How we see ourselves and other people changes how we relate to the world around us. Those of us who work in the Humanities have been heavily influenced by René Descartes’ view of humans as thinking beings. As he unpacks how Western philosophers have thought about personhood and intersubjectivity, Brock Bahler notes that Descartes knew himself through his thoughts; it was his thinking, not his body, that defined who he was. By extension, Descartes couldn’t really know anyone else – all he knew was his thoughts about them. According to Immanuel Kant, I know myself through my encounter with the world, but that world is still not me; it is my Other. This mode of thinking wove itself through Western philosophy until Alexandre Kojève interpreted Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit to mean that everyone is effectively in competition with everyone else. Bahler comments that ‘whereas [Thomas] Hobbes depicted the battle [between masters and slaves] as one waged over self-preservation, for [G. W. F.] Hegel it is a struggle for recognition and the establishment of the self as the center of knowledge and desire. Self-Consciousness arises when the subject becomes self-reflective and becomes cognitively aware that its vantage point of the world provides it with a mastery over things. Thus, this subject “is accustomed to bending the world to its will,” but tension arises when the self encounters another person who responds to this attempt of mastery with resistance’. Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy went considerably beyond that of Hegel, but Bahler notes that Sartre still ‘describes the encounter with the other as an imposition, a failure of my possibilities, and even likens it to original sin’. The end result of the philosophical traditional stretching from Descartes to Sartre is a view of human relationships that emphasizes inequality (Marx and DuBois), dominance (Gramsci), power (Foucault), difference (Deleuze), alterity (Said), and performance (Butler).
What would the world look like if instead of focusing on misunderstandings and conflict, we rejected Descartes’ separation of the mind and the body and premised knowledge on the possibility of encountering other people as thinking subjects who are just like us? According to Bahler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas try to do exactly that. Insisting that our thoughts cannot be separated from our senses, both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas argue that ‘thought arises out of preexisting, concrete encounters with others that are intrinsically ethical. Thus, others are built into my lived body, which necessarily takes up the style of behavior of previous generations. While I can then choose to cultivate or ignore these influences, no matter how novel I try to be, I remain indebted to those who have shaped, nurtured, and raised me’. Merleau-Ponty describes the way that my two hands touch each other as an example of how we can be simultaneously passive and active at the same time: when I encounter objects and other people, ‘they are not merely inert, waiting for me to exercise my mastery over them or remind me of what my soul already knew, but they surprise, teach, and affect me’. Levinas takes this metaphor and thinks about the way that two hands touch in a handshake. A handshake ‘presupposes the possibility of a peaceful approach to the other’. Yes we are separated, Levinas admits, but two people can be as close as two lips touching, or two sides of an open wound. Our selves overlap even if difference remains between us. When I see the face of another person, Levinas says, they inspire me to sacrifice a little of myself to make room for them in my life. Bahler explains that ‘the encounter with the other is not an all or nothing endeavor in which I assert myself at the expense or exclusion of the other. Rather, my subjectivity is expanded through this relationship. While the otherness of the other is certainly at times a source of frustration, it is precisely the infinite resource of difference within the other that makes relationships productive, interesting, and enjoyable’.
When most philosophers think about human encounters they imagine two rational adult Subjects approaching one another. But this is not how our subjectivities become aware of the world. We first apprehend other people as little children, and it is the relationship between parents and children that provides the most interesting material in this book. Thinking about the parent-child relationship as an example of the kenotic, self-sacrificial love that Levinas says that others evoke in us, Bahler writes that ‘the child’s helplessness compels the parent to serve the other. The child’s enraptured sense of wonder in response to the parent’s face, actions, and world train the parent to become more attentive to detail, more full of awe, and more awakened to a future that extends beyond the parent’s own life through the life of the child’. The way that embodied others shape one’s own subjectivity is even more obvious when one thinks about birth: ‘Even my bodily comportment within the world is preceded by my birth through the pain and sacrifice of my mother who has carried me in her womb. Before one can be a subject for-itself, one is born from the other. Prior to individual will or choice, the other is already committed to and deeply intertwined with the other’. Quoting Levinas, Bahler says that ‘when I finally come to be a self-reflective subject, I discover I am part of “a plot larger than the apperception of self. In this plot I am bound to others before being tied to my body”.’
In his lectures on child development, Merleau-Ponty rejected the idea ‘that infants encounter the consciousness of others either on the basis of an intellectual representational model or an analogical projection of one’s own body image’. Instead, babies watch other people and mimic them, learning how to engage with the world by copying how their parents do it. Bahler consistently reads Levinas through Merleau-Ponty, allowing the latter to shape the former’s thought at every turn. Moreover, he qualifies the ideas of both philosophers by showing how recent discoveries in developmental psychology modify and/or reinforce their arguments. Bahler exposes major weaknesses in both Freud and Piaget’s theories, demonstrating that babies distinguish between different people and read facial expressions far earlier than anyone had previously thought. Refuting Descartes’ mind-body distinction in particular, Bahler argues that ‘the recent studies in infant intelligence confirm Merleau-Ponty’s insistence that I am my body, that thinking is not merely conceptual and relegated to the brain, but holistic, embodied, and interconnected with perception, affectivity, and our intersubjective relations’.
Building on both Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, Bahler argues that we encounter others in asymmetrical ways (as a baby encounters a parent, for example), but that both parties influence and shape one another as a result of the encounter. I teach my daughter something, for example, and she reformulates my ideas and gives them back to me in ways that add a new perspective or decentre my original purpose. This doesn’t happen just once, but as we talk to each other over a long period of time we enter into a dialectical spiral that shapes us both. Bahler writes that ‘the dialectical spiral situates the subject within an ethical concern for the other rather than autonomous freedom and supports an ontology of peace rather than an ontology of violence’. He illustrates how this way of looking at the world can help create peace by reading his idea of spiralling selves into the work of Desmond Tutu, Enrique Dussel, and Miroslav Volf, showing how it is possible to put others first even in situations characterized by genocide and extreme violence. It is still unclear to me how replacing a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ with a ‘hermeneutics of charity’ might change contemporary critical theory but I suspect that the possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.