One of the fundamental challenges facing existentialism is where one is to derive meaning from. If life is to have meaning (and it’s not abundantly clear that it should) a problem we face is from where that meaning is derived. Is it innate? If so, what makes it innate? If not, then the onus to give life its meaning lies squarely on our shoulders, and again, the question arises—from where should that meaning come? In order to determine what our meaning could be, we must first grapple with what could be so universal that it not only lays the foundation for ourselves, but becomes a (or the) foundation which could be applied to all people across all times. The first universality one could arrive at is a sense of “self”—every individual has a sense of self. However developed that sense of self may be is irrelevant to the fact that it is universal across all people. It is the same universality in the self that Descartes focused on in his Meditations on Philosophy when trying to ascertain the origination of ideas and the nature of truth. The second universality one could arrive at is an acknowledgement of other selves. If I have a self, it stands to reason that you, who are like me, also have a self. This creates relation between selves. Relation, in this case, becomes the fundamental tenet of understanding. I can perceive you because I can perceive myself. I can perceive an object because I can perceive its usefulness to myself. These relations become the foundation upon which all other understandings are built. This is the fundamental claim upon which Martin Buber builds his text I and Thou. In the First Part, Buber establishes what he sees as the fundamental relationships of man:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.…one basic word is the word pair I-You. The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It. Thus the I of man is also twofold. (1)

The “I-It” relationship is one in which I (the self) understand objects (including people) as they relate to the I in space and time. The “I-You” relationship is one in which I am wholly present with You (person or object); this relationship exists outside space and time. This existence outside space and time makes the I-You relationship inherently illogical. I use the word “illogical” literally, it cannot be understood through logic or reason. It is a relationship which exists only in its immediate. To attempt to reason with its existence is to negate its very essence, and to relegate it to the I-It relationship. Both people and objects can move across this relational spectrum. These relationships are not so much descriptors of the other as they are descriptors of the other as they relate to the self. Buber closes his opening statement thusly, “Thus the I of man is also twofold”. (Buber, 53) The twofold nature of the self then exists in the duality we outlined above, both in reason and outside of reason. This duality and the relationship between its parts are what define man. In reason we have understanding, societies, structures, religion, and relations. Reason allows us to build the world in which we inhabit. Reason guides the “I-It” relationship. Outside of reason we have “God”, art, and love. These are fundamental aspects of what makes us human, yet we cannot rationalize their existence. They exist only in their immediacy. To attempt to define any one of these would be to negate their very essence. These are critical conduits in which we experience the “I-You” relationship. Of these conduits, “love” strikes me as especially peculiar. “Love” does not require You to be human, but in its most passionate and encompassing form, You is usually another individual. This makes the “I-You” relationship in “love” dynamic—it can only be reached if both individuals are aligned in the present. Buber attempts to define the undefinable “love” in the following manner: “Love is responsibility of an I for a You…”. (Buber, 66) It is this attempt at defining the undefinable that I find so fascinating. The paradox of the nature of Buber’s statement does not negate its relevance. In an attempt to better understand Buber’s ideas, I feel we must start with his definition of “love”.

I’d like to start by dissecting the sentence down to the level of two individual words—“love” and “responsibility”. Buber starts us with “love”. Love is an interesting phenomena. As I argued earlier, by its very nature “love” should be undefinable. It seems only fitting to attempt to define the undefinable by comparing it to another undefinable concept, “God”. Later in the book—when speaking about God (which he describes as the eternal-You)—Buber makes the following claim:

By its very nature the eternal You cannot become It; because by its very nature it cannot be placed within measure and limit, not even within the measure of the immeasurable and the limit of the unlimited; because by its very nature it cannot be grasped as a sum of qualities… (2)

I believe Buber’s notions of God are applicable to what we perceive as “love”. In arriving at a definition of “love”, one would negate the very elements of it which make it itself. “Love” is responsibility, “love” is altruism, “love” is pain, “love” is sacrifice, and yet “love” contains infinitely more combinations of action and emotion. “Love” is all of these things, and yet it is none of them in isolation or individually. “Love” is the embodiment both in emotion and in feeling of what those things represent in relation to a You. Without a You, “love” breaks down into each of these ideas, and becomes the things that define it, making it no longer “love”, but its parts. So in short, one could say that “love” is the eternal sum of its own parts in relation to a You. Even by these parameters, we run into problems defining “love”, as there are many different kinds of “love”. The romantic “love” between lovers is radically different from the “love” between a parent and child, but this difference does not negate the fact that they are both equally “love”. In an interview on Channel 4, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek made the following assertion about “love”:

