Existential Friday: Leaf Alone
Ich Du (“I Thou” or “I You”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas do not play a role in this relation. In an I–Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts). Martin Buber stressed that an Ich Du relationship lacks any composition (e.g., structure) and communicates no content (e.g., information). Despite the fact that Ich Du cannot be proven to happen as an event (e.g., it cannot be measured), Buber stressed that it is real and perceivable. A variety of examples are used to illustrate Ich Du relationships in daily life—two lovers, an observer and a cat, the author and a tree, and two strangers on a train. Common English words used to describe the Ich Du relationship include encounter, meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and exchange.
One key Ich Du relationship Buber identified was that which can exist between a human being and God. Buber argued that this is the only way in which it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.
To create this I–Thou relationship with God, a person has to be open to the idea of such a relationship, but not actively pursue it. The pursuit of such a relation creates qualities associated with It ness, and so would prevent an I You relation, limiting it to I It. Buber claims that if we are open to the I–Thou, God eventually comes to us in response to our welcome. Also, because the God Buber describes is completely devoid of qualities, this I–Thou relationship lasts as long as the individual wills it. When the individual finally returns to the I It way of relating, this acts as a barrier to deeper relationship and community.
“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”
― Martin Buber
The Ich-Es (“I It”) relationship is nearly the opposite of Ich Du. Whereas in Ich Du the two beings encounter one another, in an Ich Es relationship the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the “I” confronts and qualifies an idea, or conceptualization, of the being in its presence and treats that being as an object. All such objects are considered merely mental representations, created and sustained by the individual mind. This is based partly on Kant’s theory of phenomenon, in that these objects reside in the cognitive agent’s mind, existing only as thoughts. Therefore, the Ich Es relationship is in fact a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue, but a monologue.
In the Ich-Es relationship, an individual treats other things, people, etc., as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how an object can serve the individual’s interest.
Buber argued that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich Du and Ich Es, and that in fact Ich Du experiences are rather few and far between. In diagnosing the various perceived ills of modernity (e.g., isolation, dehumanization, etc.), Buber believed that the expansion of a purely analytic, material view of existence was at heart an advocation of Ich Es relations – even between human beings. Buber argued that this paradigm devalued not only existents, but the meaning of all existence.
“The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.”
― Martin Buber