Difference as otherness

By Giorgia Salatiello


The concept of otherness is central in current philosophical thought and is at the root of the thinking of many authors. In their writings it takes on connotations that often differ, even significantly so, but yet it always draws attention to that which is not easily assimilated by logic nor by the requirements of a single individual.

In this short reflection I would like to show how this concept could be a valid instrument in comprehending the distinctive character of the difference between woman and man. In order to achieve this objective I shall refer to the interpretation given by Joseph de Finance (1). In two dense pages he deals explicitly with the difference between the sexes (2).

The first characteristic is a constituent dimension of otherness, and undoubtedly, as already mentioned, of irreducibility. “Other” is that which cannot be appropriated and that must be recognised for what it really is.

The second characteristic, inseparable from the first, is relationality. Something can be declared to be other only if it occurs in a relationship that cannot be eliminated because, if it were lacking, they would simply be extraneous.

At the basis of this second characteristic, however, there is the most marked trait of otherness, and that is the need for a shared “common space”. It is in this setting that otherness can stand out and relationship can be established.

On the basis of the aspects identified in this way, we can distinguish three types of otherness: that between objects, that between a subject and another that could be an object or, alternatively, a subject, and finally, that which is within the subject, between the various strata of the self.

The difference between woman and man obviously belongs to the second type of otherness, that is, the inter-subjective. In fact, we could state that this one, as it originated at the beginning, is the prototype of all kinds of interpersonal otherness.

We can see, therefore, how all the dimensions of otherness that we have identified intrinsically signify the difference between woman and man and allow us to recognise the most relevant aspects of its specifically human meaning.

Above all, difference refers to two existences that possess, each within itself, a value and an autonomous dignity, and neither of the two can be considered to be in function of the other nor to be in a purely instrumental position, hierarchically subordinate.

Secondly, notwithstanding their difference, in fact, precisely because of it, women and men are constitutively placed in such a deep relationship that it touches on all other levels of their being, physical and psychological, and even in their innermost spirituality: “one does not oppose the other but because they are one for the other, and their unity will be all the closer and more affirmed the more their diversity is respected” (3).

The difference between the sexes also implies, as we have seen in regard to otherness, the existence of a “common space”. This is because it cannot allow extraneousness between the two, and this space is made up of the same human nature that is totally present in both, although with different distinctive features.

In this way, the relationship is guaranteed because, on the one hand, being of the same nature makes relationship possible, even to its highest form which is that of communion, and on the other hand, difference allows for reciprocal enrichment in an exchange in which both of them give and receive at the same time.

To conclude these brief thoughts, I would like to point out that a reading of difference as otherness allows us to avoid two dangers that are opposed to each other, but yet are equally serious. It guarantees the irreducibility of woman and man by safeguarding the specific nature of both, and it allows their relationship to be on a firm basis by accepting its originality and, at the same time, its specifically human value.

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1. DE FINANCE J., A tu per tu con l’altro. Saggio sull’alterità, Roma, 2004.
2. Ibid., pp. 20 -21.
3. Ibid.

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