Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ Relation

In an age where identity is being questioned in the light of the latest technological advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, Martin Buber’s thought is a welcome reminder of how our relation with others remains the deepest and most solid foundation of our morality and humanity. Steeped in Jewish theology and culture, Buber (1878–1965) was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century as he transcended his own Jewish faith to encompass the Christian tradition and offer the world a tolerant form of Hebrew Humanism ‘in opposition to Jewish nationalism’. 

‘I and Thou’, a slim volume published in 1923, constitutes the manifesto and cornerstone of his later works. First drafted in 1916, it took seven years for its author to achieve entire satisfaction and ‘decisive clarity’ in the concise exposition of his spiritual message. At the heart of Buber’s teachings lies the doctrine that ‘real life is meeting’ and that the ‘Thou’ or Other is the medium through and thanks to whom, I have access to the moral, aesthetic and transcendental reality, that is, God. In this immediate ‘I -Thou’ encounter, both agents appear in their most ‘authentic’ state, in the fullness of their being. By contrast, the ‘I-It’ refers to the experience of the world as interpreted in logical categories which does not preclude, as in Sartre’s ‘intersubjectivity’, the possibility of human relations resulting in an exploitative commodification of the Other, deprived of his or her unique singularity. 

The importance of Buber’s theory lies in its emphasis on the dialogic nature of our human and transcendental encounters. For Buber, ‘Only men who are truly capable of saying Thou to one another can truly say We with one another.’ Furthermore, Buber’s authentic self, already explored by Soren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century, does not reveal itself through some Cartesian cognitive experience but in a significant moment of open-hearted communion with our fellow man and ultimately with God, ‘the eternal Thou’.

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