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The Other or constitutive other (also referred to as othering) is a key concept in continental philosophy, opposed to the Same. It refers, or attempts to refer to, that which is other than the concept being considered. Often it means a person other than oneself. It is often capitalised.

Origin of the Word:

Otherness is an ambiguous term that originated in the writings of GWF Hegel (1770-1831) and was later developed in the psychoanalysis of Lacan. The other can be associated with the image outside oneself perceived and identified within the Mirror-stage [psychoanalytic term: roughly, when a baby sees itself in the mirror and gains an idea of itself as discontinuous from the rest of the world – MU]. It can be understood within the binary of self/other and can be seen as organizing the very existence of individual subjects. While Otherness is something that we all experience in a psychological sense, the processes of othering have specific implications when used to disempower and colonize certain peoples.

From Key Concepts in Post-colonial Studies: Alterity is derived from the Latin, alteritas, meaning 'the state of being other or different: diversity, otherness'. In postcolonial theory, the term has often been used interchangeably with otherness and difference. The self-identity of the colonizing subject, indeed the identity of imperial culture, is inextricable from alterity of colonized others, an alterity determined, according to Spivak, by the process of othering.

Popular Definition:

Othering is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an "other." Whatever the markers of social differentiation that shape the meaning of "us" and "them," whether they are racial, geographic, ethnic, economic or ideological, there is always the danger that they will become the basis for a self-affirmation that depends upon the denigration of the other group. When a group claims to be "chosen by God," the danger multiplies, not only for the "unchosen" other who may be subjected to violence, but for the chosen group itself that is at risk of being undermined. [In other words, convenient though othering is as a way of propping up one’s ego, it has an inherent fragility because it must constantly be fed by the illusory inferiority by the Other – and is thus constantly at risk of being discredited – MU]

A Literary / Popular Definition:

When social, ethical, cultural, or literary critics use the term "The Other" they are thinking about the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group. By declaring someone "Other," persons tend to stress what makes them dissimilar from or opposite of another, and this carries over into the way they represent others, especially through stereotypical images. It also extends to political decisions and cultural practices. In the recent past of the United States, Anglo-Americans made African-Americans into cultural Others through the use of minstrel shows in blackface, popular figures like Sambo and Aunt Jemima, and separatist policies like the Jim Crow laws. Similar practices can be traced in practically (if not) every culture in the globe. The recent genocidal wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia , as do the continued struggles in Ireland and Israel , remind us that Othering is an instrument of terror that results in multi-generational hatred and violence.

The idea of the Other

A person's definition of the 'Other' is part of what defines or even constitutes the self (see self (psychology), self (philosophy), and self-concept) and other phenomena and cultural units.

Lawrence Cahoone (1996) explains it thus:

"What appear to be cultural units—human beings, words, meanings, ideas, philosophical systems, social organizations—are maintained in their apparent unity only through an active process of exclusion, opposition, and hierarchization. Other phenomena or units must be represented as foreign or 'other' through representing a hierarchical dualism in which the unit is 'privileged' or favored, and the other is devalued in some way."

It has been used in social science to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude 'Others' who they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society. For example, Edward Said's book Orientalism demonstrates how this was done by western societies—particularly England and France—to 'other' those people in the 'Orient' who they wanted to control.

History of the idea

The concept that the self requires the other to define itself is an old one and has been expressed by many writers:

  • The German philosopher Hegel was the first to introduce the idea of the other as constituent in self-consciousness, he wrote of pre-selfconscious Man: "Each consciousness pursues the death of the other", meaning that in seeing a separateness between you and another, a feeling of alienation is created, which you try to resolve by synthesis. The resolution is depicted in Hegel's famous parable of the master slave dialectic.

Sartre also made use of such a dialectic in Being and Nothingness, when describing how the world is altered at the appearance of another person, how the world now appears to orient itself around this other person. At this level Sarte presented it, however, without any life threatening need for resolution, as a feeling or phenomenon and not as a radical threat.

The Lithuanian-French philosopher, Levinas, was instrumental in coining contemporary usage of "the Other," as radically other. He also connected it with the scriptural and traditional God, in the The Infinite Other.

Ethically, for Levinas, the Other is superior or prior to the self, the mere presence of the Other makes demands before one can respond by helping them or ignoring them. This idea and that of the face-to-face encounter were re-written later, taking on Derrida's points made about the impossibility of a pure presence of the Other (the Other could be other than this pure alterity first encountered), and so issues of language and representation arose. This "re-write" was accomplished in part with Levinas' analysis of the distinction between "the saying and the said" but still maintaining a priority of ethics over metaphysics.

