Other (philosophy)

In phenomenology, the terms the Other and the Constitutive Other identify the other human being, in their differences from the Self, as being a cumulative, constituting factor in the self-image of a person; as their acknowledgement of being real; hence, the Other is dissimilar to and the opposite of the Self, of Us, and of the Same.[1][2] The Constitutive Other is the relation between the personality (essential nature) and the person (body) of a human being; it is the relation of essential and superficial characteristics of personal identity that corresponds to the relationship between opposite but correlative characteristics of the Self, because the difference is inner-difference, within the Self.[3][4]

The condition and quality of Otherness, the characteristics of the Other, is the state of being different from and alien to the social identity of a person and to the identity of the Self.[5] In the discourse of philosophy, the term Otherness identifies and refers to the characteristics of Who? and What? of the Other, which are distinct and separate from the Symbolic order of things; from the Real (the authentic and unchangeable); from the æsthetic (art, beauty, taste); from political philosophy; from social norms and social identity; and from the Self. Therefore, the condition of Otherness is a person's non-conformity to and with the social norms of society; and Otherness is the condition of disenfranchisement (political exclusion), effected either by the State or by the social institutions (e.g. the professions) invested with the corresponding socio-political power. Therefore, the imposition of Otherness alienates the labelled person from the centre of society, and places him or her at the margins of society, for being the Other.[6]

The term Othering describes the reductive action of labelling a person as someone who belongs to a subordinate social category defined as the Other. The practice of Othering is the exclusion of persons who do not fit the norm of the social group, which is a version of the Self.[7] Likewise, in the field of human geography, the action term to Other identifies and excludes a person from the social group, placing him or her at the margins of society, where the social norms do not apply to and for the person labelled as the Other.[8]



The concept of the Self requires the existence of the Other as the counterpart entity required for defining the Self; in the late 18th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) introduced the concept of the Other as a constituent part of self-consciousness (preoccupation with the Self),[9] which complements the propositions about self-awareness (capacity for introspection) proffered by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814).[10] See: The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) applied the concept of the Other as a basis for intersubjectivity, the psychological relations among people. In Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (1931), Husserl said that the Other is constituted as an alter ego, as an other self. As such, the Other person posed and was an epistemological problem—of being only a perception of the consciousness of the Self.[1]

In Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) applied the dialectic of intersubjectivity to describe how the world is altered by the appearance of the Other, of how the world then appears to be oriented to the Other person, and not to the Self. The Other appears as a psychological phenomenon in the course of a person's life, and not as a radical threat to the existence of the Self. In that mode, in The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) applied the concept of Otherness to Hegel's dialectic of the "Lord and Bondsman" (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft) and found it to be like the dialectic of the Man–Woman relationship, thus a true explanation for society's treatment and mistreatment of women.


The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) and the ethical philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906–1995) established the contemporary definitions, usages, and applications of the Other, as the radical counterpart of the Self. Lacan associated the Other with language and with the symbolic order of things. Lévinas associated the Other with the ethical metaphysics of scripture and tradition; the ethical proposition is that the Other is superior and prior to the Self.

In the event, Lévinas re-formulated the face-to-face encounter (wherein a person is responsible to the Other person) to include the propositions of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) about the impossibility of the Other (person) being an entirely metaphysical pure-presence. That the Other could be an entity of pure Otherness (of alterity) personified in a representation created and depicted with language that identifies, describes, and classifies. The conceptual re-formulation of the nature of the Other also included Lévinas's analysis of the distinction between "the saying and the said"; nonetheless, the nature of the Other retained the priority of ethics over metaphysics.

