Listening to and Learning from the ‘Other’

For a few months now I have been struggling to understand the idea of the ‘Other’, i.e. the capitalised Other. Why is it that so many people write about it and make such a big thing of it?

Having read around it a bit – not a lot, because, from my perspective, it’s hard to find anyone who writes about it with any clarity – I am beginning to wonder if, after all, it is a very simple idea. Basically each and every person who is not me is ‘Other’, which seems obvious, so what is the issue?

As I see it, and from my reading about the French/Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), in whose work a dominant theme was the ‘Other’, there are three significant issues which make the ‘Other’ worthy of being capitalised.

  1. No man is an island, as John Donne said.

We live in relationship with all things and all people. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom Iain McGilchrist says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

This is a significant idea because it means not only that we live in relation to all other people, but that our self cannot come into being without the ‘Other’, or as Gary Goldberg wrote in a comment on a previous post (‘Attending to the Invisible Other’),  ‘Being for the Other precedes Being for oneself’. Our identity depends on being in relation to the ‘Other’.

  1. This raises the second issue, that of responsibility for the ‘Other’.

Levinas was concerned with what it means to understand the world on the basis of the ‘Other’. He stressed that we must recognise our responsibility for others, but this responsibility can strain our sense of self, because if I always see myself in relation to others, then I cannot be separate from others.  This has been interpreted by one author as follows:

‘Whenever I see the face of another person, the fact that this is another human being and that I have a responsibility for them is instantly communicated. I can turn away from this responsibility, but I cannot escape it. This is why reason arises out of the face-to-face relationships we have with other people. It is because we are faced by the needs of other human beings that we must offer justifications for our actions. Even if you do not give your change to a beggar, you find yourself having to justify your choice.’ (DK Philosophy book)

And Young (1995) writes:

I am always and always have been in relation to the Other – meaning the other person. The presence of the Other calls me to service and responsibility. The Other brings myself into being, through my separation from the Other.

The face of the Other, makes it clear that ‘I am not everything – that everything does not belong to me and that my consciousness does not encompass everything’.  Everything also belongs to the Other.

We might ignore, but cannot escape our responsibility for the ‘Other’. But what does this mean in practice? I have just spent a month in India, where it was hard not to recognise the ‘Other’ and consider what my responsibility for the ‘Other’ is. Should I, or should I not give money to this family of beggars I saw on the streets? Would that fulfil my responsibility to them? And why do we tend to focus on ‘Others’ who are extremely different to us, when our immediate neighbour is also ‘Other’? How do I prioritise my responsibility? Should I prioritise responsibility? And what forms should my responsibility take? These are the sorts of questions that consideration of Levinas’ idea of responsibility for the ‘Other’ have raised for me.

  1. This leads to the third issue. How can the ‘Other’ enter into ‘my’ world without simply being reduced to that world?

I interpret this to mean, how do I see myself in relation to others as opposed to over and above others, and how do I maintain and respect difference?

On thinking about this, I realise that we probably try and dominate the ‘Other’, in the sense of hoping for a degree of sameness, more than we think we do. If you have children, think of the number of times you might have wished that your child will be like you, at least in your values. Or if we find ourselves in a different culture, how often do we look for and value ‘sameness’, for example, being able to laugh at the same things? How comfortable do we really feel with difference? How easy do we find it to fully embrace and respect difference, without trying to mould it into sameness?

Another common denial of the ‘Other’s’ difference is when we limit the ‘Other’ to a category, e.g. race, gender, age etc. In this sense the ‘Other’ is dominated and controlled by the same, which is what Levinas was warning against.

I have found myself wondering why Levinas’ thinking about the ‘Other’ and ‘Otherness’ continues to hold people’s attention.  I have come to the conclusion that it is not so much whether or not we recognise that the ‘Other’ exists. In fact I can’t see how anyone could be unaware of the ‘Other’. Every person is a unique individual, different to every other person, so every human encounter is with the ‘Other’. It’s more about how we respond to the ‘Other’. Do we try and dominate the ‘Other’? Do we accept responsibility for the ‘Other’? Do we try to listen and learn from the ‘Other’?

Levinas invites us to listen to the voice of the ‘Other’. This, he believes, is our moral and ethical responsibility.


Michael Barnes  Introduction to Levinas,

Beavers, A. (1990). Introducing Levinas to undergraduate philosophers. Colloquy Paper, Undergraduate Philosophy Association, 1–8.

Buddeberg, E. (2018). Thinking the other, thinking otherwise: Levinas’ conception of responsibility binnen de muren van een verpleegtehuis voor ouderen. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 43(2), 146–155.

Kader Düşgün, C. (2017). The Self and the Other in the Philosophy of Levinas. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities, 7(2), 243–250.

Nooteboom, B., Levinas, E., Levinas, F., & Bellow, S. (2012). Levinas, 1–8.

The Dorling Kindersley Philosophy Book

Walicki, M. (1996). Levinas for the Beginners, 1–9.

Young, B. (1995). An Introduction to Levinas.


5 thoughts on “Listening to and Learning from the ‘Other’

  1. Lisa M. Lane (@LisaMLane) February 3, 2019 / 4:54 am

    I admit to knowing little about this issue, but that’s never stopped me, so…

    If a person who feels they are responsible for others encounters a person who not only does not feel this, but in fact feels either hostile or superior, the encounter with the Other can be not only unpleasant but dangerous. Often it is only when we feel that the Other cannot harm us that we can be both responsible and kind.

