Phenomenology of the Alien: Basic Concepts

Phenomenology of the Alien: Basic Concepts


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Tanja Stähler and Alexander Kozin’s elegant translation of Bernhard Waldenfels’s Phenomenology of the Alien (Grundmotive einer Phänomenologie des Fremden) introduces the English readership to the philosophy of alien-experience, a multifaceted and multidimensional phenomenon that permeates our everyday experiences of the life-world with immediate implications for the ways we conduct our social, political, and ethical affairs. 

With impressive erudition Waldenfels weaves in xenological themes from classical philosophy, contemporary phenomenology, literature, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology to address the boundaries of experience that unite and separate human beings, their collectives, their perceptions, and aspirations. While the debate has long raged in German-speaking circles, Waldenfels’s work is largely unavailable to the English-speaking audience, with the only other translation being The Order in the Twilight (1996). Phenomenology of the Alien is a superb introduction to both xenological phenomenology, and the the question of the alien as it has been unfolding in contemporary thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810127562
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2011
Pages: 104
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Bernhard Waldenfels is Professor Emeritus at the Ruhr-University in Bochum, where he leads a working group on phenomenology. He is the author of twenty-six books. 

Tanja Stähler is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sussex. 

Alexander Kozin is a Research Fellow at Freie Universitaet Berlin.

Read an Excerpt


Basic Concepts
By Bernhard Waldenfels

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2011 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2757-9

Chapter One

The Human as a Liminal Being

The alien is a limit phenomenon par excellence. It arrives from elsewhere, even when it appears in our own house and own world. There can be no alien without an alien place. How much weight is given to the alien will thus depend on the kind of order in which our life, our experience, our language, our acts and deeds take shape. When the order becomes transformed, there is also a transformation of the alien which is as multifaceted as the orders which it transcends. The expression "the alien" is no less occasional than the expression "the ego." The limit zones which expand between and beyond the orders are the breeding grounds for the alien.

1. Orders and Their Limits

We are usually right to assume that orders do not merely have boundaries, but that boundaries emerge from ordering processes. Something is what it is by virtue of its separation from other things: stones, plants, animals, or human beings, natural or artificial things. However, when it comes to the human realm, the concept of boundary is a particularly restless one, because boundaries are constantly in question. The human being is characterized by the fact that its behavior is brought to certainty neither by instinctive regulations nor by some artificial programs; it is a creature that is not locked in by fixed boundaries, but rather relates to these boundaries in a certain manner. That goes for the limits of place and time, which define our concept of here and now, for the limits imposed by various prohibitions, which restrain our desires and deeds, and for the limits of understanding, which curb our thoughts. Therefore it is no wonder that the question of the limits of existence and those of the world should be found among the major themes in human history, be it Jehovah, who separates light from darkness, be it the immeasurable boundaries of the soul, be it the modern philosopher, who maps out the boundaries of pure reason, or be it the systems theorist, who presents the sublime gesture of creation in a minimalist formula: "Draw a distinction!"

This already indicates that drawing boundaries, which leads to different sorts of orders and structures, does not merely have a pragmatic and regional, but also an epochal character. It may be assumed that every epoch (more specifically: every culture, society, environment, or form of life) behaves within certain boundaries, but that the relation to the boundaries, which is always accompanied by a certain politics, is subject to significant variations. The ways one handles boundaries serve as a clear indication of the underlying spirit of an epoch; it may also provide a commentary on that which has advanced modernity for such a long time, including what had preceded it or undermined and transgressed it. That the recently crossed threshold which leads us into the new century is definitely a very particular boundary is as true as the fact that we do not have a suitable language for that which lies ahead of us.

2. Boundless Universe

For the sake of contrast, let us begin with the boundless universe, represented in our cultural tradition most succinctly by the Greek cosmos. The cosmos depicts a classical form of order, because it had played a paradigmatic role for a long period of time. The cosmos does not embody one order among a range of other possible orders; it embodies order as such. The only alternative to it is the unordered manifold of chaos. In this cosmos each being is given its own limited shape ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), the boundaries of which delimit this being for itself and from its surroundings. The clear-cut shape is expressed in the conceptual definition ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]); since the times of Plato, it has been dialectics that related each being as the same to its other in a nexus of relations. This horizontal nexus is complemented by a vertical hierarchy, the proportions of which correspond to the degree to which the rational whole is reflected in the individual being. In that sense, the humans would stand above the animals, the Greeks above the barbarians, the man above the woman, the contemplation above the action. The participation in rationality, which discloses the law of the whole, is decisive for where one stands in the hierarchy of individual beings.

