Voices 1: VOICES OF THE ‘OTHER’


  

Donna is not a philosopher, but she has her own way of understanding life. Specifically, she has her own way of understanding the meaning of the ‘Other’. This ‘worldview’ shapes her behavior, expectations, hopes and emotions. In many ways it is the ‘cave’ in which she is imprisoned.

"Yes, I am lonely," Donna says. "I like being by myself, otherwise I would lose touch with myself. But I would also like to have a good friend, someone I could really trust. I am already 35 years old, and I know myself very well: I am still hoping to find somebody I could share my feelings with. But I’ve experienced too many disappointments."

Donna has a childhood memory of her grandfather, from a time she was about four years old. She remembers it very clearly: Her grandfather suddenly yelling at her. How strange that Donna should remember this particular moment. Her grandfather had always been so sweet to her, never raising his voice. That was the only time he got angry.

Donna once had a boyfriend, some six years ago. He was a shy and quiet man, and they got along very well. But then he was killed in a car accident. It was a very hard time for her. She felt that he had abandoned her. In fact, she felt angry at him for leaving her. Rationally she knew that this anger made no sense, but nevertheless she felt it quite strongly.

Fortunately, a few weeks later she met another lonely woman, Peggy, and the two became friends. But then Peggy found a boyfriend. "She would disappear for four-five days,” Donna says bitterly, "so I understood that she didn’t really care about me. She had been with me just to exploit me and my emotions."

Eventually Donna opened a training school for dogs. "Animals are easier to get along with," she says. "They never surprise you. If you are friendly with them, they are faithful to you. People, on the other hand, are too complicated."

Indeed, when she sees somebody mistreating or mishandling a dog, she can barely control herself. Not long ago she saw a young woman dragging her dog behind her like a suitcase. Donna exploded. Luckily, a neighbor stopped her from attacking the woman.

"This woman is a monster," she said to the neighbor.

The neighbor tried to calm her down. "She simply doesn’t know how to handle dogs," he suggested.

"If she isn’t a monster," Donna replied, "then she is mentally disturbed."

   

Donna has never put in writing her ‘theory’ about the meaning of the Other, although her life expresses it almost every day. One way to start exploring her ‘theory’ is to look at philosophers who wrote about their conceptions of the Other.

 

 

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE – THE OBJECTIFYING LOOK

Sartre describes the appearance of the Other in his book Being and Nothingness:

"I am in a public park. Not far away there is a lawn and along the edge of that lawn there are benches."

And suddenly a man appears. "What do I mean when I assert that this object is A MAN?" What is the difference between seeing a bench and seeing a person?  

As opposed to a bench, the man over there can see, hear, touch. He has a perspective. The world is seen from his eyes. The world is organized around him. Indeed, the same objects which I see – the tree, the bench, the lawn – are no longer organized only around me. They are no longer MY world. They are HIS world too.

This means that once the other man appears, the coordinates of my world disintegrate. The other man steals the world from me, so to speak. My world flees towards him.

Furthermore, imagine that the man now looks at me. I am seen by him. I am an object of his look. If I was doing a vulgar gesture, I now try to cover it up. If I was talking to myself, I now quickly close my mouth so that he wouldn’t catch me in the act. Because I am the object of his look.

The Other raises a new threat: that I would become an object in his world; that I would no longer be a free subject who constitutes a world, but an object in somebody else's world. And of course, he is similarly threatened by my look.

Donna can borrow from Sartre an interesting insight: that the appearance of the Other means the appearance of a different perspective, and therefore that it means a conflict.

But she has no reason to accept the rest of Sartre's theory. First, many aspects of his theory are different from hers. Unlike him, she is not afraid that others would objectify her, or would rob her of her world. The idea of the objectifying look is not part of the 'map' of her world. And unlike him, she seems to believe that a real togetherness is possible.

