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An Interview with Silvia Benso

[ARTIST]
“MORALITY DOES NOT REQUIRE CREATIVITY. ETHICS DOES.”
Some topics covered (in alphabetical order):
Aristotle
Auschwitz
Dentist-Freaks
Ethics
Kitchen Spoons
Love
Misfit Toys
Reindeer
Socrates
Tina Turner
by Jill Stauffer
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Silvia Benso

[ARTIST]
“MORALITY DOES NOT REQUIRE CREATIVITY. ETHICS DOES.”
Some topics covered (in alphabetical order):
Aristotle
Auschwitz
Dentist-Freaks
Ethics
Kitchen Spoons
Love
Misfit Toys
Reindeer
Socrates
Tina Turner
by Jill Stauffer
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Silvia Benso

Jill Stauffer
13 Snaps

It’s not so hard to imagine that you might owe something, say, kindness, deference, or reciprocity, to your fellow human beings. However, the history of thinking about ethics and morality is fraught with the kinds of disagreements human beings can fall into over just what is owed, why it is owed, and how far the obligation extends. As if things weren’t confusing enough, along come the animal-rights theorists and activists with their suggestion that human beings also bear responsibilities toward animals. You may or may not agree. And what about things? Do I owe kindness to a chair? As philosopher Silvia Benso admits, “to speak of the ethical demand of a chair or a spoon sounds crazy.”

And yet she is here to tell us that it is not crazy, and, what’s more, that conceiving of the ethical demands made on us by things is essential to any successful account of human ethical commitment. In other words, a world in which “things” are relegated solely to the status of objects is a world where the field of ethics cannot be understood for what it is. Ethics is about “the other,” that which is different from us. And what is more “other” to a thinking human being or a breathing animal than an inanimate chair? Thinking through what matters about difference must include an openness to the ways in which difference exceeds our capability to recover everything about it into our preconceived categories of reason. Thus, Benso, author of The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics and professor of philosophy at Siena College in upstate New York, suggests that we need an ethic of things. This interview arose out of some conversations that took place at what the interviewer likes to call “philosophers’ summer camp” but which many others prefer to call “Collegium Phaenomenologicum,” a yearly three-week retreat in the beautiful Umbrian countryside of Italy. The bulk of the dialogue was conducted over email between San Francisco, California, and Loudonville, New York.

—Jill Stauffer

I. THE ETHIC OF MISFIT TOYS

THE BELIEVER: You argue in your book The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics that things—not just persons or animals—make ethical demands on us. How is that so?

SILVIA BENSO: It is somewhat easy to imagine that persons and animals make ethical demands on us (even if we have difficulties agreeing on the details of the formulation of such an ethic) because ultimately we recognize some similarity, some common ground between ourselves and other human beings, and between animals and ourselves. That this attitude guides us becomes clear when we consider how much closer we are in general to admitting that dogs and cats make ethical demands on us than we are to seeing possible ethical demands placed on us by shrimp, mussels, bacteria, and so on. We still move in an anthropocentric horizon. And so to speak of the ethical demand of a chair or a spoon sounds crazy.

So let’s say, instead, that ethics, rather than being based in similarity, has to do with otherness. Ethics partakes of the preservation of otherness in all its forms, not only human but also nonhuman otherness. An ethical demand comes from the otherness of the other, and not from his, her, or its similarity (or lack thereof ) to us. If that is the case, then shouldn’t we admit that things also place ethical demands on us? Things are possibly the furthest away, the most “other” from us, and also the most other than what is different or similar between humans and animals .We simply cannot find a common ground with “things.” But if ethics is about otherness rather than sameness, shouldn’t what is “other” than the other human or other animal also be the beneficiary of ethics?

BLVR: Well, really, what would be the point of an ethic that only protected what it recognized as itself? But beyond that I’m not sure. So say more. Why do human beings need to include “things” in ethical discourse?

