Sunday, May 27, 2012

Human Development 1


Convergences and Divergences: The Thought of Martin Buber and Carl Rogers in Dialogue: Cherishing each other so that we may flourish.

1. Introduction

    There can hardly have been two greater exponents of well being in the form of dialogical encounter and positive psychology in the twentieth century than Martin Buber and Carl Ransom Rogers respectively.  The first was a Jewish philosophical anthropologist and the second a leader and founder of his own approach in the world of psychotherapy. They were both profoundly humanist in tendency.  There can also hardly be a more ambiguous term than that of “humanism.”  Even a cursory search of the Internet will yield a bumper crop of references to classical, atheistic, Christian, Buddhist, Renaissance, cosmic and existential varieties of humanism and so on.  However, what I mean by the term here is what Giustiniani (1985, 175), quoting an anonymous eighteen century author:  calls "(t)he general love of humanity ... a virtue hitherto quite nameless among us, and which we will venture to call ‘humanism’, for the time has come to create a word for such a beautiful and necessary thing.”

    Firstly, we will look at the main individual contributions of these two major scholar-practitioners to the understanding of the human condition or human well being in order to give the necessary context of their work.  We will then outline in the first place where one approach confirms the other and where one approach diverges from the other in the second.  Then we will proceed to describe, analyse and tease out the implications for both theory and practice in the human sciences of their famous dialogue in 1957.

2.1        Situating Buber
Martin Buber teaching.
     Martin Mordechai Buber, the renowned twentieth century Jewish philosopher, theologian, educator and translator was born in 1878 in Vienna and died in Jerusalem in 1965.  As a young man, he was extremely talented and showed mastery of languages as well as of philosophy and theology.  He was also intimately acquainted with the writings of the Jewish mystical tradition of Hasidism. Buber would also become a great translator of the Bible into vernacular German as well as a scholar deeply committed to education and learning, among many other social concerns. 

    He wrote his ground-breaking book I and Thou in 1923[1], and it can be argued that much of his subsequent work is an elaboration and explication of that great work on the nature of dialogue and human encounter.  Buber's focus on dialogue and community would also mark him out as an important thinker for educators. When this is added to his fundamental concern with encounter and how we are with each other (and the world), his contribution is unique and inspiringly humanist in the sense in which we have defined it in the opening paragraphs.  He was no mere theorist either, as he had an on-going involvement in adult education and community organisations, as well as lecturing at various universities over the course of his long life.  It is significant to note that Buber rejected the label of "philosopher" or "theologian" claiming he was not interested in ideas, but only in personal experience, and as a limited and finite being he could not discuss God but only relationships to God.  In this, I believe he was thoroughly Kantian insofar as he argued that we could never experience the thing-in-itself and that we could only speak about our own experiences of anything, including others, and indeed God.[2]  In all of this, he is at one with Carl Ransom Rogers, as he, too, was primarily interested in human encounter and in the personal experiences of both his clients and himself.

    That Buber lived out his theory of dialogue in practice probably goes without saying, given the existentialist leaning in his thought.  In debates following violent riots in 1928 and 1929 on whether to arm the Jewish settlers in Palestine Buber represented the pacifist option.  Later in 1936 he argued boldly and courageously for demographic parity rather than trying to achieve a Jewish majority. Finally, as a member of Brit Shalom he argued for a bi-national rather than for a sole Jewish state in Palestine. As a sincere believer in dialogue always, he held that it was important to articulate the moral truth as one saw it rather than hiding one's true beliefs for the sake of political strategy.   In short, Buber believed in a politics of authenticity, and indeed this stance would win him few friends among Zionists of any hue.  Here again, Rogers would be a firm believer in authenticity, as one of the central planks of his approach to therapy is the congruence of the therapist by which he meant the latter’s fundamental integrity and truthfulness about his/her own real feelings in the here and now of the counselling room.

2.2. I and Thou
    In 1923 Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du which was later translated into English as I and Thou in 1937 by Ronald Gregor Smith.  Since then it has become associated with the intellectual culture of the student movement in the late 1960s and with spontaneity, authenticity, and anti-establishment sentiment.  The contentions of this little gem of a book may be summarised as follows: Any human being takes two basic or primary attitudes to the world about him/her.  These primary attitudes are expressed in two combinations of words viz., “I-It” and “I-Thou”   

    Buber argues cogently that there is no individual “I” taken in itself, on its own as it were.  It always exists in relation to an “other” and in one of two combinations, with an “It” or with a “Thou.” Indeed, he argues that the “I” in both combinations here is significantly different.  Consequently, Buber (2010, 3) argues that “(T)he primary word “I-Thou” can only be spoken with the whole being.  The primary word “I-It” can never be spoken with the whole being.”  In short, then, my experience objectifies what I encounter during the day, and this, of course, implies a certain detachment.  For example, I go to the cinema and buy my ticket from the teller, and then another worker cancels it.  Afterwards I go to the sweet counter and buy chocolate from another person and so on.  All of such brief encounters are functional ones and hence of the “I-It” order.  There is no “I-Thou” encounter there, nor should there be.  Obviously, we could not possibly do without such objectifying experiences if we are to fully function or even function at all in the world.  However, on the other hand, we do not need Buber to remind us that if we existed all the time at the level of “I-It” encounters we should be pretty poor shallow human beings.