True love, if it exists—and sometimes it does—is more radical…let’s say I was to have this type of love for you [interviewer]. It wouldn’t be right to say ‘because you satisfy my needs’, it’s simply an urgent impossibility! I cannot be without you! That’s true love! (3)

Žižek was speaking about what he deemed to be the potential for instance of “true love” (i.e. romantic love). A clip from a television interview does not allow him (or us) the room for expansion of these ideas. That being said, there is a simplicity in Žižek’s claim which I feel serves as a foundation for these notions of “love”. The simplicity is this—it defies rationale. If one were to be able to rationalize “love”, it would cease to be “love”. “Love”’s defiance of rationale is precisely what causes (or allows) us to act so irrationally in the name of “love”. So for the purposes of attempting to define “love” in relation to Buber’s use of it, I believe we can land at an undefinable, irrational, and completely necessary element of a relation between an I and a You.

This brings us to responsibility. What does it mean to be responsible? Set aside the inter-relational aspects of responsibility, what about responsibility as an isolated act—responsibility for an It as opposed to a You? Take, for instance, a car. One must assume responsibility for the car, because inevitably, at some point, the car will break down. The car is not sentient and therefor cannot take responsibility for itself. The car also has little to no relational connection to you, although people do become attached to their cars (for a variety of reasons). The car—in theory— will almost never leave the I-It relationship, because even at the most attentive moments of full presence, the car still serves a function in relation to you and your perception of and navigation in the world. In this relationship, it is imperative that you take responsibility for the car. If the car should cease to function, it will stay in that state until you intervene and repair the car. Assuming responsibility for the car assumes that the relationship between yourself and the car is yours to maintain; should you negate this responsibility, the relationship with the car will deteriorate until it is nonexistent. So in this instance, to assume responsibility is to be the conduit by which things maintain their order. Now, what if the “It” in this I-It relationship is not an object but another person (or peoples)? A leader, for instance, has few direct, interpersonal, relationships with the citizens, but instead maintains an abstract relationship with the citizenry. The leader must assume responsibility for the well-being of the people, but not necessarily of individual persons. There are instances a leader will inevitably encounter where assuming responsibility for the whole will come at the sacrifice of the individual. It could be said this is a failure on the part of the leader to uphold their obligation to their citizens (individually), but this oversimplifies the relationship. The citizen who sees their leader as only serving them has failed to uphold their own relationship to their fellow citizens. Ergo, a citizen who has entered into this abstract relationship with their leader assumes the responsibility of their own well-being, knowing full well that they may be asked to make sacrifices for the good of the citizenry. I digress, as the responsibility we are looking at is that of the I-It relationship between people. To use our previous definition, to assume responsibility is to be the conduit by which things maintain their order. However, when other people, even in the abstract, become a part of that order, the responsibility grows. The responsibility must grow to include a dutiful obligation to the well-being of the people. An element of trust is introduced to the relationship. To relate this to our previous example, the car does not need to trust that you will assume responsibility for the relationship between you and it. The car cannot trust as the car is not autonomous, it exists in order to serve you. People are autonomous. Therefor the responsibility for the relationship between you and it—in this case, the people—grows to include not only to be the conduit by which things maintain their order, but that you are a reliable conduit, which can be counted on to assume said responsibility in a complex and malleable form. To illustrate a further comparison, in order to maintain the relationship with the car, the car needs you to respond to the problems as they arise. These problems are (usually) simple, i.e. if the radiator breaks, you must fix the radiator. Doing so will maintain order (the car will function) and maintain the relationship (it will take you where you need to go). People’s problems are more complex. Society faces a multitude of multi-faceted problems, for many of which the causes and solutions are not abundantly clear. It is the responsibility of the leader to not only address these problems, but to understand the complex nature of their existence. Taking, for example, the problem of homelessness in a society. Homelessness directly affects the individuals who are experiencing it. It also affects the society at large, as the social dynamic in public places changes to accommodate this new reality. The causes which create homelessness, however, are abundant, complex, and compounding. It is rarely the case that one loses their home, and immediately after becomes “homeless”. Instead, the causes of homelessness are usually many, and many of these are individual manifestations of larger, complex, problems which exist at the macro-socioeconomic scale. Three individuals experiencing homelessness could easily come from a background of drug abuse, financial instability, and domestic or familial problems, respectively. While they are all affected by the same problem, their causes are unique, and as a result, a singular solution will not solve each of their problems. Therefor, the leader must act in such a way as to be able to address as many of the causes of homelessness at once. The effects of these decisions will not be immediately apparent to the citizenry to whom the leader assumes responsibility, nor to the citizens, to whom the leader is acting on behalf of. In order for the leader to fulfill their responsibility, they must not only solve the problem at hand, they must do so in a manner that warrants the trust of the citizenry to continue implementing their solution. Without that trust, the order is broken, and not only is the solution not implemented, but the problem continues to worsen. The element of trust which is introduced between the leader and their citizens is the human element of responsibility. This brings us to responsibility within the I-You relationship. To assume responsibility between I and You is for I to take accountability for You and the life of You. Now, the I takes the events of the You to be their own; this is on top of being the reliable conduit by which the relationship maintains its order. To assume responsibility for a You is to bear the cross of another’s burden as your own. Given the nature of the I-You relationship, this cannot be a transactional event, for to expect something in return for this assumption of responsibility would relegate the relationship to the I-It dynamic. Instead, the assumption of responsibility must be an act which cannot be rationalized, which brings us back to “love”. Let us now restate Buber’s claim, “Love is responsibility of an I for a You…” (p.66). In the I-You relationship, to truly “love” is for the I to bear the burdens of the life of You as their own, and to do so wholly without expectation. To rationalize them in any way is to negate the You, and therefor negate the I-You relationship. Buber’s notion of “love” here is one which requires the I-You relationship, but transcends it in its actualization.

