Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Self & Other

The dialogue or dialectic of self and other is a widely-used discursive practice in recent academic literary studies, multiculturalism, gender studies, post-structural linguistics, anthropology, and other disciplines.

Self and other may operate on principles similar to the dialectic of subject and object, but self-other personalizes identity or values relative to other peoples or entities (as in the slave-master dialectic), making self-other friendlier to literary studies than subject and object.

Beyond academic interests, self-other discussions tap into powerful human instincts of identity such as "us and them" or tribalism. (scroll down for more examples)

Texts by writers with more or less different identities forces readers to learn or come to terms with others and thus learn something of their own self-identities, self-interests, and cultural or historical development.

Cultivated as conscious practice, dialogue between self and other overcomes polarization by revealing shared identities and interests. For instance, two nationally or ethnically opposed entities may discover themselves in each other via gender, family, religion, etc.—or vice versa.

In such exchanges, the polarized, absolute, or hostile self-and-other enter a field of equalify and difference (not entirely the self, not entirely the other) that prospers communication, exchange, and development of shared interests.

As an added benefit, dialogue between self and other informs the self of all that it doesn't know, the limits of its identity, with potential benefits of humility, cooperation, listening, learning, etc.

Perennial question: What is the relation of self to other? Of the known to the unknown?

Potentially dangerous answer: self and other are sharply differentiated and polarized: usually the self is validated and elevated, which dehumanizes and degrades the other.

Typical linguistic / formal development: Marked and Unmarked; "my people" or "people like me" versus "terrorists," "cannibals," "savages," etc.

Psychology / sociology parallel: in-group and out-group.

Pop anthropology: us-and-them or tribalism

Anthropological / Historical background: Until recent centuries nearly all humans lived their lives and evolved in communities of 50-150 people whose lifespans averaged just long enough to bear children to replace the dead. (subsistence culture)

Faith in or support for group identity was essential to individual and group survival.

Identifying the other as either us or them, you might defend, nurture, befriend, intermarry or attack, undermine, drive away, or abduct.

Attractions of us-and-them spirit still appears in local or traditional institutions such as . . .

High school or college sports . . . .

Religious denominations . . . .

Political parties

(all very tribal)

+- races, cultures


Origins of self-other in religion: original sin? Genesis 4.9: Cain after slaying Abel: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Origins of self-other in human evolution: Human brains evolved to present state in hunter-gatherer societies of 50-150 people, all closely related like extended family who were "us" as opposed to the other groups who were "them." See Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, 20-1, 82-3, 198-99.


Particular risk of academic study of self and other: The values may be reversed, but the us-them dynamics continue (maybe in a more complicated way).

Put another way, first-world students who benefit (more or less) from various forms of oppression may learn to despise their privileges and validate those who were oppressed.

So far, so good, but reversing the poles of values threatens to dehumanize the exploiters and may elevate the oppressed to a superior status if only for being victims.

Pop-culture example of American movie westerns' treatment of "cowboys and Indians" in the 20th century:

Until the 1960s, white cowboys, pioneers, and U.S. cavalry were always seen as innocent, virtuous heroes, while American Indians were depicted as bloodthirsty, untrustworthy savages—much as we see "terrorists" today.

Beginning in the 1960s, white cowboys, pioneers, and U.S. cavalry became bloodthirsty, rapacious conquerors, while American Indians were depicted as honest, innocent, and close to nature.

William Butler Yeats, "The Great Day"

What kinds of moral quandaries does this reversal raise? Are there options beyond righteous polarization?


Intellectual solution: self-other does not equal 2 entities but 3 (or 1).

The third element is the interaction, communication, or exchange between self and other.

Or all three elements become a single process or dialogue or intertextuality.


interaction of self and other

first options: antagonism, hierarchy, superiority-inferiority, us-them

but exchange leads to . . .

  • commerce or gift-based economy

  • bilingualism

  • sexual / genetic "intercourse," . . .

  • syncretism

Outcome: instead of one entity being pure, clean, righteous and the other being impure, dirty, evil, you have the human condition in which all characters, actions, motives are aspiring but ironically, even tragically compromised.

Literary-theoretical sources on self and other

Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

"How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one's own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the 'other')?" (325).


Todorov, Tzvetan.  The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. 1982. (notes)

3.  subject--the discovery self makes of the other

I can conceive of these others [also I's] as an abstraction, as an instance of any individual's psychic configuration, as the Other--other in relation to myself, to me; or else as a specific social group to which we do not belong.  This group in turn can be interior to society: women for men, the rich for the poor, the mad for the "normal"; or it can be exterior to society, i.e., another society which will be near or far away, depending on the case: beings whom everything links to me on the cultural, moral, historical plane; or else unknown quantities, outsiders whose language and customs I do not understand, so foreign that in extreme instances I am reluctant to admit they belong to the same species as my own.  It is this problematics of the exterior and remote other that I have chosen--somewhat arbitrarily and because one cannot speak of everything all at once--in order to open an investigation that can never be closed.

38  ...Columbus finds, to characterize the Indians, only by adjectives of the good / wicked type, which in reality teach us nothing: not only because these qualities depend on the point of view adopted, but also because they correspond to specific states and not to stable characteristics, because they derive from the pragmatic estimate of a situation and not from the desire to know.

