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Martin Buber in the postmodern age.

Publication: Society

Publication Date: 05/01/1997

Author: Eisenstadt, S.N.

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COPYRIGHT 1997 Transaction Publishers, Inc.

It is a great enigma that in this "postmodern" era so much attention has

been focused on Martin Buber and his work. Why has Buber's thought
become ever more central to discourses in philosophy, social science,
psychiatry, and education? In contrast to current stylistic trends, Buber's
language is elaborate and sometimes even pompous. And in a time when
postmodern deconstructionists deny the very possibility of assigning an
objective value or interpretation to any text, how are we to relate to the
major aspects of Buber's work, his writings on the Bible and on Hasidism,
his emphasis on dialogue and on humanity's relationship with God?

Does the renewed interest in Buber's thought stem merely from curiosity
about something esoteric from a different period, intriguing precisely
because it is not relevant? That alone, I believe, would not explain this
abiding appeal; I suggest, rather, that it is due to the feeling that Buber's
approach may provide at least one answer to some of the problems
raised by postmodern culture and ideas. However, the strength and
uniqueness of his vision lies in the interconnection between the different
areas of his work and thought; we cannot fully understand one area
without considering all the others. Since it would be impossible to do
justice to all of his concerns, I shall focus here on just three related
concepts that I feel are particularly relevant to today's issues: utopia,
education and community.

Those who have emphasized Buber's role as a religious philosopher and

as a philosopher of the human situation may feel that these concepts are
hardly central to his thought. Indeed, at a memorial to Buber held a few
years ago in Germany, the only one of his books that was not displayed
at the accompanying exhibition was Paths in Utopia. It seems to me,
however, that this view is mistaken. Buber's interest in the problem of
utopia goes far beyond what he wrote in Paths to Utopia and further even
than what he wrote in many of his very interesting essays on community.

Buber noted that utopian thought has played a crucial role in the cultural
and institutional dynamics of every great civilization. This is true not only
of societies founded on monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam, but also of those steeped in Hinduism, Buddhism, and the
Confucian-Taoist complex in China. Of course, different modes of utopian
thought developed in each culture. As Buber emphasized, however, in
every case it emerged from the recognition of the impossibility of fully
incarnating or realizing on earth a transcendental vision, like that of the
Kingdom of GOd or the bliss of Nirvana. Utopian thought embodies the
desire to overcome this limitation.

Naturally, the search for a utopian solution was anathema to the secular
and, especially, to the ecclesiastical powers of these civilizations, which
generally supported an Augustinian-type concept of the distinction, and
tension, between the City of God and the City of Man. Only in this way
could the hegemonic groups, the spiritual and political elites, maintain
their legitimacy in the face of the transcendental visions promulgated and
accepted in their respective civilizations. However, this Augustinian view
was never fully accepted even in Western civilizations. During the Middle
Ages in Europe, various movements attempted to bring about an earthly
Kingdom of God. Most of them were gnostic movements based on the
idea that emancipation would issue from immediate knowledge of
spiritual truth, through faith alone; the most extreme was perhaps that of
Joachim de Flora. Though these movements were more or less
successfully segregated from other parts of society, they nevertheless
had great impact.

One of the major goals of both the American and the French Revolutions,
and even to some extent of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in the
English Civil War, was to bridge this gap between the ideal and the real,
to implement a transcendental kingdom in human society. With these
modern revolutions, three crucial new elements were added to utopian
thinking. Often addressed by Buber, these elements shaped the problem
as it is viewed today. First, the vision of Utopia was politicized, not only at
the margins of society but also at its center. As Buber himself and others
have shown, socialism in its full bloom, whether utopian or Marxist, was
in many ways a secular transformation of Christian eschatology. Second,
the belief arose that a new society could be constructed through political
action, a belief most clearly evident in the French Revolution but
discernible even among the American Puritans. Third, paradoxically but
certainly very dramatically, violence came to be sanctified as a means of
implementing the political utopian vision. The Jacobins are the prime
example of the emergence of this trend. One of its most important and
interesting exponents was Georges Sorel, whose texts some of us had
the privilege of studying with Buber at the Hebrew University, where he
taught social philosophy and sociology from 1938.

By Buber's time, two principal models of socialist utopian thinking had

developed, shaped by the relations between the various social trends
and movements from the mid-nineteenth century on. The first was the
Jacobin model, which Buber held to have been recently reconstituted in
the philosophical exposition of Lenin, who receives a separate chapter in
Paths in Utopia. Lenin advocated the imposition of a utopian vision on a
whole society by political means. Human creativity had to be regenerated
through radical action, giving rise to a new era in human history.

