A Glance at Martin Buber:
Understanding the I-Thou, I-It & the Narrow Ridge
Lauren B. Lau
University of Colorado at Boulder
It was a warm, sunny day this past August as I slipped on my suede cowboy boots and walked to campus. As I looked at the Economic Building I reminded myself how the first day of school always has a certain feel to it. I am not sure if it is the potential education lingering, new textbooks bought, fresh minds, tan skin, catching up with old friends, or simply the start of something new, the first day carries a unique weight that no other day does. Despite all the anticipation, as I continued to walk closer to the UMC my suede boots came to a stop as a man yelled, “Repent! Turn back or you will go to hell!” As my light-hearted mood sank, I said to myself, how in the world is he communicating a beautiful message of eternal life? This study, thus, seeks to understand (a) Martin Buber’s outlook on dialogue within this particular communicative problem while (b) discussing limitation of his theory.
After reviewing the literature on Martin Buber, there are three main aspects that will be highlighted for the purpose of this paper, (a) I-Thou Relationship (b) I-It Relationship and (c) the narrow ridge. Although there are other concepts found in Buber’s philosophy, these are the most relevant for the communicative problem.
I Thou Relationships (Genuine Dialogue)
As one reads Martin Buber’s theory, it is clear to see at the heart of his philosophy is the idea of sacrificing the ego or the individual. Genuine dialogue or what is termed as I-Thou relationship calls for an individual to place his or her needs to the side while stepping into the other's shoes. Buber †(1955) writes that this encounter is “where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.” Difficult to accomplish, one is able to see that the conscious act of a “living mutual relation” is not merely about coming to an agreement or completely uniting with the other, but rather embracing the difference.
I-It Relationship (Monologue)
In contrast to the I-Thou relationship is the I-It relationship, which merits a different relationship in dyadic communication. In Buber’s view, I-It relationship is when “a participant is seeing the other through the lens of one’s own needs and perceptions” (Fishbane, 1998, p. 44). More specifically, there are two types of I-It relationships which are technical dialogue or monologue disguised as dialogue (lecture notes). Although Buber argues that there is a time and a place to relate in I-It ways, (e.g. focusing on one's ego) ignoring the I-Thou aspects of a dialogue holds dangerous consequences of denying the humanity and worth of the person one is in contact with.
In addition, I-It relationship suggests that the person is in monologue instead of dialogue. Buber (1955) suggest that “he who is living the life of monologue is never aware of the other as something that is absolutely not himself and at the same time something with which he nevertheless communicates.” This quote emphasis that when one is constantly in the I-It mode the participants run the risk of talking past one another while jeopardizing the relational aspect of dialogue, thus, meriting conflicts, miscommunication and the like. At its core, Buber poses a relational view of the person while radically departing from preconceived notions of the individual.
The Narrow Ridge
As one can imagine, merging the above concepts becomes challenging while taxing on one’s mind and consciousness. In attempt to understand the balancing act, lays a concept known as the narrow ridge. As defined by Arnett (1986; cited by Craig, 2008) “the narrow ridge is the meeting place of human community… a communication style that genuinely takes into account both self and other” (lecture notes). An application of Buber's idea of genuine dialogue, this concept encourages one to “walk” the narrow ridge of communicative actions while being “open to the other’s view point and willing to alter one’s position based upon appropriate and just cause, if necessary” (lecture notes).
Given the ideal of the narrow ridge, I-Thou relationships, and I-It relationship the next portion is dedicated to returning to my above communicative problem in attempt to show the three in unison.
As my suede boots came to a stop, I found some of my friends approaching the man with the large “repent” sign. Quickly I followed them and entered into their dyad:
(Line 1) Man: “Repent, Jesus Christ is coming to condemn!”
(Line 2) Us: “Sir, can we speak to you about this?”
(Line 3) Man: “Repent!”
(Line 4) Us: “Sir, do you really think that this is a valid way of presenting the Good News of Jesus Christ?”
(Line 5) Man: (sarcastically) “No, I stand out here all day long and think that it is not a good idea, you are stupid.”
(Line 6) Us: “We are Christians and we feel what you are doing is wrong and would like to speak with you.”
(Line 7) Man: “Show me in the Bible where I am wrong then! You should know if you call yourself Christians! You are going to hell!”
