Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An existential dialogical approach to social work

Martin Buber
An existential dialogical approach entails paying greater attention to the everyday events of life and the particularity of the persons involved. Additionally, a relationship implies ongoing interaction rather than intervention under emergency circumstances. Human existence is a complex of many events, all of which form individual identity. It is this complex identity that is activated in a relationship. Human life cannot be reduced to particular incidents or the moment of decision making. Buber’s dialogical philosophy recognizes the commonplace and the pivotal and both should be embraced in social work practice and ethical discussion.

Kierkegaard’s and Buber’s philosophy can help to establish a conceptual shift or perhaps join an already existing movement away from an emphasis on governing principles, specifically autonomy or other models that focus on the person involved. This movement is a deviation from the mainstream movement characterized by empirical observation, rationality, and belief in the effects of therapy, towards a recognition and incorporation of the individual persons’ values into social work practice.

Buber’s dialogical values arise from the recognition that social work should reflect living, dynamic, human existence rather than metaphysical abstractions, and to bridge the distinctions between theory and practice. Buber’s dialogical philosophy is in my opinion a radical shift which moves from the universal to the concrete and from the past to the present; in other words, from I-It to I-Thou. Buber does not start from some external, absolutely valid ethical code which one is bound to apply as best one can to each new situation. Instead Buber starts with the situation and I find Buber especially important in this study because of the significance he places on the dialogue. A person who saddles oneself with guilt towards another person or with shame towards oneself, and represses these emotions, may fall into a neurosis and seek help with a therapist. If the therapist is only concerned with the microcosmos of the patient (an Oedipus complex or an inferiority feeling) and treats the patient accordingly, than guilt and shame might remain foreign. Buber (1951/1999) argues that:
"A soul is never sick alone, but there is always a between-ness also, a situation between it and another existing being" (1951/1999: 21).

It is this situation between one person and another which Buber argues is the crucial starting point. For the therapist to be able to heal the pain felt by the patient, one must creep into the soul of the patient, so to speak, and starts where the patient is. This will often result in being visited by vagrant pains, e.g.; from ones one childhood or unsettled emotions from ones past. This is the state of being where the meeting between therapist and patient can begin and the dialogue develops into a healing process. Buber (1957/1999) agues in my opinion that the most a therapist can do for a patient is to make life possible for the other, if only for a moment (øyeblikket). The existential element in the healing process means that the patient is given the possibility for selfhealing, which Buber argues is the same as teaching. Buber calls this successful cure for the “exchange of hearts” (1951/1999: 20)

Some drawbacks to existential philosophy
Kierkegaard1 has long been viewed as the father of existentialism, but there are some drawbacks in using him:

1. Some will argue that the issues raised by existential philosophy can safely be viewed as “solved” and thus no longer in need of attention. Another reason might be in my opinion that the texts of Kierkegaard are often excluded from the concept of existential philosophy of more practical reasons; his writings are just too difficult and abstract for many readers (Westphal and Matustík 1995).

2. Some will argue that Kierkegaard is a religious thinker and not really a philosopher. Kierkegaard also called himself first and foremost a religious thinker. The fact that secular thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre, Habermas and Derrida all have engaged themselves in Kierkegaard thoughts, resists the claims that he is not a philosophical thinker (Westphal and Matustík 1995). In my opinion, reading his texts philosophically, without consideration to his religious aspects, can be done only to a certain extent. In my opinion, reference only to his theological goals would still not be sufficient, since both theology and philosophy “degrades Kierkegaard to a handmaiden” (Theunissen 2005: viii). Some philosophers are sympathetic to his religious interests, while others are not. In my opinion, Kierkegaard is both a religious and a philosophical thinker.

3. Kierkegaard has been understood as being irrational, meaning that he seems to deny that the world can be comprehended by conceptual thought, and often see the human mind as determined by unconscious forces (Evans 1995). In my opinion, Kierkegaard’s irrationalism can be seen as a protest against a contingent interpretation of reason’s necessity (Westphal and Matustík 1995).

4. There is a perception that Kierkegaard represents an anti-social, apolitical individualism that is worse than useless in the search for community, communication, and cooperation in a world where violence, abuse, hatred, and neglect signify on a daily basis not only their absence but the cost of their
absence. In my opinion, Kierkegaard’s individualism can be seen as a protest against a particular mode of human togetherness that he calls by such names as Christendom, the public, the present age, and even the herd. This individualism can also in my opinion be seen as the flip side of a thoroughly relational conception of the self, and is beginning to be seen as having interesting ramifications for social theory and practice (Marsh 1995).

Why then do I still admire Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. The first answer to this question is personal, the next is historical. My first encounter with Kierkegaard’s writings was in 1995 as a new master student in social work. I had a year before incurred an illness called Morbus Meniere, a persistent hearing and balance disorder located in the inner ear. This illness made me feel despair when I daily had dizziness spells. Before choosing the theme for my master degree thesis, my mentor gave me the advice to read Sickness unto Death by Kierkegaard (1849/1980). His advice was not incidental, but closely connected to his perception of my life situation. I felt while reading this book that it in many ways spoke to me. I had enormous problems understanding the text, and still do after years of studying it, but at the same time I felt a connection with something larger than myself. Like standing inside the Sistine Chapel in Rome or listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. The experience was overwhelming and inspired me to write my master degree thesis with the title “Ways to Self-Understanding. Some Basic Problems in Social Work” (Pettersen 2001. My translation). I have read Sickness unto Death over and over again since then and still find it one of the most important books in my life together with Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1926/1962). These are books that have changed my view of living and being, and who I am.
Kaare T. Pettersen

Some of Martin Bubers works:
Buber, Martin, [1923] 2006. I and Thou. Hesperides Press.

Buber, Martin, [1947] 2002. Between Man and Man. London. Routledge.

Buber, Martin, 1948. Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters. New York: Schocken Books.

Buber, Martin, [1951] 1999. Healing Through Meeting. In Agassi, Judith Buber (Ed.), 1999. Martin

Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy. Essays, Letters, and Dialogue. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Buber, Martin , [1957] 1997a. Good and Evil. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Buber, Martin, [1957] 1997b. The Martin Buber and Carl Rogers Dialogue. New York: State University of New York Press.

Buber, Martin, [1957] 1999. Martin Buber and Carl Rogers. A dialogue held at the University of Michigan on 18 April 1957. In Agassi, Judith Buber (Ed.), 1999.

Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy. Essays, Letters, and Dialogue. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Buber, Martin, [1958] 1999. Guilt and Guilt Feelings. In Agassi, Judith Buber (Ed.), 1999. Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy. Essays, Letters, and Dialogue. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Buber, Martin, [1965] 1998. The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. New York:Humanity Books.

Buber, Martin, 1992. On Intersubjectivity and Cultural Creativity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Evans, C. Stephen, 1995. Kierkegaard’s View of the Unconscious. In Matustík, Martin J. and Harold Westphal (Eds.), Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, Martin, [1926] 1962. Being and Time. New York: Harper and Row.
Marsh, James L., 1995. Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. In Matustík, Martin J. and Harold Westphal (Eds.), Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pettersen, Kåre Torgny, 2001. Veier til selvforståelse. Noen grunnlagsproblemer i sosialt arbeid. HiO-hovedfagsrapport 2001 nr.4.

Theunissen, Michael, [1993] 2005. Kierkegaard’s Concept of Despair. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Westphal, Merold, 1996. Becoming a Self. A Reading of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.


  1. this is a very good material. thank you.

  2. Thankyou so much for your kind comment Arlene :-) Kaare