I and Thou
University of Colorado at Boulder
What exactly is a soul mate? What does this mean, and how do we know if we have found the one we are supposed to live with for the rest of our lives? Is it an instant feeling that you have for another, or is it an instant response and action you have with another? Martin Buber spent much of his life determining questions such as this, yet in a more concise manner. Buber focused on the relationship of man with man and what it ought to be, or perhaps could be. "The relation can obtain even if the human being to whom I say You does not hear it in his experience. For You is more than It knows. No deception reaches this far: here is the cradle of actual life" ( Buber, 1970, p.59). This quote comes from Martin Buber's book I and Thou and is, in essence, connected to his Theory of Dialogue. In class we briefly went over Buber's definition of dialogue and his explanations of an I-Thou dialogue versus an I-It monologue. However, Buber's Theory of Dialogue is the foundation of his theory of human existence. intimacy. The I-Thou dialogue is the definition of intimacy. In this paper I will be addressing Buber's Theory of Dialogue and the applications his theory has on every human being's intimate relationships. I will apply Buber's theory to my personal situation and critique the theory's strengths and weaknesses. I will also explain how this theory relates to humanistic and scientific standards, and ultimately explain the significance of Buber's theory.
First, it is necessary to receive some sort of comprehension on the different dimensions of Buber's theory. There are two main dimensions that Buber writes about. The preferable relationship, according to Buber, is the I-Thou relationship. Yet, in order to have the I-Thou relationship, there must be dialogue present. Before I explain why the I-Thou relationship/dialogue is the definition of intimacy, I must explain the standards one must have in order to be part of dialogue. Dialogue consists of what Buber described as the narrow-ridge. What this refers to is a common meeting ground between two people from two different places, yet at the same moral stance. Buber's narrow ridge is not about feeling good, it is about doing the right thing. Doing the right thing consists of having a conscience oriented frame of mind, and thinking from your heart. Buber does not feel that in order to have dialogue two people need to agree on issues or principles, but that the people need to reflect and perhaps change from the meeting.
The fundamental fact of human existence, according to Buber's anthropology, is man with man ... when two individuals 'happen' to each other, there is an essential remainder which is common to them ... this is the 'sphere of between' . . that which happens within the souls of each, is only the secret accompaniment to the dialogue. The meaning of this dialogue is found neither one nor the other of the partners, nor in both taken together, but in their interchange. (Buber, 1960)
As this quote implies, the connection the individuals have is the most important aspect of the dialogue. When this connection takes place, and only then, does intimacy evolve. There is no intimacy witout dialogue. This intimacy is referred to as the I-Thou relationship. Intimacy is referred to as closeness in spirit or an unconditional love. Buber (1970) would say that intimacy exists only when. "Man becomes an I through You," (p. 80).
Here alone beholding and being beheld, recognizing and being recognized, loving and being loved exist as an actuality that cannot be lost. 'When a man is intimate with his wife, the longing of the eternal hills wafts about them.' The relation to a human being is the proper metaphor for the relation to God - as genuine address is here accorded a genuine answer. But in God's answer all, the All, reveals itself as language (Buber, 1970).
In this quote, Buber explains what intimacy can be, and what intimacy really is. Intimacy and meaning is discovered between persons. Another aspect with the I-Thou and the Theory of Dialogue dimension is the sense of community. Buber believes in community of otherness which revolves around the self, other, and shared principles (not the same principles). The importance with the community, Buber would believe, is that the members participate in a dialogue about the differences.
The second dimension of Buber's theory is the I-It relationship, which is formed when monologue is produced. This, in reality, is the kind of relationship that most human beings encounter every day. The I-It relationship is manipulative because it's focus is self-fulfilling, or self-serving. This is what Buber refers to as polarized communication. Polarized communication is where people feel that meaning is possessed within each individual, and each individual has a goal to reach. In polarized communication there is my side and their side, and the other side cannot be seen. Monologue and the I-It relationship would be associated with the community of affinity because it is based on self-centered needs. Unfortunately, our community is based on affinity, for the most part. Friedman (1960) explains this phenomenon of our society as well. "Our culture has, more than any other, abdicated before the world of It. This abdication makes impossible a life in the spirit since spirit is a response of man to his Thou … and the I of the true person is replaced by the empty I of individuality" (p.62). Intimacy is not created with monologue. Hence, the I-It relationship can be a very lonely place. To sum up, the two main dimensions of Buber's theory are the I-Thou/dialogue and the I-It/monologue.
