Buber 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 have 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. His influence extends
across the humanities, particularly in the fields of social psychology,
social philosophy, and religious existentialism.
Martin (Hebrew name: Mordechai) Buber was born on February 8,
1878 in Vienna into a Jewish family. His grandfather, Solomon
Buber, in whose house in Lemberg (L'viv, now Ukraine) Buber spent
much of his childhood, worked as a renowned scholar in the field
of Jewish tradition and literature. Buber had a multilingual education:
the household spoke Yiddish and German, he picked up Hebrew and
French in his childhood, and Polish at secondary school.
1892, Buber returned to his father's house in Lemberg. A personal
religious crisis led him to break with Jewish religious customs:
he started reading Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and
Friedrich Nietzsche. The later two, in particular, inspired him
to pursue studies in philosophy. In 1896, Buber went to study
in Vienna (philosophy, art history, German studies, philology).
In 1898, he joined the Zionist movement, participating in congresses
and organizational work. In 1899, while studying in Zürich,
Buber met Paula Winkler (a non-Jewish Zionist writer who later
converted to Judaism) from Munich, his future wife.
Zionism from his own personal viewpoint, Buber disagreed with
Theodor Herzl about the political and cultural direction of Zionism.
Herzl envisioned the goal of Zionism in a nation-state, but did
not consider Jewish culture or religion necessary. In contrast,
Buber believed the potential of Zionism was for social and spiritual
enrichment. Herzl and Buber would continue, in mutual respect
and disargreement, to work towards their respective goals for
the rest of their lives.
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 Hasidism movement. Buber admired how
the the Hasidic communities actualized their religion in daily
life and culture. In stark contrast to the busy Zionist organizations,
which were always mulling political concerns, the Hasidim were
focused on the values which Buber had long advocated for Zionism
to adopt. In 1904, Buber withdrew from much of his Zionist organizational
work and devoted himself to study and writing. In that year he
published his thesis: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Individuationsproblems
(on Jakob Böhme and Nikolaus Cusanus).
1906, Buber published Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman, a collection
of the tales of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a renowned Hasidic
rebbe, as interpreted and retold in a Neo-Hasidic fashion by Buber.
Two years later, Buber published Die Legende des Baalschem (stories
of the Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Hasidism.
1910 to 1914, Buber studied myths and published editions of mythic
texts. In 1916 he moved from Berlin to Heppenheim. 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 (German for "The
Jew"), a Jewish monthly (until 1924). In 1921 Buber began
his close relationship with Franz Rosenzweig. In 1922 Buber and
Rosenzweig co-operated in Rosenzweig's House of Jewish Learning,
known in Germany as Lehrhaus.
1923 Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later
translated into English as I and Thou). Though he edited the work
later in his life, he refused to make substantial changes. In
1925 he began, in conjunction with Rosenzweig, translating the
Hebrew Bible into German. He himself called this translation Verdeutschung
("Germanification"), since it does not always use literary
German language but attempts to find new dynamic (often newly-invented)
equivalent phrasing in order to respect the multivalent Hebrew
original. Between 1926 and 1928 Buber co-edited the quarterly
Die Kreatur ("The Creature").
1930 Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt
am Main. He resigned in protest from his professorship immediately
after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. On October 4, 1933 the
Nazi authorities forbade him to lecture. He then founded the Central
Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became an increasingly
important body as the German government forbade Jews to attend
public education. The Nazi administration increasingly obstructed
in 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, Israel.
He received a professorship at Hebrew University there, lecturing
in anthropology and introductory sociology. He participated in
the discussion of the Jews' problems in Palestine and of the Arab
question — working out of his Biblical, philosophic and
Hasidic work. He became a member of the group Ichud, which aimed
at a bi-national state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine.
a binational 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".
World War II Buber began giving lecture-tours in Europe and the
USA. In 1951 he received the 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. 1963 Buber won the Erasmus Award in Amsterdam. On
13 June, 1965 Buber died in his house in Talbiyeh,Jerusalem.
Buber is famous for his synthetic thesis of dialogical existence,
as he described in the book I and Thou. However his work dealt
with a range of issues including religious consciousness, modernity,
the concept of evil, ethics, education, and Biblical hermeneutics.
In I and Thou, Buber introduced his thesis on human existence.
Inspired partly by Feuerbach's concept of ego in The Essence of
Christianity and Kierkegaard's "Single One", Buber worked
upon the premise of existence as encounter. He explained this
philosophy using the word pairs of "I-Thou" and "I-It"
to categorize the modes of consciousness, interaction, and being
through which an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate
objects, and all reality in general. Philosophically, these word
pairs express complex ideas about modes of being - particularly
how a person exists and actualizes that existence (see existentialism).
As Buber argues in I and Thou, a person is at all times engaged
with the world in one of these modes.
generic motif Buber employs to describe the dual modes of being
is one of dialogue (I-Thou) and monologue (I-It). The concept
of communication, particularly language-oriented communication,
is used both in describing dialogue/monologue through metaphors
and expressing the interpersonal nature of human existence.
I-Thou is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence
of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings
meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification
or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas
do not play a role in this relation. In an I-Thou encounter, infinity
and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts).
stressed that an I-Thou relationship lacks any composition (e.g.
structure) and communicates no content (e.g. information). Despite
the fact that I-Thou cannot be proven to happen as an event (e.g.
it cannot be measured), Buber stressed that it is real and perceivable.
A variety of examples are used to illustrate I-Thou relationships
in daily life - two lovers, an observer and a cat, the author
and a tree, and two strangers on a train. Common words Buber used
for I-Thou include encounter, meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and
The I-It relationship is nearly the opposite of I-Thou. Whereas
in I-Thou the two beings encounter one another, in an I-It relationship
the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the "I" confronts
and qualifies an idea, or conceptualization, of the being in its
presence and treats that being as an object. All such objects
are considered merely mental representations, created and sustained
by the individual mind. This is similar to Levinas’ theory
of totality), in that these objects reside in the cognitive agent’s
mind, existing only as thoughts. Therefore, the I-It relationship
is in fact a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue,
but a monologue.
the I-It relationship, an individual treats other things, people,
etc., as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this
form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self
- how an object can serve the individual’s interest.
did not consider the I-It relation better than the I-Thou relation;
rather, he argued that they are both natural and necessary. Human
life consists of an oscillation between I-Thou and I-It. However,
in diagnosing modernity, Buber believed that the expansion of
a purely analytic, material view of existence was at heart an
advocation of I-It relations - even between human beings. Buber
argued that this devalued not only individuals, but all of existence.
Ich und Du has been translated into many other languages, despite
the fact that Buber made use of many idomatic German expressions.
In the English-speaking world there has been debate about the
correct translation of the key word pairs in English translations
of the book. Specifically, in the German the word "Du"
is used, while in the English two different translations are used:
"Thou" (used in Ronald Smith’s version) and "You"
(used by Walter Kaufmann).
key problem is how to translate the very personal, even intimate
German "Du", which has no direct corrolary in English.
Smith argued that "Thou" invoked the theological and
reverential implications which Buber intended (e.g. Buber describes
God as the eternal "Du"). Kaufmann asserted that this
wording was archaic and impersonal, offering "You" because
it is commonly used for intimate and personal conversation in
contemporary English usage.
this debate, Buber’s book is widely known in the English-speaking
world as I and Thou, perhaps because the Smith translation appeared
years before the Kaufmann one. However, both the Smith and Kaufmann
translations are widely available and can be considered complementary.