On Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’: Return and Redemption
‘Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an ‘I it’ relationship for an ‘I thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful’.
- Martin Luther King Jr., (1929–1968), ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’
‘… wonder is the feeling of a philosopher’, said Plato, (c.429–347 B.C.), ‘and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (wonder)’. See my article On Plato’s ‘Theaetetus’ — Birth Pangs. ‘For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize’, said Aristotle, (384–322 BC), in the ‘Metaphysics’.
But what does it mean to wonder? Wonder about what?
‘… they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought. Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another’s, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake’.
Such wonder appears to be more in the nature of puzzlement, the first philosophers take up philosophy being puzzled about the kinds of things Aristotle mentions, for by being puzzled they take themselves to be ignorant and philosophizing is the means through which they will find release from their ignorance. St. Thomas Aquinas, (1225–1274), concurs, and furthermore, as he says in his commentary to Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’: ‘Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder’. But in the ‘Advancement of Learning’, Francis Bacon, (1561–1626), wrote: ‘.. for if any man shall think by view and inquiry into these sensible and material things to attain that light, whereby he may reveal unto himself the nature or will of God, then, indeed, is he spoiled by vain philosophy; for the contemplation of God’s creatures and works produceth (having regard to the works and creatures themselves) knowledge, but having regard to God no perfect knowledge, but wonder, which is broken knowledge’. Broken knowledge? Well, the word may be cognate to the German Wunde, wound, or maybe that is just a coincidence and anyway it is never a good move to read too much into etymology.
But what is broken can be fixed, by philosophy, by science, by art, and Bacon seems to be just throwing that in there, that there is knowledge that surpasses all human understanding. How does he know? Be that as it may, wonder suggests something rather different to me that Ludwig Wittgenstein, (1889–1951), hints at in his take on wonder:
‘If I say ‘I wonder at the existence of the world’ I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good and clear sense to say that I wonder at something being the case, we all understand what it means to say that I wonder at the size of a dog which is bigger than anyone I have ever seen before or at any thing which, in the common sense of the word, is extraordinary. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another, namely the ordinary size, at which I should not wonder. To say ‘I wonder at such and such being the case’ has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case. In this sense one can wonder at the existence of, say, a house when one sees it and has not visited it for a long time and has imagined that it had been pulled down in the meantime. But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing. I could of course wonder at the world round me being as it is. If for instance I had this experience while looking into the blue sky, I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case when it’s clouded. But that’s not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is. One might be tempted to say that what I am wondering at is a tautology, namely at the sky being blue or not blue. But then it’s just nonsense to say that one is wondering at a tautology’.
- ‘Lecture on Ethics’
To wonder at the existence of the world and to express such wonderment in terms of absolute value (this is a lecture on ethics remember) is nonsensical whilst also unavoidable
‘Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt’. ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. ‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen’. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. As Wittgenstein famously said in the ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’. Which is certainly expressive if I may so put it of an implicit sense of wonder which becomes explicit in his lecture on ethics whereby his acceptance of wonder acquires ethical significance in the form of an opening up of oneself to the mystery of the existence of the world, an opening up of our particular character to the not-being-able-to-put-into-words of the world albeit we are wanting to say that which cannot be said. Wittgenstein thus concludes:
‘I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it’.
- ‘Lecture on Ethics’
But is it even so? Running against the boundaries of language? Then push them back.
‘We are once amore as babes awondering in a wold made fresh where with the hen in the storyaboot we start from scratch’.
- James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’
And furthermore, something is missing from Wittgenstein’s world as depicted in his lecture, there certainly may be something in the world that veils itself from language, and that would surely include the Other and our relation to the Other. Other minds, other people. Martin Buber, (1878–1965), had a conception of language and its limits similar to Wittgenstein but he endowed such limitation with an ethical meaning that underscores the significance of the Other, indeed, it is between the proper relation between oneself and an Other where wonder is to be found. As can be seen in the passage with which I opened Buber was an influence upon Martin Luther King. The I-Thou is a unique relationship while the I-It relationship inherent in segregation reduces human beings to things. He brings up that latter point again in a sermon where he explains that upon the divinity within the African American population being recognised only then is the relationship transformed to ‘I-Thou’:
‘Man could not have survived without the impulse which makes him the societal creature he is. The universe is so structured that things do not quite work out rightly if men are not diligent in their concern for others. The self cannot be self without other selves. I cannot reach fulfillment without thou. Social psychologists tell us that we cannot truly be persons unless we interact with other persons. All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny’.
- ‘A Testament of Hope’
The principal ideas advanced in ‘I and Thou’ are as follows:
1. There is no independent ‘I’ but only the I existing and known in objective relation to something other than itself, an ‘It’ or as encountered by and encompassed by the other, the ‘Thou’.
2. Just as music can be studied analytically by reference to its notes, verses, and bars, or encountered and experienced in such a manner that it is known not by its parts but as a unity, so the I can relate itself analytically to something other, ‘It’, or it can encounter the other, ‘Thou’, so as to form a living unity.
3. The ‘Thou’ stands as judge over the ‘It’ but as a judge with the form and creative power for the transformation of ‘It’.
4. Each encountered ‘Thou’ reveals the nature of all reality, but finally the living centre of every ‘Thou’ is seen to be the eternal ‘Thou’.