I could use any human relationship as a case study for this theory. I am aware that that is an "all" statement, but either the relationship contains the Thou, the It, or more likely the combination of the two, according to Buber's theory. However, the relationship I will be applying this theory to is one of my past "intimate" partners. This relationship happened about three years ago and I remember the difficulty I had in explaining to him what I was feeling. As a child, I was raised with an I-Thou mentality, but once I came to the point where I had to acknowledge and live my life by the I-Thou, it seemed complicated. This relationship I had with this man was so different than the one I had encountered before, and I did not know what to make of the whole ordeal.
When I was twenty-one I met a man who made me happy. I had not been in an intimate relationship with a companion for a little over a year. The relationship I had prior turned bad due to the timing of life, if you will. Needless to say, when I started dating Ian I was thrilled to have some kind of companionship again. I had dated Ian in high school for just a small amount of time, and I realized he was more serious about the relationship than I was, hence we went our separate ways. Yet, four years later our paths met again, and this time it seemed that our feelings for one another were mutual. The first six months seemed normal (argument here, but fun there, etc.) but for some reason, something lacked. It was not as if we did not love each other, but we just did not see the Thou in one another. Each of us came from a mind frame where there was meaning in each of us, and although we wanted to share that meaning with one another, we did not know that we were supposed to have a meaning created from our relation with one another. Most of our arguments stemmed from what many say is a normal behavior, jealousy. Thus, a year later I was still in this relationship even though his jealousy and bitterness towards some of my actions drove both of us crazy. When I tried to have conversations with Ian, something always went wrong and it ended up in an unpleasant situation. I seriously believe I tried everything, except realizing the truth.
The truth was that Ian and I had what Buber would define as an I-It relationship. But how could this happen? Ian is a great man, and I would like to think that I'm a decent woman. Yet this is not the point. There are several points that go beyond individual decency that determine if two people are going to partake m dialogue, or if they are going to partake in monologue. The first point is to acknowledge what others, and yourself, expect out of the relationship. As Friedman (1960) points out, " ... the I-It is not evil in itself but only when it is allowed to have mastery and shut out all relation ... Thou's have been turned into work, image, and symbol ... instead of freeing, he suppresses; instead of looking, he observes; instead of accepting, he turns to account" (pp. 62-63). Ian and I were never expected from society to change, in fact we were encouraged to remain in the relationship by some. Many people in society saw our relationship as better than normal, and they wanted us to get over our differences and move on. Our friends just thought that we were both stubborn and actually, they found it amusing. Ian's and my surroundings supported the I-It relationship in many ways. Just as I mentioned earlier, Buber knew we lived in an I-It culture and he knew our language reflected this monologue. Furthermore, Ian and myself did not accept our differences and instead we blamed the other for issues in the relationship that had gone bad. For two years, Ian and I played the game of the I-It relationship because it did not appear as if very many knew about the I-Thou relationship.
The second point is how we, the individuals, handled our personal relationship in this I-It culture. When Ian and I would try to communicate about our problems we did not only came from two different places, but neither one of us was willing to just stand at the top of the ridge. When we started to argue, or discuss, we each had a goal that we wanted to achieve. For example, I wanted him to realize that despite what he felt, I would go out, I am my own, and I will not feel remorse for it. Ian, on the other hand, had the objective of wanting me to realize that his problems with my going out had validity. Ian wanted the result of the argument to be that I would finally say, "'Forget it!! It's not worth all this debate! Fine ... Ian and I, with out a doubt, had polarized communication.
Another aspect that needs to be considered in order to have an I-Thou relationship is the expectation that an individual has. The last six months of Ian's and my relationship was so terrible that I began to realize that our entire relationship was based on convenience and comfort. I realized that neither of us had that much respect for the other, and that our interpretations of life were not only different, but we never acknowledged the other's lifestyle as worthwhile or important. Ian and I had no tolerance for certain situations (i.e. careers, enjoyments) and we had decided that certain topics of discussion were out of the question if we planned on maintaining some sort of peace. Ian and I even avoided monologue as time passed. Ian and I had built a community of affinity all around us. The irony about the relationship is that, in reality, there was no peace, and there was no comfort. Instead, I/we had built this rage inside of me that I could not let go of. The only peace and comfort that existed was all that I was made to believe by others (and partly myself) to be comfort and peace. Ian still feels that he was happy in the relationship, but that is because he thought he would not mind conformity, because he thought the advantage (not to sound strange-egotistical) was having me. Ian's belief is that it is always better to have something than to have nothing, even if that something is based on an I-It relationship.
