What Does It Mean to Treat Others as Subjects?: The Fundamental Problem with I-Thou Human Relationships

Martin Buber in his ambiguous philosophical masterpiece I and Thou (Ich un Du) argued that human relationships could, for the most part, be broken down into at least two different ways of engagement. On the one hand, there are the I-It relationships—where the subject treats all other external subjects as objects contingent upon his or her reality. On the other hand, there are the I-Thou relationships—where the subject treats all other external subjects as subjects.

When a person sees another person and treats him as an object, he reduces the observed Other to a being who is contingent upon the personal and idiosyncratic subjective states of the observing individual. That is, the Other becomes just a pawn manipulated by the subjective moods of the observing individual (in this case, the “observing individual” is the subject of the reality which we are describing).

For example, if Romeo meets Juliet and engages her in an I-It way, we could expect the following scenario. (All the following is not to be viewed as authentically Buberian.) Romeo is the subject of his reality. But his reality is not known as merely his, as belonging entirely to him and him alone. What Romeo does is act as if the only subject in the world is he. He is the subject par excellence, and the world—as he sees it—is entirely contingent upon, and grounded in, his entire subjective experience. He identifies a kind of absolute truth with his own subjective views. He is the sun and everything revolves around him. Whenever he meets another human being, they are merely pawns in his reality. He manipulates them at will. In fact, they do not even have a say in anything he thinks of them—for his thoughts are perfect, impassible, all-consuming, authoritative, and true in every way. He may see Juliet crying, for example. But the empirical fact of tears streaming down her face is reduced to his understanding as to why and how she is crying. He knows, empirically, that the what is the following: tears are pouring down her face. Everybody knows that. But a trick is played in I-It relationships: the what becomes reduced to the how and the why. Romeo is not aware that maybe—just maybe—Juliet is crying for reasons only she alone, as a subjective individual, knows. In other words, her subjectivity is annihilated. Romeo does not allow Juliet, as a subject, to exist. His subjective worldview reduces all beings to things. And there is this further irony: he takes the what and reduces it to another what—in this case, the what, as he sees it, is to be identified with his why and how. He trades in the empirical world—i.e., the (real) what—and reduces it to his own subjective views. For a second, it appears that Romeo is moving from the empirical world (the what) to the subjective world (the how). But this is merely a chimera. What Romeo is really doing is the following: he reduces the what to his own how and why—leaving the subjective individual cold and naked, unable to defend him or herself against his all-consuming subjectivizations. He subjectivizes all of reality. He sees you as you appear. He interprets your appearance according to his own liking. He then converts that appearance and says “Aha! This is the what! This is what you really, empirically, are doing!” In I-It relationships, the Other is merely an object. A thing manipulated by the Subject of so-called reality.

Now, let us look at an I-Thou relationship. Let us suppose Romeo meets Juliet and treats her as a subject. How would the relationship proceed? Perhaps, Romeo would be cognizant of the fact that the world does not revolve around him; perhaps he would recognize and be acutely aware of the reality of his own subjective constructs, seeing that Juliet, too, is the subject of her own reality. He would be aware of the idea that Juliet is a subject—not an object. Notice here that Romeo does not know, is not made privy to, Juliet’s subjectivity. He does not experience her world. He does not actually subjectivize her reality. He is only—and this is the limiting factor—aware that Juliet is a subject. This means that the fundamental difference, at the very least, between I-It relationships and I-Thou relationships lies not in the fact that in one, the I-It, the Other is treated as object, while in the other, the I-Thou, the Other is treated as subject, but in this fact alone: that in I-It relationships the subject engaging with the world at large (that is, with other human beings) is not even aware of the idea that the Other is subject also. In I-It relationships, the subjective human being engaging with the Other is not cognizant of the belief that there may be more to the world than his or her own subjective constructs. Notice also that in I-It engagements with the world, the subject (by “subject” here we mean the “I” in “I-It”) treats the Other as object by virtue of the fact that he or she is not aware of this idea that the Other may actually have a subjective life of its own.

But this is not the only thing that is going on in I-It relationships. There is another thing: the I’s ignorance of its own subjective constructs. Hence, the I in I-It relationships is ignorant of two things, at the very least: (1) the I is ignorant of the idea that the Other is functioning as a subject; and (2) the I is ignorant of its own subjective constructs—it treats its own subjectivity as objective fact that is empirically real.

We have now identified two distinctive features which occur frequently in I-It relationships. We are now able to look at the problem which is found in I-Thou relationships (and I’ve already hinted at it).

The problem with I-Thou relationships could be stated in the following manner: in an I-Thou relationship, the I treats the Other, which is fundamentally an object, as a subject by virtue of the fact that the I believes in the idea that the Other is a subject. There are two things going on here: (1) the I remains the subject of his or her reality while engaging with objects which the I, by faith, treats as subjects (but they remain objects nonetheless); and (2) the I believes in the idea of the Other being a subject—but it is merely an idea, not something one could experience or actually prove (it would be like trying to prove the existence of other minds).

Allow me to clarify why it is that I believe that even in I-Thou relationships the I is fundamentally caged in its prison of subjectivity. Apart from our minds, we experience and observe nothing. Everything, therefore, is inevitably processed by our minds. And our minds are always our minds. And our minds are always subjective. Our minds give us our worldviews. They do not give us empirical or objective access to other minds. I remain, therefore, in agreement with Kant: the noumenon is never known in and of itself as it really is; only the phenomenon is “known” as it appears. There remains this infinite abyss between the subjective I and the so-called objective Other. We never have access to this Other. All we have access to is what the Other wants us, for the most part, to have access to. For example, a person may be greedy, fundamentally greedy to their core, and yet we may perceive them as being kind merely by virtue of the fact that they only allow the world to have access to their “kind” acts. In other words, the “objective” world, as the phenomenon appears to us, is only that: a phenomenon. It is a deception. A deception we all believe in. Why? Because it is easy. It is easy to pretend that we know when we do not. It is easy to pretend that we understand when we do not. Being stupid is easy. Being certain is easy. Living in a world that makes sense for the most part is easier than living in a world in which virtually everything needs to be critically doubted and examined.

The problem with I-Thou relationships, as I see it, is the problem of I-It relationships. In I-It relationships, the world is treated as an object. In I-Thou relationships, the world is still an object, but we pretend it is something else—we call the Other “subject.” We are kind and considerate—so we bequeath the name “subject” upon the phenomenon standing naked and cold before us. But this too is merely a chimera.

The Other stands naked and cold before us. We pretend—no, we believe—that the Other is not merely an object; it is also a subject. A fact we can never prove nor have access to. And so, all I-Thou relationships are grounded in this act of faith; namely, we believe in the existence of other minds and other subjects.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Choose to create a comment on this existential blog...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s