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The term “other,” not surprisingly, is highly ambiguous. In the context of theories of culture, perhaps the most prominent contemporary use of this notion has been made by Said. In these terms, the Other may be designated as a form of cultural projection of concepts. This projection constructs the identities of cultural subjects through a relationship of power in which the Other is the subjugated element. In claiming knowledge about “orientals,” what Orientalism did was construct them as its own (European) Other. Through describing purportedly “oriental” characteristics (irrational, uncivilised, etc.) Orientalism provided a definition not of the real “oriental” identity, but of European identity in terms of the oppositions which structured its accounts. Hence, “irrational” Other presuppposes (and is also presupposed by) “rational” self. The construction of the Other in Orientalist discourse, then, is a matter of asserting self-identity, and the issue of the European account of the Oriental Other is thereby rendered a question of power.


Bangalore bangles by Gregor Younger
Another understanding or, rather, concept of the Other, that of French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, positions the “other” as that which, distinct from the other of Orientalism, cannot be appropriated by the self. For Lévinas the Other is, by definition, unknowable, and stands as that which much be approached with absolute respect. The Other as unknowable is foundational to Lévinas’ ethics, an ethics which, in challenging any attempt of appropriating or knowing the other, could be a very fruitful and humbling guiding principle within the practice of medicine, namely in its approach to the patient, that is an entity who is always, first, foremost and ultimately, other.

Lévinas’ work is based on the ethics of the Other. In fact, Lévinas sees "ethics as first philosophy." For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (called ontology by Lévinas). Lévinas prefers to think of philosophy as the “knowledge of love” rather than the love of knowledge. In his arrangement, ethics become an entity independent of subjectivity to the point where ethical responsibility is integral to the subject; because of this, an ethics of responsibility precedes any “objective searching after truth”. Lévinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Lévinas, the face-to-face encounter with another human being is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person’s proximity and distance are both strongly felt. Upon the revelation of the face a person’s first natural desire is to murder the Other. At the same time, the revelation of the face forces the immediate recognition of one’s inability to do so. One must instantly recognize the inviolability and autonomy of the Other. One must then place him or herself in the position of a student, and the Other is recognized as a teacher. Ultimately, morality is recognized through one’s relation to the Other.


Among the many works of Lévinas, key texts include Totalité et infini: essai sur l’extériorité (1961) and Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence (1974). Both works have been translated into English by the American philosopher Alphonso Lingis.

In Lévinas’s later thought following "Totality and Infinity", he argued that our responsibility for-the-other was already rooted within our subjective constitution. It should be noted that the first line of the preface of this book is "it is of the utmost importance to know whether or not we are duped by morality." This can be seen most clearly in his later account of recurrence (chapter 4 from "Otherwise Than Being"). Therein Lévinas maintained that subjectivity was formed in and through our subjected-ness to the other. In this way, his effort was not to move away from traditional attempts to locate the other within subjectivity (this he agrees with), so much as his view was that subjectivity was primordially ethical and not theoretical. That is to say, our responsibility for-the-other was not a derivative feature of our subjectivity; instead, obligation founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Lévinas’s thesis "ethics is first philosophy", then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is but a secondary feature of a more basic ethical duty to-the-other.



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