Martin Buber. The Knowledge of Man

I was moved by Martin Buber’s book ‘I and Thou’, which was read and discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in August 2021, so I was looking forward to reading more by Buber. The Knowledge of Man was the choice of the reading network for discussion in June this year (2022) and I managed to secure a second-hand copy of the book, in very good condition, from Abe Books, my go to site for books to be read with this group. I prefer to have a hard copy than read these books online or on Kindle. So, I was prepared and enthused at the thought of discussing this book, but life and personal circumstances got in the way. Not only was I not able to read much of the book, but, due to many distractions, what little time I did have to devote to the book ended up as largely fruitless. Ultimately, I was only able to skim read a couple of chapters, in this distracted state, and I was not able to attend the zoom meeting when the book was discussed. The time was just not right for me to engage with this book.

But maybe it wasn’t only my personal circumstances that led to my failure to get to grips with this book. Whenever I find a book difficult, I hunt around for secondary sources, to learn from people who have appeared to understand the work, before launching into it myself. This time this did not yield much fruit. Unlike Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ which has been written about and discussed by many, many others (there are countless secondary sources on the web), I could find scarcely any secondary sources for The Knowledge of Man. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place, or perhaps others, like me, have also found the book challenging.

The Knowledge of Man consists of six essays, plus an introductory essay by Maurice Friedman, and an Appendix – Dialogue between Martin Buber and Carl R. Rogers.

The six essays are:

  1. Distance and Relation
  2. Elements of the Interhuman
  3. What Is Common to All
  4. The Word That is Spoken
  5. Guilt and Guilt Feelings
  6. Man and His Image-Work

Each essay is quite short; between 20 and 30 pages long, so this is not a long book. I was able to spend a bit of time on the first two chapters and hope to return to the rest of the book at another time.

Distance and Relation

In this essay Buber considers the tension between distance and relation. On page 60, he writes:

‘.. the principle of human life is not simple but twofold, being built up in a twofold movement which is of such kind that the one movement is the presupposition of the other. I propose to call the first movement ‘the primal setting at a distance’ and the second ‘entering into relation’. That the first movement is the presupposition of the other is plain from the fact that one can enter into relation only with being which has been set at a distance, more precisely, has become an independent opposite. And it is only for man that an independent opposite exists.’

It makes sense to me that relation depends on and is compatible with distance. Relation and distance are necessary for one another. People in successful marriages know this, as do parents of growing children. As is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘… without the form of otherness there can be no confirmation of self insofar as the confirmation of the I is always mediated by the other who confirms me, both at a distance and in relation, or rather in the distance that is relation and the relation that is difference.’

My understanding from this chapter is that I-Thou relation is only possible if we recognise distance as integral to relation.

‘Man, as man, sets man at a distance and makes him independent; he lets the life of men like himself go on round about him, and so he, and he alone, is able to enter into relation, in his own individual status, with those like himself. The basis of man’s life with man is twofold, and it is one – the wish of every man to be confirmed as what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity in man to confirm his fellow men in this way.’ (p.67, 68)

‘Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfilment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness. When two men inform one another of their basically different views about an object, each aiming to convince the other of the rightness of his own way of looking at the matter, everything depends so far as human life is concerned on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way. The strictness and depth of human individuation, the elemental otherness of the other, is then not merely noted as the necessary starting point, but is affirmed from the one being to the other. The desire to influence the other then does not mean the effort to change the other, to inject one’s own ‘rightness’ into him; but it means the effort to let that which is recognized as right, as just, as true (and for that very reason must also be established there, in the substance of the other) through one’s influence take seed and grow in the form suited to individuation. Opposed to this effort is the lust to make use of men by which the manipulator of ‘propaganda’ and ‘suggestion’ is possessed, in his relation to men remaining as in a relation to things, to things, moreover, with which he will never enter into relation, which he is indeed eager to rob of their distance and independence.’ (p.69)

Elements of the Interhuman

In this essay, Buber continues to develop his ideas about how we communicate and develop I-Thou relationships, where we perceive the ‘other’ in his wholeness and are fully aware of him.

