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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Limiting Recognition: Buberian Disclosure

The I dwells between two worlds: that of the “I-It” world and that of the “I-You” world. The I first dwells in the You world. Through the You world, another being colors everything we see. The I discloses its worlds to the You—then they share the I-You world. By acting within the shared world, the I and You form a relation. For Buber, however, this relation is fleeting. But why? What destroys the I-You relation? To address this question, we look at the child. He is a pure You which precedes the I. The child recognizes himself as an agent—then he becomes an I. The I creates the I-It world to extend itself. Recognition—seeing oneself—ends the pure You. Recognition of a deed, then, attributes it to the I. It removes the deed from the I-You world by turning it into an action in the I-It world. After the child has seen himself, he becomes a man whose recognition constantly subsumes the You. He possesses the I—now he must balance his double-dwelling. ​​How is the I to properly live between two worlds? For Buber, the fleeting I-You relationship gains by virtue of the I-It world. Yet by possessing the I in full, both as an I and in the I-It world, the man enters into relations with full depth; it can enter into the I-You world. Deeds done in the I-You relation outlast the fleeting disclosure of the I-You relation; these deeds penetrate further into disclosure when the I is possessed. Recognition limits the I-You relation, but it allows its deeds to be stronger. Thus Buber, in calling us to live in both the I-It and I-You worlds, asks us to limit our impulse for recognition; to hold a dialogue with the pre-meditation of thought.

One enters a You by saying I-You. When entering into the You, the other being “is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes….Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.” The entering individual sees the world illuminated by the relation alone. The relation exceeds sight, as it enables it. He is filled up with another. There is no emptiness between them.

Because I-You is spoken with another being, it consists in mutual disclosure. By disclosure, I mean that both the I and the You bear one another’s world. They contain each other—they do not see each other. The You is a “form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all the clarity of the experienced world…as what is present…And it is an actual relation; it acts on me as I act on it.” The immediate world before both the I and the You contains one another. They cannot see anything without reference to the other. Since they share their world, any act that one does alters the world of the other. The shared acts within the shared world constitute a relation. Buber writes, “direct relationships involve some action on what confronts us.” Relations come through in deeds done upon the shared world.

To clarify the content of a relation, Buber depicts the relation of love. He writes, “Feelings one has; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love…is between I and You.” Love is a particular kind of relation. As a relation, man enters into it—love is a dwelling for him, for it subsists in a disclosed world. The relation subsists in his actions within this world. Buber distinguishes love from other relations by writing that “love is responsibility of an I for a You.”4 Love, as a relation, is the set of actions done in the light of the relation of fundamental disclosure; as love, these actions bear the tie of responsibility. Responsibility, the characteristic of love, causes the I and the You to inhabit the deeds of the other with whom one is disclosed, not just to act within the same disclosed world.

But for Buber, “every You must become an It in our world.” Disclosure cannot be maintained. The shared world collapses—love is destined to lose its context. Buber writes, “even love cannot persist in direct relation; it endures, but only in the alternation of actuality and latency.”5 The world decays into oscillation, sometimes dormant and present at different times. Only the deeds in “actuality” persist through the flickering of the world. Given that the You never lasts, how does the You affect the I? What happens when a You becomes an It?

To differentiate between the It and the You, we shall look at the child. Both the I-It and the I-You emerge from the child. The child initially is the You without the I—he lives in others constantly, but as a drive which never rests in one being for long. Buber describes the child as constantly “longing for relation,” with a “cupped hand, into which the being that confronts us nestles.” The child constantly reaches out to be filled by Yous. He possesses an “innate You,” the inborn will to be filled. Through his drive, he shows that the You occurs—it is not brought forth. Buber writes, “the development of the child’s soul is connected indissolubly with his craving for the You, with fulfillments and disappointments of this craving.” It child incessantly strives, and on some occasions, a You latches on. Then the drive turns, the You fades, and another You appears. The drive never summons the You—for if it did, the striving would never be disappointed. Both the You and the child must reach out for connection to land. The child is purely the You, always filling himself up with others.

The child discovers the I through recognition, which destroys him as the You. On page 80, Buber describes the process of recognition which annihilates the child. He writes:

Man becomes an I through a You….To be sure, for a long time it appears only woven into the relation to a You, discernible as that which reaches for but is not a You; but it comes closer and closer to the bursting point until one day the bonds are broken and the I confronts its detached self for a moment like a You—and then it takes possession of itself and henceforth enters into relations in full consciousness.


The child’s “I” is “woven into” the You, as a seeker, until one day it “confronts its detached self for a moment like a You.” He discovers himself as the universal thread, as the vessel of others, and he stares at himself, disclosing himself to himself. By recognizing himself as a You, he attains the I. He is now a seeker. His seeking becomes a problem. His deeds no longer dwell purely in another. In this sense, his relations attain full consciousness. He was not in his deeds—now he is. Yet by recognizing the deed itself, by seeing the “I” implicated, he converts the world-light of the You into one which corresponds to the I. Seeing the fact that the light illuminates, rather than seeing through the light itself, he adjusts his gaze. The I subsumes the You. His relationality becomes unsustainable. After recognizing the I, the I-It relation becomes possible.7 The You becomes someone who enables I to act. When the I recognizes the You by recognizing itself, the You becomes an It. Recognition converts the You into the It. The I incloses continually.

The I-It perpetuates the I’s inclosure. Buber writes that “The I of the basic word I-It…has only a past and no present.” He also writes,“[the It-world] is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed….it permits itself to be taken by you.” The I of I-It is past, reliable, arranged. The I nominates the It-world into being—there is no other who draws out being, no between-ness to be held. The I of the I-It selects its orbit, it writes—the It-world is mediated through the I alone. The I-It, then, cannot be said. It can only be written or thought. Its expression must be summoned by the I alone.

The I-You, however, is essentially speech. As a relation, it can only exist as the deed between. Speech flees as does the disclosure between the I and you, but the words hang in the air as an artifact of what has been. The words of I-You reflect the deeds of the relation. In speaking the I-You, the relation gains life—the I-You opens the world to which the I and the You disclose.

The child moves from calling out to thinking. He loses his pure You and attains an I. Yet only with the meditation of thought are true conversations possible; he can only form an I-You relation with an I. Concluding part 1, Buber writes, “Without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives with that is not human.” Life needs the restful arrangement of the I, extended through the I-It. Without the I-You, however, the I remains within itself, never speaking, disclosed to nothing. Buber calls us to speak and then think—to move without self-awareness, and then remember it later. We are to limit our recognition—to see ourselves less. In maintaining the I-You at spurts, we are to act without recognition of acting, out of relation, possessing others within us until recognition inevitably conquers our deeds. The act, done in full self-possession without recognition, outlasts the relation. But the act is all we need.


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