a different manner as do you in the I-You “betweenness.” From being merely an I-It tree experience that can be reduced to a trunk, some branches, leaves, roots, moss and bark it becomes a tree in its own right that you stand in relation to. No longer an object separate from you, both tree and you stand in relation to one another, to nature and to God, or the Eternal You, whom all extended lines of I-You relations meet in, as Buber writes.

Old man and dog encapsulated by green leaves looking at the sky

The message here is profound. Yes, we may engage with nature in an I-It mode where we can reduce everything to its parts components, where everything to the best of our abilities may be understood and mastered, learned and shared. Or we may engage with existence in an I-You mode where we can reduce nothing to any components, where there is no judging or understanding, no categorizing and reduction but where we simply relate.

In the same spirit, Buber is adamant that man can only speak to God, never of God. To speak of God is a reflection of the I-It mode and based on an idea of what God is or could be. But God is only something man can relate to. God is the central, organizing You whom everything stand in relation to. Buber spends a lot of energy describing man’s relation with God, yet, his exact message is not easy to grasp. I believe, however, that he advocates that for man to encounter God man must dispel all preconceptions of meaning or hope and stand naked in all his fragility before the universe. Then, and only then, the moment may appear to him by way of grace and he may chose it by way of will.

The Development of Self-Consciousness

Buber’s notion of an I-It mode may be agreeable – after all, it is the world he posit modern man spends most of his life in – but his description of the I-You mode is bold, to say the least. What exactly is this puzzling I-You state of mind? Can man exist in such a dreamlike state? And, more importantly, why would two such distinct modes of existing even develop?

The last question is the central one and to answer it Buber takes us back to primitive man. Primitive man was intimately in contact with the I-You mode, says Buber, since for him I and You were not yet split. For primitive man everything was related and there was hardly any difference between the dead visiting him in his dreams, the demanding glance of his chief, or the Shaman’s ecstatic song and dancing.

Floating man released

Like all other types of stimuli these happenings aroused sensations in primitive man and his connection with nature, fellow man and the spirits were all governed by his relation to these phenomena. He needed not, could not break down any of these sensations in any part components. His only “understanding” of these phenomena was his relation to them and “understanding” is not even the right word for the phenomena was not something he perceived of as something that could be understood. The tree, the chief, the sun and the spirits simply were just as he simply were. Or to repeat a phrase used earlier; early man was not occupied with what things were, but simply that they were. And for this kind of contemplation all that is needed is relation.

Over the millennia, however, something happened. Gradually, experiences receded and built into memories that became objects that faded into categories and eventually one phenomena appeared that remained static throughout the ages: ‘I.’

Once self-consciousness in the form of I had been established You was inevitable leading to man’s first split in existence. Eventually, the I-You split led to the I-It split that was bound to follow once the world was populated with a myriad of self-conscious beings eager to convey to other self-conscious creatures their experiences.

The Development of Spirituality – from Womb to Postnatal Life

A journey of the self-consciousness – that may be likened to that of early man – is man’s journey from prenatal existence and until death.

Spirituality and death

In the womb the embryo is at one with the Great Mother nature. In this state experiences in themselves have no meaning. Only the relation has meaning – and means everything. The embryo does not and cannot conceive of anything other than pure natural association, the complete immersion in nature and the relatedness between everything.

After birth this is the “secret image of a wish,” as Buber calls it, that man carries with him or her. A desire, not to go back to the womb or a womb-like state, but to engage with the world and existence once again in this all-encompassing state.

This, then, is the function of and the reason for the development of spirituality. We replace the physical relatedness we experienced in the womb for a spiritual association, that is, a relation of the same order with the world and universe. And this we cannot find through any experience, only via relations.

Buber urges us to consider the infant. For a period of time after leaving the womb the infant has no conception of separation and when the baby starts exploring the world, Buber says, “the innateness of the longing for relation is apparent even in the earliest and dimmest stages.” What the infant is reaching out for is not the experience of an object. Objects have no meaning for the infant. What the infant is seeking is a living, active being, a You it can relate to.

This is the infant’s drive to turn everything into a You and Buber insists that the longing for relation is primary and that the drive aims at reciprocity, at ‘tenderness’. But similar to early man’s experience, at some point relations will turn into memories that will turn into objects and categories and at some point the only thing that remains the same throughout the ruckus will manifest itself: ‘I.’ With I follows You and once IYou have been established “It for itself” is possible and, subsequently, the I-It mode.

