Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue

by Maurice S. Friedman

Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University.

Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


(ENTIRE BOOK) A comprehensive, richly documented research into Martin Buber’s philosophical and theological teachings and his influence upon philophers and theologians of his times.


  • Preface The most obvious form in which the unity of Buber’s thought expresses itself is his philosophy of dialogue, and much of this book is centered on the development and implications of that philosophy. Buber’s thoughts are drawn together in terms of his attitude toward the nature and redemption of evil. The author shows the significance of this attitude for such fields as ethics, social philosopohy, psychotherapy, and education.
  • Chapter 1: The Narrow Ridge Perhaps no other phrase so aptly characterizes the quality and significance of Martin Buber’s life and thought as the one of the ‘narrow ridge.’ It expresses not only the ‘holy insecurity’ of his existentialist philosophy but also the ‘I-Thou,’ or dialogical, philosophy which he has formulated as a genuine third alternative to the insistent either-or’s of our age.
  • Chapter 2: The Problem of Evil It is in a middle position between the unreality and the radical reality of evil that we shall always find Buber. His attitude has changed from a tendency to regard evil in largely negative terms to a tendency to ascribe to it greater and greater emotional and ontological reality. But he has never considered evil an absolute, nor has he lost faith in its possible redemption.
  • Chapter 3: Hasidism The real essence of Hasidism is revealed not so much in its concepts as in the three central virtues which derive from these concepts: love, joy, and humility. For Hasidism the world was created out of love and is to be brought to perfection through love. Love is central in God’s relation to man and is more important than fear of God, justice, or righteousness.
  • Chapter 4: Mysticism Buber’s thought gradually matured from the time of his earliest essays to a mature philosophy during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. The early period of mysticism evolved into a period of existentialsm to a developing diaological philosophy. However, he does not discard the thoughts of the earlier period, but they are preserved in changed form.
  • Chapter 5: Philosophy of Judaism In Buber’s early philosophy of Judaism good is identified with decision of the whole being, evil with the directionlessness that results from failure to decide. His existentialism, his philosophy of community, his religious socialism, and his dialogical philosophy all develop within his philosophy of Judaism as well as outside of it.
  • Chapter 6: Philosophy of Realization Buber’s thoughts go beyond transcendental ideals through the influence of Kant to Wilhelm Dilthey, to Nietzsche, to Kierkegaard & Dostoievsky, to his own reflection in the unity of the philosophy of realization.
  • Chapter 7: Dialectic of Religion and Culture Buber’s dialectic combines a theory of religious symbolism with a philosophy of history. Culture and religiousness replace one another in the history of peoples. Culture is the stabilization of the life impulse and life forms between two religious upheavals. Religion is the renewal of the life impulse and life forms between two cultural developments.
  • Chapter 8: Community and Religious Socialism Neither the socialist power-state nor the capitalist state are evil in themselves, but both are evil whenever they prevent the springing-up of the good. The answer is found in the strengthening of the forces of good through the will for genuine relationship and true community.
  • Chapter 9: Threshold of Dialogue Each thing and being has a twofold nature: the passive, appropriable, comparable, and dissectible and the active, unappropriable, incomparable, and irreducible. He who truly experiences a thing that leaps to meet him of itself has known therein the world. The contact between the inexpressible circle of things and the experiencing powers of our senses is more and other than a vibration of the ether and the nervous system -- it is the incarnate spirit.
  • Chapter 10: All Real Living Is Meeting The difference between I-it and I-Thou is not carried over from the German to the English in translation, but the difference is important in indicating the two stages of Buber’s insight into man -- first, that he is to be understood, in general, in terms of his relationships rather than taken in himself; second, that he is to be understood specifically in terms of that direct, mutual relation that makes him human.
  • Chapter 11: The World of <I>It</I> Neither universal causality nor destiny prevent a man from being free if he is able to alternate between I-It and I-Thou. But without the ability to enter relation and cursed with the arbitrary self-will and belief in fate that particularly mark modern man, the individual and the community become sick, and the I of the true person is replaced by the empty I of individuality.
  • Chapter 12: The Eternal Thou Here are the hree most important aspects of Buber’s I-Thou philosophy. The first is the alternation between I-Thou and I-It. The second is the alternation between summons, the approach to the meeting with the eternal Thou, and sending, the going forth from that meeting to the world of men. The third is the alternation between revelation, in which the relational act takes place anew and flows into cultural and religious forms, and the turning, in which man turns from the rigidified forms of religion to the direct meeting with the Eternal Thou.
  • Chapter 13: What is Man? Buber defines ‘philosophical anthropology’ as the study of ‘the wholeness of man,’ and he lists the following as among the problems implicitly set up 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.
