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Alterity is a philosophical term meaning "otherness", strictly being in the sense of the other of two (Latin alter). In the phenomenological tradition it is usually understood as the entity in contrast to which an identity is constructed, and it implies the ability to distinguish between self and not-self, and consequently to assume the existence of an alternative viewpoint. The concept was established by Emmanuel Lévinas in a series of essays, collected under the title Alterity and Transcendence (1999[1970]).

The term is also deployed outside of philosophy, notably in anthropology by scholars such as Nicholas Dirks, Johannes Fabian, Michael Taussig and Pauline Turner Strong to refer to the construction of "cultural others". The term has gained further use in seemingly somewhat remote disciplines, e.g. historical musicology where it is effectively employed by John Michael Cooper in a study of Goethe and Mendelssohn.[citation needed]

Alterity is a process that has taken place actively throughout time, as charted through generations of history. The effects of alterity can be tracked through a variety of forms of behavioral modes and interventions, both consensual and non consensual. Furthermore, behaviors that induce otherness are both conscious and unconscious.

The 20th Century Definition[edit]

The 20th century definition of alterity is the process of people becoming altern, by being misunderstood as different from a dominant view, due to race, class, gender, ethnicity and other defining traits.

Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak's theology of Alterity was introduced in a symposium on 'Remaking History'- the intention of which was to 'Challenge the masculine orthodoxy of history writing." [1] " Though class is a relatively abstract matter when compared to other lived conditions such as race and gender, it is nevertheless a determination which is ignored at their peril by those who write in the name of 'alternatives'."[1]


It is imperative for one to uncover the histories and inherent historical behaviors in order to exercise an individual right to authentic experience, identity and reality. Within the concept of socially constructed histories one " must take into account the dangerous fragility and tenacity of these concept-metaphors."[1]

Spivak recalls her personal history: “As a postcolonial, I am concerned with the appropriation of ‘alternative history’ or ‘histories’. I am not a historian by training. I cannot claim disciplinary expertise in remaking history in the sense or rewriting it. But I can be used as an example of how historical narratives are negotiated. The parents of my parent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s were made over, not always without their consent, by the political, fiscal and educational intervention of British imperialism, and now I am independent. Thus I am, in the strictest sense, a postcolonial.’[1]

Spivak explains four ‘master words’ to identify the modes of being that create alterity: “Nationalism, Internationalism, Secularism and Culturalism.”[1] Furthermore, tools for developing alternative histories include: “gender, race, ethnicity, class- class is surely the most abstract.”[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Spivak, Gayatari. "Who Claims Alterity". Emory University. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Martin Buber (1937), I and Thou.
  • Chan-Fai Cheung, Tze-Wan Kwan and Kwok-ying Lau (eds.), Identity and Alterity. Phenomenology and Cultural Traditions. Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2009 (Orbis Phaenomenologicusm, Perspektiven, Neue Folge Band 14) ISBN 978-3-8260-3301-8
  • Cooper, John Michael (2007) Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night. University of Rochester Press.
  • Fabian, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. Columbia University Press.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel (1999[1970]) Alterity and Transcendence. (Trans. Michael B. Smith) Columbia University Press.
  • Maranhao, Tullio (ed.), Anthropology and the Question of the Other. Paideuma 44 (1998).
  • Nealon, Jeffrey (1998) Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity. Duke University Press.
  • Strong, Pauline Turner (1999) Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity *Narratives. Westview Press/Perseus Books.
  • Taussig, Michael (1993) Mimesis and Alterity. Routledge.

External links[edit]

"Gayatri Spivak: The Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

  • The dictionary definition of alterity at Wiktionary