Learning from the Other

Image credit: The Smolensk Newspaper, by Chagall, WikiArt.org

Inherent in the confrontation with Otherness is a possibility to learn from the Other, but when coming face to face with a stranger, one may unexpectedly feel overwhelmed by the otherness of the Other and act accordingly.

From a Jungian point of view one’s experience in encountering another is largely determined by the projected nature of the individual’s worldview, of how one perceive one’s existence in this world to be meaningful and containing; this is in turn largely determined by the nature of one’s relationship to the Self. When encountering a stranger one may experience one’s worldview to be incomplete, not containing, a destabilization of one’s perception of oneself in one’s world.

Levinas, a Jewish French-Lithuanian philosopher (1905 – 95), saw “the meaning of existence in terms of the ethical transcendence of the Other.”(1) For Levinas, the Other is infinitely foreign and one’s relationship and responsibility to him/her is that of infinity; it is not equal or comparable. (2) An ensuing feeling of responsibility is not a rational choice but happens unconsciously; it is as if one gives oneself as ‘hostage’ to the Other, in a form of ethical surrender, to suffer from his/her suffering. (3)

If “one brings more than one can bear” (4) into the encounter, the other may be traumatized by projective identification, the ‘ejecting’ of the uncomfortable feelings, an attempt to protect oneself. Envy, guilt and shame may be unconsciously experienced by both parties, and depending on the basic personality structure, one’s ‘wiring,’ one may respond by either trying to restore the relationship to the Self in the outer relationship, seeking the other, or by withdrawing, even fighting the other.

Jung reminds us that the only way to act responsibly and respectfully towards the stranger other is to withdraw our projections, a matter of integrity. When I think I know, the other only becomes an aspect of “the narrative presence of my worldview and narrative,”(5) but a more conscious approach to the other, with humility and awareness of one’s ignorance, may enable one to listen attentively to “the narrative presence of the other,” to learn from the other. (6)


  1. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/levinas/#ConcRema
  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Emmanuel-Levinas
  3. Bart Noorteboom, 1995. Levinas: Philosophy of the Other, Noorteboom quoting Levinas, p. 115, on SpringerLink.com
  4. Sharon Todd, 2003. Learning from the Other, Levinas, Psychoanalysis and Ethical Possibilities, State University of New York Press, p. 15
  5. Sharon Todd, p. 15
  6. Sharon Todd, p. 15