Twentieth Century Desire and the Histories of Philosophy

Hugh J. Silverman

Freud (sex) and Hegel (power). With respect to the question of desire, twentieth century continental philosophy has been preoccupied with two alternative formulations: desire as sex and desire as power. These two views oppose and complement each other. They form a frame within which the question of desire takes shape.

Sex or the libido characterizes a certain energy, drive, passion, or enthusiasm for the object of one’s desire. Jouissance is charged with directionality, excess, and release of energy. The libidinal is affective, desiring, and often out of control. Sex is ecstatic – it takes one outside oneself. Power, by contrast, arises out of concrete relations with others. The reading of the master-slave relation in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is based upon a notion of desire. The slave desires the position of the master. This desiring relation gives the master power over the slave since the master really only gets his/her position from the slave’s interest to supplant the master. The master could not be master, could not exert power, if the slave does not desire the master’s position. Unlike the sexual relation, the power relation uses desire to constitute domination and control, but also to achieve self-consciousness at the same time. For Hegel, we can be aware of ourselves only when others are conscious of us – the master is a master only when the slave desires to be master.

In the sexual relation, the desire to surrender to the other includes a concomitant desire not to supplant the other. When desiring to exert control over the other in the sexual relation, then libidinal desire becomes excessive, converting itself into something like the Hegelian model of power. When desire is simply excessive, – the id gets out of control – a control which the ego is supposed to exert over the libidinal desires. But this means that there is another desire – a desire to keep the animal drives in check, under control. And the ego often invokes the ego ideal or super-ego to help provide reasons why the ego should maintain control over its libidinal desires.

These two models dominate twentieth century continental philosophy. They are reiterated in different ways in a variety of contexts – many of which are taken up in this volume. The binary pair -- desire as sex/desire as power -- as the basis for an understanding of desire in the twentieth century is itself situated in the context of the whole history and text of Western metaphysics.

Plato, for instance, thought that desire could serve different ends. In the Symposium, desire can be for another human being (eros), for friendship with another human being (philia), for a kind of intellectual companionship (nomos), and for harmony and unity with the world of ideas (theoria). Socrates’s account of what the wise woman Diotima taught him demonstrates how these four levels can be experienced even by the same person. The first type is consistent with the account Aristophanes is given to report, namely a physical desire of one person for another -- his narrative of strange beings with four legs, four arms, two heads, etc. who were split apart and are forever seeking to get back together is an explanation for sexual desire. But in the Diotima speech, desire to have friendship with another, rising above sexual, erotic desire is clearly more significant (for Plato as well). This kind of desire can be either heterosexual or homosexual. And given the value placed on homosexual love in Greek daily life – as illustrated by Alcibiades who arrives at the end of the Symposium seeking an expression of Socrates’ interest – the line between eros and philia is not always so clearly demarcated, particularly as Socrates entices young men with his rhetorical skills.

Desire at the level of friendship can also lead to a coincidence of minds – desire for union with other minds, a kind of community of intellect. But even if successful, there is no assurance that this community of intellect will also provide knowledge of the ideas or forms. Although a community of intellect – as in an academy, a research institute, or the like – might help provide a context in which direct knowledge of the ideas might be possible, it does not necessarily follow that it will. Knowledge or intuition of the true, the good, or the beautiful comes from training in many things, including dialectic, but these do not guarantee knowledge of the ideas. The account of the Philosopher-King in the Republic is a story of persons who achieve this knowledge, but only after long training of body and soul, and even then there is no guarantee that they will achieve it.

In the Republic, Plato offers a description of the three parts of the soul. He says that the sole has (1) an appetitive part, (2) a spirited part, and (3) a rational part. The appetitive part is what acts out not only desire for food and drink, but also erotic desires, bodily desires. The rational part directs itself to the ends of reason and follows those ends scrupulously. The third part, which guides the soul in one direction or the other, what Plato called "thumos," is a motivational element in the soul. It can lead the soul to follow the appetites or to follow reason. This spirited element is also a form of desiring but not a desire for a particular object. Rather this spirited part of the soul is the soul desiring what it takes to be good for the soul. It thereby directs the soul to make reason agree with the appetites or, when properly directed, to make the appetites conform to reason. Thus desire can be appetitive or rational, and the spirited element of the soul both animates this desire and helps the soul carry out its ends – whether for purposes of sex, friendship, community, or knowledge.