5. The eternal ‘Thou’ is never known objectively, but certitude comes through the domain of action.
Since its publication in German in 1923 this rather slim volume has become a truly ground-breaking work of the modern age, for situated within a single text is the very best thinking of one of the finest Jewish minds, and further, perhaps more than any one single text it has helped in the shaping of contemporary theology. For instance, and somewhat ironically, the neo-orthodox tradition in recent Protestantism has appropriated in a rather grand and indiscriminate manner Buber’s ‘I-Thou encounter’, the ‘Eternal Subject’, and other features. Well, this is religious thinking par excellence, the much deeper and more appropriate approach to theology and the philosophy of religion that Christian apologists present us with. William Lane Craig, (1949 — ), for instance, the thinking man’s idiot, who has debated Richard Dawkins, (1941 — ), whose philosophical thinking runs as deep as a dried up water-hole but no doubt after being confronted with Craig’s terrible arguments for God he would have left the debate feeling even more smug than he usually does if that is possible though I doubt it is. Now as for a Buber and Dawkins having a debate, well that would really have been something, what a shame that there are no philosophers of religion of Buber’s stature around today, or maybe there are but if there are of course they have better things to be doing than debating Dawkins.
Protestant thinkers if that isn’t an oxymoron have of course reinterpreted Buber’s Eternal Subject and so on from a radical Protestant context although some like Lutheran Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, (1886–1965), have developed systems that are in fundamental agreement with Buber’s fuller understanding, perhaps at no other point do liberal and orthodox Christian thinkers discover such a fruitful place for coming together. For Judaism, on the other hand, Buber’s writings have been a pervasive and transformative influence for it is not the case as some have alleged that Buber was a rebel from basic Judaism, that he is merely a Jew by birth and an existentialist by conviction, on the contrary, Buber has been cementing the rich heritage of Judaism some of which had been long neglected and particular insights of contemporary thinking, indeed he has shaken up tendencies in Judaism towards parochialism, and applied it relevantly to the problems and concerns of contemporary humanity. Buber’s writing is often effusive and without formal structure which may well exasperate the seeker after clear and distinct ideas, his chief work has been appropriately called a philosophical religious poem. Yet this is as it should be, for Buber is no system builder but more the imparter of a mode of living and at its heart is a unique type of relation, one that is universally available albeit almost universally neglected.
Buber’s undertaking was not so much one of detailed and logical exposition but rather one of evoking, eliciting, educing this relation which is its own proof and from quite early on his youthful mastery of Jewish thought, life, and devotion came into tension with European intellectualism, in particular the thought of Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), and Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900). Buber’s tentative resolution was that of mysticism, (note: do not confuse mysticism with mystification as Bertrand Russell, (1872–1970), does in ‘Mysticism and Logic’), particularly as developed by the post-medieval Christian mystics, but a sense of rootlessness drew him back toward Judaism, first in the form of emerging Zionism, not so much as a political movement as a cultural renaissance and here in the venerable roots of Jewish religio-culture Buber discovered an alterative to humanity’s modern plight of over-commercialism and over-intellectualism yet it was in Hasidim that his answer took definite shape, a pietist conservative Jewish movement emerging in eighteenth century Poland that encouraged him to withdraw from active life for five years of intensive study albeit the teachings emphasized not monastic withdrawal but rather joyous life in communities of this world while worshiping in every practical activity.
At this same time Buber encountered translations of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard’s, (1813–1855), work and whose insistence upon total involvement and absolute commitment, upon the priority of subjective thinking, upon truth as existential or lived truth, and his emphasis upon the centrality of the individual, all of these elements made immediate contact with Buber’s newfound religious devotion with the subsequent tension of existentialism and Hasidim being creative for Buber, the stress of Hasidim upon the warmth of community tempered the rather chilly emphasis of Kierkegaard upon the lonely and anxious individual, the latter’s pessimism concerning humanity was to a great extent dissolved by the general Jewish confidence in humanity’s God-given potential, while on the other hand the existentialist emphasis upon authentic existence grounded in the completely free and responsible decision of the self, this transformed Buber’s prior concern with mystic absorption and the illusory nature of the commonplace world. In personal experiences resulting from humanity’s seeking him out for help Buber learned the utter necessity of religion as a this-worldly faith, as a total devotion transforming every aspect of common life together. The unique ‘I-Thou’ was understood no longer as a condition of the absorbed individual in unity with an Absolute but rather as a permeating relationship with all life, a lived experience, not of loss, but of transformation and fulfillment in reciprocity.
With this principle awareness Buber’s religious philosophy was fully formed and it emerged in his greatest writing, ‘I and Thou’. Quite evidently this work is an essay in epistemology albeit it is epistemology not merely in the traditional sense of understanding the nature and ascertainable truth of commonsense perception but in the sense of exploring in sweeping fashion the possible modes or types of knowing. It is Buber’s thesis that strict empiricism is only one of several kinds of relation with reality, and that a life founded upon this mode alone is vapid and lifeless to the very heart of it. Although he demurs from contending the point Buber presupposes that the plurality of modes corresponds with dimensions within reality itself and such a contention may be situated within a time-honoured tradition, whether it be Plato’s, (c.429–347 B.C.), distinction between sense impression and noesis or Teilhard de Chardin’s, (1881–1955), distinction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ aspects of all things. Such a distinction, Buber maintains, cannot be logically argued, for logic is simply the instrument of one of these modes and does not apply to others, and hence verification is intrinsic to the mode itself, it is self-verifying and in need of no further proof.
Buber’s principal affirmation opens the work:
‘The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak’.
‘The basic words are not single words but word pairs’.
‘One basic word is the word pair I-You’.
‘The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It’.
‘Thus the I of man is also twofold’.
‘For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It’.
- ‘I and Thou’
To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude, and this overarching attitude is expressed in every language by the words indicating ‘I’, ‘It’, and ‘Thou’. ‘It’ and ‘Thou’ do not signify different things, Buber maintains, but two different relations possible between the same self and the same object. This contention was first developed in detail by Kierkegaard, for in a general manner of speaking the ground for such distinction is usually held to be within the object itself, and lying beneath Buber’s position here is a radical rejection of René Descartes’, (1596–1650), well known ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. There is no such thing as an independent ‘I’ which, internally certain of its own existence, then moves externally to God and the world, rather, there is no I in itself but only the I existing and known in these two basic ways.
