Martin Buber

From New World Encyclopedia

Martin Buber

Martin Buber (February 8, 1878 – June 13, 1965) was an Austrian, Jewish philosopher, translator, and educator, whose work centered around theistic ideals of religious consciousness, interpersonal relations, and community. Buber's evocative, sometimes poetic writing style marked the major themes in his work: The retelling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue. A cultural Zionist, Buber was active in the Jewish and educational communities of Germany and Israel. He was also a staunch supporter of a bi-national solution in Palestine, instead of a two-state solution. Buber’s primary philosophical contribution was his notion of dialogical existence best captured in his small but important work, I and Thou. In the work, he describes the primacy of the I-Thou relation, which is a direct and immediate encounter with the other, as opposed to the I-It relation, which is an indirect and mediated experience of the other. His influence extends across the humanities, particularly in the fields of social psychology, social philosophy, and religious existentialism.

Life and work

Martin Buber was born on February 8, 1878, in Vienna, into a Jewish family. Buber spent much of his childhood in the house of his grandfather, Solomon Buber, who was a renowned scholar in the field of Jewish tradition and literature. In his youth, Buber enjoyed a multilingual education. The household spoke Yiddish and German; he soon learned Hebrew and French; and he acquired Polish at secondary school.

In 1892, Buber returned to his father's house in Lemberg. A personal religious crisis led him to break with Jewish religious customs. Instead, he turned to philosophy and began reading Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The latter two, in particular, inspired him to pursue studies in philosophy at the academy. In 1896, Buber went to Vienna where he studied philosophy, art history, German studies, and philology. In 1898, he joined the Zionist movement, participating in congresses and organizational work. In 1899, while studying in Zürich, Buber met Paula Winkler, whom he would later marry.

In 1902, Buber became the editor of the weekly, Die Welt, the central organ of the Zionist movement. However, a year later Buber became involved with the Jewish Hasidic movement. Buber admired how the Hasidic communities actualized their religion in daily life and culture. In stark contrast to the busy Zionist organizations, which were always absorbed in political concerns, the Hasidim practiced the values which Buber had long advocated for Zionism. In 1904, Buber withdrew from much of his Zionist organizational work and devoted himself to study and writing.

In 1906, Buber published Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman, a collection of the tales of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a renowned Hasidic rebbe. Two years later, he published Die Legende des Baalschem (Stories of the Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Hasidism. From 1910 to 1914, Buber studied myths and published various editions of mythic texts. During World War I, he helped establish the Jewish National Commission in order to improve the condition of Eastern European Jews. During that period he became the editor of Der Jude (The Jew), a Jewish monthly. In 1921, Buber began his close relationship with Franz Rosenzweig, another well-known Jewish thinker. In 1922, Buber and Rosenzweig co-operated in Rosenzweig's "House of Jewish Learning," known in Germany as Lehrhaus.

In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, I and Thou (Ich und Du), which remains his most famous and influential work. In 1925, along with Rosenzweig, Buber began a German translation of the Hebrew Bible. Buber referred to the translation as Verdeutschung ("Germanification"), since it did not always employ standard German phraseology but forged out a more literary, dynamic language that tried to convey the multivalent meanings of the original Hebrew.

In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. He resigned from his professorship in 1933, however, once Adolf Hitler came to power. On October 4, 1933, the Nazi authorities forbade Buber to lecture. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, an institution which became increasingly important as the German government forbade Jews from participating in public education. Finally, in 1938, Buber left Germany for Israel and settled in Jerusalem. He received a professorship at Hebrew University, where he lectured in anthropology and sociology. He participated in the discussion of the Jewish problem in Palestine and the Arab question. He became a member of the group Ichud, which aimed at a bi-national state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Such a bi-national confederation was viewed by Buber as a more proper fulfillment of Zionism than a solely Jewish state. In 1946, he published his work, Paths in Utopia, in which he detailed his communitarian socialist views and his theory of the "dialogical community" founded upon interpersonal, dialogical relationships.

After World War II, Buber began giving lecture-tours in Europe and the United States. In 1951, he received the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe award of the University of Hamburg and in 1953, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. In 1958, Buber's wife Paula died, and in the same year he won the Israel Prize. In 1963, Buber won the Erasmus Award in Amsterdam. On June 13, 1965, Buber died in his house in Jerusalem.

