Buber’s central question of the meaning of humanness is expressed in his recurring word Wesen (essence, being, nature), as understood in terms of two primary word-pairs: “I-You” and “I-It.” The I-You relationship is total involvement of self and other in intimacy, sharing, empathy, caring, openness, and trust. The I-It relationship consists of self viewing other in abstract terms, resulting in possession, exploitation, and distrust. The I-It pair permits the self to objectify the other, creating a state of manipulative dependency, and the I-You pair encourages an atmosphere of interdependence, permitting growth and respect. Only through genuine I-You encounters do people discover their humanity and, by mutually affirming and confirming one another, come face to face with the Eternal Thou. Realistically, Buber recognized that every I-You can become an encounter, and in his poetic Sprachdenken (“thinking in terms of language”), he counseled that one’s essential humanity is lost if one treats every You (animate and inanimate) as an It (acts of hate, killing, vandalism). “Without It man cannot live; but he who lives with It alone, is not a man.” In the area of religion, Buber insisted that any religious form that is not in the category of I-You is illicit or at least nonreligious. Thus, he was critical of Jewish Halachah (religious orthopraxy) and Christian sacraments; he believed that the nature and essence of God are not restricted to doctrines and dogmas. Buber’s classic statement on essentials is essentially existential.
Although brief in form, I and Thou presents a distillation of the early life, learning, and thought of Martin Buber, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century and usually ranked among the existentialists. Like other European thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Buber reacted to the depersonalization of all facets of human life, to the scientific determinism that seemed to take away moral responsibility for one’s actions, and to the superficial optimism of earlier epochs. He advocated the recovery of unique personality, living life to its fullest, and making responsible choices by working with others of good will to achieve common social and political goals.
Unlike the ideas of Sartre and Camus, however, Buber’s ideas were thoroughly grounded in the classic religious traditions of the West. Although committed to Jewish idealism, Buber also was influenced by Christian thinkers; indeed, he became a pioneer in the Jewish-Christian rapprochement that emerged after World War II and the Holocaust. Though there have been notable Jewish students of Buber’s thought, his largest influence has been on Christian thinkers. They have found his concept of dialogue—outlined most forcefully in I and Thou—especially relevant to their endeavors to fully understand the teachings of Jesus and the biblical prophets. Buber expressed in public forums his belief that committed Jews could understand Jesus from within, “from the impulses and stirrings of his [Jesus’] Jewish being,” in a way that few Christians could.
Buber’s unique life influenced the direction of his thought. Although he was born into an educated, wealthy family in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was deserted, along with the rest of the family, by his mother when he was just a child. He was brought up in the home of his grandfather, a famous Hebrew scholar. From his home environment, he received a thorough Jewish education. Later, he came to cherish the teachings of the Eastern European Jewish mystics, the Hasidim, who were major influences on his thought and the subjects of several of his books. Further studies at universities in Vienna and Berlin equipped him with a strong secular education, particular in philosophy and the history of art. His long marriage to Paula Winkler, who originally was Roman Catholic, deepened his understanding of the power of human relationships.
I and Thou, the best known of Buber’s numerous writings, strikes some readers as a poetic reverie, vague and repetitive. Buber admitted that he often expresses simple ideas in a convoluted fashion. Even some of his admirers lament his “pretentious pseudo-oracular style.” Nevertheless, I and Thou continues to influence those in the fields of sociology, psychology, pedagogy, and Christian...
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