Context

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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.

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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.

Hasidism

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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, It, and Thou

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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 with intelligible forms. For example, to use Buber’s most difficult illustration, in an “I-It” experience with a tree, I may look at it, examine its structure and functions, classify it, formalize the laws of its operation, see it in terms of its numerical components or control, and shape it by activity. However, not only may I experience the tree, but I may enter into relationship with it—this is the mode of “I-Thou.” Here I am “encountered” by the tree; I become bound to it, for it seizes me with “the power of exclusiveness.” Although this relation is totally different in kind from the “I-It” experience, it is not strictly different in “content.” In it, one does not have to reject or forget the content of objective knowledge; rather, all of the above enumerated components become indivisibly united in the event which is this relation—“Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.”

Although objective knowledge is always of the past, the relation of the “I-Thou” is always present, a “filled present.” Above all, characteristic of this relation is its mutuality. Yet we cannot say that in this relation the tree exhibits a soul, or a consciousness, for of this we can have no experience. The relation is undifferentiated, and to inquire of its constitutive parts is to disintegrate what is known only as an indivisible whole. Such a wholeness is all-consuming and absolute—a “He” encountered as a “Thou” is a “whole in himself” and “fills the heavens.” What Buber means is not that the “He” alone is existent but rather that this relation is such that “all else lives in his light.”

To one not naturally inclined to Buber’s way of thinking, the best available illustrations, as Buber’s own examples clearly indicate, are from the arts. In fact, Buber maintains that the “I-Thou” relation is the true source of art. Music can be analyzed in terms of notes, verses, and bars; this is the realm of the “I-It.” This same music, however, may be encountered in a living relation in which each component is included, yet experienced not as parts but as an inseparable unity. In artistic creativity, a form that is not an offspring of the artist encounters him or her and demands effective power. This calls for sacrifice and risk—risk, for endless possibility must be ended by form; sacrifice, because the work consumes the artist with a claim that permits no rest. Buber’s interpretation of this artistic form is helpful in understanding the “content” of the “I-Thou” encounter. Says Buber, “I can neither experience nor describe the form which meets me, but only body it forth.”

Buber begins a transition from the exclusive relation of the “I-Thou” to the inclusive, concerned life that he espouses, in contrast to the mystic. The “I-Thou” is consummated in activity, activity that inevitably partakes of the “I-It” experience, but activity that is redeemed, for in being the creative and transforming ground of activity, the “I-Thou” relation is exhibited in its fullness. This creative tension of “It” and “Thou” in the practical life is exemplified in such contrasts as those between organization and community, control and mutuality, and individuals and persons. The “Thou” stands as judge over the “It,” but a judge with the form and creative power for its transformation. In existential living, the fathomless dimension of the “Thou” is creatively incarnated, as it were, into the commonplace world of the “It.” As an “It,” the created object will be scrutinized with all the instruments of “objectivity,” but as a living embodiment of a “Thou,” it has the capacity to lift its perceiver from the commonplace to the all-pervasive dimension of the Thou in which all things fundamentally participate. As Buber continually insists, such relation is not simply subjective, for then it could have no mutuality: “To produce is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover.” This relation of “I-Thou” is subjectivity and objectivity in a totality that transcends the “I-It” quality of either in isolation.

“Thou” and “Thou”

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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 one’s illusions, one addresses the true “Thou” that cannot be limited by another. Even though one regards oneself as an atheist, one stands in a relation that gathers up and includes all others.

This meeting of the “Thou” is a matter both of choosing and being chosen. One can prepare, yet because all preparations remain in the realm of “It,” the step from that realm is not humanity’s doing. Therefore, the word “encounter” is the only one appropriate. Epistemologically, the particular encounters are prior; metaphysically, the central Thou is eternally prior. Through the former, we are addressed by the latter; ours is the response. It is here that we reach the apex of Buber’s position: “In the relation with God unconditional exclusiveness and unconditional inclusiveness are one.” This relation means neither the loss of world nor the loss of the “I,” but a giving up of self-asserting instinct by regarding all in the love relation of the “Thou.” The world of “It” cannot be dispensed with, nor is it evil; it becomes demonic only when the motivating drive is not the will to be related but, for example, in economics is the will to profit or, in politics, the will to power. Buber’s ethic can be clearly stated—a person participating in awareness of the Thouserves the truth which, though higher than reason, yet does not repudiate it. . . . He does in communal life precisely what is done in personal life by the man who knows himself incapable of realising the Thou in its purity, yet daily confirms its truth in the It, in accordance with what is right and filling for the day, drawing—disclosing—the boundary line anew each day.

Such a life is characterized by action filled with meaning and joy, and possessions radiating with “awe and sacrificial power.” These are the truths of primitive humanity, encountering with wonder the immediacy of life, but now purified of superstition and fitted for civilized community. To hallow life is to encounter the living God; to encounter this “Thou” is to hallow life—this is the paradox that best summarizes Buber’s thought.

