Tonight, the Republican presidential candidates will face off for their third debate of the campaign. One can only hope that this debate will be more illuminating than the previous one. Round two was noteworthy primarily for the participants’ apparently insatiable desire to interrupt and shout over each other. On full display were all the least appealing characteristics of contemporary American politics: endless posturing, swagger, unimpressive attempts at cheap point-scoring, virtue-signaling, and pseudo-machismo. A lone bright spot: because the candidates insisted on speaking simultaneously, much of it was unintelligible. And to think that they managed to accomplish all this without Donald Trump on the stage.
Democracy, from ancient Athens to twenty-first-century America, has always been a pretty rough-and-tumble affair. It’s good to maintain a high tolerance threshold for those aspects of campaigning that resemble entertainment or competitive sports more than a philosophy seminar. Nevertheless, there seems to be a widely shared sense that our current political moment (not only among Republicans) has reached worrisome levels of partisan combativeness, concern for symbolism over substance, coarseness, and dysfunctionality. We seem to be descending into competing and irreconcilable tribalisms. The search for compromise gives way to making sure that “people like us” are running the show. The results are polarization, fragmentation, and ugly debates.
Without supposing that politics will (or should) become a philosophy seminar, we can do better than this. And if our candidates wanted to think about how they might make a better impression this evening, or later in the general election campaign, they might consider turning to a small philosophical classic that is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.
In 1923, Martin Buber published his most famous work, Ich und Du, or I and Thou, as it has usually been translated into English. Buber was often labeled an existentialist philosopher, but his interests included religious studies, translation, education, and social and political thought. Although Jewish, he has enjoyed great popularity among non-Jewish readers, including many Christians. I and Thou is the classic statement of the “dialogic” philosophy for which he is best known.
It is a frustrating book in many respects: fragmentary, allusive, vague, metaphorical. Buber’s style is more poetic than analytical; he delights in neologisms and sentences that sound every bit as peculiar in the German original as they do in English translation. Walter Kaufmann, introducing his translation of the book, admits that it is “overwritten.” One comes across sentences and even whole paragraphs that resist interpretation even upon multiple readings. Here, for example, is a sentence selected more or less at random: “[The history of cultures] is a descent through the spirals of the spiritual underworld but could also be called an ascent to the innermost, subtlest, most intricate turn that knows no Beyond and even less any Backward but only the unheard of return—the breakthrough.” String together a few sentences like that one, and the result is a kind of verbal fog.
For all the challenges it presents, however, I and Thou has been inspiring readers for a century with its enticing portrayal of authentic human relationship. Buber argues that the human essence is found only in relationship—to other persons, but also to nature, animals, objects, art, and God. “In the beginning is the relation,” he writes, arguing that we come to know ourselves, indeed come to exist as selves, only in relationship to others: “All actual life is encounter.” These encounters can take two forms, and the distinction between them is at the heart of Buber’s philosophy. We can take up, in his terminology, either an “I-It” or an “I-You” attitude toward the world around us and our fellow human beings.
When we adopt an “I-It” attitude toward persons or things, we regard them as objects existing separately from us. We seek to understand them, we analyze them, we measure them. We consider how we might make use of them or work with them, regarding them as means to our ends. When we view the world as “It,” we experience it but do not participate in it. The world as “It” consists of things: “I perceive something,” says Buber. “I feel something. I imagine something. I want something. I sense something. I think something.” All of this experience belongs to “the realm of It.”
When we adopt an “I-You” attitude, by contrast, we do not experience a world of mere objects; rather, we encounter the very essence of persons or things that reveal themselves to us in our relationship. Instead of using things, we meet them face to face and allow ourselves to be addressed by them. “When I confront a human being as my You and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things,” writes Buber. We encounter others as partners who make a rightful claim on our attentiveness, as we make one upon theirs. “Whoever says You does not have something,” Buber explains, “he has nothing. But he stands in relation.”
In making this distinction, Buber is not arguing, as we might first suppose, that we should transform all of our relationships with the world from I-It into I-You ones. That would not be possible. Much of human life necessarily takes place in the realm of I-It. When I eat a sandwich, it is an object that I use, a means to an end. When I take a trip, I use a map to plan my route. When I propose a reform to streamline a procedure at work, I strive for greater efficiency. When I hire a plumber, I want to know whether he can fix the leak underneath my sink. Even if the sandwich, the trip, the workplace, and the plumber are possible sites of I-You relationships, these encounters will typically fit the I-It mold. Human life requires a great deal of planning, measuring, and analyzing.
