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Introduction: Ten Trips Around the Conceptual Galaxy of Otherness

Massimo Dell’Utri e Stefano Caputo
p. 3-19


Nell’introdurre questo volume chiariamo come il concetto dell’altro sia suscettibile di essere declinato in modi così variegati che, a proposito di esso, dovrebbe piuttosto parlarsi di una galassia concettuale. I dieci saggi presenti nel volume ambiscono proprio a fare luce su tale galassia. Dopo aver presentato le idee centrali di ciascuno dei saggi sottolineiamo come essi costituiscano un episodio di pensiero paradigmatico di come filosofi cosiddetti “analitici” e “continentali” possano cooperare, nelle loro diverse prospettive, al chiarimento di un problema di interesse non solo per la filosofia ma per la società in cui ci muoviamo. Ecco solo un campione delle questioni, che si muovono intorno al concetto dell’Altro, che i saggi contenuti nel volume contribuiscono ad affrontare. Il relativismo culturale coglie nel segno? È realmente possibile istituire una rigida demarcazione fra “noi” e gli “altri”? Quanto profondamente le relazioni con gli altri formano il nostro Sé? L’istantaneità, che nell’età di Internet caratterizza sempre più le nostre relazioni con gli altri, pone una minaccia all’integrità dei nostri Sé? Che valore dovrebbe essere assegnato all’eccentricità in una società altamente stereotipata come la nostra? Come e in che misura è possibile una relazione comunicativa razionale non distorta e non violenta con l’altro da noi? L’ammissione di una radicale alterità è realmente in contrasto con quella di una realtà indipendente dalla nostra mente oppure è la realtà stessa nella sua indipendenza dalla mente a costituire l’alterità irriducibile con cui siamo confrontati? Che cosa c’è alla base della sensazione, che è così centrale della nostra esperienza della letteratura, di essere di fronte a qualcosa di radicalmente altro da noi (un mondo di finzione) ma anche di estremamente simile (le storie non parlano in fondo di noi stessi?). E cosa può rivelarci sulla nostra esperienza percettiva delle opere figurative quel fenomeno tipico del sentirsi seguiti dallo sguardo di un volto dipinto? Che ruolo retorico ha, e ha avuto, l’attribuzione di una radicale, e negativa, alterità nelle contrapposizioni teologiche e religiose?

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1As a result of globalization and recent technological innovations, over recent decades contact and interaction among individuals, groups, and cultures have dramatically increased. But such contact and interaction often comes with difficulties and costs, and this opens up a broad spectrum of issues of philosophical interest that involve the conceptual galaxy of otherness.

2Does cultural relativism get things right or at least partially right? Are successful interpretations and rational discussions among radically different cultures possible? How may one obtain a non-distorted and non-biased representation of the other? How do deeply relations with others shape the Self? Does the instantaneity that in the Internet era ever more frequently characterizes our relations with others pose a threat to the psychological integrity of our Selves? Can the development of digital means of communication improve our mutual understanding? Why should one respect the other? What is involved in considering the other a person? Is the admission of a radical otherness really at odds with that of an objective mind-independent reality? Do the characters described in works of fiction, such as novels or films really exist, thus deserving same respect we ought to afford to others? What grounds that feeling, which is constitutive of our experience of literature, of being confronted with something both similar (De te fabula narratur) and radically different from us (It’s just a story)? What value should be assigned to eccentricity in largely standardized and stereotyped societies such as ours, and what limitations do these societies place on our individual freedom?

3As the foregoing questions show, the concept of the other is susceptible to multifarious declinations, and it is precisely these declinations that the essays in the present issue aim to shed light on. One of the merits of these essays is that they help to clarify how the concept of the other represents a useful means to undermine the purported divide between continental and analytic philosophy. No author in the present issue has ever entertained the idea that the wide discussion concerning otherness has a continental or analytic “copyright”, but it seems a thoughtless, yet commonplace, notion that, if you want to gain real understanding of that discussion, then you have to look at what philosophers such as Blanchot, Sartre, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault – among others – say. Quite to the contrary, just to mention one thing, even a swift glance at the debate on relativism, which since at least the 1960’s spread throughout the philosophical community of an analytic bent, would suffice to show how otherness is central to that community too. To put it roughly, philosophers have been sorting themselves into groups on the basis of whether they hold that “others” are radically separated from the “us”, or that being raised within a given cultural environment does not preclude getting in rational touch with people belonging to different cultures – qualifying themselves as relativists and anti-relativists, respectively.

