Empathy in dialogue

Dialogue is such an important part of our life and yet, we tend to take for granted all the effort that goes into it. Although we generally succeed at getting our message across,  that doesn’t necessarily mean we have successfully established a dialogue between ourselves and our interlocutors. When communication involves cross-cultural messaging, establishing a truthful dialogue, becomes a much more complex task.



Martin Buber – Dialogical principal

Writing from the crises-filled days of the second world war and its subsequent post-war years, philosopher and humanist Martin Buber, of Jewish descent, feared the human capacity to establish relations was fading away. “The things that makes man truly man are localised neither within the individual nor in the world around him but in the inter-human sphere where two human beings communicate with one another a part from their respective spheres.”  For Buber, the intrinsic reality and worth of the whole human experience was the participation of each other’s lives. What “makes a person truly human”, held Buber, is not found within the individual. It is the inter-human experience where two humans communicate with one another that grants persons the essence of humanity.

Called the “I-Thou” association, this relationship recognizes the “Other” as a “Thou”, as a subject in his whole and unique being.  Initially, at least one of the participants actively engages in the common experience. Without denying any aspect of his own lived experience, he or she has the capacity to see the common situation from the other’s perspective. He or she becomes aware of the other.  Awareness implies experiencing the wholeness of self and the wholeness of the other. The person “I” emerges as a result of relating with another, a responsive “You” who in turn develops into “Thou”, through the experience of call and response.

In opposition to the “I-Thou”, Buber saw the instrumental “I-It” as a distancing device. This association only has use as long as it serves to relate human beings to other human beings as objects that can be analysed, compared and classified.

The notion of the Cultural continuum

The core of Buber’s thought serves as a basis for what some writers call a ‘cultural continuum’  (D’Cruz, V and Steele, W.).  As an extension in space and time of the ‘I-thou’ and ‘I-it’ relationships, the continuum emerges as a framework of inquiry into socio- cultural differences. The notion of a continuum as described by D’Cruz provides for a flow between the (metaphoric) poles of concreteness and abstraction. Both points are neither mutually exclusive nor developmental states.  Furthermore, there is a mixture of concrete and abstract ingredients both at the societal and individual levels.  The following are the characteristics of societies at both ends of the continuum.

The ‘Concrete’end of the continuum 

At the more concrete end of the continuum,  the community is given priority over the individual. The sense of belonging to the group is emphasised over the autonomy of the individual. Privacy exists only in a public sense and members are seen not as individuals but as participants in distinct, inward looking social units. Social forms are commonly arranged along hierarchical lines, resulting in a high esteem for wisdom and experience.   Social connections are given supremacy and are equipped with lots of goodwill to sustain deference and debate.  There is a preference for preserving the honour of the family, avoiding shame, and meeting obligations . ‘Community’ stands as the capital element of cohesion and it means  shared values, moral commitments,  social cohesion, solidarity and continuity in time and place .

As Michael Sandels (1982:172-173) explained, a community enjoys ‘ a common vocabulary of discourse and a background of implicit practices and understandings’.  A community is involved in shared practices that define the pattern of loyalty and obligation that keeps them alive. These practices help establish a web of interconnections by creating trust, joining people together, and making each individual aware of his or her reliance on the community. Bellah et al. (1985:153) noted that a real community has a community of memory, which does not forget the past. This community is constantly involved in retelling its story.  In doing so, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community.

Commonly in the past, these communities were non literate and transmitted their cultural heritage through language, ‘the most direct and comprehensive expression of the social experience of the group’ (Goody & Watt, 196:306).  Concrete societies in the past lived in more or less unified life-worlds. A religious integrating order bound the various sectors of social life in a unitary meaning (Berger, P. & Berger, B., & Kellner, H.,  1974:66). Morality was conceived from social practice, religion and revelation and ‘trust’ acted as a bonding element. The same integrative symbols that permeated various sectors of the individual’s everyday lives in the past, do so in some contemporary societies, thus providing different emphasis on the notion of  space and time at this end of the continuum.

The ‘Abstract’ End of the Continuum

 In the more abstract pole, contrarily, the relational partner, the Other, becomes a ‘Generalised Other’ , an individual valued for his/her professional expertise and for his/her capacity of autonomy. Relationships relate in the world of functional activities and become an end rather than a means in human living. The individual is dominant and detaches itself from the Other.  There is no mutuality, only active and passive agents. “The Other is perceived as an object to be rationalised, experienced, memorised,  and ultimately utilised” (Coyle, C., 1989:48).

Evolved from the rational understanding of the world that developed during the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century in Europe, abstract cultures resolve the moral opposition between right and wrong through generalised human reason.  Based on their Kantian heritage, these communities perceive events as a matter of cause and effect (Cahn, M.S. (ed.), 1990:931). The sovereign autonomous self is the ultimate expression of the individual’s rights  to freedom, choice and self-determination.

