Martin Buber

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The 20th century has seen a continuation of the battle between reason and romanticism, rationalism and mysticism. With little conflict, Darwin and Freud co-exist in the modern mind. Marx exhibited the split vision, extolling the power of practical, realistic workers who would create a utopian world. In fact, this dichotomy which began in the Renaissance and became a gaping wound in the 17th and 18th centuries as we embraced science and reason as our god, has allowed for 20th century aberrations like Hitler and his Aryan ubermenchen or Stalin and his totalitarian state. Clearly, the 20th century mind is in dire need of healing. But only reinventing a healthy vision of humans in the world, one which integrates both the rational bent and the mystic bent of every human mind, will effect a healing. This vision seems to have been given to us by Martin Buber. Martin Buber sums up the danger of not following such a vision when he states, “What is in question, therefore, is nothing less than man’s whole existence in the world” (Buber 1949, 129). The logical answer, is what some would see as a rather romantic cure--utopia. Buber sees only two possibilities for the future: either there will be one world government which strips the individual of personal freedom or power or there will be community which strips the world of centralized political authority. These two paths are parallel . Humans are best served by living in small, autonomous, chiefly self-sufficient communities. Now, admittedly, utopia has earned a bad reputation in the last century as social engineering gone wild. But what keeps Buber’s vision of utopia from disintegrating into dystopia is his vision of dialogue--open, authentic communication and relationship which allows for moment by moment adjustments to the community. The stakes, according to Buber are very high for the establishment of community. The way to dialogue is relationship--community. The way to community is dialogue. And the two parts must exist together. Buber’s dialogic form of communication can only truly exist in a utopian community, and true utopia can only exist in the presence of dialogic communication.

In 1923 Martin Buber wrote Ich und Du in which he establishes his theory of communication. In this theory Buber forwards the idea that relationships can be defined pronominally: I-I where the individual becomes the center of the universe, I-It where the individual views all things and people as objects to be used, It-It where the individual has lost all sense of personal identity, We-We where the individual is lost in a group identity that recognizes no one but themselves, Us-Them where the group only recognizes its own revealed truth and takes an adversarial stand against all others, and finally I-You where each individual stands in personal relationship with all other individuals, with nature, and with God. This form of communication has been termed dialogic because the basis for the I-You relationship is the ability to verbally give and receive, to dialogue, with one another. Obviously, we are talking here about authentic communication in which both parties to the act recognize the reality, the emotions, the humanness, the divine spark in the other. As Buber explained, “When I confront a human being as my you and speak the basic I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things . . . . The human being to whom I say you I do not experience, but I stand in relation to him, in the sacred basic word” (Buber 1970, 59-60). Buber draws an intriguing distinction here between experience and relationship. Experience, the world of I-It, exists in time and space. It is rational, measurable, sensuous. This is easy enough to understand when we talk about things. The maple tree in my backyard is twenty-five feet tall, four and a half inches in diameter and lost a major branch in last September’s unexpected snow storm. It is through these rational, sensuous...
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