The last, and in some ways most important, point is if Ian and I shared intimacy. Here is where some of the confusion and problems with this theory form (which I'll touch upon later). Did Ian and I ever have an I-Thou relationship? How much and when? I would have to say that, yes, Ian and I shared intimacy because at very few times we had the I-Thou relationship. At first, Ian and I had dialogue. We reflected on the other's view and we tried to do the right thing. Ian and I did build some kind of meaning between us in the beginning of the relationship. An example of this is when we figured out that we had different perceptions on family issues. Neither one of us truly minded the other's position, and instead I believe we grew from each other in a couple different perspectives that we had. Regardless, I think that time can be a wonderful test to see how strongly, if at all, individuals can see the You, and set aside the I. However, our I-It relationship preceded the I-Thou and thus, we are no longer together.
I think that everyone knows about the I-Thou relationship, but it is expressed in a different manner. In conversations with a friend(s) (hopefully an I-Thou friend) we talk about our relationships. We discuss if we feel respect, care, mutuality, and true love. The I-Thou relationship is something we all desire, with every person in our life. Yet, Buber's Theory of Dialogue is the only way to achieve the I-Thou relationship. While sitting here writing about my relationship with Ian, it was a bit odd. I suppose, it is difficult to swallow the fact that even though I should know so much about the I-Thou (family, education), and this is what I value in any relationship, I still fall into the routine of I-It much too often. For it is now evident that Ian and I participated in polarized communication, sadly, very routinely. However, now that I know the exact terms of the Theory of Dialogue, I can more easily express and see where Ian and I went wrong. What really strikes me as interesting is how easily the term intimacy is misconstrued. People easily associate sex and comfort as intimate, but in an I-Thou relationship, and even with dialogue, there are many more factors that determine intimacy. Intimacy involves a trust and unconditional love that some actions do not merely create. In other words, it is more than an action and it is more than nice words, it is the conduct in which these actions and words are done. The conduct revolving around the I-Thou relationship (Buber, 1970, p.66). I have learned through my evaluation by Theory of Dialogue/I-Thou that I did not feel true intimacy in Ian's and my relationship.
The theory in itself is very difficult, but that is only because we allow it to be. There would seem to be contradictions in the theory as well. For instance, how can people expect to have I-It in an I-Thou relationship and the relationship is still healthy and good? Does this relate to the notion that there is balance in everything?. No. the I-Thou needs to be the key and prior to everything else. Yet I am still confused with how does one know what is too much and what is not enough of both of the dimensions of Buber's theory. Buber's Theory of Dialogue does not promote monologue (at least not that I know of), yet Buber does still acknowledge that I-It exists and should in some situations. I only know this from reading I and Thou, and I am perplexed. The Theory of Dialogue has many strengths, however, that I feel are extremely overlooked. The theory advocates an obligation that all humans should have toward another human. The narrow-ridge is expressed very well because even though it might be difficult to accomplish, it is easy to perceive. It is easy to perceive because I feel that the majority of mankind really does want to do the right thing. The right thing being that we want to respect, accept, and possibly even love one another. I know how idealistic this sounds, but my evidence for this would to apply this theory to even more situations. I am now going to apply this theory to even a more basic situation ... human nature.
The first situation would be listening to people's desires and hopes. Most people long for a true companion (in fact there are songs by this title), and they feel that there is no perfect person, but that there could be a perfect situation. People's discussions easily revolve around other people and their relations to them. My second situation is the evidence of what the general public enjoys. The movie "Titanic" won best picture of the year and stirred up many emotions. In the end of the movie, one person makes the other, even though he knows he is dying, promise him that she will live on. Even though he loves her so much, he wants her to really love again. Their relationship is an I-Thou. I am not saying that a person has to die for another, I am saying that there is no jealousy, there is no fear, there is only love. In the same regards, she gave up all that was important in society for her love--him. People loved this movie, and other movies similar to it. When you ask people why they enjoyed this movie so much, one of the responses is because it's so romantic. It is so romantic because of the unconditional love, and the I-Thou relationship the characters have with one another. Movies such as these pull at our hearts because we want to feel this, or because some of us can already associate with these feelings. The third application of this theory would be the relationship between a parent and their child. When the child is young (in most cases) an I/Thou relationship exists. There is a love process that happens in that relationship that Buber would explain as the "sphere." The relationship is I-Thou despite the dirty diapers and getting up every hour on the hour. In short, there are more I-Thou relationships present than what, we can see or realize. Moreover, people believe in and want the I-Thou relationship, they just don't know that is what they are expressing.