SB: The easiest answer is to say: so that human beings avoid surrounding themselves with junk. The more sophisticated way of phrasing it is to say: so that things are not demoted to the status of objects. It is a matter of a double demand of justice. We need to include things in ethical discourse so as to render justice—both to ourselves and to things.

For instance, right now, as we conduct this interview, it’s the Christmas season. I go to the stores, and I see the thousands upon thousands of objects that people buy frantically, well knowing that in a few months these objects are going to end up in the garbage can, or in some box in some attic, and nobody will even know they are there. The reduction of things to objects, endlessly reproduced and reproducible at a minimal cost, with no preciousness to cherish and appreciate, lies at the root of our capitalist, consumerist society.

BLVR: Oh, man. You are talking about the island of misfit toys.

SB: What?

BLVR: The children’s Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is all about the other. It’s a meditation on ethics!

SB: I grew up in Italy. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

BLVR: Well, to make what could be a very long story shorter, Rudolph has a red nose and thus is disallowed from playing reindeer games. He joins forces with an elf who hates making toys—he wants to be a dentist, which, as you might guess, makes him a total freak—and they set about teaching us all a lesson about the evils of exclusion of the other. In any case, in the middle of Rudolph’s journey, he and his cohort arrive on the island of misfit toys. It is a land where all the toys that are not loved by any boy or girl are sent. These toys are all outsiders, too, you know, misfits—a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a bird who swims, and a water pistol that shoots jam. Anyway, it’s an imperfect metaphor for the trash heap of consumer society. What matters is that by the end of the story Santa and his reindeers have been schooled in the ways of inclusiveness, have found Rudolph’s and the elf dentist’s odd ways to be worthy of their regard, and have found homes for all the misfit toys. The end.

SB: I see.

BLVR: So do I. That story molded me in ways I only now recognize as good.

SB: Ha. Well, as should be evident to the eyes of any minimally reasoning human being, the injustice of consumer society occurs at several levels: human, social, economic, environmental. We exploit less industrialized countries, maintain individuals in job conditions which are less than humane, pollute the environment during the processes of production as well as elimination of our objects, and so on, all so we can surround ourselves with an increasing number of objects for which we, in the end, have little regard.

BLVR: In other words, when we see something “other” than us, be it thing, human, or animal, we should remind ourselves to think about what it is rather than trying to fit it into a category with which we are already comfortable. Maybe then “misfit” would become a word that does not smack of oppression.

SB: Right! So anyway, etymologically, an object is something which is cast in front of us, which stands in front of us as the means for our goals, be they theoretical, practical, or of any sort. For instance, a spoon is thought of as a tool for conveying liquids into the mouth, or for stirring soup. But it is more than that.

BLVR: Wait. What is this moreness of the spoon? When we speak of objects like spoons, we often call them “things.” And things are indeed useful to us; they have their varied purposes. So when we encounter things, we tend to think we know what they are in part because we know what they are for. But that is an instrumental understanding of what a thing is, and doesn’t necessarily give us a meaningful definition. So perhaps it is time to ask: what is a thing?

SB: Heidegger speaks of “the thing” as of the place of a gathering. It is the gathering of the earth, the sky, the divinities, and the mortals, he says.

BLVR: That’s going to sound kooky to people who don’t read Heidegger. And possibly also to those who do!

SB: Well it is, in a way, a rather poetic description. But I like it because I think it captures something very true: a thing is never simply an object which is present to us and exhausted in the visual perception of it. In even the most modest thing for everyday use, the four dimensions Heidegger mentions come to play precisely in the unity which the thing presents to us. This might be somewhat simplistic, but think, for example, of our kitchen spoon. There is materiality there, the wood. There are the infinite possibilities that such a materiality could have assumed, for example it could have remained a tree, and in that form offered us infinite possibilities in its materiality. In addition, consider the infinite uses and abuses of the spoon, or the numerous sauces we are going to make with it. There is a presence of immemorial time in it, both natural and historical, time which has been brought to the present spoon, with its shape, its consistency, its degree of durability. In the spoon there is also the presence of the human beings who, out of the concerns and constraints of their own existential situations, have made such a spoon. And there is the presence of the human beings who are actually going to be involved in the use of such a spoon. All these dimensions, and many others, are brought together in what looks to us like a simple spoon. They are in a relation in the spoon. And yet, all these dimensions, and the many others, are present only in their absence, because you do not see, hear, or touch any of them.