The ‘I-It’ relation is the realm of objectivity, the realm of ‘experience’, which is generally understood as perceiving, imagining, willing, feeling, and thinking, and it includes all activities of the ‘I’ in which there is an object, a thing, whose existence depends upon being bounded by other things, and here one experiences and extracts knowledge concerning the surface of things. Above all, the ‘I-It’ experience is unilateral, in it the ‘I’ alone is active, and the object perceived has no concern in the matter,nor is it affected by the experience. This experience, in addition to the ‘I-Thou’, occurs in regard to three spheres, our life with nature, with human beings, and with intelligible forms. For instance Buber’s own illustration is in an ‘I-It’ experience with a tree, I may look at it, I may examine its structure and its functions, classify it, formalize the laws of its operation, see it in terms of its numerical components or control and shape it by activity, and yet not only may I experience the tree but I may enter into relationship with it, this is the mode of ‘I-Thou’:
‘It is part of our concept of the plant that it cannot react to our actions upon it, that it cannot ‘reply’. Yet this does not mean that we meet with no reciprocity at all in this sphere. We find here not the deed of posture of an individual being but a reciprocity of being itself — a reciprocity that has nothing except being. The living wholeness and unity of a tree that denies itself to the eye, no matter how keen, of anyone who merely investigates, while it is manifest to those who say You, is present when they are present: they grant the tree the opportunity to manifest it, and now the tree that has being manifests it. Our habits of thought make it difficult for us to see that in such cases something is awakened by our attitude and flashes toward us from that which has being. What matters in this sphere is that we should do justice with an open mind to the actuality that opens up before us. This huge sphere that reaches from the stones to the stars I should like to designate as the pre-threshold, meaning the step that comes before the threshold’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Here I am encountered by the tree and I become bound to it, for it seizes me with ‘the power of exclusiveness’, and although this relation is totally different in kind from the ‘I-It’ experience it is not strictly different in content for in it one does not have to reject or forget the content of objective knowledge, rather, all of the above enumerated components become indivisibly united in the event which is this relation: ‘Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole’. And while objective knowledge is always of the past, the relation of the ‘I-Thou’ is always present, a ‘filled present’. Above all, characteristic of this relation is its mutuality, and yet we cannot say that in this relation the tree exhibits a soul, or a consciousness, for of this we can have no experience. The relation is undifferentiated and to inquire of its constitutive parts is to disintegrate what is known only as an indivisible whole and such a wholeness is all consuming and absolute, a ‘He’ encountered as a ‘Thou’ is a ‘whole in himself’ and ‘fills the heavens’.
And so, what this means is not that the ‘He’ alone is existent but rather that this relation is such that ‘all else lives in his light’. For one not naturally given to Buber’s way of thinking some good illustrations, as Buber’s own examples suggest, are from the arts.Indeed, Buber insists that the ‘I-Thou’ relation is the true source of art.
‘What has become an It is then taken as an It, experienced and used as an It, employed along with other things for the project of finding one’s way in the world, and eventually for the project of ‘conquering’ the world.
‘Art, too: as he beholds what confronts him, the form discloses itself to the artist. He conjures it into an image. The image does not stand in a world of gods but in this great world of men. Of course, it is ‘there’ even when no human eye afflicts it; but it sleeps. The Chinese poet relates that men did not want to hear the song that he was playing on his flute of jade; then he played it to the gods, and they inclined their ears; and ever since men, too, have listened to the song — and thus he went from the gods to those with whom the image cannot dispense. As in a dream it looks for the encounter with man in order that he may undo the spell and embrace the form for a timeless moment. And there he comes and experiences what there is to be experienced: that is how it is made, or this is what it expresses, or its qualities are such and such, and on top of all that perhaps also how it might rate’.
‘Not that scientific and aesthetic understanding is not necessary — but it should do its work faithfully and immerse itself and disappear in that truth of the relation which surpasses understanding and embraces what is understandable’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Music can be analyzed in terms of notes, verses, and bars, this is the realm of the ‘I-It’, yet this same music may be encountered in a living relation in which each component is included yet experienced not as parts but as an inseparable unity. In artistic creativity, a form which is not an offspring of the artist encounters him and demands effective power, this calls for sacrifice and risk. Risk, for endless possibility must be ended by form, and sacrifice, in virtue of the work consuming the artist with a claim which permits no rest. Buber’s interpretation of this artistic form is useful in understanding the content of the ‘I-Thou’ encounter. Buber explains:
‘The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the ‘internal things’, not as a figment of the ‘imagination’, but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not ‘there’ at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation: it acts on me as I act on it’.
‘Such work is creation, inventing is finding. Forming is discovery. As I actualize, I uncover. I lead the form across — into the world of It. The created work is a thing among things and can be experienced and described as an aggregate of qualities. But the receptive beholder may be bodily confronted now and again’.
