I wanted to elaborate a bit on what I see “otherness” as doing in the part of Hegels’ text that formed the subject of the previous post. Cambridge University Press provided only a skimpy index, which scandalously includes no entry at all for this key term. I don’t specifically recall “otherness” being literally used in the main body of the Phenomenology, though it may well exist somewhere. What I find googling “Hegel otherness” seems entirely devoted to the relation of self-consciousness to other people. Quick review of top results failed to turn up a supporting quote from Hegel using the literal term “otherness” in that way, however. This leaves it unclear to me whether this more social usage of “otherness” is even literally Hegelian, or is rather a term interpolated by commentators.

Relations to other rational beings are essential to Hegelian self-consciousness, to the point where I have quipped that it might better be called other-consciousness. This social and ethical meaning of otherness is not irrelevant to the current context. However, I take Hegel’s use of “otherness” in the Phenomenology Preface to be primarily “logical” in his special sense, rather than social.

In the Preface, Hegel calls Anderssein (otherness; literally, “being-other”) the “element” and the “ether” in which knowing occurs. Hegel is using “knowing” in a very broad sense here, encompassing everything from the mere acquaintance of ordinary consciousness with objects, to the pinnacles of philosophy. He begins to develop otherness by way of implicit contrast with that other element of “familiarity” and “representation” that he mentions as an obstacle to the higher development of knowing.

He explicitly calls otherness the element of “science” (rational understanding) in knowing, while implying that familiarity and representation characterize a contrasting element of immediacy that he sees as an obstacle to “science”. For Hegel, “science” is first and foremost the “logic” that was to form the first part of the “system” the Phenomenology was to introduce, so it could equally be said that otherness here is the unfamiliar standpoint of Hegelian logic, for which the whole long detour of the Phenomenology is intended to gently and patiently prepare us.

Once again, I take a deflationary approach to his rhetoric about “science” and “system”. In general with Hegel, rather than starting with ordinary assumptions about what his terms mean, it is best to interpret them in light of what he does. Here otherness provides a first thematic anticipation of the general point of view Hegel wants to recommend, and in particular of what is at stake in Hegelian “logic”, “science”, and “system”.

As a first approximation then, we have otherness expressed as the “element of knowing” that the Science of Logic will later develop, initially expressed by way of a contrast with a point of view centered on immediacy, familiarity, and representation.

There seems to be a kind of analogy between this contrast and what I read as the Phenomenology‘s other big contrast between the standpoints of consciousness and self-consciousness. I think Hegel’s view is that neither of these latter is ever found entirely independent of the other in real life, but at the same time that the alienation inherent to the relation of ordinary consciousness to objects is eventually to be overcome by dwelling primarily in what he calls self-consciousness and spirit. The higher phases of self-consciousness and spirit will be characterized by an openness to otherness.

The contrast between the feeling of otherness and those of familiarity and immediacy gives us a first starting point that we can grasp even within the standpoint of the most naive ordinary consciousness. The second contrast between the standpoint of otherness and the standpoint of representation brings this into sharper focus.

In the Preface, Hegel only hints at his very strong reservations about the place of representation in early modern mainstream views of knowledge such as those of Descartes and Locke. But in the Consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology, the alienated relation of consciousness to objects broadly captures aspects of the views of Descartes and Locke, who were the two great representationalist promoters of “consciousness” in philosophy (literally in Locke, and its ancestor French conscience in Descartes; see Consciousness in Locke and Hegel).

We cannot communicate without representation, any more than we can exercise higher functions without consciousness. But Hegel’s implicit critique of representation in the Preface and his more developed critique of consciousness in the Consciousness chapter together constitute a vital thread of his argument. His repeated warnings against taking “fixed thoughts” at face value and against taking propositions in isolation are closely tied to this.

Otherness challenges both fixed representations of thoughts and an overly fixed notion of self. Self from the perspective of otherness is a contextual, relational and adverbial term, not an independently contentful noun with a reference fixed once and for all (see The Ambiguity of “Self”).

What I think he is suggesting is a strong conclusion that in explaining meaning, we ought as much as possible to subordinate the point of view associated with representation, consciousness, objects, immediacy, and familiarity, rather than treating all of these as foundational touchstones.

What we ought to subordinate them to is developed throughout the rest of the Phenomenology, but especially involves the actualization of self-consciousness, and of forms of spirit that are not merely what he calls substantial, but are self-conscious, and thus for Hegel depend essentially on relations of mutual recognition.

A fully developed self-consciousness will be “at home” in otherness.

Here in the Preface, I think he is suggesting an argument complementary to that of the Phenomenology‘s main thread. In the Preface, the accent seems to be on knowing as such, whereas I take the overall thrust of the main thread to be primarily ethical in intent. Here too, at least in a general sense the Preface is closer to the concerns of what Hegel calls “logical” inquiry. The critique of the classic early modern concept of representation falls in this area.

Foundational uses of representation are based on strong presuppositions about the identity of represented things (the “fixed thoughts” to which Hegel is objecting). Representationalist theories of meaning focus on the ways in which representations are supposed to unambiguously refer to objects, which basically reduces meaning to a kind of implicit pointing at things that are presumed to be unambiguously identifiable. But this is a huge presumption that Hegel wants to question.

Alternatively, the meaning of representations can be explained in terms of form, value, internal structure, and inter-relations, all of which I think for Hegel are potentially articulable complete in themselves “in the element of otherness”, without any pointing or presumption required. Otherness thus appears to stand for coherence over reference and difference over identity in the explanation of meaning. Again, that is not to suggest that reference is absent, just that it ought not to dominate or primarily drive our explanations.

Finally, Hegel would remind us that even pure difference or pure coherence also needs to be considered from the point of view of its becoming and not just one static view. Otherness as an orientation toward difference and coherence in their becoming gives us a first approximation of the concerns Hegel means to bring to the fore when he speaks of dialectic. (See also Pure Negativity?; Teleology After Kant.)