You are here

Chapter XI | I and Thou

§ 1. Experience and encounter

When we try to think about religion, there is a risk that we may ask the wrong questions and use the wrong language. Hitherto we have been enquiring into the nature of religious and mystical experience considered as a ground for belief in God. It is hard to see how this language can be avoided, but it may fail to bring out the difference between religious experience and our ordinary experience of bodies and minds.

Ordinary experience may be supposed—in spite of many philosophical difficulties—to pass from given sensations to belief in the existence of finite objects. Hence religious experience may be supposed—by analogy—to pass from some special sensation, or special feeling, to belief in the existence of God. It may even be supposed to do so by means of some special faculty—a faculty of ‘divination’. But an appeal to special sensations or feelings or faculties, though it may direct attention to some psychological truth, is bound to be unsatisfactory as an attempt at philosophical explanation. As to the passage, if there is one, from religious feeling to religious belief, we have so far found only the vaguest statements, mainly from Otto, about ‘positing’ or about passing ‘from the sign to the thing signified’.

There is a still more serious difficulty. Ordinary experience is experience of finite objects in space and time—objects that are subject to the laws of nature. God is not a finite object in space and time, nor is He subject to nature's laws. Hence it may be misleading to speak of Him as an object of experience. The relation of a religious man to God may not be one of subject to object but of subject to subject. It is possible that God is not ‘experienced’ but rather ‘met’ or ‘encountered’? Does religious faith differ from ordinary belief, not in being directed to a special object, but in requiring a wholly different point of view?

Here perhaps we may look for help to Martin Buber, who offers an answer to these difficult questions in his book ‘Ich and Du’: it is translated into English under the title ‘I and Thou’. He expresses himself in an unfamiliar idiom—in the language of a Jewish prophet turned philosopher. This may discourage some would-be readers: at times it makes him obscure, and on a first acquaintance it may be difficult to see what he is talking about. Nevertheless, like some of the best poetry, his book is crammed with thought, and this gradually becomes clearer with repeated study. I may have failed to master it, especially in its most crucial part; but I will try to put what I take to be his central doctrine in a more sombre prose, which I hope may be at least partially intelligible.

For the benefit of English readers I will follow Mr. R. G. Smith's translation pretty closely, although in his difficult task he does not always use the words I should have chosen myself.

§ 2. I-Thou and I-It

In accordance with modern fashion Martin Buber approaches his problem from the side of language.

Language, he tells us, develops out of primary words. These are not isolated words but combined words; and they do not signify things but intimate what he calls relations. Of these primary words there are only two: (1) the combined word I-Thou; and (2) the combined word I-It. Each of these expresses one aspect of man's two-fold attitude to the world, and in accordance with this two-fold attitude the world is a two-fold world to him. Although both these words are said to be primary, it is clear that on this view the word I-Thou comes before the word I-It. There is no I taken by itself, and the I of the primary word I-Thou is said to be a different I from that of the primary word I-It.

We may try to put this less linguistically.

The fundamental relation in our life is a relation of subject to subject, of person to person, of the child to his mother. Out of the first obscure consciousness of this relation there gradually emerges the distinction between I and Thou. It would be a mistake to call this the distinction between self and not-self. I become conscious of myself as against you—almost (though this is not Buber's language) as a differentiation within one total personality. I do not first discover myself, and then make a precarious inference to your existence. You and I were there all the time, and only gradually am I able, so to speak, to sort myself out. Only after I have sorted myself out from you, can I become aware of a world of things, which are not Yous—not persons, but just Its. Only then can I use the primary word I-It; but the I that uses this word is merely cognitive, a subject in relation to an object. This is the reason for saying that the I is a different I; and also for saying that the word I-It can never be spoken with one's whole being. Only the word I-Thou can be so spoken.

The word I-It belongs to the language of common experience, the language of science. The word I-Thou belongs to the language of what Buber calls ‘relation’ or ‘standing in relation’. As the word ‘relation’ is ambiguous—there is after all a relation between subject and object—perhaps I may be allowed to speak of ‘living relation’ when I mean the relation of I and Thou. This is not a merely cognitive relation, but a relation of life, a relation of living subjects to one another.

All this is elaborated with great ingenuity by Buber both as regards the primitive savage and as regards the child.