- ‘I and Thou’
I can neither experience nor describe the form which meets me but only body it forth, and here we can perceive Buber’s transition from the exclusive relation of the ‘I-Thou’ to the inclusive concerned life which Buber espouses, as opposed to the mystic. The ‘I-Thou’ is consummated in activity, activity which inevitably partakes of the ‘I-It’ experience, but activity which is redeemed, for in being the creative and transforming ground of activity, the ‘I-Thou’ relation is exhibited in its fullness. And this creative tension of ‘It’ and ‘Thou’ in the practical life is exemplified in such contrasts as those between organization and community, control and mutuality, and individuals and persons. The ‘Thou’ stands as judge over the ‘It’, but a judge with the form and creative power for its transformation, and in existential living the fathomless dimension of the ‘Thou’ is creatively incarnated, as it were, into the commonplace world of the ‘It’. As an ‘It’, the created object will be scrutinized with all the instruments of objectivity but as a living embodiment of a ‘Thou’ it has the capacity to lift its perceiver from the commonplace to the all-pervasive dimension of the Thou in which all things fundamentally participate. Buber maintains that such relation is not simply subjective, for then it could have no mutuality, for to create is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover, and this relation of ‘I-Thou’ is subjectivity and objectivity in a totality which transcends the ‘I-It’ quality of either in isolation.
‘- What, then, does one experience of the You?’
‘- Nothing at all. For one does not experience it’.
‘- What, then, does one know of the You?’
‘- Only everything. For one no longer knows particulars’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Buber is now moving from the field of epistemology to that of metaphysics. If it be true that the relationship of ‘I-Thou’ is a valid mode of apprehending reality, a relationship grounded in the very nature of reality, a further question presents itself, what is the relation of ‘Thou’ to ‘Thou’, each of which is apprehended as the totality and as the illuminator of the whole? It is Buber’s answer to this question that distinguishes him from aesthetic philosophers such as George Santayana, (1863–1952), Elijah Jordan, (1875–1953), and Bernard Bosanquet, (1848–1923), and marks him as a religious philosopher. He begins by perceiving love as the unique quality of the ‘I-Thou’ relation:
‘Less clear is the element of action in the relation to a human You. The essential act that here establishes directness is usually understood as a feeling, and thus misunderstood. Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it; and the feelings that accompany it can be very different. Jesus’ feeling for the possessed man is different from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is one. Feelings one ‘has’; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its ‘content’ or object; it is between I and You. Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses. Love is a cosmic force’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Love as a metaphysical and metapsychical fact, this is the nature of the relationship between ‘Thou’ and ‘Thou’, and the ‘I’ as it participates in that which is the constituting relation of all. Buber comes here somewhat close to Christianity:
‘For those who stand in it and behold in it, men emerge from their entanglement in busy-ness; and the good and the evil, the clever and the foolish, the beautiful and the ugly, one after another become actual and a You for them; that is, liberated, emerging into a unique confrontation. Exclusiveness comes into being miraculously again and again — and now one can act, help, heal, educate, raise, redeem. Love is responsibility of an I for a You: in this consists what cannot consist in any feeling — the equality of all lovers, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blissfully secure whose life is circumscribed by the life of one beloved human being to him that is nailed his life long to the cross of the world, capable of what is immense and bold enough to risk it: to love man’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Die Menschen zu lieben. Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. ln this lies the likeness of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point, to love all men, or again the ‘I-Thou’ relation is one in which man calls his Thou Father in such a way that he himself is simply Son, there can never be hatred of a ‘Thou’, hatred can be only against a part of a being. The ‘Thou’, the whole, can only be loved, for this is the very nature of the mutual relation:
‘And to anticipate and choose an image from the realm of unconditional relation: how powerful, even overpowering, is Jesus’ I-saying, and how legitimate to the point of being a matter of course! For it is the I of the unconditional relation in which man calls his You ‘Father’ in such a way that he himself becomes nothing but a son. Whenever he says I, he can only mean the I of the holy basic word that has become unconditional for him. If detachment ever touches him, it is surpassed by association, and it is from this that he speaks to others. In vain you seek to reduce this I to something that derives its power from itself, nor can you limit this You to anything that dwells in us. Both would once again de-actualize the actual, the present relation. I and You remain; everyone can speak the You and then becomes I; everyone can say Father and then becomes son; actuality abides’.
Since each encountered ‘Thou’ reveals the inmost nature of all reality we see that everything can appear as a ‘Thou’ and this is so because in the ‘I’ is an ‘inborn Thou’, an a priori of relation,and we see this, Buber contends, as the child’s fundamental guide to action from the instinct to make contact by touch and name, to its blossoming in tenderness and love, and its perfection in creativity. All of these emerge from the ‘I’s’ inherent longing for the ‘Thou’. Throughout life ‘I-Thou’ encounters continue, but they are not ordered, for they are only ‘a sign of the world order’. And increasingly one sees this to be so for every ‘Thou’ inevitably becomes an ‘It’, but man cannot rest content with only a momentary ‘I-Thou’ relation, the inborn ‘Thou’ can be consummated only in a direct relation with the ‘Thou’ which cannot become ‘It’ and all lesser ‘Thou’s’ sharpen the soul’s appetite for the relation which is abiding, for which all others are mere foreshadows, and through them the ‘I’ sees that the ‘Thous’ are such only because they possess a ‘living Centre’, that ‘the extended lines of relations meet in the eternal ‘Thou’.
Witness to this is exhibited for Buber even in the practical realm for men and women can live in mutual relation only when they first take their stand in mutual relation with a living Centre:
‘Those who suffer because institutions yield no public life have thought of a remedy: feelings are to loosen up or thaw or explode the institutions, as if they could be renewed by feelings, by introducing the ‘freedom of feelings’. When the automatized state yokes together totally uncongenial citizens without creating or promoting any fellowship, it is supposed to be replaced by a loving community. And this loving community is supposed to come into being when people come together, prompted by free, exuberant feeling, and want to live together. But that is not how things are. True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other (though that is required, too), but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another. The second event has its source in the first but is not immediately given with it. A living reciprocal relationship includes feelings but is not derived from them. A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living, active centre’.
