(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Since its publication in 1923, I and Thou has become an epoch-making work. This slender volume, perhaps more than any other single work, has helped to mold contemporary theology. For example, the Neoorthodox tradition in recent Protestantism has appropriated in a rather wholesale manner Martin Buber’s “I-Thou encounter,” the “Eternal Subject,” and other features. Although Neoorthodox Protestants reinterpret these concepts from a radical Protestant context, other Christians, such as philosopher Paul Tillich, have developed systems that are in fundamental agreement with Buber’s fuller understanding of these ideas. Perhaps at no other point do liberal and orthodox Christian thinkers find so rich a place of meeting.

For Judaism, on the other hand, Buber’s writings have been a new leaven. It is not true, as some have maintained, that Buber was a rebel from basic Judaism, that he was simply a Jew by birth and an existentialist by conviction. Rather, Buber combined the rich heritage of Judaism, some of it long neglected, with certain insights of contemporary thinking. No other writer has so shaken Judaism from its parochialism and applied it so relevantly to the problems and concerns of contemporary people.

Buber’s writing is often rhapsodic in quality, frustrating the searcher for clear and distinct ideas; his key work has been aptly called a “philosophical-religious poem.” Yet this is as it should be, for Buber is no system builder, but the imparter of a way of life. At its center is a unique type of relation, one universally available and yet almost universally neglected. His task is not so much one of detailed and logical exposition, but one of evoking, eliciting, educing this relation, which is its own proof.

I and Thou Hasidism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Quite early, Buber’s youthful mastery of Jewish thought, life, and devotion came into tension with European intellectualism, especially the thought of Germans Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. Buber’s tentative resolution was that of mysticism, particularly as developed by the postmedieval Christian mystics. However, a sense of rootlessness drew him back toward Judaism, first in the form of emerging Zionism, not so much as a political movement as a cultural renaissance. Here, in the venerable roots of Jewish religioculture, Buber found an alternative to humanity’s modern plight of overcommercialism and superintellectualism. However, it was in Hasidism that his answer became crystalized. This pietist conservative Jewish movement, emerging in eighteenth century Poland, moved him to withdraw from active life for five years of intensive study. The teachings stressed not monastic withdrawal, but joyous life in communities of this world, worshiping in every practical activity.

Around the same time, Buber encountered translations of Søren Kierkegaard’s work. Kierkegaard’s insistence on total involvement and absolute commitment, on the priority of subjective thinking, on truth as existential or lived truth, and his stress on the centrality of the individual—all of these elements made immediate contact with Buber’s newfound religious devotion. The resulting tension of existentialism and Hasidism was creative for Buber. The emphasis of Hasidism on the warmth of community tempered the cold stress of Kierkegaard on the lonely and anxious individual; the latter’s pessimism concerning humanity was largely dissolved by the general Jewish confidence in God-given human potential. On the other hand, the existentialist stress on authentic existence grounded in the totally free and responsible decision of the self transformed Buber’s earlier concern with mystic absorption and the illusory nature of the commonplace world. In personal experiences resulting from people seeking him out for help, Buber learned the utter necessity of religion as a this-worldly faith, as a total devotion transforming every aspect of common life together. The unique “I-Thou” was no longer understood as a state of the absorbed individual in unity with an Absolute, but as a permeating relationship with all life—a lived experience, not of loss, but of transformation and fulfillment in reciprocity. With this key awareness, Buber’s religious philosophy was fully formed, and it emerged in his I and Thou.

I and Thou I, It, and Thou

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Quite clearly, this work is an essay in epistemology; it is epistemology, however, not simply in the traditional sense of understanding the nature and ascertainable truth of commonsense perception, but in the sense of exploring in sweeping fashion the possible “modes” or types of “knowing.” It is Buber’s thesis that strict empiricism is only one of several kinds of relations with reality and that a life founded on this mode alone is anemic to the core. Although he refuses to argue the point, Buber assumes that the plurality of modes corresponds with dimensions within reality itself. Such a contention stands within a time-honored tradition, whether it be Greek philosopher Plato’s distinction between sense impression and noesis or philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s distinction between the “inner” and “outer” aspects of all things. Such a distinction, Buber holds, cannot be logically argued, for logic is simply the instrument of one of these modes and does not apply to others. Verification is thus intrinsic to the mode itself; it is self-verifying and requires no further “proof.”

Buber’s key affirmation is this: “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.” This overarching attitude is expressed in every language by the words indicating “I,” “It,” and “Thou.” “It” and “Thou” do not signify different things, Buber insists, but two different relations possible between the same self and the same “object.” This is an interesting contention, first developed in detail by Kierkegaard, for in general parlance the ground for such distinction is usually held to be within the object itself. Underlying Buber’s position is a radical rejection of French philosopher René Descartes’s famed Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). There is no such thing as an independent “I” that, internally certain of its own existence, moves externally to God and the world. Rather, there is no “I” in itself but only the “I” existing and known in these two basic ways.