Many have noted similarities between this tripartite Platonic view and Freud’s tripartite structure of the psychic realm: the id, the ego, and the superego. And while the ego should be in a position to determine whether it follows the "advice" of the id (libidinal desires) or of the superego (the moral ideals of the culture), it is not always successful at this invocation. Similarly in Plato, the spirited portion of the soul can sometimes allow reason to conform to the appetites rather than the appetites conforming to reason – a perversion Plato clearly does not appreciate.

For Plato, as long as reason is properly guided such that the appetites follow its dictates, then it will seek what is good for the soul. This is no guarantee that the soul will achieve such a high end, but at least it will be properly guided. Along with the proper use of reason, the conditions are in place for the soul to know the good (or the beautiful or the true). Knowing the good, for Plato, assures that one will do the good. That is, if the soul truly achieves knowledge of the good, it will act accordingly. Love of ideas, the universal truths, and so forth, will help the soul to know the good, but only knowing the good will bring about such an end.

Aristotle has a solution to the Platonic dilemma that gives even more weight to desire. For Aristotle, knowing the good is not sufficient to do the good. For Aristotle, desiring to do the good is also part of the relation between knowing the good and doing the good. He claims, in his Nicomachean Ethics, that the virtuous person is someone who knows the good, desires to do the good, and does the good. A continent person knows the good, but desires something else, and nevertheless does the good. An incontinent person knows what is good, but desires the bad and does it. A brutish person ignores the good, desires the bad, and does the bad. Hence, for Aristotle, desire plays an important role in ethical behavior. And knowledge as well as action also need to take desire into account. Aristotle’s model in fact allows for cases of human action characterized by continence or incontinence – both of which have no place in Plato’s account. The only way to bring these features into Plato’s version is to consider the role of thumos in the soul which orients the soul to conform to reason, but this does not constitute the kind of desire that Aristotle proposes. In Aristotle, desire gives depth to any action. What we do is either in compliance with or against our desires.

Aristotelian desire is not the same as eros, philia, nomos, or theoria. Aristotelian desire is not a form of love. Aristotelean desire functions between knowledge and action. It confirms or disconfirms our actions. A good action that is nevertheless colored by contrary desires is still a good action, but one that demonstrates a certain conflict in the process of choosing. This kind of desire has to do with a kind of power over oneself and one’s emotions as opposed to a feeling or passion for another person or object. And this is the major difference between the Platonic view and the Aristotelian one. Clearly the Aristotelian version has more to do with the kind of psychological account one finds in Freud, where self-control is always a factor. Only to the extent that Hegel offers a notion of self-consciousness does it resemble Aristotle’s account – but even in Hegel, self-consciousness is reflective, directed toward oneself and not a constraint upon oneself and one’s actions.

Aristotle’s view of desire is incorporated into early Christian thought. Intention matters. Evil thoughts in the mind even if never acted upon mean that there are bad intentions – for evil thoughts are bad intentions. And bad intentions are sinful. Sinfulness is not just by virtue of sinful acts. Even sinful desires are considered to be sin. Desires are now turned into something to be worried about. The desire to be good, to achieve salvation, to follow in God’s path is a desire to live the Christian life. To deviate from such a desire is to pervert desire. Augustine’s problem with desire is that it could lead to a surrender to bodily interests. Desire that is anything other than a desire for a visio Dei is a misguided desire. And so desire is distinguished from will. Will keeps one on track, directing one’s goals and interests to that which is good, to doing good works. Weakness of will allows one’s desires to have priority over one’s calling to follow God, to seek oneness with the divine, to achieve a vision and harmony with the divine, and ultimately to experience God’s love (agape). The appeal to bodily interests become sinful when one follows them. Self-awareness must be awareness of how the body can deceive, how the body can demonize, how the body can pervert the proper goals of the soul.

