Life, Death & Philosophy – Martin Buber

Some people spend their lives searching for the perfect mocha recipe. Others are destined to create the perfect cup of tea (it is a combination of Assam tea, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and coconut milk, do not look any further). Martin Buber had different things in mind though.

Born on the 8th of February in 1878 in Vienna to Jewish parents, he should become later one of the most prominent spokespeople for a binational Jewish-Arab state in which both could live peacefully together.

After he moved to Germany, he would become an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Being a Jewish intellectual in Germany was never an easy life but after Hitler wrenched his clumsy fists around the highest German office, Buber knew Jewish life in Germany would never be the same. Out of protest the Nazis’ rise to power he resigned his professorship in 1933. Nazis being Nazis, on October the fourth of the same years they still forbade him to give any further lectures.

In 1938 he was lucky enough to be able to get out of Germany before the Nazis started to relentlessly hunt down and murder any Jews or whoever they deemed one. Buber started teaching at the Hebrew University and should later become the best-known Israeli philosopher.

I and Thou

Speaking of philosophy: his most famous work in philosophy is without a doubt his essay Ich und Du (translated as I and Thou), written in 1923.

In it, he proposes two central ideas of how humans perceive existence in itself:

  1. The way the ego, or the “I” in his words, perceives and interacts with an “it”, meaning the idea or concept of another being or thing as a mental representation which is being treated as an object to be examined or experienced. Long story short: the “I” tries to figure out how the “it” can serve its interests.

  2. The way the “I” is interacting with another being, the “Thou”. Any mental preconceptions play no role in this encounter. The “I” and the “Thou” meet each other as their authentic selves and interact with each other in various forms of dialogues, exchanges or meetings.

A key takeaway is the idea of how we, as humans, create our own identities. Buber proposes the idea that the “I” defines itself in relationship to its surrounding environment in form of social interactions and non-living entities as well as their mental representations. In his view, it could be a problem when more and more people foster their I-It relations and see other people and things as merely a means to an end. The attempt of focusing more on meaningful, non-judgmental I-Thou relations seems to be a worthwhile endeavor.

My name is Nathan Reed and this short piece is part of a new series I am writing. Snapshots of philosophy on a particular date, so to speak. I will try my best to give you some new bites every notable day.  

You are a decent human being. Behave accordingly.

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