Martin Buber: I and Thou
(Selected passages in two different translations)
To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.
The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.
The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.
The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.
Hence the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.
* * *
Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.
Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.
Primary words are spoken from the being.
If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it.
If It is said, the I of the combination I-It is said along with it.
The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.
* * *
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.
When a man says I he refers to one or other of these. The I to which he refers is present when he says I. Further, when he says Thou or It, the I of one of the two primary words is present.
The existence of I and the speaking of I are one and the same thing.
When a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it.
* * *
The life of human beings is not passed in the sphere of transitive verbs alone. It does not exist in virtue of activities alone which have some thing for their object.
I perceive something. I am sensible of something. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think something. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone.
This and the like together establish the realm of It.
But the realm of Thou has a different basis.
When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.
When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.
* * *
It is said that man experiences his world. What does that mean?
Man travels over the surface of things and experiences them. He extracts knowledge about their constitution from them: he wins an experience from them. He experiences what belongs to the things.
But the world is not presented to man by experiences alone. These present him only with a world composed of It and He and She and It again. . . .
As experience, the world belongs to the primary word I-It.
The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation.
* * *
If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.
This human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbor, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light. . . .
* * *
I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.
All real living is meeting.
* * *
But this is the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It. It does not matter how exclusively present the Thou was in the direct relation. As soon as the relation has been worked out or has been permeated with a means, the Thou becomes an object among objects perhaps the chief, but still one of them, fixed in its size and its limits. In the work of art realisation in one sense means loss of reality in another. Genuine contemplation is over in a short time; now the life in nature, that first unlocked itself to me in the mystery of mutual action, can again be described, taken to pieces, and classified the meeting-point of manifold systems of laws. And love itself cannot persist in direct relation. It endures, but in interchange of actual and potential being. The human being who was even now single and unconditioned, not something lying to hand, only present, not able to be experienced, only able to be fulfilled, has now become again a He or a She, a sum of qualities, a given quantity with a certain shape. Now I may take out from him again the colour of his hair or of his speech or of his goodness. But so long as I can do this he is no more my Thou and cannot yet be my Thou again.
Every Thou in the world is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually re-enter into the condition of things. In objective speech it would be said that every thing in the world, either before or after becoming a thing, is able to appear to an I as its Thou. But objective speech snatches only at a fringe of real life.
The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly — except that situations do not always follow one another in clear succession, but often there is a happening profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled.
* * *
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.
The particular Thou, after the relational event has run its course, is bound to become an It.
The particular It, by entering the relational event, may become a Thou.
These are the two basic privileges of the world of It. They move man to look on the world of It as the world in which he has to live, and in which it is comfortable to live, as the world, indeed, which offers him all manner of incitements and excitements, activity and knowledge. In this chronicle of solid benefits 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. For since we are bound to leave them and go back into the world, why not remain in it? Why not call to order what is over against us, and send it packing into the realm of objects? Why, if we find ourselves on occasion with no choice but to say Thou to father, wife, or comrade, not say Thou and mean It? To utter the sound Thou with the vocal organs is by no means the same as saying the uncanny primary word; more, it is harmless to whisper with the soul an amorous Thou, so long as nothing else in a serious way is meant but experience and make use of.
It is not possible to live in the bare present. Life would be quite consumed if precautions were not taken to subdue the present speedily and thoroughly. But it is possible to live in the bare past, indeed only in it may a life be organised. We only need to fill each moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn.
And in all the seriousness of truth, hear this: without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.
Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (1958)
The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic word is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that of the basic word I-It.
* * *
Basic words do not state something that might exist outside them; by being spoken they establish a mode of existence.
Basic words are spoken with ones being.
When one says You, the I of the word pair I-You is said, too.
When one says It, the I of the word pair I-It is said, too.
The basic word I-You can only be spoken with ones whole being.
The basic word I-It can never be spoken with ones whole being.
* * *
There is no I as such but only the I of the basic word I-You and the I of the basic word I-It.
When a man says I, he means one or the other. The I he means is present when he says I. And when he says You or It, the I of one or the other basic word is also present.
Being I and saying I are the same. Saying I and saying one of the two basic words are the same.
Whoever speaks one of the basic words enters into the word and stands in it.
* * *
The life of a human being does not exist merely in the sphere of goal-directed verbs. It does not consist merely of activities that have something for their object.
I perceive something. I feel something. I imagine something. I want something. I sense something. I think something. The life of a human being does not consist merely of all this and its like.
All this and its like is the basis of the realm of It.
But the realm of You has another basis.
Whoever says You does not have something for his object. For wherever there is something there is also another something; every It borders on other Its; It is only by virtue of bordering on others. But where You is said there is no something. You has no borders.
Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.
* * *
We are told that man experiences his world. What does this mean?
Man goes over the surfaces of things and experiences them. He brings back from them some knowledge of their condition an experience. He experiences what there is to things.
But it is not experiences alone that bring the world to man.
For what they bring to him is only a world that consists of It and It and It, of He and He and She and She and It. . . .
The world as experience belongs to the basic word I-It.
The basic word I-You establishes the world of relation.
* * *
When I confront a human being as my You and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.
He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. . . .
* * *
I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.
All actual life is encounter.
* * *
This, however, is the sublime melancholy of our lot that every You must become an It in our world. However exclusively present it may have been in the direct relationship as soon as the relationship has run its course or is permeated by means, the You becomes an object among objects, possibly the noblest one and yet one of them, assigned its measure and boundary. The actualization of the work involves a loss of actuality. Genuine contemplation never lasts long; the natural being that has only now revealed itself in the mystery of reciprocity has again become describable, analyzable, classifiable — the point at which manifold systems of laws intersect. And even love cannot persist in direct relations; it endures, but only in the alternation of actuality and latency. The human being who but now was unique and devoid of qualities, not at hand but only present, not experienceable, only touchable, has again become a He or She, an aggregate of qualities, a quantum with a shape. Now I can again abstract from him the color of his hair, of his speech, of his graciousness; but as long as I can do that he is my You no longer and not yet again.
Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter into thinghood again and again. In the language of objects: every thing in the world can — either before or after it becomes a thing — appear to some I and its You. But the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life.
The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly. Only it is not always as if these states took turns so neatly; often it is an intricately entangled series that is tortuously dual.
* * *
The It-world hangs together in space and time.
The You-world does not hang together in space and time.
The individual You must become an It when the event of relation has run its course.
The individual It can become a You by entering into the event of relation.
These are the two basic privileges of the It-world. They induce man to consider the It-world as the world in which one has to live and also can live comfortably — and that even offers us all sorts of stimulations and excitements, activities and knowledge. In this firm and wholesome chronicle the You-moments appear as queer lyric-dramatic episodes. Their spell may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security — altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable. Since one must after all return into “the world,” why not stay in it in the first place? Why not call to order that which confronts us and send it home into objectivity? And when one cannot get around saying You, perhaps to ones father, wife, companion — why not say You and mean It? After all, producing the sound “You” with one’s vocal cords does not by any means entail speaking the uncanny basic word. Even whispering an amorous You with one’s soul is hardly dangerous as long as in all seriousness one means nothing but experiencing and using.
One cannot live in the pure present: it would consume us if care were not taken that it is overcome quickly and thoroughly. But in pure past one can live; in fact, only there can a life be arranged. One only has to fill every moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn.
And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.
Translated by Walter Kaufmann (1970)
Excerpts from two different translations of Martin Bubers I and Thou.