“The moment of recognition is so important because it is completely tied into the existence of others as independent entities from our own mind. At that moment we understand that the other is ‘an other,’ and not an automaton or bizarre figment of our imagination, or the product an evil genius. The other person is there before us observing us and interacting with us, and they are exactly like us. They are human. That moment of recognition, therefore, unveils humanity to itself. It is in that moment that we know we are not alone.”
When we look another person in the eye we don’t just see the colour of the eyes, because, as Levinas implied, we have the opportunity to enter into a ‘social’ relationship with that person. By ‘social,’ and I’m going to give my own thoughts on this, Levinas did not mean the same social as can be dismissed in the phrase ‘have a chat.’ Instead, the Levinasian version of ‘social’ is the type of engagement that has the capacity to recognise when an encounter with another person is taking place. The upshot being the sharing of a unique moment in time and place by two equals who were able to put aside their cold lifeless journeys for that moment and be there with that other person.
Engaged, listening, responsive, interested and respectful are all attributes of someone in a Levinasian ‘social’ encounter. When we ‘socialise’ in this manner, we emanate a sense of togetherness and equality. An example might be when I walk my dog around a lake and I notice another dog owner but at the moment our dogs start barking at the ducks we look up to see the other looking at us. I have to add though, that this is not a sexually charged moment, nor one that betrays the sanctity of marriage. This precise ‘moment’ is the one that comes first; it comes before all the other baggage of primitive urges, environmental conditioning, and social niceties that we drag along with us, as we stagger under their weight through life. Before all of these, we meet first as humans, as equals, and as others with the power to melt cold lonely existences in an instance. This only happens however, when we look into rather than at the other’s eyes.
The poets describe eyes as windows to the soul, but maybe instead they allow our ‘soul’ to encounter other ‘souls.’ The metaphysical connotation of this term is, of course, redundant for me. I only use it for the expressive depth it can summon: this being vital for the conveyance of the next point, if it is going to have any meaningful significance.
That I can have a conversation with another person and follow my train of thought, in a cold matter of fact way, until the moment they look into my eyes, is a unique, powerful, and secular revelation. At that moment, it is as if I’m being called into account for what I’m saying. Their eyes appear to enquire whether I really believe what I’m saying and whether I’m sincere about the subject of my conversation. At that moment I appear to transcend my own self, with it’s all familiar territories and mundane landscaping, to instantly and effortlessly float across water, hover over foreign soil, and then deeply observe not only my own home land, but also a different ‘culture’ and way of being. A new perspective is given to me about myself through this encounter. Is this not one ‘soul’ meeting another?
When their eyes look at me I have to exit my self-created ‘cultural’ environs and acknowledge that there is, indeed, someone else with their own feelings, thoughts, and life, independent of my stumbling into them. They are their own person and they might not actually fall into line and agree with what I’m saying. They could challenge my words and accuse me of lying, misjudgement, simplistic error, or talking rubbish. If my co-conversation engager didn’t look into my eyes, I would give myself licence to prattle on and on and deliver a mini lecture. Their opening unto mine, acts as if to check that I’m not abusing them by my statements and to ensure that I censor myself in their presence, because there now becomes an imperative to respect them as another person. Their eyes demand that I give them the same deference that I want when looking at someone else. A check to our joint humanity occurs, by this opening unto each other, before our social, in the traditional sense, customs, rules, and laws can be applied and intervene. Eyes though are fragile things; they are physically delicate and need protecting from harm. However, the harm that I find most disturbing is not á la Luis Bruñel’s Un Chien Andalou, where he graphically presents an eye being sliced open with a scalpel. The harm I find most disturbing is when eyes are simply dismissed.
