In short, we are not duped by morality, if morality is based in an ethical relation to the Other that precedes not only knowledge and meaning, but our very being as human subjects. Morality is not based on principles, a calculus, or practices, but is, first and foremost, founded our absolute responsibility in the face-to-face relation with an Other.
Listen to our podcast on Alterity and Desire: Levinas On the Face-To-Face Encounter With the Other by following this link now!
This is a great, concrete example of a situation we have all been in. I think we can all relate to feeling relief when someone offers to step in and take charge, to steer us back to safety. And some of us, in speaking with our friends, may want to be told what to do when faced with a difficult decision. Our friends may even think they are doing the right thing by stepping in, not realizing that this is a kind of concern that doesn’t allow us to make our own decisions and carry out our own solutions.
The problem is that in leaping in and taking charge, our friend has disabled us from taking care of our own business, and (more important in existential terms) unburdened us of the responsibility - which, of course, is what makes it so appealing. In giving over our responsibility and power to act, we allow our friend to dominate us, a pattern that undermines our agency. Unwittingly, we have put ourselves in a position of dependency with respect to our friend. In short, this kind of friend is one that robs us of our autonomy.
Compare this with the friend who leaps ahead of us instead:
This blog post is one in a series related to questions of the Other in Continental Philosophy. The following excerpt comes from Heidegger's account of Being-with (Mitsein) in Being and Time. You can listen to the full podcast below:
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.
For Merleau-Ponty, any encounter with an Other is preceded by a pre-cognitive, pre-linguistic encounter with otherness in the form of anonymous others whom we encounter as a part of an objectively shared word. No longer there simply for me, the world and the things found therein immediately point us to their use value by others. Moreover, when these others appear, our objectively apprehended world gets sucked into their sphere of influence, and we loose our center. As Merleau-Ponty describes:
"Round about the perceived body a vortex forms, towards which my world is drawn and, so to speak, sucked in: to this extent, it is no longer merely mine, and no longer merely present, it is present to x, to that other manifestation of behaviour which begins to take shape in it. Already the other body has ceased to be a mere fragment of the world, and become the theatre of a certain process of elaboration, and, as it were, a certain ‘view’ of the world. There is taking place over there a certain manipulation of things hitherto my property. Someone is making use of my familiar objects. But who can it be? (411-12)
The other is a theater for the elaboration of a drama not of our own making. The mere existence of an Other takes us outside of our bodies and ourselves. As we are drawn into their world of concern, we forget ourselves and our concerns. We come to be out there in the world, and as Merleau-Ponty suggests, the world comes to inhabit us. in other words, the other doesn't just present us with the data of other consciousnesses like ours existing in the world, but the other affects us and acts upon us, as if love stricken.
The other is first of all perceived as a body, but this is no mere object. The lived body of subjects is characterized by the reversibility of being both object and subject simultaneously. (For example, think of how you can simultaneously grasp your own hand, and be both grasping and grasped.) A special kind of object, the lived body of the other exhibits behaviors much like our own. More specifically, it can leave marks and traces as vestiges, and produces the space in which it moves by shaping its environment. In a somewhat cryptic but very suggestive passage, Merleau-Ponty writes:
"The very first of all cultural objects, and the one by which all the rest exist, is the body of the other person as the vehicle of a form of behaviour. Whether it be a question of vestiges or the body of another person, we need to know how an object in space can become the eloquent relic of an existence; how, conversely, an intention, a thought or a project can detach themselves from the personal subject and become visible out- side him in the shape of his body, and in the environment which he builds for himself." (406)
As a cultural artifact (which means that it is produced through cultural means), the body of the other can be interpreted or read for its significance. The simplest way to understand this is to take the example of the athlete or the dancer, off of whose bodies we can read the athleticism and poise produced through the way they use their bodies. Their bodies are an expression of their life’s work. Or we may read the calloused worker's hands to mean that they world work with their hands. Even the lack of marks and traces says something about the other....
Furthermore, bodily attitudes communicate something about our psychological state - for example, if we are feeling defeated, we slump in our frames; when we are excited, our bodies exude with energy. If we are pricked, our facial expression and bodily wincing can communicate that sharp, sudden experience of pain. So bodies, like inert objects, can be “read” for the significance that they communicate against a cultural backdrop. In fact, our bodies may communicate and know what we have not (or cannot) consciously register, even against our wishes.
Finally, Merleau-Ponty here suggests that the environment in which we find ourselves and others is produced, in part, through the Other's activities in and through that space. We are not just sucked into a psychological vortex when we encounter others, but the vortex may well be physical, around a whirl of activity not our own. It is as if our bodies are pencils that leave marks and traces, and that shape the space we inhabit.
Our Encounter With Primordial Otherness Structures Our Subjectivities
Prior to conscious thought, prior to an exchange with a particular Other, the human world is there for us. There is no human world that does not always already include others, and it would be very difficult to imagine a meaningful world devoid of others. This is where Merleau-ponty makes his biggest move: primordial otherness structures my subjectivity because the other comes across as completing a system (or lifeworld, as Husserl would put it). Merleau-Ponty re-narrates the encounter with otherness as follows:
“I say that it is another, a second self, and this I know in the first place because this living body has the same structure as mine. I experience my own body as the power of adopting certain forms of behaviour and a certain world, and I am given to myself merely as a certain hold upon the world; now, it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of deal- ing with the world. Henceforth, as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously." (411-12)
Much like I recognize that all the parts of my body arranged in working order make up the unity I call my body, the hereto anonymous other forms a part of the unity of the world in which I find myself, and is in fact a necessary condition for my coming to consciousness as a subject.
In this way, Merleau-Ponty gets back behind Husserl's lifeworld to suggest a prior encounter with otherness as a condition for the possibility for subjectivity. We are not first of all distinct from this world and others, but form a unity with them from which we later come to separate out our own individual subjective sense of self. Any encounter with a specific Other has as its backdrop a primordial encounter with, or connection to otherness. (In Merleau-Ponty, a background is that against which interpretations can be made.)
Merleau-Ponty puts it most clearly in the following quote:
"Between my consciousness and my body as I experience it, between this phenomenal body of mine and that of another as I see it from the outside, there exists an internal relation which causes the other to appear as the completion of the system. The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake." (410)
And later he will add this:
“In reality, the other is not shut up inside my perspective of the world, because this perspective itself has no definite limits, because it slips spontaneously into the other’s, and because both are brought together in the one single world in which we all participate as anonymous subjects of perception." (411)
The word “imbricated” is often used to describe this situation, and this phenomenological description is meant to give a new starting point from which to overcome the problem of solipsism - of a subject that is shut up in itself, and the reality of whose world is in question precisely because it cannot be verified. Husserl preserves the subject/object inside/outside division intact in his account, a strategic solipsim he adopts in over to overcome it, but arguably his transcendental subject is never able to fully overcome the split. Merleau-Ponty overcomes the mind/body subject/object split by denying it outright, arguing that the body/self is simultaneously subject and object, and that “the world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside of myself.” (474)
Quotes Source: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge) 2005.