§ 3. The world of living relation

We get into greater difficulties when we begin to explore the world of living relation, which is said to arise in three different spheres—in our life with nature, our life with men, and our life with intelligible forms.

First, our life with nature. In this the living relation is said to cling to the threshold of speech, and even to sway in gloom, beneath the level of speech.

Here we might expect to find the attitude of the nature-mystic, which is closely connected with the beauty of landscape, and especially of hills. Buber himself seems to be mainly interested in living creatures—although he refers in one place to a fragment of mica and in another to a streak of sun on a maple twig. One of his examples is a tree when we cease to classify it and measure it and generalize about it and even—curiously enough—to look on it as a picture. This recalls the neurotic vision of the tree in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel ‘La Nausée’, but Buber's becoming bound up in living relation with the tree seems to be sane. A more remarkable example is that of living relation with a cat—an example which, however serious, is in danger of sounding merely funny in English. If I understand aright, the usual glance of a cat expresses anxiety, the tension of a creature ‘between the realms of vegetable security and spiritual venture’. The account continues as follows:

‘Sometimes I look into a cat's eyes. The domesticated animal has not as it were received from us (as we sometimes imagine) the gift of the truly ‘speaking’ glance, but only—at the price of its primitive disinterestedness—the capacity to turn its glance to us prodigious beings. But with this capacity there enters the glance, in its dawn and continuing in its rising, a quality of amazement and of inquiry that is wholly lacking in the original glance with all its anxiety.’

We need not follow the professor in his attempts to translate the cat's amazed enquiries into human speech—perhaps these go better into German—but we may note that he has no experience of a consciousness in the tree similar to our own.

As to our life with man, it is here that our living relation takes on the form of speech. We can give and accept the Thou. The relation seems to be best described as a relation of love, but love is something more than an emotion. Love is the responsibility of an I for a Thou.

Our life with intelligible forms is the life of the creative artist. A man is faced by a form which claims to be made through him into a work of art. Here the living relation is without speech, but begets it. We feel we are addressed and we answer. Our answer, I presume, need not be in words: it may be in the colours of the painter or the notes of the musician. By speech in this wide sense the intelligible form is embodied in the work of art.

We might imagine that the thinker stood in a similar living relation with the thoughts he embodies in speech, and even that the intelligible forms might cover the Platonic Ideas. This does not appear to be the case: Martin Buber is no Platonist. He refuses recourse to ‘a world of ideas and values’; he appears to regard general thoughts as belonging only to the world of I-It; and, departing from his customary charity, he even asserts that the man who addresses Ideas with an abstraction or a password, as if it were their name, is pitiable.

The difficulty in his account of these spheres of living relation is that he wants this relation to be mutual or reciprocal so as to prepare the way for the relation to the eternal Thou. Thus he has to speak, not only of ‘man's loving speech’, but also of ‘form's silent asking’ and of ‘the mute proclamation of the creature’. We may be tempted to regard the last two as metaphorical or merely fanciful, but they should not be dismissed without due consideration.

More important is the account of the way in which the Thou is envisaged by the I. I do not experience the Thou as one object among many: I encounter or meet him as a whole, not split up into qualities and not bounded by others. I do not meet him at some particular time or place. He has no neighbours but fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light. In this sense he is boundless or exclusive. He lives in a spaceless and timeless present.

All this becomes more intelligible when we contrast it with the world of I-It. It is, we are told, ‘the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It’. A work of art, a creature, my fellow man, and even my self—all of these can be looked at as one object among other objects, one thing among other things, occupying a particular position in space and time, capable of being measured and analysed, and subject to causal laws. This on the side of thought is the world of science, the ordered and detached world which is reliable and has density and duration, the world of common objects. On the side of action it is the world we use, not the world we encounter or meet or love. And the I belonging to this world of I-It has shrunk from substance and fulness to a functional point, to a mere subject which experiences and uses—to something, it would seem, rather like Kant's transcendental unity of apperception.

Every Thou, after the meeting or encounter, must become an It. Every It may enter again into living relation and become a Thou. It is not possible to live in the bare present of the I-Thou, but it is possible to live in the bare past of the I-It. To those who live habitually in the solid, reliable world of experience and use, ‘the moments of the Thou appear as strange lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes, loosening the well-tried context, leaving more questions than satisfaction behind them, shattering security—in short, uncanny moments we can well dispense with’. ‘Without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone, is not a man.’

