I and Thou

I and Thou Study Guide

Martin Buber’s most influential work, I and Thou, was originally published in German as Ich and Du in 1923 and was translated into English in 1937. It is the foundational text of what has come to be called the philosophy of dialogue. This covers the ways in which people and things relate to one another, often beyond a simple subject/object binary. By laying out the difference between the I-It relation, which deals with subjects and objects, and the I-You relation, which exceeds this dualism in a co-partnership of subjects, I and Thou has provided important starting points for a number of other philosophers in the 20th century.

Buber originally intended his book to lead the way to a new philosophy of religion. This is why he considers, in the third part of the book, the relation between his philosophy and other religious teachings. He does so by comparing and contrasting what he calls the “eternal You” and what various religions have called “God.” But the influence of I and Thou would not be limited to theology. It has influenced everything from political philosophy, in terms of how to build communities and nation-states responsive to the spiritual needs of its members, and the philosophy of education, in terms of how to structure the dialogical relationship between student and teacher in a way that maximizes the agency and learning of all.

Although hugely prolific, Buber and his work, including I and Thou, were not widely read in academic communities until after World War II. Instead, his influence was at first confined to more informal and public venues, including those associated with the Jewish community and Zionist movement of which he was a part. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, his influence spread quickly, both within the German-speaking world and, following the translation of I and Thou into English 1937, beyond. Before he died in 1965, he had received such academic and intellectual honors as the Erasmus Prize, the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, and the Goethe Prize.