Such dismissal, we have seen in various examples, from avoidance to objectification through to stereotyping and cold-hearted ignorance etc. It really does amaze me that such a powerful part of our lives is so little understood and overridden at every turn with no remorse, outrage, castigation, or reprimand. In Scandinavian countries drivers are taught the rules of the road, but also to be respectful of others and to always allow them entry from a slip road if it can be achieved safely. I believe that they can also be punished for ‘selfish’ driving if they don’t behave in a respectful way towards each other. In non-Scandinavian countries, we appear to go to war against everyone else when we drive and certainly ignore anyone waiting to join our road because we have a ‘right of way’ privilege. My point being, that Scandinavian driving requires respect for others beyond the normal rules of the road. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we all could apply just such a going above and beyond legislation to daily interaction when we look at someone else?
Looking into my eyes you call me into question as to my words and deeds. An exchange occurs, whereby I recognise that you are the same as I: a thinking and feeling thing, who I could upset, lie to, or make laugh. There comes a sense of mutual awareness of what is taking place at that precise moment. If, we are both at a lecture and the lecturer makes a joke, and we happen to look across the room at each other, there is a sense of moment sharing that is palpably visceral. If I say something, that you know is obviously a false statement of events to a third person, just at the time of you catching my gaze I will feel remorse, shame, or that you have judged me. Maybe my falsity was just. If so, I would feel compelled to explain to you why that was the case at the earliest convenience, because you have seen me in a light that I find at odds with whom I believe myself to be. The urge to explain is predicated, of course, upon my experience of you as an equal.
Sartre gave a wonderful vignette to help illustrate this sense of equality and realisation of the other as a person in their own right: A man stoops at a keyhole, looking into a room from without, when another man walks down the corridor and catches him in the act. The first man looks up and sees his observer and feels shame deep in his being. For Sartre, this moment convinces him that we do feel the presence of others and that we are not alone in the world making our merry frozen way through life. For me, the vignette helps to demonstrate that other people do matter to us and that when looked upon we can be called into question. This is because something incredibly powerful occurs to wipe out all but the most determined of solipsistic thoughts. Of course, the first man could look up at his observer, dust himself down and walk off without a word, thought, or sense of shame. By doing so though, wouldn’t we recognise such behaviour as amoral and maybe even claim to have witnessed a ‘damaged’ personality? The ability to feel nothing when caught like that is rare and quite scary, because it is as if we are of no concern to the man. Our existence is inconsequential at best and at worst threatened by the potential violence of someone with no moral code; it feels as if he could stab us in the heart and walk off just as nonchalantly. This is quite uncommon though, and usually confined to those at the outer limits of humanity who, for whatever reason, do not function as we believe humans ought to. However uncommon they might be, though, from autism to sociopath there is a wide range of opportunity available for the evasion of others.
Dismissing the other’s importance, impact, or relevance in this situation is actually of major concern. We can dismiss an overly ornate piece of Rococo furniture, fail to see the impact of a city’s once tallest building, or ignore a piece of evidence in a criminal investigation as irrelevant. However, these are all objects, without emotions, thoughts, or desires. To dismiss a person whom we have just interacted with is morally bankrupt. In such an act, we cast ourselves as superior to the other and deem their thoughts to be inferior. We create subsets of humanity, where some are worthy and some not: shades of racist ideology swamp us at these moments, not in terms of colour but most certainly regarding the end result. To be honest, who are we to rank the worth of another human in relation to ourselves? Do I listen to myself first and foremost, then going down the scale, my family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people who live in my town, then county, then country? Obviously, this is a completely untenable position to maintain, because those whom I originally undervalued, because they lived abroad, could eventually become my neighbours, friends, or even related to me. What happens then? Do I re-align each person and grant them entry up to the next level of worth that I bestow upon them? If that is so then I will have to constantly re-evaluate all those around me and carefully check their prior categorisation within my system. As well as being an abhorrent stance to adopt, it would be administrative nightmare.