§ 4. Some difficulties

So summary an account of Buber's starting point must fail to do him justice. The luxuriance of his language may seem repellent when fragments of it are torn from the consistent fabric of a philosophical prose-poem. Nevertheless he describes well the attitude and world which are expressed in the I-It language of the scientist and the economic man. There appears to be no place for religion, no place even for morality or for freedom, in the world as seen from this point of view.

He is surely right in saying that there is another attitude and another language—that the world can be looked at from another point of view. But has he described, or even hinted at, one consistent attitude? Is the language of the I-Thou one coherent language?

Even in our life with men this language seems to suggest at times the high moments of intense love; at other times the morally good life in which men treat each other as ends in themselves; at other times ordinary co-operation in work and play when our fellows are our collaborators and not our tools. It may sometimes apparently even cover the language of philosophical and scientific dialogue; for Socrates too is said to speak the language of I-Thou. But in all this there is response—although even love may be unrequited. When we pass to our life with creatures and with ‘intelligible forms’, our difficulties increase. We may feel a certain partnership and friendship with our dog—perhaps even with our cat—and for many of us at times inanimate nature may seem to speak with a living voice. There may be in all this some kinship with aesthetic experience, and a work of art, both in being created and in being enjoyed, may fill our universe. Perhaps in love and loyal co-operation and art we are in contact with the concrete and the real—not with abstractions like universals and laws and measurements and physical objects. Martin Buber is certainly not just indulging in emotional nonsense, and a life restricted to a scientific view of the world—still more one confined to profit-making and power-seeking—would be impoverished. But it is not clear that what is opposed to such a life falls under one head or is expressed in one language or meets with a like response.

I have also difficulties about the I which is the subject of the I-It language, and has to be distinguished from the Me which is expressed by the It. The latter may be an object among other objects, subject to causal law and bound by fate. But may not the former be free and—if I may fall into my mentor's style—go forth even in thinking to meet its destiny?

§ 5. The absolute relation

We have at best discovered only a possible line, or lines, for further reflexion, but even with this insufficient preparation we must try to go forward. The way is beset by difficulties. Buber's thought is too compact to be crammed into a smaller space. The style becomes more lyrical, and perhaps it ought not to be turned into prose. I may be asking the wrong questions and trying to translate the language of I-Thou into the language of I-It; or, what is worse, I may be mixing up the two languages. I shall have to use a good many of Buber's phrases, which may go ill with my own, and those who seek further light must turn to the original.

The world of It is set in the context of space and time. The world of Thou is not set in the context of either of these. Its context is in the ‘Centre’, where the extended lines of living relation meet—in the eternal Thou. Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou. Particular limited living relations may be completed only in a relation to God which may be called pure, absolute, and unconditioned.

We must first try to understand this relation, so far as we can.

Every Thou, it will be remembered, was said to be boundless—that is, not bounded by others—and every living relation was said to be exclusive. The last word is perhaps misleading; for it means, not that nothing else exists except the Thou, but that all else lives, and is seen, in his light. This exclusiveness might therefore just as well be described as inclusiveness. Hence it is not surprising to be told that in the relation with God unconditioned exclusiveness and unconditioned inclusiveness are one; for everything lives, and is seen to live, in the light of the eternal Thou. Here we find a living relation that gathers up and includes all others.

Particular Thous were also said to be in a timeless present. Yet these timeless presents are of brief duration, and every Thou must fall back into the world of It—must enter the chrysalis state of the It in order to take wings anew. If I may revert to the encounter with the cat, this living relation was only momentary: ‘morning and evening flowed pitilessly mingled together, the bright Thou appeared and was gone’. By its own nature the eternal Thou is eternally Thou. It is only our nature that compels us to withdraw it into the world and the talk of It.

