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Continental Thoughts

The Concept of the Other from Kant to Lacan

Peter Benson looks at how continental minds see how we see other minds.

Among the numerous divergences between the Analytic and Continental traditions of philosophy, one of the most striking is their different ways of discussing one’s relation to other people. In Analytic philosophy this is typically approached, in the first instance, as a question about the possibility of knowledge, under the heading ‘The Problem of Other Minds’. The ‘problem’ in question is how we can know of the existence of other minds, since any mind as such is not directly evident to sensory perception – we can’t see or touch minds.

A classic response to this question, echoed by many later writers, was given by John Stuart Mill:

“I conclude that other human beings have feelings like me, because, first, they have bodies like me, which I know in my own case to be the antecedent condition of feelings; and because, secondly, they exhibit the acts, and other outward signs, which in my own case I know by experience to be caused by feelings.”
An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, 1865

A sceptical challenge to Mill’s conclusion has been pursued in recent years by the thought experiment of the ‘philosophical zombie’, popularized by David Chalmers. This is not the flesh-eating ghoul of horror cinema, but a hypothesized being who would look and act human but have no conscious experiences. Chalmers asks whether such a creature could be possible (even if not particularly plausible), and what evidence could count against any given person actually being a philosophical zombie. (Philip Goff gave a good account of this debate in the zombie-themed issue of Philosophy Now, Issue 96.)

“With you there’s no other”
© Steve Lillie 2018. Please visit stevelillie.biz

But leaving zombies behind and returning to the real world, it is clear that the process of deduction proposed by Mill bears no relation to why we actually accept that the people around us have minds of their own. Even the most cursory observation of children should alert us to the fact that their problem, as they grow gradually more familiar with the world, is the exact opposite of the problem proposed by Mill. Initially, children attribute mental states to everything – they believe their toys have minds and feelings just as much as their parents have – and over time a pruning takes place among the categories of entities to which mental states are attributed. Animals remain within this category longest, and even adults are capable of attributing implausible mental states to their pets. Indeed, it is easy for us to attribute malevolence to particularly recalcitrant inanimate objects: a screw that won’t unfasten; a zip that sticks; a door that won’t open.

So it seems that we all begin with an assumption of mental states in all the entities of our world, in a similar way that early religions attributed spirits to trees, rivers, and all the objects of the natural world. This appears to be one of the innate ways in which we’re inclined to think. So thinking of something as having a mind is not something derived from our experience or deduced from evidence in the manner of Mill; rather, the assumption precedes our experience. We then seek to fit the entities we encounter into this category.

This is Immanuel Kant’s notion of an a priori [‘before we experience the world’, Ed.] category of ways of thinking. Such categories were expounded by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), although in fact ‘An Other Person’ is not one of the categories Kant discussed in that book. There his focus was on what categories were necessary for us to be able to have an experience of the physical world. Hence his list of categories includes such items as ‘substance’ and ‘causality’. Kant only began considering our relation with other people in his subsequent Critique of Practical Reason (1788), where he expounded his view that the most crucial feature distinguishing our relationship to other people from our relationship to inanimate objects is the Moral Law. One of his formulations of this moral law is “always treat other people as ends in themselves, never simply as a means to an end” (that is, not simply as objects for our own use). So for Kant it is the operation of the Moral Law, which he believed could be deduced by pure reason, that creates a ‘Kingdom of Ends’: a world of free autonomous individuals.

It was left to Kant’s successors to pursue the consequences of regarding ‘the Other’, meaning ‘An Other Person’, as an a priori category. Continental philosophy, right up to the present day, has continued to investigate this idea, which has received little attention from the Analytic tradition.

Alexa & Her Lovers

The advantages of this approach to understanding our awareness of other minds can be seen in the light it throws on common experiences.