This theory needs to be changed in terms that people can relate to more clearly. The theory of dialogue has many more details than what can easily be explained in a one week interval. Actually, there are at least five books in front of me right now that discuss, argue, and interpret Buber's theories, hence I do not think there will necessarily be an easy arrangement of any of his theories. Although I know this would not simplify the theory, I do feel that intimacy needs to be more included explicitly in his theory of dialogue. The reason I feel this is because I do not think people are aware of the substance this theory actually holds. The Theory of Dialogue has an important message about a pure/kind/good relationship between wo/man. The Theory of Dialogue needs to go deeper into the I-Thou, and it needs to have terms that are more appealing for some. I remember reading in the class papers how the author thought the Theory of Dialogue was too idealistic. I do not think this is the case. I think it is because of, dare I say, laziness and fear that we as humans do not participate in the Theory of Dialogue which establishes an I-Thou relationship. Due to the fact that I have shown a few applications of the I-Thou (both a desire and a reality) I do not think it is too idealistic but perhaps too difficult to grasp.
I think another change that could take place with this theory is to ease the confusion between the difference of unconditional love and I-Thou. But as Buber explains in his Theory of Dialogue, one does not have to love or like the other in order to have dialogue and thus an I-Thou relationship. Unconditional love, perhaps, has more strings tied to the relationship. However, in many aspects, unconditional love and the I-Thou are interchangeable. Depending on how one might define love (i.e. love for human, love for mankind, etc.) might result in the two terms being synonymous. I feel that the theory should expand more on these two terms and how they relate, or don't relate.
As far as this theory being humanistic or scientific, I would definitely say that this theory is humanistic. This theory is associated with the understanding of people. This theory is looking at human interaction between individuals and the rituals our culture creates (I-It). This theory also tries to clarify values by evaluating the importance of dialogue vs. monologue, and why we think one form is more effective than the other. This theory definitely has a community of agreement of many scholars. On the other hand, other scholars question, but very few out-right disagree. I also think that there is an aesthetic appeal, but only for some people. I and Thou in itself is an art, but only perhaps if you're coming from a philosophical background. This theory also applies to the reform of society. Buber does not approve of the monologue language, and instead wants people to have more dialogue in order to create I-Thou relationships. This theory is not very scientific because it does not predict future events, there is no real explanation of data, and I think it is not relatively simple because we don't know how, or don't want, to make it simple. However, I do feel that this theory (both dialogue and I-Thou) contains practical utility, but only if we allow it. I suppose the main reason why I would argue that this theory is humanistic is because I do not feel it is easy to put intimacy in a scientific standard. Who can test intimacy? People can predict and explain issues until they are blue in the face, but that does not mean any one can truly define what is important for all individuals. What may never be intimate for some may always be intimate for another.
To end, I want to say that although I have mentioned the I-Thou relationship and expanded on this, in reality, without the Theory of Dialogue, the I-Thou would not exist. I believe that we are all capable of having the I-Thou relationship in every relationship of our lives, but it can be a huge challenge because of socialization. Yet, when this challenge is overcome, that is when we have intimacy with anybody, according to Buber. Since most people want the I-Thou relationship in their lives, one would think that we would make more of an effort to have dialogue instead of monologue. One would also think that once we knew that the personal relationship we were in was not fulfilling a "thou" concept, we would get out A.S.A.P.. I think we are easily swayed, and easily confused by ourselves and society's standards and trends. I also think that it does not have to be this way: that is what choice is for. All in all, I respect Buber's theories and hope to live up to them the best way that I can. I would like to end with a simple quote from Buber (1970) that, I feel, is inspirational considering the argued difficulties of his theories:
Believe in the simple of magic of life, in service in the universe, and it will dawn on you what this waiting, peering, 'stretching of the neck' of the creature means. Every word must falsify; but look, thing beings live around you, and no matter which one you approach you always reach Being ... all actual life is encounter (p.67).
Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Charles Scribners's Sons. (original work never published in U.S.: written in 1937)
Friedman, M. (1960). Martin Buber, The Life of Dialogue. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.