Relationships and dialogics

Martin Buber (1923, 1967) outlines three decisive basis relationships I to I, I to Thou, and I to It. Buber makes no clear distinction between Thou and It (Philosophy calls both “substance”) because the difference will always depend on I’s willingness/unwillingness  or desire/non-desire either to distance himself or to form a relationship with Thou (a person) or It (something).

There will of course always be a limit to the desire to transgress but the basic tenet is that I meets Thou in It, where these are other than I. Buber (1964) describes how the I is constructed in the simple and original culture of the infant on the basis of the child’s dependency on its mother. This occurs through the construction of “I’s relationship to Thou”. There is order in the world which exists before the individual’s order in the world full of things, instruments and objects, “all kinds of Its” - dependent on the family history (phylogenesis) and the individual’s history (ontogenesis). Origins and pre-existence have a fundamental effect on the child’s play and existence.

In the relationship between I and Thou (for example when two children play together), we say there is a relationship between two subjects. They are in principle equals. The one must not view the other as an object which by means of open or concealed power can be made an object for manipulation or subdued in order to achieve a goal. Both children at play must try to understand each other’s separateness through their play, through being in each other’s company, through conversation and through mutual influence.

In the I to It relationship, the I (for example, a child at play) confronts an object, a thing or a toy and the I’s recognition of the object is one he adopts on the basis of his own abilities and pre-dispositions. A sensible treatment or manipulation of the object/toy will be achieved only if the child in question is equipped to define the object/thing/toy‘s reactions or uses.

Thus, the I to Thou relationship involves two equal parties who are attracted by each other’s separateness -  whilst the I to It relationship is conditional on the I achieving mastery, a position of power (hegemony), over the other person or the other thing, e.g. a toy.

It is therefore important that we distinguish between the relationship between people (I to Thou) and the relationship to things (I to It).



To encounter




I/me                                                                                                 Thou/it




dialogue/conversation                   mastery

action/play                                        effect

conversation/dialogue                      power



I/me                                                                                                Thou/it



control, power



The question is: Is a human being able to realise a complete I to Thou relationship? It is hardly possible methodically to maintain an I to Thou relationship to another person as the relationship will be something over which the person concerned will gain control or “power”. Openness and spontaneity in terms of impromptu development, effect and recognition will then cease to be characteristic of the relationship.

The human being’s existence is conditional upon constant possession of or possibility to develop the instruments required.

When an instrument is invented or constructed, regardless of whether it is physical or intangible, there are five conditions for the marginal environment of the invention/construction:

  1. There must be a finite EVENT(cause) behind it.
  2. There have to be RESOURCESand energy sufficient to bring it about.
  3. HEREDITY (most often inherited experience) forms the basis.
  4. TIMEitself and the ERA in which the instrument is invented are contributory factors to the quality and appearance of the invention.
  5. TECHNOLOGY is an important factor, particularly where physical or material instruments are concerned.

The instrument (be it physical or intangible) makes it possible for the human being to survive but, at the same time, the situation involves the risk that the human being becomes “It-oriented” and power fixated.

Wivestad (1991) expresses it in a commentary and critique of a variety of Buber interpretations:

“The danger is that the “It-world” loses contact with its supporting foundation, the “Thou-world”, if the “It-world” isn’t constantly illuminated and fertilised by additives from the “Thou-world”. If it isn’t, then the world is an evil place to live in, an enforced rule where we can do nothing other than try to adapt ourselves to our biological fate (a free-for-all), our psychological fate (instincts) and our social fate (arbitrary developments in society).”

It is via the unconditioned addition of play and playing with toys, the use of instruments and manipulation of objects that the child acquires the ability to adopt or obtain cognition, recognition and experience in the balancing act between the unconditioned qualities in the “It-world” on the one hand and the “Thou-world” on the other.

It is therefore logical to regard play and playing as a set of communicative and action-oriented processes for which the following are marginal environmental conditions:

  1. The participating person or persons with their individual PERSONALITIES.
  2. The EVENTor reason why the play/action occurs as it does.
  3. The play or actionprocess is decided by the ERA in which it takes place and the TIME it takes to unfold.
  4. The SPACE in which the play or actiontakes place (free space, outdoors, restricted area, etc.)
  5. The instruments or toys (physical or intangible) - here called REIFICATION- which can be used to optimise the play or action.

There are thus marginal preconditions for both the instruments/toys and the play/actions.

Such marginal conditions are indicative of a natural historical pattern which applied at their creation, right from the start!



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