The Philosophy of Buber

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Martin Buber (1878 - 1965)

It is no exaggeration to view Martin Buber as one of the foremost philosophers, writers and storytellers in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The importance of Martin Buber is easily recognized whenever we review modern philosophy as well as Jewish and Christian theology. In fact, Protestant scholars such as Paul Tillich and Walter Nigg have made Buber's theology the basis of their own contemplations.

In addition the great American sociologist George Herbert Mead owes a great deal of his sociological insights to the work of Buber. The idea that the life of Jewish faith consists of a dialogue between man and God is of course found first in the Torah. In Buber's hands, however, the dialogue is further developed when he teaches that humans engage in dialogues at all times. These are the I-Thou relationship and the I-it relationship. Buber views the I-Thou relationship as a reciprocal dialogue between man and man as well as the world in general. According to Buber this dialogue leads to openness, mutuality and directness - a true dialogue. To this he adds the view that man can also reach God by means of the I-thou dialogue because God is the eternal source of the world. This means, according to Buber, that one can meet God at any time and everywhere in one's everyday existence.

Therefore Buber holds that the essence of the religious life is not religious ritual but how one meets one's own existence. This argument makes Buber a member of the existentialist school of philosophy.

Existentialism asserts that mankind has free will, that life is a series of choices, that almost all decisions have at least some negative consequences, that some things are inexplicable and that we must live with the consequences of our own decisions.

Existentialism denies that the good life is one of money and pleasure. It also denies that social approval is more important than the individual. Further, existentialism denies that one must accept what is without making an effort to change it. Existentialism also denies that science can and will make everything better. This was of course also the view of Benedict Spinoza. Finally, existentialism cannot agree that people are good by nature but were ruined by society, as Rousseau would have it.

If you have any further interest in existentialism I would suggest reading Fiodor Dostoyevsky, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Ponty, and Albert Camus. Husserl and Kafka were Jewish.

Looking now at the work of George Herbert Mead, we find that he also teaches that the self develops only as the individual interacts with others. According to George Mead, it is vitally important that we see ourselves as others see us. This is of course the basis of social psychology and fits directly into the teachings of Buber. No doubt you will want to go to the library and get out Meadís book, Mind, Self and Society.

Buber adds that in addition to the I-Thou relationship there is also an I-it relationship which has to do with our understanding of objective knowledge.

Martin Buber was born in Vienna of a long line of Jewish scholars. His grandfather was known as an editor of midrash. Buber studied at the Universities of Vienna, Leipzig, ZŁrich and Berlin. There he edited a Zionist weekly as early as 1901.

Thereafter he told many Hasidic stories which he had translated from the Yiddish into German. This led to his publishing Chasidic Tales, which gave him a considerable literary reputation. He also wrote scholarly works on the history of Hasidism, including his Hasidism and Modern Man and The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism.

After the ascent of Hitler in 1933 he established the Central Office for Jewish Education, which became significant after Jews were no longer allowed to go to any public school in Germany and Austria.

In 1938, Buber moved to Israel where he became professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University.

Martin Buber lives on today because his influence is so great. He taught men how to live a good life and he contributed to love in this world.  Indeed a Jew to remember.

Shalom uívracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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