(Martin Buber)


[Martin Buber (1878 – l965) - a student of Kabbalah, Hasidism and Zionism – left Germany in 1938 and eventually became professor of social philosophy at Hebrew University, Jerusalem: considered an existentialist and proponent of anthropological philosophy.]


From: I and Thou


[What Buber attempted in “I and Thou” is to distinguish the different types of relationships we can have with that which is other than our selves, as well as explain why it is that most people who "seek God" fail to find anything which meets their expectations.]

Two types of relationships: I-It and I-Thou

Buber establishes the necessity of a distinction between types of relationships by noting that humans do not relate to that which is other than their selves as mere things alone. Put more simply, we do not treat others only as objects - as means to an end. Living such that all is treated as an object (in extreme cases, even one's self is considered an object - an It) is a empty and confusing existence. If we see the world only through our experiences, then we will miss much of that which is.

“Not every relationship between two persons is an “I-Thou”, nor is every relationship with an animal or thing “I-It”. The difference, rather, is in the relationship itself. I-Thou is a relationship of openness, directness, mutuality, and presence. It may be between man and man, but may also take place with a tree, a cat, piece of mica, a work of art – and through all of these with God, the ‘eternal Thou’ in whom the parallel lines of relations meet. I-It, in contrast, is the typical subject-object relationship in which one knows and uses other people and things without allowing them to exist for oneself in their uniqueness…”

[The inference from Buber’s philosophy is that when I-Thou truly meet and communicate, Divinity informs itself – the dialoguers ‘feasting’ on the miracle of their union]

I-It:  We experience most things as just that - things. They do not respond to our perception, they are not changed by it. We experience them as objects - as It. Even if we distinguish between the outer and the inner experiences, we still do not add anything significant or different to our experience. Indeed, Buber claims that even a distinction between those experiences which are open and those which are secret does not add anything. Fundamentally, we still experience the other as an It. There is no relation between observer and observed - no connection. The experience is totally in the observer and not it that which is observed. But this is only part of our awareness of the world.

I-Thou: We reach a new level of awareness when we approach the other as a Thou - as a relational being. The Thou is changed by my awareness of it in that it responds to my awareness - and thus establishes a relation between I and Thou. Buber notes three ways in which we can become aware of the Thou:

o        In nature: this is the bare minimum awareness of Thou - other creatures can respond to us or not, depending on their own awareness of our Thou-ness. When we attempt to communicate with them (which we would never do with an object), we are at "the threshold of speech" - because we never know if they understand us as a Thou.

o        In other humans: this is the most common experience of another Thou. While we can experience other persons as objects, we only know them as complete beings when we are aware of them as another Thou - a being which we can enter into a relationship with. When we address another, we usually get a response. This establishes the I-Thou relationship with the other, and is fully realized in conversations.

o        In spiritual beings: Here is where we get close to Mysticism in our expression - for Buber says here that "here the relation is clouded, yet it discloses itself; it does not use speech, yet begets it." In the end, we cannot speak of the Thou of which we are aware - yet it still seems to be undeniably here for us.

How do we know if the Thou exists?

"But with what right do we draw what lies outside speech into relation with the world of the primary word?"

The essence of his answer is this: we realize that each thing we encounter can be a Thou if we choose to see it as such.

"In every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou. In each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou."

We are acutely aware that there is more to the world than our experience of it - there is some profound other of which we are aware, yet cannot express. That of which we are aware is not an It, not an object which can be experienced, but rather something of which we become aware. The clearest way to express this is that we can have a relationship with the other.

Consider a human relationship which has progressed to a deep level of understanding. To some people, this relationship will look like each of the persons in it are treating each other as objects. But to the persons in the relationship, they are aware of the other as a Thou - a being apart from the I, yet also a part of the I. It is a pity that quite a few 'relationships' are nothing of the sort - each of the persons experiences the other as an object, as an It rather than as a Thou. These are the 'relationships' which remain static and which end in disaster. We are unsatisfied with such 'relationships' because we feel they are missing something. We are correct - they are missing the very thing which defines them as relationships - a Thou. A true relationship with the Thou is a dynamic, growing, creative , changing awareness.

But a relationship can only be built on choice - the Thou can "step up to meet me", but I must choose to reciprocate - or the relationship fails. If I go out looking for a relationship by looking for an object, then I will never find that which I seek.

For Buber, the same is true of our 'search' for God - if we see God as a thing, as something to be experienced, then we will be frustrated in our search. God is not an It, but rather is a Thou. All that we need to do to find God is to choose to become aware of God. How do we do that?