‘But what does it mean to be ‘aware’ of a man in the exact sense in which I use the word? To be aware of a thing or a being means, in quite general terms, to experience it as a whole and yet at the same time without reduction or abstraction, in all its concreteness…Such an awareness is impossible, however, if and so long as the other is the separated object of my contemplation or even observation…. [Such an awareness] is only possible when I step into an elemental relation with the other, that is, when he becomes present to me….An effort is being made today radically to destroy the mystery between man and man. The personal life, the ever near mystery, once the source of the stillest enthusiasm, is leveled down.’ (p. 80-81)

Buber distinguishes this interhuman communication between men from social communication within a group. Communication within groups does not necessarily involve existential relation between one man and another. Interhuman relations go well beyond casual encounters.

Buber writes that two things can prevent men from communicating on this level; ‘the invasion of seeming and the inadequacy of perception.’ (p.82) Genuine dialogue cannot be arranged beforehand; it cannot be achieved when thinking about the impression made on the other. Genuine dialogue is constituted by the authenticity of being. In the interhuman realm, men communicate with one another as they are, and accept one another as they are.

Not only ‘seeming’ and the ‘inadequacy of perception’ prevent genuine dialogue. It is also impeded by trying to impose opinions on another. This is the role of propaganda, but education seeks to affect another’s views and release potential through ‘existential communication between someone that is in actual being and someone that is in a process of becoming’. (p.82) Unlike the propagandist, the educator is interested in individuals. The educator doesn’t impose but unfolds. These two approaches to communication, that of the propagandist and that of the educator are present in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.

‘Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. For the proper existence of the interhuman it is necessary …. that the semblance not intervene to spoil the relation of personal being to personal being. It is further necessary …. that each one means and makes present the other in his personal being. That neither should wish to impose himself on the other is the third basic presupposition of the interhuman. These presuppositions do not include the demand that one should influence the other in his unfolding; this is, however, an element that is suited to lead to a higher stage of the interhuman.’ (p.84)

I have included a number of long quotes from The Knowledge of Man in this post. Buber is a beautiful writer. His writing speaks for itself.

As I mentioned above, I was not able to attend the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom meeting, but the session was introduced by Dr Sam Rocha, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, who posed the following ideas and questions for the group to think about.

A concern for the ideas at stake in the following questions indicate we can read Buber’s The Knowledge of Man as an explicit philosophy of education. In other words, insofar as (1) appearance, mind, and life, (2) knowledge, and (3) philosophical anthropology are at stake, we do not need to translate the text indirectly into philosophy of education so much as to understand it as directly as possible.

  1. What are the phenomenological, psychological (psychoanalysis included), and pastoral dimensions of this text?
  2. What kind of knowledge is Buber proposing and seeking?
  3. What kind of anthropology does Buber present, i.e., what does he mean by ‘man’ or what is his notion of the human person?


Martin Buber (1965) The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. Harper Torchbooks. Harper & Row.

5 thoughts on “Martin Buber. The Knowledge of Man

  1. Roy Williams July 25, 2022 / 9:19 am

    Is ‘independence’ just another name for ‘exceptionalism’?

    There is, in the northern European tradition, some emphasis on the relationship between “Man, as man, [who] sets man at a distance and makes him independent… [who is then, and only then able to] enter into relation, in his own individual status, with those like himself”.

    I suppose that (notwithstanding my gratitude for the gift of language), I (also) regard myself as ‘just another hominid’, in the lineage of hominids, great apes, etc. For me there is no ‘schism’, no seventh-day intervention by a deity, to create (after millennia of biological continuity in life on our planet) a totally new, unique, species, called H. Sapiens (the name itself points to impending hubris, I’m afraid).

    I am more comfortable, and more fascinated, to acknowledge my heritage – not to mention a few thousand or million genes which I carry around with me in every cell in my body – which I can trace back to the earliest viruses and bacteria. I don’t either need, or want to search for a “schism of exceptionalism”.

    So I am also more comfortable tracing, and exploring, my ‘relationships’ back a few thousand or million generations, to the time when, as an infant (H. Sapiens), I, just like my great ape ancestors, started, in the forrest ‘cradles’, to ‘enter into a relationship’ with my (then) mother, just by moving my eyes, and using my proto- (pre-human) -voice (and eyes) to point to, and ask for things, like mother’s milk, and comfort, and love.

