Radical otherness

Gudrun Beckmann

Central to PIMDI is the experience of the encounter with the Other, both as a person and as a phenomenon in general. The German phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels (1934-) has studied our experience with the other, or the alien (Das Fremde). For him, experiencing the other and otherness is something that touches our bodies and senses without us having prior notice of it. Thus, this experience disturbs us. It calls on us. It asks us to respond and to react:

We are touched by others before being able to ask who they are and what their behavior or their utterances mean. The other’s otherness, which overcomes and surprises us, disturbs our intentions before being understood in this or that sense (Waldenfels, 2004, p. 244)

Waldenfels distinguishes between different degrees of otherness such as the everyday, the structural, and the radical otherness. According to Waldenfels (1997), radical otherness deserves our strongest attention because it actively opposes itself against the appropriation from an egocentric perspective. 

Usually, people are inclined to either welcome the Other as a guest or exclude the other as an enemy. In these cases, the other has been transformed in such a way that we have disposal over him, or he is available for our intentions. Radical otherness, in contrast, is not available to us.

In his book Unverfügbarkeit (2020)1 the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa argues that the relationship between humans and the world is without resonance because we have made everything around us available to us. Only by cultivating unavailability can we restore our resonance with the world. Waldenfels (2007, p. 81) similarly states that “a synthesis between own and other is an act of violence, that in vain seeks to silence the claims coming from the other.”

When encountering the Other, it is thus of great importance to embrace its otherness as a quality and a given, as space for possibilities and ambiguities is created. This is the space for dialogue, or resonance in the words of Rosa, or “das Antwortgeschehen” as Waldenfels (2007) names it. Time and space to see and hear the other – as a radical other. Dissonance and conflict can be part of this.


Only by opening up the space between each other again – also physically – is it possible to act and play again. In the second case, the play ends even faster.  One player rejects the other, denies the other to enter in the interaction, and shuts her or him down. End of story. Accepting radical otherness instead means suspending reactions, judgments, and recognitions. It means to find the time to look and listen to the other player – time for curiosity and exploration, time to question the other in his otherness.

Relevance for the Pedagogy of Imaginative DialogueThe “Pedagogy of Imaginative Dialogues” aims at creating an open and imaginative dialogue space where differences, for instance in our values, can be researched without judgement. The imaginative dialogue starts with a disruptive experience. We withhold our opinions and do not seek quick conclusions. Instead, we explore our opinions, which might also conclude confronting them. In the “Pedagogy of Imaginative Dialogues” the elements disruption, suspension, exploration, and confrontation can always be recognized as shown in our initial model of the “PIMDI-circle”.

The concept of radical otherness is directly related to these key elements. The radical other disrupts. By neither equalizing the other with yourself nor denying it, early intentions, opinions, and structures of understanding are being postponed. Hence, the egocentric perspective has not immediately been taken in. This creates space to be touched by the other and to discover the other in ourselves.  It is this fruitful space that is needed to create new opportunities and to fearlessly approach the unknown.


Rosa, H. (2020). Unverfügbarkeit. Suhrkamp.

Waldenfels (2007). Antwordregister. Suhrkamp. 

Waldenfeld, B. (2004). Bodily experience between selfhood and otherness. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3, 235-248.Waldenfels, B. (1997). Phänomenologie des Eigenen und des Fremden. In: H. Münkler (Ed.) Furcht und Faszination. Facetten der Fremdheit, pp. 65-83. Akademie Verlag

  1.  I deliberately use the original German title ‘Unverfügbarkeit’ here because I think the English translation ‘Uncontrollability’ puts too much emphasis on controlling rather than having everything at your disposal. ↩︎