Martin Buber was a Jewish theologian. He famously distinguishes between what he calls the Ich-Du (I-Thou or I-You) relationship and the Ich-Es (I-It) relationship, and ultimately uses this as a way of describing authentic and non-authentic encounters with God.
Ich-Du is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas do not play a role in this relation. In an I-Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts).
A variety of examples are used to illustrate Ich-Du relationships in daily life – two lovers, an observer and a cat, the author and a tree, and two strangers on a train. Common English words used to describe the Ich-Du relationship include encounter, meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and exchange.
One key Ich-Du relationship Buber identified was that which can exist between a human being and God. Buber argued that this is the only way in which it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich-Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.
To create this I-Thou relationship with God, a person has to be open to the idea of such a relationship, but not actively pursue it. The pursuit of such a relation creates qualities associated with It-ness, and so would prevent an I-You relation, limiting it to I-It. Buber claims that by being open to the I-Thou, God eventually comes to us in response to our welcome. Also, because the God Buber describes is completely devoid of qualities, this I-Thou relation lasts as long as the individual wills it. When the individual finally returns to the I-It, they act as a pillar of deeper relation and community.
Whereas in Ich-Du the two beings encounter one another, in an Ich-Es relationship the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the “I” confronts and qualifies an idea, or conceptualization, of the being in its presence and treats that being as an object. All such objects are considered merely mental representations, created and sustained by the individual mind. This is based partly on Kant’s theory of phenomenon, in that these objects reside in the cognitive agent’s mind, existing only as thoughts. Therefore, the Ich-Es relationship is in fact a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue, but a monologue.
In the Ich-Es relationship, an individual treats other things, people, etc., as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how an object can serve the individual’s interest.
Buber argued that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich-Du and Ich-Es, and that in fact Ich-Du experiences are rather few and far between. In diagnosing the various perceived ills of modernity (e.g. isolation, dehumanization, etc.), Buber believed that the expansion of a purely analytic, material view of existence was at heart an advocation of Ich-Es relations – even between human beings. Buber argued that this paradigm devalued not only existents, but the meaning of all existence.