Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bubers' theory of existential guilt and shame

Martin Buber
Buber (1958) argues that existential guilt, i.e. guilt that a person assigns himself as a person in an interpersonal relationship, cannot be understood through such analytic scientific categories as occluded memories. Guilt appears when one places oneself outside the order that the human world has created and which each individual believes to be the basis of his own and all human existence. In the following I will use Bubers’ discussion of existential guilt to cast light over the concept of shame, and consider shame as existential shame. It aims to show how this helps us understand the way shame works in the process of healing. Existential shame, like existential guilt, can be understood as something which one assigns to the self. It cannot be understood using such analytic scientific categories as occluded memories. The shamed person can be conscious of his/her shame, or can be unconscious of such shame. Both shame and guilt can be experienced as a fall. When one confronts shame, one must start, as in the case of guilt, by analysing the situation in which the shame appears.
Each and every person stands in an objective relation to other people. This is what makes it possible to exist in the world. It is this that enables a person to open his/her personal sphere to the rest of the world. An objective relationship between two human beings can develop into a personal relationship through the existential participation by both parties. This opens a number of possibilities: it opens for acceptance, damnation and transgression. Violation creates wounds in human relationships. It is up to the person who has been violated to heal the wound. The person who senses the existence of shame or guilt and who has the task of helping others can help individuals so that wounds eventually heal. When one knows that someone is suffering from shame or guilt, it is not possible to show that person the correct path to take in the world. Each person must find his/her own personal route to healing. It is possible, however, to help another person come to the point where s/he is able to find his/her own way or at least a point of departure on the road to healing the wound.

Buber (ibid) describes three different spheres (figure 1) in which existential guilt can be found and three levels of action within each sphere. A number of peculiar relationships can arise between these spheres. The three spheres are: the judicial sphere, the sphere of conscience and the sphere of faith. In my opinion, existential shame can understood in relation to the same three spheres, and thereby cast light on the process of healing shame.

Figure 1: Three spheres of existential shame

The judicial sphere
The sphere of conscience
The sphere of faith
(Adapted from Buber 1958. My translation and interpretation)

The judicial sphere is concerned with the realised or implicated demands to which society, through laws, subjects the guilty. Nussbaum (2001, 2004) has shown how the judicial sphere is still used in shaming citizens. The person who is trying to help another person with existential shame seems to have nothing to do in the judicial field. It is not the helper’s task to judge a person as guilty or to assist in shaming other citizens, and it may not even be the helper’s task to judge according to the demands of society. Likewise, the helper does not seem to have anything to do within the sphere of faith. This sphere comprises the relationship between the shamed person and his/her god, and involves no one else. When one meets people who have problems with their faith and fear divine punishment, one cannot interfere without becoming a hazardous amateur. In the sphere of conscience, however, it is possible to help a person struggling with existential shame to find a road where s/he can meet others. This requires that the helper understands the three mechanisms mentioned above; self-knowledge; endurance; and expiation. One must therefore understand one’s own motives and behaviour; one must have the ability or power to bear prolonged exertion, pain, or hardship; and one must know the difference between making amends, showing remorse, and inflicting more suffering on one’s self as a punishment for a wrongdoing.

Buber (1958) argues that conscience involves a human being’s capacity and tendency to differentiate clearly between one’s previous and future attitudes concerning what one approves of and what one disapproves of. Rejection is often very emotional, while approval has a tendency to evolve into a vague self-righteousness. Buber (ibid) argues that human beings are the only creatures we know who can distance themselves, not only from the outer world, but also from their inner selves. Shame does not usually arise from a violation of social or familial taboos. The degree of shame is most usually related to aspects of shame that have nothing to do with breaking taboos, but rather with existential shame. The violation of taboos only concern us if the shamed person feels that the shame is stronger or weaker than actual existential shame; the individual cannot take responsibility for existential shame without taking responsibility for the relationship he/she has to his/her own existence.

Martin Buber
The person who focuses on him/herself in order to dare to come out of the quicksand of shame s/he has sunk into, has a personal conscience that includes responsibility for his/her own self. It lies in the nature of human conscience to be able to lift oneself up to a higher level. What we can call our conscience has certain properties that most people recognise; the ability to reprimand, torture and punish the self. This is of course not the helper’s territory. The helper’s field of interest is visible at the moment when it is possible for a person who has awakened and become courageous enough to reflect upon its self, to rise up from the torturing lower levels of conscience to higher ones, to become the master of the powers and possibilities s/he possesses. It is first here that the individual can carry out the three-fold actions which are mentioned above within the sphere of conscience. 
Buber (ibid) argues that the goal must be to dispel the darkness which surrounds shame (Buber is speaking about guilt here) in spite of the enormous activity going on in one’s conscience. It’s not just a small beam of light that is needed, we need an ocean of light; a complete awakening. This can be done by holding on to new, humbling knowledge that the person one once was, is identical to the person one is now. The goal must be to restore oneself by using one’s capacity to work within historically and biologically given situations. This requires an active devotion to others and to the order of existence which one feels was once violated. To be able to do this one must collect all the energy one can find and defend oneself against the threatening splitting of the self and against self-contradiction. Buber (ibid) argues that one can not do evil with all one’s heart, only good. One does not have to force oneself to do good. When one has found the one’s true self, the good happens automatically.

Buber, Martin, 1958. Schuld und Schuldgefühle. Heidelberg: Heidelberg.

Nussbaum, Martha C., 2001. Upheavals of Thought. The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C., 2004. Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Sir, Greetings. Could you mind throwing some light on the behaviour pattern of guilty seeking punishment from the offended in relation with Martin Buber's or any other existential philosopher? It may help me in my Ph.D work. My eamil id: in case, you want to send some info.Thank you.....Siva K K