    To cut a long story short …

    I not only don’t see the point of creating an ‘individual’ separate from my contemporaries (and my post-uterine mother), just in order to conceptually create a ‘relationship between sovereign individuals’ which I would ‘then’ (???) enter into with my mother and my contemporaries. Put it another way, I don’t need Decartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’ – in fact for me it’s a distraction, premised on a ‘schism of exceptionalism’.

    Life, and love, begins before language, no?

    More importantly, this underlies more than just philosophical presumptions of exceptionalism; it also underlies ecological assumptions of exceptionalism – to wit, the idea that we are a ‘special species’ who can arrogate the sole right to ‘fix’ the ‘other’ – the ‘other’ that is the rest of our planetary ecology, including all the other millions of species who aren’t as ‘clever’ / reckless as we are, and who we are currently busy exterminating (yes, “exterminating”, with all the echos of that word. Time to own it).

    I suppose it’s personal – it’s part of my own attempt to distinguish which parts of the ‘enlightenment’ project I love, and which parts of it I want to shed, like an unwelcome skin that I am no longer prepared to carry around with me. Another way of putting it would be simply to say: “I want to be free as a bird”, free as a pre-verbal child who enters into a loving relationship with it’s mother, just like a million species did before us (and still do).

    The gift of language, of reflection, I welcome, and cherish. But the act of using it to create a philosophical ‘distance’ that I/we (‘enlightened’ beings) use to draw a line of exceptionalism between us and all (!) ‘other’ species currently looks a lot like species and planetary ‘hubris’ to me, and I want to get shot of it.

    Just saying …

  2. Stephen L July 26, 2022 / 9:30 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    I just saw this great post of yours on Buber. It’s well-written and succinct. Your comment that real dialogue cannot be engineered to create a result, an impression is spot on.

    I’m getting closer to Buber as part of my work on Scheler. Both were contemporaries and knew of one another. And yes they had different takes on certain aspects of philosophical anthropology however there was much they agreed upon.

    My friend and PhD advisor, Rocco Gangle suggests that Buber in his ontology is halfway between Scheler’s authentic individual and Levinas who posits that the individual comes into being through responding to the call of the other. (When called upon by God, Abraham says, “Here I am!” He doesn’t say, “Who is speaking?”. The other is not questioned as to who they are but accepted as an other that is not I.)

    To respond to Sam Rocha’s three questions in your post:

    1) What are the phenomenological, psychological (psychoanalysis included), and pastoral dimensions of this text?

    I find in Buber that the phenomenological and pastoral (spiritual guidance) dimensions are inextricably bound up with one another. What one is experiencing in real dialogue ‘is’ the unique spirit of the other, the otherness of the other, that is not me. And that is the value to me and to the other. The psychological dimensions are interesting exercises as to what may be happening between us, but they are at an intellectual remove. Buber and Scheler are on agreement there — “before the world is known, it is given”. The relation is given first and then it is known.

    2) What kind of knowledge is Buber proposing and seeking?

    In the passages of his work that you quote, it is a metaphysic (that beyond the physical) and ethics ‘what should I do or not do with the world?’. Elsewhere it is ontology and theology.

    3) What kind of anthropology does Buber present, i.e., what does he mean by ‘man’ or what is his notion of the human person? This is philosophical anthropology. His notion of the human person, is that a person is a ‘being’ that is constantly coming into existence. Buber considered himself an existentialist.

    Thanks again for your writing!
    Best, Steve

  3. jennymackness July 30, 2022 / 2:26 pm

    Many thanks Roy, for your interesting ‘take’ on this book by Martin Buber. I find it fascinating that you took from it something completely different to me. Fascinating, but not really surprising, because as I mentioned I didn’t have time to give Buber’s book the attention it deserves, so no doubt I missed a lot.

