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.

Martin Buber – I and Thou (Notes)

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s book for August 2021 is Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’. My copy is the translation by Ronald Gregor Smith, who translates the original title ‘Ich Und Du’ as ‘I and Thou’, rather than I and You. Between the ages of three and fourteen, Buber lived in Lvov, Galicia with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, who clearly influenced his thinking and direction. Solomon Buber was a scholar of Jewish Law and a deeply religious man. From 1924 to 1933, Martin Buber lectured in Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. In 1938 he left Germany to join the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between 1897 and 1923 Buber’s interest lay in mysticism; between 1923 and 1938 in dialogue and the dialogical relationship with nature; and between 1938 and 1965 in attentive silence and a deepening recognition of ‘the eternal’.

It is easy to recognise ‘I and Thou’ as a profound and beautiful book, but it is not easy to read. Ronald Smith acknowledges this in his Preface, where he writes:

‘To the reader who finds the meaning obscure at first reading we may only say that I and Thou is indeed a poem. Hence it must be read more than once, and its total effect allowed to work on the mind: the obscurities of the one part (so far as they are real obscurities, and not the effect, as they must often be, of poor translation) will then be illumined by the brightness of another part. For the argument is not as it were horizontal, but spiral; it mounts, and gathers within itself the aphoristic and pregnant utterances of the earlier part.’ (p.xiii)

I and Thou (published in 1923) is a short book, only 95 pages long including the Postscript which was written by Buber in 1957 to answer questions raised about the ideas he expresses in the book, but it reads like a long book, as it includes so many aphorisms which need careful thought and attention. This is not a book that can be skim read. I had to go to secondary sources, which I have listed under References at the end of this post, to help me make sense of the text.

The book is written in three parts which, put simply, cover how we address or speak to each other, how we address or speak to Nature/the world/society, and how we address or speak to God.

Buber starts the book by explaining that there are two modes of engaging with the world, which he describes through the use of two word pairs, I-It and I-Thou. Buber calls these primary words, which do not signify things but intimate relations. It is not possible to be an I outside of these relations.

‘There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and I of the primary world I-It ‘ (p.3)

‘When a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it.’ (p.4)

Buber’s overarching concern is that we are trapped in a world of ever increasing I-It communication and dialogue, where we hold ourselves apart from the Other, and treat each other like objects to be manipulated. (I think Iain McGilchrist would describe this as treating each other as ‘things’. There are so many parallels between Buber’s and McGilchrist’s work that I am really surprised that I can find no reference to Buber anywhere in McGilchrist’s first book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

In the first part of his book, Buber explains that  I-It is the language of objectification, where the primary temporary modality is the past.

‘The I of the primary word I-It, that is the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of content, has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been.’ (p.10)

Buber calls the I-It mode of engaging with the world, the mode of ‘experience’ (which covers both inner emotions and sensory experience), where the I is an objective observer, cataloguing, calculating, analyzing, and describing, rather than being in active relation Buber tells us that I-It does not make for a ‘whole’ human being. For this we also need I-Thou.

For Martin Buber ‘… he who lives with It alone is not a man’ (p.24). Man needs ‘I-Thou’ relationships, where we communicate with our being rather than with words. I-Thou is about mutuality, seeing someone in his or her depth, speaking to the Other with your entire being, saying Thou with all that you are, standing in present relation, in the here and now – not completely separate, but not completely fused, maintaining just enough balance between close and distant to retain a sense of who you are.

In this beautiful passage from p.6 of his book, Buber sums up the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, by considering a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.…….

Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, p.6)

I-Thou experiences cannot be willed. They are given to us by grace (God’s grace), but we have to be open to I-Thou experiences and choose to enter these moments.

In Part 1 of his book, Martin Buber considers how, at an individual level, we tend to objectify each other (I-It) rather than enter into mutual relation (I-Thou). In Part 2 Buber extends this to thinking about society as a whole. His thoughts about how advances in society since the time of the Industrial Revolution have led us to being trapped in an I-It world, are as relevant today as when he wrote the book. All our institutions (school, work, marriage etc.) can reinforce the I-It mode of attending to the world, which Buber says is stagnating as a result.

‘… in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of fens, over-powers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world.’ (p.38)

Buber talks about knowledge, art and teaching as all needing more I-Thou relation. Knowledge has become about accumulating concepts, art about analysis and making money, and teaching about imparting knowledge. All focus on the I-It, rather than being open to relation. We should recognise that I-Thou is the locus of all genuine creative activity, all spirituality and all becoming in transcendence.

