Buber, Martin (1878–1965)

views updated


Martin Buber, the religious existentialist, was born in Vienna and spent his childhood in L'viv, Galicia, at the home of his grandfather Solomon Buber, a businessman and well-known scholar of rabbinic literature. From 1896 to 1900 he studied philosophy and art history at the universities of Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, and Zürich. He was early active in the Zionist movement, especially in its cultural and religious aspects, and in 1901 he was appointed editor of the Zionist journal Die Welt. Instrumental in the founding of the publishing house Jüdischer Verlag in 1902, in 1916 he founded the German Jewish monthly Der Jude, which, until it ceased publication in 1924, was the most respected and literate voice of German Jewry. From 1924 until 1933 Buber was professor of the philosophy of Jewish religion and ethics at Frankfurt-am-Main University, the only chair in Jewish religion at any German university. In 1920 he and Franz Rosenzweig founded the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus, an institute for adult Jewish education; and with Adolf Hitler's coming to power Buber devoted his energy to strengthening the religious and spiritual resources of German Jewry in the face of the unprecedented challenge posed to it. Buber continued in the institute until 1938, when he left for Palestine, where he was appointed professor of sociology of religion at the Hebrew University. With Y. L. Magnes he led the Yihud movement, devoted to Arab-Jewish understanding and to the creation of a binational state. In 1952 and 1957 he traveled widely in the United States, lecturing at many universities and to diverse student groups. While his acceptance of various German awards in the postwar period led to criticism from some Jewish quarters, Buber remained steadfast in his encouragement of those German circles that realize the magnitude of the Nazi crimes against the Jews and seem genuinely repentant. He died in Jerusalem.

Buber's basic insight, an insight that runs through all of his work and that determines his approach to everything he touches, is the realization that there is a basic difference between relating to a thing or to an object that I observe, and to a person or a "Thou" that addresses me and to whose address I respond. In its simplest form, this is the difference between the way people usually relate to inanimate things on the one hand and to living persons on the other. Inanimate objects are watched, while persons are spoken to. However, the distinction cannot be drawn simply on this basis. A person as well as an inanimate thing can be viewed as a thing, or, in Buber's terminology, an "It." Whenever we take an "objective" attitude toward a person, whenever we view him as part of the world and caught in its causal chain, we are in an "IIt" relationship, even though the object happens to be a person. The "IIt" relationship is characterized by the fact that it is not a genuine relationship because it does not take place between the I and the It. When another person is an It to me, I am, first of all, perfectly alone. I gaze at him and view him from every possible direction, I observe his place in the scheme of things, and I find elements that he has in common with other persons and things and elements that distinguish him from them. All of this, however, takes place within me; I am judging and I am observing, and the external world is relevant only to the extent that it enters my being.

It is otherwise in the "IThou" relationship. Here the relationship is genuine because it is between me and the Thou that addresses me. This Thou is no longer one thing among other things of the universe; the whole universe is seen in the light of the Thou, and not the Thou in the light of the universe. In fact, it is not only the object in the "IThou" relationship that is different from that in the "IIt" situation; the very "I" is different in the two situations. There is no "I" that sometimes relates to a Thou and sometimes to an It. If that were the case, both the It and the Thou would be objects that float into the I's field of vision and then out of it, leaving the I essentially unaffected. Instead, Buber argues, the I of the IIt is a different I from that of the IThou because it is not the I as such that has preeminent reality, but the relations IIt and IThou. The I appears and is shaped only in the context of some relationship with either an It or a Thou and can never be viewed independently of such a relationship.

Buber further states that the IIt relationship is maintained with only part of ourselves in it. There is always a part of us that remains outside the relationship and views it from some vantage point. In the IThou relationship, on the other hand, our whole being must be involved. Should I attempt to hold back any part of myself, I will find myself in an IIt situation because there will be a part of me that is not participant but spectator, a sure sign of the IIt. This means that the IThou relationship carries with it much greater risk than the IIt, since there is no withholding of the self possible, as in the IIt. In the IIt situation the part of the self that remains outside the relationship cannot be injured by the other party because he cannot reach it. In the IThou relationship there is no such security because the Thou of the I is addressed with the whole of the I, and any response elicited necessarily pertains to this total I. In the IThou relationship, therefore, everything possible is risked without any defensive position being left to which the I can withdraw in case of need. However, this is not the only risk involved in the IThou situation. The Thou who is addressed cannot be viewed in the context of any causal, deterministic framework. He must be encountered in the full freedom of his otherness, an otherness that is addressed and that responds in the total unpredictability of human freedom. The moment the responses of the Thou are calculated, the moment the I asks itself what impression its speech and being will make on the Thou, it is relating to an It instead of to a Thou.

Because of this, Buber tells us, there is never a present for the IIt relationship, only a past. This is so because all objective knowledge about a human being is knowledge about his past, of what he has been rather than of what he is. If the present moment is to have genuine novelty, if it is not perfectly determined by the events of the past, then it must be possible for the present to produce a break with the past in the form of a response that could not have been calculated from a knowledge of the past. In the IThou relationship we are therefore genuinely living in the present because we are prepared for any and every response to our address, the expected as well as the unexpectedand it is this that constitutes genuine listening. The difference between a pseudo listening and a genuine listening is that while in the pseudo listening situation the listener pretends to listen, what he hears is determined by his past knowledge of the person he is listening to or by his theories concerning the nature of man. Genuine listening does not know ahead of time what it will hear; in the full uniqueness of the present it listens to the speech of the other without filtering what it hears through the screen of its own prejudgments. The purpose of genuine listening is therefore really to hear what the other is saying, constantly being aware that he is saying something that is new and not just a revelation of his nature, which the hearer has already identified and which is fixed as the other's "psychology."

