I and Thou: Selected Passages

When a person encounters another person in total immediacy, he or she may also experience a glimpse of God.

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Buber's poetic and influential book I and Thou distinguishes between two types of relations between people. In one model, which he calls "I-It," we relate to others as members of categories or as instruments of achievement. In the other, "I-Thou" or "I-You" (translations from the original German differ), we relate with the entirety of our being to another whole person. For Buber, this is more than a way of relating to others; it is also how we can, a bit at a time, experience God's presence in the world. Excerpted with permission from Walter Kaufmann's translation of I and Thou (Scribners).

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 He's and She's, 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.

Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines--one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity--so it is with the human being to whom I say You. I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness; I have to do this again and again; but immediately he is no longer You.

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The You encounters me by grace--it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed.

The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at once: An action of the whole being must approach passivity, for it does away with all partial actions and thus with any sense of action, which always depends on limited exertions.

The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one's whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.

All actual life is encounter.

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The I of the basic word I-You is different from that of the basic word I-It.

The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).

The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genetive--i.e., without any "of" clause).

Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.

Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.

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Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was one of the 20th century's most widely influential Jewish thinkers. His work included a new translation of the Bible into German, begun with Franz Rosenzweig, and books on interpreting the Bible, on Hasidism, and on many aspects of the philosophy of Judaism. From 1938, he was Professor of Social Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.