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Otherness (alterity) is a logical and metaphysical concept of considerable generality that would not ordinarily be included in a dictionary of psychoanalysis if, together with the concepts of the Big Other and the small other, Jacques Lacan had not taken Freud's ideas as far as he did and if contemporary French psychoanalysis had not been so enamored of the philosophical and moral system proposed by Emmanuel Levinas. In Plato's Sophist, the "other" is one of the first five kinds (along with existence, rest, motion, and sameness). For Hegel, to the extent that the first moment of every being-there contains its own negation, alterity can be considered as the engine of dialectical movement. In a different register, the Christian tradition, reformulated by Kant, conceives the categorical imperative of morality as the commandment that requires us to treat others not simply as means but as ends. We can also consider the concept of alterity as one of the foundations of ethics. But there is little sign of Freud in this, and we would be assigning psychoanalysis a task of considerable ambition if we were to look within it for the solution to these philosophical and moral problems.

Nonetheless, the concept is not completely foreign to either Freud or psychoanalysis, and there are certainly signs of its presence there, although indirect. Although Freud's work supplies no formula for moral relations with the other, the question of the essence of human relationship is treated explicitly in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Here, Freud discusses the theories of Gustave Le Bon and, more generally, the notion of this relationship as the result of a kind of "sympathy." For him all relations among humans involve the image of the father. Humankind, Freud says, is not a gregarious animal (Herdentier ) but a horde animal (Hordentier ). He therefore transposes into the real world the schema found in Totem and Taboo, according to which the (Darwinian) primitive horde is a society in which the only bonds consist of a shared dependence on the primitive father. Thus Freud rediscovers, probably without realizing it, Leibniz's vision of monads that can only communicate with one another through God. Prime examples of this would be, according to Freud, the Church and the Army, to the extent that their unity lies in the relation of each of their members to a leader (Christ, the general). But we find the same thing in more banal situations (for example, the collective body of all the young girls in love with the same singer), where the interhuman bond is not sympathy but a more or less sublimated form of jealousy. However, this is a psycho-sociological theory of interhuman relations and not a moral conception of the relation to the other.

That being said, there is a great temptation among authors inspired by Freud to try to develop from his work a "psychoanalytic" theory of the "true" relationship to the other and to assume that the psychoanalyst will lead the patient toward a genuine recognition of the other, for example, by overcoming his narcissism. Obviously, this exceeds the content and claims and to some extent even the spirit of Freud's work. Whenever Freud appears to move in this direction, he always manages to qualify his position. For example, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), he states that during puberty, when the sexual drive is subordinated to the reproductive function and the adolescent begins to love another human being, this drive "becomes, so to say, altruistic" (p. 207). But the expression "so to say" (sozusagen ) clearly indicates that he is not referring to any kind of moral altruism.

Naturally, the concept of the "other" being extremely common, some, relatively obscure, Freudian texts have managed to give rise to farfetched speculation, although there is no shortage of interest in them. For example, there is an enigmatic passage in The Ego and the Id (1923b) in which Freud, criticizing the notion of "unconscious sensation," evokes "a quantitative and qualitative 'something' in the course of mental events" (p. 22) and emphasizes the originality of the notion of the "id" that he is in the process of borrowing from Groddeck.

Somewhat more picturesque is the role accorded by Freud to a play by the Austrian dramatist Hermann Bahr, presented for the first time in Vienna on November 25, 1905, and whose title is The Other (the title is feminine in German, Die Andere ). Freud's comment appears in an article entitled "Psychopathic Characters on the Stage" (1942a [1905-06]). After describing the conditions needed to make a neurotic or psychotic the hero of a drama, Freud states, rather curiously, that these conditions are fulfilled in Hamlet but not in the play by Bahr, where the young violinist Lida Lind goes mad between the first and fifth acts. Yet, independently of this peremptory judgment on the heroine's choice, we are struck by a kind of "play of alterity." For we may suspectand the author invites the spectator to believe thisthat Lida's madness arises from her dependence on her first lover, Amschl, who would then be the seducing other (der Andere, which is masculine). But it gradually becomes clear that she is the victim of the fact that she herself was, in the past, in love with a personality from whom she was unable to detach herself, the feminine other. Of course, in his remarks, Freud does not comment on this aspect of the play. But one wonders if he did not initiate a train of thought that might have led him to develop certain aspects of alterity that would have become, although not explicitly, a genuine psychoanalytic concept.

Yvon BrÈs

See also: Alienation; Autism; Certeau, Michel de; Double, the; Narcissism; Object; Other; Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Transcultural.


Bahr, Hermann. (1906). Die Andere. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 125-245.

. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 69-143.

. (1942 [1905-06]). Psychopathic characters on the stage. SE, 7: 305-310.

Levinas, Emmanuel. (2000). Alterity and transcendence. (Michael B. Smith, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1995)

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oth·er·ness / ˈə[voicedth]ərnis/ • n. the quality or fact of being different: the developed world has been celebrating African music while altogether denying its otherness.

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