Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Partially Examined Life, Episode 71: Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”


The Partially Examined Life podcast took a look at Martin Buber's classic book, I and Thou. For more background, here is a bit about the book from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
I and Thou is considered to have inaugurated “a Copernican revolution in theology (…) against the scientific-realistic attitude” (Bloch [1983], p. 42), but it has also been criticized for its reduction of fundamental human relations to just two — the I-Thou and the I-It — of which the latter appears as a mere ‘cripple’ (Franz Rosenzweig in a letter to Buber in Sept. 1922). Walter Kaufmann, who produced a second English translation of I and Thou, went further in his criticism. While he did not regard the lack of deep impact of Buber's contributions to biblical studies, Hasidism, and Zionist politics as an indication of failure, he considered I and Thou a shameful performance in both style and content. In style the book invoked “the oracular tone of false prophets” and it was ‘more affected than honest.’ Writing in a state of “irresistible enthusiasm,” Buber lacked the critical distance needed to critique and revise his own formulations. His conception of the I-It was a “Manichean insult” while his conception of the I-Thou was ‘rashly romantic and ecstatic,’ and Buber ‘mistook deep emotional stirrings for revelation.’ (Kaufmann [1983], pp. 28-33) 
Buber always insisted that the dialogic principle, i.e., the duality of primal relations that he called the I-Thou and the I-It, was not a philosophical conception but a reality beyond the reach of discursive language. In the initial exuberance of making this discovery Buber briefly planned for I and Thou to serve as the prolegomenon to a five-volume work on philosophy, but he realized that, in Kaufmann's words, “he could not build on that foundation” and hence abandoned the plan. It has been argued, however, that Buber nevertheless solved the inherent “difficulty of dialogics that it reflects on, and speaks of, a human reality about which, in his own words, one cannot think and speak in an appropriate manner” (Bloch [1983] p. 62) by writing around it, inspired by one's conviction of its veracity. 
The debate on the strength and weakness of I and Thou as the foundation of a system hinges on the perhaps fallacious assumption that the five-volume project Buber intended to write but soon abandoned was indeed a philosophical one. Buber's contemporaneous lectures at the Freies j├╝disches Lehrhaus and at the University of Frankfurt as well as his letters to Rosenzweig indicate quite clearly that he was concerned with the development of a new approach to the study of religion (Religionswissenschaft) (cf. Schottroff) rather than with a new approach to the philosophy of religion.
Enjoy the podcast.

The Partially Examined Life, Episode 71: Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

Buber

On Buber’s 1923 book about the fundamental human position: As children, and historically (this is his version of social contract theory), we start fully absorbed in relation with another person (like, say, mom). Before that point, we have no self-consciousness, no “self” at all, really. It’s only by having these consuming “encounters” that we gradually distinguish ourselves from other people, and can then engage in what we’d normally consider “experience,” which Buber calls “the I-It relation,” wherein we can reflect on and manipulate the world.
Buber thinks that unless we can keep connected to this “I-Thou” phenomenon, through real, mature relationships (dialogue!), and maybe also through art and the appreciation of nature (we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how, as he says, you can really have an I-Thou encounter with a tree), you’re spiritually dead, treating everyone as objects and sporting a thin, pissy sense of self to boot. If you get get in the groove, on the other hand, you’ll come off all shiny and ethical and ready to transform the world. Sweet! Oh, and by the way, the “Thou,” every thou, ends up also being a direct line to God, so all you “spiritual but not religious” folks are theists after all. Nyah nyah!
Mark, Seth, and Wes are rejoined by verbose lawyer Daniel Horne to hash through this difficult and possibly mystical text. Read more about it and get the book.
End song: “Luscious You” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Download it free.
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