A person is not a single unity but consists of many contradictory parts, each fragmented with its own plans for action. Rimbaud's formulation of this is easy to remember: “I is an other”. Here we have the recognition that, as Freud pointed out, the ego (das Ich) is not master in its own house. By repressing the most obvious contradictions, the ego is continually attempting to create its own freedom, a freedom which is however being limited ever and again by heterogeneous drives and normative prohibitions. Integrating the excluded parts of one's own person into one's self-perception is essential prior to the acceptance of the external other.
I and the other do not meet as two discrete entities, closed off from one another. The complexity of their relationship stems from the genesis of the “I” being grasped in all its multiplicity in the other and being held fast. Such a notion of the “I” should not be thought of as a closed centre, but rather considered as fragments separated by cracks and crevices, shaped by the influence of the various forms and patterns of the other. Thus, the other is not only to be found outside of the individual but also on the inside. The other internalised in the “I” makes dealing with the external other more difficult. As a consequence of this constellation, there is no definite standpoint before or beyond the other: the other is already included in all expressions of the “I”.
The social character of human beings is thus indicated by the constellation between the “I” and the other. Every individual needs other people for her/his own genesis. According to Plato and Aristotle, human development, especially in childhood and early youth, takes place largely through mimesis, through the emulation of role-models and the increasingly independent and creative moulding of such models. This development is made possible by the anthropologically determined dependence of the child on the other. This dependence includes the three time dimensions of past, present and future. Any adult who takes care of a child is her/himself a result of a manifold cultural process which s/he passes on in a “compressed form” to the next generation. S/he embodies cultural history in its most recent form for the child's present. Dealing with the embodied culture present in the adult enables the child to create the basis for shaping her/his future. In a similar way, the individual's need for others shapes society so that the other, through past and present, affects not only the individual but also the future.
In as far as identity cannot be imagined without alterity, education incorporates a relational link between an irreducible “I”, fractionated into various specific forms, and the multiplicity of the other. If the question about the other includes the question about the own, or vice versa, then the processes of education are also systems of self-thematisation and self-education. If successful, they not only lead to an insight into the non-comprehensibility of the other, but they also lead to an unfamiliarity of self (Selbstfremdheit).
In view of present-day social developments aimed at an universality which demystifies the world and makes the exotic disappear, there is a danger that in the future humans beings will only encounter themselves: there will be a lack of the unknown, and a corresponding lack of those confrontations with the unknown through which a person can develop. If the loss of the unknown entails a danger for human development and education then the protective roles played by the unfamiliarity of self or the alienation of the known become increasingly important. The effort to maintain the unknown in the inner world as well as the external world would then be a necessary opposition to an universalism constantly removing differences.
The exposure to and challenge of the other within oneself embodies nowadays a new importance. In view of increasing individualisation and differentiation in the web of every day life, the area is growing in which the single individual has to make decisions in order to live according to her/his own ideas and notions. In such conditions of life, marked by de-traditionalisation and globalisation, many things usually taken for granted need to be questioned and require consideration and decisions. The criteria to be used for an individual's decision-making have themselves become fluid and they too require thought: never before have individuals been expected to actively shape their own lives and accept the responsibility for doing so - although an individual frequently finds her/himself trying to make decisions in a situation where the framework matrix of decision-making is itself unchangeable.
Individual decisions have to do with the shaping of the relationship between known and unknown.
The insight into the integrity of the individual is a consequence of the insight into the endangering of the unknown. The disappearance of the unknown could all too easily lead to a loss of that individuality which is constituted through dealing with the specific experience of the unknown. The integrity of the individual makes apparent the needs present in each individual for self-certainty. Self- certainty may be understood as the consciousness of what the individual has become, what s/he is, and s/he wants to become.
A major role in the genesis of such knowledge is played by self-thematisation, self-construction and self-reflection; this knowledge, however, is only temporary and alters in the course of life. André Gide expressed this experience in his novel The Counterfeiters (Journal des faux monnayeurs), when he wrote: “I am only what I believe myself to be and that changes so constantly that, if I wasn't there to oversee things, my evening self wouldn't be able to recognise my self from the morning at all. Nothing can be more different from me than I myself”.
Individuality contains no unchanging core; it is full of contradictions and paradoxes. It is the result of a dynamic interaction with society. No individual is sufficient unto her/himself and can shape her/his life alone. Every individual needs a community or society from which s/he can, with the help of mimesis, absorb and adopt many things in the course of life and can pass them on to others. In learning and education, in work and in politics as well as happiness and unhappiness every individual needs other people. Self-understanding stems from and changes through a life with others and their acknowledgement of oneself. It is not possible for an individual to be produced by generalities or the general. In every individual there is a primal element of non-identity. This non-identity is the basis of the integrity of the individual. Non-identity leads to the experience of Selbstfremdheit, which is one of the most important requirements for successfully dealing with the other.