We Differ, Therefore We Are

By Jeff Mallinson

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I don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, using sonar to “see” the world, though I find the idea of using electric impulses on the tongue to help the blind see awesome in the old sense. The closest analogy I have is riding motorcycles on busy streets. When I ride through the desert, I tend to listen to the sweet tunes of Calexico, and lose myself. Recently, when two-wheeling in China, something different happened. In just one stretch, I had to maneuver through a moving maze of jaywalkers, cars on sidewalks, scooters riding right at me on the wrong side of the road, and flocks of bicycles. Given my usual experiences, relying merely on immediate line of sight and lines on the road no longer worked. I didn’t die. I didn’t even come close to a collision. In fact, after about an hour of practice, something strange happened. I started to use my ears (unplugged from music this time). I listened not only to the sound of motors in my blind spot, but also to the gentle honks from everyone as they crept up and around each other. What I originally took to be impatience and aggression, I soon learned to receive as a polite way to keep me from becoming road kill. Each honk helped develop a 360 degree picture of where everyone was in this frantic dance of commuters and tourists. Other senses started to kick in. Rumbling vibrations from vehicles helped determine the size of the vehicles approaching. I amazed myself, and felt almost like those incredible bats, who fly though branches, grab moths in the air, and make dramatic turns throughout the night sky.

This experience helped me to reflect on something that has long been important to Continental philosophers and sociologists: the idea of the Other. For all the negative press the postmodern Continentals get, I believe they had at least one thing right as right gets: the idea that philosophy ought to start with ethics. Or, at least, to get past epistemological impasses, understanding the Good may be a pre-requisite for getting to the True. There are many ways in which this may be so. But one way resembles my experience on the Chinese streets. By an awareness of the other, I was able to properly understand where I was. Likewise, by recognizing my place before the Other, whatever or whoever that Other might be, I come to know myself.

Descartes famously started with himself. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. The Cartesian project may have been fun, but I think it ultimately foundered. Moreover, Descartes’ starting place may have led the modern world to the negative things typically associated with postmodernity. If the whole thing starts with me, abstracted from relationships and the uncertainties of concrete life, it will naturally lead to a form of hyper-modernism. Indeed, some strands of Anglo-American postmodern thought look to many wise observers as little more than the rational rubble of a rational tower of Babel.

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But there are many strands of this phenomenon called postmodernity. In many conservative churches, postmodernity is identical to a decadent and un-restrained relativism. These same conservatives identify this postmodernity as the agent of disintegration for traditional family values and universally-held truths. What these conservatives often don’t realize is that it is precisely their children who tend to talk like relativists. Having grown up imbibing conservative beliefs, they have a hard time defending those beliefs when they find that their roommate who’s Muslim isn’t a terrorist, their Atheist roommate has at least some sort of ethical compass, and their gay friend is less promiscuous than their straight youth group buddies. In the face of this, they seek to get along without anyone having to change or grow. All they need to do is conclude that everyone is entitled to, and thus possesses their own unique truths. That’s how kids roll. But not the most interesting Continental thinkers, who don’t just seek tolerance, aim at using the phenomenon of otherness to generate deep understanding and personal transformation.

Take Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), for instance, who called ethics the first philosophy. An individual discovers the ethical not as abstraction and theorizing, but by recognizing that he or she stands before another, face-to-face. This produces both a strange sense of intimacy and yet infinite distance. We sense a presence nearby, but can’t grasp another’s consciousness. Thus, Levinas writes, “I owe the Other everything, the Other owes me nothing. The trace of the Other is the heavy shadow of God …. ” [Difficult Freedom (Johns Hopkins, 1990), 8.]

Just as the presence and expressions of the motorists and pedestrians in China danced their wild traffic dance, when we get outside ourselves, we ironically start to understand ourselves. Moreover, we begin to become better selves, especially when we actually draw near and desire to understand the Other. Levinas writes:

“The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching. Teaching is not reducible to maieutics [the Socratic method]; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain.” [Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis, (Kluwer, 1969), 51.]

Many sixteenth-century thinkers would have understood the gist here, if not the peculiar terms. Through the classical skeptical sources, they had learned to appreciate that certainty, in this earthly kingdom, was impossible. We could rest certain in the revealed promises of God in Christ, the Christian humanists believed, as did Luther, but we had to muddle through the rest of this earthly business with fallible reason and senses. The solution for many was the value of dialectic, something that depended on intersubjective human conversations, and consensus, the role of a community in coming as close as possible to a rational understanding of the natural world.

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Conversation with people who are different expands the intellectual gene pool, as it were. We exist, and understand our existence when we recognize there is at least something mysterious outside our own thoughts. Getting outside ourselves, I might venture to propose here, is not just a fun touristy thing to do, but rather a moral obligation. Getting outside ourselves is the topic for this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast. Rest assured that the podcast tackles the theme without reference to philosophers. But thanks to you, dear reader, for indulging the strangeness of this post.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping nothing but puffing on the last embers of a blackberry flavored hookah, amidst the self-locating sounds of exotic rhythms and Arabic singing, all between chapters of  William Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism.

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