What is the Problem of the Other?
In previous posts, we took a look at theories of Intersubjectivity that assumed a cooperative and harmonious relation to the Other as a norm. This week, we turn to conflictual theories of Intersubjectivity: Whether it be the other who threatens our status as original consciousness in Hegel; the anonymous others amongst whom we find ourselves thrown as per Heidegger; the Other who robs us of our freedom and autonomy, reducing us to objects, as in Sartre's existentialism; or the face to face encounter with an Other who calls us to an ethics of responsibility, below is an overview of the story of the Other who troubles philosophy.
Hegel (1770–1831): The Self and its Other, Master and Slave
According to Hegel’s story about the evolution of spirit or mind, consciousness becomes self-consciousness in the confrontation between one consciousness and another. Both seeking recognition as the true, original, and authentic consciousness, a duel onto death takes place. The result is an asymmetrical relation of difference where one consciousness chooses freedom over life and becomes the master of the slave consciousness that chooses life over freedom.
Through negation, the slave is turned into the Master's Other, a projective surface for the Master's needs and desires. But the revelation of Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic is that the dialectic is carried forward not by the Master, but on the side of the Slave who must come to consciousness as independent being through the fruits of his labor.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976): Mitsein and "the They"
For Heidegger, anonymous others comprise Dasein's original state of being-with (Mitsein). These anonymous others are referred to collectively as "the They," a mass of humanity with whom we are thrown into the world. Dasein is a part of the being-with amongst "the They," from whom Dasein does not distinguish itself, for the most part. Even setting itself apart from these others is an experience common to "the They" - we all long to be recognized for being special and unique individuals.
So how does Dasein transcend “the They” and come into what existentialists call authenticity? only in taking on its own being-toward-death does Dasein catch a glimpse of transcendence, lifting itself out of "the They." We’ll take a closer look at the sections where Heidegger speaks about being-with or Mitsein, but lets continue in summary form to look at Sartre’s take on the Other.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1956): "Hell Is Other People"
In Part III of Being and Nothingness entitled “The Look,” Sartre denies a basic assumption of Hegel’s - that I can apprehend and absorb how the other sees me as an object. As he writes:
“I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is for himself” (Being and Nothingness 327).
The self here cannot fully comprehend the Other, and the mirror that the other provides is not transparent. The Other is not a passive or inert mirror, but blurs and distorts our own self-understanding. The other modifies my own sense of self, against me and inspite of me, denies me control of my own self-understanding.
The Other undercuts the subject’s freedom and self-determination. To recognize the other as such is to see oneself through an alien and alienating mirror that we want to counter and negate. Thus, the essence of the subject’s relation to the Other is conflict, and any encounter with alterity is, by necessity, alienating. As he puts it in his play No Exit, "Hell is other people."
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995): The Face to Face Encounter With The Other
Levinas’ thinking on intersubjectivity and the Other begins from the rejection of previous models that don’t seem to allow for an authentic encounter with true alterity, the otherness of the Other. For him, the Other is not there to be known (and the Other resists our attempts to comprehend), a rejection of the epistemological framework of his predecessors.
Instead, Levinas names Ethics as emerging from an encounter with the Other. A face to face encounter with an Other, described in phenomenological terms, inaugurates language and thought; and therefore, this encounter is a condition for the possibility for knowledge of any kind. Finally, this encounter calls one out and makes one responsible for the Other, a responsibility that cannot be done away with -- that is, it is irreducible.
Last week, we examined Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that Woman is Other with respect to Man, and we noted that in order to truly understand this we would need to understand Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit.
In this week's podcast, we examine Hegel's influential description of the production of Otherness in the bifurcation of consciousness into two, asymmetrical forms of self-consciousness, the Master consciousness that takes itself to be the One, and the Slave consciousness that sees itself through the Master's eyes and considers itself to be Other with respect to the One, the Master.
Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (first published in 1807) is a work in German Idealism that purports to tell the story of the development of the human spirit through a history of consciousness. In the section on "Self-Consciousness" in which the Master/Slave dialectic is found, we find consciousness bifurcated and faced with another consciousness just like itself. Each face of consciousness wanting recognition of itself as the original and One consciousness, a battle onto death ensues, the result of which are two kinds of self-consciousnesses.
Masters and Slaves
The Master consciousness decides that the most important value is that of Freedom, and that without Freedom Life is not worth preserving. The Slave makes the opposite judgement, deciding Freedom is worthless if one's Life is lost. Therefore the conflict between the two consciousness is resolved as each takes up different kinds of consciousness, each embodying the recognition of the One as the Master and the Other as the Slave.
Initially, it looks like the Master has won the day and that the dialectic of spirit will continue from the perspective of the Master. But soon enough, a contradiction emerges: Once the other consciousness emerges as Slave, it can no longer provide the Master with the recognition it initially desired, and that was essential to his mastery. Also, the life of the Master rapidly devolves into one of dependence on the Slave, who provides the Master with all of life's necessities. In other words, the Mater's life becomes one of pure and unfettered consumption and enjoyment.
The Slave's life is also ruled by the Master's needs, which the Slave must learn to anticipate. But a funny thing starts to happen: in making all the things needed to maintain the Master's life and to satisfy the Master's insatiable desires, another reality opens up. In the course of their work, in working upon the materials of the world, the Slave opens up a reality that is independent from that of the Master, who could not care less about the conditions for the production of those goods. The slave gains knowledge about the world and reality that the Master does not have, and therefore becomes increasingly independent. The slave also sublimates his identity through work - that piece of furniture that is made by him, he conceived of it and made his idea concrete. Thus, through work, the Slave finds a meaningful existence, just as the Master's life is devolving into meaningless consumption.
Finally, the tables are turned. The Slave comes to realize that the Master is dependent on his labor for his very existence, and having to come to
consciousness as essential to the Master, comes to make a claim for recognition from the Master. In the end a bargain is struck, an economic solution to the contradiction that began with the production of two asymmetrical self-consciousnesses: two mutually dependent self-consciousnesses emerge as two parts of an original unity called (human) spirit.
Thesis, Anti-Thesis, and Synthesis
Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic is a great example of the overall work's logical structure of thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis - you may have heard this about Hegel's work, if nothing else. The original thesis is the existence of undifferentiated consciousness with which the section begins. This unity is bifurcated into two, creating the opposition between what will become the Master and Slave consciousnesses (the moment of negation when antithesis emerges). Finally, the contradiction contains the seeds of it's own destruction (which is actually a contradiction, topsy-turvy since we are working through negation) where a resolution emerges from which two are again unified as co-constituted and mutually dependent self-consciousnesses.
Beauvoir's "Woman as Other"
How can we understand Beauvoir's answer that Woman is Other in reference to Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic? According to this narrative, woman is a slave consciousness that has yet to come to consciousness as an independent consciousness that can make a claim on its Other, or Man. The relationship between Men and Women will remain a battle of the sexes, with the one pitted against the other, until Woman is able to make this claim and resolve the contradictions that plague this situation, bringing about the resolution and harmonizing of sexual difference.
According to one interpretation, the goal is not to create two equal self-consciousness, or to bring about the equality of woman and man, but the emergence of a true sexual difference, where that difference between the sexes does not devolve into her subjugation (or his, for that matter, where the dialectic to take another turn). This is the interpretation according to sexual difference feminism, which I will explain in an upcoming podcast on Luce Irigaray - so look out for it!
But other feminists have heard a call for gender equality (Liberal Feminists), for a class liberation model for feminism (Marxist and Socialist Feminists), and for women to understand their subjugation as grounded in their sexuality and reproductive capacities (Radical Feminists). As with any great text in philosophy, the text lends itself to various tendencies and interpretations.