In the psychology of the mind (e.g. R. D. Laing), the Other identifies and refers to the unconscious mind, to silence, to insanity, and to language ("to what is referred and to what is unsaid").[11] Nonetheless, in such psychologic and analytic usages, there might arise a tendency to relativism if the Other person (as a being of pure, abstract alterity) leads to ignoring the commonality of truth. Likewise, problems arise from unethical usages of the terms The Other, Otherness, and Othering to reinforce ontological divisions of reality: of being, of becoming, and of existence.[1]


In Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961), Emmanuel Lévinas said that previous philosophy had reduced the Other person to an object of consciousness, by not preserving its absolute alterity—the innate condition of otherness, by which the Other radically transcends the Self and the totality of the human network into which the Other is being placed. As a challenge to self-assurance, the existence of the Other is a matter of ethics, because the ethical priority of the Other equals the primacy of ethics over ontology in real life.[1]

From that perspective, Lévinas described the nature of the Other as "insomnia and wakefulness"; an ecstasy (an exteriority) towards the Other that forever remains beyond any attempt at fully capturing the Other, whose Otherness is infinite; even in the murder of an Other, their Otherness remains uncontrolled and not negated. The infinity of the Other allowed Lévinas to derive other aspects of philosophy and science as secondary to that ethic; thus:

The others that obsess me in the Other do not affect me as examples of the same genus united with my neighbor, by resemblance or common nature, individuations of the human race, or chips off the old block ... The others concern me from the first. Here, fraternity precedes the commonness of a genus. My relationship with the Other as neighbor gives meaning to my relations with all the others.

Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), p. 159.[12]

Critical theory

Derrida proposed that the absolute alterity of the Other is compromised because the Other is other than the Self and the group. That logical problem has especially negative consequences in the realm of human geography when the Other person is denied ethical priority in geopolitical discourse. Hence, the use of the language of Otherness in the anthropological discourse (Oriental Studies) about Western encounters with non–Western cultures preserves the dominantor–dominated discourse of hegemony, just as misrepresenting the feminine as Other reasserts male privilege as primary in social discourse.[1]

In The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq (2004), the geographer Derek Gregory said that the responses of U.S. President George W. Bush (2001–2009) to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 reinforced philosophic divisions of connotation and denotation that perpetuated the negative representation of the non-Western Other, when he rhetorically asked the U.S. populace Why do they hate us? as political prelude to the War on Terror.[13]

President Bush's rhetorical question led the U.S. populace to make an artificial, Us-and-Them division in the relations between the U.S. and the countries and cultures of the Middle East, which artifice is a basic factor of the perpetual war on terrorism, and is a step away from eradicating the imaginary representations of the Self and the Other created with the Orientalist geographies produced by Oriental Studies; about which the cultural critic Edward Saïd said that:

To build a conceptual framework around a notion of Us-versus-Them is, in effect, to pretend that the principal consideration is epistemological and natural—our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange—whereas, in fact, the framework separating us from them is belligerent, constructed, and situational.

The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq (2004), p. 24.[14]

Imperialism and colonialism

The contemporary, world system of post-colonial, nation-states (with interdependent politics and economies) was preceded by the European imperial system of colonies (settler and economic) in which "the creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states, and often in the form of an empire, [was] based on domination and subordination."[15] In the imperialist world system, political and economic affairs were fragmented, and the discrete empires "provided for most of their own needs ... [and disseminated] their influence solely through conquest [empire] or the threat of conquest [hegemony]."[16]


The imperial conquest of "non-white" countries was intellectually justified with the fetishization of the Eastern world, which was effected with cultural generalizations that divided the peoples of the world into the artificial, binary relationship of "The Eastern World and The Western World", the dichotomy which identified, designated, and subordinated the peoples of the Orient as the Other—as the non–European Self.[17] The process of fetishization of people and things is a function of Orientalism, which the colonialist ideologue realises with three actions: (i) Homogenization (all Oriental peoples are the same folk); (ii) Feminization (Oriental people are the lessers in the East–West binary relationship); and (iii) Essentialization (a people reduced to the artificial essence of universal, innate characteristics); thus, the praxis of Othering reduced to cultural inferiority the people, places, and things of the Eastern world, which then justified colonialism by establishing the West as the superior standard of culture.[17][18]