The thing itself is the place where a relation, a coming together—a gathering, as Heidegger says—can be encountered. When faced with a thing, we are given the possibility of entering into a relation with that relation.

BLVR: “Things” open up a space for ethical relationality.What I mean is that if the very thingness of a thing lets us witness a relation, then not just in relation to other human beings, but even in the presence of things, we find ourselves faced with ethical questions, because ethics arises out of relationships.

SB: Yes.

BLVR: But things call us into relationship differently than human beings might. Things do this by referring beyond themselves.

SB: Yes, by referring to a dimension that is other to, or which transcends, their sheer immanence, what we perceive as their simple wholeness.

BLVR: OK. So things refer beyond themselves. What kind of “beyond” is this? What does “beyond” mean in this context? Things refer us beyond the reality that we take as given, and that reminds us of the demands of ethics…. But sometimes what is “beyond” gets described as “nothingness,” whereas in this case you are talking about something else, something “otherwise” than nothingness.

SB: A beyond that is “nothing” is one for which it is not worth fighting. Why should I commit myself to anything, why should I engage in anything, if all that there is beyond this reality is nothing? A beyond that is “otherwise,” however, is one that allows for and even demands change, revolutions, commitments, engagements. Ultimately, it allows for hope.

BLVR: But you are not talking about theology.

SB: I do not mean a “beyond” in the sense of a religious afterworld, but in the sense of the possibility of a difference between what is and what ought to be. A difference that matters in this world. A beyond that is “otherwise” allows for the possibility of the future. A beyond that is “nothing” constricts us either to the present, or to the past. That is why Nietzsche, for example, after having rightly destroyed all beliefs in the afterworld, ends his nihilistic perspective talking about the “eternal recurrence of the same.”

BLVR: Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence essentially requires that human beings stop trying to make the past something other than what it was. Wrath against what can’t be changed is the worst affront to Nietzsche’s “will to power,” so if human will is to succeed in being powerful, human beings have to accept that the past is gone. The only thing that can change about the past is the way we think about it. If the will accepts this, it is then set free to will what it can will, and live in this life, now.

SB: Right.The beyond I have in mind is not a beyond that takes meaning away from this existence. Rather, it is a beyond in which the “otherwise” stems from a deep, radical involvement in this reality, and from a joyful although burdensome attempt at making it always better. Not through an escape from it, but rather through a deep involvement in it and for it.

BLVR: An ethic of things opens up this space. Why isn’t it easier to say what “things” are?

SB: Because it is in the nature of things to escape thematization, our tendency to place them in categories and thereby reduce them to our preconceived ideas of them. It is the alterity, the otherness in things, that renders any discourse about them somewhat indefinable and indefinite.

BLVR: And yet things express an ethical demand, you maintain. What kind of expression is this?

SB: Obviously it is not a verbal expression. Things may have their own language, but it is certainly not a language made of words as we know them. (By the way, you encounter this same problem when you want to claim that animals have language. Maybe we humans should be more aware of the anthropocentrism entailed by our definition of language.) I think that the ethical expression in things comes from their very presence, which, as we said, bespeaks absence(s). Things are there, all around us; they confront us, they face us. Of course, for a variety of reasons (time, laziness, convenience, and so on), we may decide to ignore such a “facing.” We may not notice things, we might overlook them, reduce them to objects. It does not mean that the things are no longer there. It means rather that we have decided not to respond to their facing. The appeal is still there; it is we who are not responsive.

BLVR: Why are things so unavoidable?