Second, adopting Sartre's theory would mean forcing upon herself another limited perspective. It would mean changing her cave for another cave, another theory, another prison. But she has no need in another cave. She wants to use philosophical insight to free herself, not to limit herself.

 

 

ORTEGA Y GASSETT – THE HIDDEN INWARDNESS

In his Man and People, Ortega describes the other person as a surprise. I suddenly discover that I am not the only inhabitant of the world. Somebody co-exists with me in 'my' world, and now I cannot relax as I did before. My reaction to the other is: "Who goes there?!"

Previously, my world was cozy and familiar. It was mine. But now the Other has entered my world, and his appearance signifies something disturbing: Behind his eyes there hides his inner world. His inwardness is hidden from my view.

I cannot see his inwardness - his feelings and thoughts and intentions. But through his body I can see that his inwardness relates to me, that it responds to my presence, just as I can respond to his. In this sense, the other is dangerous, because I can never fully predict and control his reactions.

But the Other is not only a problem for me. Because through his appearance I discover my boundaries, my limitations, and thus my capacities and incapacities, my tastes, my opinions. Through the other I discover myself.

Donna can use Ortega's notion of the Other as a dangerous surprise in order to understand her own worldview. In her worldview, too, the Other is a potential danger.

The rest of Ortega's conception is different from hers, but nevertheless the contrast may shed light upon her conception. For her, the Other is dangerous because he is a dark and irrational force, not because he is a hidden inwardness. Furthermore, the place where she encounters herself is her solitary alone-ness, while for Ortega I discover myself in my encounters with others.

 

 

EMANUEL LEVINAS – THE OTHER’S FACE

For Levinas, Western philosophy has failed to respect the other person as an Other, as fundamentally different from me, as a reality that is beyond my knowledge. Philosophers have always tried to translate the Other into what Levinas calls 'the Same': into my own concepts. They have always understood the Other as just another 'I'. This is an imperialist attitude, which tries to invade the Different and make it comprehensible.

To truly encounter the Other is to encounter him as radically different. The Other is always beyond my horizons. This means that his appearance shatters my egocentric world. When the Other enters my world I am no longer free to do whatever I feel like. I now have new responsibilities: I must acknowledge other people. The face of the Other expresses the ethical command: "Do not kill me!", don’t obliterate me.

Donna could borrow from Levinas the concept of the Other as a totally Other. But the rest of his world is not her world. The Other for her is not an ethical command, but on the contrary, a threatening force. Thus, through Levinas she might discover an interesting asymmetry in her worldview: For her, the Other signifies obligations towards me, but I have no obligations towards him. The reason for this is clear: Because the 'self' is the location of self-knowledge, rationality, sanity. In contrast, the other person, as an Other, always contains a potential of irrationality and evil.

 

 

MARTIN BUBER – I AND THOU

For Buber, I am defined in terms of my relationships. I am not a self-sufficient entity that is independent from others. My relationships are part of who I am.

Buber distinguishes between two kinds of relationship to another person (or more generally, to everyone or everything in our world): I-It and I-Thou. The first type of relationship takes place when I relate to a person as an object – an object of perception, an object of knowledge, an object of manipulation, etc. I look at him, I examine him, I attempt to understand him, I use him. I may do so with good intentions, for example when I try to figure out how to help him. Still, there is a distance between us: I am here, he is there. Our worlds are separated, and I examine him from a distance.

But there is another way to relate to a person: I-thou (I-you). In this kind of relationship, I am WITH the other person. I do not look AT you from across a distance that separates us. I do not try to know you, to exploit you, to help you. I simply am present with you.

In this kind of relationship I am FULLY present. Unlike the I-it relationship, in which I engage only part of myself (my thoughts, for example), the I-thou relationship involves my entire being.

Since my relationships define who I am, I am different when I am I-thou and when I am I-it. I-it relations are often useful for practical purposes. But I-thou is my authentic way of being. It expresses my full being. And although it may last only a few minutes, it gives life to me and to my relationships.

