Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious Philosophy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Martin Buber’s I and Thou won attention for its attempt to connect religion to everyday life. In this work, Buber argued that spirituality came from opening oneself to true relationships with other human beings.

Summary of Event

In Ich und Du (1923; I and Thou, 1937), the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber sought to prove that religion is required for the modern world to function properly. Although he was not writing from within the Jewish tradition, Buber’s scholarship, teaching, and political involvement led to the publication of a work that influenced not only Jewish but also Christian and secular thinkers. Educated at universities in Vienna, Leipzig, and Zurich, Buber was exposed to the teachings of such philosophers as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the early existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. He also became involved in Zionism, the political movement promoting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. I and Thou (Buber) Religious philosophy [kw]Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious Philosophy (1923) [kw]Religious Philosophy, Buber Breaks New Ground in (1923) [kw]Philosophy, Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious (1923) I and Thou (Buber) Religious philosophy [g]Germany;1923: Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious Philosophy[05680] [c]Publishing and journalism;1923: Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious Philosophy[05680] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1923: Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious Philosophy[05680] [c]Philosophy;1923: Buber Breaks New Ground in Religious Philosophy[05680] Buber, Martin Baՙal Shem Tov Tillich, Paul

In the early years of the twentieth century, however, Buber discovered the writings of the Baՙal Shem Tov, the leader of the eighteenth century Jewish popular mystical movement known as Hasidism. For five years, Buber withdrew from politics to study Hasidic lore, and at the end of that period he published several books about Hasidism, Hasidism including Die Legende des Baalschem (1908; The Legend of the Baal-Shem, 1955). Legend of the Baal-Shem, The (Buber)

Buber began drafting I and Thou in 1916. In his writing, he drew on his studies of Hasidism, Daoism, Christian mysticism, and other traditions. He also used the manuscript as an outlet for his response to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After working on I and Thou off and on for several years, Buber presented some of his ideas in lectures given in the early 1920’s at the Free Jewish Academy in Frankfurt, a school run by his friend and intellectual collaborator Franz Rosenzweig.

The heart of I and Thou lies in its discussion of relationship and dialogue. In examining these two concepts, Buber distinguished between ways of approaching the world. The first is the “I-It” way, in which the world, work, politics, fellow human beings, and even God are treated as objects. This approach involves the use, experience, and analysis of things but does not involve any relationship to them. To relate to people, nature, the world, or God, to enter into dialogue with them, and to open oneself and seek a sort of reciprocity with them required a tactic that Buber called Ich-Du, a phrase hard to translate into English because it uses the familiar, intimate form of the German word “you,” a form that no longer exists in English except for the archaic “thou.”

This second approach, which belongs to the “I-Thou” or “I-You” realm, is one ruled by the spirit rather than reason. It is the realm of artistic inspiration, of communion with nature, and of true relationship to one’s fellow human beings. Although such true relationships can be perilous, unpredictable, and difficult, they are the only way in which one can truly experience the presence of others and, through them, the presence of something spiritual.

Although he came from a mystical tradition, Buber did not believe that a withdrawal from the world is required to connect to God. On the contrary, he said that God can be found only in the world and that this discovery requires that the seeker be open to all forms of experience. Drawing on the Hasidic tradition, Buber urged people to make the everyday world holy. He recognized, however, that people must use certain objects, analyze situations, resort to reason—that is, they must function in the realm of I-It—some of the time, but he asserted that these types of experiences should be balanced by time spent in the I-You realm. If society becomes only a collection of objects, and if people relate to each other only in a transactional way, society will become ill and devoid of spirit.

Christian thinker Paul Tillich was very impressed by I and Thou and said that in modern civilization Buber’s teaching was an important corrective to the emphasis on the I-It realm. Other Christian writers also saw something important in Buber’s emphasis on spirit and its opposition to the technology and materialism of modern life. Some commentators saw I and Thou, which is generally viewed as Buber’s masterpiece, as being non-Jewish and universal, and these assertions prompted others to write lengthy works aimed at demonstrating the book’s exclusively Jewish qualities. There are, however, few overt references in I and Thou to Judaism or Jewish figures, whereas Buber devotes two short sections to Jesus and to the Buddha’s teachings. Even more challenging to Jewish orthodoxy is the lack of importance Buber gives to Jewish law and the teachings of the rabbis. For Buber, spirituality is an issue of addressing and relating to God, not observing commandments, and in a later work Buber wrote that he believed the Hebrew Bible to be less a set of laws than the story of God speaking to His people.

Jewish commentators have asserted that the notion of addressing God, or of God addressing man, is a Jewish idea that can be traced in the biblical dialogues of Abraham or Moses. They have also pointed out that Buber’s treatment of Jesus is not a traditional Christian one, because he focuses on the human Jesus—Jesus as the Son relating to the Father—and sees this relationship as the quintessential relationship between human beings and God. In other words, Buber treats Jesus as an example of what human beings can be in relation to God rather than as an aspect of God himself. More important, however, is the general nature of Buber’s approach, which challenges all orthodox religion by emphasizing that personal relationships in everyday life form a key component of spirituality. Buber has little use for setting aside a time or a place for religious worship, and in a later work he said that true religions should work for their own obliteration.


Although Buber might be pleased to know that his book continues to provoke dialogue, he would no doubt point out that to attempt to analyze his message is to move it into the realm of I-It instead of the realm in which the spirit of a work inspires its reader. Buber did not deny the need for analysis and the realm of I-It, but he hoped his readers would place a higher priority on the spiritual realm and its emphasis on reaching out to things and people. I and Thou played an important role in giving expression to the feelings of those who were disturbed by the world’s increasing materialism, and this feeling contributed to movements such as some Westerners’ turn toward Eastern philosophies in the 1960’s.

Buber’s book also challenged supporters of conventional religions by asking them to renew—and perhaps to test—their faith by bringing it into the modern world, and he hoped that people would go beyond old texts and come to see them in new ways. To those who had abandoned religion, Buber suggested that if they made the choice to relate openly and truly to the world, then in a sense they had not abandoned religion after all. I and Thou (Buber) Religious philosophy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breslauer, S. Daniel. The Chrysalis of Religion: A Guide to the Jewishness of Buber’s “I and Thou.” Nashville: Abingdon, 1980. Argues that I and Thou belongs to a tradition of Jewish writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Scribner’s, 1970. Except for the title, uses “you” for Buber’s “du.” Kaufmann provides some useful background information in his prologue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Maurice S. Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue. 1955. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2002. Detailed discussion of Buber’s philosophy, including his relationship to Christianity and Judaism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geering, Lloyd. The World of Relation: An Introduction to Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press, 1983. Discusses Buber’s intellectual development before I and Thou and provides a detailed examination of I and Thou.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manheim, Werner. Martin Buber. New York: Twayne, 1974. Discusses Buber’s life and works. Traces his influences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayhall, C. Wayne, and Timothy B. Mayhall. On Buber. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth-Thomson, 2004. Brief survey of Buber’s works, including a chapter on I and Thou.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Ronald Gregor. Martin Buber. London: Carey Kingsgate, 1967. Brief introduction to Buber’s life and work. Ends by arguing against his view of Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vermes, Pamela. Buber. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988. Short survey of Buber’s works and influences, including a chapter on I and Thou.

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Categories: History