It is in the religious context that the significance of Buber's distinctions emerges most clearly. In contrast to much of mysticism that aims at the obliteration of the abyss between the self and the Absolute in the ecstasy of mystical union, the essence of biblical religion, as conceived by Buber, is the dialogue between man and God in which each is the other's Thou. "The extended lines of relations meet in the eternal Thou," writes Buber in the opening sentence of the final portion of I and Thou. Life is an endless transition from the Thou to the It and back to the Thou. Sooner or later, the time comes when even the most cherished Thou recedes, when a spiritual tiredness overtakes the most authentic IThou relationship and turns it into the IIt. There is one Thou, argues Buber, who by his very nature cannot become an It. A man may hate God and curse him, he may turn away from him when the suffering of human destiny becomes unbearable; but no man can reduce God to the status of a thing who no longer addresses him and who becomes one object among others in the world for him. Much of traditional theology, for Buber, errs in dealing with God as if he could be turned into an It. Time and again, however, man turns from thinking about God to addressing him, and it is then that he communicates with the living God, as distinct from merely giving intellectual assent to the God of the philosophers. This is true even when the Absolute Thou addressed is not called God. "But when he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be godless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses God."

In the course of his long career Buber applied these basic ideas to a diversity of fields. In a number of works devoted to biblical interpretation, he developed in detail his view of the Bible as the record of Israel's dialogue with God. He wrote a definitive work on the relation between Christian and Jewish faith. In this work he distinguishes between the Jewish emunah and the Greek pistis, the former of which, according to Buber, is faith in the sense of trust while the latter is faith in the sense of belief in the truth of propositions. Jewish faith, as found in the Hebrew Bible, is Israel's trust in the faithfulness of God's word as that word is spoken in dialogue. The faith of the New Testament, particularly in its Pauline version, is heavily influenced by Greek philosophical elements that are reflected in the emphasis on salvation as resulting from belief in the truth of propositions concerning the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul, Buber thus sees a profound departure from the Hebrew biblical spirit, a departure that is no more than partial and implicit in the Gospels.

In his later years Buber's interest to some extent turned to psychotherapy, in which he emphasized the necessity for the therapist not to hide behind the teachings of his school and not to forget that psychotherapy is above all dialogue in which therapist and patient speak to each other. When seen in this light, the therapist encounters the patient for the individual he is and is ready for the unexpected that the theoretical categories of his discipline do not prepare him for. Similarly, in the field of social philosophy Buber contrasted Marxist socialism, with its centralized control and allegiance to impersonal and inevitable historical forces, with the socialism of the community in which the authenticity of the IThou relationship is the foundation on which the living community is built and to which it must return, again and again, for renewal. In the Israeli kibbutz Buber saw an exemplification of the communal or "Utopian" socialism for which he stands.

See also Absolute, The; Existentialism; Jewish Philosophy; Philosophical Anthropology; Rosenzweig, Franz.


Publication of the collected works of Buber in German, Werke, was begun in 1962 by Kösel Verlag in Munich. The first three volumes appeared by 1964.

Buber's most important work is Ich und Du (Berlin, 1922), translated by R. G. Smith as I and Thou (New York: Scribners, 1958). Die Frage an den Einzelnen (Berlin: Schocken, 1936), translated by R. G. Smith in Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955), develops the basic themes in some detail. Der Glaube der Propheten (Zürich, 1950), translated from the Hebrew by C. Witton-Davies as The Prophetic Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1949), is one of Buber's best biblical studies. Paths in Utopia, translated by R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge, 1949), is Buber's study of social philosophy; Two Types of Faith, translated by N. P. Goldhawk (London: Routledge and Paul, 1951) is his study of Judaism and Christianity.

Other writings that have been translated into English are Eclipse of God; Studies in the Relation between Religion and Philosophy, translated by Maurice Friedman et al. (New York: Harper, 1952) and Bilder von Gut und Bose (Cologne, 1952), translated by R. G. Smith and M. Bullock as Good and Evil; Two Interpretations (New York: Scribners, 1953); Pointing the Way: Collected Essays, translated and edited by Maurice Friedman (New York: Harper, 1957); and Martin Buber, Writings, a selection edited and introduced by Will Herberg (New York: Meridian, 1956).

Maurice Friedman's Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955; New York: Harper, 1960) is a thorough secondary work with an extensive bibliography.

Edwards, Paul. Buber and Buberism: A Critical Evaluation. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1970.

Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber's Life and Work: The Early Years, 18781923. New York: Dutton, 1981.

Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber's Life and Work: The Middle Years, 19231945. Reprint ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber's Life and Work: The Later Years, 19451965. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Moonan, Willard. Martin Buber and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings in English through 1978. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981.

Schilpp, Paul, and Maurice Friedman, eds. The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 12: The Philosophy of Martin Buber. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1967.

Wood, Robert. Martin Buber's Ontology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Michael Wyschogrod (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)