There is no ‘me’
without ‘you’

Valeria Sokolova

Philosophy of the Other mysteriously brings us closer to each other and at the same time teaches us to leave off the attempts to comprehend the Other.

Since I was a kid I have heard the pronouns ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘It’ and all other combinations arranging from them, then I went to school, where in the Russian language class I was taught about them, but at that point they stood before me as merely grammatical tokens that I had to use in order to enable verbal communication. Some time later, I realised they were not only tokens, there were deep philosophical endeavours to explain their meaning farther as something that has only symbolic value. It was not difficult to draw near what the ‘I’ and ‘It’ are, the obstacle evinced itself when it came to the ‘You’. My mind deduced: “Well, the ‘I’ exists, and I think of it as rooted within myself, in the existence of the ‘It’ I have no doubts either, for I see it with my own eyes in the form of objects that surround me. But what about this ‘You’ then? Is it something that addresses exclusively to a human? Or goes a little beyond and anchors in all living beings, including animals and plants? And what are the chances it extends also to inanimate objects? And most importantly, where are its chambers?

The relationship between ‘I’ and ‘You’ has clearly emerged and started gaining momentum in its development in the 20th century within existential philosophy. The era of ethics began at that time. The notion of relation and communication between beings has taken the central position. Ethics was announced as a primordial philosophy, when Emmanuel Levinas claimed that before we even begin to contemplate on ontology and metaphysics, we step into communication with the world and only after we gradually begin to familiarise ourselves with what is around, in and beyond us.

The journey to the philosophy of the Other or the ‘You’ will take us through Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber, and consequently ends with Emmanuel Levinas with the point that turned the idea of ethical philosophy on its ear. Their perspectives, however, are diametrically opposite, but express the longing to expose the nature of the Other to light.

Conflict is what appears before Sartre when describing the Other. Not for nothing, one of his works dedicated to the notion of otherness is titled “Hell is Other People”. Resolutely and without ceremony, he designates the Other as hostile, sealing them with a stamp of cold intransigence. In his understanding the two consciousnesses come into some kind of collusion as though they were the balls of a Newton’s cradle. Once the pendulum is set in motion, the balls commence to abut one another, but immediately bounce off. Similar things happen when two minds encounter each other. Their freedoms overlap one another and that is how one senses the presence of the Other and where the conflict grows.

Buber takes another road and does not resort to the logic of conflict. The Other discloses before him the possibility of a dialogue. An attempt to establish a communication is at the heart of his ‘dialogical’ existentialism. Addressing the world takes place in the realms of relations ‘I’- ‘It’ and ‘I’- ‘You’. The former word pair demonstrates to us a process of objectifying, in other words, it is a pragmatic necessity of ‘I’ of using an object. Experience and sensation constitute their presence. For instance, strolling around in the woods I got to see a tree and my imagination pictured a nice wooden chair I could make out of it. In a few moments I return to the tree equipped to wield the saw. I – the tree is a subjective – objective relationship. The latter word pair encompasses a drastically different form that excludes the principle of utility. In this encounter even that very tree transformates into the ‘You’ [1]. Apparently the chambers of the ‘You’ are showing themselves now. It appears to us as an in-between sphere which is lodged between human partners [2] and not only. ‘I’- ‘You’ is a mutual encounter, in which one gives his or her entire being to the other. The ‘You’ arises in the mind and spirit of the ‘I’. Dialogue provides black soil for genuine relationships. Its seeds are relationality and interconnectedness of beings with each other. We, heirs of humankind, enter a dialogue to become fully human, to let the Other leave an imprint on our minds, thus influencing and altering us. Politically speaking, dialogue is what makes reconciliation and peace possible between individuals, social groups, and countries.

Levinas shares Sartre’s views on otherness, but makes a stand against logic of conflict adherent to Sartre. Buber’s approach to the ‘You’ appeals to him, but his conciliatory pathway “through a dialogue to peace” becomes a source of Levinas’ disagreement. Dialogue is insufficient simply because there are certain situations and conditions, in which dialogue might not be even possible to occur. To assert this, Levinas has his grave reasons, for he was a factual witness of such. When WW2 began, he went off to the battlefront as an ordinary soldier of the French army. Shortly after he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a concentration camp, where he saw humans, dehumanised by war, whose method of communication with an enemy was certainly not the one of a dialogue. If not a dialogue or conflict, then what? – Asymmetrical relationships, as a counter position to the one of the mutual symmetrical relationships offered by Buber. They do not rest on the principles of reciprocity, but on the acceptance of absolute otherness and ontological diversity of the Other. Its gist consists in that one has a greater responsibility for the other than vice versa. This Other of Levinas is as mysterious as the mystery of death, for they both are ‘ungraspable’ [3]. The Other, according to Levinas, also does not need to be understood in a sense of analysing or examining (as we would do with an object), where understanding is seen as an act of violence. Trying to grasp the alterity of the Other, we objectify them. The principle of totality that was first introduced by Levinas in philosophy, causes objectification of every single thing around us. Similar to Buber’s ‘I’ – ‘It’ relation that was mentioned in the previous paragraph. On its basis the so-called logic of the war is built that is the core of the Western civilization as Levinas claims: “The visage of war that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy.” [4]. The logic of war explains that peace is regarded merely as a pause in between of warfares: “The peace of empires issued from war rests on war” [5]. Totality implies that a human and a chair as objects have the same quantities, the only difference would be that it would require some more time to comprehend a human rather than a chair only for the reason that the former is hundred times more complex than the latter. As a counter concept to totality, Levinas offers the concept of alterity, or in other words otherness. It bans the self from being generalised or totalised. For a human being is not an object that is superior to a chair due to his or her complexity, a human being is something fundamentally different and unique. Infinity is the next concept that goes along with alterity and is compared with a “mystery of eschatology” [6], that in its turn “institutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history and not with being beyond the past and the present” [7].

Philosophy of the Other mysteriously brings us closer to each other and at the same time teaches us to leave off the attempts to comprehend the Other. Humanity that is so used to “understanding” and analysing other inhabitants of this planet is in need to be warned that a living being is a radically alterity that is not to be categorised or divided into groups according to their gender, sex, religion and sexual orientation. They are not to be perceived as an extension of the self or manipulated for the sake of the individual or social self. This Other is that very ‘You’, whose chambers we aimed to discover in the beginning – the one that with no exceptions occurs inseparably in a perichoresis with the ‘I’, which means: there is no me without you.

[1] M. Buber, “I and Thou”, 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970, p. 57- 58

[2] N. Rotenstreich, “Immediacy and Dialogue”, Revue Internationale de Philosophie Vol. 32, No. 126 (4), Martin Buber 1878-1978 (1978), pp. 460-472, p. 460

[3] E. Levinas, “Time and the Other” (1947), translated by Richard A Cohen, Duquesne University Press (1987), p. 70-71

[4] E. Levinas, “Totality and Infinity” (1961), translated by Alphonso Lingis, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers and Duquesne University Press (1979), p. 21

[5]  Ibid. p. 22

[6] Ibid. p. 22

[7] Ibid. p. 22

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