Two Moral Views of Other People: Buber and Levinas

What is the core of morality?

Douglas Giles, PhD

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Here are two views from two underdiscussed philosophers who provide valuable insights on moral philosophy. Buber and Levinas had no direct interaction that I know of, but their ideas about what morality is have some interesting overlaps.

Martin Buber — I and You

Martin Buber (1878–1965) was an Austrian Jewish existentialist and interpreter of Jewish spiritual traditions. Buber was greatly influenced by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but he gave existentialism a decidedly social dimension very different from the negative views of Heidegger or Sartre.

Buber’s masterpiece was his German-language book Ich und Du (1923), the title of which is also Buber’s central philosophical concept. The book’s title and concept have always been translated into English as “I and Thou,” which is technically correct, but truly to understand Buber’s meaning, we need a short German lesson.

German, like many other European languages, has a formal “you” and an informal “you.” “Du” is the informal “you” and is used to address people you know well, signifying equality or a closer relationship. “Sie” is the formal “you,” which acknowledges a more distant or formal relationship. Buber’s use of du is significant.

The English “thou” sounds formal, largely because of its use in antiquated biblical translations, but it isn’t. “Thou” meant a single person, while “you” used to mean multiple persons. That’s why, despite “thou” having fallen out of favor, “thou” is a better translation of Buber’s “du” than is “you.” As Buber uses it, the “thou” in “I and Thou” is very personal.

Buber said that there are two ways in which we as the “I” can address existence. We can address something as an “It,” signifying it is an object separate from us. We can also address something as a “Thou” (Du), signifying we are in relationship with another rather than separate from an “It.” For these two attitudes, Buber uses the shorthand of “I-It” and “I-Thou.”

We have an I-It attitude when we deal with particular objects. They are an It to us, an object we perceive and experience. We have an I-Thou attitude when we have a living relationship with something or…

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Douglas Giles, PhD

Philosopher by trade & temperament, professor for 21 years, bringing philosophy out of its ivory tower and into everyday life. https://linktr.ee/dgilesphd