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Alterity and Otherness in Phenomenology – meaning and definition

Phenomenology and Existentialism

Alterity and Otherness are concepts used in various ways by different branches of philosophy. In phenomenology, alterity and otherness serve to describe the characteristic of being other or different, especially when referring to another conscious subject. The other is opposed to the self or the same, and selfhood is contrasted with otherness and alterity. Alterity can also be defined against "identity", the trait of being identical with oneself. 

The question of philosophical otherness ranges from morality and law, to humanities and social sciences and especially anthropology. In phenomenology it serves as special point of interest as the phenomena of otherness and alterity and manner by which it is experienced. 


Alterity and Otherness in the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas

The concepts of otherness and alterity were developed by the phenomenological philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas sees the other and the relation to otherness as an essential part of what makes us who we are. For him, selfhood is always relational and is always bound be a relation with alterity. Otherness for Levians directs our attention to our own selfhood as call for responsibility towards the other. Response and responsibility towards the other is the weight that gives meaning to our actions which are always directed towards alterity. 

For Levinas, the face of the other appears to us as infinitely unknown and that is why they open the subject to what is beyond his own reach. Otherness breaks the self enclosed "same" or "identical" and defines us as who are based on our relation with the other. Levinas goes as far as arguing that ethics precedes ontology. This means that our committed relationship with others comes before our awareness of our own physical existence.

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