- ‘I and Thou’
A great culture rests upon an original, relational event from which a special conception of the cosmos emerges and loss of this centre reduces a culture to the impotence of a mere ‘It’. Likewise, marriage is consummated by a couple’s mutual revealing of the ‘Thou’ to each other; only thereby do they participate in the ‘Thou’ which is the unifying ground in which mutual relations in all realms are possible:
‘Even institutions of so-called personal life cannot be reformed by a free feeling (although this is also required). Marriage can never be renewed except by that which is always the source of all true marriage: that two human beings reveal the You to one another. It is of this that the You that is I for neither of them builds a marriage. This is the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love which is merely accompanied by feelings of love. Whoever wishes to renew a marriage on another basis is not essentially different from those who want to abolish it: both declare that they no longer know the fact. Indeed, take the much discussed eroticism of our age and subtract everything that is really egocentric — in other words, every relationship in which one is not at all present to the other,1 but each uses the other only for self-enjoyment — what would remain?’
- ‘I and Thou’
Whatever name one gives to this ‘Thou’, if he or she really has ‘Thou’ in mind, despite his or her illusions, he or she addresses the true ‘Thou’ which cannot be limited by another and even though he or she regards him or herself as an atheist, he or she stands in a relation which gathers up and includes all others, and this meeting of the ‘Thou’ is a matter both of choosing and being chosen. One can prepare, yet since all preparations remain in the realm of ‘It’, the step from that realm is not humanity’s doing. Thus the word ‘encounter’ is the only one appropriate. Epistemologically, the particular encounters are prior, metaphysically, the Central Thou is eternally prior. Through the former we are addressed by the latter, ours is the response. It is there that we reach the apex of Buber’s position:
‘In the relation to God, unconditional exclusiveness and unconditional inclusiveness are one. For those who enter into the absolute relationship, nothing particular retains any importance — neither things nor beings, neither earth nor heaven — but everything is included in the relationship. For entering into the pure relationship does not involve ignoring everything but seeing everything in the You, not renouncing the world but placing it upon its proper ground. Looking away from the world is no help toward God; staring at the world is no help either; but whoever beholds the world in him stands in his presence. ‘World here, God there’ — that is It-talk; and ‘God in the world’ — that, too, is It-talk; but leaving out nothing, leaving nothing behind, to comprehend all — all the world — in comprehending the You, giving the world its due and truth, to have nothing besides God but to grasp everything in him, that is the perfect relationship’.
- ‘I and Thou’
In the relation with God unconditional exclusiveness and unconditional inclusiveness are one, and this relation means neither the loss of world nor ‘I’, but a relinquishing of self-asserting instinct by regarding all in the love relation of the ‘Thou’. The world of ‘It’ cannot be dispensed with, nor is it evil, it becomes demonic only when the motivating drive is not the will to be related but, for example, in economics its the will to profit, or, in politics, the will to power. Buber’s ethic can be clearly expressed:
‘He knows well that he cannot simply confront the people with whom he has to deal as so many carriers of the You, without undoing his own work. Nevertheless he ventures to do this, not simply but up to the limit suggested to him by the spirit; and the spirit does suggest a limit to him, and the venture that would have exploded a severed structure succeeds where the presence of the You floats above. He does not become a babbling enthusiast; he serves the truth which, though supra-rational, does not disown reason but holds it in her lap. What he does in communal life is no different from what is done in personal life by a man who knows that he cannot actualize the You in some pure fashion but who nevertheless bears witness of it daily to the It, defining the limit every day anew, according to the right and measure of that day — discovering the limit anew. Neither work nor possessions can be redeemed on their own but only by starting from the spirit. It is only from the presence of the spirit that significance and joy can flow into all work, and reverence and the strength to sacrifice into all possessions, not to the brim but quantum satis — and that all that is worked and possessed, though it remains attached to the It-world, can nevertheless be transfigured to the point where it confronts us and represents the You. There is no back-behind-it; there is, even at the moment of the most profound need — indeed, only then — a previously unsuspected beyond-it’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Humanity participating in awareness of the Thou serves the truth which though higher than reason, yet does not repudiate it. and he or she does in communal life precisely what is done in personal life by the man or woman who knows him or herself incapable of realising the Thou in its purity, yet daily confirms its truth in the It, in accordance with what is right and filling for the day, drawing, disclosing, the boundary line anew every day, and such a life is characterized by action filled with meaning and joy, and possessions radiating with ‘awe and sacrificial power’. These are the truths of primitive humanity encountering with wonder the immediacy of life yet now purified of superstition and fitted for civilized community, and to hallow life is to encounter the living God, to encounter this ‘Thou’ is to hallow life, this is the paradox that best summarizes Buber’s thought.
It is in this relation that Buber sees true theology resting whereby its basis is not dogma, a content once and for all delivered, it is a compulsion received as something to be done, its confirmation is its product in the world and the singleness of life lived in obedience to it. This is the meaning of revelation, revelation which is eternal and ever available, it must be completed in theology, in objectification, but the abiding sin of religion is to substitute the objectification for the relation, to make the Church of God into a god of the church, to make the Scripture of God into a god of the scripture. The mystery at the foundation of theology cannot be dispelled yet language can point in the right direction. For Buber the affirmations ‘God and the world’ or ‘God in the world’ are still in the ‘I-It’ realm; but the declaration ‘the world in the Thou’ points to the true relation. Buber tentatively endeavours to say more, drawing heavily upon the artistic analogy. The God-man relation is characterized by the polarity of creatureliness and creativity, of being totally dependent upon God and yet totally free. For Buber this tension can only mean that while we need God in order to exist, God needs us for the very meaning of life. That is, ‘there is a becoming of the God that is’ — herein is the eternal purpose of our existence. Mutual fulfillment, which is the ‘I-Thou’ relation, must mean, in the final reckoning, that we are co-creators with God in cosmic fulfillment.
