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The term alterity derives from the Latin word alter, which means "other." In contemporary philosophy the question of the other is primarily that of the other human being, the Other (Autrui, in French), although some thinkers have raised the question of whether the human other should be privileged in this way. However, the central question governing philosophical discussions of alterity is not that of who the other is, but that of our access to alterity. So-called continental philosophy highlights the ontological dimension of this question rather than its epistemological dimension, which was the focus in English-speaking philosophy of what, since the nineteenth century, has been called the problem of other minds.

In his Cartesian Meditations (1960 [1931]) Edmund Husserl offers an account of how, by an analogy with my own body, I recognize another body as organic and, by a kind of alienation in which I make myself other that we call empathy, constitute an other as an alter ego. Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1996 [1927]) dismisses this approach as based on René Descartes's inadequate understanding of the human being as an isolated subject. Heidegger displaces the epistemological problem of alterity by issuing the ontological claim that the other possesses the kind of being that he calls Mitsein (literally "with-being"). Nevertheless, the problem of the other reappears in Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1956 [1943]), where, in part under the impact of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's account of the master-slave dialectic, the relation with the Other is presented as conflictual.

Levinas, Derrida, and the Absolute Other

In Totality and Infinity (1969 [1961]) Emmanuel Levinas radicalizes the problem of alterity by thinking of the other not as another subject like me, but as radically Other, the one who puts me in question and calls me to my responsibility. This ethical relation is asymmetrical in the sense the Other is accessible only starting from an I. However, the Other is no longer defined by his or her differences from me, but by the way he or she exceeds this relation in absolute separation from me. Thus, Levinas's conception of the absolute Other self-consciously breaks with the way that the other has been thought in the West since Plato's Sophist. According to Plato the other is always relative to some other (Sophist 255d), a formulation usually understood to mean that the other is "other than the same."

When Jacques Derrida challenges Levinas's account of the absolute Other in "Violence and Metaphysics" (1978 [1964]), he explicitly evokes Plato's critique that renders such a conception unthinkable, impossible, and unsayable (Sophist 238e). Without underwriting the legitimacy of Husserl's account of intersubjectivity Derrida asks whether Husserl's notion of an alter ego does not better secure the ethical character of the radical alterity of the other than does Levinas's notion of the absolutely other. Derrida's point is that the Other cannot be the Other of the Same except by being itself the same, that is, an ego, but he himself subsequently embraces Levinas's language of alterity with the phrase tout autre est tout autre (every other is wholly other) (1995 [1990]), p. 82).

Meanwhile, and in part in response to Derrida's essay, Levinas developed the fundamental idea of his later thought: the substitution of the one for the other. To the question of how it is possible for the Other to call me into question, Levinas, in Otherwise Than Being (1981 [1974]), gives the answer that it is possible because I am already for-the-other, that is to say, because the other is in me in the midst of my self-identification. A parallel gesture by which alterity is relocated within the same can be found in psychoanalytic literature, for example, in Julia Kristeva's Strangers to Ourselves (1991 [1988]). However, it can be argued that the new kind of cosmopolitanism she promotes retains the division between "them" and "us" and that it seeks to overcome, insofar as the world is now divided between those who recognize that there are no foreigners and those who do not.

To address the difficulty of thinking substitution, Levinas has recourse to Arthur Rimbaud's impossible phrase je est un autre (I is an other). Levinas uses the very difficulty of thinking and saying alterity not only to challenge the priority of ontology and proclaim the primacy of ethics but also to mark an exit from Western philosophy as he inherits it. This shows how far the question of alterity has departed from the Husserlian problem of intersubjectivity, as a regional problem, to become the philosophical site for explorations of the limits of thought and language.

See also Deleuze, Gilles; Derrida, Jacques; Levinas, Emmanuel.


Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death (1990). Translated by David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. "Violence and Metaphysics." In Writing and Difference (1967). Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (1927). Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (1931). Translated by Dorian Cairns. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1960.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves (1988). Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise Than Being, or, Beyond Essence (1974). Translated by Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity (1961). Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943). Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Theunissen, Michel. The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Buber (1977). Translated by Christopher Macann. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984.

Robert Bernasconi (2005)