It is in this relation that Buber sees true theology resting. Its basis is not dogma, a content once and for all delivered. It is a compulsion received as something to be done; its confirmation is its product in the world and the singleness of life lived in obedience to it. This is the meaning of revelation, revelation that is eternal and ever available. It must be completed in theology, in objectification, but the abiding sin of religion is to substitute the objectification for the relation, to make the Church of God into a god of the church, to make the Scripture of God into a god of the scripture. The mystery at the foundation of theology cannot be dispelled, yet language can point in the right direction. For Buber the affirmations “God and the world” or “God in the world” are still in the “I-It” realm; but the declaration “the world in the Thou” points to the true relation. With hesitation, Buber attempts to say more, drawing heavily upon the artistic analogy. The God-human relation is characterized by the polarity of creatureliness and creativity, of being totally dependent on God and yet totally free. For Buber this tension can only mean that while we need God in order to exist, God needs us for the very meaning of life. That is, “there is a becoming of the God that is”—herein is the eternal purpose of our existence. Mutual fulfillment, which is the “I-Thou” relation, must mean, in the final account, that we are cocreators with God in cosmic fulfillment.

Such declarations will raise immediate questions for the logical philosopher. Is this absolute idealism, pantheism, panpsychism, or process philosophy? In what sense is this the theistic worldview of traditional Judaism, centered in the God of providence and history? Buber’s refusal to be of any help here shows the degree to which he is not a philosophic system builder but an existentialist and, above all, a religious thinker. The problem for him is not so much to know as it is to act in lived awareness of the omnipresent “Thou.”

However, at least this much can be said. In Buber, we have the general Kantian position taken to a religious conclusion. The realm of the “Thou” is the realm of the noumenon; here is to be found no causality but the assurance of freedom. The realm of “It” is the phenomenal realm, the realm of necessity, causality, and the objectification of all according to finite categories. However, for Buber the noumenal is more than a postulate or an inference. Similar to Kant’s impact of the moral imperative and the encounter of beauty and sublimity in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; The Critique of Judgment, 1892), the noumenon is encountered through the total self. Finally, as in Kant, the eternal “Thou” is never known objectively, but certitude of it comes centrally through the domain of action.

Additional Reading

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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 Existentialist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. A reading of Buber’s works in the context of modern existential philosophy. Includes a selected bibliography and index.

Friedman, Maurice S. Martin Buber and the Eternal. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986. A solid introduction to Buber’s thought in terms of Western and Asian religion, existentialism, and religious education. Includes an index.

Friedman, Maurice S. Martin Buber’s Life and Work. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1988. A full, authoritative biography on Buber including extensive chapter notes and an index.

Kepnes, Steven. The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Discusses how Buber’s hermeneutics were influenced by the ideas of Romanticism. Includes a major section on “narrative theology.”

Kohanski, Alexander S. An Analytical Interpretation of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Woodbury, New York: Barron’s, 1975. A complete introduction to I and Thou. Includes an introduction and glossary.

Moore, Donald J. Martin Buber: Prophet of Religious Secularism. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996. Includes a biographical portrait of Buber and discussions of his “critique of religion.” Contains a bibliography and index.

Silberstein, Laurence J. Martin Buber’s Social and Religious Thought: Alienation and the Quest for Meaning. New York: New York University Press, 1989. Discussions of Buber’s religious thought as it relates to social imperatives. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.

Streiker, Lowell. The Promise of Buber. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Discusses Buber’s philosophy of dialogue. Contains a suggested reading list of Buber’s works and an index.

Vermes, Pamela. Buber. Jewish Thinkers series/ New York: Grove Press, 1988. This volume provides a concise and well-informed introduction to Buber’s thought and works.

Joyce M. Parks Richard M. Leeson

Bibliography

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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 “Hasidism.” Includes a bibliography and index.

Diamond, Malcolm L. Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. A reading of Buber’s works in the context of modern existential philosophy. Includes a selected bibliography and index.

Friedman, Maurice S. Martin Buber and the Eternal. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986. A solid introduction to Buber’s thought in terms of Western and Asian religion, existentialism, and religious education. Includes an index.

Friedman, Maurice S. Martin Buber’s Life and Work. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1988. A full, authoritative biography on Buber including extensive chapter notes and an index.

Kepnes, Steven. The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Discusses how Buber’s hermeneutics were influenced by the ideas of Romanticism. Includes a major section on “narrative theology.”

Kohanski, Alexander S. An Analytical Interpretation of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Woodbury, New York: Barron’s, 1975. A complete introduction to I and Thou. Includes an introduction and glossary.

Moore, Donald J. Martin Buber: Prophet of Religious Secularism. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996. Includes a biographical portrait of Buber and discussions of his “critique of religion.” Contains a bibliography and index.

Silberstein, Laurence J. Martin Buber’s Social and Religious Thought: Alienation and the Quest for Meaning. New York: New York University Press, 1989. Discussions of Buber’s religious thought as it relates to social imperatives. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.

Streiker, Lowell. The Promise of Buber. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Discusses Buber’s philosophy of dialogue. Contains a suggested reading list of Buber’s works and an index.

Vermes, Pamela. Buber. Jewish Thinkers series/ New York: Grove Press, 1988. This volume provides a concise and well-informed introduction to Buber’s thought and works.

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