Of course the logically minded philosopher will be prone to ask: is this absolute idealism, pantheism, panpsychism, process philosophy? In what sense is this the theistic world view of traditional Judaism, centred in the God of providence and history? Buber’s reticence here displays the degree to which he is not a philosophic system-builder but an existentialist and, above all, a religious thinker, and the problem for him is not so much to know as it is to act in lived awareness of the omnipresent ‘Thou’. and yet at least this much can be said. In Buber we have the general Kantian position taken to a religious conclusion whereby the realm of the ‘Thou’ is the realm of the noumenon, here is to be found no causality but the assurance of freedom and the realm of ‘It’ is the phenomenal realm, the realm of necessity, causality, and the objectification of all according to finite categories. But for Buber the noumenal is more than a postulate or an inference. Similar to Kant’s impact of the moral imperative and the encounter of beauty and sublimity in the ‘Critique of Judgement’, (see my articles On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’: A Glimpse of eternity’ — parts one to four), the noumenon is encountered through the total self. And finally, as in Kant, the eternal ‘Thou’ is never known objectively, but certitude of it comes centrally through the domain of action:
‘The decomposition of the word has occurred’.
‘The word is present in revelation, at work in the life of the form, and becomes valid in the dominion of the dead form’.
Thus the path and counterpath of the eternal and eternally present word in history.
‘The ages in which the living word appears are those in which the association of I and world is renewed. The ages in which the active and effective word reigns are those in which the understanding between I and world is preserved; the ages in which the word becomes valid are those in which the deactualization, the alienation of I and world, the emergence of doom takes place — until the great shudder appears, the holding of breath in the dark, and the preparatory silence’.
‘But the path is not a circle. It is the way. Doom becomes more oppressive in every new eon, and the return more explosive. And the theophany comes ever closer; it comes ever closer to the sphere between beings — comes closer to the realm that hides in our midst, in the between. History is a mysterious approach to closeness. Every spiral of its path leads us into deeper corruption and at the same time into more fundamental return. But the God-side of the event whose world-side is called return is called redemption’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Maurice Stanley Friedman, (1921–2012), was an interdisciplinary, interreligious philosopher of dialogue. Philosophy of dialogue: for Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence, too readily overlooked by scientific rationalism and abstract philosophical thought, is ‘human with human, a dialogue that takes place in the sphere of Between (das Zwischenmenschliche). Friedman has proven to be an influential interpreter of Martin Buber’s thought. His numerous articles on Buber have not only helped to give prominence to Buber’s ideas but have also, to a large extent, given rise to a dominant interpretation of his philosophy. The core of this interpretation can be found tn ‘Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue’, which Buber himself has called the definitive interpretation of his work (which cannot happen that often, a philosopher giving his or her endorsement for a secondary source on his or her work). Friedman’s major concern is to disclose a concealed unity in Buber’s writings, a philosophic unity which transcends even Buber’s own explicit self-understanding. The mystical, existential, and dialogical phases of Buber’s philosophizing are seen by Friedman to be thematically united by the problem of evil. Not only does this interpretation enable Friedman to give coherence to the philosophic dimension of Buber’s thought, but it also allows him to integrate the religious dimension which was so influential for all of Buber’s insights.
‘The basic word I-It does not come from evil — any more than matter comes from evil. It comes from evil — like matter that presumes to be that which has being. When man lets it have its way, the relentlessly growing It-world grows over him like weeds, his own I loses its actuality, until the incubus over him and, the phantom inside him exchange the whispered confession of their need for redemption’.
- ‘I and Thou’
This can already be seen in the first, or mystical, phase of Buber’s reflections on the nature of the transcendent. The mystic, of course, aims at complete and undifferentiated unity with the ground of life,and correspondingly, evil is then the state of being in which the subject is separated from the transcendent. Even during this phase, however, Buber developed a fundamentally affirmative aspect of his thinking, namely, the belief that redemption is always possible. The basic theme in this spiritual tension between unity and separation is that evil can never gain complete dominance, an insight which was to guide Buber throughout his life. Still in keeping with his Judaic background, in the existential phase of his life Buber saw good as commitment by the whole person and evil as a directionless, purposeless wandering based on a lack of decision. In this phase the object of one’s self-realization does not matter; what is considered important is the nature of one’s involvement.
The real correspondence between the philosophic and Judaic elements in Buber’s thinking came to the fore only in his dialogical writings. There the stress was upon the meeting between man and God in the I-Thou relationship. One might therefore assume that the I-Thou relationship is the good and the I-It the evil, but Friedman demonstrates that it is not solely the one relationship which is good, but rather the proper balance of the two. Buber recognized that no one could live permanently in the I-Thou, for reversion to the mode of I-It is a necessary moment of the dialogue. Thus it is only when the I-It predominates to the exclusion of the I-Thou that it is evil. This dialogical view also shows that God or spirit is not that which is good in itself, it is so only in relation to the world and the emphasis pointed to by Friedman is thus one of balance between a variety of tensions.
The meaning of life is revealed only by the pulsating between the Thou and the It hence it is the impulse to evil, the domination of the It, which contains in it the very possibility of the good. A fundamental reversal seems always to be promised by the unwavering Thou, which puts an outside limit on the movement away from good. Through his interpretation of evil Friedman brings to light the deeper meaning of dialogue, which cannot be restricted to an understanding of the I-Thou relationship itself. He sees this confirmed in Buber’s later writings, where there is an increasing emphasis upon understanding evil as significant in itself, rather than simply as a negative reflection of something else, and in his view, Buber’s work thus began to flesh out a true philosophical anthropology, one which considered the wholeness of the human, rather than only a special moment in his orher life. Both extremes of existence are rejected and to talk about leading a life of dialogue ultimately means not simply relation but a dynamic relation which swings between the Thou and the It, and it is this fuller understanding which, according to Friedman, is Buber’s ultimate solution to the problem of evil and which designates the fundamental reality of humanity’s existence. The very notion of evil is essential to good and what redeems man’s existence is therefore the fact that even the negative elements of it are essential for a complete, positive life.