To explain what I mean, I would like to introduce you to Alexa. You may have met her already. You may even have had conversations with her. Anyone can purchase Alexa from Amazon, and install her comforting presence in their home. There you can train her, like a briskly efficient au pair, to take control of your multiple electronic devices, – TVs, ovens, lighting, computers – so that you need only murmur, “Alexa, switch on the TV, please” for your desire to be swiftly satisfied. She will also order your groceries, renew your internet subscriptions, and tend to many of the complicated needs of modern life. She speaks in a soft, unobtrusive, female voice. Everything said to her is recorded by Amazon, from which we know that many thousands of people have declared their love for her.

Since Alexa is a black tube about a quarter of a metre long with a circular light at the top, she would appear to have limitations as an object of erotic devotion. But it is clear that people quickly start to treat Alexa as an Other, not as a mere object. They know perfectly well that she is an electronic device without consciousness, intentions, or needs of her own. But behaving towards Alexa as a person becomes inevitable, because she is programmed to respond as a person might, and our brains have evolved to categorize such a being as an Other, so we respond to her as a person. We can resist this categorization, but, as with an optical illusion, our perception remains unchanged even after it has been explained. The stick in water still looks bent, even though we know it isn’t. Alexa’s personhood is exactly such a psychological illusion.

That we think about people in a different way from other entities is hardly surprising. It’s akin to the fact that our brain processes faces differently from other shapes. The ‘face’ component of our brain can be activated by very simple forms such as smiley icons. Similarly with the person-response pathways in our brains. However, the inescapable tendency to treat Alexa as a person, despite the clear and irrefutable evidence that she’s not, demonstrates the limitation of Mill’s empiricist approach to the problem of other minds. Other minds continue to be perceived even when they obviously don’t exist, because of the a priori existence of the category of the Other in our thinking.

Indeed, we should treat with caution our attempts to resist this illusion. The thought-experiment of pretending to be surrounded by philosophical zombies is only an intellectual game for most; but for some people the experience can become a terrifying reality. One common symptom suffered by psychotic patients is that the people around them are not felt or thought to be real people, but automata; and this can include their relatives, friends, and the doctors trying to help them. Sigmund Freud discussed this symptom in his case history of Daniel Schreber, a judge who had written a book describing his mental illness. It is the capacity of our minds to malfunction in this way that underpins the fascinated horror with which we watch movies about worlds full of zombies. Their implausibility does not remove the stirrings of fear they evoke perhaps because we innately recognise that this is what the world would feel like if we lacked the innate category of ‘the Other’.

Hegel & His Successors

G.W.F. Hegel was the first philosopher following Kant to address specific questions relating to this category. In the first section of his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), he wrote about familiar questions concerning the relationships between observing subjects and their objects of observation. This he called ‘The Dialectic of Consciousness’. The second part of the book, however, confronts the particular issues that arise when the object of our perception is itself recognized as another subject, another person. Hegel calls this ‘The Dialectic of Self-Consciousness’. Humans are not just conscious, but also self-conscious, and in Hegel’s view our self-consciousness is connected to our awareness of Others. Contemporary psychologists have called our awareness of Others a ‘theory of mind’, by which they mean an ability to recognise that other people have minds, and thence to make deductions concerning what the other person may be thinking. But for Hegel the awareness that I myself am also an object of thought for this Other, who will be making their own assumptions about my thoughts, produces an effect resembling two mirrors turned to face each other, each reflecting the other down a tunnel of repeated images into infinity. This mutually-reflecting feature of human self-consciousness has particularly engaged the ruminations of many subsequent thinkers in Continental philosophy, generating a series of different accounts. Hegel himself believed that the confrontation of two consciousnesses would involve one attempting to subjugate the Other by incorporating their perspective within their own. Even as this fails, the attempt itself will modify the nature of the first’s awareness. And thus begins the sequence of differing forms of consciousness which constitutes Hegel’s account of human life and history. This process can only begin with one consciousness acknowledging the existence of Others.

A contrasting view was taken by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943). Here Sartre describes our condition as that of beings who are both subjects (for ourselves) and objects (for Others). But we can never be aware of both these aspects at the same time. Hence our awareness oscillates between these two poles, never able to grasp the two positions simultaneously. From this situation arise those dilemmas of human interaction which Sartre so brilliantly describes in this book. Sartre differs from Hegel in that this oscillation offers no possible series of progressive stages, and so no historical development of consciousness in a Hegel-like manner. Hegel’s notion of an evolving dialectic would find no purchase on the Sartrean see-saw of Subject and Object. This is the root cause of Sartre’s difficulty in incorporating history into his scheme of ideas, leading to his failed attempts to reconcile his philosophy with Marxism.

