I and Thou

Buber's distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationships is one of the greatest of all empathic philosophical concepts concerned with humanising 'the Other'. 

Buber was an Austrian-born Jewish theologian and philosopher who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ended up as a university professor in Israel. In I and Thou, his absolute masterwork, he describes two forms of relationship we can engage in. One he refers to as 'I-It', which is when we treat other people as objects, as an 'it' without humanity or individuality. This occurs especially when we use derogatory stereotypes to label people, or in instances of prejudice. A second form of relationship Buber calls 'I-Thou'. This involves treating another person as a unique being equal to yourself, and attempting to look at the world through their eyes and to comprehend their thoughts and feelings. He speaks of an I-Thou dialogue as an effort to 'come into relation' with others and discover who they really are. We can only become fully human, says Buber, when we have 'genuine conversations' that embody the I-Thou ideal, and make an effort to imagine other people's realities.

As he puts it, 'I imagine to myself what another man is at this very moment wishing, feeling, perceiving, thinking, and not as a detached content but in his very reality, that is, as a living process in this man...The inmost growth of the self is not accomplished, as people like to suppose today, in man’s relation to himself, but in the relation between one and the other, between men.'

That sounds like empathy to me.

Martin Luther King explicitly drew on Buber's empathic thinking when making the case for racial equality. In his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail – one of the most influential documents of the civil rights struggle – he refers directly to Buber's I-thou theory:

''All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.'

I would give I and Thou 5 stars, except for the fact that it's a seriously tough text that at points is a bit incomprehensible (at least to me). A good place to start with his work is his essay 'Distance and Relation' in the collection 'The Knowledge of Man'.

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Martin Buber
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