Aristotle tells us that one way of understanding a given term is to understand its opposite. What is the opposite of “other”? A dictionary might indicate “same”. In phenomenology, this seemingly banal distinction has taken on momentous proportions, mostly thanks to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). A key theme in the thought of Levinas is our radical incapacity to make space for the other, for what is not the same as us. He strongly denounces this chronic tendency to totalize the self. The totalitarianism of the Nazis, for instance, (which he encountered indirectly through the killing of some members of his family) is for him but the ultimate outward expression of a much more banal form of totalitarianism that dominates human life. Let us take a simple example. Two women are in the cancer ward of a hospital:
Jean: How are you today, love?
Ann: Not too well. My left arm is really painful. It feels as if it is burning.
Jean: I know all about that. You have no idea how sore my foot was last night…
What is depicted on a nano scale in this scene occurs daily, hourly, on a micro, meso- and macro-scale in our private and public lives: each of us, if we dig a little below the surface, is somewhat like Jean.
Levinas puts this down to nothing less than the history of Western civilization. This culture, or these cultures, train us, particularly through language, in “egology” from a tender age. Egology is a far deeper philosophical and moral problem than mere selfishness. The egoist probably has some vague sense of her lack of care for the other, the egologist – by definition – is so self-absorbed as to be incapable of even posing this problem.
What to do?, as one tremendous egologist once asked himself. Not that much, according to Levinas, our condition is quite critical. The best “I” can hope for are some fleeting moments when I, not notionally, but really, recognise that the world, the other and God are not the same as me.
Fr. Martin McKeever, CSsR