The “I-It” relation is the realm of objectivity, the realm of “experience,” which is generally understood as perceiving, imagining, willing, feeling, and thinking. It includes all activities of the “I” in which there is an object, a “thing,” whose existence depends on being bounded by other “things.” Here one experiences and extracts knowledge concerning the “surface of things.” Above all, the “I-It” experience is unilateral; in it the “I” alone is active, and the object perceived has no concern in the matter nor is it affected by the experience.

This experience, as well as the “I-Thou,” occurs in regard to three spheres—our life with nature, with people, and...

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I and Thou “Thou” and “Thou”

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Buber inevitably passes from the field of epistemology to that of metaphysics. If it be true that the relationship of “I-Thou” is a valid mode of apprehending reality, a relationship grounded in the very nature of reality, a further question is unavoidable—what is the relation of “Thou” to “Thou,” each of which is apprehended as the totality and as the illuminator of the whole? It is Buber’s answer to this question that distinguishes him from aesthetic philosophers such as George Santayana and Bernard Bosanquet and marks him as a religious philosopher. He begins by perceiving love as the unique quality of the “I-Thou” relation, love as a “metaphysical and metapsychical fact.” This is the nature of the relationship between “Thou” and “Thou,” and the “I” as it participates in that which is the constituting relation of all. At this central point, Buber comes intriguingly close to Christianity:Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. In this lies the likeness . . . of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man . . . to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point—to love all men.

Or again, the “I-Thou” relation is one in which a person “calls his Thou Father in such a way that he himself is simply Son.” There can never be hatred of a “Thou”; hatred can be only against a part of a being. The “Thou,” the whole, can only be loved, for this is the very nature of the mutual relation.

Because each encountered “Thou” reveals the inmost nature of all reality, we see that everything can appear as a “Thou.” This is so because in the “I” is an “inborn Thou,” an a priori of relation. We see this, Buber affirms, as the child’s fundamental guide to action from the instinct to make contact by touch and name, to its blossoming in tenderness and love, and its perfection in creativity. All of these emerge from the inherent longing of an “I” for the “Thou.” Throughout life “I-Thou” encounters continue, but they are not ordered, for they are only “a sign of the worldorder.” Increasingly one sees this to be so, for every “Thou” inevitably becomes an “It”; but humans cannot rest content with only a momentary “I-Thou” relation. The inborn “Thou” can be consummated only in a direct relation with the “Thou” that cannot become “It.” All lesser “Thou’s” whet the soul for the relation that is abiding, for which all others are mere foreshadows. Through them the “I” sees that the “Thou’s” are such only because they possess a “living Centre,” that “the extended lines of relations meet in the eternal “Thou.”

Witness to this is exhibited for Buber even in the practical realm. People can live in mutual relation only when they first take their stand in mutual relation with a living center. A great culture rests on an original, relational event from which a special conception of the cosmos emerges. Loss of this center reduces a culture to the impotence of a mere “It.” Likewise, marriage is consummated by a couple’s mutual revealing of the “Thou” to each other; only thereby do they participate in the “Thou” that is the unifying ground in which mutual relations in all realms are possible. Whatever name one gives to this “Thou,” if one really has “Thou” in mind, despite...

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I and Thou Additional Reading

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Bach, H. I. The German Jew: A Synthesis of Judaism and Western Civilization, 1730-1930. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This volume discusses Martin Buber’s work in the context of a history of German Jewry. An excellent survey, providing valuable background for the understanding of Buber’s thought and philosophy.

Breslauer, Daniel S. Martin Buber on Myth: An Introduction. New York: Garland, 1990. A thorough introduction to Buber’s thought on myth dealing with such subjects as “the Bible,” “Eden,” “Language,” and “Hasidism.” Includes a bibliography and index.

Diamond, Malcolm L. Martin Buber: Jewish...

(The entire section is 381 words.)

I and Thou Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bach, H. I. The German Jew: A Synthesis of Judaism and Western Civilization, 1730-1930. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This volume discusses Martin Buber’s work in the context of a history of German Jewry. An excellent survey, providing valuable background for the understanding of Buber’s thought and philosophy.

Breslauer, Daniel S. Martin Buber on Myth: An Introduction. New York: Garland, 1990. A thorough introduction to Buber’s thought on myth dealing with such subjects as “the Bible,” “Eden,” “Language,” and...

(The entire section is 377 words.)