Levinas talks of the Other in terms of insomnia and wakefulness. It is an ecstasy, or exteriority toward the Other that forever remains beyond any attempt at full capture, this otherness is interminable (or infinite); even in murdering another, the otherness remains, it has not been negated or controlled. This "infiniteness" of the Other will allow Levinas to derive other aspects of philosophy and science as secondary to this ethic. Levinas writes:

The others that obsess me in the other do not affect me as examples of the same genus united with my neighbor by resemblance or common nature, indivudations of the human race, or chips off the old block... The others concern me from the first. Here fraternity precedes the commonness of a genus. My relationship with the Other as neighbor gives meaning to my relations with all the others.[1]

The "Other," as a general term in philosophy, can also be used to mean, the unconscious, silence, madness, the other of language (ie, what it refers to and what is unsaid), etc.

There may also arise the problem of relativism if the Other, as pure alterity, leads to a notion that ignores the commonality of truth. Issues may also arise around non-ethical uses of the term, and related terms, that reinforce divisions.

The Other manifests in the ethical theory of vegan feminist Carol J. Adams in the form of the absent referent. This refers to a psycho-social detachment which occurs in people who eat meat between the consumer and the slaughtered animal.

The Other in gender studies

Simone De Beauvoir adopted the Hegelian notion of the Other in her description of how male-dominated culture treats woman as the Other in relation to man. The Other has thus become an important concept for studies of the sex-gender system. According to Michael Warner:

the modern system of sex and gender would not be possible without a disposition to interpret the difference between genders as the difference between self and Other ... having a sexual object of the opposite gender is taken to be the normal and paradigmatic form of an interest in the Other or, more generally, others.

Thus, according to Warner, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis hold the heterosexist view that if one is attracted to people of the same gender as one's self, one fails to distinguish self and other, identification and desire. This is a "regressive" or an "arrested" function. He further argues that heteronormativity covers its own narcissist investments by projecting or displacing them on queerness.

De Beauvoir calls the Other the minority, the least favored one and often a woman, when compared to a man because, "for a man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity" (McCann, 33). Betty Friedan supported this thought when she interviewed women and the majority of them identified themselves in their role in the private sphere, rather than addressing their own personal achievements. They automatically identified as the Other without knowing (Colwill). Although the Other may be influenced by a socially constructed society, one can argue that society has the power to change this creation (Haslanger).

In effort to dismantle the notion of the Other, Cheshire Calhoun proposed a deconstruction of the word "woman" from a subordinate association and reconstruct it by proving women do not need to be rationalized by male dominance (McCann, 339). This would contribute to the idea of the Other and minimize the hierarchal connotation this word implies.

Edward Said applied the feminist notion of the Other to colonized peoples (specifically, in Said's work, the Middle Easterners and Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular).

Some other quotations

  • The poet Arthur Rimbaud may be the earliest to express the idea: "Je est un autre" [I is another].
  • Søren Kierkegaard argued that others, the crowd, is "untruth", and stressed the importance of the individual.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, phrased it thus: "You are always a different person."
  • Ferdinand de Saussure described language as, in Calvin Thomas' words, a "differential system without positive terms".
  • Jacques Lacan argued that ego-formation occurs through mirror-stage misrecognition, and his theories were applied to politics by Althusser. As the later Lacan said: "The I is always in the field of the Other."
  • Emmanuel Levinas, on the other hand, saw apprehension of the other as the basis for ethics, and as a limit on ontology.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre's character Garcin, in the play Huis clos (No Exit), states that "Hell is other people." ("L'enfer, c'est les Autres.")

See also


  • Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1973). Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
  • Kristeva, Julia (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge.


  • Thomas, Calvin, ed. (2000). "Introduction: Identification, Appropriation, Proliferation", Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06813-0.
  • Cahoone, Lawrence (1996). From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
  • Colwill, Elizabeth. Reader--Wmnst 590: Feminist Thought. KB Books, 2005.
  • Haslanger, Sally. Feminism and Metaphysics: Unmasking Hidden Ontologies. [1]. 11/28/2005.

McCann, Carole. Kim, Seung-Kyung.

  • Feminist Local and Global Theory Perspectives Reader. Routledge. New York, NY. 2003.
  • Rimbaud, Arthur (1966). "Letter to Georges Izambard", Complete Works and Selected Letters. Trans. Wallace Fowlie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich (1974). The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1986). Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.
  • Lacan, Jacques (1977). Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.
  • Althusser, Louis (1973). Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Warner, Michael (). "Homo-Narcissism; or, Heterosexuality", Engendering Men, p.191. Eds. Boone and Cadden.
  • Tuttle, Howard (1996). The Crowd is Untruth, Peter Lang Publishing, ISBN 0-8204-2866-3
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  1. "Otherwise than Being", p.159