SB: This has to do with our embodiment. As human beings, we are never pure spiritual beings, as even Plato is willing to admit. To be alive means to be in a body, and to be in a body means to be with things, to be among things, to be affected by them.

BLVR: Things affect us because as material bodies we are vulnerable to what is outside of us, even when we wish it were otherwise. The will has no power to change that.

SB: Sure. Things are a condition of our human existence. We think we can condition them, and try to, when we reduce them to objects. The fact, however, is that it is the things that condition us.We may attempt to reduce every thing to an object, but eventually something remains unreduced, something escapes us: our very death is a sign that we are affected by things.

BLVR: How so? Where did death come from in this?

SB: Death is a sign of our finitude, of the fact that we cannot master the world entirely. In the end, it is a sign of the fact that we are affected by things. Isn’t death always brought about by some external agent that escapes our control? Diseases, age, ailments, you name it. Part of the problem is that we see death as a defeat, and that is why we try to conquer it. That is what medicine does, without ultimate success, though. Death is only postponed, not conquered. I think we should start looking at death as part of life—not a limitation, but a condition that makes our very human existence possible. After all, were we not to die, we would not be human. We would be gods, or angels, or demons, but not human beings.

II. LET GO OF YOUR EGO: THE OTHER IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

BLVR: OK. So back to this world. What does it mean that we can renounce our past but not dismiss it?

SB: We can renounce our past in the sense that we are not necessarily bound by our past to a certain course of action. There is no determinism. We can always find an alternative way. This freedom, this ability to untie the knot of history, is the only possibility for change, and also the only possibility for being ethical.

However, we cannot dismiss our past. We are always responsible for the path that brought us where we are, which means we are always accountable for our past. We do not have to repeat, actually we should not keep repeating, the horrors of Auschwitz, and yet we cannot forget that Auschwitz did happen. And it is only if we remember Auschwitz, and how it happened, that we can work so that Auschwitz does not repeat itself. Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” has a great expression that goes something like this: it is the memory of our slave ancestors that nourishes the ideal of free descendants.

BLVR: In The Face of Things you mention that Narcissus “does not see the depth of the brook, the powerlessness of the stream, the ceaseless flow of the water. He sees himself.” You claim that this attitude is the one that Western philosophy holds toward “things” in general. Say more.

SB: The claim that Western philosophy is a project of the self’s recognition of the self in its external reality— in the world, as it were—is not mine. German idealists in general, and Hegel in particular, are probably the ones who make this claim more explicitly, and they are also the ones who embody narcissism to the highest degree. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel starts with natural consciousness, which looks at things as if they were completely outside of itself, and he concludes with absolute Spirit as that which has achieved a complete work of recognition of itself. Everything, for Hegel, is a creation of Spirit or Mind. The outside is recognized as the inside in its external manifestation.

Hegel sees this movement of increased self-awareness as a positive process. It is post-Hegelian philosophy—especially the Frankfurt school, most notably Adorno and Horkheimer, and later Levinas—who emphasize the negative, reductive aspects of this enterprise. Not even Nietzsche escapes this narcissistic attitude. To think of the world in terms of interpretation—Nietzsche’s so-called “perspectivism”—is to deny that reality may have legitimacy on its own terms. Perspectivism claims that reality may have a legitimacy, but one that is functional to whoever is interpreting it. The conclusion Nietzsche draws is that, as a matter of fact, there is no reality, but only what the interpreter brings to it.

That project extends to things. That, too, is not entirely my claim, although there are many who do not want subscribe to an ethic of things. Western philosophy properly starts with Socrates, and takes after Socrates as its best role model. Socrates’ interest is clearly human beings and, by extension, the community of humans, human society. Things are thus seen as part of the realm within which human beings unfold their existence; things are generally equated with matter, with the body, perhaps with nature. As such they become the domain within which human beings are given the opportunity to assert themselves. So things become objects of use, inserted in a universe at the center of which is the human subject in its abilities and faculties. The mathematical conception of the universe, inaugurated in modernity by Descartes but already operating earlier than that, aims at making things quantifiable, that is, understandable, reducible to human categories, and thus subject to human domination.