Interestingly Buber says that there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to make money or obtain power. There is nothing inherently I-It in economics and politics, it’s the way we live them out. Man’s will to profit and power are fine so long as they are not dominated by It. He explains this as follows. ‘Man’s will to profit and to be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with, and upheld by, his will to enter into relation.’ (p.35) Buber envisions a society (community) in which human beings have a loving responsibility to all other human beings, including those they have not met. This is a new sort of community built on absolute encounter with the eternal Thou, that is, with God.

In Part 3, Buber focusses on the eternal Thou, that is, on our relation with God. I found this part of the book the most difficult to follow, maybe because it is impossible to describe God. God cannot become an It. God must always be a Thou.

The eternal Thou can by its nature not become It: for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds, not even in the measure of the immeasurable, or the bounds of the boundless being; for by its nature it cannot be understood as a sum of qualities, not even as an infinite sum of qualities raised to a transcendental level; for it can be found neither in nor out of the world; for it cannot be experienced, or thought; for we miss Him, Him who is, if we say ‘I believe that He is’ – ‘He” is also a metaphor, but ‘Thou’ is not’. (p.77)

As Buber explains, all attempts to find God in the It world have reduced the idea of God to something which could not possibly be the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient creator of the universe.

He explains that the active solution to a world dominated by I-It, where man feels oppressed by causality, powerless, and as though he is living a meaningless life lacking in freedom, is to enter into relation with God. Why? Because whilst each human experience inevitably peters out into experience, the eternal Thou can never degenerate into an It.

But to encounter the eternal Thou (God) we must be ready for it in both active and passive terms. Actively, we must truly want this encounter, we must let go of thinking we are in control and we must hold I-It and I-Thou in harmony; passively we must wait for God to meet us.

When we enter into relation with God, we enter into relation with everything else in the world. Our encounter with God is both exclusive and inclusive, exclusive because we fully enter into the relation, inclusive because we are relating not only to God but also to the whole Universe.

Buber is not able to describe an encounter with God, but he does say what it is not. It is not a feeling of dependency. God needs us as much as we need God. It is a mutual relationship. It is not an immersion of union between ourselves and God. It is important that we retain our individual selves (whilst losing the drive for self-affirmation) and keep the encounter in a dialogical relation between two separate beings. It is not logically coherent but involves logical conflicts and paradoxes. Paradox is an essential component of the religious moment. We should not substitute the idols of knowledge, power, artistic beauty and erotic love with God. Religious relation is not idol worship of the right idol, and religion is not a crutch, but requires strength and willpower. We cannot predict, control or understand the world. Saying Thou to God transforms us. We lose all duty and obligation. We are filled with loving responsibility for the whole world.

Buber believed that the way forward, away from a domination by I-It relation, is to build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God. He pointed out that these communities have existed in the past but gradually their need for continuity in space and time resulted in relating to God as It. But if we can build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God, the everyday life becomes holy and divine encounter is involved in every act of daily life. We need to bring the holy into everyday life through building of community and relation with God.

‘The world of It is set in the context of space and time.

The world of Thou is not set in the context of with either of these.

Its context is in the Centre [God], where the extended lines of relations meet – in the eternal Thou.’ (p.69)

18-08-21 Update

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network discussion on Martin Buber’s I and Thou was introduced by Amanda Fulford is Professor of Philosophy of Education, and Head of the Department of Professional Learning at Edge Hill University, who posed the following provocations for discussion:

  • Criticisms have been levelled at Buber’s I and Thou that his language is overly obscure and romantic. Walter Kaufmann makes this claim in his translator’s introduction to the work. Given this, is there a risk that the reader is seduced into thinking the text is more profound than it actually is? Does this undermine the central distinction in I and Thou?
  • Is there a hierarchy in Buber’s work that elevates the I-Thou (and thus denigrates) the I-It? What would this mean for certain ways of knowing?
  • Can I-Thou relations be extended beyond human others, and what would this mean for our relationships with, say, animals, or the environment?

And our discussion ended with Jessica Lussier (@miss_lussier) raising the following questions for us to reflect on and discuss on Twitter (@PhilofEd):

  • What role does language play in Buber’s I-Thou relation?
  • What role does feeling/affect play in this relation?
  • How might this allow us to extend I-Thou relations beyond the human?


Buber, M. Ich Und Du (1923 Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith and published as I and Thou by Bloomsbury Revelations Edition (2013)

Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ . Retrieved: 05-0821]

Spark Notes Study Guide. I and Thou. Martin Buber.

Dodson, E. (2014) Buber in Ten Minutes.

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