What do we make of the idea of “loving” one’s self? Without an understanding of self—or I—how could one enter into any relationship, be it I-It or I-You? There is an inherent problem in defining the “self”, although this is different from the inherent problem of defining “love”. The inherent problem in defining the “self” is one of perception. I can define myself, and I can identify elements of myself that I find to be universal enough that they are manifest in yourself, but I cannot perceive yourself as I can myself. I can only perceive both the space in which ourselves could overlap and our relationship to each other within that space. The self as identifiable entity is both definable in innate understanding and undefinable in universal understanding. So, we will look instead at the overlap in the universalities between selves. The overlaps between ourselves can be seen as the culmination of collective wisdom; we share this wisdom as intuitive, guiding forces, or another way of putting it, as universal understanding about the world. Let us call this understanding “spirit”. Buber alludes to this “spirit” in the Second Part of “I and Thou” in the following manner. “Spirit in its human manifestation is man’s response to his You.…Spirit is not in the I but between I and You.”(p.89) I take this to mean a relationship between the internal idea of self and the external facing physical entity of self. In relating his notion of “love” to his notion of “spirit” we can arrive at a reading that to “love one’s self” is to take responsibility for one’s self of one’s self. In looking to our previous definition of responsibility, we can conclude that to love one’s self is for the I of the self to bear the burdens of the potential You of the self (to others) in order to create a more harmonious “singular” self. To truly assume responsibility for one’s self is to understand the impact the I has on both the It and the You. To truly “love” one’s self is to realize one’s impact on another and to bear the burden of the consequences of that impact. Without this inner harmony, it becomes impossible to relate to another individual, making the I-You relationship unattainable. To love oneself is to prepare oneself for the eventuality of the I-You relationship.

The I-You relationship is the culmination of the human spirit manifest in the self. Without it, our relational understanding—our I-It relationships—become irrelevant. While we need rational understanding in order to organize the world around us and the self within it, this becomes an act of futility in defining meaning. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. That is to say, one cannot derive value from facts alone. Rationality will explain the world, but it will not explain why. It is this need for understanding why which drives us into the arms of a lover, or to beautiful music, or to search for God. These are not rational pursuits, but they are fundamental pursuits. This is also not to suggest the answer to why can be “arrived” at; but in attempting to understanding the illogical, one must first eschew logic altogether. Early in his text, Buber makes the assertion, “All actual life is encounter.” (Buber, 62); encounter here being the immediacy of the present in the I-You relationship. Toward the close of his text, Buber revisits the encounter, saying “No prescription can lead us to the encounter, and none leads from it.” (Buber, 159) I take Buber’s claim to mean, in plainer words, no amount of logical reasoning will lead us to the illogical, and no amount of rationalization will explain it in the aftermath. It is only in the immediacy of the You that we can experience life as opposed to understanding it. While that experience cannot be quantified, it is invaluable to ascertaining what could be meaning in life. Therefor, the onus is on the I to both prepare itself for the encounter and to live within it, as opposed to attempting to understand it. 

  1. Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Touchstone; A., p. 53
  2. Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Touchstone; A., p. 160
  3. Slavoj Zizek on Love. (2017, May 28).
  4. Responsibility. (n.d.). In The Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from