Alas, the I-It mode is the last to manifest itself but once it has it will rapidly expand and, eventually, fill most or even all of our waking hours if not left in check. Why? Because it is safe, ordered, and comfortable. I-You moments, on the other hand, “pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security – altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable,” as Buber writes. He continues; “one cannot live in the pure present: it would consume us if care were not taken that it is overcome quickly and thoroughly. But in pure past one can live; in fact, only there can a life be arranged. One only has to fill every moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn.” Hence, man’s challenge with living in the moment and our perpetual quest for things, any thing, to do!

But while it is tempting to live solely in the I-It mode and even if no human can live without It, Buber warns that “whoever lives only with It is not human.”

Will and Grace

With I-You and I-It established as two distinct modes of existence the question becomes how to encourage our I-You existence (if one wishes to do so).

Man caught in the act
Ann and Ron Hayward say they did not order the adult films

Before trying to answer this question, it should be stressed again that the I-You mode is not one man can exist in over long periods of time. If one stays too long in the I-You mode one will burn up in the white flame of the You. The I-You mode is only a mode of existence we may visit from time to time. But the less we visit it, the less we will feel alive.

For Buber to exist in the I-You mode is a function of activity and passivity, of choosing and being chosen. First, he says, the moment needs to appear to you by way of grace. You cannot forcibly bring it about. It is a contemplating of existence, of opening up to the fullness of existence. It is not something you can seek, but something that will find you. And when it finds you, then, you have to chose it by way of will.

Carl Rogers on really hearing someone without judging

If it sounds murky it’s because Buber is not very clear. Then again, this also reflects that one cannot share I-You experiences and, so, it is impossible to put in words how to get there. The I-It descriptions we can propose are only deformed shadows in the burning I-You light.

As I understand Buber, though, he advocates that when we encounter each other we need to be careful not to judge, not to let initial or superfluous impressions guide our encounter and via an open invitation create an opportunity for the other to reveal him- or herself completely if that person chose to do so by way of will. This may sound relatively easy but, actually, represents radical appeals to man’s humility, tolerance, and courage. Think about it. When was the last time you greeted someone with all of yourself inviting the other to show all of themselves? With no reservations whatsoever. Many (most?) people will go through life never experiencing this after their infancy. It is a radical way of being. It is also the way to real freedom.

Causality and Freedom

For Buber, in the I-It world everything is connected and a result of something else. For this reason, since everything is interrelated in space and time one is completely governed by the rules of cause and effect and it makes no sense to talk of free will. The I-It life is simply a program playing out according to its algorithm.


In the I-You mode, however, life happens in the between beyond cause and effect. What happens here is unpredictable and existing outside space and time. Hence, it cannot be shared since it is beyond comprehension, categorization and vocabulary. Only a vague shadow imprint of the I-You relation may later be described in a “dumbed down” I-It language but this cannot capture the freedom that was inherent in the I-You moment.

Again, Buber is far from clear but his point seems to be that once you enter into I-You relations something new and unpredictable opens up. In this realm of betweenness man may exercise his free will even if (or rather, because) this is exercised without any recourse to past events or “programming.” The decisions here are uninhibited, without prejudice and in complete coordination with both inner and outer circumstances because they exist in “the between.” Admittedly, once the I-You moment has run its course the person will once again recede into his I-It mode but any necessity and fate that now follows will be carried out in the ringing echo of the I-You moment, however, loud or muffled this may be.

Therefore, for Buber, the I-You person is the truly free person. He is not bothered that he, like all humans, oscillates between a “locked” I-It world and an unpredictable I-You world because he knows that, in effect, he is not bound by It. Any fate one may assign to him is always intimately related with his freedom and so for him fate is not something he loathes. Rather, he sees his life as the completion of his freedom and his fate. Whether things go as planned or not does not concern him for any resistance simply reveals the mystery of life to him.

Not so for the I-It person that lives in a world of causality and sees life as something to be planned and completed in accordance with this plan. And so – when things fail – look for reasons and explanations for the terrible misdeed that overcame him.

Art, Aesthetics & Knowledge

The aforementioned considerations all revolve around issues of a very theoretical, inward looking nature but Martin Buber is adamant that his considerations also have real-life value and applicability.

With regards to art and aesthetics, for instance, Buber insist that the work of art is like a form waiting to be exposed and to reveal its true form the artist must stand in an I-You relation with his artwork. If the artwork is simply a reflection of an I-It approach it won’t reveal anything new. It’ll just be another thing, another it, in a line of its.

Banana taped onto wall, Maurizio Catalan “The Comedian” (2019)
Maurizio Catalan “The Comedian” (2019)

Sadly, in modern times, says Buber, we treat art as things. As mere objects detached from whatever intention the artist had. Art, today, is itemized, prized, compared and categorized. The price, especially, seems to be the most important quality nowadays and the news will let us know on a regular basis that this or that artwork made new auction records. We never hear of the artist’s intention, however, even when we are revolted by its vulgarity.