  • 1 Davidson 1973: 5-20.

4Donald Davidson raised a famous direct strong and lucid anti-relativistic argument to the effect that the notion of conceptual scheme is devoid of content – conceptual schemes being the necessary (but not sufficient) platform on which to build a relativistic position1. In the present issue Diego Marconi offers an argument of equal power but, possibly, more elegant and clear in its succinctness. It is not explicitly concerned with conceptual schemes, but with the pronoun “we” and the task of finding a rationale behind the relativistic idea that uses of this pronoun establish a radical distinction between us and others. Definitively, uses of “we” refer to some collective body, but Marconi highlights how its precise reference (i.e. which collective body) is not immediately clear – context and background knowledge notwithstanding. Even though the speaker’s intentions are useful to clarify who she is referring to, they are not always made explicit. And the «relative indeterminacy of the reference of “we” reverberates on the reference of “the others”». Thus, any rational clear-cut distinction between us and them turns out to be impossible: the surprising upshot is that «the “other”, the “different”, may turn out to be not too dissimilar from “us”» (this volume p. 16), and when dissimilarity is being stressed we can be quite sure a huge amount of rhetoric is in place: «We don’t see the others as being part of us because we are at that moment narrowing down the reference of “we” so as to guarantee differences» (this volume p. 17).

5It seems we can escape relativism also in the current theoretical picture in cognitive psychology, acknowledging thereby a central role to the other in shaping the self. This is the basic achievement of the paper Cristina Meini and Alfredo Paternoster have jointly written. The paper starts off by stressing how, at around the end of the 19th century, two leading authors, George H. Mead and Lev S. Vygotsky, reacted against the «strong solipsistic stance concerning self-knowledge» (this volume p. 22) deriving from the Cartesian view, by offering a description of the infant’s developmental process highly vitiated by relativistic elements. Mead because of his conviction that «without a culture in general there is no identity; and every particular culture shapes a particular identity» (this volume p. 23); Vygotsky because of «his strong empiricist attitude, according to which the mind at birth is a blank slate» (this volume p. 25), coupled with the idea that it is the environment we live in that provides the elements to put on the slate, strongly affecting our identity. From these starting points relativism becomes unavoidable. But these starting points are far from being uncontroversial.

6Grounding their view on a substantial amount of empirical research in developmental and clinical psychology, Meini and Paternoster show the possibility of holding a “precocious” view of identity and argue in favour of the hypothesis that «a very precocious personal identity can accord an important role to the Other in the formation of the Self without being committed to some outdated versions of empiricism» (this volume p. 21). The available evidence thus allows us to adopt an universalistic attitude which stresses the importance of biological endowment in that it maintains that the self is much more grounded in nature rather than in culture. What we deem worth emphasizing is Meini and Paternoster’s conclusion to the effect that «this anti-relativistic stance does not amount to denying any role to the other in the development of the self. On the contrary, many years of research in developmental and clinical psychology have shown how much personal identity, though being grounded in nature, is modulated by interpersonal relationships» (this volume p. 28), and not so constituted.

7The dangers personal identity might encounter as a result of the fast-moving technological evolution of the Internet era are tackled by Cristian Muscelli. His paper deals with the forms that relations with others take on in our societies and with how these can affect those pathological forms of relations with oneself which are classified by psychopathologists as borderline personalities. What determines the form of social relations in our societies is, more and more, immediacy. The transition from the industrial society to the society of communication has in fact resulted in the transformation of the old “principle of speed” into the new “need for immediacy”. In relation to the other, immediacy is divided into three aspects: telepresence, instantaneity and pornographic consciousness, referring respectively to spatiality, temporality and corporeality.

