Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai 2004

8.1. Intercultural Education
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Susanne Binder/Mikael Luciak (Vienna)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The question of otherness and scientific discourse

Giovanni Leghissa (University of Triest, Italy)


In the last decades the discourse about otherness has widened in a way that was simply inconceivable before. The fact that the question of otherness is far from being reduced to an academic issue certainly contributes to such a spread: the attention paid to what constitutes the "dark sides" of western identity increases more and more, both in the United States of America and in Europe. Additionally, there is a widespread consensus about the fact that the main issue here is immediately a political one. Our relationship to otherness begins to acquire visibility, or begins to be a problem, both of theoretical and of practical relevance, only in the moment in which we begin to perceive the extent to which the construction of the self takes place thanks to certain mechanisms of exclusion. What we classify under the concept of "otherness" is strictly connected to these mechanisms. Moreover, we are aware of the fact that such mechanisms of exclusion affect every construction of the self, no matter whether that self is intended as a collective or an individual factor.

It is well known that philosophy has largely contributed to the rise of the consciousness that the construction of the self is deeply affected by otherness - and, conversely, that any discourse about otherness implies a form of incorporation of the other carried on by the subject who accomplishes this discourse. Names like Lacan, Foucault, Levinas, Ricoeur, Said, Derrida constitute normal references for all those who try to enlarge or refine this issue. On the other hand, the whole discourse within the humanities could also be regarded as an attempt to define the boundary between the self and the other. At the beginning, this attempt was strictly tied to the idea that we can possibly recognize the difference between what constitutes our identity and what constitutes the identity of people located in another dimension, no matter whether spatial or temporal. Today, on the contrary, it is almost common sense to consider thoroughly misleading the simple idea that this difference can be treated as an obvious presupposition, which does not itself deserve an analysis. A fundamental entanglement between philosophy and humanities on the one hand and a deep reassessment of the humanities themselves has on the other hand led to the present situation.

In this context, I think a genealogical reconstruction of the main concept used within the humanities is useful in order to locate the aforementioned difference, i.e. the concept of culture. The issue at stake here is present in the actual discussion within cultural anthropology, the discipline, which, more than others, has shown a receptiveness towards a critical revision of its own conceptual tools. My idea is that such a critical revision is to be extended to all the disciplines that make use of the concept of culture. These disciplines are: biblical philology, classical philology, and history of religion. The scope of such an analysis could be to bring into prominence the fact that the use made by these disciplines of the concept of culture met - and largely meets - demands the nature of which is not only cognitive, but also ideological. In other words, the issue here concerns the ideological significance of the fact that, in a precise moment of modern history, these disciplines arose within the academic system in order to provide the conceptual management of difference. The anthropological discourse focused on those cultural forms that represent the beginnings of human civilisation, whereas the concept of culture, associated with that of development, provided the articulation of the difference between the original (both in the sense of primary and primitive) and the fully accomplished. Parallel to cultural anthropology, history of religions gave place to a similar outlook regarding the difference between what is to be considered a primitive (or still not well developed) form of religious belief and what is to be considered, at least implicitly, the fulfilment of the spiritual development of mankind. Both cultural anthropology and history of religions dealt with form of otherness immediately characterized as such. Classical philology and biblical philology, on the other hand, focussed on what we could call an internal difference within the Western civilisation. Classical philology saw the difference between the ancient civilisation and our present one as a difference between two poles both placed on the same axis. While the savages studied by anthropologists show the cultural stage we came from but have left behind us, the ancient civilisation exhibits the direct provenance of our cultural tradition. The same spirit (Geist) possessed by Greeks and Romans is at work within us, and all the main achievements of our civilisation are nothing but better refined enlargements of what the ancient world put into existence. Biblical philology located other forms of difference along what was supposed to be the continuum of Western civilisation, namely the difference between Judaism and Christianity on one hand, and the difference between Christianity and Modernity on the other. Scholars of Old Testament philology, even if not tempted by anti-Semitic positions, constructed their own object of research in such way that the old Judaism resulted in being a relevant agent of our tradition only as a preparatory factor of Christianity. Jewish tradition, while at the same time part of our common heritage and excluded from it, has been thus submitted to an incorporation which made impossible to perceive the peculiar and autonomous position it occupied. New Testament scholars treated the object of their researches in a way that seem to be as ideologically charged as the way Old Testament scholars worked. Well aware that the results of the historical method applied to the New Testament would have led to a rejection of its religious significance, they often laid claim for a strong distinction between the religious relevance of Jesus' message and the historical conditions in which this message came to be a part of the classical world. Such an attitude was largely due to the fact that Biblical philology, as a part of the faculty of Theology, was not able (and I would say not authorized) to answer the question concerning the difference between modernity and Christianity.

In such a context, it seems to be opportune and fruitful to speak of "disciplines of otherness". As Foucault pointed out, the scientific interest in any form of otherness always takes place in conjunction with another interest, which is not of scientific but rather of ideological nature. This assumption becomes particularly evident when considering both the history of the aforementioned disciplines and their mutual relationships. These disciplines have been charged with the description of what constitutes for us a peculiar form of otherness; such a description should provide the perception of the boundary beyond which our being a part of a continuous and established historical heritage becomes questionable. The concept of culture (together with that of religion) plays a central role here. Through this concept it becomes possible to structure a hierarchy the implicit scope of which is to legitimise the superiority of the Western tradition. The concept of culture, in other words, locates the other in a dimension where the main constituents of our modern identity are present as a modulation of what we are not, but could be or could have been, if only our civilisation hadn't gone the path it took. In this way, what the concept of culture excludes, that is the sound of the other's voice, receives a place "within us", and precisely as a possible internal variation of that form of civilisation which presents itself as the only possible one.

© Giovanni Leghissa (University of Triest, Italy)

8.1. Intercultural Education

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For quotation purposes:
Giovanni Leghissa (University of Triest, Italy): The question of otherness and scientific discourse. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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