The practice of Othering was the prevalent cultural perspective of the European imperial powers, which was supported by the fabrications of scientific racism, such as the pseudo-intellectual belief that the size of the cranium of the non–European Other was indicative of the inferior intelligence of the coloured peoples designated as the non-white Other.[19]

In 1951, the United Nations officially declared that the differences among the races were insignificant in relation to the anthropological sameness among the peoples who are the human race. Despite the facts, in the U.S., the artificial distinctions against the Other remain, especially in government forms that ask a U.S. citizen to identify and place him or herself into a racial category, as in the questionnaires of the census bureau.[19] In practice of Othering, immigrants and refugees are seen as "illegal immigrants" (from overseas) and "illegal aliens" (from Mexico). In the U.S however, an "illegal immigrant" is someone who does an act that is not legal, which is to march on a foreign land uninvited and through trickery. [19]

The subaltern native

Maintaining an empire requires the cultural subordination of the Other into the subaltern native (the colonized people), which facilitates the exploitation of their labour, of their lands, and of the natural resources of their country as a colony of the motherland. To realise those ends, the process of Othering culturally justifies the domination and subordination of the native people, by placing them (as the Other) at the social periphery of the geopolitical enterprise that is colonial imperialism. The colonizer creates the Other with a false dichotomy of "native weakness" (social and political, cultural and economic) against the "colonial strength" of imperial power, which can be resolved only with the noblesse oblige of racialism—the "moral responsibility" that psychologically authorizes the colonialist Self to unilaterally assume a civilizing mission to educate, convert, and culturally assimilate the Other into the empire.[20]

In the praxis of colonialism, the native populace constitute the Other whom the colonizers mean to dominate in order to civilise and save them in the course of exploiting the natural and human resources of the natives' homeland.[21] As such, a colony is a way to dominate and dispose of two groups of people (colonists and colonised) who can be used to define the Other.[22] The practice of Othering establishes the unequal relationship between the native people and the colonizers, who believe themselves essentially superior to the natives whom they reduced to inhuman inferiority, as "the Other".[23] The dehumanisation of colonialism—the colonist "Self" against the colonised "Other"—is maintained with the false binary-relations of social class and race, of sex and gender, and of nation and religion.[21] The proper, profitable functioning of a colony features continual protection of such cultural demarcations, which establish and enforce the socio-economic binary relation between "civilized man" (the colonist) and "savage man" (the colonial subaltern).[23]

Sex and gender

The existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir applied Hegel's conception of "the Other" (as a constituent part of self-consciousness) to describe a male-dominated culture that represents Woman as the sexual Other in relation to Man. In the cultural context of the Man–Woman binary relation, the sexual Other is a minority, the least-favoured social group, usually the women of the community, because "a man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of [the word] Man to designate human beings in general; whereas [the word] Woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity" from the first sex, from Man.[24] See: The Second Sex (1949)

In 1957, Betty Friedan substantiated the ordinate–subordinate nature of the Man–Woman sexual relation as social identity. When queried about their post-graduate lives, the majority of women interviewed, at a university-class reunion, used binary gender language, and referred to and identified themselves as their roles (wife, mother, manager) in the private sphere. They did not identify their own achievements (career, job, business) in the public sphere of life. Unawares, the women had conventionally automatically identified themselves as the social Other. Although the nature of the social Other is influenced by the society's social constructs (social class, sex, gender), as a human organisation, society holds the power (social and political) to formally change the social relation between the male-defined Self and Woman, the non-male Other.[25] See: The Feminine Mystique (1963)

The feminist philosopher Cheshire Calhoun deconstructed the concept of "the Other" as the female-half of the binary-gender relation of the "Man and Woman" concept. Deconstruction of the word Woman—from subordinate in the "Man and Woman" relation—conceptually reconstructed the female Other as the Woman who exists independently of male definition (rationalisation); independent of the patriarchy who formally realise female subordination with binary-gender usages of the word Woman.[26]

