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I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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I and Thou | Context

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Buber's Philosophical Influences

Like many young people of his era, Martin Buber was enamored of the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), whom he read as a teenager. He carried Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85) to school every day and continued to be influenced by Nietzsche's ideas throughout his life, although he also criticized and argued against some of them. Buber integrated within his own philosophy Nietzsche's concept of the will to power, or the basic human need to seek growth and durability. In Nietzsche's view, human beings are driven to impact the world and to bend and shape it according to their individual desires and visions. Although Buber's emphasis on the essential importance of relationships is almost the opposite of Nietzsche's ideal of the noble individual or the "overman" (superman), Buber nevertheless follows Nietzsche in his focus on lived experience and cultural renewal in the material world. Buber also borrows from Nietzsche a prophetic tone and an aphoristic writing style, which is characterized by brief, pithy statements. I and Thou, like Nietzsche's works, is divided into individual sections, without titles but separated from one another with typographical space.

Another important work Buber read as a teen was Prussian-born German philosopher Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804) Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783). From a young age, Buber was haunted by the impossibility of understanding the unbounded infinities of space and time. Buber found relief in Kant's explanations of space and time as constructs for organizing sensory perceptions and in Kant's assertion that being, or existence, goes beyond human concepts of what is finite and what is infinite. Kant referred to space and time as formal features of the perception of phenomena (things as they are observed in the material world) and asserted that space and time were not noumena (things as they exist independently of human perception and are not knowable by human senses). If this is the case, Buber reasoned, then time concerns the way human beings experience people as well as things. Thus it follows that we treat other people as objects in the sense that we reduce them to the sum of the phenomenal information we have about them—what Buber would later call the I-It relation. On the other hand, Kant's categorical imperative (unconditional requirement) demands that human beings consider their fellow creatures as ends in themselves, not just as means to an end—that is, to consider them as noumena rather than mere phenomena. An idealist and a moral philosopher, Kant believed in only one categorical imperative: have an unconditional moral obligation toward others. Thus, Buber reasoned, along with Kant, others cannot be merely the object of our use—that is, I-It must be replaced with I-You. Kant's conceptions of aesthetics also influenced Buber's insistence that noumena may be accessed only through phenomena. Thus, the eternal You (God) of Buber's philosophy can be accessed only through I-You relations with others or through engagement with one's own internal You.

Another important influence on Buber was the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72), whose works he first read as a university student. Feuerbach, a philosophical anthropologist, put the whole human being at the center of his inquiries. His approach differed from that of two important German philosophers, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who put human thinking at the center of the philosophical enterprise. For Feuerbach, Buber argued, this center existed in relationships, person to person, or in the I and You—the dialogic model Buber would later embrace. Buber came to this same position after he had examined mysticism and found it wanting.

Buber as a Jewish Theologian

Although Martin Buber was not an observant Jew, he was deeply religious. Buber wasn't interested in rites and dogmas but rather in religiosity, the general spiritual longing from which all religions are born. But Buber's religiosity was firmly rooted in Judaism. As philosopher Walter Kaufmann (1921–80), a translator of I and Thou, notes, the text is "steeped in Judaism," and Buber was "possessed by the desire to get back to the roots." This desire is one reason he later produced his own translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The ancient Hebrews were forbidden to make visual images of God, which they called idols. God was not to be seen, but rather heard, and "was not an It but an I—or a You," says Kaufmann. For Christians, God became visible in the form of Jesus Christ, created as a deity to the human world. Further, following the moral teachings of Jesus was not enough; a Christian also had to be baptized to be saved. By contrast, Judaism allows the perennial possibility of a return to God. "God can at any time forgive those who repent," says Kaufmann, and the concept of return "has been at the very heart of Judaism." On the other hand, redemption in Christianity is tied to the death and resurrection of the Redeemer (Jesus) and the necessity of participating in the sacraments of the organized church. Christianity requires priestly mediators for this purpose, whereas Judaism puts no mediator between God and humans. Kaufmann takes pains to point out these differences, for many Christians and some Jews believe Buber is closer to Christianity than Judaism in his theology, which, according to Kaufmann, is not the case. I and Thou "is one of the great documents of Jewish faith," Kaufmann claims.

Buber's theology was influenced by what he considered three instances of divine speech to humanity: the biblical prophets, who preached divine justice; Hasidism, an anti-academic, ecstatic form of Jewish mysticism; and the teachings of Jesus, whom Buber considered a Jewish teacher and successor to the biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. In Buber's view, Jesus taught that God wished to be realized within the scope of his creation and that it was the purpose of human beings to purify and perfect the world. Thus, the world is holy because it is the place where people can meet God—and have the I-You encounter.

