martin buber

The Life and Works of Buber -A History of Western Philosophy

Nano Library Political Philosophy

The Life and Works of Buber -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

Martin Buber was born in Vienna in 1878 of Austrian Jewish Parents. He spent his childhood in Lvov, Galicia with his grandfather Solomon Buber who was a well-known business man and rabbinic literature scholar. Martin studied philosophy and art history from 1896 to 1900 at University of Vienna, Leipzig, Zurich and Berlin. He was an active Zionist in his twenties with Herzl and Weizmann. His work was instrumental in the revival of Hasidism (Jewish mysticism).

Martin was involved in several Zionist journals, from editor to becoming the founder of a publishing house. Even though he was a Jew, his culture was altogether Germanic and his progression of thought was anchored in Biblical and Hebraic heritages. His work was impressive because he sought after the roots of man from a biblical perspective. He was a corrective to the more ambitious teachings of Heidegger and Sartre. His most famous contribution is the development of the I-Thou philosophy in 1923 (William James had used the phrase in 1897).

From 1924 to 1933, he was a professor of the philosophy of Jewish religion and ethics at Frankfurt-am-Main University. This was the only chair in Jewish religion at any German University. In 1920, Buber and Franz Rosenzweig founded an institute for adult Jewish education thus devoting his energy to strengthening religious and spiritual resources for the German Jewry in the face of the challenges being mounted by Hitler’s coming to power. Buber taught at the University of Frankfurt (1923—1933). In 1938, Buber left for Palestine and took an appointment as professor of sociology of religion at the Hebrew University. Partnering with Y. L. Magnes, they led the Yihud movement which was devoted to Arab-Jewish understanding pointing to the creation of a bi-national state. After a few others lecture venues, he eventually died in 1965. Later, he left Hitler’s Germany (1938), and taught at
Hebrew University (1938—1951). Buber died in 1965.

The major works of Buber include I and Thou in 1923 (English trans in 1957); Eclipse of God (1952 Eng. trans.); Good and Evil (1953); The Prophetic Faith (1960), and Two Types of Faith (namely, Jewish and Christian, 1961). Buber’s I and Thou is also a representative confrontation between God and man where each being confronts the existence of the other in his completeness—one as man, the other as God. It was a matter of continued faith with Job which he maintained through his many responses of emotion towards God. The faith that Job had in God, as well as the faith David had, permitted them to call God to account. Faith at its fullest dares to express anger toward his God.

The Philosophy of Buber

Buber’s perceptiveness is an attempt to show that there is a basic difference between relating to a thing (or the observed object) and to the person himself. However, Buber did not think the distinction was that simple. According to Buber, things and persons are both observed as ‘It’ when characterized as not genuine relationships between the parties. But the relationship becomes genuine when there is a “I-Thou” relationship between the two parties. There is a primary difference is between the way people relate to inanimate objects and how they relate to persons. When a person is seen as an “It,” then I am alone and act as sole observer and judge. When the person (object) becomes the “Thou,” the universe is seen in light of him and he is no longer just another person (object) among many resulting in a different involved “I” carrying with it greater risk.) Buber’s most famous contribution to philosophy was his distinction between an I-It and an I-Thou relationship. The nature and hindrances of an I-Thou relations will be discussed first.

I-Thou versus I-It.

An I-Thou relationship is one that treats others as an end not as a means. We should love people and use things; we should not use people and love things. We should treat others as a subject (an I) not as an object, an It).

Three things hinder I-Thou relations: First, seeming rather than being. Second, speechifying rather than real dialogue; Third, imposing oneself on another rather than unfolding oneself to another. Genuine existential experiences are always person to person. One takes off his mask and speaks as a real person to another real person. Only this is true communication.

The I-Thou relationship is risky because there is no hiding place to buffet any personal need. In addition, the Thou is viewed as one who has full freedom associated with his otherness and has the freedom to act unpredictably. If the responses of the I-Thou relationship becomes one of where the Thou is calculated, then the relation shifts to an I-It relationship. The I-It relationship is not a present relationship but one based upon the past, based upon a previous knowledge of his past. The I-Thou relationship is one truly based on the present because it is in a position of unpreparedness for the expected and unexpected. (This is related to genuine listening to the Thou, where the I does not know what is going to be said as compared to pseudo-listening where the I pretends to listen and assumes what he is going to hear based on some past experience.

A Contrast of Buber with Sartre

Since Jean Paul Sartre (see below) was an atheistic existentialist and Buber a theistic one, it is enlightening to contrast their views. The following chart summarized their differences.

For Sartre, others are hell because they reflect an objectification of me, not the real I that as a subject transcends any objectification. Therefore, there is no ultimate meaning, no real I-Thou relationship. Hence, the best we can do is have common projects with others (e.g., join a group with others who are doing the same thing). At one time Sartre joined the Communist Party to fulfill this. Buber, on the other hand believe that we could find meaning in an I-thou experience with others grounded in God, the ultimate Thou.

Buber’s view of God

In Buber’s view, man is in a dialogue with God where each is the other’s Thou. Life for man is a constant transition from the Thou to the It back to the Thou. For Buber, there is really only One Thou; it is God and whose nature cannot become an It. Therefore, though man may hate God, he cannot reduce God to the status of a thing and turning God into an It. It is here where Buber claims that traditional theology attempts to turn God into an It. When man transitions from thinking about God to addressing Him, then it is here than man is truly communicating with the living God. This true communication is different than what the philosophers merely do by intellectual assent alone.

For Buber, God is “Wholly other,” but He is also “Wholly the same,” nearer to me than I am to myself. God cannot even be sought, since there is nowhere He is not to be found. In fact, God is not sought by man; man meets God through grace as God moves to man. All who hallow this life meet the living God as the unfathomable condition of being. To see everything in God is not to renounce the world but to establish it on true basis. We can sense God’s presence but can never solve His mysteriousness. God is experienced in and through the world. Nonetheless, He must be met alone. In this union with God we are not absorbed but remain an individual “I” (ontologically different).

Buber’s view of Religious Language

Like Ploitnus, God is not the Good but the SuperGood. He must be loved in His concealment. For Buber’s God does not name Himself (in the “I am that I am”); He simply reveals Himself since this is not a definition but a disclosure of Himself. The idea of God is a masterpiece of man’s construction, an image of the Imageless. But, as Buber insisted, “Idols are idols, whether they are metal or mental.” Nonetheless, the word “God” should not be given up simply because it is the most heavily laden of all words, for it is thereby the most imperishable and indispensable of all words. The word “religion”, however, is vexatious and has undergone the epidemic sickening of our time and should be replaced by “all real human dealings with God.”

Philosophy and the Eclipse of God

Philosophy hinders man’s relation to God in two ways. First, man makes his own selfhood supreme and thus shuts off light from heaven. The passion peculiar to philosophers is pride in which their system replaces God. Second, objective language (It-language) is a form of verbal idolatry which obscures God. God does not come under the law of contradiction; we speak of Him only dialectically. Buber believed that idols are idols whether they are mental or metal.

Buber’s form of existentialism has a significant influence on Neo-orthodoxy. Emil Brunner carried over Buber’s existential views into Protestantism.

The Life and Works of Buber -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

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