What Is Alterity?

Now that this blog has a new home and some new readers, I account it high time to recapitulate what I mean by alterity and why I choose, at the risk of provoking some online inquisitor general, to associate myself with this obscure, unsavory word. First, though, a little history of philosophy.

Philosophical thought today largely occurs under, in response to, or at least aware of what Jean-François Lyotard termed the postmodern condition, a condition of thought characterized 1) by incredulity toward master systems of thought in which there’s a place for everything and everything has its place and 2) by the affirmation of pluralism and paralogy, the non-totalizing, creative search for whatever doesn’t fit nicely into systematized knowledge. A search, in a word, for otherness or alterity.

Whenever we attempt to understand someone or something, we conceptualize him, her, or it in terms familiar to us—in terms of similitude. We categorize and classify: we apply the same words to different things. Alterity, to quote philosopher Brian Treanor, is “that aspect of things, and others, that is (absolutely) unfamiliar, alien, or obscure.” Absolute alterity cannot be categorized or classified or conceptualized.

I remember well my first real experience of alterity. I was standing in line with my younger brother, looking at his face, when it suddenly dawned on me that I both knew and didn’t know who he was. I realized in that moment that no matter how well I would or could come to know him, there would always be a mysterious remainder to my knowledge. I knew then that I could never know him or anyone else completely. I understood that there would always be something other about every other. Levinas, I imagine, would be pleased to know that my experience of alterity literally came from looking into another’s face.

By “journeys in alterity,” then, I mean my underlying concern and various attempts to expose my thought and beliefs to their other—to other ways of thinking and believing and through these, I hope, to what cannot be thought or believed because it is absolutely unfamiliar, alien, or obscure. I welcome, albeit with a little fear and trembling, the visitation of that which may shatter my present thoughts and beliefs.  Against my better judgment, I do not bar the door and lock it securely; rather, I keep it ajar, on the off chance I may be visited by strangers, gods, and monsters.

I am, you may have noted, decidedly a postmodernist.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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123 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    How does this differ from, or relate to, the existentialism of Heidegger and his heirs?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’m not well versed enough in Heidegger to say whether or to what extent his existentialism deals with alterity, but it’s definitely a theme in the existentialism of his contemporary Gabriel Marcel.

      If you’re interested in the theme, I recommend Treanor’s book Aspects of Alterity, which traces two traditions, one from Levinas and the other from Marcel.

      • Rodak says:

        Thanks, Kyle–
        I’ll definitely add it to the list. My most recent post at Rodak Riffs touches upon the Heidegger theme (just barely.)

        • Rodak says:

          I have Treanor in hand. I see from the index that he cites Heidegger pretty much throughout. So I guess that I’ll have my question answered, if I can get through it. (It may be way over my head!)

  2. Michael Drew says:

    Wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of alterity in relation to yourself? That a part of you is irretrievable alien to you as well? And then, also, the strange finality of the realization that you are one and only one thing: you’re nothing but you. For all the billions of other possible kinds of beings and implied perspectives you encounter and consider, trying to see how it would be to be other than yourself, finally you’re not: you’re just the one thing, and never could have been anything else. Being is not transitive. And then these two realizations together. Trippy.

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