The Platonic search for unity and the corresponding denigration of the bodily interests is reiterated in St. Augustine. The desire to follow the path of goodness needs to be a free choice. One must choose to express one’s own sinfulness and to deny bodily desires. Self-knowledge means self-control. Love means loving another person, loving friendship, loving Church and community, loving God. And ultimately loving God is the desire that is to be encouraged.

With Thomas Aquinas, the Aristotelian structure of virtue, continence, incontinence, viciousness and brutishness is repeated only now in the eyes of God. God knows when we have sinned. God knows when we have allowed the desires of the body to take over. God knows when love is not his love. The difference between Augustine and Aquinas is that the former simply wants to overcome the corrupting call of bodily desires in favor of faith. Aquinas, however, believes that we have more rational ability to make choices in which we contain our desires, hold them in check, and nevertheless act morally – as far as anyone else can tell.

But in the Renaissance, the crucial difference is that desire is again a yearning to know – to know all things, to know the universe, to know our bodies, to know how machines can be made, to know the depths of nature, and so forth. The grand figures of Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Machiavelli – to name a few – are all committed to turning desire into knowledge – knowledge of the human body, its anatomy, and its contexts, knowledge of the heavens, and knowledge of human society and personality. Desire is focused on achievement in the arts, sciences, and politics. Personal desires must ultimately conform to these higher desires for knowledge. And sometimes – as Machiavelli make perfectly clear – desire can take the form of a will to control, to maintain power, to use every means available to achieve such ends. This latter form of political desire is of course consistent with the notion of power as mastery over others. And the parallel between mastery over other people (as in Machiavelli’s recommendations to his Prince) and knowledge as mastery over nature (Bacon, da Vinci, Galileo) exhibits a common structure. The Book of Nature is plentiful and only through knowledge can it be delved into properly.

So strong is the desire for knowledge, the use of reason, and the fullest use of the intellect in the various fields of human endeavor that in the neo-classical age (the seventeenth century) a conflict arises between reason and passion. If desire is the proper exercise of reason, then significant achievements in self-knowledge are possible. But if desire becomes passion – even excessive passion – there is a problem, for often this conflict produces a conflict of choice as well. Many 17th century French plays – such as those of Corneille and Racine – are filled with this dilemma. Phèdre is torn between her passionate desire for her step son and her need to follow what is right, and what reason tells her is right. Desire in the 17th century is converted into passion, and passion alone. Reason has nothing to do with desire. Reason cannot allow desire to take over – and yet, so often, this is precisely what happens. And when it happens, the individual is torn apart. The Princess of Clèves shows how important this kind of choice can turn out to be. And even in other works – such as Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul and La Rochefoucault’s Maxims – passion becomes a taxonomy of desires – a list of alternative passions. The fascination with the multiplicity of passions is set off against the obsession with reason.

On the one side of the English channel is an appeal to experience and knowledge derived from the senses and, on the other side, is the strict reliance on reason. For empiricists such as Hume, the multiplicity of the passions is like the multiplicity of sense impressions. Each one has its own characteristics, each one can be described in detail, each one can amount to the expression of desire without having explicitly to deny knowledge about them.

Knowledge of one’s passions will help to achieve self-knowledge. Both Descartes and Hume offer a catalogue of the passions. But to different ends. Yet both are concerned ultimately with self-knowledge – the one through reason, the other through sense-experience. Neither have a separate place for feeling, sentiment, emotion.