Buber’s point, rather, is that our lives must also include more than this. We should not allow all our encounters to be I-It ones, devoted solely to getting, using, or even understanding. Because we are dialogical beings, we also require authentic relationships. Allowing others to become present for us as a You prevents our lives from being swallowed up by the world of ends and means. Only in the non-utilitarian encounter with the concrete person or thing confronting me does my own essence truly take shape. Indeed, a life that is not open to being challenged by the possibility of such an encounter is, for Buber, less than fully human: “Without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.”
It is tempting to dismiss Buber’s ideas—opaque, difficult to understand, and vaguely mystical—as simply irrelevant to the competitive, goal-oriented, hard-nosed activity of down-and-dirty politics. His abstract and idealistic philosophy of I-You relationships sounds worlds away from our own intense political polarization and vitriolic campaigns. Can he possibly have anything to teach us about politics in the twenty-first century?
I think he can, if we are careful not to ask the wrong things of him. Indeed, Buber’s thought may be of special value precisely in a moment like ours, when many partisans increasingly see their political rivals not merely as opponents but rather as enemies to be vanquished, people whom one cannot trust and who must be defeated at all costs. It is difficult to find common ground or work together across political divides with antagonists who merit only destruction. Some basic respect for one’s fellow citizens seems to be a prerequisite for successful democratic politics.
If we read him rightly, Buber can point us toward that fundamental mutual respect. To understand how, we must avoid three misreadings in particular. First, we should not read him as foolishly romantic or starry-eyed. If we think his philosophy calls for a stage full of candidates conducting a kind of listening session, looking deep into each other’s eyes, holding hands, raptly awaiting the encounter with the true being of their oh-so-respected opponents—well, that is certainly not going to happen. But, of course, that kind of saccharine pseudo-relationship is not really what Buber is describing.
Second, we should not suppose that his is a philosophy only for those rare moments when we escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Buber himself anticipated this objection in a later essay, “Conversation with the Opponent,” seeking to clarify the teaching of I and Thou. He imagines a critic charging him with escapism, fleeing from real life into a “never-never-land, not [remaining] in the social context of the world in which we spend our days, and by which if by anything our reality is defined.” Buber replies that this gets him wrong. The I-You attitude is one we can adopt at any moment. His intended audience includes every one of us, engaged in all our daily tasks: “Yes, precisely him I mean, him in the factory, in the shop, in the office, in the mine, on the tractor, at the printing press. . . . Dialogue is not an affair of spiritual luxury and spiritual luxuriousness.”
Third, we must not imagine that Buber is under any illusions about the difficulty of political life—the real, deep, and important disagreements that make cooperation and compromise so hard to achieve. Far from it. During the last decades of his life, after he had moved to Israel, Buber wrote frequently about the Jewish–Palestinian conflict, arguing that both sides would need to recognize the legitimate claims of the other, and that only a binational state could do justice to Jews and Palestinians alike. In calling for the “development of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual trust between the two peoples,” Buber sought to apply his philosophy of dialogue in the face of disagreements far more intractable than those dividing Americans today. That his hopes were not to be realized—as events of the past month have sadly reminded us—may well reveal the limits of his dialogical approach. But it follows neither that he had an unrealistic view of politics, nor that he underestimated the difficulty of achieving reconciliation, nor even that he was wrong about what would have ultimately been necessary to bring about a lasting peace between Jews and Palestinians.
If we avoid treating Buber as hopelessly romantic, removed from everyday life, or unrealistic, what do we learn from him? His dialogical vision does not provide us with a direct model for political interaction—it is not that candidates, as they confront one another, should attempt somehow to carry on their debates in the form of an I-You relationship. (I am not even sure what that would look like.) Rather, Buber describes a certain attitude or stance toward the world and toward other people that in some fashion we need to recapture. His vision is as much educative as political, calling for a particular kind of character formation, a training in the attitudes and virtues necessary for relationship and mutual respect. He offers what we might call a pre-political preparation for politics, a call to develop in ourselves and in others the disposition of openness to encounter.
Before we declare other people our political allies or foes, we must first encounter their fundamental humanity. This is not a prescription for a wishy-washy, half-hearted politics aiming at moderation for its own sake or dreaming foolishly of an elusive human unity. Instead, it is a call to let others appear to us first in their concrete personhood before we concern ourselves with their propositions and plans, the various things they might want to do for us, to us, with us, or in spite of us. Every You eventually becomes once again an It, and political activity cannot be an ongoing I-You relationship. “In the beginning,” however, “is the relation.”
Let the debate begin, then, and let it be serious, substantive, and even heated. But perhaps the candidates, before they step on stage, should pick up the century-old I and Thou and read just a bit of Martin Buber.