Martin Buber – I experience “It”; I give and receive “You”

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.

I experience something.

All this is not changed by adding “inner” experiences to the “external” ones, in line with the non-eternal distinction that is born of mankind’s craving to take the edge off the mystery of death.  Inner things like external things, things among things!

I experience something.

And all this is not changed by adding “mysterious” experiences to “manifest” ones, self-confident in the wisdom that recognizes a secret compartment in things, reserved for the initiated, and holds the key.  O mysteriousness without mystery, O piling up of information!  It, it, it!


Those who experience do not participate in the world.  For the experience is “in them” and not between them and the world.

The world does not participate in experience.  It allows itself to be experienced, but it is not concerned, for it contributes nothing, and nothing happens to it.


The world as experience belongs to the basic word I-It.

The basic word I-You establishes the world of relation.


Three are the spheres in which the world of relation arises.

The first: life with nature.  Here the relation vibrates in the dark and remains below language.  The creatures stir across from us, but they are unable to come to us, and the You we say to them sticks to the threshold of language.

The second: life with men.  Here the relation is manifest and enters language.  We can give and receive the You.

The third: life with spiritual beings.  Here the relation is wrapped in a cloud but reveals itself, it lacks but creates language.  We hear no You and yet feel addressed; we answer–creating, thinking, acting: with our being we speak the basic word, unable to say You with our mouth.

But how can we incorporate into the world of the basic word what lies outside language?

In every sphere, through everything that becomes present to us, we gave toward the train of the eternal You; in each we perceive a breath of it; in every You we address the eternal You, in every sphere according to its manner.


I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law–those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation.  There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget.  Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars–all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation:  relation is reciprocity.

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own?  I have no experience of that.  But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible?  What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

Martin Buber – “I and Thou”


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