Out of the conflict between reason and experience, the feelings must be given a separate place – and this place is offered in romantic theory, romantic poetry, romantic painting. Rousseau’s sympathy for the appeal to feelings provides a third term to be added to reason and experience. And Rousseau’s need to understand feeling is also a need to understand oneself. Self-consciousness is also understanding reason, experience, and feeling. And feeling is where desire most fully expresses itself. Feeling is the expression of one’s innermost nature and the best way to achieve harmony with Nature itself. Knowledge of one’s feelings is knowledge of oneself. The Renaissance ideals of knowledge are now fully addressed to one’s own feelings, sentiments, emotions. And these emotions are not to be denigrated as in Augustine, or to be conflicted as in the 17th century. Rather feelings are to be explored and developed to the highest sensitivity.

With Rousseau, we are almost to the binary form of desire as exhibited in the twentieth century – the dichotomy between the Freudian and the Hegelian models. With the celebration of feeling and the need for self-knowledge, Rousseau leans in the direction of Freud. Hence the appearance of Kant as setting the conditions for the limits of knowledge, choice, and experience demonstrates in effect the limits of desire. Desire cannot take one everywhere. Desire, as illustrated in Goethe’s Faust, has to have its limits, and if those limits are not respected, something like damnation is the certain fate. One cannot strive to know, experience, and feel everything without giving up one’s very humanity. Just as Faust demonstrates what happens when one seeks to go beyond the limits of human knowledge, experience, and feeling, Kant delineates intellectually where those limits are located. The conditions of the possibility of metaphysics are also the conditions of the possibility of what can be said about what is beyond those conditions. Desire has its limits: Kant’s lesson taught, Faust’s lesson learned.

After Kant and Goethe, desire is no longer concerned with the limits of knowledge and self-knowledge. Desire is desire to encompass everything – through the fullest expression of the passions (de Sade), through the call to totalize all that can be known (Hegel), through revolution in the very fiber of bourgeois society (Marx), through the celebration of the individual subject (Kierkegaard), and through the critique of all ideals of any culture in favor of self-overcoming (Nietzsche). Nineteenth century desire is no longer content to accept the limits that Kant articulated and that Goethe’s Faust enacted. Nineteenth century desire wants it all through affirmation – and this is ultimately the achievement of power, to overcome the other through desire, to overcome oneself through will to power – rejecting established values, ideals, expectations. On the one hand, desire wants power by taking the place of the other, and, on the other hand, desire wants to express itself fully and without limitations as the individual expression of freedom.

This dichotomy between desire for power and libidinal desire frames the twentieth century continental tradition which is the focus of this volume. Desire in continental philosophy is either erotic, poetic, loving, transgressive, and insidious or it is an encounter with the other, productive, creative, and discursive. When desire is of the Freudian variety, it can also become the basis for a social theory. When desire is of the Hegelian variety, its negations constitute the other, give meaning to desire, and reaffirm oneself.

Part I ( Erotic Practices/Erotic Transgressions) outlines some types of eroticism as derived from the Freudian model and then shows two alternative ways of understanding the erotic. Martin Dillon distinguishes between what he calls "biological reductionism" and "semiological constructivism," and attempts to open a theoretical space capable of accommodating the "truths" to be found in both. The one version reduces the erotic to a physiological condition, the other turns the erotic into a discursive practice. For Dillon both of these accounts – one, the medical side of Freud, the other, the narratological side of Lacan – do not adequately account for the lived body that constitutes a historically situated natural condition and which founds a circumscribed plurality of competitive social forms in the domain of erotic norms and praxes. This (Merleau-Pontean) account of the lived body avoids the reductions of the medical model but also seeks to shy away from accounting or the body in the language of the body. It seeks to see the erotic as charged with energy but contextualized by social norms in relation to bodily erotic practices.

By contrast, LaFountain’s reading of Bataille examines alternatives to erotic norms and seeks to understand erotic transgression. Here the Freudian model is animated by the Hegelian dialectic. If there might be some possibility of "being whole again" -- an idea that the Hegelian totality could be understood not only as the achievement of mind or spirit in its self-actualization but also as some former unity which the erotic calls out for -- this condition marks the confrontation with death and excess (the experience of le petit mort). Death and excess present limits to totality. The erotic, orgasmic body confronts death and excess by trying to simulate them. A disruption in the dialectic between the socially accepted and the transgression of those norms produces an indecidability. This indecidability is the place in which the dialectic breaks up – where it becomes "insidious." Death and excess would be expressions of what Dillon means by the "lived body." When textualized, the very question of the role of a textual death, one in which the erotic-textual body of the writer/reader is the practice of eroticism, introduces this moment of indecidability – a moment of eroticism, a moment of textual "jouissance" (as Barthes would call it).

