Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Buber’s dialogical philosophy

Dialogical philosophy has its roots in the work of Plato, who not only presented his philosophy in the form of dialogs, but used it as a means of communication to create a practical and moral self-knowledge within the framework that a society offers. This suggests the existence of normative circumstances involving moral competence and the ability and courage to make choices. Buber is credited for revitalizing dialogical philosophy, which is commonly understood today as a school of thought within existential philosophy. Some of the philosophers associated with Buber’s thought are; Ferdinand Ebner, Franz Rozenzweig, Gabriel Marcel, Eberhard Grisebach (Lübcke 1993).

Martin Buber, 1878-1965.
Israel (1992) argues that Buber (1923/2006) has expanded the dialogical philosophy of Plato by combining it with, among other things, the existential philosophy of Kierkegaard and Mead’s interactionist social-psychology. Buber’s philosophy is a philosophy of inter-subjectivity. He disagrees with the dualistic subject-object mode of viewing the world that started with Descartes. Buber (1923/2006) argues that we must learn to consider every interaction around us as a “You” speaking to a “Me”, an interaction that requires a response. Buber’s subject-subject relation implies that self-knowledge evolves in the dialog between subjects, and ethical actions are conducted between these subjects.

Martin Buber
When one views another person as an object, an I-It relationship is manifested. Such a relationship is no longer dialogical, but monological: a relation only with oneself. An I –It relationship implies that one speaks to the object, rather than with the object. A dialogical relationship can only exist in a subject-subject relationship, meaning in an inter-subjective relationship: a relationship which exists between individuals who view each other as subjects. In the I-It relationship, an individual treats other things, people, etc., as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity means that the individual relates to the world in terms of how objects can serve its own interests. Human relationships swing like a pendulum between I-It and I-Thou relationships, and genuine I-Thou relationships are rare. Buber argues that I-It relations devaluate, isolate and dehumanize human existence. In contrast, an I-Thou relationship stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It becomes a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another.

Buber’s dialogical philosophy has gained recognition within a number of different disciplines, e.g., education, theology, medicine, nursing, therapy, sociology, and literature.  Adkins (1999) argues that in the field of education Buber’s I-Thou dialectic is important because it emphasizes the processes that arise between persons meeting each other in authentic relations. The I-It relationship is not a genuine relationship because there is no dialectic exchange between the I and the It. When a person relates to the other as an It, the I is perfectly alone. The I may observe the other, and find elements that he or she has in common with other persons and things and elements that distinguish the I from them. This all takes place within the self; the self judges and the self observes. In contrast, the I-Thou relationship is genuine because it is between an I  and a Thou who addresses the I. The Thou is no longer one object among others; rather, the whole universe is seen in the light of the Thou, and the Thou is the light of the universe. Buber (1923/2006) argues that the I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being; I- It can never be spoken with the whole being. It is impossible to exist through an I-Thou relationship alone; although the person who lives only with I-It encounters is not existing authentically, the person without I-It encounters cannot live. 

Goldberg (2000) argues that one can not understand a person primarily as a solitary unit, separate from other beings. He uses Buber’s contrasting spheres of human existence, I-Thou, and I-It, and shows their important implications for psychological healing; what Buber calls “meetings” (Buber Agassi 1999; Gunzberg 1996). The suffering person may choose to escape a world full of distancing, manipulation, and objectification, by acting in a dysfunctional manner with others. Healing requires a radical discovery; a moment of surprise. The sufferer needs to be taken off guard by the freedom s/he experiences in being an authentic subject in the presence of the other rather than remaining the object that others in the past have demanded s/he be. The extent of the healing will depend on the healer’s capacity to sustain the unexpected in relation to the sufferer. 
Martin Buber
Fishbane (1998) has examined the relational view of the person in Buber’s philosophy of dialog and how it can be applied in couple’s therapy. She starts by quoting Buber (1965) when he argues that:

The inmost growth of the self is not accomplished, as people like to suppose today, in…relation to [oneself], but in the relation between the one and the other…Secretly and bashfully [a person] watches for a Yes which allows [one] to be and which can come…only from one human person to another. It is from one [person] to another that the heavenly bread of self-being is passed (Buber 1965: 71).

This statement expresses the essence of Buber’s relational view of the person. He goes on to consider the dialogical space that is opened when persons relate to each other in I-Thou terms.

The meaning is to be found neither in one of the two partners nor in both together, but in their dialogue itself, in this `between´ which they live together (Buber 1965:75).

Buber defines the “between” as the inter-subjective sphere, the space where two individuals meet. The self is constructed in this inter-subjective sphere, and Fishbane (1998) argues that healing likewise occurs in a relational context. Buber’s philosophy of dialog constitutes a radical departure from the individualistic notion of the person by viewing the person in relational and dialogical terms.

Cohn (2001) argues that Buber’s dialogical philosophy offers a unique lens through which physician-patient relationships may be interpreted. Current medical practice is situated in the It-realm of order; it focuses on objectivity, detachment, abstraction, and experience. Buber describes the possibility of a therapeutic relationship that approaches the I-Thou realm. Buber’s thought suggests, according to Cohn (2001), three conceptual shifts that facilitate the development of therapeutic relationships in medical practice and have implications for medical education: from disease-centred to person-centred care; from crisis to everyday management; and from principles and contracts to relationships. Dialog is vital in healing relationships. The helper cannot heal, in the broad sense of the term, and the person who suffers cannot be healed, without dialog. Dialog goes beyond mere verbal exchange because it entails really listening to one another and even seeking the opportunity to listen.
Kaare T. Pettersen


Adkin, Vincent K., 1999. Buber and the Dialectic of Teaching In Journal for Educational Thought. 33: 175-181.
Buber, Martin, [1923] 2006. I and Thou. Hesperides Press.
Buber, Martin, 1965. The Knowledge of Man. New York: Harper & Row.
Buber Agassi, Judith (Ed.), 1999. Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy: Essays, Letters and Dialogue. Syracuse University Press.
Cohn, Felicia, 2001. Existential Medicine: Martin Buber and Physician-Patient Relationships. In Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 3: 170-181.
Fishbane, Mone DeKoven, 1998. I, Thou, and We: A Dialogical Approach to Couples Therapy. In Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24: 41-58.
Goldberg, Carl, 2000. Healing Madness and Despair through Meeting. In American Journal of Psychotherapy, 4: 560-573.
Gunzberg, John C., 1996. Healing Through Meeting: Martin Buber’s Conversational Approach to Psychotherapy. Jessica Kingsly Publishers.
Lübcke, Poul (Ed.), 1993. Filosofi Leksikon. København: Politikens Forlag.

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