Martin Buber

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Martin Buber (1878-1965) was primarily a philosopher and adult educator. His ideas were heavily influenced by religious and mystical thought, and his writings – while dealing with simple yet powerful concepts - were often poetic and challenging. He wrote on the subjects of art, politics and education, but the over-arching concern of his life was human relationships. He also established the School for Adult Educators in Jerusalem in 1949 (influenced by Grundtvig's vision of the folk high school). The most important ideas he contributed to educational thought were his concepts of ‘I-Thou’ relationships which he set against ‘I-It’ relationships, and his ideas concerning ‘meeting’ between humans. ‘Buber's writings about what he discovered by living life in relation to others have profoundly influenced all of us who are interested in interpersonal communication’(Keely 1999). It is really in the work of Martin Buber that the pedagogical worth of dialogue was realised (Smith 2000).

Buber was born in Vienna as a child of a Jewish family. His grandfather, in whose house in Lvov Buber spent much of his childhood (his parents' marriage had broken apart), was a very renowned scholar on the field of Jewish tradition and literature. Buber studied in Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, Zurich and soon entered the Zionist Movement, more for religious and cultural than for political reasons (Schmidt 2005). Zionism gave Buber a Jewish cause he could believe in: the revitalization of the Jewish community. For Buber, the Jewish-ness of a person was not a piece of land in Palestine, but the spiritual and cultural renewal of all Jews.

In the first years of Hitler’s rule, he stayed in Germany until he was forced to emigrate in 1938. From then on he lectured at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He made many efforts towards improving the understanding between the Israelis and the Arabs throughout his later career. He was also one of the earliest Jewish thinkers to promote the reestablishment of a dialogue with German thinkers and institutions after the Second World War (Schmidt, 2005). In 1953 he won the Peace Prize of the German Booktrade and in 1963 he was given the Erasmus Award in Amsterdam.

During his adult life he developed a strong and enduring interest in the religious movement Chassidism. This was a strand within Judaism which emphasised deep religious sentiment and longing for God. It emphasizes emotional values and piety, but also joy and active love. The movement heavily influenced Buber’s thought, particularly his philosophy of dialogue.

Buber’s philosophy of dialogue says that human existence gains its being and expresses itself through relations with others. He identifies two very different kinds of relations: I-It and I-Thou relations. I-It relations represent those that we undergo in our everyday lives. We categorise things in the world and place them at a distance from ourselves. We objectify them. In the I-Thou relation, we enter into it with our innermost and whole being. Such a meeting allows a real dialogue in which both partners are willing to change the other and be changed themselves. In Buber’s philosophy, we can achieve a real dialogue and partnership with another person, even through silence: “This is true, also, for what interests me more than anything, human effective dialogue. Meaning by dialogue not just a talking. Dialogue can be silence.” (Rogers 1990 p.53). “For Buber, interhuman meetings are only a reflection of the human meeting with God” (Schmidt 2005).

When Carl Rogers asked Buber what had stimulated his interest in interpersonal relations, Buber replied:

“About what mainly constituted what you ask, it was something other. It was just a certain inclination to meet people. And as far as possible, to change something in the other, but also to let me be changed by him. At any event, I had no resistance, I put no resistance to it. I already began as a young man. I felt I have not the right to want to change another if I am not open to be changed by him as far as it is legitimate.” (Rogers 1990 p.46).

Buber said of his grandmother, who read voraciously in German literature and philosophy:

"When she was seventeen years old, she took them and the custom of concentrated reading into her marriage...I was affected in a special manner by the way this woman [wrote and spoke]...To the glance of the was already unmistakable that when she... addressed someone, she really addressed him." (Keely 1999).

This is the quality in Buber’s work that most relates to his value for educationalists. He expresses so clearly this honest meeting of equals which has the potential for so much beneficial progress within an educational setting. How did Buber suggest that we might try to bring about such a meeting?

Throughout his life, Buber believed that the means were as important as the end product.

"When I meet a man, I am not concerned about his opinions. I am concerned about the man. I think no human being can give more than this. Making life possible for the other, if only for a moment." (Quoted in Keely 1999).