"If you explore the life of things and of conditioned being you come to the unfathomable (witness the current state of physics), if you deny the life of things and of conditioned being you stand before nothingness (are you listening, Nietzsche?), if you hallow this life you meet the living God."

If you choose to be aware of life as holy, then it is.


OTHER NOTES AND QUOTES concerning the thought of Martin Buber:

After Buber had written over 800 books and articles, he still saw concrete meetings between persons as the most important thing in being human.

“Here is the infallible test: Imagine yourself in a situation where you are alone, wholly alone on earth, and you are offered one of the two, books or men. I often hear men prizing their solitude but that is only because there are still men somewhere on earth even though in the far distance. I knew nothing of books when I came forth from the womb of my mother, and I shall die without books, with another human hand in my own. I do, indeed, close my door at times and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can open the door again and see a human being looking at me.”

"When I meet a man, I am not concerned about his opinions. I am concerned about the man. My inclination is to meet people. What is important is the manner in which others are met; the quality of each relationship is vital. I think no human being can give more than this. Making life possible for the other, if only for a moment."

“I write my own books as a snake sheds its skins, because I must. But they are not the most important part of my life. The most important part of life is the relationship with others. The analogy of the chrysalis and the butterfly teaches us to meet others and to hold our ground when we meet them. And I think the important, the essential, word there is 'teaches'. It takes a lifetime to learn how to be able to hold your own ground, to go out to the others, to be open to them without losing your ground. And to hold your ground without shutting others out.”

Three kinds of dialogue

·        There is genuine dialogue - no matter whether spoken or silent - where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.

·        There is technical dialogue, which is prompted solely by the need of objective understanding.

·        And there is monologue disguised as dialogue, in which two or men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources

“I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man's life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.”

From “Dialogue”:

  “Above and below are bound to one another. The word of him who wishes to speak with men without speaking with God is not fulfilled; but the word of him who wishes to speak with God without speaking with men goes astray.”

“Plato has repeatedly called thinking a voiceless colloquy of the soul with itself. Everyone who has really thought knows that within this remarkable process there is a stage at which an “inner” court is questioned and replies.”


Extracts from essays in “Between Man and Man”:


FROM “The Question To The Single One”:

Buber challenges Kierkegaard’s abandoning the world (incl. his fiancée) in the belief that all that of the world is an obstacle to having direct relationship with God. Buber’s view is that the only way to have a relationship with Divinity is through the Divinity implicit in all things in God’s world. As Kierkegaard himself wrote

‘Precisely the highest form of piety – to let everything earthly go, can be the highest egoism.’


“In the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, not before a man can say “I” in perfect reality – that is, finding himself – can he in perfect reality say “Thou” – that is, to God. And even if he does it in a community he can only do it alone. As Kierkegaard said ‘As the single One he (every man) is alone, alone in the whole world, alone before God.’ … ‘In order that man may not be lost there is need of persons who are not collectivized, and of truth which is not politicized.’”


FROM “What is Man?”:

“Man’s threefold living relation is:

1.      His relation to the world and to things;

2.      His relation to men – both individuals and to the many;

3.      His relationship to the mystery of being – which is dimly apparent through all this but infinitely transcends it – which the philosopher calls the absolute and the believer calls God, and which cannot in fact be eliminated from the situation even by a man who rejects both designations.”


“The field of philosophy, cosmologically, may (according to Kant) be marked off into the following questions:

1.      What can I know?

2.      What ought I to do?

3.      What may I hope?

4.      What is man?

Metaphysics answers #1, ethics #2, religion #3, and anthropology #4.”


“We enter a strange room of the spirit, but we feel as if the ground we tread is the board on which a game is being played whose rules we learn as we advance, deep rules which we ponder, and must ponder, but which arose and which persist only through a decision having once been reached to play this intellectual game, and to play it in this very way. And at the same time – it is true – we feel that this game is not arbitrarily chosen by the player, but he is under necessity: it is his fate.”


FROMThe Way of Response”:

“Each of us is encased in an armour which we soon, out of familiarity, cease to notice. There are only moments which penetrate it and stir the soul to sensibility.”


From “Education”:

“When all ‘directions’ fail there arises in the darkness over the abyss the one true direction of man, towards the creative Spirit, towards the Spirit of God brooding on the face of the waters, towards Him of whom we know not whence He comes and whither He goes.

That is man’s true autonomy which no longer betrays, but responds.

Man, the creature, who forms and transforms the creation, cannot create. But he, each man, can expose himself and others to the creative Spirit. And he can call upon the Creator to save and perfect His image.”




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