This relational structure, which has all difference as relative, features a lower and an upper boundary. The lower boundary is formed by the in-dividual, an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which cannot be divided into further entities without destroying its identity. The upper boundary is formed by the universe, a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which itself cannot be ordered into or under anything else; the world is an entity "from which nothing is excluded," as is stated in Aristotle's Physics (3.6.207a8). To put it simply: the cosmos is an order without an outside; all it has are internal boundaries. The one who crosses these boundaries either enters the bad infinity of the endless, bottomless, and pointless apeiron or raises himself to the extreme heights like Icarus, whose attempt to conquer the heavens ended in a fatal crash.

However, the idea of a closed and all-embracing cosmos that provides a suitable place for each being and prefigures its paths is based on the implicit assumption that the place where the whole shows and expresses itself as a whole is still thought of as a place within that whole itself. The psyche, which is, according to Aristotle, "in some sense everything," becomes the stage of the very order to which it mimetically adjusts itself. The cosmos thus appears as an order which unveils and expresses itself as itself by changing all conditions into moments of itself. This order without an outside corresponds to a thought of the inside, a penser du dedans, to modify Foucault's famous title, and on the whole this thought would be by itself. Yet even the ancient Greeks knew of the figures who did not fit this scheme, for example, Socrates, this [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], who lives in the city with other fellow citizens but acts as a living question mark, or the Platonic mania of poetry and eros, or the Sophists, who counter the true logos with the artificial trick and techniques of lexis, or a tragic figure like Oedipus, who sees only when he becomes blind, chained to his ominous fate, which isolates him and labels him as a homeless person ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). Such marginal figures, whose anomaly makes normality less secure, are also found in other places. For example, mystical sidestreams tend to accompany the main stream of unquestionable devotion to law and text, casting a shadow of heterodoxy and anarchy. This holds for both the Jewish or Islamic traditions, but also for the Christian tradition. Even Saint Paul dissociates himself from the kind of rhetoric in which the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] or the lingua loosen the tongue to the extent that allows it to escape either the individual or public control. The saying, which evaporates in the cosmos of the said, is replaced with the saying, which says no thing and which is in that sense meaningless. The charismatic, which Max Weber opposes to the everyday life of institutions, pervades everything; it also serves as an indication that any normality, even the cosmologically, theologically, or cosmopolitically simulated normality, omits something which then finds an expression in anomalies and frays into some lunatic fringe.

3. Ownness, Alienness, Contingency

A global order is not conceivable without a rupture, unless the place from which the whole unfolds, evaporates in a specific whole. What we call modernity can be described as the movement to question the vision of the whole. The self-deception of a kosmotheoros, who reckons himself as a part of the scene he beholds, is breached, and the pretended order turns out to result from an establishment of order [Ordnungsstiftung]. The two key discoveries here are (1) the discovery of a self that says "I" before it is named "subject," and, as a result of its self-referentiality, the relational structure of the whole explodes, and (2) the discovery of a radical contingency that does not only utilize the open places of an order, but affects the order itself. Such an order can not only degenerate into disorder but can also become a different order; it can be different from itself. For example, in Descartes' cogito one not only finds the pinnacle of thought but also the idea that God could have created a different mathematics. The orders in which we move turn out to be merely potential orders. As the strange protagonist in Musil's Man Without Qualities suspects, even God prefers to speak of the world in the weaker form of a conjunctivus potentialis: "for God makes the world and while doing so thinks that it could just as easily be some other way" (Musil 1961, 15). The fact that for the young Ulrich this suspicion is linked to the thesis that "anyone who really loved his country should never think his own country the best" (ibid.) gives the matter a political flavor. The decisive factor here is that the motifs of subjectivity and rationality, which cause us trouble even in the present, act as a double motif. The modern subject appears as a being that is looking for its place but does not have it, and that can no longer act as a substitute for a single rationality.

If this double motif is to be considered seriously, in all its radicality, the problem of drawing boundaries should also change. Then the self, which lives in its own sphere and conforms to its own cultural order, even for language and the senses, will no longer be reducible to something same that is separate from the other in the context of universality. Selfness and ownness are the results of drawing boundaries that distinguish an inside from an outside and thus adopt the shapes of inclusion and exclusion. Ownness arises when something withdraws from it, and exactly that which withdraws is what we experience as alien or heterogeneous. This separation of the own and the alien, effected by no third party, belongs to a different dimension than the distinction between same and other, which is backed by a dialectically created whole. Or to put it in the mother tongue of Western philosophy: the other ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) and the alien ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) are two different things. The alienness of a guest, and this includes the Stranger from Elea who makes an appearance in Plato's Sophist, of another language and of another culture, the strangeness of the other sex or that of "another state" can by no means be reduced to the fact that something or someone appears to be different. Building materials such as wood and concrete, or types of wine such as Beaujolais and Rioja, are indeed different from one another, but no one would claim that they are alien to one another. Alienness presupposes that a self (ipse) should have a sphere of ownness and its own being, and that this self should not be confused with the same (idem), which is discernable by a third party.

