Do we live in an age of “It”?

One of the most haunting books I have read over the past year is Martin Buber’s I and Thou (first published in 1923). I return frequently to certain passages, and I carry it in my mind.

Buber begins with the premise that there are two modes of language, two modes of existence: “I-You” and “I-It.” He is not talking about the pronouns as we use them in everyday speech; he refers to essential ways concepts. The “You” is something or someone we encounter in full, without possession, without measurement. It is a lonely and infrequent encounter, but it gives us a glimpse of eternity. The “It” is something we possess, measure, or even experience, and in that sense it is limiting.

Basic words are spoken with one’s 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 one’s whole being.
The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.

The “It” and “You” are not easily summed up; that’s why he devotes a book to them. The “You,” especially, is hard to grasp, but one grasps it in shivers. Here is one of my favorite passages (worth reading slowly):

Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him–always only one being and every thing only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. The encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order. They have no association with each other, but every one guarantees your association with the world. The world that appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it appears always new to you, and you cannot take it by its word. It lacks density, for everything in it permeates everything else. It lacks duration, for it comes even when not called and vanishes even when you cling to it. It cannot be surveyed: if you try to make it surveyable, you lose it. It comes–comes to fetch you–and if it does not reach you or encounter you it vanishes, but it comes again, transformed. It does not stand outside you, it touches your ground; and if you say “soul of my soul” you have not said too much. But beware of trying to transpose it into your soul–that way you destroy it. It is your present; you have a present only insofar as you have it; and you can make it into an object for you and experience and use it–you must do that again and again–and then you have no present any more. Between you and it there is a reciprocity of giving: you say You to it and give yourself to it; it says You to you and gives itself to you. You cannot come to an understanding about it with others; you are lonely with it; but it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters; and through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that You in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.

We need the It in order to survive and to make sense of the world, says Buber. But a person who lives by It alone is not fully human.

Why would “experience” belong to the “It” realm? Buber holds that experience is something we appropriate. We do this even with experience that we regard as mysterious.

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 informed, and holds the key. O mysteriousness without mystery. O piling up of information! It, it, it!

Humans oscillate between the You and the It–and that is human freedom and fate. But at certain times in history, a culture may tip toward the It, and then the freedom is threatened.

But in sick ages it happens that the It-world, no longer irrigated and fertilized by the living currents of the You-world, severed and stagnant, becomes a gigantic swamp phantom and overpowers man. As he accommodates himself to a world of objects that no longer achieve any presence for him, he succumbs to it. Then common causality grows into an oppressive and crushing doom.

Especially in education, it seems that we live in an “It-world” that is no longer irrigated by the “You-world.” It is risky to translate Buber’s ideas into concrete situations, but I see a split in worldview between those who would measure everything and those who claim that the important things are unmeasurable.

It is not that the It is confined to the measurable, or that anything unmeasurable automatically belongs to the You-world. The You-world involves an encounter, a full relation to something. But there is a general tilt of thought toward the It-world; this can be sensed in the subjects themselves and in discussions of education policy.

I am not simply referring to the rise of the social sciences and their emphasis on measurement. The humanities have many forms of measurement and analysis, many things that would fall under Buber’s “It.” Likewise, many scientists and social scientists acknowledge that not all of existence can be contained and analyzed. Both humanities and sciences make room, ideally, for both It and You. The problem is more a split of attitude–a desire to find truth at one pole or the other. Neither one can be understood without the other.

It is time for some irrigation.

Note: I made some edits to this piece on May 27.


  1. First Whitehead and now Buber.

    My mind is waking up again–after 35 years of yard duty and cookie dough fundraisers and gum chewing rule enforcement.

  2. Robert, thank you for your comment!

    After posting, I made three changes. First, I explained why Buber includes experience in “I-It, and I added the following quote from Buber:

    “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 informed, and holds the key. O mysteriousness without mystery. O piling up of information! It, it, it!”

    Second, I edited my original post: instead of saying “I exists only in relation to something else. There are essentially two kinds of relations,” it now reads, “there are essentially two modes of language, two modes of existence.”

    Third, I made clearer that the You-world is not simply the unmeasurable. It involves an encounter.

  3. I like how it put it, quite simply, “Where there is no sharing, there’s no reality.”

    Makes one think twice about retirement.