Reflections on It-ing and Thou-ing

by Charlie Huenemann

We find ourselves always in the middle of an experience. But it’s what we do next – how we characterize the experience – that lays down a host of important and almost subterranean conditions. Am I sitting in a chair, gazing out the dusty window into a world of sunlight, trees, and snow? Am I meditating on the nature of experience? Am I praying? Am I simply spacing out? Depending on which way I parse whatever the hell I’m up to, my experience shifts from something ineffable (or at any rate, not currently effed) to something meaningful and determinate, festooned with many other conversational hooks and openings: “enjoying nature”, “introspecting”, “conversing with God”, “resting”, “procrastinating”, and so on. Putting the experience into words tells me what to do with it next.

Buber claims that the deepest and most immediate setting we establish in characterizing our experience is whether it falls into one or another mode: that of the “I/It” or that of the “I/Thou”. (Think of a toggle switch at the base of your mind, with two settings.) On the I/It setting, I am experiencing It: “I perceive something. I feel something. I want something. I sense something. I think something.” A curtain is drawn between two countable collections, and typically there is one thing on one side (me, or you), and one or more things on the other. Toggling into this setting means you are getting serious about getting something done or making something known. You will see whether you have enough butter and eggs to make the cookies. You are an agent, one who does. And the entities you are doing unto are patients, or the pieces in your game.

We should resist any temptation to underestimate the scope of I/It. It underlies nearly everything we do – no, everything, since “we do it” is an I/It formulation. To the extent that we think, sense, know, understand, or do anything, it is on this setting. Indeed, we might well wonder what other setting there could possibly be.

This brings us to I/Thou. It is a radically different setting. Fundamentally, on this setting, our experience is not of distinct and independent objects, with one of them x-ing the others. The relation itself is somehow primary, and more basic than the self and the object being related. I can see a tree, and marvel at its beauty, or identify its genus and species, or think about how I would paint it, but these are all examples of I/It experience. “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.” That is to say, my attention is occupied entirely by the tree, so that even I myself am excluded from the experience. I vanish. In this case the tree has become a Thou, or more properly speaking, an I/Thou relation has emerged instead of an I/It relation. 

The language of poets and mystics is often the language of I/Thou relations. A mystic’s expression of ecstatic union with the divine, or with the whole of existence, and a poet’s revelation of the deep subjectivity shared in an encounter with even the most ordinary of objects – a lark, an old shoe, a garden wall – erase the boundaries set by I/It. 

In an I/Thou relation, differences between subject and object disappear and are replaced by the encounter itself. They are rare, to be sure, but there are moments when our experiences are so very exclusive that it is only with some degree of violence that we tear ourselves away from them, and then find more conventional ways of describing them. We might apologize later for having become caught up in the moment. But why should we apologize?  These are our most powerful experiences, and the fact that something gets lost as we try to express them to others, in our more quotidian I/It speak, means only that name tags don’t stick to them very well. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t legitimate, of course.

Indeed, Buber believed that the I/Thou mode of experience is the avenue through which all value comes into our lives. “Without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.” In the I/It mode of experience, we may well value the objects we experience, but that is up to us, at least to some degree. We can learn which objects to value. We can also learn to not value those objects, and see them merely as lumber, cattle, or workers. In an I/Thou relation, the value is not negotiable, for my own being is wrapped up with the Thou; I am nothing apart from Thou. The relation is more fundamental than the relata. “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.” We are before I am.

Buber’s work is thoroughly mystical, and perhaps it will seem too mystical for those of us demanding a more neuroscientific foundation. But perhaps his core idea can appeal to this crowd as well. If most of the time our brains are concerned with individuation and the border patrol of ourselves – for good evolutionary reasons – that still allows for times when we can open ourselves up to an experience without any concern to fit it into some mentalistic spreadsheet array, perhaps due to other cognitive systems in our heads whose “official” work can be co-opted for just this sort of experience. However we come to these experiences, their value is as rich and salient as anything can be. (Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk in which she recounts toggling back and forth between her brain’s hemispheres suggests that the I/Thou might live in the right hemisphere.)

It seems to me that if there is anything to this theory at all, if it resonates with our own experiences in whatever way, then it would be wise to find ways to incorporate it into our lives. All of us live in uncountably many I/It relations, for that is how we get to work and how we do what we do when we get there, how we shop and how we calculate our taxes, and the rest of it. But that is not all we are. If the deepest value does derive ultimately from I/Thou experiences, we will starve unless we somehow make spaces for them: genuine encounters, alone or with others, in the things that matter most.