Martin Buber, a German-born Jewish philosopher and Zionist, made meaningful contributions to the fields of existential philosophy and philosophical anthropology during a long and productive scholarly career. Buber is best known for his conception of human relationships as “I-Thou” and “I-It,” a distinction that was a common theme throughout all of his works.
Early in his life, Buber was moved by two chief influences, the teachings of the Hasidism and the philosophy of neo-Kantianism. As Buber matured, he gradually shed his neo-Kantian beliefs and delved ever deeper into his own Jewish heritage as a source for his philosophy and worldview.
Buber wrote extensively and produced four major works that are widely recognized as having lasting significance: Ich und du (I and Thou), published in 1923; Moses (1946); Between Man and Man (1947); and Eclipse of God (1952). In I and Thou, by far his most influential work, Buber explains his views on the nature of human relationships with other human beings and with the world of things that surrounds them.
His fundamental thesis is that human beings do not, or at least should not, relate to other people in the same way that they relate to things. Put simply, every human interchange should have an “I-Thou” character. Every human being is, of course, intimately aware of himself or herself as an “I.” So, in the course of any meaningful contact with another person, there will be a coming together of two different versions of “I,” each of which requires acknowledgment from the other. In other words, the “I” must be willing to recognize the other “I” as a “Thou,” as a separately existing human
being, rather than as a mere extension of the physical world. In an “I-Thou” relationship, meaningful contact and exchange with another person is possible because the other, the “Thou,” is seen as in effect another “I,” a human being whose history, opinions, and character are regarded as possessing intrinsic worth—independent of the relationship to the “I.” Although the “I” and the “Thou” remain separate, the communion or fellowship that takes place in an “I-Thou” relationship is quite real, and worthy of pursuit.
The “I-Thou” relationship contrasts directly with what Buber calls the “I-It” stance. In the interaction of a person with an inanimate object, the “I-It” relationship reflects a perfectly appropriate “objective” attitude toward the thing with which the “I” finds itself in contact. The philosophical-anthropological problem emerges, however, when people apply the “I-It” attitude in their dealings with another human being. Such an “I-It” relationship is not a genuine one, because the reduction of the other human being to the status of a thing has the effect of isolating the “I” from any meaningful contact with the other person.
As an ardent Jew and Zionist, Buber applied his insights on the “I-Thou” relationship to the Israeli kibbutz, in which he saw a realization of the “I-Thou” in a social order in which the individual stands in a meaningful relationship to the greater community and of which he or she is an inherently valued part.
- Audi, R. (Ed.). (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Brown, J. (1955). Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber, & Barth. New York: Collier Books.
- Buber, M. (2000). I and Thou. New York: Scribner.