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I and Thou

Martin Buber

Part II, aphorisms 1–6: The It-World

Part I, aphorisms 23–29: Arguments for the Primacy of Relation

Part II, aphorisms 6–8

With Part II, Buber turns from the individual man to society as a whole. He sums up the source of our current sociological ills in one sentence at the tail end of the meandering first aphorism: "the improvement of the ability to experience and use generally involves a decrease in man's power to relate - that power which alone can enable man to live in the spirit". Human culture, of course, has been engaged since its inception in a steady progression toward better and better experiencing. The previous century (the 19th) had seen this ability increase exponentially, with the industrial revolution, the birth of the germ theory of disease, and Darwin's insight into the mechanics of life, among other accomplishments. Though Buber sees much good in scientific progress, he is also acutely aware of its unhappy effects: our staggering advances have managed to set us squarely within a one-sided It-world, a world in which we have completely lost the ability to say "You" to anyone or anything. And by trapping us within this It-world, our advances have managed to leave us feeling alienated, oppressed, and doomed, rather than powerful.

In the sixth aphorism of part two, Buber provides a wonderfully evocative metaphor for the modern, It-obsessed world. He paints the It-world as a stagnant swamp, rotting, festering, and poisonous to its inhabitants. The only way to make this world livable, he tells us, is to irrigated and fertilize the lifeless muck with the fresh, flowing streams of the You-world.

Aphorisms three through sixth, break down the construction of modern society and reveal how it depends entirely on I–It rather than I–You relationships. As It-dwellers, Buber tells us, we divide up our life into two spheres: the It-sphere and the I-sphere. The It sphere is comprised of institutions, such as school, work, marriage, and place of worship. The I-sphere is what is inside of us, our feelings. We work extremely hard to keep these spheres separate, even when it seems more natural to meld them (such as in the very personal institution of marriage).

Many people, Buber tells us, are aware that our institutions have ceased to fulfill us and leave us alienated. Their solution is to insert more feelings into the institutions, or rather, to build up societies based on feelings. But this is fundamentally misguided: our feelings are just as lifeless as our institutions, because they too are tied merely to experience and not to relation. These feelings are not between an I and a You, but, rather, they are had by an I toward an It. It is only encounter, the cosmic force of love between human beings, that can save the structures of our society, by allowing us to forge a community based on shared loving responsibility.

Buber, therefore, next asks whether such a restructured society is even feasible. Would politics and economics be able to withstand a switch from seeing others as centers of services and aspirations, to seeing others in the whole uniqueness of their existence? How could such a society be a rational machine, working as a precision instrument? Well, Buber points out, it is not as if modern government or economy is working very well as things stand. Both are heading toward disaster and this is because they entirely lack relation. There is nothing wrong or evil, he tells us, about the desire to make money or to obtain power, but these motivations need to be fundamentally connected to the will toward relation if they are going to result in a healthy community.


Buber's analysis of the problems of modern society is both fascinating and prescient. Writing in 1923, we can almost see him as a prophet of the end of the century: scientific advances have made Buber's diagnoses even more true today than they were back then. Many modern thinkers have tried to draw correlations between the drastically rising rates of depression and the isolating tendencies that began to show up in late 20th century America (such as the use of the internet to conduct nearly all transactions, and the ever-increasing levels of ambition that lead us to place less emphasis on personal relationships). Appealing to Buber, one might say that what is happening in our age is an increasing extent to which we rely solely on experience, and exclude encounter from our lives; we see everything and everyone as an object to be understood intellectually, and used practically to further our own success or happiness. The rise in rates of depression, then, might be an indication of the deep-seated human need for the other mode of relating to the world, the mode which is reciprocal and participatory, in which we view others as You rather than It.

There is, however, a basic problem with Buber's sociological analysis and that is his failure to explain how the newly restructured society might work on a practical level. How does one tie the will to profit and the will to power to the will to relate? How does one run a society based on loving responsibility? These sound like very appealing ideas but in the absence of any indication otherwise, it is hard not to conclude that they are more like slogans than practical blueprints.

In addition to the mere vagueness of his proposal, there also seem at first glance to be several specific counts against it. First of all, in modern society we must interact with many people with whom we have no close ties. Presumably, we have never had encounter with these people because we have never even met most of them. A politician has never encountered most of his constituents, and a businessman has never encountered most of the people whom his decisions effect. How will the ability of these men to encounter really effect society?

In addition, there is an even graver, related worry: Imagine that we did all develop the ability to encounter those around us, and we developed a loving responsibility for those people. Then we might become heavily biased towards the interests of those closest to us, and perhaps even behave unjustly toward those whom we did not yet know. Wars might become more frequent, national politics might degenerate into quarrels between local interests. When we think of instances of groups among whom the sense of the responsibility between members is particularly strong, we find that these groups are often associated with gross crimes against non-members. Take for example, the case of Nazi Germany, which believed strongly in national ties, or of the mafia, which believes strongly in the sanctity of family ties. An overwhelming sense of love or responsibility toward certain persons is not necessarily a good basis on which to build national and international governance. Objective rationality—i.e. viewing each person as an equal life, none with any more importance than the other—is much more conducive to fostering justice. Buber, though, has a solution to these worries. In the community he envisions, human beings do not simply have a loving responsibility toward members of the group, but toward all human beings, even human beings they have never met and will likely never meet. This becomes possible only after one encounters God. Given that in such a society human beings love everyone, the two worries just mentioned disappear. The vagueness of the account, though, is still troubling. It is hard to envision how this community would work. Buber claims, for instance, that the will to profit could still exist, but would such a desire exist in a world based wholly on loving responsibility toward all other people? Would such a society be capitalist or socialist? How would the distribution of goods among the nations of the world work? Who would rule whom? This is not to say that Buber's proposal is not a feasible one, but only that it is difficult to determine whether it is feasible or not without more specifics about its operation.

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