BLVR: To place ourselves at the center of the world is to ignore what you call the thing’s “thingly” character. Such an assumption proceeds as if even the nonhuman world were a human project, entirely within human power to control and manipulate. This is why, I’m guessing, you say that environmental problems bring to the fore the necessity of an ethic of things. An ethic of things would help us rethink what it means to be human beings, and to live together on this earth as human beings.

SB: Right.

BLVR: What do you think of Adorno’s claim that since Auschwitz, philosophy is faced with the necessity of thinking in such a way that what happened at Auschwitz cannot be repeated. Is that thought possible? What would such a thinking be, or where would it begin?

SB: I subscribe to that claim entirely. We cannot keep thinking according to categories that bring about the annihilation, whether metaphorical or physical, of the other by its, his, or her insertion into our system of thought. Is that “different” thought possible? I hope so; otherwise we are condemned to a series of death camps.

BLVR: And contemporary history demonstrates the very real danger, indeed the reality of this.

SB: What is required, I think, is an incredible humbleness on the side of thinking. It needs to transform itself and rethink itself into categories that privilege alterity over sameness, the other over the self, generosity over appropriation, listening in its various forms over asserting, poverty of an evangelical kind over power and strength, nonviolence over violence, and so on. Othercentered, rather than self-centered categories.

BLVR: In The Face of Things, you wrote that “what has made Western philosophy unethical is not the committing of the metaphysical murder, but the denial of the murdered and of the murderous act.” What do you mean?

SB: Let me give you an example. Let us say that you are hungry, and you ask me for some bread. I hear you and, for whatever reason, which becomes my justification or reason for action or inaction, I say no. My refusal may not be good, it may be immoral, it may be selfish, but at least I responded to you, although negatively. I recognized you and your appeal to me. I recognized that we are in a relation, an “I” and a “you,” and I decided, rightly or wrongly, to reject your appeal. I can, and should, be held responsible for my rejection, but it is a rejection predicated on a recognition of you as you. Let us now imagine that, given the same situation where you are hungry and ask me for bread, I do not hear you because I have already inserted you into my system of categories where whoever is hungry owes it to his or her own laziness. Thus, I ignore that you are even there, with your hunger and your request directed to me. This is deeply unethical in the sense that what is denied is the very possibility of the relation, the fact that you are there.

BLVR: One of the unacknowledged evils of everyday life arises when we make other human beings feel invisible. Of course, sometimes the things people say to me on the street when I acknowledge them instead of ignoring them are not about their humanity or mine, but rather the denial of all that. It’s complicated.

SB: Yes. But in the situation where someone is hungry and I do not hear or acknowledge that hunger, what is denied is the possibility of ethics altogether; there is no you, there is only me on the scene, and my categories of classification. So, in this scenario I am situated outside of ethics, and if any judgment of morality follows, it is constructed on the basis of what I see to be moral or immoral, not on your presence and its demands. It is an entirely self-centered view.

BLVR: Can human beings ever really be outside of ethics?

SB: Well, that’s the point. An “outside of ethics” is impossible—it can exist only as a falsification of reality because, as a matter of fact, we are always and already in a relation with the other. That means we are always already in an ethical relation. Western philosophy has tended to proceed in this second way, where it has constantly denied the existence of the other in his or her (or its) otherness, and thus Western philosophy has placed itself outside of ethics. That is its unethical character, the denial of the relation, and hence the denial of the fact that there even is an act of denial.

BLVR: An ethic of things, then, is important in that it helps us see that otherness has a certain opacity to it— it can never be comprehended entirely, and that is what must be respected or acknowledged about it, whether the other be a person, animal, or thing.

SB: Yes.

