Sunday, April 21, 2019

Existentialism: Martin Buber - short introduction

Perhaps the preeminent Jewish existentialist is the Austrian theologian/philosopher Martin Buber Buber wrote extensively on a variety of topics, including Biblical translation, Zionism, Hassidic culture, folklore and his concept of “a philosophy of dialogue”.  He made a major contribution to Jewish existentialism with his popular 1923 book I and Thou (from the German, Ich and Du). The book is concerned with the dual concepts of the “I and You (Thou)” and “I and It” relationship, which is Buber’s attempt to answer several age-old existential questions about the meaning of human existence. Buber says that human beings find meaning in their relationships with other entities in the world, whether these are inanimate objects, other people, or even a spiritual force like God. This Begegnung ("meeting") between human and object is what gives life meaning for each individual human. Buber goes on to show how human beings define themselves in relation to the other, either the "You" or the "I." He says that one’s whole being is made by the relation one has to "The Other," using the elegant phraseology, “When one says You, the I of the word pair I-You is said, too…Being I and saying I are the same.”  And also, “The world as experience belongs to the basic word I-It. The basic word I-You establishes the world of relation.”

The latter parts of Buber’s I and Thou are concerned with the possibility for unity of all being. Buber takes a leaf from the book of Judeo-Christian mysticism and Buddhism and explores the concept of the unity of all beings in the universe. Buber admits that as a practicality, and for purposes of life in the real world, “In lived actuality there is not unity of being.” Because of Buber’s concept of the human being having his existence justified by each new interaction with an ‘I’ or ‘Thou’ object, his preferred brand of theology can be seen “not as pantheism, but as panentheism: not that everything is God, but that God may be in everything…”

Buber wrote on a wide variety of topics. He wrote commentary on the socialist Zionist movement, classic gentile existentialist writers such as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche, and Hassidic folklore and culture, among many other topics from a variety of disciplines.] In addition to all this, his concepts of the “I and Thou” dialectic and his “philosophy of dialogue” have become standard reading in the realm of positivist existentialist philosophy that seeks to bring meaning to human life. Ronald Gregor Smith writes, “The authentic Jewish note of existential ‘realization’ is never hard to detect.”  Buber had an ultimately optimistic view of people's ability to find meaning in life through the Jewish religion.

Best works by and on Martin Buber:

Recommended books on Jewish Existentialism: