I and Thou, Sweet Tension, Coliberation: How Dialogue in Play, Sport, and Human Movement can Change the World.

Rupert Wegerif, in his article Dialogue with a Tree?, says that Buber’s main argument in his “I and Thou” is that:

“…how we orient ourselves to others makes a difference to how we see them or feel them.”

It is my view that there is much potential in sport, games, play, dance, competition, recreation, and movement (of the ecstatic, flow-inducing type) to improve our relationship with others—to re-orient ourselves (to them) and to change how we “see or feel them” (for the better).  In other words, engaging in meaningful movement can help us shift from an “I-It” orientation to an “I-Thou.” And this potential emerges from the dialogue—our inter and intra-actions—with so-called “others” (waves, rocks, people, basketballs, spectators, etc.).  In this sense, these opportunities for meaningful movement can be thought of as a sort of “education in ethics.”

Wegerif talks often of “Dialogic Space,” and even though I am probably mis-applying his term here, I immediately think of “Sweet Tension” as a catalyst for learning and transformation that “sits” within this space.  “Sweet Tension,” as McLaughlin, Torres, Kretchmar, and Fraleigh suggest, is that very palpable tension that exists in, between, and amongst subjects in CON-tests that is often a very powerful driver of performance and that keeps us coming back for more.

Here is the abstract from McLaughlin’s and Torres’s paper:

In this paper, we argue that a rich phenomenological description of “sweet tension” is an important step to understanding how and why sport is a meaningful human endeavour. We introduce the phenomenological concepts of intersubjectivity and horizon and elaborate how they inform the study and understanding of human experience. In the process, we establish that intersubjectivity is always embodied, developing and ethically committed. Likewise, we establish that our horizons are experienced from an embodied, developing and ethically committed perspective that serves as the possibility for new intersubjective engagement. What follows is a discussion of the explanatory role of intersubjectivity and horizon in elucidating experiences of sweet tension in and through sport. The phenomenological account of sweet tension provides insights into the significance of our sporting experiences. Indeed, taking phenomenology seriously represents a commitment to descriptively elucidate what makes such experiences of sport significant and why we long for them. Recognising that sweet tension is a form of intersubjective horizon opens up new avenues for addressing ethical issues in sport as well as in crafting well-balanced games.

It is this “relationship of tension,” to borrow a phrase from Wegerif, enacted best as a “sweet tension,” that allows us to open up to each other—to broaden our horizons and re-orient ourselves for better, more ethical, modes of relating.

This shift, this re-orientation, from an “I-It” to an “I-Thou,” probably has many names, but I personally love this way of describing it:“Coliberation.”  This is not my word though—it is Bernie DeKoven’s.   Here is how he defines it:

A shared transcendence of  personal limitations, of our understanding of our own capabilities; a sudden, momentary transformation of our awareness of the connections between ourselves, each other, and the world we find each other in.

In that same article, a little further along, DeKoven mentions Celia Pearce’s notion of “Intersubjective Flow.”  Do yourself a favor and go read that part, right now!  Here DeKoven quotes Pearce:

“…’intersubjective flow’ situates the flow state between people rather than within the individual. In this case flow moves from the realm of the psychological to the realm of the social. Intersubjective flow serves to accelerate a form of intimacy that is unique to play. In this context, a group of complete strangers can form a sense of group cohesion in a relatively short period of time. This is played out in simple street game contexts, such as a pick-up game of basketball. Over time and prolonged exposure, this intimacy can strengthen, as may be the case with a professional basketball team or an amateur basketball league. This is also exemplified by the concept of a ‘swing,’ the experience that oarsmen describe when they are in sync, as if a single player is rowing.'”

So through our dialogue with an “other” (especially in a movement context), through the thick of the “sweet tension,” we are able to “coliberate.”

That is, if we let it.

We can thwart this potential, and we often do, by focusing too much on the outcome, rather than the process.  In the process, in the richness of the present moment, we lose ourselves in ecstasy—this is PLAY!  But stuck in the future, waiting for the payoff (the win), we also get lost, except this “lost” leads not to a discovery of our relation, but to an imagined separation—an “us vs them.”

