Navigation: This page 'buber.html' ---> External Thinking ---> Main Page. HELP. Contact.

Martin Buber's Insights

I-Thou: Buber's Understanding of the Ethical Aspect

In Ich und Du [1923], I and Thou [1937], Martin Buber in his highlighting of the I-Thou relationship seemed to recognise the kernel of ethical (and maybe pistic) aspect in a way that few have done. He distinguished the I-Thou relationship, into which we enter with the fulness of our being, from the I-It relationship, in which we relate to the Other in functional or conceptual ways. Having a concept of the Other is an I-It relationship. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1975 edition), Vol 3:360 summarizes his thought as follows:

"God, the great Thou, enables human I-Thou relations between man and other beings. Their measure of mutuality is related to the levels of being: it is almost nil on the inorganic and botanic levels, rare on the animal level, but always possible and sometimes actual between human beings. A true relationship with God, as experienced from the human side, must be an I-Thou relationship, in which God is truly met and addressed, not merely thought of and expressed."

In this we may notice several things.

One is the notion of self-giving in the I-Thou relationship. Self-giving is the very kernel of the ethical aspect. The relationship in the juridical aspect is symmetrical, in that under the norm of that aspect, it is my responsibility to give what is due, both to the Other and to myself. But, I-Thou, Buber expressed cogently the essential assymetry of the ethical aspect of the relationship. In an I-Thou relationship I focus on Thee, as more than myself, rather than as equal with myself. My I-Thou relationship involves a great love (which is distinct from worship). Notice that it is first with the ethical aspect that self-giving becomes a norm, so that I-Thou relationships have little meaning in earlier aspects. Such insight into the ethical aspect is important in these days when most Westernized life downplays it in favour of 'power' and 'competition'.

The second thing to notice is that the possibility of this I-Thou relationship, and all else, comes about because of God, the great Thou. This has clear echoes of Dooyeweerd's notion that God created the Law-side of aspects as a framework in which all things could be.

A third thing to notice is the strong echoes of aspects here. The quotation mentions "inorganic", "botanic", "animal", "human", "thought of", and "expressed", as what Buber believed to be major irreducibilities. We can see in this the physical, biotic, sensitive, analytical and lingual aspects, as well as Buber's depiction of the ethical aspect. Moreover, we see that he thought that the aspects determine the type of Being and relationship that is possible.

However, as Dooyeweerd revealed, Buber perhaps did not go far enough. He did not sufficiently differentiate different kinds of love. See excerpt from Dooyeweerd below.

Buber's Understanding of the Pistic Aspect

In Zwei Glaubenweissen [1950], Buber seemed to identify the kernel of the pistic aspect in much the same way as Dooyeweerd did. He even used the same Greek word Dooyeweerd used, pistis, but he added to it the Hebrew notion of emuna. Pistis, Encyclopedia Britannica says, spelled the "belief in the factuality of crucial events in salvation history", whereas emuna refers to the "mutual confidence between God and man".

It seems to me that Dooyeweerd was embracing both confidence/trust and firm belief in his notion of the pistic aspect.

Dooyeweerd's Criticism of Buber

Dooyeweerd criticised Buber for not allowing rules, laws and boundaries, and accused Buber of too existentialist a stance. He said "ethical relations are supposed to be extremely personal and existential; this view is based on the Humanistic motive of nature and freedom; the I-Thou meeting is central and religious, not specifically ethical, and not in the temporal order of human existence." [NC IV:22].

Dooyeweerd [NC II:143-4] interpreted Buber's I-It relation as an impersonal and non-existential abstraction, whereas to Dooyeweerd, even I-It relations have a personal and existential element; and he interpreted Buber as absolutizing the existential I-Thou relation into a religious one of absolute nature, thereby conflating the ethical and religious (pistic) aspects. These are useful comments on Buber.

Likewise, in a short email, Richard Russell said "A binary personal/impersonal does not do the trick!" He sees Buber offering a "radically reductionistic ontology stemming from I-thou/I-it." But in fact, we have all kinds of relationships. He cites "My relation to my dog? To all sorts of humans in all sorts of contexts? to institutions and organisations." This, again, is a useful corrective to Buber, which can enrich his idea.

