Martin Mordechai Buber (1878-1965) was born in Vienna and spent most of his childhood with his grandparents, who raised Buber after his parents' divorce. He later lived with his father and stepmother, but his separation from his mother had a profound impact on his life. In 1896, he studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, and two years later studied at the University of Leipzig where he encountered the Zionist movement and edited Die Welt, a popular Zionist publication. He also studied at Berlin and Zurich, and was a professor of religion at the University of Frankfurt from 1924 until 1933. He worked with Franz Rosenzweig on translating the Old Testament into German, and was appointed to the chair of social philosophy at Hebrew University where he taught until he retired in 1951. His work has influenced the spiritual and religious education and development of many who have studied his life and work.
In his early work, he was interested in Hasidic folk tales, and some of his early work, including Daniel: Dialogues in Realization, reflected an interest in mysticism. In the beginning, his involvement with the Zionist movement was more of an affirmation of Jewish culture, rather than Judaism, although his most important work I and Thou has been an important influence in religious studies. Buber's philosophical interests included Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena and Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Kant's distinction between perceiving an object (phenomena) and things-in-themselves (noumena) are problems mirrored in I and Thou. Buber was also interested in the broader humanities including the psychological work of Wilhelm Wundt, Carl Stumpf, and the hermeneutic theory of Wilhelm Dilthey.
I AND THOU
Buber's most well-known and engaging work, I and Thou, was originally published in 1923, but was not translated into English until 1937. Buber identified two ways in which humans relate to the world, each other, and the divine: "I-It" and "I-Thou." Both are necessary to human existence, but direct humanity to different ends. "I" never exists independently of relationships, and "It" and "Thou" reflect different aspects of humanity, nature, and God. His work had a large influence on Jewish philosophy, and both Jewish and Christian theological studies, especially in his later writings such as Good and Evil and The Eclipse of God. I and Thou emphasized a dialogical view of humanity's relationship to God, and provided a metaphor that has influenced theologians and philosophers since its inception. I-It indicates the relationship of a person to an object. The object is described in a language that categorizes it, impersonalizes it, and isolates it. The I-It relationship can be compared to a subject-object relationship where the subject is not relationally affected by the object; it is simply a relation of analysis and description. The primary limitation of the I-It relation is the one-way directionality of the relationship. The I is not moved or changed by its object; the relationship is already defined before there is any chance of reciprocal interaction. There is no sense of mutuality in the relationship; the "I" is denied any impact from the other. Although Buber showed the problematic aspects of this relationship, he also realized that both I-It and I-Thou were necessary aspects of humanity.