The same mechanisms may be recognized from sports. Consider the Olympics where the focus quickly turns to which country has won the most medals rather than celebrating the beauty of the human body. Or consider TV-shows, like, X-factor, The Bachelor, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Dragon’s Den and countless other TV-shows. What was supposed to be a thing of art, love, knowledge, or creative work becomes a contest for something else; entertainment, loathing, admiration, things to do…

Likewise, with regards to education Buber laments that knowledge today is treated as something we possess when knowledge should be something we stand in relation to and something to use in our relating with each other. Again, there is nothing wrong with knowledge as an I-It object in itself. We need knowledge to cure diseases, produce food and build bridges etc. But if knowledge is something solely to learn by repetition we miss out on the greater good that knowledge could be with regards to our relational existence. Instead, knowledge simply becomes a tool to further our individual I-It projects and something we use to knock others on the head with.

Economics and the State

Buber is a radical critic of modern day conceptions of economy and the state that he finds deeply dehumanizing. In the modern world, says Buber, leading statesmen and businessmen see human beings simply as providers of services that are calculated and employed according to their specific capacities.

Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" (1936)
Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” (1936)

This is the world of It. A world of pure production and consumption where no one ever says You to anyone or anything. Moreover, Buber considers this a lost world in which world leaders merely seem to rule. In reality, however, they can only adjust themselves to the apparatus as long as that permits it.

Note that Buber recognizes man’s basic drives and his will to profit and will to power. Moreover, he says, these are natural and legitimate as long as they are tied to the will to human relations and carried by it. “There is no evil drive until the drive detaches itself from our being,” says Buber, but if the will to profit and power abjure the spirit, they abjure life. Once we have reached this point we cannot simply change the system by loosening the framework of the economy or the state since neither any longer serves under the supremacy of the You-saying spirit. Hence, it is at this point that we see Buber’s radical social critic when he calls for a fundamental transformation of economics and the state.

To transform economics and the state, says Buber, we need to establish a relation between our work, our possessions and the higher spirit. In and of themselves, work and possessions are of no lasting value. It is only from the presence of the spirit that significance and joy can flow into all work. In other words, modern man will never find true significance and joy before he recognizes the You-saying, responding spirit and that all truly meaningful work and life has to start from there.

The Return and the Slaying of the Incubus

So, how can we, as a culture, return to an I-You mode after being deeply immersed, and more and more so, in the world of I-It? Well, says Buber, first we have to acknowledge that we have become slaves of a causal I-It world. We have to truly understand the I-It predicament we have put ourselves in – and increasingly so with every new law, court house, “fiscal year,” and every other new institution and procedure that upholds the world of I-It. If not, we will consider our options from an I-It perspective only and under the misconception that the singular options we have are either to observe the rules or drop out, that is, either accept or rebel within the ruling I-It paradigm. But this is not the way to the I-You-mode.

Man falling onto burning bed

Instead Buber speaks in blunt terms about what must be done: “One gains power over an incubus by addressing it by its real name.” What is an incubus? An incubus is a problem that makes you worry a lot or a male evil spirit that has sex with a sleeping woman!

In other words, we need to address the I-You enemy that ravish us while we sleep! We have to wake up, become aware, and be more perceptive to existence and the potentiality it holds for I-You relations. Here Buber profess a classic existential message: Wake up!

Buber puts it beautiful in a long section: “Free is the man that wills without caprice [ie. without sudden mood changes]. He believes in the actual, which is to say: he believes in the real association of the real duality, I and You. He believes in destiny and also that it needs him. It does not lead him, it waits for him. He must proceed toward it without knowing where it waits for him. He must go forth with his whole being: that he knows. It will not turn out the way his resolve intended it; but what wants to come will come only if he resolves to do that which he can will. He must sacrifice his little will, which is unfree and ruled by things and drives, to his great will that moves away from being determined to find destiny. Now he no longer interferes, nor does he merely allow things to happen. He listens to that which grows, to the way of Being in the world, not in order to be carried along by it but rather in order to actualize it in the manner in which it, needing him, wants to be actualized by him – with human spirit and human deed, with human life and human death. He believes, I said; but this implies: he encounters.”

Man must sacrifice his “little will” for his “great will,” ie. reject and overcome the small temptations in lieu of the larger life and relations potential. He must do this by going forth with his whole being accepting that things will not turn out the way he planned or desired. Instead he must listen to that which grows, encounter it with his full presence and actualize it as it will actualize him with, as Buber says, “human spirit and human deed, with human life and human death.”


