The Other & The Failure of Philosophy

By Melvin Chen

Two millennia after the founding of Plato’s Academy in Athens, Western philosophy has yet to come to terms with one of its greatest failures: its inability to solve the problem of “the other”. Philosophers from Plato to Kant have occupied that epistemological position known as solipsism, or what Adorno has termed ‘identitarian philosophy’. “The other”, constituted in Plato’s dialogues as the interlocutors of Socrates (ranging from Cratylus to Thrasymachus), is represented, only to be ultimately assimilated into the discourse of the same, namely the dialectical movement of the Socratic method. The form of the dialogue is itself deceptive in its double gesture of appearing to receive “the other”, only to draw him or her closer to oneself and one’s point of view. This dialogue form informs the discourses of Aristotle, Cicero, Leopardi, Kierkegaard, Santayana, and Murdoch. This philosophy of “the same” has given birth to such monstrosities as the Cartesian cogito, the Spinozan conatus, the Leibnizian monad, the Fichtean ego, the Nietzschean superman, and American Transcendentalism.

Is it any surprise that Sartre, for all his literary pretensions, declared hell to be “the other”? Kant specified the limitations of philosophy with regard to the problem of other minds with his oft-used and oftener-abused term, the thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, assimilated this Kantian limitation into the philosophy of the same, by naming it the will, or more specifically: the will to power, which, to paraphrase Whitman, celebrates and sings a song of itself. Is it any further surprise, then, that this philosophy of “the same” led the Nazi regime, which might plausibly trace its roots to the German Idealism of Kant, to equate the obliteration of the other with a Final Solution? That “the other” is not a problem to be solved, but a question to be posed to the philosophy of “the same” (particularly questions of accountability with respect to Holocaust-deniers) needs to be recognized, and literature appears to be the medium best suited to pose this question. Postmodernism, with its love for the fragmentary, the incomplete, and the marginal, enacts, in my view, the fissuring of the philosophy of “the same”, which amounts to the same thing as the destruction of the philosophical “other”. Après moi, le déluge – or, in this case, the literary “other” which demands to be recognized and embraced.

What is it, then, about “the other” which resists its complete thematization in philosophical discourse? For one thing, “the other” is that which is illimitable and inexhaustible. It is the pied beauty in praise of which Hopkins sang, the haecceitas or ‘thisness’ of every individual which the philosophical tradition, through Duns Scotus, came closest to delineating, Woolf’s Mrs Brown in her corner, whom philosophy, like the figure of Mr Bennett, has deigned not to notice. Literature, through representing “the other” without any overt or covert philosophical agenda, represents that which resists complete thematization, from the world of Carroll’s Wonderland, which logical and metaphysical discourses reject, to the world of Lady Chatterley which moral discourse impugns. Against the limitations of the philosophy of “the same”, literature affirms “the other” in his or her otherness: yes, we are allowed to believe six impossible things before breakfast, and yes, a sexually frustrated aristocratic woman is allowed to go cavorting with her lower-class gamekeeper.

It has been literature rather than philosophy which has served as the vanguard for the recognition of “the other”: from what else do postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, feminism, ecocriticism, and gender studies spring, if not from an extant literary corpus which – to borrow a Marlovian turn of phrase – attempts to canvass every quiddity? The Levinasian philosophy of alterity, a project doomed to fail insofar as Levinas continued within the confines of the philosophical tradition, does however have one important insight: “the other” is that which cannot be completely thematized and made an object of by the self. Or, to borrow a well-worn phrase by Derrida, a French contemporary whom Levinas influenced: “the other” is wholly other.

Philosophy, insofar as it is addressed to a future reader, nominally includes “the other”, but this philosophical other is exhaustible and limited. The philosophical “other” is often delivered to us in such abstract terms that we often fail to recognize it in the starving cat at Blindern or the drug addicts who frequent the alley by Oslo Central station. The literary equivalent for this limited philosophical notion of “the other” must surely be the medieval morality plays, where characters personify notions, and represent what Forster would call ‘flat’ characters. The philosophical “other” is represented, only either to be doubted (Cartesian skepticism), assimilated into “the same” (Hegelian dialectic), or reviled (Nieztschean ethics). By contrast, the literary “other” is rendered in such concrete terms that we are confronted with its facticity.

At the phenomenological level, literature creates an imaginative space, shared between the author and his or her readers (this would be extended to an audience for a dramatist), and through this imaginative space, readers experience both real (in the roman à clef genre, for instance) and fictional “others” in their otherness. At the hermeneutic level, this imaginative space contains interpretative gaps which the reader must fill, and through the participation of “the other”, “the same” is no longer the same, a paradox best expressed by the figure of the hermeneutic circle. In philosophical dialogues, interlocutors are represented by what they say. In literature, they may be represented by their speech, their acts, or (and here lies the trompe l’oeil of literary representation) their thoughts. The greatest contribution to the problem of “the other” has been the invention of that narrative mode known as the stream of consciousness, first pioneered by the literary modernists.

Such is the nature of the fictional mode that “the other” need not even exist in order for us to sympathize with him/her, and this is something the philosophical tradition is sadly unable to account for. Against the anthropomorphic assumptions of the philosophical tradition, the literary “other” may not even be human: it may be a dog (as in the novels of Coetzee), a tree (as in Chekhov’s endangered and eponymous cherry orchard), a machine (as in the science fiction novels of Philip K Dick), a ghost (as in the genre of Gothic fiction), or even a talking horse (as in the Houyhnhms of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). To extend the analogy, philosophers seeking to encompass the un-encompassable literary “other” may be likened to Swift’s Yahoos, with their deformed though human appearance and mere semblance of reason.

Ideally, every “other” should be read like a Henry James novel: finely detailed, vivid, richly textured, full of subtleties and nuances, the sum value of which cannot be exhausted by the analyses of either a Cavell or a Nussbaum (assiduous though their approaches might be). If it is the nature of philosophy to exclude that which it cannot thematize (after all, did Plato not first exclude the poets from his republic of philosopher-kings?), then it is the nature of literature both to address philosophical themes and to include that which resists thematization. Philosophy, in treating “the other” as an epistemological problem to be solved, fails to countenance the very illimitability and the inexhaustibility of “the other”. Literature, by contrast, treats “the other” as a Moorean open question, the multifarious nature of whose alterity is illuminated by the endless variety of characters, plots, themes, and permutations which characterizes the literary genre. Thus do we turn to literature in order to understand “the other” in his or her otherness, shorn of the abstract obfuscations of the philosophical tradition.

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2 thoughts on “The Other & The Failure of Philosophy

  1. “why is life so tragic; so like a strip of pavement over an abyss” – virginia woolf

    the other is everything that spews from the abyss

  2. Agamben seems to correct for problematic relations between alterity and self with the concept of the “Whatever Being”; philosophy hasn’t failed.

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