Book review: “Ich und Du” by Martin Buber

I finished the second book I got for Christmas Ich und Du by Martin Buber on Boxing Day. I have got to be honest: this was a difficult one. Not only does Buber uses big words :grimace:, he makes up his own quite a bit. And he’s using punctuation marks in ways I’ve never seen before, mostly colons. I think I would be overexaggerating if I said I understood about 50% of it, and that was with a dictionary at hand. Props for trying as a non-native speaker?

I can’t remember the first time I stumbled upon a reference to I and Thou. Buber seems ubiquitous in religious works of the post-twentieth century, irregardless of faith tradition. Most recently, his ideas were summarized quite nicely in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Morality (which I reviewed here). It clearly seems to be essential reading even beyond the German-speaking world.

Ich und Du is all about relationships. Buber Establishes two different forms of interactions with nature and with those around us: I-It interactions and I-Thou interactions. In I-It interactions, we treat others as objects to be experienced or used. In I-Thou interactions, we encounter another being separate from ourselves. For Buber, this isn’t just about the morality of our relationships, it takes on a religious, even mystical dimension to it. In relationships, we encounter another that is eternal. We live in the present through relationships, while we can only live in the past through I-It interactions (I didn’t fully understand what this meant). There are two words that used frequently to distinguish I-It from I-Thou interactions. We interact with Its as Gegenstände, items, while in I-Thou relationships, we stand gegenüber or facing another.

I have yet to fully sit with the implications of the book. But I know it is something momentous in its implications. It isn’t something new; Christ taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor, which, in essence, is what Buber is saying here. But this distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships clearly shows us that we can go wrong in how we interact with others and with God. How do you know when you have reduced a relationship to the I-It level? It seems like something that would take constant renewal to do so. Buber makes clear that the modern world as-is wouldn’t exist with only I-Thou relationships; science and technology require use to treat things as objects to be measured. In fact, if it isn’t quantifiable, science isn’t interested in it. But our humanity is clearly tied to relating to each others as Thous and not as Its. I was thinking about the consequences of modern tech developments like social media to Buber’s thesis. Likes and retweets formalize I-It relationships, and targeted advertising and marketing treats people, or at least their attention and interests, and goods to be bought and sold.

Definitely a book I will come back to– but next time perhaps with the English translation side by side for my benefit.

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