In an I-Thou relationship we cannot view the different qualities of the partner separately, individually, but must see them as a whole entity. We must ‘accept’ them as they are. Buber went to pains to make it clear that this did not mean we did not want the other to change some of their qualities. We must go into an interaction open to the possibility of having our views altered, but also knowing precisely what our own views are and holding them strongly.

Buber suggested that in most relations the only possibility of truly interacting with the other comes when the relationship is one of equals who accept each other’s being. In an educational setting this means that the only way the educator can attain the trust of the student is if he or she goes into the interaction willing to be changed by the student. Friedman commented on Buber’s ideas:

"It takes a lifetime to learn how to be able to hold your own ground, to go out to the others, to be open to them without losing your ground. And to hold your ground without shutting others out," (quoted in Keely 1999).

Buber did not try to impose a self-evident formula upon his pupils, but posed questions which forced them to find their own answers. He did not want his pupils to follow him docilely, but to take their own individual paths, even if this meant rebelling against him. For him education meant freedom, a liberation of personality.

The right way to teach, he said, was 'the personal example springing spontaneously and naturally from the whole man'. This meant that the teacher should constantly examine his conscience. 'For educating characters you do not need a moral genius,' Buber declared, 'but you do need a man who is wholly alive and able to communicate himself directly to his fellow beings. His aliveness streams out to them and affects them most strongly and purely when he has no thought of affecting them.’ The real teacher, he believed, teaches most successfully when he is not consciously trying to teach at all, but when he acts spontaneously out of his own life. Then he can gain the pupil's confidence; he can convince the adolescent that there is human truth, that existence has a meaning. And when the pupil's confidence has been won, 'his resistance against being educated gives way to a singular happening: he accepts the educator as a person. He feels he may trust this man, that this man is taking part in his life, accepting him before desiring to influence him. And so he learns to ask…’ (Hodes 1972 pp.136-7). Buber termed this relationship of equality and trust between educator and student ‘inclusion’. In such a situation, all co-operate in the construction of an environment in which education can take place. They may well come to the encounter with different areas of knowledge and differing understandings of the process, but there can be a genuine sharing in the creation of a community of practice (Smith 2000).


Buber, M. (2000) I and Thou, New York: Scribner.
Originally published in English translation in 1958, this is the book that laid out most clearly Buber’s ideas about the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘Thou’. It explores how he believes humans struggle to ‘meet’ with each other and the universe in a poetic, challenging and sometimes mystical way.

Rogers, C (1990) Dialogues, London: Constable.
pp. 41-63 In which Rogers, a famous psychotherapist has a dialogue with Buber in front of an audience. Their discussion focuses on Buber’s concept of ‘meeting’ and how it seems to be similar to concepts within psychotherapy, despite the fact that Buber has little knowledge of the techniques of therapy.

Schmidt, Andreas P. The Martin Buber Homepage, (Visited 12-July-05)
The English edition of this page, which is an abridged version of the original German Martin Buber Seiten: Short reviews of Buber’s life and work are given here. A bibliography of secondary sources is also available. The site includes a forum for discussing issues arising from Buber’s work.

Keely, B A Meeting With Martin Buber. (Visited 12-July-05)
This website was created to share information about Buber's life so that you may have a better understanding of the man behind the philosophy. An extremely attractive web-presentation entirely in the spirit of Buber’s own thinking. A great starting point for anyone interested in Buber.

Smith, Mark K. (2000) Martin Buber On Education. (Visited 12-July-05)
Featuring an overview, bibliography and excerpts from I and Thou. A rich and comprehensive commentary on all aspects of Buber’s life and works.

Buber, M (1949) Paths In Utopia, London: Routledge.
Explores political idealism and various examples of utopian Socialist community and organization with the aim of setting out the possibilities for the development successful communes within Israel.

Hodes, A (1972) Encounter with Martin Buber, London: Penguin.
An account of the author’s relationship with Buber. Of particular interest to students of Buber’s contribution to pedagogy.

Useful Links

Paulo Friere’s focus on a horizontal hierarchical relationship between educator and students is quite similar to Buber’s approach to interaction.