The Knowledge of a Foreigner




Part 3

As we saw, foreignness is greatly a matter of difference. But to talk of difference, we must go back to the foundations. The very faculty of perception requires a receptivity to differentiality. Perceiving a tree as tree, it is being able to differentiate it from its concomitant lawn or to the sky as its background. We generally assume that other animals share a propensity for ‘distinguishing difference’ – if at all this expression may not be a tautology, since distinguishing means ‘making the difference’ between at least two things. But difference acquires another layer with the human as a being of language. Language – or, more foundationally, any system of sign – permits to associate, and therefore, possibly reduce an object to the sound-term it stands for. The imposition of language upon (animal) perception is more than an instrumental apparatus : through language, through the dichotomy of signified and signifier, a necessary axiological hierarchy, a hierarchy of value is set between objects of perception, between their names and across the two categories. The necessary emergence of hierarchy as a product of any sign system is perhaps one of the major discoveries of Derrida – through a long intellectual demonstration, which we cannot trace here in its subtlety. 1 Identity would thus arise out of difference, out of the distinctions that make an entity or an object possibly distinguished from its neighbour. Radically, this may also mean that each word, each signifier would basically be a hollow carrier coming to existence only through its opposition to, or negation of, all the other signifiers of the system. The Buddhist Apohavada theory reached this conclusion in the early centuries ce, and it found its counterpart much later in western thought with de Saussure. Derrida further elaborated it through his discussion of the différance : a word’s meaning is always differed, always belated as being precisely not all the other meanings of the system.

From this set of propositions, a seemingly Levinasian temptation opens up, but it may be a partial conception. What if the self could also be defined by difference from the Other ? One would indeed acknowledge that, while we may think it is possible to conceive of our self as not entirely bound by language, the very demand of ‘defining’ this self, as well as the necessary set of concepts, values and hierarchies we would explicitly or implicitly bring up as possible elements of response, would indeed make us conclude that defining the self would mean incorporating it into language. And, more generally, that knowledge would be a necessarily subsequent process able to come only after the existence of a language. Here, the emergence of the term-concept of the ‘self’ among human beings would be a misnomer, a necessary strategic category to ensure the survival of the individual out of a possibly over-flowing and reductive collectivity. This human strategic recourse to self-differentiation would come upon the already pre-existing instinctual apprehension of self and otherness in the animal kingdom, as demonstrated through the events of copulation, or the capacity to identify enemies, etc.

This reflection may set us on a potential direction, but it must be greatly complemented. After our formulation of language as the medium of creativity, and of the avenir as the necessary and liberating blind spot of one’s knowledge, the construction of a self takes another turn. This path could for one be approached through the psychoanalytic revolution. By postulating the possibility of a self-identity radically inaccessible to the subject, the theoreticians of psychoanalysis made it possible to conceive that knowledge, in the very specific instance of human self-knowledge, may be more complete or holistic from the outside – in the person of the analyst, and in the process of the analysis –, than through the reflective knowledge of the individual. Slavoj Žižek delved extensively in the possible implications of this phenomenon in pop-culture and history, insisting, for instance, on the incredibly benign self-narratives of individuals perceived externally as some of the worst human beings of history, like Hitler or Stalin. 2

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The locals see more in the foreigner than the foreigner sees in herself : they see her past, her history, the economic, political and cultural superstructure that make her presence possible. The foreigner thinks she came ‘because she wanted to,’ but the locals can place her back not only in the flow of visiting foreigners, but, altogether, in the history of global relations.

