Dewey and Buber: An I-Thou Relation

By Samuel Brabham

The American pragmatist, John Dewey, and German Existentialist, Martin Buber, were writing during the same period, yet they did not engage with each other’s work. This essay will bring together their different schools of thought to discuss what Dewey believed was the primary concern of the public. In particular, Dewey’s critique of traditional liberal conceptions of the individual and society will be discussed. Examining Dewey’s thought regarding the interactions of the various groups which constitute society will allow us to identify society’s primary concern. Then, through the philosophy of Martin Buber, this essay will explore how public dialogue can be reinforced. Finally, Buber and Dewey’s apprehensions regarding the increasing value given to expert knowledge will be assessed. As we will see, Buber’s conception of the I-Thou relation offers a solution to the issues raised by Dewey.

As traditional liberalism sees it, the individual is a free and self-contained human being who exists prior to society.[1] These individuals form societies and institutions to direct collective interests and protect freedoms.[2] According to this theory, then, a tension is created within a society which seeks to limit and control pre-social individuals who try to obtain the greatest amount of freedom.[3] Dewey, however, believes this traditional liberal position is too abstract and fails to truly represent the relationship between the individual and society. For Dewey, conceiving of individuals as pre-social and self-contained is untenable; an individual does not act in isolation, they act alongside others whose actions in turn influence and shape the individual.[4] A group of individuals become a society when they direct their efforts toward pursuing a shared interest, e.g. to mitigate the volatility of certain actions.[5] Yet Dewey indicates social institutions do not hold themselves over individuals; the different perspectives and abilities of its constituting individuals are the means through which these institutions progress.[6] Correspondingly individuals are habituated by the responsibilities and limitations imparted by society and its institutions.[7] Dewey states “…an individual cannot be opposed to the association of which he [sic] is an integral part nor can the association be set against its integrated members.”[8] Hence the traditional liberal explanation for the restriction of freedom felt by individuals is inadequate—yet this feeling of restriction still exists.

The limited freedom experienced by individuals exists between groups. A society consists of different groups (centred around religion, community ideals, business, etc.).[9] Among these many groups, one will cast itself as representing the interests of society as a whole, while the interests of the remaining groups are cast as those of individuals.[10] As an individual begins to feel isolated from and restricted by the major group, an imagined disassociated individual arises and becomes the basis for the opposition between individual and society.[11] According to Dewey, what actually takes place here is that a smaller group is unable to realise their potentialities and fully participate in the creation of society when one dominant group dictates all possible forms of association.[12] These illusory tensions between the individual and society are particularly exacerbated during periods of technological and social change.[13] Political institutions become outdated, unable to address the needs of the newly-emerging groups, and debates on vague conceptions of the individual and society abound, yet the real issues remain unaddressed.[14] As the pre-social individual is born from a misunderstanding, the problem is not one of individual freedom from society, but how individuals are to inquire into the consequences of a society operating a certain way.[15] One may recommend individuals defer to experts, though Dewey disagrees. Experts, detached from common concerns, would evolve into a group with its own focus and again develop a knowledge divorced from the issues of broader society.[16] To be truly democratic, they must exist alongside the broader public, their work actively participated in and directly shaped by them, and their knowledge distributed amongst all.[17] The public is not a herd to be led, but rather comprises active participants in democratic discussions and decisions.[18] The primary concern for the public, then, “…is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion.”[19] For Dewey, a public dialogue is the only truly democratic means to comprehensively and positively reform society’s operations.

The philosophy of Martin Buber offers insight into how this public dialogue can be realised. While Dewey identifies that face to face communities must move away from prejudice and rhetoric toward more genuine forms of dialogue, he does not outline how this move should take place.[20] Martin Buber’s work can act as a guide. In “I and Thou,” Buber identifies two modes of existence for human beings, I-It and I-Thou.[21] Like Dewey, Buber’s I, his individual, is always situated among others. Through the I-It, we experience the world; in this mode we accrue empirical knowledge of our surroundings, sort them into categories and analyse their function; the I stands in a pure subject-object relation with the world.[22] Through the I-Thou mode, the I stands in relation to a Thou, be it nature, art or human; the Thou steps forward and the I turns to it, and acknowledges the fullness of the Thou itself.[23] The Thou is not reduced to its empirical attributes or potential function but remains unique, and enters into dialogue with the I.[24] Every I-Thou mode is entered only temporarily and we must inevitably return to the I-It.[25] In the I-It mode one acts upon the world, but not within it, as the It-world gives nothing back. Conversely, through the I-Thou mode we enter the present and open a dialogue with our Thou; we act and are acted upon, we stand in relation to the Thou and thus the world. Hence, Buber situates the importance of dialogue within individual experience.

