Existential Metaphors in Martin Buber’s I and Thou by Daniel E. Blackston
Buber’s existentialism is somewhat difficult to internalize because he takes what might be traditionally considered a mystical approach to the idea of self, while maintaining an objective, if dualistic view, of physical experience. Roughly speaking, what Buber intimates in his idea of “I-Thou” is a discovery of a cognitive, emotional, and psychological response that erases the personal barriers between people. The process of losing one’s self is also a process of discovering one’s self. The apparent contradiction in the statement is the gateway to understanding Buber’s existentialist perspective.
First of all, what Buber refers to when he uses the term “I” refers to the person who perceives. The mystical side of Buber’s existentialism begins not with the perceiver, and not even with the perceived, but the way in which someone perceives another person. When an individual looks at an object, the duality between their identity and the objective identity of the object is in no danger of being disrupted or blurred. This “I-It” perspective is applicable to the physical world and allows us to move around the “surface” of the world, so to speak. However, this is not the only perspective available to us when we interact with other people and it is not even the desired perspective.
Instead, what Buber suggests is that we each have the capacity to enter into an “I-You” relationship with other people where they are perceived as fully what they are in total emotional, psychological, and spiritual reality -- rather than as objects with qualities. At this point, it is also possible for each of us to enter into such a deep mental and emotional connection with another person that we are no longer only ourselves. We carry them with us in our thoughts, hearts, and minds. The relationship has increased the scope of “I.” The mystical eradicating of individual bonds need not be dramatic or extreme and need not even take place between two familiar individuals. It happens each time we truly experience another person, even a stranger, because it is an existential reality.
This is where Buber’s thinking can become tricky to follow. What he suggests is that erasing the boundaries between personal identities is so natural and happens so often because, in fact, there is another “you” that factors into the relationship. This “you” can be expressed as “thou” and it is eternal and always present when people enter into any relationship. The two individuals make a third, which is, itself, a way to see through to a deeper level of being. This deeper level of experience is God. It is the life of spirit where the distinctions between people are mere contrivances.
The revelation of our relationships is that they plug us directly into the life of the spirit, which is unity and eternal being. Despite the fact that these assertions are precisely those that might be found in a transcendentalist philosophy, Buber remains consistently and conspicuously existentialist. He insists that it is our relationships and personal choices that define the quality of life we live; he does not posit the idea of a religious dogma or path to throw off the shackles of the flesh.
Rather, he simply acknowledges the spiritual dimension of consciousness and human emotions and how these psychic and sensory experiences indicate dissolution of personal identity in the meeting of individuals which is, itself, an indication of a larger underlying spirit or consciousness that Buber figuratively and perhaps even literally describes as God. However, it should be mentioned that the metaphorical nature of all of these assertions is key because they indicate that the true wholeness of spirit and unity that they represent is not directly knowable or describable outside of metaphorical expression.