‘It is said further that the ‘religious’ man steps before God as one who is single, solitary, and detached insofar as he has also transcended the stage of the ‘ethical’ man who still dwells in duty and obligation to the world. The latter is said to be still burdened with responsibility for the actions of agents because he is wholly determined by the tension between is and ought, and into the unbridgeable gap between both he throws, full of grotesquely hopeless sacrificial courage, piece upon piece of his heart. The ‘religious’ man is supposed to have transcended this tension between world and God; the commandment for him is to leave behind the restlessness of responsibility and of making demands on himself; for him there is no longer any room for a will of one’s own, he accepts his place in the Plan; any ought is dissolved in unconditional being, and the world, while still persisting, has lost its validity; one still has to do one’s share in it but, as it were, without obligation, in the perspective of the nullity of all activity. Thus men fancy that God has created his world to be an illusion and his man to reel. Of course, whoever steps before the countenance has soared way beyond duty and obligation — but not because he has moved away from the world; rather because he has come truly close to it. Duties and obligations one has only toward the stranger: toward one’s intimates one is kind and loving. When a man steps before the countenancer the world becomes wholly present to him for the first time in the fullness of the presence, illuminated by eternity, and he can say You in one word to the being of all beings. There is no longer any tension between world and God but only the one actuality. He is not rid of responsibility: for the pains of the finite version that explores effects he has exchanged the momentum of the infinite kind, the power of loving responsibility for the whole unexplorable course of the world, the deep inclusion in the world before the countenance of God. Ethical judgments, to be sure, he has left behind forever: ‘evil’ men are for him merely those commended to him for a deeper responsibility, those more in need of love; but decisions he must continue to make in the depths of spontaneity unto death — calmly deciding ever again in favor of right action. Thus action is not null: it is intended, it is commanded, it is needed, it belongs to the creation; but this action no longer imposes itself upon the world, it grows upon it as if it were non-action’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Grete Schaeder,(1903–1990), author of ‘The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber’, provides us with comprehensive study of the totality of Martin Buber’s life and thought in print and also presents for us not merely an understanding of Buber’s philosophy but also comprehensively covers the cultural context and the intellectual influences which had major significance for his thought. Rather than being simply an intellectual biography or philosophic analysis this work should be regarded as an important contribution to intellectual history. A wide-ranging discussion of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, (1833–1911), Georg Simmel, (1858–1918), and Martin Heidegger, (1889–1976), among many others, gives the interpretation of Buber’s thought an important contextual validity. He discovers a two-fold emphasis in Buber’s work, an emphasis which results both in incompleteness from a purely philosophical or theological perspective and in Buber’s major insight, the recognition of the fundamental significance which must be given to the sphere of the Between. Although Schaeder does not make this point but I will make it, because when reading Buber I am put in mind of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), and Buber and Hegel both display an opposition to any otherworldliness and insist upon finding in the present whatever beauty and redemption there may be and in their refusal to pin their hopes on any beyond:
‘All actual life is encounter’.
‘The relation to the You is unmediated. Nothing conceptual intervenes between I and You, no prior knowledge and no imagination; and memory itself is changed as it plunges from particularity into wholeness. No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated encounters occur.
‘Before the immediacy of the relationship everything mediate becomes negligible. It is also trifling whether my You is the It of other I’s (‘object of general experience’) or can only become that as a result of my essential deed. For the real boundary, albeit one that floats and fluctuates, runs not between experience and non-experience, nor between the given and the not-given, nor between the world of being and the world of value, but across all the regions between You and It: between presence and object’.
- ‘I and Thou’
According to Schaeder although the religious dimension always formed a backdrop to Buber’s reflections, in the writings before ‘I and Thou’ the major concern was always the impact of the religious or secular experiences on man’s life. It is the effects on the future conduct of man which give a personal revelation by God their significance, and the experience of the mystery has a profound renewing effect, which, however, is not explicable in terms of conceptual understanding. In the first part of ‘I and Thou’ Buber traced the experience back to a submerged primal form of being which is present in all human beings. In describing the effects on a human he endeavoured to formulate a philosophical anthropology, but given the fundamental mystery at the source of the experience, he in fact lacked a secure ontological foundation for the analysis.
The stress upon the personal aspect of the revelation brought with it an irreducible subjective element, yet Schaeder allows that given Buber’s explicit concern with the concrete life of humanity this lack of foundation is what must be expected. Seen from the other, the theological, perspective the undemonstrability of that which is experienced in revelation is an obstacle as well and the revelation of the eternal Thou is seen at the same time as uniquely personal and yet transcultural. Buber was convinced that the eternal Thou functioned as the backdrop in every relationship, but that the transcendent as such could not be experienced.
He was therefore once again driven to the subjective dimension, and given the incompleteness or lack of objectivity of the preceding two perspectives Schaeder contends that the focus for Buber naturally moved to the Between, to the ‘meeting’ of the two dimensions. Neither humanity nor God can ultimately be understood as a singularity, both must be seen in the context of their communion in history, and this meeting surpasses or precedes rational philosophizing and moves back to an existence within an attitudinal framework. Buber in this regard was more concerned with life as it is lived than with philosophizing about it. Ultimately, then, understanding of the l-Thou dialogue must occur on a symbolic or mystical plane,the meeting of God and humanity is a mystery and must remain so but it is also a certainty that provides its own confirmation through the effects which it has on man. The notion of the I-Thou in itself indicates that in the last phase of his thought Buber recognized that it is man as he lives, as opposed to God, who provides that more fundamental understanding of himself that must surpass any philosophical anthropology.
