Martin Buber and experience v. participation

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt


“Spirit,” wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “is not in the I but between I and you.” He wrote this in a 1923 essay translated into English as I and Thou. Here’s another line from the essay: “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”

Buber’s way of looking at our existence is, for me, helpful to consider, and it has ramifications for how we approach travel and what we emphasize in it. His essay also touches on the difference between “experience” and “participation,” the former for him being something within an individual and the latter something between individuals. I suspect you can find Buber’s influence on my own terminology in an interview at Travel Blissful a couple years ago. After sharing some particularly meaningful travel memories, I said:

It is the men, women, and children in the places we visit, not inanimate things, that allow us to relate to (and not just experience) the world. I don’t at all want to knock experience — I love it! — but it’s important to be aware that traveling in the name of “having experiences” isn’t the same as traveling to participate in the world. The one is rather self-referential; the other is more interested in being a part of a community, even if only in a very modest way.

This is my final post for vagablogging, and I wanted to leave you with these tidbits from the mind of Buber. I also wanted to leave you with one final photograph. I took it in Cairo, about an hour after Mubarak’s resignation was announced and a mass of Egyptians had taken to the streets in celebration. In the photo a little girl’s parents are holding her hands as they walk away from Tahrir Square, into a suddenly wide-open, unknown, and hazard-filled future. In looking at her face I’m reminded of why I have no interest in travel narratives in which someone is trudging through the world to conquer it or to rack up isolated experiences to cart back home like trophies. I’m drawn instead to stories in which someone is connecting to other people, carrying an interest in their wellbeing and our shared future, and can articulate that. The issues of today — and children like this smiling Egyptian girl — desperately need people, including travelers, who want to be constructive participants in relationships and history.

In the year ahead I’ll continue working on my photography, and maybe even edit some more of a book manuscript I hope to one day publish (here’s an excerpt). Blog-wise, in the near future I plan to resume regular postings at, and I’d love to have you check in on me there from time to time. I will be in Southeast Asia most of the fall.

All the very best, everyone.

4 Responses to “Martin Buber and experience v. participation”

  1. Rudolph Aspirant Says:

    I liked the articles of Joel Carillet, and I hope he gets to write about that journey “from the highs to the lows” of the people of the Earth.

    I know this will sound like a limerick, but I have once actually met a travel agent from Texas who actually delighted in recommending her clients, when traveling to some other than Texas place of interest, that they sleep in the houses of friends or acquaintances of hers she had previously made while traveling abroad (I dare to say that for a true Texan, anything outside of the borders of that humongous state probably qualifies as “abroad”)…while one needed to pay for the plane ticket, accommodations were thus for free, and of course, this wasn’t about the money, but about sending personal “hello’s” to old friends and places she had once passed through.

    For me this once meant a very intimate visit to New York City, which, at that time, was just as exotic to me as Kathmandu, (not to mention as expensive as Tokyo), when, upon the recommendations of that travel agent, I got to actually spend a weekend in Queens, and celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Rooster in Chinatown, Manhattan, as seen exactly through the eyes of some REAL New Yorkers who were delighted in showing me around THEIR favorite places, and who, as I was “studying” them, were also probably looking at me to see what impression THEIR town made on my totally alien mind ! (Other than the relational aspect of my interaction with those newfound New York friends, I also got to experience eating real Italian cannolis for the first time in my life back then.)

  2. Rolf Potts Says:

    Thanks for the fantastic words and images over the past couple years, Joel!

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  4. Angelika Says:

    all the best, good luck ./. bonne chance !
    thank you for sharing & giving inspiration.

    greetz & cheers