8Telepresence is the dematerialized presence of the others which is one of the main imports of the development of the Internet sphere: given that we are more and more “connected” with each other, to be is, more and more, to be connected. The development of information and communication technologies determines moreover an instantaneization of our temporal relation with others and ourselves; this instantaneization takes the form both of the simultaneity of a multiplicity of social relations and the fragmentation of the relations with others and ourselves. This fragmentation, in turn, deconstructs more and more the essential narrative structure of those relations. Pornography is the form that immediacy takes in the sphere of sexual desire: in fact, pornography immediately satisfies the desire that has been aroused by pornography itself; the other is reduced to the visible image of his or her body, to be becomes to be visible by another; in this immediate fulfilment of sexual desire there is no time for the construction of a narration shared by two persons. What these aspects have in common is that the experience of the other loses any continuity, any development in a shared narration, and is reduced to a sequence of disconnected momentary experiences.

9Muscelli goes on to stress that two of the main new forms of mental disorder highlighted by contemporary psychopathology, Adhd (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) and the borderline personality, may be described as pathologies of the hic et nunc, strictly connected with the “presentist” form of existence described above. A borderline person is absorbed by immediacy, he is neither rooted in the past nor projected into the future, he oscillates between the moments of orgiastic realization of his compulsive desires and those dominated by emptiness and boredom. In the borderline person the incapacity of establishing relations with the others which escape the logic of immediacy is strictly intertwined with the incapacity to give continuity to one’s own personality through a narration connecting past, present and future: in fact, this ability involves the capacity of recognizing an implicit Other in oneself, another to whom we may tell our story and before whom we must be responsible. In the last part of the paper Muscelli suggests the intriguing idea that borderline behaviours could be considered as forms of an adaptive response to the insecurity and sense of risk dominating our lives in the society of immediacy.

10Technological evolution apart, it is a common experience that personal identity as something autonomously gained is subtly jeopardized in societies – like ours – which relentlessly inculcate standardized ways of behaving. Escaping from homologation and showing possession of an original individuality has become ever more difficult for most of us. One of the consequences of this state of affairs is that a term such as “eccentric” has acquired a somewhat negative connotation, being very often used to refer to whomever refuses to behave according to a given stereotyped social custom. From this point of view the eccentric becomes the real “other”. However, is this the only connotation “eccentric” might have? Is it possible to bestow a different value on eccentricity? The contribution Wojciech Żełaniec makes in his On a value of eccentricity helps to shed light on this important existential question. Refusing to write off the eccentric as a person who merely flouts social conventions, and following – but only up to a certain point – the path laid down by Cardinal Newman, the author suggests that being eccentric «involves being considerate to the sensitivities of people who take certain things for granted»; the eccentric rather than trying to remove «the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him» (this volume p. 62), becomes a person who «does his best to make these obstacles more streamlined» (ibid.). Here is a viable way to evade too much social pressure and avoid making the eccentric a sort of relativistic social misfit.

11One philosopher that takes a clear anti-relativistic stance – and whose thought stands far above any distinction between continental and analytic philosophy – is Jürgen Habermas, the father of the theory of communicative action. Pier Luigi Lecis’ paper constitutes a wide-ranging and precise discussion of the various elements that, according to Habermas, can actually get us to “fuse” our horizon with that of the others – to use a Gadamerian turn of phrase. It is well known that Wittgenstein maintained that rational discussion between people belonging to different cultures has serious limits, and that at a given point rational grounds depart and persuasion comes in. His great respect for Wittgenstein notwithstanding, Habermas displays a battery of arguments which make him a fierce paladin of a genuine symmetrical relation between Ego and Alter, the relation which can take place in the course of a fair and honest dialogue. As Lecis interestingly shows, Habermas holds that the concepts of truth, rationality and justification do possess a transcultural dimension: however differently interpreted and applied they may be, they play the same grammatical role in every linguistic community. In fact, careful analysis of the linguistic exchanges we daily engage in reveals a double dimension of language: one embedded in specific historical forms of life, the other constituted by invariant types of linguistic action and function. According to Habermas, among these invariants we find the idea of a common objective world, since the belief in such a world is one of the fundamental pragmatic presuppositions built in our use of language; this presupposition enforces, according to Habermas and Lecis, a symmetry in the different perspectives of the participants to a conversation, leading to a full recognition of the other.