Part II (Desire for the Other: Levinas) takes a radical departure from the Freudian libido turned erotic. Brian Schroeder focuses directly on Hegel’s "Logic of Desire" in the Science of Logic as opposed to his Phenomenology of Spirit. He takes up the theme of "war" as the most extreme form of interpersonal violence and reformulates the problem in the light of Levinas’ notion of otherness. In short, he is looking for a way in which otherness for Levinas is something other than Hegelian negation. Schroeder asks whether the negativity, i.e., otherness, that desire negates in its movement as Spirit render the relation with the Other obsolete; or does it bring one into a genuine relation with the Other? And what is the role that desire plays in the promotion and/or overcoming of the violence that is war? Reading Levinas with and against Hegel sees the relation with the other as a logic of relation which is faced with the possibility of violence. But does violence reaffirm the face to face or does it reaffirm a dialectic of negativity?

Bettina Bergo comes at the question by asking whether it is not Heidegger rather than Hegel who frames the Levinasian concept of desire. She shows how Levinas’s reconfiguration of Heideggerian notions of space and time results in a radically new conception of desire. Levinas’s notion of desire can be formulated in terms of need and enjoyment as existential notions as opposed to transcendental ones. Is desire something that we feel, experience, live in relation to the other human being or is it a condition for our understanding of the possibilities of need and enjoyment in eschatological terms? Once again, the tension is between desire as an expression of lived experience and as a logical structure of interpersonal relations.

In Part III (Desiring Subjectivity: Sartre and De Beauvoir), the account of desire is framed in existential terms – those of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Christina Howells points out that in Sartre desire is incompatible not only with beauty but also with love. Like love, however, desire pursues an impossible ideal: to possess the other as both subject and object, as embodied transcendence. Sartre's phenomenological descriptions of desire are predominantly negative, involving the body as flesh, as contingent, as being-in-itself. The fundamental project of the for-itself is its impossible desire for being, and this is manifest in all modes of desire. Saint Genet provides clues for a better understanding of these questions, especially in its inversion of Kantian ethics. Desire in Sartre is the paradoxical reconciliation of subject and object, love and desire that is our ultimate aim - not the failed synthesis that he had outlined in Being and Nothingness but rather a still point of fragile (and impossible) equilibrium. This impossible desire would make the transcendental desire of Kant or even Hegel or Husserl a real, existing phenomenon – were it not impossible. Sartrian desire always falls on the side of the desiring subject and never overcomes the dichotomy inscribed in the impossible dream.

Simone de Beauvoir, in Eleanore Holveck’s reading, stresses the role of her "ethics of ambiguity" as an understanding of female sexuality as basically incompatible with the Sartrian view. She rejects psychoanalytic readings of de Beauvoir’s notion of female sexuality and links it more to the Hegelian tradition. And perhaps this very ambiguity of experience reformulates the "impossible desire" in Sartre. In de Beauvoir’s notion of ambiguity, the very dilemma of desire between the psychoanalytic (Freudian) version and the dialectical, transcendental (Hegelian) version is particularly evident.

Part IV (Reading Feminine Desire: Irigaray) takes the question of female sexuality and reads it in the terms offered by Luce Irigaray as "a different relation to the transcendental." For Irigaray, according to Simon Walter, the concept of specularization is an important figure in the non-acknowledgment of sexual difference. The constituted Otherness of Woman has been subsumed into a discourse of masculine Sameness. The only representations of women made possible within this economy are duplication, opposition, or insertion. The Masculine has spoken the Universal on behalf of Woman by erasing her from discursive history. In Hegel and Heidegger, the relation of Being to non-Being implicitly relegated Woman to the position of nothingness in an ontological hierarchy, psychoanalysis in its description of linguistic signification makes this identification complete, by excluding Woman from the circulation of phallic meaning. The explicit sexualization of discourse is not simply a reactive development in metaphysics. Woman becomes visible in her absence, disrupting and instigating the rereading of the whole of the discursive history of subjectivity.