When we allow ourselves to PLAY for the sake of PLAYING, and if we PLAY to CHALLENGE and BE CHALLENGED, we open up that space, that dialogic space, full of “sweet tension,” that brings us into communion with the “other.”  Our imagined opponent becomes our partner!  And it is here, in this space, that we move from an I-It orientation to an I-Thou.  It is here that we learn that my becoming and your becoming are intertwined, and that maybe there is no “other.”

Here is more from Wegerif’s article:

classic text ‘I and Thou’. His main argument in ‘I and thou’ (Ich und Du) is that how we orient ourselves to others makes a difference to how we see them or feel them. We can objectify them, turn them into things to be studied and classified, – the ‘I to it’ orientation – or we can relate to them in a responsive way as others who also make meaning – ‘the I -thou’ orientation. The key indication of the ‘I-thou’ orientation is that we are open to the possibility that we might learn something.

It is sometimes forgotten that Buber’s argument was not just about how we treat other human beings but also about how we relate to otherness in general including how we relate to God and how we relate to nature. Early in the book, to present his main thesis that how we orient to others matters, he gives the illustration of how we can relate in different ways to a tree: we can see it aesthetically, as lines and colours, standing back from it as if was a picture, we can relate to it as just  an instance of universal scientific laws or we could perhaps dissolve it into numbers, the measurements, the number of carbon atoms etc. These are all examples of variations of an objectifying ‘I to It’ orientation. Buber continues that it is also possible to take a different orientation to the tree and relate to it as a thou.


‘The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.’ I and Thou p 6/7

Buber uses the term ‘reciprocity’ implying that he means a dialogic relation. This raises a challenge for how we understand the essential dialogic relationship that underlies theories of dialogic education. Dialogue is often defined as requiring two or more subjectivities each actively orienting towards the other or others in the dialogue. It seems unlikely that the tree outside my window really has a sense of my existence and is orienting itself towards me. But I think that there is another way of defining the essential dialogic relationship.

Here is my alternative definition:

In a dialogic relationship there are two sides, an inside and an outside, held in a relationship of tension in which they can reverse perspectives but not join.

For example, let us assume that I am talking to you now as I write. My own thoughts are open to me as if they are in field of light. I can see my intentions as I plan my next sentence. My intention is to reach you, to make you stop and think, so I really have you in mind all the time. But your thoughts are dark to me. The dialogue, this dialogue here, has two sides, an inside – ‘me’ – and an outside ‘you’. But the outside is not bounded – I do not even know your name – you could be anybody and probably are. Just imagine if this blog somehow survives the destruction of the earth by asteroids in the next century and is found by aliens in a structured fragment of computer hard-drive floating in space in a million years’ time. Perhaps that is ‘you’?


Figure 2: A possible reader?

Nonetheless, despite the unknown nature of my interlocutor, I sense that there is a dialogue. To write I need to take your position and imagine your response. More than this, the writing – my ‘voice’ which I hear in my head even as I type rapidly on the keyboard – emerges out of the relationship between me and you and would not be possible without that tension. I am not writing just what I think nor just what I think you want to hear but something in-between – something that would not exist or make sense without both sides in the dialogue.



  1. Really interesting concept. Intersubjective flow is a nice way to consider play, games and sport. Sweet tension has strong overlap with complexity theory and the notion of boundaries (horizons) and edge of chaos (sweet tension). Not to mention zone of proximal development, flow state, mastery motivational climate, etc. Did like the paper on sweet tension. Back half has some really salient points.


  2. This is lovely. It puts me in mind – or “in heart” – of a few times in my life when I was in a “coliberative” interaction with another person, and it was if the game – or the song, or the dance that we were in – was *playing us.* Like we were participant expressions of a kind of third force or process. Like the context – or the stage or the game itself – was something alive, and it was singing and playing and enacting itself, in and through and as us.

    thanks, Nate


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