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.