The I-It person, on the other hand, is determined by things. He has no great will and tries to pass of caprice in its place; now this, now that. Always flexible with regards to aims and values. Says Buber: “For sacrifice he lacks all capacity, however much he may talk of it, and you may recognize it by noting that he never becomes concrete.” The I-It man is the opportunistic man always trying to assist destiny but always on the basis of it, it, it, never You. For him, the free I-You man is not free. He cannot see him as free but only as a victim to change and uncertainty. What the I-It man does not understand is that the free man, unlike him, does not have an end here and then fetch the means from there; the I-You man has only one thing: his resolve to proceed toward his destiny. Having made this resolve, he will renew it at every fork in the road; He believes, he encounters. But the unbelieving capricious I-It man’s world is devoid of sacrifice and grace, encounter and present, and only and completely shot through with ends and means.

The Nature of the Despot – Persons vs. Egos

Buber distinguishes between person and ego. The person says “I am,” whereas, the ego says, “That is how I am.” The ego does not participate in any actuality. Everything is an experience within him. He sets himself apart from everything else and tries to possess as much as possible by means of experience and use.

Man is either in ego-mode or person mode. As examples of I-You persons Buber mentions Socrates, Goethe and Jesus. Socrates, he says, is the I of infinite conversations inviting everyone in. Goethe is the I of pure intercourse with nature and Jesus is the I of unconditional relation.

Burnt matches and one unburnt

But, asks Buber, “what if a man’s mission requires him to know only his association with his cause and no real relation to any You […] so that everything around him becomes It and subservient to his cause? How about the I-saying of Napoleon?” Indeed, Napoleon did not know the dimension of You. Rather, he is an example of the type that occurs in fateful eminence in fateful times; the despot whom everything flames toward while he himself stands in a cold fire; “a thousand relations reach out toward him but none issues from him”. A man who views others like he views himself; as a machine to be calculated and used for its cause. A man whose I-saying is not emphatic: “He does not even speak of himself, he merely speaks ‘on his own behalf’.”

The tragedy, says Buber, is that modern times may mistake “the demonic man,” such as, a Napoleon, a Hitler or a Trump and go into ecstasy “over the commanding brow of the fearless leader.” Modern times fail to see that what governs the demonic man is not lust for and delight in power. The tragedy, the doom is far more conspicuous; it is destiny and accomplishment. The demonic man is necessitated to act in a certain manner, to move toward a certain goal no matter how many Its are in the way.

Critique of Buber

I hope the above gives an idea of the world of Martin Buber. As stated in the beginning he is hard to read. Moreover, oftentimes he makes sweeping statements about human nature in a poetic or overly complex academic style where one could at least expect him to be clear and straight forward. For this reason, he often comes across as rather pretentious and he can be a burden to read. This writer, certainly, oftentimes found himself sighing and wanting to give up on Buber altogether.

His lack of precision and general statements also muddle some of his thoughts. For instance, he distinguishes strictly between the I-You and the I-It mode but a more meaningful distinction is probably that they lie on a continuum. In the extreme mode of I-You the self dissolves and our existence can be likened to that of an embryo. In the I-It extreme is the despot that does not even know of any You.

But while his lack of precision may be lamented his enthusiasm and the importance of his messages may not. It is all too easy to list arguments that modern man ever more lives strictly in the I-It mode and seek to live a life where we plan as much as possible leaving nothing to chance or the chance encounter. From early childhood we think and plan our education and career, travels and adventures, family, children, personal branding on social media and now also plastic surgery and botox etc. One way or another these are all based on the notion that “the good life” can be planned if only we plan well and early enough. And planning, obviously, has its merits. Buber’s deeply felt plea is simply that these tools and plans only have real life contributing value if they have as center and goal our relations with other people, nature and the higher spirits. If not we will just end up, pointlessly, adding more and more things to our to-do-list never becoming more content with our existence.

Closing Remarks

I hope this long recap of “I and Thou” caught your interest. If you feel like reading the original work you are definitely well on the way now. And if you want to learn more about another theistic existentialist I welcome you to read my article on the Danish philosopher and “father of existentialism” Søren Kierkegaard. Also please find my article on Irvin Yalom and his thoughts concerning Existential Isolation that also builds on some of Buber’s thoughts.

The Skeleton-Man Show Death: The High Price of Living

In my new show Death: The High Price of Living I introduce the audience to the existential tradition. You can find more information about the show here that is specifically targeted educational institutions and companies, for instance, as a fun and engaging event at the yearly company art club assembly.

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