Chapter 13: What is Man?

Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue
by Maurice S. Friedman

Chapter 13: What is Man?

Since I and Thou Buber had enjoyed thirty years of continuous productivity in an extended range of interests. During this period he has made an unusual translation of the Bible into German in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig and has written several important works of biblical interpretation. He has also expanded and deepened his interest in Hasidism, Judaism, Zionism, and religious socialism, and he has explored the implications of his I-Thou philosophy for education, community, sociology, psychology, art, and philosophical anthropology.

Though Buber’s ideas have validity for the various fields in which he has expressed them, they also retain their nature as integral parts of his philosophy. Buber has himself stressed this unity in his Forewords to Kampf um Israel (1933) and Dialogisches Leben (1947). In the former he states that all the works which he had published in the last twelve years belong to ‘the beginning of a proper expression of my real relation to truth.’ In the latter he states that the intention of the essays and talks in the volume, written between 1922 and 1941, is to point to a reality which has been neglected by thought, a reality ‘of which I am today, as in the beginning of this work, certain that it is essential for the existence of men, mighty in meaning and in saving power.... "I and Thou" stands at the head while all of the others stand in an illustrative and supplementary relation to it.’ (Martin Buber, Kampf um Israel. Reden und Schriften [1921-1932] [Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1933], p. Vii [my translation]; Martin Buber, Dialogisches Leben. Gesammelte philosophische und padagogische Schriften [Zurich: Grtegor Muller Verlag, 1947], pp.9-10 [my translation].)

It should be recognized at the same time that the supplementary function of Buber’s works since I and Thou includes not only an elaboration of the I-Thou philosophy and its extension into new fields, but also, as an integral part of this extension, a deepening and solidification. This deepening and solidification has produced several highly significant developments in Buber’s thought: a growing concern with the nature and meaning of evil as opposed to his earlier tendency to treat evil as a negative aspect of something else; a growing concern with freedom and grace, divine and human love, and the dread through which man must pass to reach God; a steady movement toward concern with the simpler and more concrete aspects of everyday life; and an ever greater simplicity and solidity of style.

An especially important and still uncompleted development in Buber’s thought is his philosophical anthropology -- the study of the problem of man. Buber defines ‘philosophical anthropology’ as the study of ‘the wholeness of man,’ and he lists the following as among the problems ‘which are implicitly set up at the same time by this question’:

man’s special place in the cosmos, his connexion with destiny, his relation to the world of things, his understanding of his fellowmen, his existence as a being that knows it must die, his attitude in the ordinary and extraordinary encounters with the mystery with which his life is shot through. (Between Man and Man, op. cit., ‘What Is Man?’,p. 120 f.)

The concern with the wholeness of man rules out the attempt to answer the question of what man is in terms of particular philosophical disciplines:

Philosophy succeeds in rendering me . . . help in its individual disciplines precisely through each of these disciplines not reflecting, and not being able to reflect, on the wholeness of man . . . in every one of these disciplines the possibility of its achieving anything in thought rests precisely on its objectification, on what may be termed its ‘de-humanization.’

At the same time Buber disagrees with Heidegger in his belief that philosophical anthropology can provide a foundation for metaphysics or for the individual philosophical sciences. In doing so it would become so general that it would reach a false unity instead of the genuine wholeness of the subject based on ‘the contemplation of all its manifold nature.’

A legitimate philosophical anthropology must know that there is not merely a human species but also peoples, not merely a human soul but also types and characters, not merely a human life but also stages in life; only from the . . . recognition of the dynamic that exerts power within every particular reality and between them, and from the constantly new proof of the one in the many, can it come to see the wholeness of man.

Buber proceeds to set up philosophical anthropology as a systematic method which deals with the concrete, existential characteristics of man’s life in order to arrive at the wholeness of man:

Even as it must again and again distinguish within the human race in order to arrive at a solid comprehension, so it must put man in all seriousness into nature, it must compare him with other things, other living creatures, other bearers of consciousness, in order to define his special place reliably for him. Only by this double way of distinction and comparison does it reach the whole, real man. (Ibid., p. 121ff.)

In defining philosophical anthropology as the problem of finding one essence of man in the constant flux of individuals and cultures, Buber has once again made visible the way of the ‘narrow ridge.’ For only through this approach can we avoid the abyss of abstract unity on the one hand and that of meaningless relativity on the other. In a further definition of the problem Buber writes: Man’s existence is constituted by his participation, at the same time and in the same actions, in finitude and infinity. Related to this definition is his designation of man in ‘The Question to the Single One’ as the only creature who has potentiality. Even though this wealth of possibility is confined within narrow limits, these limits are only factual and not essential. Man’s action is unforeseeable in its nature and extent. (Ibid., p. 77 f.) It is because of this potentiality that Buber is able to speak in terms of the freedom of man and the reality of evil.

A corollary of Buber’s emphasis on the wholeness of man is his rejection of the traditional idea that man is human because of his reason.