4. Modern Compromises

Nietzsche writes: "I think it is important to get rid of the universe, the unity.... We should smash the universe; unlearn our respect for it" (KSA 12: 317). No one could say that modernity ever got serious about the consequences of delimiting orders. Up until today we have tended toward compromises, in which the mutual contamination of self and same and of other and alien has played a significant role. The ambivalences of assessing a new ordering potential affect also the most recent conflict between the representatives of modernity and postmodernity. Consider the motif of a self that says "I" and thus dissociates itself from the whole. The "I" literally means an exception. Connecting the Cartesian ego directly to egocentricity would make things too easy. It would also neglect the restlessness that speaks from this radical self-reflection, the very restlessness that pushes the philosopher to search for an unshakable foundation. Though this search is bound to failure, the question remains "What motivates it, this search?" Even if the question "Who am I?" happens to revert all too quickly to "What am I?," this strange question, which short-circuits the questioner and the questioned, already contains a trace of Rimbaud's "JE est un autre."

However, be that as it may, the discovery of a self, whose selfness separates it from the relational structure of a natural and social universe, is diluted if it is turned into a mere particularity. At the end, we would be confronted only with the conflict between individualism and holism, between particularism and universalism, a conflict that still lingers but has never accomplished much. Since a whole cannot be conceived without having any parts in which it articulates itself, and since general regulations are of little use without the particular circumstances to which they apply, the conflict leads to a great coalition where the Aristotelians are seated next to the Kantians, the hermeneuts next to the universal pragmatists. However, this harmony is easily unsettled: one would only have to remind oneself of the fact that the origin of "I-You-Here-Now" does not at all designate the elements that belong to general conceptual categories. Rather, these indexical or occasional expressions are demonstrative words that refer to the place of speaking, a place that opens up fields of experience, language, and action before it itself can be subjected to a determination of place. The place that is spoken about does not coincide with the place of speaking, and the same goes for the moment in time. Even as someone who says "I," I am not a countable element of a class or a member of a whole. The "I" of speaking, which is clearly distinguishable from the "I" of the content of what is said, is not a countable thing that could just be put in the plural, and the same goes for the "you." It should thus be understood that within ancient Greek thought, "I" and "we" do not play a thematic role, except in the initial concept of "for us" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), which tends to be elevated into an existence "on one's own" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). The explosive power of the I-speech is equally lost, if the "I" is reduced to a general I-function. Here we need to protect Descartes against his transcendental-philosophical heirs.

The same plight besieges the second discovery, which ascribes an irremovable contingency to all orders. If the ability to be different or the ability to act differently is seen as a larger or smaller kind of arbitrariness, then this interpretation calls for necessity as an antipode. With respect to legitimacy claims, this leads us to the conflict between relativism and universalism, whose weapons have now become as worn out as those that are used in the conflict that we have mentioned above. Once again a simple fact should be remembered. The establishment of orders with their legitimacy, including the genealogy of true and false, of good and evil, is neither relatively nor absolutely valid. It is not at all valid, since the fact that there are binary standards is not itself subject to these standards, unless their genesis is once again concealed and the respective opposition is hypostatized. Each order has its blind spot in the form of something unordered that does not merely constitute a deficit. That goes for moral orders as well as for cognitive and aesthetic orders. This explains why modern authors struggle so hard with the incipit of their novels; from the very first step both the writer and the reader walk into the trap of a ready-to-use order. This order testifies that "there are orders"; this term "there are" outruns all attempts of justification, as it is a basic assumption of any such attempt, the zero ground. In other words: the fact of reason is not in itself reasonable. What is currently called postmodernity could mean, among other things, that some battlegrounds have lost their significance—which does not guarantee that the problems which originate from modern subjectivity and rationality would not reoccur at another place.


Excerpted from PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE ALIEN by Bernhard Waldenfels Copyright © 2011 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Facets of the Alien....................3
1 The Human as a Liminal Being....................8
2 Between Pathos and Response....................21
3 Response to the Alien....................35
4 Corporeal Experience Between Selfhood and Otherness....................43
5 Thresholds of Attention....................58
6 Between Cultures....................70

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