I and Thou: The Spreadsheet!


Regardless of how or whether you relate to Buber's vision, I and Thou makes for a frustrating read. Seemingly simple words are used in new and alien contexts. Solutions are announced rather than derived. Worse, while nominally divided into three parts, I and Thou is really more of a loose collection of 61 aphorisms. Following Buber's reasoning by comparing his different uses of "word pairs" (e.g., "I-You" in the context of person, or tree, or cat) becomes particularly tricky as a result. Of course, Buber would probably consider this a feature, not a bug; his oracular style seems deliberately designed to provoke a kind of dialogue between the book and the reader. (That's true even if your end of the dialogue often feels like, "What the f___ are you on about?") According to Walter Kaufmann, who translated I and Thou's most recent edition:

Most of Buber's German readers would be quite incapable of saying what any number of passages probably mean. The obscurity of the book does not seem objectionable to them: it seems palpable proof of profundity .... It is not even impossible that in places Buber himself was not sure of the exact meaning of his text.

But help exists for obscuro-skeptics. Robert Wood’s 1969 text, Martin Buber's Ontology, takes a surprisingly analytic approach toward dissecting I and Thou's structure. Wood created a chart that indexed and cross-referenced key concepts contained within the book's 61 sections. In short, he created a Buber spreadsheet! Firmly ensconced in my I-It mode, I used Microsoft Excel to replicate Wood's chart for the blog-viewing public.

The chart functions as follows: The numbers appearing below any given concept indicate those book sections in which the concept is discussed. Where a particular concept is the primary focus of the book's section, I've placed the numbers in a black box with colored digits. Reading horizontally along the rows, you can see which concepts appear with greatest emphasis in each section. Reading vertically along the columns, you can identify those sections in which a primary concept appears. The spreadsheet is likely useless to anyone who hasn't read I and Thou. However, it may have utility for any readers trying to divine Buber's meaning by comparing and contrasting the book's recurring themes.

-Daniel Horne


  1. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Nice spread sheet and thanks for it. My understanding is the Transcendentalist phenomenology approaches are:

    1) Semitic (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are centered on God.
    2) Indic (Hinduism and Buddhism) are centered on the Self.
    3) Sinic (Confucianism Taoism and Shintoism) are centered on World.

    Looking at the spread sheet and off the top of my head it’s very interesting that the “Key Notions” Thou/God/World and “III. The Eternal Thou” is the heaviest cluster grouping which is relational or Covenantal.

    This is simplistic but according to the Jewish canon (Tanakh) interpreting sacred texts and daily walk or practice (Halakhah) there are two types of law in the Torah: Apodictic (Decalogue/Absolutes/no exceptions) and Caustic (Case law/case-by-case – if this happens then do this). Reconfiguration was the norm in case-by-case law. I write all this to say many biblical scholars believe the Jewish Jesus was saying get back to the Covenant and the Caustic law with work itself out because both laws were equally important for practical reasons in relation to others.

    Buber’s I and Thou seems similar pointing to the importance of the relational aspect. That’s my take anyway.

    • Profile photo of Simon Borrington says

      Hi Tammy,

      Having been a small part of the Not-School study group reading ‘I-Thou’, can I just say I found it easier to understand than your intriguing post.

      All the best.

        • Simon Borrington says

          I apologise – that was an ill mannered post.

          It’s not that it is bad – it is that I wouldn’t know whether it was bad or not. I am constantly amazed (in a good way) a by how much stuff falls within Philosophy’s tender(?) embrace!

          Re: ‘I and Thou’. It intrigued me for a while, until I thought why is Buber spending so much ‘I-It’ time discussing something that he states quite clearly falls outside of this categorical approach. Is he trying to justify the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, or convince me of its validity? Because the way he has gone about it is to reduce the ‘I-Thou’ to the thing it is not supposed to be, and this approach doesn’t really do the job.

          Rather than clarification, or inclusion, the average chap feels to have encountered something esoteric, which is sort of, by definition almost, exclusive.

          All the best and keep well.

          • dmf says

            not an easy business trying to foreground what may not only exceed the grasp of categorization/calculation but may even be the conditions for the possibility of such doings. One of the many concerns about efforts to make the thinking through of complexities easy to grasp, easy to make use of, turn into gossip level cut&paste discourse.

          • Profile photo of Tammy says

            No need to apologize, in-fact appreciate your feedback. Those were the thoughts of the top of my head thinking about Martin Buber in context – context is everything so I’ve been taught analyzing literary and biblical texts.

            I’m thinking to myself how would Buber if he had this “I and Thou” encounter make sense of it or better yet express it given the time period in which he lived, WWII?

            Buber draws on the historical figure of Jesus and the Buddha, a strong secular academic, and engaged in the Hebrew school of thought, yet, this was a time when the textual criticism called “higher criticism,” was shaking orthodoxy. Higher criticism was and still is a contention between biblical scholars and the philosophy of religion.

            (On a side: reminds me of Augustine who said read the Latin philosophies they will help you find the way going back to the early Christian writers or Patristics.)

            It seems to me reading I and Thou, Buber is drawn to the Wisdom texts, which has a strong philosophical tradition in the Jewish tradition. But, the Wisdom texts weren’t considered “authoritative” texts, and I think he wrestled with this. Hence, his infatuation with Hasidism—which was mystical and orthodox. Go figure!?! Anyway, the five Jewish Wisdom books (all about human behavior) were in dialogue with each other – arguing, analyzing, and critiquing what it means to be human and righteous (as in right behavior).

            I don’t know if this will clarify, but gave it a shot.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Tammy,

      Of course, though it’s not really for me to give permission, as it primarily “belongs” to Wood and/or Northwestern University Press. As long as the citation to Wood remains intact, I’m sure it’s fine.

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