According to Dorothy Leland, Irigaray provides an inadequate account of the gendering of desire, partly because of her Lacanian tendency to ignore the social institutions and practices that contribute to this process. Leland’s literalist-based complaint about Irigaray's discourse on feminine desire transfers to its strategic construal. If Irigaray is not giving an account of the gendering of desire, then she should not be criticized for failing to link this process to historically and culturally specific social relations. But her texts conceptualize this process as bound to the psychoanalytic tales she deconstructs. The effect, at least at the level of image and symbol, is to leave women where Freud and Lacan have consigned them, relegated to the realm of the ahistorical, transcultural Other, endowed with a "supplementary jouissance" that lies beyond the symbolic, linguistically constituted, phallically oriented world of men.

In Part V (Writing Desire: Barthes and Derrida), Robert Solomon explores how Roland Barthes writes desire through the genre of the "lover’s discourse." Desire is written in Barthes’s text in a putatively "impersonal" way – offering a dictionary/ encyclopedic format which yields only an "arbitrary" list of love words and phrases. In many respects, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse is a rejection of an entire tradition of philosophizing about love, but its charm is its personal, even confessional nature. He claims that his work is impersonal ("there is no question here of a history"), but Solomon suggests that we should take this too as part of the writerly lover's discourse, one of those proclamations that we would expect from Barthes as part of his effort to "discourage the temptation to meaning." Hence Solomon invokes Barthes’s own "impersonal," "lexical" mode of writing in order to show (discursively) how love and desire are acutely personal despite Barthes’s semiological claims to the contrary.

By contrast, Nancy Holland offers an account of Jacques Derrida’s discourses of desire at three different times across the thirty years of his career. She shows that at least two different discourses of desire are at work in Derrida’s writings. The first, "male" discourse is discussed in the context of three essays in Writing and Difference (1967), the second, "female" discourse in the context of Cinders (1980) and Memoirs of the Blind (1990). The conclusion drawn from these texts is that while the "male" discourse allows for the possibility of a feminist understanding of the play of desire in traditional philosophical discourse, the "female" discourse in Derrida does not. The necessity of this paradox is examined in the light of the more general problem of the exclusion of female desire from the phallogocentric tradition.

Part VI (Producing Desire: Deleuze and Guattari) concludes the volume with a consideration of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of desire in the context of the history of philosophy. Alan Schrift claims that the whole history of philosophy conceives of desire as a "lack in the object." Gilles Deleuze, however, explicitly associates the view of desire as lack with Freudian psychoanalysis and offers an alternative notion of desire as productive. Schrift shows how Deleuze draws upon Spinoza's "conatus" and Nietzsche's "will to power" for his account of productive desire in order to present an "other" discourse of desire in the history of philosophy — one freed from the constraints imposed by the ideology of lack.

Correspondingly, Dorothea Olkowski situates Deleuze’s writings in relation to theories of the body and desire in recent feminist philosophy. She argues that Deleuze and Guattari’s account of the body and desire does not establish a pre-cultural eros as some feminists claim. Focusing in particular on Nietzsche and Philosophy and Anti-Oedipus (by Deleuze and Guattari), Olkowski argues for a conception of positive desire that is not connected in any way to the Platonic schema of "man" as lacking being and therefore limiting human productive activity. She questions Oedipal constructions of the body and desire as hierarchical and exploitative. She further demonstrates how, for Deleuze and Guattari, the body (understood broadly as chemical, physical, biological and social) is the force that undermines such constructions so that productive desire can once again open up human creative and political freedom.


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