Opposed to Lenin's view was that of the Utopian Socialists, who, despite
their ambivalent and even negative attitudes toward the Revolution, can
be understood only in relation to the new political, social, and
philosophical discourse that it engendered. Writers like Pierre Proudhon
and Saint-Simon shared the missionary zeal and eschatological
orientation of the French Revolution but wished to transform society
without involving themselves in politics. Unlike the revolutionaries, with
their emphasis on egalitarianism, the thought of the Utopian Socialists
was characterized by a very strong hierarchical communitarian order.
Many of its later proponents - some of whom, particularly those of a more
religious bent, had personal connections with Buber and Gustav
Landauer - eventually opted for a retreat into small, segregated
communes, where their vision could be fully realized. Though they hoped
thus to become precursors of a new society, they failed to influence the
broader frameworks around them.

Buber, though he devoted the greater part of Paths in Utopia to the

Utopian Socialists, did not agree with either of these latter-day utopian
views. He sought "experiments which do not fail," as he called the kibbutz
and the kvutza. He did not expect these experiments to replace the great
formal institutions of the twentieth century. Instead, he hoped that within
these frameworks, spaces might be created in which a continuous
process of cultural regeneration and renewal of social authenticity could
take place. In these spaces, partially segregated but not alienated from
the rest of society, new, autonomous forms of cultural creativity could be
tried and implemented.

Unlike many other utopians, Buber denied neither the strength nor the
legitimacy of the primordial and political elements in society. Consider his
famous reply to Mahatma Gandhi, who asked him why the Jews wanted
to settle in a place so rife with conflicts as the land of Israel. Buber
emphasized in response that without primordial roots in the land, one
cannot create good, just solutions to social problems or assure social and
cultural creativity. He was fully aware that overemphasizing these
primordial elements might bring on such ills as chauvinism and racism.
Nevertheless, he saw them not as necessary evils but as fully legitimate
aspects of humanity, without which humanity's existence is roofless and
probably meaningless.

In the same vein, again in contrast to the Utopian Socialists, Buber

affirmed the importance and legitimacy of the political arena. For Buber,
the utopian mission was not to abolish politics but, rather, to search
continually for ways to minimize its negative tendencies. In totalitarian
Germany under the Nazis, he had experienced the destructive effects on
human culture and life of what he defined as the attempt to superimpose
the political arena upon every other arena of existence. From this
perspective, he took a critical view of the development of communism in
Soviet Russia. Even as he asserted that human social life cannot bear
fruit in the absence of a political framework, he emphasized the need for
the continuous reconstruction of the political framework in order to adapt
it to varying circumstances.

Education and Community

In seeking to locate the regenerative potentialities of utopian orientations

and programs, we shall do well to consider Buber's approach to the
problems of community and education, in which he emphasized above all
the communicative, dialogic dimension.

I would like at this juncture to relate a personal encounter with Buber. In

the years 1949-1952, when the State of Israel was very young, there
were several huge waves of immigration from North Africa, Yemen, and
other Middle Eastern countries. At that time, Buber established the
Center for Teachers of Adult Education, which remained in operation for
several years. I asked him then why, considering all the pressing
problems of incorporating these new immigrants into Israeli society, he
considered it so important to invest in teachers of adult education. "It is
very important that we have a common discourse," he replied. "We must
be able to talk and dream together." At the time, I admit, I did not fully
understand his answer. But lately I have seen, in Israel and elsewhere,
that communication among the various sectors of society is diminishing:
People talk only within their own social and ethnic groups. I have begun
to appreciate more fully the social trust underlying Buber's approach to

Though Buber gave the formal aspects of curriculum their due, he did not
care much about the details. What he did care about was dialogue, a
concern that ties in with his thoughts on utopia and provides a
counterpoint to contemporary - especially postmodern - discussions on
discourse. For Buber, there were at least two closely related dimensions
in dialogue: There was dialogue between man and man, and there was
also dialogue between man and the sacred (I prefer not to use the word
"God," although Buber did use it). He sought and analyzed situations in
which these two modes of dialogue could interconnect.

