Martin Buber's Philosophy of Communication (2020-21)

Martin Buber's dialogical philosophy contains a fundamental reflection on the nature of human relations and how they can be participated in, interpreted, and studied. In this seminar we will examine Buber's main writings, focusing on his claim that the dialogical I-Thou relation differs fundamentally from social relations, that it can only be understood on its own terms, that it exists in communicative speech (even though not always words are exchanged in concrete I-Thou instances) and that it resists all attempts at objectification. We will bring this claim into conversation with other approaches to understanding human relations and the nature of the social, e.g. Marxism, feminism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, communication theory and contemporary social philosophy. We will ask how the interhuman and the social are related. Could a future-oriented, utopian horizon to human relationality emerge as the mediation between the interhuman and the social? How might this inform a contemporary assessment of Buber’s work? We’ll work with primary texts by Buber and others, as well as with literary and first-person accounts of relationality and dialogue.

Convenors: Johan Siebers (Bloch Centre/Middlesex University) and Vic Seidler (Goldsmiths/Leo Baeck College)

Seminars will be held fortnightly on Mondays, from 16:00-18:00 (online via Zoom). Participation is free, however advance online registration is required as only registered participants will be sent to the link to access the event. 

Dates - please follow the link to register for each meeting:

5 October 2020
19 October 2020
2 November 2020
16 November 2020
30 November 2020 
14 December 2020

Guidelines for participating in Zoom events [PDF]

Reading

Martin Buber's dialogical philosophy contains a fundamental reflection on the nature of human relations and how they can be participated in, interpreted, and studied. This seminar series will examine Buber's main writings, focusing on his claim that the dialogical I-Thou relation differs fundamentally from social relations, that it can only be understood on its own terms, that it exists in communicative speech (even though not always words are exchanged in concrete I-Thou instances) and that it resists all attempts at objectification. We will bring this claim into conversation with other approaches to understanding human relations and the nature of the social, e.g. Marxism, feminism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, communication theory and contemporary social philosophy. We will ask how the interhuman and the social are related. Could a future-oriented, utopian horizon to human relationality emerge as the mediation between the interhuman and the social? How might this inform a contemporary assessment of Buber’s work? We’ll work with primary texts by Buber and others, as well as with literary and first-person accounts of relationality and dialogue.

Buber’s dialogical view of the communicative encounter in speech, in which freedom and community (or, as he called it, distance and relation) cannot be abstracted from each other, presents a radical challenge to most theorizations of social interaction and organisation, relationality and communication that guide research, thought and public discourse today. At the same time, his work leaves questions unanswered, for example around embodiment and nature.

At a time when all these themes are of such pervasive global influence, both structurally as well as in terms of the exigencies of the present moment, Buber’s ideas can help us to think in new ways. How do we understand, and how do we cope with, distance and relation today?

The critical edition of Buber’s writings consists of 21 volumes: Martin Buber Werkausgabe, Im Auftrag der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities herausgegeben von Paul Mendes-Flohr und Peter Schäfer (Munich: Penguin/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2001-2019).

As this is an interdisciplinary and internationally oriented seminar, spanning philosophy, communication studies, German studies and social theory, we will work with available English translations as our primary textual references, turning to the German texts when necessary. Readings will be taken from:

The Knowledge of Man: A Philosophy of the Interhuman, tr. Maurice Friedman (New York, Harper & Row 1965)

Tales of the Hasidim, 2 volumes with a foreword by Chaïm Potok (New York: Schocken Books  1991)

Paths in Utopia (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 1996)

Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (London: Routledge 2002)

I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Simon and Schuster 2008)

We will begin the seminar with a reading of the essay 'Distance and Relation', from 1950, in The Knowledge of Man, pp. 59-71.

A growing list of secondary literature, to which participants can add, will develop over the course of the seminar. As a starting point for the study of Buber three books and one article are recommended:

Paul Mendes-Flohr,  Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (New Haven: Yale University Press 2019)

Maurice Friedman,  Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, 4th  Edn. (London: Routledge 2003)

Victor Seidler, Jewish Philosophy and Western Culture (London: Bloomsbury 2007)

Eli Dresner and Johan Siebers, I Interpret You: Davidson and Buber (Review of Metaphysics 2019, 73.1) 109-126

Semester Two will explore alternative accounts of communication and of social and interhuman relations, concentrating on key stages in the development of contemporary social philosophy and theory. Marxist, psychoanalytic, existential, phenomenological, linguistic, critical, post-structuralist, feminist and contemporary authors will be brought into dialogue with Buber. Details for Semester Two will follow later.

Blessed Be He Who Spoke. They asked Rabbi Barukh: 'Why do we say: "Blessed be he who spoke and the world existed" and not, "Blessed he who created the world"?' He replied: 'We praise God because he created our world with the word, and not with the thought, like other worlds. God judges the zadikkim for an evil thought they nurse within them. But how could the rank and file of the people persist if he were to judge them in this way, and not – as  he does – only for an evil thought they have expressed and made effective through words.' (Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 1, p. 89)