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.