    The value for me in Buber’s work lies in his emphasis on being able to ‘see’, fully accept, and enter into authentic dialogue with an ‘other’. My understanding is that Buber thinks that most of the time we are too focussed on ourselves, the impression we are making and how we appear to the other, to be able to do this effectively. The idea of distance being necessary for relation resonated with me. I associate this with the need for space, not only to be able to stand back and see the ‘other’ more clearly, but also to allow the ‘other’ space, to be themselves.

    I don’t really disagree with anything you have written. It’s just that it’s not what I took from it. I wonder how Buber himself would have answered your question “Is ‘independence’ just another name for ‘exceptionalism’?” I would need to read more of the book and more carefully before I could answer.

    Thank you for taking the time to add your thoughts here.


  4. jennymackness July 30, 2022 / 2:36 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Thank you to you too for adding your interesting comments here. I like how you (and your advisor) have positioned Buber between Scheler and Levinas. I look forward to talking to you and hearing more about your thoughts on Buber soon.

    Thanks too for sharing your response to Sam Rocha’s questions……

    “before the world is known, it is given”. The relation is given first and then it is known …..

    This is similar to McGilchrist’s – relations are prior relata. I think this is the knowledge that Buber was proposing and seeking, i.e. the knowledge of how to enter into relation with the ‘other’.


  5. Roy Trevor Williams August 2, 2022 / 7:23 am

    Hi Jenny,

    Thanks your your response

    I am searching for a way to separate out two things:

    1. A description of who/what the different ‘parts’ are in a relationship – particularly a relationship of of dialogue.

    2. An appreciation of what ‘work’ the term ‘individual’ has done, over the years/centuries, what ‘work’ it does now, in contemporary media, and whether we now need another term to take this into a more inclusive (I can’t quite find a way to say ‘post-human’ – but it’s something like that – I would use ‘broadly ecological’) framework for the task at hand, right now, which I see as firstly to lay down some ground rules about what NOT to do. (e.g. don’t use terms like ‘individual’).

    So …

    I accept in principle that there has to be a measure of difference/differentiation between ourselves and the person (or agency) that we relate to. And I do appreciate that at the time of the Enlightenment a dialogue between humans (and now between humans and all other life forms) requires a distinction between the ‘life forms’ involved, and it ALSO requires a degree of commonality, of community, of shared language – and so, in principle at least, the possibility of shared values (doesn’t always happen, I know).

    My problem is this: I see too many instances of people talking about ‘individuals’ as if they have an existence outside of a common language, therefore outside of common understandings, and therefore outside the (potential for) a common value system. It’s sometimes almost as if the mother and child share an interactive, and interdependent bond, then they (both?) develop their ‘independence’, then they (might) agree to get back into a relationship based on some commonality and community, not to mention love and compassion.

    That seems like a tortuous way to go about things, only to end up where you started, but possibly a lot more confused!

    If anything, it presumes that becoming an adult is dependent on becoming somehow altogether different from everyone else. Perhaps the trick is to define ‘how different’ is enough!

    Completely different seems to be me be not only a nonsense, but a non-sequitur. If you speak anything like the same language, it has to be based on BOTH difference and commonality. The two are mutually inclusive – which is a paradox, to say the least.

    But I cant see any other way to describe it, unless you just say it’s ‘cheating’. I’m more comfortable with ‘paradox’, and I feel (in my bones, not my cerebral cortex – even the right side of it!) that ‘individual’ is a (dishonest) intellectual sleight of hand to justify discrimination on the basis of an assumption of a radical degree of difference which doesn’t actually exist.

    More simply, I think ‘western’ thinking has become over-rationalised (too left-brain, perhaps), and there is an urgent need not to thrown the Buber-baby out with the bathwater, but rather to dig deeper into what Buber is saying without taking the ‘easy’ route of employing the term ‘individual’, (and giving it all the unwarranted status and ‘difference’ it has in law and contract, just for starters).

    And that would need to be based on finding a (new?) way to describe the “need for space, not only to be able to stand back and see the ‘other’ more clearly, but also to allow the ‘other’ space, to be themselves” (without using the term ‘individual’).

    It’s a plea not only to critique our current culture and media, but to creatively find a new way to describe these necessary differences and paradoxes – or to ‘reboot’ the way we talk about ourselves ….

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