Martin Buber on Encountering Others
“When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.”
– Martin Buber
As a philosopher, my main research focus is on human relations, specifically the theory of recognition. To recognize another person is to value them as a person and treat them how a person deserves to be treated. Many of the injustices committed by people against other people result from misrecognizing others. Misrecognition is believing that others are not valuable and not worthy of our consideration. Justice requires encountering other human beings as being fully human beings.
Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber wrote a great deal about the need for recognition between people. The quote above by Martin Buber on encountering others was one of many gems of wisdom in his book I and Thou. Buber wrote I and Thou in 1923. It was first translated into English in 1937. Buber’s main proposition in the book is that we may address existence in two ways. One is that of the “I” towards an “It.” The relation creates an object that is separate and distant from us. The second way is that of the “I” towards “Thou.” In that relation, we create a relationship without bounds and we see the other as a person like ourselves. Only the I and Thou relation is recognition of the other person as a human being rather than an object. The implications for ethics should be obvious.
One of Buber’s major themes in I and Thou is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. To cultivate meaningful relationships, we need to interact with another human being as a Thou, not an It. Buber captures this idea in the above quote. If we encounter another individual as a mere object, an “It,” for us to either use or ignore, we are misrecognizing them. Other human beings are just that: other human beings. Humans deserve to be recognized and treated as such. When we recognize others in this way, they become fully human to us and we become fully human to ourselves. The I-Thou relationship is recognition and it is encountering others for who they are.