Philosophical ideas

Dialogue and existence

Buber is best known for his notion of dialogical existence, and in particular the primacy of the I-Thou relation, which he describes in his book I and Thou. Inspired partly by Feuerbach's concept of ego in The Essence of Christianity and Kierkegaard's “Single One," Buber argues that existence is primarily an encounter. He explains this philosophy using the word pairs of I-Thou (Ich-Du) and I-it (Ich-Es). These terms represent the modes of encounter, interaction, and being through which a person engages with other individuals, inanimate beings, and all reality. Inspired by a kind of phenomenology, or descriptive philosophy, Buber argues that existence should be understood primarily as a dialogue in which one takes a stand of openness to others in reality and a willingness to respond to them. Buber depicts the various ways we close off from this primary relation and instead fall into what he calls an attitude of I-It. While the I-Thou relation is fundamentally one of dialogue, the I-It is basically one of monologue.

Although these notions are fundamental to the entirety of his work, Buber dealt with a range of issues including religious consciousness, modernity, the concept of evil, ethics, education, and Biblical hermeneutics. For this reason, his ideas have often applied to other fields, such as religion, ethics, politics, social philosophy education, psychology, and art, Given Buber’s emphasis upon human relations (to God, other persons, and other things), his work is usually referred to as a philosophical anthropology.


I-Thou (Ich-Du) is a relation that stresses the mutual openness and presence between two beings. It is a concrete encounter in which these beings meet one another in their primary and authentic existence. In doing this, one does not qualify or objectify the other in any way. In fact, all one's ideas about the other are suspended or put aside in order that the authentic encounter can take place. Thus, an I-Thou encounter is one of pure presence in which the infinite reality is actualized (rather than abstracted into conceptual knowledge).

Buber stressed that an I-Thou relation lacks any composition or structure and so communicates no content or information. But although the I-Thou relation cannot be demonstrated or proven (for it cannot be measured), Buber insisted that it is real and to some extent perceivable. He employed a variety of everyday examples to illustrate such encounters, for example, two lovers, an observer and a cat, the author and a tree, and two strangers meeting on a train. Through these examples Buber tried to show that such intimate encounters are possible not only between persons, but also between a person and animals or even inanimate objects such as a rock. The suggestion of a kind of communion between all beings has led to Buber’s philosophy to be termed mystical.

The most essential I-Thou relation that Buber identified was the encounter between a human person and God or the eternal Thou. Buber argued that unless contact with the eternal Thou is restored, basic humanity will be undermined by the impersonal forces at work in technology and science. In fact, all I-Thou relations reflect some kind of contact with the eternal. Moreover, Buber argued that the I-Thou encounter is the only authentic way to interact with God. For any understanding or knowledge about God reduces God to an It.


The I-It (Ich-Es) relation is best understood in contrast to the I-Thou relation. Whereas in an I-Thou relation, two beings encounter one another in a mutual openness, in an I-It experience the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the "I" confronts and qualifies the other as an idea or conceptualization that reduces the other to an object. All such objects are mental representations, created and sustained by the individual consciousness. This notion is based partly on Kant's theory of phenomenon, in that the objects reside in the cognitive agent’s mind, existing only as images, ideas or thoughts. In the I-It experience an individual approaches all others (things or people) as objects to be used, known, or experienced. Essentially, then, this form of objectivity relates to the world and all others in terms of the self—how an object can serve the individual’s interest. For this reason, the I-It relation is a relation with oneself; in other words, it is not a dialogue, but a monologue.

Buber argued that human life consists of an oscillation between I-Thou and I-It relations, and that, in fact, I-Thou encounters are rare and cannot be simply willed into existence. Rather, one must be vigilant and so ready to respond when and where such encounters spontaneously emerge. Moreover, one can guard against the tendency to reduce these encounters into an I-It experience. In diagnosing the various ills of modernity (e.g. isolation, dehumanization, etc.), Buber thought that the expansion of a purely analytic, materialistic view of existence was what caused the prevailing attitude of I-It relations—even between human beings. Buber argued that this paradigm devalued not only human persons, but the meaning of all existence.

