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The Heterological Quest: Michel de Certeau’s Travel Narratives and the “Other” of Comparative Religious Ethics

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One of the central methodological issues for contemporary practitioners of comparative ethics is how to conceptualize and relate to the “other” encountered in cross-cultural studies. A valuable resource for reflection on this problem is the work of the French historian and cultural theorist Michel de Certeau, whose diverse opus coheres around his notion of heterology—a “science of the other.” In this article I explore perspectives on the cultural “other” emerging from Certeau’s analyses of a series of “travel narratives” documenting the European encounter with the peoples of the New World. Certeau’s meditations on the metaphor of the voyage, the interplay of orality and literacy, the politics of ethnography, and the semiotics of the “return of the repressed” offer, I suggest, important insights for comparative ethicists.

Keywords: Certeau; alterity; comparative ethics; heterology; otherness; return of the repressed

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2002


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