I and Thou

There is a brilliant introduction to Buber’s I and Thou in the English translation by Ronald Gregor Smith. I have extracted some excerpts below..

“There is, Buber shows, a radical difference between man’s attitude to other men and his attitude to things. The attitude to other men is a relation between persons, to things it is a connexion with objects. In the personal relation one subject – I – confronts andother subject – Thou; in the connexion with things the subject contemplates and experiences and object. These two attitudes represent the basic twofold situation of human life, the former constitutes the world of THOU and the latter the world of IT.

The other person, the THOU, is shown to be a reality – that is, it is given to me, but is not bounded by me: “Thou has no bounds”; the Thou cannot be appropriated, but I am brought up short against it. The characteristic situation is here one of meeting: I meet the Other. In the reality of this meeting no reduction of the I or of the Thou, to experiencing subject and experienced object, is possible.

The world of objects or things, on the other hand, presupposes a single centre of consciousness, one subject, an I which experiences, arranges, and appropriates. This is the characteristic world of modern activity…

Put in another way, this primary distinction between the two orders in which men live concerns on the one hand the meaning of community, and on the other hand the meaning of organisation.

The relation of the one observing subject to the other observing subjects within the same closed system was not seriously considered. Buber has given intellectual status to the problem of the relation between persons (..and God) and has thus called in doubt the massive monistic system within which idealist philosophy has worked.

In dogmatic theology, too, the same new tendencies are at work. Objects are in the past, but the relation of the I to the Thou is in the present.

What Buber has done is to state in classic form the nature of the claim made upon us by the “transcendent”… faith is a meeting: it is not a trust in the world of It, of creeds or other forms, which are objects, and have their life in the past; nor is it, on the other hand, a reliance on the “wholly other” God; but it is the meeting with the eternal Thou Who is both the Other and the Present One.

.. the influence of Buber is thus manifest in every fundamental sphere of human activity, it is possible to perceive both anticipatory and parallel influences at work. Already in the middle of the nineteenth century Soren Kierkegaard, in his attack on the reigning Hegelian philosophy, had shown the limits of thought along the old lines.

To the reader who finds the meaning obscure at a first reading we may only say that I and Thou is indeed a poem. Hence it must be read more than once, and its total effect allowed to work on the mind…

I and Thou, even in its English translation is a moving and nourishing work of philosophical poetry. It is a flowering of Jewish mystical thought.

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