Buber and Zionism

Already in the early 1920s, Martin Buber started advocating a Binational solution to the Jewish-Arab problem, stating that the Jewish people should proclaim "its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development." Buber rejected the idea of Zionism as just another national movement and wanted instead to see the creation of an exemplary society; a society which would not be characterized by Jewish domination of the Arabs. It was necessary for the Zionist movement to reach a consensus with the Arabs even at the cost of the Jews remaining a minority in the country. In 1925, he was involved in the creation of the organization Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which advocated the creation of a bi-national state, and throughout the rest of his life he hoped and believed that Jews and Arabs one day would live in peace in a joint nation.

Hasidism and mysticism

Buber was a scholar, interpreter, and translator of Hasidism. He viewed Hasidism as a source of cultural renewal for Judaism, frequently citing examples from the Hasidic tradition that emphasized community, interpersonal life, and meaning in common activities (e.g. a worker's relation to his tools). The Hasidic ideal, according to Buber, emphasized a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no distinct separation between daily habits and religious experience. This was a major influence on Buber's philosophy of anthropology, which considered the basis of human existence as dialogical.

Buber's interpretation of the Hasidic tradition, however, has been criticized by scholars such as Chaim Potok for its romanticization. In the introduction to Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, Chaim Potok notes that Buber overlooked Hasidism's "charlatanism, obscurantism, internecine quarrels, its heavy freight of folk superstition and pietistic excesses, its zaddik worship, its vulgarized and attenuated reading of Lurianic Kabbalah." Even more severe is the criticism that Buber deemphasized the importance of the Jewish Law in Hasidism. These critics accuse Buber of focusing merely on those aspects of Hasidim which suggest an individual religiosity that abandons dogma and traditional creeds.


Works by Buber in English

  • 1937, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. New York: Scribners, 1958, 1984. ISBN 0-684-18254-8 ISBN 978-0684182544
  • 1965, The Knowledge of Man, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith and Maurice riedman, New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 06-130135-3
  • 1967a, A Believing Humanism: My Testament, translated by M. Friedman, New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • 1967b, On Judaism, edited by Nahum Glatzer and transl. by Eva Josp. New York: Schocken Books.
  • 1973a, On Zion; the History of an Idea, translated by Stanley Godman. New York: Schocken Books. T. & T. Clark Publishers, Ltd., 1999. ISBN 978-0567291295
  • 1983, A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited by Paul R. Mendes-Flohr. New York: Oxford University Press. University Of Chicago Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0226078021
  • 1985, Ecstatic Confessions, translated by Esther Cameron. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Syracuse University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0815604228
  • 1992, On Intersubjectivity and Cultural Creativity, edited by S. N. Eisenstadt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226078076
  • 1994, Scripture and Translation. Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, translated by Lawrence Rosenwald and Everett Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • 2002a, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, translated by Maurice Friedman. London: Routledge. Princeton University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0691043890
  • 2002b, Between Man and Man, translated by Ronald Gregor-Smith. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415278270
  • 2002d, The Martin Buber Reader: Essential Writings, edited by Asher D. Biemann. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 978-0312240516

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Avnon, Dan. 1998. Martin Buber. The Hidden Dialogue. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publ. ISBN 978-0847686889
  • Berkovits, Eliezer. 1962. A Jewish Critique of the Philosophy of Martin Buber. New York: Yeshiva University.
  • Friedman, Maurice. 1955. Martin Buber. The Life of Dialogue. Chicago: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 978-0415284745
  • Horwitz, Rivka. 1978. Buber's Way to I and Thou. An Historical Analysis. Schneider, 1978. ISBN 978-3795304560
  • Heidelberg, Koren. 2002, “Between Buber's Daniel and His I and Thou: A New Examination” in Modern Judaism 22 (2002): 169-198.
  • Mendes-Flohr, Paul. 1989. From Mysticism to Dialogue. Martin Buber's Transformation of German Social Thought. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 978-0814320280
  • Wood, R. 1969. Martin Buber's Ontology; an Analysis of “I and Thou.” Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969. ISBN 978-0810106505

External links

All links retrieved November 6, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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