But I think Dooyeweerd and R. Russell slightly misread Buber's intention here. Buber's 'religious anarchism', in which he rejected fixed rules of behaviour in the relation between man and God, was a phase that he went through and to some extent withdrew from later [Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975, V3:360]. Buber, in dialogue with Rozenzweig, who had accused Buber of too much emphasis on the Thou and that "he wrongs the It", replied that he lived in a time "when the Thou was withering" and so had emphasized it, and that had he lived in a time when The Thou was flowering, he would have "sounded the praises of the It." [ibid].

It seems to me that Buber was focusing specifically on the ethical aspect, in a way that discloses its inner laws (which, in a Dooyeweerdian view, is the operation of science as aspectual isolation). The ethical aspect, though it does involve rules by virtue of its dependence on the juridical aspect of what is due, does not itself see rules as meaningful (except the pseudo-rule of "Love one another"). Therefore it is not surprising if Buber overlooked rules somewhat, especially in an era in which rules had been emphasized. After all, Dooyeweerd himself said that "love is the very totality of meaning, the religious radical unity of all temporal modal diversity of law-spheres" [NC II:144], indicating (whatever else he meant) that the ethical sphere does have a special place.

Buber abandoned his original notion of mystical union between man and God, "and embraced instead the notion of encounter, which presupposes and preserves their separate existence." [ibid]. This is interesting, in that it is a central religious presupposition of the Creation-Fall-Redemption ground motive.

Dooyeweerd has a useful critique of Buber in his Twilight, pointed out by Danie Strauss (Original text page 183-184 and Vol 4 of the B Series of the CW of HD, pages 125-126). He points out the diversity of types of love, which Buber overlooks:

"The personalistic and existentialist views of man have tried to determine the I-thou relation as a relation of love, an inner meeting of the human persons. But within the earthly horizon of time, even the love relations present a diversity of meaning and typical character. Does one refer to the love between husband and wife, or between parents and their children? Or is it the love-relation between fellow-believers, belonging to inter-related churches, that we have in mind? Or is it perhaps the love-relation between compatriots who have in common the love of their country? Or have we rather in mind the general love of the neighbor in the moral relations of our temporal life?"

Dooyeweerd then goes to the root of the I-Thou relation and its relation to our selfhood, with the following text that continues from above:

"None of these temporal communal relations touch the central sphere of our selfhood. And when contemporary philosophy speaks of an inner meeting of the one person with the other, we must ask, "What do you understand by this inner [184] meeting?" A real inner meeting presupposes real self-knowledge and can only occur in the central religious sphere of our relation with our fellow-man. The temporal love-relations, in the above mentioned typical diversity of meaning, cannot guarantee a true inner meeting. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "if you love them who love you, what thanks do you have? For sinners also love those that love them" (Luke 6:32). Jesus here apparently speaks of a love that does not concern the real center of our lives, but only the temporal relations between men in their earthly diversity. How then can we love our enemies and bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us, if we do not love God in Jesus Christ?"


In my view, Buber has made important contributions in opening up our understanding of the ethical and pistic aspect, in ways that do not reduce either to the other, nor either to the juridical or social aspects, as many try to do. Maybe Buber did go a bit too far in distancing himself from the juridical aspect, but, from a Dooyeweerdian point of view, I would see the relationship between myself and Other as having several aspects, one of which (juridical) involves law, another of which (ethical) involves Buber's I-Thou relationship, and yet another of which (analytical) involves thought of the Other. Concrete relationships (of high quality) involve all these aspects.

So Dooyeweerd's notion of all the aspects can accommodate Buber's insights into the ethical and pistic aspects and result in a richer view of relationships than either alone could achieve. In a way, Buber should be seen not only as a philosopher, but as a scientist of the ethical aspect, one who explores its inner laws in more depth than most do. Dooyeweerd then can be seen as providing breadth, and also posing deeper philosophical questions about the nature of the I-Thou relationship.

I don't think that we need take Dooyeweerd's critique as undermining Buber's insight, but rather taking it further. It is as though Buber opened a door in a wall into a garden few had seen and began making descriptions of the whole garden, but that Dooyeweerd, when he visited the garden, brought equipment like a camera to record the diversity of plants there and a trowel to dig among the roots of the plants.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Number of visitors to these pages: Counter. Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Created: 4 March 2003. Last updated: 23 November 2009 some rewrite, and piece from Twi; .end. 24 November 2009 RR cmt.