Laozi the Existentialist: Martin Buber’s Transformation of the Daodejing


Monday, November 16, 2015, 4:00pm to 6:00pm


Bowie-Vernon Room (K262) | CGIS Knafel Building | 1737 Cambridge Street | Cambridge, MA

Speaker: Jonathan Herman, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Georgia State University.

In all likelihood, few Sinologists are aware of the extent to which the existentialist philosopher and Jewish icon Martin Buber studied Chinese philosophy and literature throughout his career. At one end, more than a decade before he composed his best known text, I and Tao, Buber published a German translation of and commentary on the Zhuangzi. At the other end forty years later, he pulled out assorted Hundred Schools texts to support his unpopular advocacy of a collaborative Jewish-Arab state in Palestine. But the most significant of Buber’s Chinese studies is almost certainly the least well known: a series of lectures he delivered in Ascona, Switzerland on the Daodejing in 1924, one short year after the publication of I and Tao. This talk presents an analysis of these lectures – transcriptions of which survived for nine decades as an archived, 40-page, typewritten, single-spaced German manuscript – focusing on the metaphysical, socio-ethical, and mystical dimensions of Buber’s interpretations.

Jonathan Herman earned his PhD in 1992 at Harvard GSAS through the Committee on the Study of Religion, with a concentration in Chinese religion, under the supervision of Tu Wei-ming. He is the author of I and Tao: Martin Buber’s Encounter With Chuang Tzu (SUNY 1996), Taoism for Dummies (Wiley 2013), which was just issued last month in a German translation, and several articles and chapters on the Western appropriation of Chinese religious resources, the comparative study of mysticism, and theory and method in the study of religion. He served as the Associate Editor for the Encyclopedia of Religion and War (Routledge 2004) and is now working on his book, From Dao to Dialogue: Martin Buber’s Encounter with Laozi. Dr. Herman is currently the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University.

See also: Harvard, Religion, Boston