  • 2 Pirandello 2007: 125.
  • 3 Luzio 1935-47: 425.

12The idea according to which an objective world is a precondition to the recognition of the other is quite interesting. Maurizio Ferraris not only seems to subscribe to this idea: he moreover claims that it is just reality that, in all its independence from us, is the “ultimate otherness” and, as such, is unavoidable. All depends on reality – from both a metaphysical and an epistemological point of view. Since this “all” is to be taken at face value, it follows that also things like fiction show this kind of dependence. It is the main aim of Ferraris’ essay to argue for fiction’s radical dependence on reality. Indeed, the entire essay can be taken as a proof of the statement Luigi Pirandello makes through one of his most famous characters, Mattia Pascal: «Nulla s’inventa, è vero, che non abbia una qualche radice, più o men profonda, nella realtà» («Nothing is invented, it is true, that is not somehow rooted, more or less deeply, in reality»)2. Conversely, Ferraris’ essay is the refutation of a conviction Giuseppe Verdi expressed in a letter to Clara Maffei, dated 20th October 1876, a conviction to the effect that «copiare il vero può essere una buona cosa, ma inventare il vero è meglio, molto meglio». («to copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better»)3.

13The prevalence of the real in literature is shown by focusing on three uses the real can be subjected to. Firstly, there is the use Ferraris calls “alimentation”, which refers to the fact that fiction feeds itself with material drawn from the real world. Secondly, there comes the use called “denial”: it is the one an artist displays when trying to mitigate the consequences of her claims or the practical effects of her work of art (everybody knows the classic disclaimer “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”). This use of the real allows one to affirm the realistic character of one’s own work of art by denying that character itself. Thirdly, there is an extension of the mode of denial: “derealization”. This is what happens within postmodern discourse, namely the discourse which theorizes the loss of the distinction between reality and fiction, and between philosophy and literature. According to postmodernists, theory itself should be literaturized and become «halfway between rhetoric and logic, reality and fiction, mythos and logos, as part of a project of deconstruction of the distinctions between reality and fiction, serious and non-serious, literature and philosophy» (this volume p. 92). On the basis of an array of examples taken from the world of art, Ferraris shows the risks intrinsic to the loss of the world – the loss embedded in the third use of the real.

14The field of art opens a series of interesting questions that are closely related to otherness. Take for example a character displayed in a novel, such as Emma Bovary: of course she is something other than us to the extent that she is something “different” from us. She is not living – she is fictitious. But does this mean she is nothing? Or can we make room for the claim that she actually possesses a sort of being, gaining therefore full right to being taken as a plausible other?

15Carola Barbero devotes her essay, Emma and the Others, to a careful scrutiny of some realist positions – «the only ones according to which, strictly speaking, literary objects are something and can, therefore, also be others» (this volume p. 100) – with the aim of clarifying «what sorts of things fictitious characters are and how they distinguish themselves from us (that is to say, in what sense they are others)» (ibid.). Following Barbero’s path the reader can thus discover four different positions which make fictitious objects legitimate citizens of our ontological inventory: two theories of a neo-Meinongian variety, the artifactualist theory and the theory of possible and impossible worlds (spatiotemporal worlds that are causally separate from ours). So, which one wins the dispute, according to Barbero?

16She invites us to look into ourselves and ask what we have in mind when we think of Emma Bovary as an other. Even the most cursory reflection will suffice to persuade us that «when we say that Madame Bovary is other than us, what we have in mind is closer to what Edmund Husserl would say about the experience of the other, as something we can feel a sort of Einfühlung or empathy for» (this volume p. 107). Emma should exist in the flesh, so to speak, as a concrete spatiotemporal individual with whom we could have a real relation of acquaintance. Therefore, of the theories listed above, the last is that which offers the best realistic outlook: since it presents fictitious literary objects «as being metaphysically similar to us, with the only difference being that of living in different worlds» (this volume p. 108), it is the most advisable one in accounting for these objects insofar as others.

