Other people aren’t conjured
from my imagination.

They have a presence
beyond fact or fancy.

Just because ontology and phenomenology
have their limits,

It doesn’t then become a question
of metaphysics or mysticism.

Rather, otherness
is the ethics of acceptance.

In a nutshell, the problem of intersubjectivity is how can I really know that you are not just a figment of my imagination and are in fact your own person, your own subject. However, if one starts, as Descartes did, with oneself as the subject of all one’s experiences and thoughts then, unfortunately, one can never really prove that the whole world isn’t a phantom of one’s imagination. Traditionally, phenomenological theory continues to combat the problem by attempting to derive an alter ego from one’s prior knowledge. However, this type of alter ego, or other, because of being derived from the originating subject and not independently from itself, or by itself, still doesn’t get past Descartes’ original problem of imagination being the potential source of all experience. The impasse, encountered by traditional phenomenology, which started with Descartes and went right up to Edmund Husserl, is due to the priority given to subject.

Breaking away from the tradition, Emmanuel Levinas saw the ‘other’ not as an alter ego derived from studying oneself, but as a person to be regarded as the “source of…  [their] own signification,”[1] according to Silvia Benso.  The point to grasp, is that Levinas started to dissolve the problem of intersubjectivity by regarding the other in a very different manner to those who taught him. Levinas saw the other from an ethical stance as opposed to a phenomenological or ontologically driven one. To help argue his case, Levinas proposed an alternative mode of thinking that appealed to a different aspect within ourselves. He took as his start the peculiar phenomenon of darkness:

“When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riveted to it… There is no longer this or that; there is not ‘something.’ But this universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence… There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential.”[2]

Instead of thinking when darkness takes beings from us that we are left with nothing, Levinas insisted that we are left with “an absolutely unavoidable presence.” Such a “presence” he named the there is, the il y a.

For Levinas, to push his philosophy forward until it reached an ethical realisation, though, he had to go beyond what Maurice Blanchot was content to remain with, in regard to the il y a. For Blanchot, the il y a was an uncertainty, a neutrality, and a state of ambiguity. Blanchot was poetic and liked the mysterious. Instead, Levinas needed to resolve the ambiguity and put flesh on it in order to realise his ethical project. So, if both Blanchot and Levinas heard a cry from the wilderness in the dead of night, as they sit in a log cabin drinking cocoa and toasting marshmallows. Blanchot would continue to rock in his chair whilst Levinas would dash for his coat and head out the door to see if the owner of the cry needed help. Levinas will hear the call of another human where Blanchot will only hear the sound of the night.

Importantly, as David Jopling points out, the il y a, or other, “is not primarily an object (or subject) to be understood, rendered transparent, or totalised.”[3]The other is separate from the rest of the world that we have constructed around us. This means, that for Levinas, as Gerald Bruns explains:

“The ethical relation – the encounter with the other – is a movement towards the stranger, that is, towards the non-identical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession.”[4]

Otherness, is that which we cannot project, control or even, at times, understand. It is beyond us. It is other. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that we should reject it or not be open to what it has to give or say.

[1] Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, xxvii.

[2] Levinas, E. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2001, 52-53.

[3] Jopling, D. ‘Levinas, Sartre, and Understanding the Other.’ The Journal of British Society for Phenomenology, October 1993, vol. 24, no. 3, 226.

[4] Bruns, G. ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, 2004,3

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: