The Inner Other

[This is the first in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

It may sound paradoxical to speak of an “inner other.”  How can what is within be what is without?  How can “inner” be anything but “same”?  But in fact our rationality, because it is human, is social:  we only learn to reason after we learn to speak, and our reasoning is largely done in words, and yet we learn to speak in order to speak to others.  An orientation toward the other is built into human thought.

Hence the “other” right within us.  Because words are of their nature other-oriented, the interior conversation that constitutes our mental life is often—perhaps more often than not—carried out as though it were a dialogue with someone.  Although we might describe this interior conversation as “talking to ourselves,” usually we talk to a vague, imaginary interlocutor we have constructed, a shadowy “other” that acts as a kind of objective check on our subjective excesses.  It is easy to mistake this interlocutor for our own selves, but the otherness of this other turns out to be important.

When we speak to a real “other,” a flesh-and-blood person, the dynamic is clear.  If we argue, we bring up facts likely to be accepted or deemed important by the person with whom we are arguing.  If we just make conversation, we avoid certain topics if they are very offensive, and tend towards the topics our companion will find both interesting and sympathetic.  All the while, we may be aware that other facts are also real and other topics even more important, but we know that bringing them up to this individual would be useless.  We have more interiorly than we display exteriorly.

Something similar is true of our interior conversation.  The vague “other” with whom we converse most of the time, the inner other, limits conversation in the same way as a real person:  we only appeal to facts “he” is likely to accept and to arguments “he” is likely to deem important.  But now the result is amazing.  Because our interior conversation is our mental life, the “inner other” effectively determines the horizons of our mental life, deciding what facts and arguments we possess interiorly.  Speaking to a flesh-and-blood person, we reserve something of our interior life; speaking with the inner other is our interior life, most of the time.

Obviously, we need to discover who this inner other is.  Where does he come from, this powerful figure?  He is somehow our own creation, and yet he exercises tremendous control over us.  To understand ourselves we have to bring him forth from the shadows.  Who is he?  I’ll take up the problem in my next post.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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