Monthly Archives: May 2021

On Buber and Bohm

Note: Buber uses all caps for his relational words, which can at times be confusing. I have, for clarity, used lower case when the meaning of the relational words have different implications from the words when upper case is used.

In his book I and Thou, Martin Buber discusses two core relational words, one or the other of which dominates our way of being in the world. These relational words are “i”-“it”and I-Thou (You). As I understand him, the former separates and fragments while the latter relates and unifies. The creation of an “it” requires making the person, event, process, etc., isolated, abstracted and conceptualized. Buber suggests that You is the spiritual or authentic Self that precedes any development of a self (me) or ego (“i”). Thus, when one has an I-You relationship, it is a dynamic, living and authentic relationship. The authentic Self that lies behind ego enters into a relationship with another Self. Thus, an I-You relationship is at root a spiritual or authentic relationship that unifies rather than divides. On the other hand, an “i” cannot have an I-You relationship with an academic or scientific subject, a social institution or organization or technological devices — only with people and probably some other living organisms. You can, however, also have an “i”-“it” relationship with people, animals and things where the “i” represents the egoic self (me) and “it” represents an objectified thing. An “i”-“it” (me-thing) relationship renders people as objects and therefore is suitable to use as a means to an end. Buber argues that the foundations of modernity are found in “i”-“it” relationships. He advocates that we must learn to live and grow as authentic human beings by living through I-You or I-Thou relationships.

The physicist and philosopher David Bohm reached similar conclusions and offered in his book On Dialogue a method to facilitate relationships grounded in understanding others, which I think Buber would recognize as I-You relationships. Bohm’s method, as I understand it, is normally done with a limited but diverse group but can also be done between two individuals or even as a method for self examination. A brief description of his group method involves several basic components. First, as diverse a group as possible should be assembled. Second, the group members should commit to meet on a regular schedule and to see the process through. Third, members of the group are asked to share with the group anything about their beliefs, attitudes, thoughts or other subjective attributes that they wish. I was reminded of the Quaker practice in which members of their leaderless congregations sit in silence until someone feels moved to speak, stands and says their piece and then sits down. Here is the crux of the process. Fourth, other members may ask clarifying questions or restate in their own words what they understood to have been said, for confirmation or elaboration. Fifth, under no circumstances is anyone allowed to deny, challenge, argue, judge or in any way, including tone of voice, rebut what someone says. If one holds a different view relative to something said, he or she can simply state that view but in no way frame it as an argument against what the other person said. All comments are offered as simple declarative statements, e.g., I am uncomfortable around LGBTQ people. I believe in a personal God. I believe in socialism. I prefer to associate with people from my own ethnic background, and so on.

What Bohm found happens in such groups is that over time they come to develop a group pattern of thought. This pattern is grounded in an understanding of what sorts of beliefs, attitudes and thinking are held by the group as a whole. The members come to understand one another and form a cohesive group. Once there is cohesion, it becomes possible to have non-conflictual, meaningful relationships and authentic dialogue between members of the group. In short, You-You relationships.