The depth of the anthropological question is first touched when we also recognize as specifically human that which is not reason. Man is not a centaur, he is man through and through. He can be understood only when one knows, on the one hand, that there is something in all that is human, including thought, which belongs to the general nature of living creatures, and is to be grasped from this nature, while knowing, on the other hand, that there is no human quality which belongs fully to the general nature of living creatures and is to be grasped exclusively from it. Even man’s hunger is not an animal’s hunger. Human reason is to be understood only in connexion with human non-reason. The problem of philosophical anthropology is the problem of a specific totality and of its specific structure. (Ibid., p. 160)


Through contrasting man with the rest of nature Buber derives a twofold principle of human life consisting of two basic movements. The first movement he calls ‘the primal setting at a distance,’ the second ‘entering into relation.’ The first movement is the presupposition for the second, for we can only enter into relation with being that has been set at a distance from us and thereby has become an independent opposite. Only man can perform this act of setting at a distance because only man has a ‘world’ -- an unbroken continuum which includes not only all that he and other men know and experience but all that is knowable now and in the future. An animal does not have a world but only an environment or realm. An animal selects from his realm those things which he needs, but he does not see it as a separate whole nor, like man, complete what is perceived by what can be perceived. This primal distancing is true not only of man’s connection with space but of his connection with time. An animal’s actions are concerned with its future and that of its young, but only man imagines the future. ‘The beaver’s dam is extended in a time-realm, but the planted tree is rooted in the world of time, and he who plants the first tree is he who will expects the Messiah.’

Buber characterizes the act of entering into relation with the world as a ‘synthesizing apperception,’ the apperception of a being as a whole and as a unity. Only by looking at the world as a world can man grasp being as a wholeness and unity. This is done not simply through ‘setting at a distance’ but also through entering into relation.

Only the view of what is over against me in the world in its full presence, with which I have set myself, present in my whole person, in relation -- only this view gives me the world truly as whole and one.

Distance makes room for relation, but relation does not necessarily follow. The real history of the spirit begins in the extent of the mutual interaction, reaction, and co-operation of the two movements. They may complete or contend with one another; each may see the other as the means or as the obstacle to its own realization. The great phenomena in history on the side of acts of distance are preponderantly universal while those on the side of acts of relation are preponderantly personal. The first movement shows how man is possible, the second how man is realized. ‘Distance provides the human situation, relation provides man’s becoming in that situation.’

An animal makes use of a stick as a tool, but only man sets it aside for future use as a specific and persisting It with a known capacity. But it is not enough for man to use and possess things. He also has a great desire to enter into personal relation with things and to imprint on them his relation to them. It is here, in man’s relation to things, that we find the origin of art. A work of art is not the impression of natural objectivity nor the expression of spiritual subjectivity. It is the witness of the relation between the human substance and the substance of things.

Art . . . is the realm of ‘between’ which has become a form. Consider great nude sculptures of the ages: none of them is to be understood properly either from the givenness of the human body or from the will to expression of an inner state, but solely from the relational event which takes place between two entities which have gone apart from one another, the withdrawn ‘body’ and the withdrawing ‘soul.’

In men’s relation to one another the twofold principle of human life can be seen still more clearly. An insect society has division of labour, but it allows neither variation nor individual award. In human societies, in contrast, persons confirm each other in a practical way in their personal qualities and capacities. Indeed, a society may be termed human in the measure to which this mutual confirmation takes place. Apart from the tool and the weapon, it is this mutual individual completion and recognition of function which has enabled man to achieve lordship of the earth. An animal cannot see its companions apart from their common life, nor ascribe to the enemy any existence beyond his hostility. Man sets man at a distance and makes him independent. He is therefore able to enter into relation, in his own individual status, with those like himself.

The basis of man’s life with man is twofold, and it is one -- the wish of every man to be confirmed as what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity in man to confirm his fellow men in this way. That this capacity lies so immeasurably fallow constitutes the real weakness and questionableness of the human race: actual humanity exists only where this capacity unfolds. On the other hand, of course, an empty claim for confirmation, without devotion for being and becoming, again and again mars the truth of life between man and man.

This mutual confirmation is best illustrated by speech. Animals call to one another, but only man speaks to other men as independent and particular others. Man sets his calls or words at a distance like his tools. He gives them independence in order that they may come to life again in genuine conversation. This process is perverted and the reality of speech misused when conversations take place without real dialogue. Genuine conversation, like every genuine fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness. This means that although one may desire to influence the other and to lead him to share in one’s relation to truth, one accepts and confirms him in his being this particular man made in this particular way. One wishes him to have a different relation to one’s own truth in accordance with his individuality. The manipulator of propaganda and suggestion, in contrast, wishes to make use of men. He relates to men not as independently other beings but as to things, things moreover with which he will never enter into relation and which he is eager to rob of their distance.