‘One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek. Of course, God is ‘the wholly other’; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own’.
- ‘I and Thou’
Robert E. Wood, (1934 — ), author of ‘Martin Buber’s Ontology: An Analysis of I and Thou’, together with other commentators on Martin Buber’s thought, recognizes that Buber’s primary concern was to provide a description of the I-Thou experience, to bear witness to a fundamental truth which he had experienced in his own life. Such an approach of necessity left unexplored many of the philosophic presuppositions which underpin the experience itself. Wood’s objective was to explore the ontological foundations of Buber’s thought through an explication of the notion of Presence as it binds together the subject and object in the sphere of the Between. While Wood’s analysis is a good beginning in this direction, he makes it plain that the totality of such a task requires more than can be found in his book.
Within the context of Buber’s entire corpus, his central concern was one of emphasizing the notion of unity. In varying combinations the theme of the unity of God, the world, and man is explored through the mystical, existential, and dialogical phases of his thinking. The mystical phase emphasizes primarily the question derived from Meister Eckhart, ( c. 1260 — c. 1328), of how the unity of God could be reconciled with the multiplicity of creation. Buber was here striving for unity beyond distinction and in virtue of his concurrent immersion in Hasidism however he also recognized that the unification had to end and a return to life be undertaken. This in turn led to the existential phase in which a genuine ‘I’ existing in the world was Buber’s goal. Humanity returns to a higher unity within himself where the totality of self is sufficient, in this phase the eternal Thou is not recognized as a necessity, experience of the Other only draws one back into subjectivity.
However, 1914, however, a key event occurred in the life of Buber which halted his drive toward subjectivism. A friend sought him out for advice which Buber felt he could not give and shortly afterward the friend was killed in the war. Buber then recognized that his earlier way of thinking had to be transcended as a means for understanding humanity’s condition in the world, the beginnings of his dialogical thinking were generated. After following Buber’s philosophic progress through its development, Wood undertakes a section-by-section analysis of ‘I and Thou’ with the objective of bringing out the ontological import of the main themes discussed by Buber. According to Wood, through his experiential emphasis Buber overcame the limitations of either straightforward subjectivism or objectivism and in the Between the subject and object are united, but in an ontological sense it is this very Between which first of all lets the subject and object arise, so ontologically the Between has priority and contains a surplus of meaning which would remain even should those elements be removed.
Nonetheless given Buber’s religious orientation the Between is not pure Between, it is formulated only against the background of the transcendent which provides the essential unity and which according to Buber cannot be explicated but only experienced in the mode of the I-Thou. Inevitably this experiential immediacy degenerates and becomes conceptual, meaning that I-It relationships take the place of the I-Thou relationship and it is Wood’s basic contention that the experiential unity can be grounded on a metaphysical foundation. The important point to notice in this regard is that such a metaphysics must be a historical, temporal one that is, one which contains a dialectical recognition of the interplay between the two different modes of I-Thou and I-It. In this metaphysics the transcendent forms the absolute horizon which can be interpreted ontologically even though not as the absolute mystery which it is. Wood is on the search for a philosophic completion of Buber’s most important insight. The ground itself, he believes, can ultimately be explicated in terms of the relationships which arise from it. Even though Wood does not complete the required metaphysical investigation to achieve that end, he thus outlines an important direction of inquiry for the study of Buber’s thought.
One final thought from me on my impressions of Buber, because as will be evident in this article I have only begun reading him quite recently. I am smitten, captivated by a new way (for me) of comprehending the human condition, by a great deal of intriguing and original ideas compressed into a relatively short text, and add to that some gorgeous writing, well, a philosophical religious poem indeed:
‘At times when man is overcome by the horror of the alienation between I and world, it occurs to him that something might be done. Imagine that at some dreadful midnight you lie there, tormented by a waking dream: the bulwarks have crumbled and the abysses scream, and you realize in the midst of this agony that life is still there and I must merely get through to it — but how? how? Thus feels man in the hours when he collects himself: overcome by horror, pondering, without direction. And yet he may know the right direction, deep down in the unloved knowledge of the depths — the direction of return that leads through sacrifice. But he rejects this knowledge; what is ‘mystical’ cannot endure the artificial midnight sun. He summons thought in which he places, quite rightly, much confidence: thought is supposed to fix everything. After all, it is the lofty art of thought that it can paint a reliable and practically credible picture of the world. Thus man says to his thought: ‘Look at the dreadful shape that lies over there with those cruel eyes — is she not the one with whom I played long ago? Do you remember how she used to laugh at me with these eyes and how good they were then? And now look at my wretched I — I’ll admit it to you: it is empty, and whatever I put into myself, experience as well as use, does not penetrate to this cavern. Won’t you fix things between her and me so that she relents and I get well again?’ And thought, ever obliging and skillful, paints with its accustomed speed a series — nay, two series of pictures on the right and the left wall. Here is (or rather: happens, for the world pictures of thought are reliable motion pictures) the universe. From the whirl of the stars emerges the small earth, from the teeming on earth emerges small man, and now history carries him forth through the ages, to persevere in rebuilding the anthills of the cultures that crumble under its steps. Beneath this series of pictures is written: ‘One and all’. On the other wall happens the soul. A female figure spins the orbits of all stars and the life of all creatures and the whole of world history; all is spun with a single thread and is no longer called stars and creatures and world but feelings and representations or even living experiences and states of the soul. And beneath this series of pictures is written: ‘One and all’.
- ‘I and Thou’