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This experience is analogous to the one encountered by the foreigner. Arriving abroad, the foreigner’s self-image gets affected by the personal features that the locals come to unexpectedly associate her with. It is even, certainly, more than a matter of features : it is the entire temporality of the foreigner that they come to immediately perceive, being suddenly able to posit her within the frame of a history that remains irrelevant to her ipseity. The locals see more in the foreigner than the foreigner sees in herself : they see her past, her history, the economic, political and cultural superstructure that make her presence possible. The foreigner thinks she came ‘because she wanted to,’ but the locals can place her back not only in the flow of visiting foreigners, but, altogether, in the history of global relations. But has the foreigner’s grasp on her self-identity left her for ever after ? It may well be so : back in her home culture for a halt, everything that has made her experience abroad is radically invisible to her nearest relatives. But they know her, and she would not question that, as their recalling of childhood memories come to confirm — and their recalling even of seemingly insignificant events of the years after, but it is also seen in their reassuring faith that she will ultimately reach her goals, invulnerable that they are to her self-doubts. There is no turning back for the foreigner : all her interactions will come to break even the most tactile aspects of her ‘metaphysics of presence’, this present blindness to her very memory provoked by her obsessions and stresses in the present : the foreigner will always be reminded of her identity across time, through her co-national relatives recalling her personal history, and across global history, through the larger context she enters as soon as she is acknowledged by the locals.

This is an intellectual hypothesis that is, expectedly, compatible with some of the suggestions offered by Levinas and Derrida. In a late text, Derrida comments upon Circumfession, 3 one of his own autobiographical text : “The “sense of my life,” “for me,” if this expression has any sense, remains forever, from the origin, once and for all, as coming from the other.” 4 What would be the frame or genre in which such a sensibility could be heard ? One could coin a new category, inspired by Levinas: knowledge-from-the-other. This would also be coherent with Levinas’s larger assumption : if being human, it is being-for-the-other, this also implies that one would also be subjected to the other’s knowledge of oneself. But, even beyond, before or without Levinas, truth, if associated with knowledge and language, is always, necessarily externality. As we already mentioned, establishing a truth, it is stepping away from the situation, taking distance to look at it. But why would the Other’s truth on another self be more the truth than the self’s reflective knowledge ? Perhaps because the immediate concern of the self’s everydayness tends to create a blindness vis-à-vis its deeper roots in a past that is both personal and universal. The metaphysics of presence, unfortunately, reaches these depths of the human’s consciousness.

Closing Totality and Infinity, Levinas seems to be evoking what we are elaborating here : “It will remain a personal I before the judgment in which truth is stated, and this judgment will come from outside of it without coming from an impersonal reason, which uses ruse with persons and is pronounced in their absence.” 5 Reason operates in absence – Derrida’s critique of logocentrism is already there. And it is a judgment that “will come from outside of it without coming from an impersonal reason.” Levinas uses the future tense, modality of the self-transcending avenir, and he relocates judgment as something that comes from the outside, but not from reason – western philosophy’s default response to the question –, that is, instead necessarily from the Other. Judgment comes from the Other : the Other is the root of knowledge. This is the reading that Derrida, too, adopts, when commenting (between brackets) a quote from the first section of Totality and Infinity:

“To approach the Other in discourse is to welcome [my emphasis] his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive [Levinas’s emphasis] from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly : to have the idea of infinity. But this also means : to be taught. The relation with the Other, or Discourse, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation ; but inasmuch as it is welcomed [my emphasis again] this discourse is a teaching. But […] teaching does not come down to […] maieutics ; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain. [It does not come back, or come down to – it comes, and comes from elsewhere, from the exterior, from the other.]” 6

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Teaching, that is, the sharing and development of knowledge “does not come down to maieutics,” it is not just the Socratic methodological obsession of the refinement of a knowledge that is already in the knowing subject : knowledge, truly, emanates from the outside.

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Teaching, that is, the sharing and development of knowledge “does not come down to maieutics,” it is not just the Socratic methodological obsession of the refinement of a knowledge that is already in the knowing subject : knowledge, truly, emanates from the outside. And this is confirmed by another passage from Levinas’s conclusion : “The condition for theoretical truth and error is the word of the other, his expression, which every lie already presupposes. But the first content of expression is the expression itself.” 7

This small alternative may lead to a set of surprising propositions. Would the experience of foreignness radicalise Levinas’s scenario of the encounter of Otherness, to make one experience oneself as an Other ? This hypothetical leap is not particularly ambitious : if I have reasons to adopt the Other’s image of me as a more accurate and holistic representation than my own reflective knowledge, it soon arises that I am also, now, be able to observe myself through the eyes of the Other. This would indeed be a little revolution in the conventional proto-scientific stare of western philosophy, consistent since its early days : objectification is reversed ; the subject observes itself as an object — or, even more radically — the subject as object observes observation from the standpoint of the object. This, is what the knowledge of a foreigner may be. 8

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Objectification is reversed ; the subject observes itself as an object — or, even more radically — the subject as object observes observation from the standpoint of the object. This, is what the knowledge of a foreigner may be.

