Academic journal article Shofar

The You That Wasn't Enough: Walter Kaufmann and Martin Buber

Academic journal article Shofar

The You That Wasn't Enough: Walter Kaufmann and Martin Buber

Article excerpt

Walter Kaufmann (1921-80), best known for his work on Nietzsche, is also inextricably linked with the dissemination of Martin Buber's work through his 1970 translation of I and Thou (or "I and You"). Some forty years after the publication of this well-known volume, Kaufmann's relationship to Buber remains mostly unexplored, though occasionally harshly criticized. This essay argues that this relationship should not be left unexplored. Kaufmann's involvement with Buber went well beyond the translation and contains ideas about what should be accepted and rejected in Buber that deserve the attention of contemporary Buber scholars. To make this case, this essay covers Kaufmann's personal relation with Buber from the 1930s onward, relating Kaufmann's principal criticisms of Buber's thought to ideas shaped by the strong encounter with Buber himself. It makes the case that Kaufmann's relationship with Buber has not yet been appreciated and deserves a much wider hearing.

Men prefer to forget how many possible worlds are open to them.

-Walter Kaufmann

Introduction: Our Buber?

How should we assess Martin Buber's achievement and influence? What was his lasting impact? It is easy to speak of a "contested legacy," much harder to clarify why and how different modes of reception emerged. Somewhat unexpectedly, a news piece from the New York Times can help us by charting a fault line, or what could be better called a "battle-line" in Buber interpretation. On February 19, 1978, the paper ran an article with the headline "Buber Emerges Anew as a Figure of Debate." The occasion was a conference celebrating the centennial of Buber's birth, jointly sponsored by Fordham University and Hebrew Union College. The debate, however, was evidently concentrated primarily on Walter Kaufmann, since he 'jarred many with his opening address by declaring that in most of Buber's undertakings he was a failure and that ? and Thou was seriously flawed and 'approximates the oracular tone of false prophets.'"1 It seems that Kaufmann began reading sections from J and Thou he felt supported his case but stopped when he discovered that several people "broke out into loud applause in favor of the passage."2 In response, Kaufmann left his text, glared at the audience, and said "Well, if you like it, I don't."3 Nothing more is recorded about this interchange, but it is hard to believe that positions moved any closer together, or even that there was any profitable debate on why images of Buber differed.

Since so much in Buber concerns communication, it is tempting to treat a spat among his academic expositors as a bit of a joke. Yet intellectual life, even if it revolves around the proper interpretation of a non-belligerent concept like a "primal word-pair . . . spoken with one's whole being"4 still revolves around conflict. It is within hermeneutical"contests" that we come to see why a figure like Buber is seen in one way, rather than another.5 This battle by applause revealed an undeniable conflict about what Buber inspired in allegiance, loyalty and hope. But do we really understand this conflict? The New York Times piece concludes with an interesting quote that "the agenda of Martin Buber is our agenda. More than anyone else writing in the first half of the century ... he addresses our own situation."6 A corollary to this is that disputes about Buber are conflicts over the way we understand our situation. To understand these conflicts we must look closely at the principal'combatants," specifically Walter Kaufmann and his relationship to Buber and to Buber scholarship.

Several Overlapping Lives

Kaufmann (1921-80) is easily recognized by anyone in the English-speaking world who has taken an interest in Buber, since he was singled out by Buber's son, Rafael, and authorized to write a new translation oil and Thou, published in 1970.7 This edition included a long prologue by Kaufmann. Along with a section on Buber in his three-volume study, Discovering the Mind, Kaufmann published two major assessments of Buber in his prolific academic career. …

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