In the essay "Feminism is Humanism. So Why the Debate?" (2012), the academic Sarojini Sahoo, agrees with De Beauvoir's proposition that women can be free of social subordination by "thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal." Yet counters De Beauvoir that despite having the same human-being status as men, women have a unique sexual identity different from men. In feminist definition, Women are the Other (but not the Hegelian Other) and are not existentially defined by the demands of Man. Women are the social Other who unknowingly accept subjugation as part of subjectivity.[27] Whilst the identity of woman is constitutionally different from the identity of man, as human beings, men and women are equal. Hence, the harm of Othering arises from the asymmetric nature of sex and gender roles, which arises accidentally and "passively" from natural and unavoidable intersubjectivity.[28]

The social-exclusion function of Othering a person or a social group from society, for being different from the norm (of the Self), is understood in the socio-economic functions of gender (a social construct) and sex (biological reality). In a society where heterosexuality is the social norm, "the Other" refers to and identifies the same-sex orientation, lesbians (women who love women) and gays (men who love men), people identified as "deviant" from the binary socio-sexual norm.[29] Negative usages of "the Other" are applied to the lesbian and gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities to diminish their social status and political power by social Othering to the margins of society. To neutralise Othering, LGBT communities queer a city, create social spaces, that use the city's spatial and temporal plans to allow the LGBT community free expression of social identity (i.e. a gay-pride parade); as such, queering is a political means for the sexual Other to establish their reality as part of the urban body politic.[30]



Regarding the production of knowledge about the Other, Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School identified the process of Othering as everything to do with the creation and maintenance of imaginary representations—"knowledge of the Other"—in service to geopolitical power and domination. The representations of the Other (metaphoric, metonymic, anthropomorphic) are manifestations of the Western cultural attitudes inherent to the European historiographies of the non–European peoples labelled as "the Other". Using analytical discourses (academic and commercial, geopolitical and military) the dominant ideology of the colonialist culture explains the Eastern world to the Western world, using the binary relationship of the European Self confronting the non–European Other from overseas.[31]

In the 19th-century historiographies of the Orient as a place, European Orientalists studied only what they argued was the high culture—the languages and literatures, the arts and philologies—of the Middle East as a cultural region, rather than as a geopolitical place inhabited by different peoples and societies.[32] About such cultural misrepresentation, Saïd said that "the Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire. If this definition of Orientalism seems more political than not, that is simply because I think Orientalism was, itself, a product of certain political forces and activities. Orientalism is a school of interpretation whose material happens to be the Orient, its civilisations, peoples, and localities. Its objective discoveries—the work of innumerable devoted scholars who edited texts and translated them, codified grammars, wrote dictionaries, reconstructed dead epochs, produced positivistically verifiable learning—are and always have been conditioned by the fact that its truths, like any truths delivered by language, are embodied in language, and, what is the truth of language?, Nietzsche once said, but":

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which, after long use, seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.

Orientalism (1978) pp. 202–203.[33]:202

Saïd concludes that Nietzsche's perspective might be too nihilistic, but that it draws attention to the fact that, in so far as "the Orient" occurred in the existential awareness of the Western world, the Orient was a word that later accrued to it a wide field of meanings, associations, and connotations, which did not refer to the real Eastern world, but to the field of study surrounding "the Orient" as a word.[34]

The Academy

In the Eastern world, the field of Occidentalism, the investigation programme and academic curriculum of and about the essence of The West—i.e. geographic Europe as a culturally homogenous place—did not exist as a counterpart to Orientalism.[35] Moreover, in the Orientalist practices of historical negationism, the writing of distorted history about the places and peoples of "The East" continue in the postmodern era, especially in contemporary journalism; e.g. in the Third World, political parties practice intra-national Othering with fabricated "facts", such as threat-reports about non-existent threats (political, social, military) that are meant to aggravate the character faults of the opponent political parties, which usually are composed of people from the social and ethnic groups identified and designated as the Other in that society.[36]