Nor more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass "in itself," but only in the European system of exchange. 

42  Columbus's attitude with regard to the Indians is based on his perception of them.  We can distinguish here two component parts, which we shall find again in the following century and, in practice, down to our own day in every colonist in his relations to the colonized; we have already observed these two attitudes in germ in Columbus's report concerning the other's language.  Either he conceives the Indians (though without using these words) as human beings altogether, having the same rights as himself; but then he sees them not only as equals but also as identical, and this behavior leads to assimilationism, the projection of his own values on the others.  Or else he starts from the difference, but the latter is immediately translated into terms of superiority and inferiority (in his case, obviously, it is the Indians who are inferior).  What is denied is the existence of a human substance truly other, something capable of being not merely an imperfect state of oneself.  These two elementary figures of the experience of alterity are both grounded in egocentrism, in the identification of our own values /43 with values in general, of our I with the universe--in the conviction that the world is one.

49 Indian women are women, or Indians to the second power; hence, they become the object of a double rape.

 . . . How can Columbus be associated with these two apparently contradictory myths, one whereby the Other is a "noble savage" (when perceived at a distance) and one whereby he is a "dirty dog," a potential slave? It is because both rest on a common basis, which is the failure to recognize the Indians, and the refusal to admit them as a subject having the same rights as oneself, but different. Columbus has discovered America but not the Americans.

92 ...Las Casas discovers that higher form of egalitarianism we are calling perspectivism, in which each man is put in relation to his own values, rather than being faced with a single ideal.

132 To formulate matters differently: in the best of cases, the Spanish authors speak well of the Indians, but with very few exceptions they do not speak to the Indians.  Now, it is only by speaking to the other (not giving orders but engaging in a dialogue) that I can acknowledge him as subject, comparable to what I am myself.

247  For the other remains to be discovered. The fact is worthy of astonishment, for man is never alone, and would not be what he is without his social dimension. . . . And just as the discovery of the other knows several degrees, from the other-as-object, identified with the surrounding world, to the other-as-subject, equal to the I but different from it, with an infinity of intermediary nuances, we can indeed live our lives without ever achieving a full discovery of the other (supposing that such a discovery can be made).  Each of us must begin it over again in turn; the previous experiments do not relieve us of our responsibility, but they can teach us the effects of misreading the facts.

          Yet even if the discovery of the other must be assumed by each individual and eternally recommenced, it also has a history, forms that are socially and culturally determined.  The history of the conquest of America makes me believe that a great change occurred--or, rather, was revealed--at the dawn of the sixteenth century, say between Columbus and Cortes; a similar difference (not similar in details, of course) can be observed between Montezuma and Cortes; this difference functions, then, in time as in space, and if I have lingered over the spatial contrast more than the temporal one, it is because the latter is blurred by countless transitions whereas the former, with the help of an ocean, has all the necessary distinctness. Since the period of the conquest, for almost three hundred and fifty years, Western Europe has tried to assimilate the other, to do away with an exterior alterity, and has in great part succeeded. Its way of life and its values have spread / 248 around the world; as Columbus wished, the colonized peoples have adopted our customs and have put on clothes.

          This extraordinary success is chiefly due to one specific feature of Western civilization which for a long time was regarded as a feature of man himself, its development and prosperity among Europeans thereby becoming proof of their natural superiority: it is, paradoxically, Europeans' capacity to understand the other. . . . Schematically this behavior is organized into two phases.  The first is that of interest in the other, at the cost of a certain empathy or temporary identification. . . . Then comes the second phase, during which he [Cortes] is not content to reassert his own identity (which he has never really abandoned), but proceeds to assimilate the Indians to his own world. In the same way, it will be recalled, the Franciscan monks adopted the Indians' ways (clothes, food), to convert them more effectively to the Christian religion.

248-9  I believe that this period of European history is, in its turn, coming to an end today.  The representatives of Western civilization no longer believe so naively in its superiority,and the movement of assimilation is running down in that quarter, even if the recent or ancient nations of the Third World still want to live like the Europeans. On the ideological level, at least, we are trying to combine what we regard as the better parts of both terms of the alternative; we want equality without its compelling us to accept identity; but also difference without its degenerating into superiority/inferiority. We aspire to reap the benefits of the egalitarian model and of the hierarchic model; we aspire to rediscover the meaning of the social without losing the quality of the individual.  The Russian socialist Alexander Herzen wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century:  "To understand the extent, reality, and sacred nature of the rights of the person without destroying society, without fracturing it into atoms: such is the most difficult social goal."

251  "Neutral" love, Las Casas's "distributive" justice, are parodied and drained of meaning in a generalized relativism where anything goes, so long as one chooses the right point of view; perspectivism leads to indifference and to the renunciation of all values . . . . Exile is fruitful if one belongs to both cultures at once, without identifying oneself with either; but if a whole society consists of exiles, the dialogue of cultures ceases: it is replaced by eclecticism and comparatism, by the capacity to love everything a little, of flacidly sympathizing with each option without ever embracing any.