In this context,

“The Other becomes an instrument to one’s self-fulfillment: if they obstruct it or lose attraction, or stop fulfilling the needs of the self,  they are discarded.” ( Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, 1985:13)

 It is as though, Jürgen Habermas cried as well (1987:12), the values and assumptions of the market place have penetrated every cultural pore of our lives.  Private relations are transformed into commodity relations where human beings are replaceable, exchangeable, and disposable, just like any other commodity available in the market. Increasing urbanisation, the political ideas of democracy, the significance of the nation-state added to the economic forces of capitalism, forces national identity as citizens to displace community or kin-based identity. (Habermas, 1987:12).

Another reason for these characteristics  could be found in the unique  balance struck in these societies between nurturance and control of the child. Enforcing and explaining rules is a method of child rearing geared to producing independent, self-reliant adults, future survivors in competitive, individualistic cultures.  People who believe that there are universal rules based on equal respect,  will also believe that they are entitled to be autonomous, independent individuals who have the right to do and ask anything they please as long as it does not hurt anyone.

In the world of abstraction, there is a segregation of public life from private life, not only at an institutional level but also at a conscious level. These dichotomy of public and private spheres added to anonymity in social relations is endemic of experiences of urban life and mass communication.   More and more, wrote Alasdair MacIntyre (1981:147) “modern liberal political society  can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection”.  It seems as the ‘individualistic self’ had become increasingly detached from its social and cultural contexts. Democracy, according to B. Hill (1991), is consequently based on procedural values, which enable people to get on with each other despite differences of belief and opinion:

“What the West calls the liberal democratic state passes no judgement on the individual’s belief and lifestyle, provided that they pose no threat to principles of justice, equality, fraternity and liberty of thought and speech.” (Hill, B.V., 1991:14)

The rational individual sits at the centre of history.  Human history, which is understood as the history of the Western world, is seen under the umbrella of Liberal Humanism as a history of progress and enlightenment based on education and rational planning. Liberal Humanism has been often used to justify capitalist social relations in the West and their extensions, via colonialism and post-colonialism, to other societies. Robert Young (1990:119) points out in ‘White Mythologies: Writing History and the West’, that European systems of thought  have long operated ‘as the effect of their colonial Other’. Europe’s self –image has been defined in opposition to a less civilised, non-European ‘Other’.

Room for interaction

The notion of the Cultural Continuum assents to the co-existence of various degrees of concreteness and abstraction. This allows characteristics within individuals and cultures to be viewed in complementarity, avoiding homogenisations and polarisations. The notion of the Cultural Continuum illustrates the potential of cultures and individuals to embrace characteristics of more concrete or more abstract components within themselves. One is obliged to go beyond dichotomies which accentuate that which separates rather than that which unites.

As it does within individuals, the fluidity embedded in the notion of the continuum pulls cultures together. It is thanks to an ability to look within ourselves and find the commonness with the ‘Other’, that we are able to understand our partners.  By building from the inside out we become aware of others’ experience. We comprehend the lives of others through a process of inclusion.

Finding a common ground might require patience, comprehension, compassion and above all empathy. But as Michael Maffesoli (1996) argues, we don’t need to look too far. We can easily discover the abstract within the more concrete and the concrete within the abstract.  Maffesoli (1996:9 ) believes that the individual does not seem to be any longer  “the crystallisation and expression of the general macrocosm” and that the contractual arrangements with other rational individuals at the core of individualism are no longer prevalent. The ‘persona’ (Maffesoli,1996:10), rather than the individual, will then be able to find its identity and fulfillment in its relations with others.  The more concrete person will then have the capacity to reach within him/herself to get in touch with the abstract party within ( and vice versa), a move that facilitates dialogue and when necessary, reconciliation.


Teresa Rodriguez

Bellah, Robert, Madsen, N.,R., Sullivan, W., Swidler, A.,  and  Tipton S., M., 1985, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and commitment in American life, Berkeley: University of California Press

Buber, M. 1965, Beetween Man and Man. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Coyle, C., 1989,  Concreteness and Abstraction: Martin Buber as an Exemplar for the Educator in a Faith Community. Melbourne: La Tobe University.

Cahn, M., S. (ed.), 1990,  Classics of Western Philosophy, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

D’Cruz, V and  Steele, W., Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia. Turtle Beach and the Failure of Australian Postcolonialism.

Habermas, J., 1987, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, transl., Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hill, B.V., 1991, Values education in Ausralian schools, in Australian Education Review, No. 32

Michel Maffesoli, 1996, The Time of the Tribes, London: Sage publications

Sandel, Michael, 1982, Liberalism  and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Young, Robert, 1990, White Mythologies: Writing, History and the West, London and New York: Routledge.

3 thoughts on “Empathy in dialogue

    • Gracias Andrea! Me alegra mucho que te guste, espero poder compartir y comunicarme con interesados en la interculutarlidad como tú, así que visita siempre que quieras! Un fuerte abrazo, Teresa

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