17Fictional characters are also the main concern of Alberto Voltolini’s paper, The depicted gaze of the Other. His basic point is that the experience of depicted fictional characters exhibits interesting connections with our experience of the other. Sartre taught us that the other manifests his sometimes afflicting presence by gazing us. In this respect characters depicted in some portraits are even more self-imposing others than real people: in fact, when we face portraits we often get the impression that, however we move around the picture, we are “followed” by the gaze of the depicted individual: the Other, as Voltolini stresses, goes on gazing at us. Of course this does not happen in reality: if we want to escape the gaze of another person, it is sufficient to place ourselves in a position in which that gaze cannot reach us. The experience of being followed by the gaze of a depicted character is in turn an aspect of the more general phenomenon of perceptual constancy, a phenomenon that affects our experience of pictures. If we move around an individual in reality, at least from certain perspectives we see that individual as distorted. The same happens with respect to the vehicle of a picture, the physical object grounding a certain depiction: it is one thing to see that vehicle when facing it, another thing to see it from an oblique perspective. Yet if we focus on the item depicted in a picture, the picture’s subject, we still experience it in the same way from any perspective.

18Voltolini focuses on these phenomena in order to defend and bolster Richard Wollheim’s view, according to which pictorial experience is an experience of seeing-in. Seeing-in is for Wollheim a phenomenally sui generis experience basically characterized by twofoldness: in facing a picture, one has a twofold experience whose inextricably intertwined folds are the configurational fold, in which one grasps the picture’s vehicle, and the recognitional fold, in which one grasps the picture’s subject. After having vindicated this claim against a criticism put forward by Dominic Lopes (according to which twofold seeing-in is not necessary for perceptual constancy), Voltolini presents and convincingly argues for his own account of seeing-in and the peculiar experience of being followed by the gaze of the depicted character. According to him, the recognitional fold of the seeing-in has to be conceived as a knowingly illusory experience of the picture’s subject. The illusory experience at stake is similar to the one we have with trompe-l’oeils: in these cases we unknowingly mistake the picture (the physical object really present in the environment) with its subject (the object represented in the picture) and, as a consequence, we also mistakes that subject as being in the very same real space in which she is located. Similarly, in a seeing-in experience the spectator is under the impression that the subject is in the very same space in which she is, nor can she refrain from having that impression. However, unlike the case of a genuine trompe-l’oeil, the spectator well knows that her experience is illusory. Moreover, the spectator has such a knowledge because, unlike any other typical illusory experience, she also consciously perceives the very picture’s vehicle. Both that illusory experience of the subject and that perception of the vehicle become parts of the twofold experience of seeing-in. The explanation of the impression of “being followed” by the subject’s gaze is straightforward once the recognitional fold of the seeing-in experience is taken as a knowingly illusory experience of the picture as its subject: as the spectator is forced to see the picture as its subject, she is also forced to see that picture as a subject whose gaze points to her; still, as the the spectator well knows that the picture is not its subject, she also well knows that there is no such gaze around her.

19Both the case of Emma Bovary and the case of the depicted fictional characters stretch the boundaries of the concept of otherness. One may ask what constitutes those boundaries – however stretched. If we bear in mind that the very presence of another person lies the basis of a society, and a society consists in a set of institutions made possible by the existence of specific rules, one may wonder what kind of concepts make those rules possible. This is the point Giuseppe Lorini tries to make clear in his Meta-institutional Concepts: A New Category for Social Ontology.

