‘I do not believe in a self-naming of God, a self-definition of God before men. The Word of revelation is I am that I am. That which reveals is that which reveals. That which is, is and nothing more. The eternal source of strength streams, the eternal contact persists, the eternal voice sounds forth, and nothing more.’
The Experience of Thinking Podcast
Biography of Martin Buber (1878-1965)
I and Thou (1923)
Martin Buber
In Summary

Every genuine I-Thou relation – whether it be with a lover, a tree or a dog – has the Divine latent within it: ‘In every sphere, through everything that becomes present to us, we gaze toward the train of the eternal You; in each we perceive a breath of it; in every You we address the eternal You…'


To be objective is to turn all things into objects; to hold them at arm’s length; to turn them like a diamond and see every exterior facet, yet never know their inner worth; to treat others like an object to be used, like pounds of flesh to be sexualised, taken or devoured; to reduce your fellow human to atoms, marrow and bone then turn that scalpel back upon yourself; to dissect unto death the life you were meant to live. There is, indeed, an obvious link between objectifying and being objective, a perilous coupling to which Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish philosopher, objected.

Tired of seeing reality reduced to objects – ‘I-It’ relations – Martin Buber advocated a return to a mutual, intimate and relational way of seeing others and the world, which he termed ‘I-Thou’ relations. This notion exploded through his most famous work, I and Thou, published in 1923 and translated into English in 1937, just in time for arguably the greatest mass objectification of humans in history. After Hitler rose to power, Buber resigned from his Frankfurt professorship in protest, moved to Jerusalem in 1938 and became a professor at Hebrew University. Nominated for numerous Nobel Prizes, Buber became a prominent voice in contemporary thought, with his seminal book I and Thou still occupying the shelf of nearly every philosophy student today.


When I treat others as objects or things – as ‘Its’ – this is called an I-It relation. In so doing, I treat others as a means to an end, projecting my own needs and beliefs onto them, rather than seeing them as they are in and of themselves. Since they are a projection of myself, I only see what makes sense to me and fits into my preconceptions, reducing the mystery of personhood to what is ‘describable, analysable, [and] classifiable.’ We can also have I-It relations with nature when we abuse it for the sake of human progress or when we try to fit it into our conceptual box, imposing abstract and scientific categories onto utterly unique and mysterious creations (for example, no tree is exactly the same as any other and so the very category of ‘tree’, while useful, undermines our ability to see the individual tree before us in all its unique glory). We eventually fall prey to our own objectifying gaze, seeing even ourselves as material things instead of as personal and unique ‘I's: ‘He treats himself, too, as an It.’

In contrast, we occasionally have glimmers of an I-Thou relation breaking through ‘the crust of thinghood.’ This occurs when we stop thinking of others in terms of their use or value to us and enter into a mutual relation with them, where both sides are upheld in their separate identity and worth yet are also connected through the intimacy of relation. We stop analysing or predicting what others will do based upon their past actions (that is, as if they were an object or a billiard ball stuck on its trajectory), and instead live in the present, allowing the unexpected to surprise, delight and emerge. In ceasing to see others and the world as mere objects for our use or scrutiny, we thereby leave behind the realm of the strictly rational, entering into a mysterious relation that transcends the constraints of time, space and objects. Yet this is not a flight from reality but a different way of living and seeing reality, imbuing the everyday with relations instead of things, and intimacy instead of objects. Precisely because this way of living is beyond our control or analysis, most of us are uncomfortable living this way for long, quickly fleeing the ‘unreliable, unsolid, unlasting, unpredictable, dangerous world of relation [back] into the having of things.’ The ‘You-world radiated from the ground for the length of one glance, and now its light has died back into the It-world.’

For Buber, God can only be known through an I-Thou relationship. God is outside of time and space, so as soon as we attempt to treat him like an object within time and space, we immediately lose sight of him. The ‘eternal You cannot become an It… Woe unto the possessed who fancy that they possess God!’ God cannot be analysed, ‘asserted’, or rationally ‘inferred’ but can only be met and ‘addressed’ as a personal You. While we can treat others as things and others can treat us as things, God is the only You that never wavers nor drops his side of the I-Thou bargain: ‘Only one You never ceases, in accordance with its nature to be You for us… Only we are not always there.’ Even when we are not present to God, God is present to us.


While Buber did not invent the language of objectification, he certainly helped solidify its place in contemporary society, with everyday language now including such phrases as ‘using others’, ‘don’t objectify me’, and ‘I’m not just your toy or plaything.’ Many find that Buber provides them with a helpful vocabulary to articulate the value of personhood and relationship. Yet beyond the social sphere, Buber also crafted an alternate lens through which to view nature and God, providing a counternarrative to the objectifying scalpel of the sciences, as well as the attempt to prove or disprove God – as if he were an object that could be pointed to, replicated or tossed aside. Those looking for a philosophically rigorous yet unusually intimate way of seeing humanity, faith and the cosmos might find Buber a helpful guide.

Further Reading By This Author

Buber was an avid and prodigious writer, though a few of his works have risen to the top and remain relatively popular today, such as Eclipse of God, Tales of the Hasidim, Moses: The Revelation and Covenant, and On Judaism.

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