The Invisible Other

Marcel Studies 3 (1):17-39 (2018)
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This paper brings Gabriel Marcel and Emmanuel Levinas into dialogue through a consideration of the notion of the spirit of abstraction in Marcel and the notion of the infinitely different other in Levinas. We abstract meaning from Mona Lisa‘s smile from her physical portrait. It is appropriate to abstract from the baby‘s sound whether he or she seems to be happy or sad, but it is when we begin to abstract humans from their humanity that the spirit of abstraction is engaged. My thesis is that the spirit of abstraction is a form of cognitively dislocated reason. This cognitive dislocation begins with the idea that people can be abstracted into characteristics and traits and that these traits can be assigned arbitrary superiority or inferiority e.g., big nosed people have superior intellects; small nosed people do not. Marcel suggests that the spirit of abstraction can turn persons into impersonal targets that are accorded fewer or reduced rights as if they were other than other human. The result can be that inferior persons are accorded one set of rights and superior persons are accorded another set of rights. A most drastic form of the spirit of abstraction occurred during the Holocaust, when the Nazis dehumanized the Jews. Drawing on the work of Robert Solomon, I suggest that if we begin to understand that reason and passion are interchangeable, we can stand back to reconsider attitudes that produce arbitrary abstractions. The spirit of abstraction is cognitively dissociated reason because it redirects someone from the self-evident notion that this other is human, to this other is other-than-human, and even less-than-human because of some arbitrary condition, e.g., being small nosed.ion is a necessary intellectual exercise to achieve what one intends—differentiating an edible mushroom from one that is poisonous by its color. The spirit of abstraction, on the other hand, is cognitively dislocated reason because it is a form of expediency that pre-categorizes persons without considering the individual who, for example, stands before me. What Marcel and Levinas ultimately ask us to do is to recognize this cognitively dislocated reason and turn the discourse from abstracting humans into categories deserving of different human rights toward a conversation that asks which human rights should apply to all humans.



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Christopher Ketcham
University of Houston Downtown

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