Martin Buber

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Martin Buber

Page 6

The next consideration needs to take into account that the distinction between what we call ‘person’ and what we call ‘thing’ is the result of a late differentiation in our mental outlook and does not correspond to our primitive state of consciousness, We now have and know the difference between person and thing and divide the world accordingly, but at the beginning of our conscious life we knew of no such difference nor of such a division. The child, in its fantasies, ‘animates’ things and makes them into persons. Is this undivided state nothing but a stage that has been superseded, losing all claim to reality and leaving no residue? And has the separation into two spheres grasped reality so firmly that nothing remains to recall our earlier outlook?

That question leads to the third and most characteristic step in the development of ideas in I and Thou:
The prototype and most complete instance of any relationship between a living consciousness and any thing or being is always the mutual relationship between persons, never the relationship between reporting and the thing reported. In Buber’s language: the prototype of every relationship is the I-Thou relation and the I-It relation (Indeed, when used emphatically, the word ‘relation’ always means the former, the I-Thou relation). Consequently, in the fullest and most intense relation to the non-personal, going as it does beyond mere identification, there is latent a kind of tendency to pass over to the second person. There is a tendency to say ‘Thou’, although it cannot be a proper ‘Thou’, such as may be used between persons. Here, we have no naïve personification of an act of fantasy, but a conferring of the status of personality by the ego on something else as it gives up its whole self to the object and lives in it; or, if we choose to use the term ‘personification’ to denote this tendency, we have to call it emotional and not imaginative personification.

If, now, we can and must regard giving total attention to an object as the way that leads to personification, that idea, which seems to us to be fundamental in I and Thou, joins on to the basic idea in Daniel, namely the idea of realisation – thus completing the circle. Realisation means, in some sense, to say ‘Thou’, i.e., to bring that which is realised into the neighbourhood of personality. Naturally it is only with persons and with the Deity that this can be followed through to the end, to the point of being able actually to say ‘Thou’; with natural objects the relationship remains unutterable, it ‘remains on the threshold of speech’. Realisation is thus the universal of which the vital relation between persons, the discovery of and association with an actual person is the particular and highest instance. One might say that there remains a legitimate residue from that naïve confusion between person and thing, found in children and savages. It is no accident that it is to be found in its purest form in the process of realisation. Just as the concept of thinghood is itself a projection of our own body into the inanimate world, so too is the full and unrestrained grasping of the thing, its elevation to the sphere of personality. We see that the I-Thou relation corresponds to the mind’s realising and the I-it relation to the orientating attitude.