Bob Nichols's Reviews > I and Thou

I and Thou by Martin Buber
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Nov 01, 10

Read in November, 2010

This short book has a great title. Buber describes two contrasting relationships. "I" does not exist in isolation, but in relationship to the other. The other may be the world of "It" which is the secular world of objects and relationships with them, and the world of "Thou" that is experienced through the presence of God inside of us.

When we hallow this life, we meet the living God. We become "I" through "Thou." Unbelief is separation, separation is a destruction of the I-thou relationship and its transformation into an I-It relationship. Meaning involves the whole being and a mutual relationship with others. We experience the eternal through the other (a particular "thou"). A community of mutual relationships is not itself our center, but is fed and sustained by its relationship with God who is the center. Our commitment to this center makes us free. That freedom is beyond space, time and causality. It is the eternal now. We do not possess God. God fills us from within. "I" is not God in the world of "It" as in Buddhism. One becomes the word of God within the world, which becomes the world of Thou. Rather than cyclic repetition, Buber hints that the world progressively comes to know God, moving from the pre-spirit state of animals, to humans and their world of It, and then to an ever-closer movement to God and redemption.

This all makes sense if one starts from the presumed reality of God. Then Buber in this book gives a strong account of what that relationship is and is not. If that premise is questioned, then alternative explanations might account for Buber's various mystical descriptions. For example, a fear-based relationship with the world (fear about this life and fear about the inevitability of death) may result in the creation of an archetypal father figure with whom one has a profound relationship. Also, to deny others the experience of meaning, community, mutuality, eternity (of the moment), and hallowedness because they are without Buber's God ironically separates individuals from each other, creates categories of believers and non-believers and I-It relationships.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout I'm impressed as hell that you've read this book. I've had it in mind to read ever since college, and now I'll have to read it because you did. I didn't know you were interested in theology. Buber is in the top rank among theologians I respect.

A couple of questions: You say, "This all makes sense if one starts from the presumed reality of God." Earlier you said, "We experience the eternal through the other (a particular "thou")." If God is other personhood in general, how can one presume that this is not a reality. Are there not other persons (thou's)? Is there not a general or collective character of personhood? It sounds to me as though Buber defines God in such a way that God is impossible to deny. Are you talking about Buber's God, or are you falling back into your own conception of God?

Second question: Does Buber actually "deny others the experience of meaning, community, mutuality, eternity (of the moment), and hallowedness"? That seems mean-spirited, and I would be surprised if Buber did that.


message 2: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols Found the book at a sale for fifty cents and thought, "Why not?"

Second question: Mean spirited seems overly strong. But when you think it through, his is the language of separation not unification. The writing is not, "This is how I experience Thou," but "This is how the Thou is experienced." "I-Thou" is on Buber's terms. "Thou" is how he defines it, which pushes among others, Buddhists and secular nature lovers into the realm of "I-It," and the wrong-headed.

First question: I didn't understand what you're asking. I don't understand the statement that one "defines God in such a way that God is impossible to deny." How does a definition create reality?


message 3: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout If you defined God as identical with the universe (pantheism), then to argue that God doesn't exist is the same as to argue that the universe doesn't exist. That would make it hard to deny the existence of God (i.e. the universe).

You could say that the definition is not a good one, or that it doesn't connect with how we actually use the word "God". Of course a definition cannot create reality, but it can pick out a part of reality that is difficult to deny.

Doesn't Buber define God in such a way that it's difficult to say that God doesn't exist? Even if you think the definition is trivial or misleading or beside the point?


message 4: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols Still not tracking, logically or relevance-wise. If God has nothing to do with the universe, then God doesn't exist. That's a counter definition. Buber can define God anyway he wants to, but that doesn't mean God exists. We're probably having a fly by.


message 5: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout I'm not saying that God exists or that he(she) doesn't exist. Whether God exists depends in part on how the word "God" is defined. If you define "God" as something which already exists, you can object to the definition, or you can accept the definition. If you accept the definition, you can't say that God doesn't exist.