  • Chapter 14: The Life of Dialogue We must distinguish between two different types of human existence, one of which proceeds from the essence -- from what one really is -- the other of which proceeds from an image -- from what one wishes to appear to be. Like the I-Thou and the I-It relations, these types are generally mixed with one another since no man lives from pure essence and none from pure appearance.
  • Chapter 15: The Nature of Evil >It is entering into relation that makes man really man; it is the failure to enter into relation that in the last analysis constitutes evil, or non-existence; and it is the re-establishment of relation that leads to the redemption of evil and genuine human existence.
  • Chapter 16: The Eclipse of God A false security prevents us from making real our relationship to God, for the meeting with God takes place in the ‘lived concrete,’ and lived concreteness exists only in so far as the moment retains its true dialogical character of presentness and uniqueness.
  • Chapter 17: The Redemption of Evil The beginning of man’s redemption and that of the world is found in man’s turning from evil and taking the direction toward God. God ‘wishes to redeem us -- but only by our own acceptance of His redemption with the turning of the whole being.’ Our turning is only the beginning, however, for man’s action must be answered by God’s grace for redemption to be complete.
  • Chapter 18: For the Sake of Heaven This chapter consists of a review of the ideas contained in Buber’s chronicle-novel For the Sake of Heaven. The plot shows that the redemption of God waxes in secret and through the very evil which tries to destroy it; for even the power of destruction derives originally from God.
  • Chapter 19: Buber’s Theory of Knowledge The real conflict for Buber is not between philosophy and religion, but between that philosophy which sees the absolute in universals and hence removes reality into the systematic and the abstract and that which means the bond of the absolute with the particular and hence points man back to the reality of the lived concrete -- to the immediacy of real meeting with the beings over against one.
  • Chapter 20: Education There are two basic ways by which one may influence the formation of the minds and lives of others. In the first, one imposes one’s opinion and attitude on the other in such a way that his psychic action is really one’s own. In the second, one discovers and nourishes in the soul of the other what one has recognized in oneself as the right. The significance for education of this distinction between propaganda and legitimate influence can hardly be overestimated.
  • Chapter 21: Psychotherapy Buber’s dialogical philosopohy does not exclude the findings of the more scientifically or mechanistically oriented school of psychology. However, the philosophy of dialogue limits their competence to judge the essence of man as a whole in relation to other men. In this chapter, Buber’s ideas are compared with many in the field: Eric Fromm, Ferdinand Ebner, Victor von Weizäcker, Ludwig Binswanger, Arie Sborowitz, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Hans Trub and Carl R. Rogers.
  • Chapter 22: Ethics That which matters is the critical flame shooting up ever again out of the depths, and the truest source for this critical flame is the individual’s awareness of what he really is, of what in his unique and nonrepeatable created existence he is intended to be. The ethical is the acceptance or denial of actions not according to their use or harmfulness but according to their intrinsic value and disvalue.
  • Chapter 23: Social Philosophy Martin Buber has refused to fall into the dilemma of the either-or of individualism and collectivism. In both cases he has resolved the tension between the two poles through a creative third alternative -- the relation between man and man. This relation takes place not only in the I-Thou of direct meeting but also in the We of community.
  • Chapter 24: Symbol, Myth, and History God is the ‘wholly Other’. He is also the wholly Same, the wholly Present. He is the Mysterium Tremendum that appears and overthrows; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I. Buber’s concepts of symbol, myth and history (of myth) are detailed.
  • Chapter 25: The Faith of the Bible The new total viewpoint of Buber’s science of Biblical study has without question created a new situation in Old Testament scholarship. For the first time there has arisen a real Jewish critical study of the Bible -- Jewish and critical at once -- which does not allow its way to be dictated to it by foreign tendencies. Buber’s analysis of the biblical concepts of creation, revelation, the kingship of God, and the God of the sufferers is presented.
  • Chapter 26: Buber and Judaism A review of Buber’s inluence on Judiaism, Zionism, Hasidism, his position on the law, and the full meaning of what it means to be a Jew.
  • Chapter 27: Buber and Christianity A number of Christian scholars who were influenced by Buber’s thought are listed here. Buber was influenced by Christianity. He writes: "From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Saviour has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which, for his sake and my own, I must endeavour to understand. . . . My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer, and today I see him more strongly and clearly than ever before. I am more than ever certain that a great place belongs to him in Israel’s history of faith and that this place cannot be described by any of the usual categories."
  • Conclusion The author gives a quick summery of Buber: Compared with Kierkegaard, Dostoievsky and Nietzshe; his philosophy of dialogue; the inclusion of tragedy within the redemption of evil which marks Buber’s deepest realism; Buber’s insight in the I-Thou to I-It concepts.