As an example we might think of a husband and wife who always behave towards each other 'appropriately', according to the 'rules'. If the couple does not experience I-thou from time to time, then the relationship is dead.

The I-thou relation is perhaps what Donna desires. On the other hand, unlike Buber she does not define herself in terms of relationships. Also, she is not bothered by distance – indeed, she needs some distance in order to 'be in touch with herself'. Buber's concepts and distinctions are not the ‘language’ of her world.

Nevertheless, through his ideas she might discover that there is a contradiction in her world: On the one hand she dreams of I-thou relations, but on the other hand the Other in her world is essentially distant, hidden, dangerous. I-thou relations are highly valued, but they cannot exist in such a world.

        

 

***

 

None of these theories captures Donna's conception of the Other. This is not surprising. Every theory expresses a particular understanding of a particular thinker. A theory is a single 'voice' in the polyphonic choir of human reality. We cannot expect a living human being to fit into some universal schema.

Indeed, what is special about good philosophers is not that their particular understanding is more true or more universal, but that they are capable of putting their understanding into words. They can speak their 'voice' (or understanding) with great sensitivity, with illuminating observations and distinctions, with deep analyses. And yet, their philosophy expresses no more than one understanding: their own understanding, not Donna's.

Nevertheless, these theories are not without value for her. They can help her become aware of the rich network of understandings in which her life is embedded. After all, her particular experiences are not isolated from the complex network of human experience. Her personal 'voice' is not independent from the rest of the choir. By exploring the variety of human understandings, she can come to understand more deeply the meaning of her particular understanding of life.

If she explores her world in this way, she would probably discover that her Other is unpredictable, surprising, and treacherous. Dog owners are crazy, monstrous, irrational, incomprehensible. Her boyfriend did not just die - he 'abandoned' her. Her good friend Peggy disappointed her. She remembers her grandfather not in the many sweet moments they had together, but in his sudden anger. She longs for togetherness, but the Other always signifies the possibility of betrayal.

The details of her conception is something Donna will have to investigate by herself. She will then come to realize that there are other ways of understanding the Other. Her understanding is only one voice of life in a much richer symphony. Most likely she will be surprised to discover that what she takes for granted is not obvious at all. Eventually she would be able to see the Other, and her life in general, from a broader perspective.

 

* * *

 

Donna’s example illustrates that in philosophical practice we are not concerned, as in academic discussions, with the question which approach is the correct one, or which is more accurate as a universal theory. Our goal is to understand the inner logic of the different approaches, expose their assumptions, examine their implications, and in this way learn about ourselves. There is no need to decide between Sartre, Ortega, Buber or Levinas and declare that one of them is correct. It is better to listen to all these approaches as different voices of human reality, each of which conveys different important understandings.

As a philosophical practitioner, I have no interest in trying to capture reality with theoretical descriptions. This is not the way to touch reality. I ‘listen’ to the different ideas and the understandings they express. I open inside me a space for all of them and give them voice like a human choir. At this point of listening I rise to a higher point of understanding, a polyphonic understanding. I am no longer in this or that particular theory. I no longer identify myself with a specific opinion. I am now at a point which overlooks all theories, which appreciates all the voices of reality without judging them as 'correct' or 'incorrect'.

In order to achieve this attitude I need to undergo an inner transformation. This attitude requires that I ‘listen’ beyond myself. I open inside me an inner space for all voices. In this way I go out of my little cave to the place which is beyond caves, to an awareness which is higher than opinions, to an understanding which is not just the sum of many theories, but which is wisdom. This is a place which is many and one, or to borrow the words of Plotinus: 'a presence superior to knowledge'.

And this is what I would like to suggest to Donna: First, that she become aware of her 'theory' of the Other, and realize that it is one cave among others, one voice of human reality among others. Then she would be able to go beyond her particular theory, and beyond all limiting theories.

 

 

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