You described Buber (and I understand Buber) as saying that God is the Thou, the personal Other in experience, not this particular thou or that thou, but the Thou taken generally. I think that is a plausible and interesting definition of God, and I had the impression that you thought so also. You could have some other definition of "God", such as the Schopenhauerean Will, or whatever. But if you accept Buber's definition, even for the sake of a discussion, it's difficult to say that God doesn't exist. Unless you want to go back to some different definition of "God."

I can see how you might object to Buber's identifying God with the Thou, since, as you say, the Thou seems to be concerned with human personality and does not seem to include nature in general. Buber's view would be congenial to those who think that human relatedness is at the heart of existence, or to use a Christian formulation, God is love.

I really have to read Buber so that I know what I'm talking about.


message 6: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols Still not tracking (specifically, how existence depends on a definition). For Buber, one Thou is manifested in particular thous (BTW, seems like Hegel [one in the many] and Schopenhauer [universal Will, particular wills] that way). Buber says that, but that doesn't mean God exists.

I don't object to Buber identifying God with Thou because his focus is on humans rather than nature. While that's his focus, I think Buber would also argue that one can have an I-Thou relationship with nature. I think you can have an I-Thou relationship ("mutuality") without Buber's God, but I don't read that as Buber's view.


message 7: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout I think we're in synch on everything except the narrow point of "how existence depends on a definition."

If someone takes something that is already assumed to exist, like nature, or the universe, or Thou, and if someone defines the word "God" to mean that something, and if you accept the definition, then you must conclude that God exists. The jump to existence occurred when you started out with the something you assumed to exist.

Let's consider another example. Do witches exist? If you define "witches" as women with magical or supernatural powers, then the answer is no. If you define "witches" as poor persecuted women with bizarre behavior and antisocial habits, then the answer is yes. If you define "witches" as children who dress up in black on Halloween and carry brooms, then the answer is yes. So the existence of witches depends on the definition you give of "witches."


message 8: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols If you mean stipulated definition, "By God, I mean this," then I may understand. Still struggle with the significance of that line of thought - that "Buber defines God in such a way that God is impossible to deny." If that's not a central point, then I'm o.k.


message 9: by Jon (last edited Nov 04, 2010 05:02AM) (new)

Jon Stout Yes, I mean a stipulated definition. I don't know what other kind there might be. If you're thinking of a dictionary style definition, which attempts to give an empirical report of actual use, then you're still in the same boat. If you accept it, it might as well be stipulated. Or you can criticize it as being not a good definition, as not reflecting actual use or as being misleading, trivial or whatever.

"Buber defines God in such a way that God is impossible to deny." I'm not saying that you can't criticize his definition. But if he defines (stipulates) the word "God" to mean something we all take to exist, then it is difficult to say that that something does not exist.

The best example is the one I gave before. Pantheists define (stipulate) the word "God" to mean the universe. They say God is identical with the universe. You can criticize their definition, but if you accept their definition, it's difficult to say that God (the universe) doesn't exist.

I think Buber does a similar thing, since it is hard to say that the Thou does not exist, since it is a central aspect of human experience. This is a common ploy in theology. Paul Tillich defines "God" as "the ground of all being" (a definition compatible with Buber's). It's hard to say that all being does not exist.


message 10: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols In the initial review, I said Buber makes sense if you accept his initial premise. For those who don't, it's not difficult to say that God doesn't exist or, at least, to look for alternative explanations of what he attributes to God. If Buber says, "By night, I mean lightness," it doesn't mean that night is light.


message 11: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout OK. OK. I get that you don't want to accept the existence of God as a premise. My question is whether you're talking about your conception of God or Buber's conception of God. I guess I thought you were sympathetically taking Buber's position in order to expound it.


message 12: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols Looks a major flyby. The second paragraph of the review was my attempt to summarize Buber's conception of God. Whereas you thought I was sympathetic to Buber's position, which I am not, I thought you were doing some sort of Wittgenstein thing about meaning of words. Onward to the next flyby....


message 13: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout Sometimes it happens. I hope I didn't make you like the book less than you did before. I suppose I do get carried away with the "meaning of words" thing. I'm ready for the next discussion.


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