BLVR: But here’s a question: is it so easy to say what “Western” philosophy is or says? What do we mean when we say things like that? What are we condensing?

SB: No, it is not so easy, and what I have just offered is, in many ways, a reductive generalization, expressive of an attitude or an orientation, but definitely not exhaustive of what goes on within Western philosophy. There are certainly exceptions within the Western tradition, but these exceptions operate somewhat at the margins. They are minority positions. But I do not think it is easy at all to say what Western philosophy is; I do not even think that it is possible.

But, in turn, I do not think that anybody can deny that Western philosophy is about human beings, not about animals or things. When animals or things appear, it is only derivatively, accidentally almost.

BLVR: What is an ethical demand?

SB: It is an appeal made by someone or something, a request, as it were, to be allowed “to be” in one’s own way. That is, an appeal not to be reduced to a category. Heidegger talks of a “letting be,” although he does not properly qualify it as an ethical letting be. Levinas speaks of how the other person confronts us with an unspoken appeal: “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an invocation from the other, that she must be respected in her own essence, if you want to use the language of metaphysics. And this “respect” arises not out of my own goodness, but out of consideration for the other’s own alterity. I hesitate to call this appeal an imperative, because it is always possible to ignore the substance of the appeal.

BLVR: So how can there be no outside to ethics but also a possibility of ignoring the appeal of the other? Do ethical demands carry force?

SB: Yes, they do, if by force you mean forcefulness as ability to manifest, reveal, or disclose themselves, and thus an ability to be heard, noticed, and even observed. The content of the demand is always very clear: “Let this otherness be.” However, no, they do not carry any force, if by force you mean powerfulness, mastery, having the means to impose themselves. On the contrary, ethical demands come from a place of absolute powerlessness, never from a place of strength and power. If ethics’ power were physical force, you would have a duplication of the kind of ethics proposed in Plato’s Republic by Thrasymachus, for whom good is defined simply as what is to the advantage of the strongest.

BLVR: A fancy way of saying “might equals right.”

SB: Correct. But ethical demands have no ability to impose themselves absolutely, if we think of imposition in terms of physical force or violence. You can always ignore, dismiss, deny such demands. That is why, as I said, I hesitate to call ethical demands “imperatives.” I would rather call them invocations, appeals. They are addressed to us as the bearers of a power they are asking us to suspend.

BLVR: What is that power? What might make (or force) us to suspend our own power for the sake of ethics?

SB: The power is the power we have to affect others through any little gesture we make, by simply being alive. To exist is to assert oneself; Spinoza called it conatus essendi. We can affect others positively or negatively, though. What makes us suspend our negative power, our power of (whether physical or metaphorical) destruction of others? What makes us be ethical? That is a tough question. The transcendence of our own sameness that we find in the other is such a goodness.

 III. ETHICS AS LOVE AND ANARCHY

BLVR: Here’s an easy question. What is, or are, ethics? Is it like morality?

SB: Ha. Right. A very easy question. Maybe we should indeed talk of ethics in the plural, to signify that there is not one single, universal way of being ethical. As Aristotle says, “being” can be said in many ways.That is why ethics too must display itself in the plural. So, the ethics of things would be different from the ethics with which we respond to the demands of another human being, or an animal. Neither better nor worse, neither higher nor lower—simply different.

BLVR: Ethics is an acknowledgement of the relation involved between self and other.

SB: In this sense, obviously, ethics is not morality; it is not a set of imperatives, rules, or orders to follow so as to be good. Ethics may result in a moral system of norms or codification—or it may not. The moral system—or the legal system, for that matter—is already a limitation or delimitation of the territory within which ethical relations play themselves out.

BLVR: Laws (such as those issued by a legal institution) can only rule on things they could have foreseen. We need ethics because sometimes justice is required on behalf of those who are oppressed by evils or circumstances no one could have foreseen, or perhaps at least could not have predicted. And also because sometimes laws issued by institutions are unjust.