Let us briefly compare Buber's approach with that of Jurgen Habermas,

one of the most forceful modern exponents of the importance of
establishing and maintaining situations for open, communicative
dialogue. From our point of view, one of the most interesting problems
associated with Habermas's approach is that, for him, open
communication has almost no rules or prerequisites - including the
requirement for content. In contrast to Habermas, Buber emphasized that
real open communication is impossible in the absence of a common task
or focus, or, rather, the search for one. He gave the example of a
community seeking a common transcendent center. Since it continually
looked beyond itself, the community would maintain its ability to create
new tasks and redefine its focus.

Though it was important that dialogue have content, Buber believed that
the full crystallization of this content brought with it the dangers of
routinization and apathy. New contents for interactive communication
must constantly be sought, and not only on the social, communicative
plane but also on a higher plane, which might be called "transcendental,"
"religious," or "sacred." It is the combination of the social and the sacred
modes of communication that is the crux of fruitful dialogue. Communities
embodying this combination have the potential to become "experiments
that do not fail" and to serve as starting points for wider social and
cultural regeneration.

In emphasizing dialogue, then, Buber was looking for those dimensions

of the educational process that could contribute to social and cultural
regeneration. Such regeneration was urgently needed, not only in
societies that had become totalitarian but in any society threatened by
apathy, lack of interest, despiritualization, and the routinization of both
formal institutions and ordinary social life. Buber himself would probably
not have liked the word "despiritualization"; let us say instead that
regeneration is necessary when social life loses some of its authenticity.
For Buber, this was a constant danger.

Buber was concerned with the relation between great moments of

creativity and ordinary social life. In a sense, he veered between two
complementary poles. He valued those moments in human history when
new civilizations are created, as in the biblical period or in the rise of the
civilizations of China or ancient Greece. But, on the other hand, Buber
was fully aware that the creation of a new civilization might immediately
result in open discourse being closed off or "frozen" into fixed, rigid
frameworks. He sought the antidote to such inertia in a process of
continual regeneration, powered by the inherent tensions between the
different components of culture: form and content, tradition and
innovation, the multiplication of fields of endeavor and the maintenance
of a central core.

Many utopians, including the Utopian Socialists, have sought to

overcome such tensions. Not so Buber. On the contrary, he believed that
neutralizing cultural tensions might lead either to political regimentation or
to the routinization of social life. He encouraged the search for
educational, communal, and even utopian arenas of social interaction in
which these tensions could be sustained, resulting in the constant
transformation and renewal of culture. I think that is why Buber was so
interested in the Hasidic community, in which he saw an inherent
potential for renewal through the maintenance of inner tensions. In Israel,
he saw a similar potential in the pioneering settlements - the kibbutz, the
kvutza, and the moshav - and he looked for it in many other civilizations
as well.

Notwithstanding his demand for content in dialogue, Buber, unlike many

other utopians, was always wary of prescribing specific contents for
frameworks of cultural regeneration. This attitude was reflected in his
stance on a problem central to the political discourse of his day: the issue
of centralization versus decentralization. Many of Buber's
contemporaries, both totalitarian socialists and Social Democrats,
assumed that central social planning would provide solutions to most of
the problems of society. Buber disagreed; contrary to what was claimed
by the proponents of either extreme, he asserted that the balance
between centralization and decentralization must depend on the historical
situation of the moment. Planning had its place, but there was no
universally valid formula, no panacea for society's ills. The important
thing was to maintain the search, in constant awareness of the tensions
that shaped its course.

How do Buber's views on cultural regeneration relate to the postmodern

question of whether there exists any objective value, or center of
creativity, to guide social life and cultural activity? How does Buber's
thought address the issue of deconstruction, which denies the possibility
of the search for ultimate meaning and values?

The central problem of deconstruction is that of the presentation,

analysis, and interpretation of texts. On the face of it, Buber's approach is
very close to that of deconstructionism. For him, a text was not sacred in
itself: Ever and again, one must seek a new way of looking at it.
Repudiating orthodox interpretations, Buber declared that the text must
speak to the individual. He emphasized the importance of openness, of
not being tied down by any dogmas; in fact, he advised what today would
be called "deconstructing the text." But clearly, Buber's deconstructionism
differs from that of the postmodern era. His encounter with a text was
always connected with the search for a center of gravity according to
which it could be judged, without which its "deconstruction" would be

It is worthwhile here to compare Buber's work with that of his friend and
teacher Georg Simmel, who has lately been the subject of renewed
interest as it becomes clear that he was one of the first social scientists to
detect and analyze postmodern trends. Simmel's work greatly influenced
Buber's conception of social interaction. Nevertheless, there is a very
interesting and very basic difference between them. In Simmel's view of
the modern world, everything is constantly fluid; nothing is really
permanent. His world not only has no internal center, it no longer even
seeks one. Moreover, for Simmel the essence of modernity is the total
dissolution of primordial elements. Concrete situations continually break
down into their constitutive elements, which go on to take new forms.