Buber, like Dewey, is concerned with the growing status of expert knowledge. While Buber acknowledges the I-It mode as an essential aspect of our lives, he claims that those who exist solely within it, and do not enter the I-Thou, are not human.[26] All expert, or scientific, knowledge is obtained through the I-It mode.[27] Buber claims that modern society is preoccupied with unravelling existence, experiencing all the world has to offer, only to categorise and utilise it.[28] It has also mistakenly dismissed the value of the I-Thou mode, claiming it is sentimental; that it has no utility outside of itself.[29] Groups too are considered only in terms of their goals and actions, reduced to an It; their members can no longer form a community if they have no interest in one another outside of function.[30] Drawing from Dewey, communities steeped in the It-world rely on empirical conceptions of society which fail to truly unpick pressing social issues; solutions are blindly chosen by experts and their success is reliant on luck, not serious inquiry.[31] I-Thou relations offer a way out. To access the I-Thou mode is to turn away from theories and concepts toward concrete relationships and dialogues.[32] By turning to the I-Thou, individuals enter the present and experience each other as limitless beings. While one cannot always chose to enter an I-Thou mode, they can exist in such a way as to be receptive to it, aware of the ways in which a Thou has acted upon their I, and thus interact with the I-It differently when they inevitably return.[33] Thus, conditions are created to foster more honest forms of debate, discussion and persuasion.

Traditional liberal conceptions of the individual and society fail to recognise the individual as being both situated within and integral to society. According to Dewey, the only way to ease the conflict among groups and create positive reform is to improve a society’s ability to engage in healthy public dialogue. Buber’s work in “I and Thou” shows the value of dialogue to the individual experience. While an I-Thou dialogue has its limitations, it is key to creating a community in which individuals can enter a positive public dialogue. Buber’s “I and Thou” offers a concrete position from which various individuals can approach the problems faced by society as identified by Dewey.

Sam Brabham is currently completing his Honours in Philosophy at the University of Queensland. He is currently interested in themes of repentance and empathy, and German existentialism and phenomenology. He is eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child.


[1] J. Mullins, “The Problem of the Individual in the Philosophies of Dewey and Buber,” 76.

[2] M. Festenstein, “Dewey’s Political Philosophy.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. Dewey, “The Problem of Method,” 207-8.

[5] Ibid, 209

[6] Ibid, 209; J. Mullins, “The Problems of the Individual in the Philosophies of Dewey and Buber,’ 77.

[7] J. Dewey, “The Problem of Method,” 210; M. Festenstein, “Dewey’s Political Philosophy.”

[8] J. Dewey, “The Problem of Method,” 211.

[9] Ibid, 211.

[10] P. Deen, “Recontextualizing John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems,” 518.

[11] J. Dewey, “The Problem of Method,” 211.

[12] Ibid, 213.

[13] Ibid, 211-2.

[14] Ibid, 211-2.

[15] Ibid, 212.

[16] Ibid, 224.

[17] Ibid, 224-5.

[18] K.N. Cissna and R. Anderson, Moments of meeting: Buber, Rogers, and the Potential for Public Dialogue, 8.

[19] J. Dewey, “The Problem of Method,” 225.

[20] Ibid, 229.

[21] M. Buber, I and Thou, 53-4.

[22] Ibid, 55-6; H. S. Rosenblatt, “Martin Buber’s Concepts Applied to Education,” 125.

[23] M. Buber, I and Thou, 58; J. Moran, “Buber and Dewey: the Redemption of Personal Experience”, 35.

[24] M. Buber, I and Thou, 59-60; K.N. Cissna and R. Anderson, Moments of Meeting: Buber, Rogers and the Potential for Public Dialogue, 57.

[25] M. Buber, I and Thou, 69.

[26] Ibid, 85.

[27] M. Buber, I and Thou, 80-1.

[28] M. Buber, “Dialogue,” 22.

[29] M. Buber, “Dialogue,” 22.

[30] W.R Fisher, “Narrative, Reason, and Community.”

[31] J. Dewey, “Reconstruction as Affecting Social Philosophy,” 188.

[32] J. Moran, “Buber and Dewey: Redemption of Personal Experience,” 38.

[33] M. Buber, I and Thou, 102; J. Moran, “Buber and Dewey: Redemption of Personal Experience,” 35.

Works Cited

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1970.

———. “Dialogue.” In Between Man and Man. Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, 1-39. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.

Cissna, Kenneth N., and Anderson, Rob. Moments of Meeting: Buber, Rogers, and the Potential for Public Dialogue. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Deen, Phillip. “Recontextualizing John Dewey’s the Public and its Problems.” In History of Political Through 37, no. 3 (2016): 509-529.

Dewey, John. “Reconstruction as Affecting Social Philosophy.” In The Essential Writings, edited by David Sidorsky, 185-196. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

———. “The Problem of Method.” In The Public and Its Problems: an Essay in Political Inquiry, 206-234. Ohio: Swallow Press, 2016.

Festenstein, Matthew. “Dewey’s Political Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Salta. Accessed 30 August 2018.

Fisher, Walter R. “Narration, Reason, and Community.” Writing the Social Text: Poetics and Politics in Social Science Discourse, edited by Richard Harvey Brown, 199-218. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Moran, James. “Buber and Dewey: the Redemption of Personal Experience.” Philosophy Today 18, no. 1 (1974): 32-40.

Mullins, James. “The Problem of the Individual in the Philosophies of Dewey and Buber.” Educational Theory 17, no. 1 (1967): 76-82.

Rosenblatt, Howard S. “Martin Buber’s Concepts Applied to Education.” The Educational Forum 35, no. 2 (1971): 215-218.

Featured image by Markus Spiske via flickr



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