Perhaps the most profound account of personhood in this century is that given by Martin Buber (1923), in the small book originally translated into English as I and Thou (Buber, 1937). Here he makes a contrast between two ways of being in the world, two ways of forming a relationship. The first he terms I-it, and the second I-thou. Relating to another in the I-it mode implies coolness, information-getting, objectivity, instrumentality. Here we engage without there being any commitment; we can maintain a distance, make ourselves safe. Relating in the I-thou mode, however, requires involvement: a risking of ourselves, a moving out and a moving towards. ‘The primary word I-thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-it can never be spoken with the whole being’.
Tom Kitwood, ‘The concept of personhood and its relevance for a new culture of dementia care’ in Care Giving in Dementia; Research and Applications, Vol. 2, Ed. Miesen and Jones
“Thou…”. The loveliest word in the language? A gift of being two people share the moment one addresses the other.
Kitwood writes, in the context of institutional caregiving, of the notion of “personhood” and how easily it comes to be neglected and suppressed. How people’s experience of the world and their essential social beingness, are overriden in a system which objectifies, in the I-it manner. A system, and a society-wide approach, which disregards unique individuality while fetishizing individualism.
In Buber, via Kitwood, to be a person is to be addressed as Thou.
Here he points to one of the most rich and mysterious of all human experiences. When we are addressed as Thou – when all instrumentality and manipulation are removed – we experience a profound expansiveness and liberation. Here – perhaps here alone – we can grow beyond attitudes, habits, scripts, poisonous expectations – all that others have imposed on us in their zeal for utility.