Thus mutual confirmation of men is most fully realized in what Buber calls ‘making present,’ an event which happens partially wherever men come together but in its essential structure only rarely. Making the other present means to ‘imagine’ the real, to imagine quite concretely what another man is wishing, feeling, perceiving, and thinking. In the full making present something of the character of what is imagined is joined to the act of imagining. One to some extent wills what he is willing, thinks what he is thinking, feels what he is feeling. The particular pain which I inflict on another surges up in myself until paradoxically we are embraced in a common situation. It is through this making present that we grasp another as a self, that is as a being whose distance from me cannot be separated from my distance from him and whose particular experience I can make present. This event is not ontologically complete until he knows himself made present by me and until this knowledge induces the process of his inmost self-becoming. ‘For the inmost growth of the self is not accomplished, as people like to suppose today, in man’s relation to himself, but . . . in the making present of another self and in the knowledge that one is made present in his own self by the other.’ An animal does not need confirmation because he is what he is unquestionably. Man, in contrast, needs to have a presence in the being of the other.

Sent forth from the natural domain of species into the hazard of the solitary category, surrounded by the air of a chaos which came into being with him, secretly and bashfully he watches for a Yes which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another. (Martin Buber, ‘Distance and Relation,’ translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, The Hibbert Journal, January 1951, Vol. XLIX, pp. 105-113. ‘The connection of the whole work with my writings on dialogical existence . . . is probably clear to the reader,’ writes Buber in the ‘Vorwort’ to the German original, Urdistanz und Bezichung [Heidelberg: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1951].)


It is clear that ‘entering into relation’ means entering into an I-Thou relation, yet it is equally clear that one cannot identify distance with I-It. When man fails to enter into relation, however, the distance thickens and solidifies, so that instead of being that which makes room for relation it becomes that which obstructs it. This failure to enter into relation corresponds to I-It, and distance thus becomes the presupposition for both I-Thou and I-It. Entering into relation is an act of the whole being -- it is in fact the act by which we constitute ourselves as human, and it is an act which must be repeated ever again in ever new situations. Distance, in contrast, is not an act and neither is failure to enter into relation: both are states of being.

When Buber speaks in I and Thou of I-Thou as preceding I-It in the primitive man and the child, he is speaking of the genesis of these relations. In ‘Distance and Relation,’ on the other hand, he is speaking ontologically of what constitutes the human being as a human being: he is not here interested in discovering just when, in the life of the race and the individual, man really becomes man but only in discovering what makes up the essence of man once he is man. Even ontologically speaking, however, it might appear that if distance is the presupposition for relationship and I-It is the thickening of distance, then the I-It relation precedes rather than follows the I-Thou. This apparent contradiction rests on a misconception, namely, that the thickening of the distance is closer to the original situation than the entrance into relation. Distance precedes the I-Thou and I-It relations which make up personal existence. This distance given, man is able to enter into relation with other beings or, as we have seen, he is able to enlarge, develop, accentuate, and shape the distance itself. In this shaping of the distance the primary state of things is elaborated as it is not in I-Thou. The I-Thou relation changes nothing in the primary state of things, but the thickening of distance into I-It changes the whole situation of the other being, making it into one’s object. Looking at and observing the object, we make it part of an objective world with which we do not enter into relationship. Hence the I-It, or subject-object, relationship is not the primary one but is an elaboration of the given as the I-Thou relationship is not.

In the actual development of the human person, entering into relation precedes the thickening of distance that obstructs relation. The baby does not proceed directly from complete unity with its mother to that primary I-Thou relation which Buber has described in the child. Already in its first days, according to Buber, a child has the fact of distance, that is, the sense of beings as different from and over against him. In entering into relation with its mother the child completes this distance, and it is only later when he ceases to enter into relation that he sees her as an object and falls into the I-It’s shaping and elaboration of the distance. (I am indebted to Professor Buber for oral elucidation of these problems.) This same thing happens later when the child goes through that process of emergence of the self which Erich Fromm has described. (Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom [New York: Rinehart & Co., 1941], chap. ii.) As consciousness of one’s separateness grows, it becomes more and more difficult to overcome the distance through relation; heightened insecurity and need for decision produce an ever greater temptation to accentuate the distance and take refuge in the pseudosecurity of the world of It, the world of ordered objectivity and private subjectivity.

In ‘Religion and Modern Thought’ Buber criticizes Sartre’s statement that man ‘should affirm himself as the being through whom a world exists.’ ‘That ordering of known phenomena which we call the world,’ writes Buber, ‘is, indeed, the composite work of a thousand human generations.’ But, he goes on to say, this world has come into existence through our meeting with existing being unknowable to us in its own nature. Though the becoming of a world takes place through us, our social ordering of the world rests, in its turn, on the priority of the meeting with existing being, and this meeting is not our work. (Martin Buber, Eclipse of God, Studies in the Relation between Religion and Philosophy [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952], ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ translated by Maurice S. Friedman, p. 58 f., ‘Religion and Modern Thought,’ also my translation, p. 91 f.) Hence here too entering into relation precedes the elaboration of distance, I-Thou precedes I-It.

While I-It can be defined as the enlarging and thickening of distance, it can also be defined as the objectification of the I-Thou relation which sometimes serves as the way back to it and sometimes obstructs the return. The I-Thou relation supplies the form for I-It, the form in which the distance is thickened. The form of the I-Thou relation remains as a means of re-entering relation, of executing anew the essential human act; but this form may block the return to the I-Thou relation through its false appearance of being itself the real thing.