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It also ensues from the hypothesis of knowledge-from-the-other that the truth of a self is external to this self. What, indeed, would then be left of the self’s identity, now that its heteronomous essence is revealed ? Are there separate subjects, distinct individuals any longer ? Would it be contradicting our earlier proposition – that the foreigner realises the scale of the individual as the fundamental unit of human history ? How much of the subject would be left, in this self-identity that always escapes it ? In fact, this hypothesis may even go against the very self/Other distinction of Levinas. If the self deconstructs itself when enquiring its identity, it also implies that it can no more be the complementary pair of the Other. We would, instead, reach the Buddhist notion of Anatta, non-self. And an altogether deeply complex set of problems. Derrida’s conceptual compatibility with a variety of propositions from several Buddhist schools has been widely documented. 9

Less radically, and less tentatively, what the knowledge-from-the-other suggests is that knowledge is fundamentally inter-subjective. At this level, we can confidently expand upon Kant’s epistemological project, to submit the idea that the internal faculties of the individual human are not sufficient to produce knowledge, at least in the discussed case of reflective knowledge. Instead, we are turning towards an understanding of knowledge’s genesis that takes subjects as the new, necessary ‘organs’ that permit the emergence of knowledge. The individual is indeed bypassed : inter-subjectivity is the new structure of subjectivity. And this is also an invitation to post-structuralism to reconcile with metaphysics : developing Levinas, developing Derrida, one arrives at a de-essentialised metaphysics, a decentered metaphysics, a metaphysics of the borders, a metaphysics of externality. A metaphysics of foreignness, or, I should confess, a foreigner’s metaphysics.


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Supplementary References

Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006.

Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity, 2006.

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Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass Publishers, 2007.

Davis, Colin. Critical Excess: Overreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Žižek and Cavell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Davis, Colin. Levinas: an Introduction. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death & Literature in Secret. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Glendinning, Simon. In the Name of Phenomenology. Oxford & New York: Routledge, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978.

Peeters, Benoit. Derrida: a Biography. Translated by Andrew Brown. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

Image courtesy: Alex Baker



  1. One would also have to account for the possibility of hierarchy, and therefore of axiology and relative values, among animals whose use of languages as sign systems is still debated.
  2. See for instance his Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), 47 : “Hannah Arendt was right: these figures were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil : the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie – the truth lies outside, in what we do.”
  3. Circumfession,” in Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  4. Jacques Derrida and Safaa Fathy, Tourner les mots (Paris: Galilée, 2000), 116.
  5. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 306.
  6. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 27, quoting from Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 51.
  7. Ibid., 306. To complete this series of arguments, one should also look at the evolution of knowledge-from-the-other in the case of writing, as previously discussed : how can writing transcend the logocentric assumption of a sufficiency of self-awareness ? Is not the written necessarily the transcription of the flow of my consciousness, whose focused-ness forbids a simultaneous awareness of my physical presence at this very moment, or of the impressions I may leave on others around me, as I am writing ? Or would it be the phenomenon of writing as re-writing – a seemingly secondary aspect of writing, which in fact is its cardinal difference from the spoken – that permits to break the logocentric, present-oriented flow of consciousness, to open it to a larger, trans-instantaneous, accommodative and holistic discourse ?
  8. But would it be a genuine change ? Or would this knowledge-from-the-other be used for a false for-the-other of the self, which would, in fact, simply hide the old self-centred ego ? Is the being-for-the-other a disguised narcissism ?
  9. See for instance Harold Coward, Derrida and Indian Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press, 1990).