Buber's very different view can be seen in the pragmatic concreteness of

his analysis of social phenomena. Here I would like to mention an early
project of Buber's that is often overlooked. Between 1905 and 1910,
Buber edited a wonderful forty-volume collection of sociological
monographs under the series title Die Gesellschaft. It includes some of
the great classics of sociology, including Simmel's Religion, Ferdinand
Tonnies's Customs, Franz Oppenheimer's The State, and Sombart's The
Proletariat. Side by side with these great theoretical analyses, however -
at least half of the collection, in fact - are discussions of some very
concrete modern phenomena: the supermarket, spectator sports, and the
stock exchange. Buber saw no contradiction in this juxtaposition: On the
contrary, he saw an intimate connection between the analysis of the
concrete on the one hand and of the theoretical on the other. Unlike
Simmel, Buber could not disregard the concrete contents of every
situation; the concrete was a basic part of reality, to be accepted and
studied as such.

This dual attentiveness to the theoretical and to concrete social reality led
Buber to develop a new evaluation of the modern and even the
postmodern situation. He fully understood the fluidity of modern trends
and much preferred it to the static solidity characteristic both of
totalitarian communism and of the technocratically homogeneous
institutions of contemporary Western societies. Buber sought possibilities
for combining that fluidity not with the denial of ultimate values but with
the search for the sacred and the transcendental.

In Buber's view, however, great political centers or movements were not

the place for such connections to be developed. During the early
"classical" modern era, a time of nation-states and class struggles, both
the nationalist and the socialist movements attempted to implement their
own charismatic visions by reconstructing political centers to reflect and
embody them. Buber was wary of such rigidifying tendencies. But while
he shared the postmodern view that decharismatization of the center is
vital, he stressed that it could also be destructive if it entailed the
negation of utopian elements, of the search for ultimate values, and of
the connection between human intersubjectivity and the orientation
beyond the human. His denial of the validity of the utopian charismatic
claims of political centers was combined with an emphasis on the
importance of the search, in less formal situations, for the utopian
charismatic dimension beyond the center. He felt that the connections
between fluidity and the search for the sacred could best be created and
recreated in informal, dispersed social and cultural spaces.

Buber was one of the very few thinkers to have attempted to combine
what we now call deconstructionism with a continuing search for ultimate
values. Precisely here, I believe, lies the continued interest for the
contemporary reader of his thoughts on the potential for regenerating
cultural and social life in scattered utopian settings, though his specific
views and analyses may not be widely accepted. Here lies his answer to
the postmodern predicament: the paradoxical alternation of society
between rigid boundaries and continual fluidity. For Buber, the fluidity of
our era was an important, potentially creative component of the
contemporary human situation, and he never opposed it in the name of
some everlasting symbol or vision. But deconstruction, without the
constructive search for ultimate value, risks being reduced to a nihilistic
de. The continual search for value, rather than the achievement of an
immutable solution in the form of a rigid social framework, is what may
enable humanity to transcend the uncertainty of postmodern social

Martin Buber. Paths in Utopia. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Martin Buber. "The Land and Its Possession." In Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis. New
York: Schocken Books, 1948, pp. 227-33.

Martin Buber. "On Hasidim." In Martin Buber, ed., On Inter-subjectivity and Cultural Creativity.
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992, Section H, part 5.

S. N. Eisenstadt. "Martin Buber's Social Doctrine." In Martin Buber, in Memoriam: On the Twentieth
Anniversary of His Death. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1987 (in Hebrew).

Michael Keren. Ben Gurion and the Intellectuals: Power, Knowledge, and Charisma. DeKalb: Northern
Illinois University Press, 1983.

S. N. Eisenstadt is Rose Isaacs Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Currently, he is visiting professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He
is the author of numerous books, including Modernization, Protest, and Change; Essays on
Comparative Institutions; Social Differentiation and Stratification; Transformation of Israeli Society
and Japanese Civilization: A Comparative Perspective. He has edited Political Sociology and Society,
Culture, and Urbanization.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Transaction Publishers, Inc.