After trying to reason with him for ten minutes, we all walked away from the conversation for two reasons; one, we were sick of being yelled at, and two, it was very apparent that the conversation was not a conversation, but rather a recording of our “destiny” of hell. Although I ranted and raved about it later that day with anyone and everyone, in hindsight, I realize that Buber’s theory was very apparent in my communicative problem. Thus, this section of the paper is dedicated to unpacking Buber's theory while shedding some light into our past situation.
The first issue we can understand from this interaction is to identify what type of dialogue has taken place in this particular circumstance. Buber (1955) suggests that this type of dialogue is not an example of an I-Thou relationship but rather an I-It interaction. As mention above, this type of dyad is “a conversation characterized by the need neither to communicate something nor to learn something nor to influence someone nor to come into connexion with someone but solely by the desire to have one’s own self-reliance confirmed by marking the impression that is made,”. or more simply put, to prove one’s point. Although it may be argued that this particular man was trying to influence us to change from “wickedness,” Buber (1955) suggests that if he was engaged in a I-Thou dialogue the participant would “really have in mind the other or others in their present and particular being” while he would seek to “establish a living mutual relation between himself and them (us)” Given this, comments such as you are stupid, you are going to hell, and you should know this, are not strong evidence to prove that he was trying to find mutual and common ground.
Secondly, we can see that the man we encountered lacked the ability to walk a narrow ridge because he was too polarized in his communication. This assumption is first based on his lack of openness. Because the narrow ridge demands openness to the other participants to be effective, the comments of ignoring our plea to discuss his view were not apparent in his communication. For example, Line 2 clearly shows a plea to discuss his methods of communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the response is Line 3 is repent. As one can see, although the exchange of repenting is apparent, the reasoning of why is not, thus, one can assume that he is unwilling to hear out the other participants. In addition, the man’s polarized communication leads us to an unproductive and useless interaction. As mentioned above, after trying to reason with the man for about ten minutes, we chose to walk away because the dialogue was not fulfilling or useful. Buber (1955) suggests that successful dialogue must “turn toward the other,” while “it is too little to be ready, one must also be really there.” As we can see in Line 2 & 4 there was an attempt to turn towards him while also in Line 6 we also see evidence of trying to find common and mutual ground of associating with the same ideals and values of Christianity. However, concepts of repent, condemnation and hell were the apparent themes of his responses.
Although the I-Thou, I-It and narrow ridge have strengths for understandng this communicative problem, one large limitation/weakness lies within Buber’s idea: the assumption of spirituality. For example, Buber (1955) states that “basic unity of a creature bound to God as in the instant before release the creature is to the creator spiritus not bound to God as the creature to the creator spiritus in the moment of release.” Although one can only speculate on the meaning of this, his dialogue and theory is saturated with the idea of the supernatural. Why I consider this to be a limitation is not from my own belief system but rather from how a person who has no belief system would interpret this theory. Because Buber’s main claims are centered on the idea of openness, responsiveness and adaptability, one can safely say that Buber is about discovering a mutual ground for participants. Although this is a modernistic thought that we find in our society today (e.g. tolerance, peace movements) one can also observe that Western culture does not always base daily conversations on spirituality. An excellent example is within the University of Colorado; a class period does not start off by praying or chanting to the education gods but rather is dedicated by time, context and subjectivity.
As a result of this limitation we are able to question what Buber sees as genuine dialogue. Because Buber (1955) says that one who desires genuine dialogue “is linked to the unity of God,” one who does not take a spiritual outlook is not able, within his theory, to experience an I-Thou relationship. Thus, his theory seems to have a prerequisite for understanding, participating and facilitating high quality communication.
As one can see, Buber’s theory of dialogue is a radical notion which challenges us today. This paper attempts to identify some key aspects of Buber’s theory while discussing one limitation to his concept of genuine dialogue. The relational concept which Buber suggests packs a punch for influence while surfacing questions, assumptions and cultural norms of dialogue. His theories continue to shape couple therapy, child development, psychology and philosophy of communication but also has reshaped our view of dialogue.
Buber, M. (1955). Dialogue: in between man and man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Craig, R. T. (2008). Lecture Notes, University of Colorado, October 24th, 2008. Slides 1-17.
Fishbane, M. (1998). I, thou, we: A dialogical approach to couples therapy. Journal of Martial †††† and Family Therapy, 24, 41-58.