    "I-Thou" or "I-You", then, is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings.  It is a concrete encounter, because these two beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. In fact, Buber, the theologian and Jew allows for this encounter to be a locus or ground of possible encounter with God himself should the person be open to that grace.[3]

    In an “I-It” relation, then, I experience a detached thing, fixed out there in space and time, while in an “I-Thou” relation, then, I participate in the dynamic, living process of an “other”.  However, Buber does allow for an “I-It” relation to be transformed into an “I-Thou” one.  What’s needed is a real intensity of encounter on behalf of the subject(s) to bring this about. 

    Obviously, the opposite can also be the case – “I-Thou” relations can be reduced to “I-It” ones.  Indeed, quite often evil will come about as a result of the forced or even mindless reduction of “I-Thou” relations to “I-It” ones.  Without putting words into Buber’s mouth, I should imagine that the treatment meted out to concentration camp inmates is a prime example of such an intentional reductionism of possible “I-Thou” relations to mere “I-It” ones.

    Buber is concerned with the “in-between” world of experience as “I-Thou” or “I-It.”  He calls these phenomena “attitudes”, “relations” and “encounters” – all of which are terms that occur in the existentialist literature.  He describes relation as a “meeting” or an “encounter”.  It is a meeting of a subject with a subject and not of a subject with an object.  Such a meeting is always mutual or two-way.  This, once again, I hasten to add bears all the hallmarks of Carl Ransom Roger’s three core conditions of PCT which I outline below in this paper.[4]

    It is also important to note that by the time Buber had written this book in question, he had gone beyond the mystical phase of his life where he believed one being could be swallowed up by another, as in the mystical union with the Godhead.  In other words, a swallowing up of another would be a one-sided encounter rather than a dialogue which is always mutual or two-way.  A genuine relation, encounter or meeting with another can never be one-sided or dominating or possessive.  There has to be openness and a willingness to listen and perhaps even to change when one believes one is mistaken.  Once again, the essential quality of a Rogerian counselling session would be that of a healing encounter that allows the client to change, because the relationship between counsellor and client is the most important aspect of this form of counselling. We may say that in all of this Buber is thoroughly existentialist [5] as he argues at all times from lived experience, which means something personal, affective, corporeal and unique, and embedded in a world, in history and in our relationships with one another. The goal is to study the wholeness of humankind, especially that which has been overlooked or indeed remains hidden. As an anthropologist, he wants to observe and investigate human life and experience it as it is lived, beginning with one’s own particular experience. While one can place Buber firmly in the existentialist camp, one can certainly not place Rogers there at all as we shall see below.  Rogers’ understanding of man is not existentialist as it avoids evil and suffering in the extreme and presents a far more benign picture of the human condition or of human well being.[6]       




[1] In 1923 Buber wrote his famous essay on dialogue, Ich und Du which was later translated into English as I and Thou in 1937 by Ronald Gregor Smith.

[2] Buber offers us some illuminating musings on Kant’s major writings and how these influenced his own thought.  In Between Man and Man (1979, 149, 169ff.) he discusses the latter’s four great questions and how the fourth “What is man?” is answered by philosophical anthropology. He goes on to stress how the universe is mediated solely by our perceptions, and quoting Kant maintains that “the world is given to us only as an appearance ‘whose existence and connexions (sic) take place only in experience’ “

[3] ‘Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou; by means of every particular Thou the primary word addresses the eternal Thou.  Through the mediation of the Thou of all beings, fulfilment and nonfulfilment comes to them; the inborn Thou is realised in each relation and consummated in none.  It is consummated only in the direct relation with the Thou that can never become  It”’ (Buber, 2010, 75)

[4] See section 3.2 of this paper, page 9.



[5] John MacQuarrie firmly places Buber amongst the theistic existentialists along with Christian theologians and philosophers like Gabriel Marcel, Robert Bultmann and Paul Tillich.  See MacQuarrie (1967, 193-195, 351-369) and MacQuarrie (1977, 39-40, 107-12,  passim)



[6] See section 4.3 below of this paper.

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