I -Thou Relation – Viewing the Sacred Landscape

THE QUALITY OF RELATION, explored by the Jewish religious thinker Martin Buber, in the now classic I and Thou, is relevant and to a large extent encapsulates the dualism which has for so long fascinated and preoccupied geographers – between subject and object, observer and phenomena observed, art and science, lifeworld (being-in-the-world), and the world of knowledge. The quality of relation is inherent in landscape ‘focus of perception’.

MARTIN BUBER BEGINS his magisterial work thus: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the basic words he can speak”. There are two basic words (word pairs) or modes of existence, I-Thou (or I-You) and I-It.   I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whereas I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being. The quality of the I-Thou attitude or mode of existence is a very different quality of relation than that of I-It. In fact while I-Thou is described as the primary word of relation; I-It is better described as the primary word of experiencing and using.

“While I-Thou is characterised by “mutuality, directness, presentness, intensity, and ineffability”, I-It lacks mutuality. “It is always mediate and indirect and hence is comprehensible and orderable, significant only in connection and not in itself.” The Thou of I-Thou and the It of I-It may equally well be a person or persons, an animal,a tree, objects of nature, a spirit or even God without a change in the primary word”.

What is important is the quality of relation, not the object. The quality of the I-Thou relation is reciprocity; there is a two-way attraction, mutuality of response, an encounter one with the other in genuine meeting and it “involves the whole of whatever is at each end of the poles of the encounter”. Geering observes that, for Buber:

“I responds to his or her Thou with emotions as well as with intellect – with body, mind and soul. The I responds, as we may be inclined to say, in a fully personal way. But in the I-It mode of existence the I does not respond with his or her whole. In particular it is the personal self which is not given. The I uses the It, treats It as his or her possession or as a tool. Where the I-Thou is personal, the I-It is impersonal. The I who says ‘I-Thou’ is not the I who says ‘I-It’”.

But the quality of relation is not static. I-Thou can become I-It and I-It can turn into I-Thou: “The individual You must become an It when the event of relation has run its course. The individual It can become a You by entering into the event of relation”. I-Thou and I-It must alternate. There is nothing inherently evil in the It-world which has brought great benefits to humankind and without it the modern world of science and technology would never have emerged. In this Buber is a realist. However, evil for Buber is the predominance of I-It to the exclusion of relation.

TO RECAP; Saint-Exupery’s plea in the first half of the twentieth century for spirituality and morality in human life and landscape, is very much a plea for I- Thou, and the world of relation. His “alarmed concern for the rapid dehumanization of modern lives and landscape” is an abhorrence for the world of It. When Saint-Exupery wrote shortly before his last mission over France that he didn’t care if he was killed in the war, only for what would remain of what he had loved – he is describing the world of relation. What matters are certain orderings of things and invisible ties.

When Katz and Kirby make a critique which argues that the “externalisation of nature is built into our concepts of science”, and that “Western Science excludes and marginalizes alternative epistemologies”; and further that the “exploitation of nature is coincident with its constitution as something apart and ‘other’,” they are drawing attention to the world of It.

As we have seen, landscape as a ‘focus of perception’ involves a focus in relating. The quality or type of the relating is determined by the individual, who lives within a cultural milieu, as well as the landscape in focus. Unlike the world of It, the I-Thou relation is reciprocal, lyrical and outside time and space.

This I-Thou quality of relation between individual and landscape in focus is described by Lopez:

“Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land… no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes very simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression – its weather, and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there”.


1 Buber’s I and Thou (Ich und Du) was first published in German in 1923 and translated into English in 1937. The edition referred to here is Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. W. Kaufmann (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1970).

2 Ibid, 5.

3 Ibid, 54.

4 Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber – The Life of Dialogue (N.Y: Harper & Row, 1960), 57.

5 Ibid.

6 Lloyd Geering, The World of Relation – An Introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou (New Zealand: Victoria University Press, 1983), 16.

7 Ibid, 20.

8 Buber (1970) I and Thou, 84.

9 Geering (1983) The World of Relation, 27.

10 See Friedman (1960) Martin Buber, 73-76.

11 Bunkse (1990) ‘Saint-Exupery’s Geography Lesson’, 100-102.

12 Ibid, 106. Bunkse states: “What is valuable is a certain ordering of things. Civilisation is an invisible tie, because it has to do not with things but with the invisible ties that join one thing to another in a particular way.”

13 See Cindy Katz and Andrew Kirby (1991) ‘In the Nature of Things’, 259-265.

14 Lopez (1998) Arctic Dreams, 228.


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