20The social ontology the subtitle alludes to is formed by all those elements humans create in order to organize their everyday lives – political parties, financial institutions, leisure centres and the like. In such a world facts happen, institutional facts. As Lorini recalls at the beginning of his essay, according to Searle these facts are made possible by “constitutive rules”, i.e. rules that not only regulate, but constitute the form of activity they regulate; for instance, the very possibility of playing chess depends on there being rules of chess. The core of Lorini’s essay is the claim to the effect that it is possible to deepen Searle’s analysis and highlight some facts the possibility of which does not depend exclusively on constitutive rules. In fact, they presuppose for their existence what Lorini calls “meta-institutional concepts”. The level of meta-institutional concepts – such as the concepts of victory and the competitive game – go beyond the boundaries of the single institution of chess and indeed of any other institution, in the sense of being logically prior. It is this discovery that makes institutional reality appear «more complex than it appears in Searle’s social ontology» (this volume p. 129), and enables Lorini to obtain a more refined picture of the conditions of possibility of the institutional facts made possible by this institution.

21Maria Bettetini’s essay has a bearing both on the issue of relativism and that of art – religious art in particular. The ancient faults of the other: Religion and images at the heart of an unfinished dispute tackles the question of the power images purportedly have to refer to something or someone, addressing the controversy about the actual range of this power which, in every civilization, may «involve suspicion of the other and, as a result, the effort to stress one’s own identity and to crush others’» (this volume p. 142). In this respect Bettetini’s essay is a fittingly historical description of the stances one can take over the problem of fiction’s dependence on reality – the problem we saw at the crux of Ferraris’ essay.

22Displaying a wealth of historical data mainly drawn from the 8th century AD, Bettetini describes the cluster of religious-political-social motives behind the Greek iconoclasts – those who oppose images – on the one hand, and the Latin iconodules – those who defend the devotional use of images, on the other. Interestingly enough, the latter appear to be in tune with those who nowadays argue for a close connection between fiction and reality. According to iconodules, “picture” resembles “scripture” and paintings in churches thereby have a catechistic value. Thanks to their referential power, sacred images facilitate people’s communication with God – per visibilia invisibilia. However, while the Church of Rome took a positive attitude to sacred images, «beginning in 727, the same cannot be said for Constantinople» (this volume p. 146). This was due to the influence of Islamic and Jewish iconoclasm, the making and owning of images of God and the saints was prohibited. Therefore, «at the root of the struggle among Christians we find the “Arabs”, who are in turn ill advised by the Jews. And each refuses sacred images with a view to distancing themselves from idolaters, who are guilty of confusing the material representation with the divinity represented» (this volume p. 152).

23Bettetini’s essays ends focusing on a work written in the years between 790 and 793 and known as the Libri Carolini, whose supposed author is Charlemagne. «With sophisticated arguments and in an elegant language, the text supports a doctrine that aims to oppose both the Latin iconodules and the Greek iconoclasts, namely the inability of images to mean anything beyond the materiality of the object reproduced» (this volume p. 153). So conceived, images are not good or bad, «but became only useful or harmful, or, more especially, beautiful or ugly. Which is the way that they have been considered in Western culture over the succeeding thirteen centuries» (this volume p. 153). Yet – and here comes the heart of the matter which makes it an unfinished dispute – the Libri Carolini’s doctrine cannot be divorced from the artistic production «that over time came to think of sacred history as ever more a pretext for proposing imagines formosæ, without of course letting ourselves be contaminated by the wicked ideas of “the others”» (this volume p. 160).

24So, these are ten attempts to find one’s way around the conceptual galaxy of otherness. Just choose your point of departure, dear reader!

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Davidson, D.
– 1973, On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme, “Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association”, 47: 5-20

Luzio, A. (ed)
1935-1947, Carteggi verdiani, 4 voll., Roma, Reale Accademia d’Italia

Pirandello, L.
2007, Il fu Mattia Pascal, Firenze, Giunti

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1 Davidson 1973: 5-20.

2 Pirandello 2007: 125.

3 Luzio 1935-47: 425.

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Massimo Dell’Utri e Stefano Caputo, «Introduction: Ten Trips Around the Conceptual Galaxy of Otherness»Rivista di estetica, 56 | 2014, 3-19.

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Massimo Dell’Utri e Stefano Caputo, «Introduction: Ten Trips Around the Conceptual Galaxy of Otherness»Rivista di estetica [Online], 56 | 2014, online dal 01 juin 2014, consultato il 15 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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