Alternative approaches to this same set of issues can be found in the works of such Continental philosophers as Alexandre Kojève, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Foucault, and many others. The topic has proved to be a fruitful field of enquiry, producing profound speculations about the fundamental characteristics of human interaction.

Lacan & Psychoanalysis

Among the many French thinkers who have contributed to this developing discussion is the controversial psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981). Lacan repeatedly denied being a philosopher. Yet, as Slavoj Žižek remarked when interviewed in this magazine (PN 122), “something happens with modern philosophy that creates a privileged link with other fields. With, for example, psychoanalysis…. Only by reading psychoanalysis through German Idealism can we arrive at what the psychoanalytic revolution really amounts to.” It is from German Idealism – particularly Hegel’s thinking – that the various modern theories of the Other originate.

Lacan’s innovation was to re-interpret Freud’s theories of the unconscious in terms of the dialectic of Self and Other, rather than in terms of the biological impulses hypothesized by Freud. To the theory of the Other, Lacan also contributed the distinction between the big Other (designated by a capital ‘A’, for the French word Autre) and the little other (small ‘a’). In Lacan’s early work, small ‘a’ designates another person considered as our counterpart, the mirror of ourself, an equal partner in dialogue; whereas the big ‘A’ Other (or ‘Absolute Other’) turns the concept of Otherness into a separate entity - making an ‘Otherness in itself’ as we might say. This reification acknowledges our capacity for detaching the concept of the Other from any specific person and even from any physical entities such as rivers and trees and stones. Lacan further thinks that it is by this abstraction of the concept of Otherness that we generate a concept of God. When Lacan declares that “it is impossible not to believe in God”, he is pointing to the inevitable generation of some such avatar of the Other in the structure of our minds. In the same way, historically, the early animistic religions with their numerous spirits were displaced by monotheistic religions of an ‘Otherness in itself’ which transcends anything we encounter in the world. Attempts to bring this God down to earth again tend to be disastrous, giving to a particular person an absolute status as Other in place of God, as often happens with the dictators of totalitarian states.

But the Other might also be identified with Society itself – with all its rules, assumptions and regulations to which we submit ourselves. Alternatively (and importantly for Lacan) the Other might be construed as the locus of language from which our speech is drawn. If I am conversing with my counterpart (little ‘a’) other, the words and grammar we both use belong to neither of as individuals. We borrow and use language from a source outside ourselves – the big Other. From this derives the fact that I am never able to completely control the meanings conveyed by my words – what I say will always have a tendency to exceed the intentions I have in speaking. In Lacan’s theory this excess is the unconscious. So the unconscious results from our use of language, from the fundamental fact that we are speaking beings.

Whether one accepts the Lacanian concept of the unconscious, as “the discourse of the Other”, or alternatively the Freudian concept, as a region of the mind repressed from consciousness, either way, one is committed to recognizing that the human mind is not transparent to itself, and no amount of introspection can fully reveal it. This idea is rarely taken into account by Analytic philosophers, for whom consciousness tends to be regarded as a fully lucid self-awareness. Yet whether or not we accept their truth, the very existence of these psychoanalytic theories demonstrates that this assumption of a fully lucid self-awareness is dubious and requires justification. Indeed, if Analytic philosophers were more attentive to alternative modes of thinking they would become aware of the contentious nature of many of their unstated basic assumptions.

The split between the Analytic and Continental traditions in Western philosophy benefits neither, yet shows no signs of being bridged in the near future. By looking at the concept of the Other, I hope to have thrown some light on the nature of this division.

© Peter Benson 2018

Peter Benson studied Analytic Philosophy at Cambridge in the 70s, and Continental Philosophy over many subsequent years of classes, reading groups, and personal research.

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