    I have been places where I have given money to people on the street, because they obviously needed some, and were asking, and I had some. But occasionally, such giving has alerted others on the street, and I have been followed and hassled until I felt myself in a dangerous situation. The Other is not an object – it has agency, and its actions may not be benign.

    In this sense, I think we value sameness not because we are indifferent to difference or learning about others, but also because we need safety first. If we have friends,and a culture, which reflects our own values (values which have also been influenced by the Other throughout our lives), then we can look on the Other, not necessarily from a position of superiority, but from a position of confidence and security.

    I suppose it’s not popular to value safety and security when encountering those who are different.

    Perhaps it is possible to consider a more universal connection to all Others in general, that we are all part of humanity, and to always be open to learn from each other. In this way, we focus not as much on the differences (the “Other”) but on the commonalities. Doing this while retaining some personal safety is an interesting balance.

  2. ggoldbergmd February 3, 2019 / 11:24 am

    Levinas was one of the 20th century’s most provocative and contraversial philosophers. I have been studying his work for several years now and have a shelf of books by him and about his philosophy. Levinas studied phenomenology in the German school with Husserl and was a colleague of Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, and wrote his PhD thesis on the concept of Intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. Historically, he was a key figure in the connection between German and French phenomenology.
    There are three books on that shelf that might be of interest in helping to clarify what Levinas was exploring in the concept of the ‘Other’ as well as what he meant in his concept of the ‘Face’ of the ‘Other’ which ‘commands us’ and from which we cannot escape…

    1. Drew M. Dalton Longing for the Other. Levinas and Metaphysical Desire. 2009. ISBN13: 978-0-8207-0425-8

    2. Sharon Todd. Learning from the Other. Levinas, psychoanalysis, and ethical possibilities in education. 2003 ISBN10: 0-7914-5836-9

    3. Samuel Moyn. Origins of the Other. Emmanuel Levinas between revelation and ethics. 2005. ISBN13: 978-0-8014-4394-7

    Inherent in the encounter with the Other is the commandment ‘Do not kill’. There are a couple of ways that his work has been summarized: ‘Ethics precedes ontology’ and ‘Ethics as first philosophy’. I like to summarize it as ‘We must co-exist, before we can exist.’ Levinas once said that his philosophical project could be summarized in two words in French, “Après vous”. Some have summarized it as ‘the philosophy (or ‘wisdom’) of love in the service of love.’
    Which argues for the primacy of relationality over materiality. Psychoanalytically, it turns Freud upside down by maintaining that the affective experiential Id precedes rational thought-based Ego. And very much opposes the Cartesian ethos of ‘I think, therefore I am’ which totally leaves the Other out of the picture and implies that the only way we can approach the other is through ‘totalization’ via our attempt to fully contain the other in thought, reasoning about the Other through a reductive process. Levinas argued that the Other inherently exceeds our capacity for totalization and that the reflexive totalization of the Other to attempt to force the Other into being ‘the Same’ is futile and dangerous. In other words, the ‘alterity’ of the Other exceeds any attempt to contain it. In fact, it is in relationship to the alterity of the Other that we come into being and through which our own identity is constructed.
    Much has also been written about Levinas, the philosophy of teaching, and educational ethics, as one might imagine since one can conceptualize the teacher-student relationship readily in these terms, I think.
    One book about this that I have found useful and thought-provoking is by Anna Strhan and is:

    4. Anna Strhan. Levinas, Subjectivity, Education. Towards an Ethics of Radical Responsibility. 2012. ISBN13: 978-1-118-31239-1

    Very relevant, I think, to the current movement to recognize ethics as a fundamental element underpinning the educational process. And the recognition that one cannot possibly have a functioning democracy without an adequately educated populace, including education in ethics and morality as it relates to both the personal and the political. So, for example, check out the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin…

    This issue is finally beginning to get some traction, I think. Hopefully, it is not too late for the viability of the democratic nation-state as we have come to know it in the First World of the West.

    My own interest in Levinas relates to his philosophy of time which has been my personal philosophical angle on and approach to philosophy, in general. Levinas once characterized his whole philosophical project as ‘the deformalization of time’ and his philosophy of experiential time, which was influenced by that of Henri Bergson as well as that of his phenomenological colleague, Heidegger–although that is an extremely complicated relationship given that Heidegger went on to become a Nazi supporter while Levinas became an officer in the French Resistance who was captured and imprisoned by the invading German army, I find very deeply fascinating and provides a really interesting and compelling way to think abouit all of this. That is, to see experiential time in the context of relationality and responsibility. But that is an entirely different topic!

  3. jennymackness February 5, 2019 / 7:45 am

    Hi Lisa – thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing your perspective. I also know little about this, so it’s difficult to respond to your comment. My immediate thought was that I don’t think responsibility necessarily equates either to safety or to being kind, but more to being aware of the ‘Other’ and difference to the extent that you can make choices in the light of this awareness.

    I think your point about universal connection is important. That was the point that stood out for me, i.e. that we are all interrelated, whether we want to be or not. In this sense we can’t avoid responsibility for the ‘Other’.

    You may have noticed that Gary Goldberg, who has commented below, knows a lot about this and has shared a number of references. I wonder if Sedbergh bookshop will have any of them 🙂

  4. jennymackness February 5, 2019 / 8:01 am

    Thank you Gary for all the information and a very useful set of references. I will definitely try and follow up on some of them.

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