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Before we move on to the kernel of all these ideas, the foundation of religious consciousness, let us briefly note a few aspects of the antithesis between I-Thou and I-It.
The I that is opposed to and in relation with a Thou is an I in a different sense, more intensive and individual than is the I in the I-It relation. It becomes properly I only through the Thou and is the I that lives in communion and grows with its intensification. The ‘I of separation’, the most important thing for which is the unbridgeable gulf between itself and the Not-I, is the self-centred I; it is not the I that is in communion but the ‘subject of experiencing and using’ things and people. The world that is experienced and the world with which there is community (in the above sense) are separate from one another, the It-world and the Thou-world. The separation is illustrated in the opposite modes of conceiving the world: space and time, causality and freedom. For the realising consciousness, the whole of the mind is occupied, as we have seen, by the thing on which it is focused. The object is not one thing among other things. The instants of realisation thus do not make up a continuous series of ordered objects but constitute a discontinuous sequence of peaks, each of which is wholly occupied by a fresh individual. In Buber’s words: ‘the Thou-world has no connectedness in apace and time, the It-world has connectedness in space and time’.
Further, as regards the Thou, the instant is everything. Here, what is called Present attains its full meaning, in which present (time) and presence (of a being) are one. We have tried to explain the sense in which the It can become a Thou by entering into the process of realisation. It is easier to see this once Buber stresses the fact that it is the inevitable fate of every Thou to which our spirit can speak to become It again. For just as the relation of realisation moves the object in the direction of personality, so that or orientation makes the person fall back into the sphere of things. It is not a mere idea taken from the philosophy of language that makes Buber reserve the present tense for the presence of a Thou and treat the It or thing as belonging to the past. ‘Beings are experienced in the present, objects in the past’. When we perceive a thing, it has already passed away as we perceive it, whereas in the living give and take between persons what matters is not the perception and experience, as with things, but the process of mutual influence, with a constant regard to the future; the unfolding of mutuality, even if it is only the mutuality of a conversation. The distinction is between assertion on the one hand and question or invitation on the other. The latter looks forward, the former looks back.
Just as the spatial and temporal continua of the world of things are not the same as space and time that radiate from a person in the Thou-world, so the concept of law that governs one world does not apply to the other. The world of things is subject to causality, and a non-entity that has fallen under the spell of causation feels entirely exposed to fate. He will revolt against such a doom, concerned about this constraint because he has lost the meaning of his existence, which he cannot reconcile with a universal determinism. Causality, constraint and meaninglessness belong together on the side of the It-world. The world of I-and-Thou, however, is governed by freedom, and that which was meaningless necessity there in the automatic succession of events is meaningful destiny here. That is the outcome of the choice, made by every real ego, from amongst the heap of undifferentiated causal possibilities, of the action that is for him and him alone. Freedom, destiny and meaning are the hallmarks of the world of personality.
We have entered into details of Buber’s conception because they seem to represent the first expression of what later came to be known as Existentialism (Existenzphilosophie, as German philosophers termed it). One need only compare the features set out in Buber’s I-and-Thou-world with the ‘Existenzialen’ in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, which characterise the world as seen from ‘Dasein’ or existence, i.e. the world of man, to see the same, or at least a similar diversion of the philosophical mind from its traditional line of objective thinking.
We have said enough to make clear the meaning that Buber intended to give to the word Thou in his terminology. He makes use of all of the associations , - I-Thou, realisation, relation, present, freedom, action, meaning – in order to designate the natural sphere, which leads on to the religious sphere – the limit, the highest fulfilment of reality thus experienced and understood. Shining through every separate Thou that we encounter and at the focal point of the lines of sight directed towards but going beyond the earthly representatives to whom we say Thou lies the eternal Thou, G-d. Buber uses a geometrical image: ‘The lines of relationship when pursued meet in the Eternal Thou’.