SB: A good way of thinking about it. Here is another: morality does not require creativity. Ethics does, because you have to figure out for yourself what is the most appropriate way to respond to the call of the other.

BLVR: Ethics is anarchic!

SB: Right.You have to figure out for yourself, out of the appeal of the other, how to create the place which we call ethics. It entails a revision of our ideas about subjectivity.

BLVR: Another easy question: What is a “subject”?

SB: That is a difficult question, given the contemporary philosophical debate on the deconstruction of the human subject traditionally defined in terms of selfconsciousness, self-sufficiency, agency, autonomy, and so on.The deconstructive project that has brought the traditional notion of subjectivity to a crisis was indeed necessary. The risk of that project, however, is that we may be left with no account of subjectivity whatsoever. And then how are we going to talk about human identities, responsibilities, actions? We need an account of subjectivity—of how human beings come to be the beings that they are—in order to have ethics. But we need a non-self-centered subjectivity. That much is clear. So deconstruction helps us reimagine what it means to be a subject. The subject would then possibly be thought of as the one who responds to the call of the other, who is constituted in his or her very identity by the call of the other.

BLVR: The subject responds to the call of the other instead of being the self-sufficient autonomous creature who only owes what she chooses to owe. What or who, then, is “the other”?

SB: This is even more difficult to say, because the question asks for an identity for something that has almost by definition no identity—because of its being other.

BLVR: Identity means equivalence, as in A = A, or the traditional subject’s assumption that “I am equal to myself, self-sufficient.” That’s why the other does not have an “identity”?

SB: Yes. The easiest way to answer is probably to say that the “other” is anyone and anything that is not me. She (or he or it) is not “me”—and not because I am the measure of her difference, but because she has difference as her defining feature. This does not say much, I know, but it is the best we can say without being reductive of the other.

BLVR: Well, what meaning or significance would the term “difference” have, really, if it could only express what we thought it might express in advance?

SB: And, one should also add, otherness is self-reflective, which means that within the notion of otherness many others should be able to find their homes: human, nonhuman, animals, plants, things, God, and so on.

BLVR: Your book speaks a lot about love and desire. What is different about a desire that is not caused by a lack of anything?

SB: Everything is different. First of all, it is only if desire moves from the fullness, the richness, of the desirer and his or her desire that such a bearer of desire can afford to be generous. Otherwise, such a desirer will only try to fulfill his or her own needs or lacks through the other, and this is not generosity, but selfishness. The other, then, gets reduced to a means of self-fulfillment, and this, as Kant already knew, is deeply disrespectful of the other. Moreover, a desire that looks at the other as a way to fulfill its own lacks is a desire that moves toward the other already in a preconceived manner. There is no room, here, for the wonder of surprise, of the unexpected, nor for the novelty that the other is. No wonder that a love that aims at self-fulfillment ends up in boredom.

BLVR: As Tina Turner might say, “What’s love got to do with it?”

SB: Everything. And why should this stop at humans? Again, it is only an anthropocentric understanding of love that limits the respect for otherness to the human realm.

BLVR: Given what you have said, can we still call philosophy a search for truth? A love of wisdom?

SB: Absolutely. Actually, it is only if philosophy comes to recognize the truth of the other, the truth of the other’s transcendence of my sameness—even if this means we have to recognize that the other is beyond philosophical categorization—that it can be truly considered a search for truth. Otherwise, philosophy becomes ideological. As Levinas says, philosophy should also be a “wisdom of love,” in the sense of being that kind of knowledge that protects the alterity of the other. This is what love should be about, the preservation of the one who is not me.

BLVR: This may not be what many readers recognize as “philosophy.” But what is philosophy? What is continental philosophy? Is it different from analytic philosophy?

SB: Continental philosophy is that way of thinking for which asking the questions, and keeping them open, is more important than defining terms or settling differences among various philosophies. In this light, for continental philosophy, any achievement is merely the opportunity for new investigations. I think this is the true spirit of Socratic philosophy, by the way.

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