The process of Othering a person or a social group, by means of an ideal ethnocentricity (belief that one's ethnic group is the superior group), and the cultural tendency to evaluate and assign meaning to Other ethnicities, which are negatively measured against the ideal standard of the Self—is realised through mundane methods of investigation, such as cartography.[37]:179

Historically, the drawing of maps emphasised and bolstered specific lands and the associated national-identities, the natural resources and cultures of the native inhabitants. In early cartography, the distortion (proportionate, proximate, and commercial) of actual places and true distances established the Western cartographer's homeland as the centre of the mapamundi; thus British cartographers centred Britain in their maps, and drew the British islands proportionally larger than the true geography might allow. In contemporary cartography, polar-perspective maps of the northern hemisphere, drawn by American cartographers, distort real geographic spatial relations (distance, size, mass) of and between the U.S. and Russia, to emphasise American superiority (military, cultural, geopolitical) and the inferiority of the Russian Other.[37]:10

Practical perspectives

In Key Concepts in Political Geography (2009), Alison Mountz proposed concrete definitions of the Other as a philosophic concept and term within the field of phenomenology; when used as a noun, the Other identifies and refers to a person and to a group of persons; when used as a verb, the Other identifies and refers to a category and a label for persons and things.

Post-colonial scholarship demonstrated that, in pursuit of empire, "the colonizing powers narrated an 'Other' whom they set out to save, dominate, control, [and] civilize ... [in order to] extract resources through colonization" of the homeland of the people labelled as the Other.[29] As facilitated by Orientalist representations of the non–Western Other, colonisation—the economic exploitation of a people and their land—is misrepresented as being for the material, spiritual, and cultural benefit of the colonised peoples.

Counter to the post-colonial perspective of the Other as part of a Dominator–Dominated binary relationship, post-modern philosophy presents the Other and Otherness as phenomenological and ontological progress for Man and society. Public knowledge of the social identity of peoples classified as "Outsiders" is de facto acknowledgement of their being real, and so they are part of the body politic, especially in the cities. As such, "the post-modern city is a geographical celebration of difference that moves sites once conceived of as 'marginal' to the [social] centre of discussion and analysis" of the human relations between the Outsiders and the Establishment.[29]

See also

Sexual difference


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  • Thomas, Calvin, ed. (2000). "Introduction: Identification, Appropriation, Proliferation", Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06813-0.
  • Cahoone, Lawrence (1996). From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
  • Colwill, Elizabeth. (2005). Reader—Wmnst 590: Feminist Thought. KB Books.
  • Haslanger, Sally. Feminism and Metaphysics: Unmasking Hidden Ontologies. 28 November 2005.
  • McCann, Carole. Kim, Seung-Kyung. (2003). Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Routledge. New York, NY.
  • Rimbaud, Arthur (1966). "Letter to Georges Izambard", Complete Works and Selected Letters. Trans. Wallace Fowlie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich (1974). The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1986). Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.
  • Lacan, Jacques (1977). Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.
  • Althusser, Louis (1973). Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Warner, Michael (1990). "Homo-Narcissism; or, Heterosexuality", Engendering Men, p. 191. Eds. Boone and Cadden, London UK: Routledge.
  • Tuttle, Howard (1996). The Crowd is Untruth, Peter Lang Publishing, ISBN 0-8204-2866-3

Further reading

  • Levinas, Emmanuel (1974). Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence. (Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence).
  • Levinas, Emmanuel (1972). Humanism de l'autre homme. Fata Morgana.
  • Lacan, Jacques (1966). Ecrits. London: Tavistock, 1977.
  • Lacan, Jacques (1964). The Four Fondamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth Press, 1977.
  • Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1973). Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
  • Kristeva, Julia (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "'Etymythological Othering' and the Power of 'Lexical Engineering' in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A Socio-Philo(sopho)logical Perspective", Explorations in the Sociology of Language and Religion, edited by Tope Omoniyi and Joshua A. Fishman, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 237–258.

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