How did Martin Buber arrive at his theory of the “I and Thou” relationship?

One autumn morning, Buber experienced what he believed to be a powerful mystical experience. On a July day in 1914, a young man named Mehe’ was soon about to enter the army and he came to see Buber for guidance. Those were difficult days. Buber politely answered all of his guest’s questions. After the young man left, Buber felt troubled. Although he answered most of his questions, he felt that in has self-centered happiness he ignored the unexpressed question that was really troubling the young man, who didn’t know how to articulate his soulful query. Shortly afterward, the young man died in battle. Though Buber managed to convince his guest of the God of the philosophers, he felt that he failed to teach him about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Buber’s private joy kept him from being intimate with the stranger. This incident led Buber to abandon mysticism as a way of dealing with the reality of the world. This experience led Buber to reflect on the mystery and dynamics of dialogue. Buber wrote: “There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent-–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.”

According to Buber, genuine dialogue goes beyond an exchange of words or information;  a real meeting between persons establishes a deep but mutual living relation between the dialogue partners. Authentic dialogue in this understanding is more than just a possibility in life: it is the deepest and basic way persons develop, how human life unfolds and evolves. To Buber, understanding the nature of relationship to others is essential if we are to develop an authentic human existence.

Buber pointed towards the basic dialogical dimension of human life and rejected every attempt to explain human reality in a purely I-centered interpretation: “There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and the I of the primary word I-It.” The I of the human being cannot develop without fellow human beings and the world around it, but comes into existence always through experience and relation. In the meeting with the world and fellow human beings it is, according to Buber, the attitude of the human being that plays a decisive role in the event of the two primary words I-Thou or I-It: “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.”

This sentence about the correlation of the attitude of the human being and his experience of and relation to the world is the introductory sentence in Martin Buber’s poetic-philosophical work “I and Thou” , the first of his writings in which his dialogical thinking comes clearly to expression. It is the attitude of the human being which is co-decisive for the expression of either the sphere of I-It or I-Thou.

Often, in one’s thinking, a thinking person confines himself to the armor of his concepts and systems without ever discovering that a true meeting with our fellow human beings opens us up to the deepest and most satisfying dimension of human life. Without this soulful encounter, we become effectively isolated.

The essence of the meeting of “I and Thou” happens in “the sphere of the between.” For Buber, this space between two people primal is where true relationships can change `human reality. According to Buber, what is essential does not take place in each of the participants or in a neutral world which includes the two and all other things; but it takes place between them in the most precise sense, as it were in a dimension which is accessible only to them both.”

The event of the between is, as Buber sees it, a phenomenon which is not sufficiently explicable in psychological or sociological terms. For Buber it is an ontological event.

In poetical but nevertheless precise language, Buber describes his ontological understanding of the between: the dialogical situation can be adequately grasped only in an ontological way. But it is not to be comprehended in purely ontological categories pertaining to the nature of being of personal existence, or of that of two personal existences, but of that which has its being between them, and transcends both.

I should add that Emmanuel Levinas develops this particular theme much more clearly throughout his writings. Encompassing and transcending both, “I and Thou”, in the midst of the between, is the presence of the eternal Thou –Buber’s metaphor for God.

Buber came to realize that meaning come from what transpires between two people. Ideas, even spiritual ecstasy per se, and rationalism are no substitute for a direct person-to-person encounter. All meaningful God-human relationships are forged through the medium of encounter, not in the self-satisfaction of a mystical experience. The Eternal Thou is also present is present in every “ordinary” Thou we encounter in the course of a day. The spiritual-minded person must learn to see the Divine Thou is yearning to unfold within his neighbor as we shall soon see.

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