S1711 Otherness, Race and Culture

Bloechl Jeffrey

Course description

Our natural attitude in everyday life includes relating ourselves to beings who we take as others and yet also as persons like ourselves. What makes another person other? What makes some others persons, and not for example animals or angels? And how is it that we carry on active, efficient and often enriching relations with other persons without needing to sort out the relation between the senses in which they are other than us and like us?

In European thought, it has been phenomenological philosophy that takes up these questions with greatest sophistication. More specifically, especially after the early phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger, these questions are applied first at the existential level, where it is a matter of what we do and how we live spontaneously, before reflection leads to speculative conclusions. Existential phenomenology addresses the encounter and relation with others as features of everyday life, and asks for their conditions in what it is to be human. Here, the primary authors are Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas.

Notably, this approach has been criticized for neglecting serious attention to gender and to race. After all, the other person is not without gender and also not without race. And arguably, these features of her personhood are often available to be seen in her body, her skin color, and so forth. Have I truly seen another person as who she is, if I see only that she is other (and is this possible)? Have I seen her as who she is if I say only that she is like me? If we suppose that the encounter with another person is defined by seeing her face strictly as the expression of her otherness (Levinas), have we not already passed over essential features that are present on her face? Here, with this sort of criticism, the authors are de Beauvoir and Fanon.

In raising these questions, we are led to two kinds of reflection: one seeks an improved account of what it is to encounter and relate to other persons? and one exposes that same effort to constant political critique, since forms of thinking that fail to recognize essential dimensions of our personhood are in danger of leading us to think that such dimensions are of only secondary importance.


Learning outcomes:

Students will learn to develop their skills as independent thinkers, scholarly writers, and productive, critical participants in intellectual discussion.


Required preliminary knowledge:

Students should have some competence with spoken and written English, and an interest in the questions of how we experience another person, how we are certain that this is another person, and what it is to relate to someone else as a person and as an other; students should also be interested in discussing the complications brought to these questions by the matters of race and gender.