Correlative with the boundless and eternal Thou is the united I—the whole man in a living relation with the all-embracing God. At times Buber seems to speak as if man has to become one before he can go out to encounter God. I take him to mean that the concentration and exaltation found in art or in human intercourse may be a condition of this encounter, a stage from which we may go forward or back, but that complete wholeness is to be found in the encounter itself. The way to God is not by mortification of the desires or withdrawal from the world. ‘Men do not find God if they stay in the world. They do not find him if they leave the world. He who goes out with his whole being to meet his Thou and carries to it all being that is in the world, finds Him who cannot be sought’. Furthermore the encounter is an encounter and not a merging or a soliloquy. Those who regard the ecstatic union of the mystics as a fusion or absorption concentrate on the living relation and forget the I and Thou without which there would be no relation at all. Those who bid us take refuge in the One thinking Essence, in the Pure Subject, who say to us ‘This is the real, the Self, and Thou art the Self, are compelled to make the world and God mere functions of the soul and so to destroy the possibility of living relation altogether.

It would take too long to explain how by virtue of this pure living relation there exists the unbroken world of Thou, how the isolated moments of living relation are bound up in a life of world solidarity, how there arises a ‘community’ through the common quality of living relation with the Centre. Still more difficult is the connexion between the world of Thou and the world of It, and the way in which they are necessary to one another: there is only one world which is two-fold because of man's two-fold attitude to it. We must note, however, that man's thirst for continuity is unsatisfied by the life-rhythm of pure relation: he longs for extension in time and in space. Because of the first longing God becomes an object of faith or belief; because of the second He becomes the object of a cult or Church. In this way God is manifested in history, and there is said to be a new ‘form’ of God in the world, form being apparently a mixture of Thou and It.

§ 6. The way to the encounter

More important for our purposes is the way to the encounter. As we have already learned, God is not to be inferred—the encounter is immediate and direct. Our life with nature, our life with men, and our life with ‘intelligible forms’ are three gateways leading into the presence of the Word, but it is our life with men which is the main portal. ‘The relation with man is the real comparison for the relation with God; in it true address receives true response; except that in God's response everything, the universe, is made manifest as language.’

This is perhaps the clearest statement that we can get from Buber as to the nature of God's response. From the religious point of view it may be wrong to ask for further analysis of this response, and still more wrong to ask with what justification it is to be called the response of God—we may be committing ourselves to the inappropriate language of I-It; but to this point we shall return.

According to Buber we know our own way to the encounter, but not God's way: our concern is with our own will, not with God's grace. ‘The Thou confronts me. But I step into direct relation with it. Hence the relation means being chosen and choosing, suffering and action in one.’ On the one hand I know that I am given over for disposal; on the other that it depends on myself. This seeming contradiction or antinomy, like many others in the religious life, is overcome, not in thinking, but in living.

There is said to be no such thing as seeking God, for there is nothing in which He could not be found. Before the encounter there is nothing to do but wait. We are even told—this is surprising—that there are no precepts of action or meditation which a man can follow in order to prepare himself. As we have already seen, it is useless to withdraw from the world or retire into the depths of the self. There is indeed a process of ‘reversal’, but this seems to be the same as ‘stepping into direct relation’—it is ‘recognition of the Centre and the act of turning again to it’. Reversal seems to follow, at least sometimes, from the despair which is the result of exclusive absorption with the world of It—with theoretical knowledge and the use of men only as means. It is a change of movement and not merely of goal. Broadly speaking, we do not get beyond the view that the encounter with the eternal Thou is a development of encounters with particular Thous. ‘If only we love the real world… really in its horror, if only we venture to surround it with the arms of our spirit, our hands will meet hands that grip them.’

§ 7. The mark of revelation

Is there any way in which we can check or test the reality of the encounter? So far as an answer is given to this question, it is to be found in what is said about revelation.

The essential mark of revelation is that ‘a man does not pass, from the moment of the supreme meeting, the same being as he entered into it’. Something has happened to him; something has been given to him; and this something appears to supply him with new strength. ‘We receive what we did not hitherto have, and receive it in such a way that we know it has been given to us.’

Is it possible to specify more precisely what it is that is given and received?

What man receives is not a specific content, but a Presence, a Presence as power. This Presence and power include three things, which can be considered separately, although they are undivided.

First of all, there is said to be ‘the whole fulness of real mutual action’. This looks like another expression for the encounter itself, but we get the new assertion that it does not lighten man's life—it makes it heavier, but heavy with meaning.

