- that of the "I" towards an "It", towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience;
- and that of the "I" towards "Thou", in which we move into existence in a relationship without bounds.
Buber explains that humans are defined by two word pairs: "I-It" and "I-Thou".
For "I-It," the "It" refers to the world of experience and sensation. I-It describes entities as discrete objects drawn from a defined set (e.g., he, she or any other objective entity defined by what makes it measurably different from other living entities). It can be said that "I" have as many distinct and different relationships with each "It" as there are "It"s in my life. Fundamentally, "It" refers to the world as we experience it.
By contrast, the word pair "I-Thou" describes the world of relations. This is the "I" that does not objectify any "It" but rather acknowledges a living relationship. "I-Thou" relationships are sustained in the spirit and mind of an "I" for however long the feeling or idea of relationship is the dominant mode of perception. A person sitting next to a complete stranger on a park bench may enter into an "I-Thou" relationship with the stranger merely by beginning to think positively about people in general. The stranger is a person as well, and gets instantaneously drawn into a mental or spiritual relationship with the person whose positive thoughts necessarily include the stranger as a member of the set of persons about whom positive thoughts are directed. It is not necessary for the stranger to have any idea that he is being drawn into an "I-Thou" relationship for such a relationship to arise. But what is crucial to understand it the word pair "I-Thou" can refer to a relationship with a tree, the sky, or the park bench itself as much as it can refer to the relationship between two individuals. The essential character of "I-Thou" is the abandonment of the world of sensation, the melting of the between, so that an individual stands in direct relationship with another "I".
Despite the separation of "I" from the "It" and "Thou" in this very sentence describing the relationship, Buber's two notions of "I" require attachment to a word partner. Despite our splitting of these individual terms for the purposes of analysis, there is to Buber's mind either an "I-Thou" or an "I-It" relationship. Every sentence man uses with I, refers to the two pairs: I-Thou and I-It. This instance is also interchangeable with Thou and It which would refer to I. It is bounded by others and It can only exist through this attachment because for every object there is another object. Thou on the other hand, has no limitations. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing or has nothing which means that Thou is abstract. The speaker yet “takes his stand in relation”.
What does it mean when a person experiences the world? Man goes around the world hauling out knowledge from the world. These experiences present man with only words of It, He, She and It with contrast to I-Thou. What this means is that the experiences are all physical and do involve a great deal of spirituality. The twofold nature of the world means that our being in the world has two aspects: the aspect of experience, which is perceived by I-Its, and the aspect of relation, which is perceived by I-Thou.
ExamplesBuber uses an example of a tree and presents five separate relations:
- the first relation is looking at the tree as a picture with the color and details through the aesthetic perception;
- the second relation is identifying the tree as movement. The movement includes the flow of the juices through the veins of the tree, the breathing of the leaves, the roots sucking the water, the never-ending activities between the tree and earth and air, and the growth of the tree;
- the third relation is categorizing the tree by its type, in other words, studying it;
- the fourth relation is the ability to look at something from a different perspective. “I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law”;
- the fifth relation is interpreting the experience of the tree in mathematical terms.
If "Thou" is used in the context of an encounter with a human being, the human being is not He, She, or bound by anything. You do not experience the human being; rather you can only relate to him or her in the sacredness of the I-Thou relation. The I-Thou relationship cannot be explained; it simply is. Nothing can intervene in the I-Thou relationship. I-Thou is not a means to some object or goal, but a definitive relationship involving the whole being of each subject. The inevitable fate of Thou is to become an It.
Love is a subject-to-subject relationship. Like the I-Thou relation, love is not a relation of subject to object, but rather a relation in which both members in the relationship are subjects and share the unity of being. The ultimate Thou is God. In the I-Thou relation there are no barriers, and this means that man can relate directly to God. God is ever-present in human consciousness, and manifests himself in music, literature, and other forms of culture. As previously mentioned, Thou is inevitably addressed as It. Because of this, the I-Thou relation becomes the being of the I-Thou relation. God is now spoken to directly not spoken about.
God is the worldwide relation to all relations. There is no world that disconnects man from God. What this is a world of It alone. The individual’s action is guided by I-Thou. "One who truly meets the world goes out also to God."