Buber became one of the major commentators on Hasidism, an Orthodox Jewish revivalist movement that began in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. The movement drew on the Jewish mystical tradition, using rituals and ecstatic prayer as methods for having a direct experience of God—usually under the direction of a qualified teacher, or rebbe. Some people say, according to philosopher Robert E. Wood (b. 1934), that Buber's philosophy is an interpretation of Hasidism as the "essence of Judaism, freed from dogma ... modified through the assimilation of the Enlightenment." In Buber's view, Hasidism is based in cultural rootedness, and the ecstasy of the soul in its encounter with God is the culmination of participation in the cultural community.

Stages in Buber's Thinking: From Mysticism to Dialogue

Martin Buber's view of mysticism evolved over years. By the time he wrote I and Thou, he had rejected all mystical paths that did not run through the world on their way to an encounter with God. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the relation between God and his diverse creation as seen in the philosophy of German Christian mystics Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328) and Jakob Böhme (1575–1624). Buber's increasing interests in the Zionist movement, the movement to return Jews to their homeland in Palestine, paralleled his interest in Hasidism, a movement that democratized Jewish mysticism. Hasidism held that God was omnipresent (everywhere) and omnipotent (all-powerful) in the world. Hasidic practice encouraged attachment to God and the annihilation of the self through ecstatic practices, particularly prayer, under the guidance of a rebbe (rabbi or teacher). Buber ultimately rejected purely political Zionism because, in his mind, Zionism could not be separated from Jewish spiritual renewal. However, the Zionist movement raised questions for Buber about what constituted a spiritual community. Unlike other kinds of mysticism, which required solitude to commune with the spirit, Hasidism was rooted in the life of the community.

In I and Thou, Buber first rejects the mysticism of Christianity, which he portrays as the stripping away of subjectivity and "I-hood" so that God can enter the person, who then merges with God. This view is not an entirely accurate representation of Christian mysticism, since the mystic would not be able to experience spiritual ecstasy if they had completely abandoned their "I-hood." Buber also studied Eastern mysticism, as practiced in India and other countries in Asia. He studied Vedanta, the Indian philosophy based on the Vedic Upanishads (ancient Hindu religious texts). It recommends, according to Buber, the stripping away of the world of appearance until the soul sees its identity in the Unity (God). This is Buber's explanation of Vedanta, which he doesn't specifically name. Rather, he talks about the philosophy of the Khandogya (also Chandogya) Upanishad of the Indian Veda (a sacred book, like the Bible), one of the texts upon which Vedanta is based. Buber oversimplifies Vedanta philosophy, not sufficiently explaining the difference between the one Ultimate Reality without attributes (called Brahman, an idea of God as an eternal and all-knowing consciousness) and the one Ultimate Reality with attributes (called atman, or God manifesting as an individual soul or jiva). This distinction is important because Buber sees the Vedantic sage's "immersion in true being" as "annihilation," but in fact, the sage first experiences something akin to Buber's own dialogic relationship with the internal You (God as Thou).

Buber also looked at original Buddhism (called Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism), an atheistic religion whose aim is to free people from the wheel of karma (action that creates a cascade of effects) and thus put an end to suffering. The end realization of Buddhism is to realize the emptiness of form, that there is no God and no soul but only the world of appearances. While Buber allows that certain spiritual experiences that grow out of these mystic paths are valuable and can involve a genuine meeting with God, he sees them as limited or incomplete. For him, the mystic path is still a flight from the world, given by God, and a flight from the full unity of self. This full unity must include the world—specifically the world of I and You, which is the real world, as opposed to the world of I and It. All meeting with God must take place within the world, in the "Between" of I and You—whether You is another person or You is the eternal You (God), who speaks to human beings through the occurrences in their lives.

While studying Eastern mysticism and gravitating toward it somewhat, Buber had his own spiritual breakthrough, in which he changed his view of God from an impersonal Godhead to a personal Supreme Being. Afterward he rejected Eastern mysticism entirely. He believed those traveling the mystical path had genuine ecstatic experiences of unity—or oneness with the Godhead—but the mystics were detached from everyday life. For Buber, mysticism wrongly sacrifices individuation (the development of a self in the world), which requires encounters with the Other in an I-You relationship. Buber saw I and You relations as necessary for the highest form of mystical consummation, or union with God. He thought about his breakthrough for several years and then drafted I and Thou, which is the fruit of his own spiritual vision.

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