Instead of manufacturing levels, subsets, and deciding who belongs where, there is a more fundamental and basic principle by which we all guide our lives: whether the other person is human or not. At this point normally within any philosophical discussion there has to be the inevitable interlude, where we lose our train of thought by wondering who are the possible exceptions to this large generic. Discussions ensue about foetuses and those in vegetative states and what criteria make us human: the capacity to think, have emotions etc. But let us not digress into this overwrought and overworked territory. If you don’t know who is human by now then my thoughts really aren’t for you. Please go and Google utilitarianism, Kantian morality, or virtue ethics, because these topics provide no end of ‘interest’ and ‘fun’ in that whole arena of who is human or not.
Of course to substantiate such an outburst the onus would normally be upon me to justify myself and argue against each ethical doctrine to demonstrate why I believe such things. I’ll give my apologies now. This is not going to happen for two reasons: One, I don’t want to contribute anymore to that particular set of arguments, enough has been written, and two, I don’t see why the themes that I believe in have to create elbow room for the old chestnuts to be discussed. An idea can surely be had that doesn’t have to respond to all previous ideas staggering, lurching, or even loitering around the subject. Did those who discovered the earth was a globe, first have to stop, address and argue directly against the beliefs of those who thought the earth was flat? I believe not.
So, accepting my philosophical arrogance on this issue, we can get back to the plot and the finer point that we do actually know who is human or not. One of the ways that we know is by the very subject we are currently peering into: the moment of recognition. Again, here is where more traditional forms of philosophy would want to refuse further passage and chastise my form of argument by insisting that it is circular. How can I attempt to explain the moment of recognition by allowing my argument to base one of its clauses – that we are all humans – on the predicate that we ‘know’ this because of the moment of recognition, which is the starting point of the circle? Ah, logic, thank you for unravelling my fallacious and erroneous thought, and saving us from wasting time with problems and questions that you can pierce right through and categorise so neatly as either true or false. In this case, your brilliance has shone a merciful light upon my argument and shown that it is worthless because of its circularity, and that we must surely dismiss any further discussion of it immediately. Don’t you just love logic? It is so pure, proud, and decisive. No wonder certain sections of philosophy have been stuck in its treacle for so long on issues such as whether other people exist. If logic gets a sniff of an argument that doesn’t conform to its strict protocols then into the dustbin of history it goes, taking anything connected with it.
Therefore, because logic has seen through my shady ruse and discovered circularity in my thinking, we must accept its golden rule and dismiss my ‘erroneous’ thought on this matter. Or maybe, for once, we can say “hold on” and ask for a little benefit of doubt before someone shouts “fallacious argument” at the top of their lungs. Let us collectively rein in that urge, that lurks perniciously within us all, and re-examine what has been said and why. It seems, that I’m arguing for us to understand and recognise the importance of the moment of recognition and in order to do this we need to accept, surpassing years of philosophical mire on the issue of intersubjectivism, that there are indeed other humans as a blunt fact and that one of the ways of accepting this ‘fact’ is the existence of the moment of recognition. A beautiful circle, non?
Now, stay with me on this because there are many who, if they have got even this far, will not like what comes next.
The moment of recognition is so important because it is completely tied into the existence of others as independent entities from our own mind. At that moment we understand that the other is ‘an other,’ and not an automaton or bizarre figment of our imagination, or the product an evil genius. The other person is there before us observing us and interacting with us, and they are exactly like us. They are human. That moment of recognition, therefore, unveils humanity to itself. It is in that moment that we know we are not alone. We know that there are others who like us desire, dream, and hope for all the same things we do. Convinced? No? Well, rather than taking Descartes and his followers as philosophical seers and preachers of the truth, bring them into your life right here and now, see them as friends, and set them a challenge: Can anyone look into the eyes of another person and doubt their ‘human-ness’, doubt their existence as being a separate entity from oneself? Take up the challenge yourself, and feel your humanity ooze from beneath your feet as you look into another’s eyes, futilely attempting to doubt that they are there, real, or human. In the face of this acid test, Cartesian thinking fails every time because as we dismiss the other, in whatever way we feel we can, our own humanity ebbs away from us and we feel bereft and ‘soul-less’ ourselves. This is of course assuming that the spectrum of autism and sociopathic tendencies hasn’t already claimed us for its own.