Secondly, there is ‘the inexpressible confirmation of meaning’. The word ‘meaning’ is notoriously treacherous, and we should have liked a fuller exposition at this stage; yet there is sense in saying that we may find life meaningful or meaningless. This is the sense intended by Buber when he tells us that meaning is assured and that the question of the meaning of life is no longer there. The meaning of life is not something to be exhibited or defined, to be formulated or pictured—not something to be explained, but something to be done. If I may put this in my own prosaic language, the religious man, by means of the encounter, has the assurance that his own life, and indeed all life, is not something isolated and ineffectual, but is part of one great enterprise and is to be understood—and lived—as such a part. To say that an action has meaning as part of a wider teleological whole is perfectly good sense; and it is surely something like this which men find in religion and sadly miss without it.

The third point is that this meaning is not that of another life or another world, but of this life and this world. We are told also that this meaning ‘can be proved true by each man only in the singleness of his being and the singleness of his life’. But this ‘proving true’ is not a matter of knowledge, and the riddle of life remains unsolved. If I understand aright, the ‘proving true’ is to be found in action and not in thought. The religious man does not understand the universe as a complete teleological whole, for that no man can do; but in living his life as part of such a whole he finds in himself a wholeness and peace, a strength and insight and assurance, which confirm and justify his choice.

§ 8. The God of reflexion

Even from this short account it will be obvious that the doctrine of I and Thou is open to criticism from many sides. Yet it contains at least two principles without which religion can hardly hope to stand at the present stage of civilization.

The first principle is that religion and science are not two rival theories professing to explain the world in different ways. If they were, there is no doubt that one would have to be abandoned, and we cannot abandon science. But it is possible that they may represent two different points of view from which the world may be regarded, or—perhaps this is a better way of putting it—two different attitudes which may be taken to the world and in virtue of which the world itself may appear two-fold to us. I do not clearly see how Buber himself works this view out in detail, and it is dangerously near to invoking the doctrine of double truth, which was formerly put forward in defence of science, and is now put forward in defence of religion; but it is a view which merits further investigation.

The second principle is the one I have propounded from the first—that religion is for the whole man. Religion cannot be based on a special faculty, an extra sense, a unique feeling, even if these are uneasily attached to rational concepts. Buber makes a real advance by insisting that religion must be an attitude of the whole man, an attitude necessarily accompanied both by feeling and by thought, and one which can be tested and confirmed in actual living. But here too we may ask ourselves whether he has done justice to the element of thought and its relation to our ordinary thinking.

It is stupid to blame a man for not writing a different book from the one he has written or for not answering questions he has not chosen to ask. Buber's book, as I have said, is crammed with thinking, as only a poem can be, although its bony structure may be veiled in metaphors. But we have got too little light on the validity of religious experience—if such language may still be used in spite of its misleading associations. This is a theoretical question, and perhaps one which on his view we ought not to ask.

Why is it considered wrong to raise questions of this kind? The answer is that we are proposing to reflect about God, and to reflect about God is to turn Him into an It-God who is no longer a Thou and so is not God at all. God can be spoken to, but not spoken about. Reflexion makes God into an object—and this is just what God cannot be. If instead of allowing God's gift to work itself out, we reflect about the Giver, we shall merely miss both. ‘Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world.’

Such a view, although it offers an attractive picture of a genuine and undogmatic religion, seems to rule out all theology, including natural theology, from the start. And certainly much theology treats God like other objects, or even as one among other objects, as also does much popular preaching with its reckless claims to familiarity with God's purposes and God's plans for this or that. To Buber such thinking is concerned with God's way to us, and this is wholly beyond our ken: it is enough if we can say something of our way to Him.

To some this will mean that Buber is affected by the modern disease of subjectivity. Yet even these should take warning that much thinking about God is an attempt to bring Him under human categories which may be necessary for us but are wholly inadequate to Him. This has always been known to wise men, even if at times they have forgotten it.

On the other hand, if we dismiss reflexion too lightly, we may fall into a welter of emotions, a spate of attitudes, a mist of incoherence. After all, what is Buber doing himself? His own book is more than a poem and more than a prayer. He is not merely using one language: he is also talking about two languages and their relation to one another. He is not merely addressing God, but reflecting on the way to Him; and it is impossible to think about the way without also thinking about that to which it is the way. As a warning against idle speculation his doctrine is wholly sound; but at least we have to reflect further on the intellectual and moral elements in religious life and on the limits of our finite understanding. With such a proposal Buber himself would, I think, have no quarrel.

From the book: