William Desmond and the In-Between

I am nearing the conclusion of my holiday outside Black Mountain, North Carolina. It has rained hard each day for most of each day, thus interrupting our plans and walks, yet the rain also brings out the best of the mountains, as my friend Steve Freeman observes. The sound of the rain on the roof is delightful, and the nearby brook babbles even more brightly.

Of the several books that I brought with me, the one with which I have spent most of my time is Is There a Sabbath for Thought? by William Desmond. I have wanted to read Desmond since Brian Moore introduced him to the readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy a few years ago. I have read and reread his thirty-two page Introduction and quickly skimmed the rest of the book. It did not take me long to confirm what I already knew—Desmond is a genuine philosopher. He is an expert in Hegel, but is no Hegelian. He has read widely and deeply in the tradition. He names Plato, Augustine, Hegel, Neitzsche as the principal thinkers who shadow him; but also Shakespeare, Dostoevski, Pascal, and Shestov. “Deeper than these,” he continues, “I have wondered at the poverty of philosophy when it faces figures like Jesus or Francis of Assisi, or the Buddha. Do we here meet the wisdom of the simple—the idiot wisdom that keeps intimacy with the porosity of being and lets itself be a passage or passing of communication from the divine?” (p. 19).

Desmond was raised an Irish Catholic, and I believe, though I’m not certain, that he remains a practicing Catholic; but in this book he wears his faith lightly. He wishes to explore the middle space between religion and philosophy, with particular concern for modern philosophy’s loss of divine Transcendence. This exploration requires that he existentially inhabit the “being between” and cultivate a “metaxological sense of being,” thus imposing a kind of ascesis. The philosopher, says Desmond, must allow himself to be “lifted up into a new dimension of desire and longing—longing for a knowing that is not an objective or determinate cognition, nor a matter of self-determining self-knowing, but other again. It is more than determinate cognition and more than self-knowledge. This is a poverty of philosophy in which it empties itself of its conceptual hubris and seeks out the guidance of the great poets and religious figures, those touched by the exceeding simplicity of the holy, as if by an idiot wisdom. … It is thinking struggling in the dimension of the hyperbolic” (p. 20). Thought moving beyond itself.

Desmond is difficult. He speaks of primal porosity, equivocal being, univocal being, hyperbolic being, the passio essendi and conatus essendi, the urgency of ultimacy, the intimate universal and agapeic origin. These expressions are unfamiliar to me. I can guess at their meaning; but clearly I will need to work hard if I’m to achieve any measure of clarity.

Already I find myself pulled into Desmond’s writing:

I would now give more weight to what I call the passio essendi. “Urgency of ultimacy” can be taken too much as our urge: our will to be in relation to the ultimate. This is not wrong, but there is something more primal at the root of this urgency of ultimacy. Before the conatus essendi, the passio essendi: before the seeking in which we are put in question and put ourselves at risk, there is a porosity of being which is always already presupposed by all our acts of self-transcending. The primal porosity of being, I believe, is most intimately expressed in our being religious. Being religious is the primal porosity of being, since it is the living middle between the soul in its most abyssal intimacy and the divine. (p. 23).

If religion has to do with our primal porosity—which is prior even to our self-transcendending, be it in science, or art, or philosophy, or everyday practice—then it makes sense that mystery, ambiguity, and enigma should be essential to it, positively essential and not as mere defects of univocity. (p. 25)

This is not my idiom, but if I am understanding Desmond rightly, I wholeheartedly assent. This is not “natural theology,” which has long struck me as artificial, as if philosophical reflection can exclude the fundamental apprehension of Transcendence that lies at the heart of our common humanity. Perhaps we might call it fundamental theology, thought indwelling the complexities, “promiscuous ambiguity,” and pathos of existence. How mindlessly we quote our Scriptures and ecclesial dogmas: both are essential to Christian faith, yet each can become a monstrous idol when divorced from the Mystery who has brought them into being. Finesse is necessary.

We must learn to inhabit the in-between.

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18 Responses to William Desmond and the In-Between

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    “Desmond is difficult.”

    Yes, I totally identify. It is not evident to me what is meant by the terms he uses, in what sense they are meaningful, or if they are evidently true (porosity of being can be understood in a variety of ways). Clearly they are meaningful to him so I must be missing something. Using these terms he appears to ironically contradict “the embrace of a kind of poverty” and that “thought must move beyond itself.” Good luck letting thought move beyond itself while ruminating on primal porosity, equivocal being, univocal being, hyperbolic being, the urgency of ultimacy! Woe the soul who looks to Desmond for a break from cumbersome philosophy.

    Still I maintain his work is not without reward to the careful reader and surely I need to read more of Billy D.

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    • brian says:

      Robert,

      I left a comment yesterday that was swallowed up by unseen powers. I won’t recapitulate it here. I honestly don’t think Desmond is opaque or contradictory once one lives with his thought and manner of speech for a while. No doubt, terms can have equivocal meaning, so one has to become comfortable with the context and implications that they have for a particular thinker. If one identifies rationalist positivism, utilitarian pragmatism, and problem/solution type thinking with “univocal” tendencies, and then constrains thought to those limits, it is easier to see the meaning of “thought must move beyond itself.”

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    • brian says:

      Ahh, it’s going to bother me if I don’t add further explanation, Robert. One also has to take into account that Desmond is engaging the idealist tradition which reaches a kind of apotheosis in Hegel. Desmond argues that Hegelian dialectic legitimately moves beyond conceptual limits that are blind to equivocities or complications that come from dramatic interaction with an “other.” And yet, Hegel remains ultimately trapped within an intellectual hybris that wants to envelop the other within the conceptual mastery of the “thinker.” The infinite creativity of an other is made to serve an initial impulse that remains caught in the notion of perfection as the solitude of “thought thinking itself.” So, “porosity of being” is recognition of the fundamental giftedness of being that founds any and all attempts of thought to come to grips with reality. There is a dependency that is also an infinite giftedness that means one never comes to a point where thought “comprehends” reality. Accepting the “poverty” of being a creature is what opens up vision to a wealth “beyond the limits of our thought.” The “urgency of ultimacy” is the eros of the soul that, like Augustine’s heart, remains restless short of Divinity. Hyperbolic being is recognition of the meaningful depths with ontological semantic import built into the Analogy of Being.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Ah, so, ‘hyperbolic’ in the mathematical sense that a hyperbola is infinite in a way, or more properly speaking, open? — Rather than hyperbolic int he colloquial, common sense of being excessive or exaggerated somehow.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Brian, is there a relatively briefer work or passage in Desmond you would recommend starting with for a discussion of language, or what I take you to be talking about in the “ontological semantic import built into the Analogy of Being”?

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        • brian says:

          Jonathan,

          You might look at Analogy, Dialectic, and Divine Transcendence. It’s one of the essays in The Intimate Strangeness of Being. I also recommend Art, Origins, Otherness for extended reflections of aesthetics and metaphysics.

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    • One of my buddies is in Desmond’s class on God right now, and it took him 3/4 of the semester, both reading his book and going to lectures, for his terminology to ‘click’. It can take a while, but the terms do eventually click.

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  2. kennon42 says:

    I’m reminded of Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

    “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the sea and so make it finite … The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

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  3. Garreth Ashe says:

    A good book to read for a overview of Desmond is Ben Christopher Simpson book god metaphysics and the postmodern were he compares desmonds metaxological metaphysics with John capitol post metaphysical position.

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  4. Somehow your post ties in with the chapter I am reading, “The Invisibles”, in the book The Soul’s Code by James Hillman. Porosity of being seems another aspect of the soul as portrayed by Dr. Hillman. (Hope you are able to hike a bit before your vacation is over).

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  5. Steven says:

    Welcome to NC; I hope your vacation went well and the rain relented enough to enjoy the outdoors to your liking. The mountains are quite beautiful this time of year!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Alas, it rained constantly during our holiday. A day or two can be charming. Six straight days is depressing (at least for one who’s on vacation).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Tom says:

    I love reading WD but also struggle to keep up.

    I just received ‘Sabbath Rest?’ and am going to violate my own rule to always read the introduction of a book first. I’m going straight to the chapter on Nietzsche.

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brian, we need a Desmond glossary of his key terminology! 🙂

    Perhaps to begin, can you refresh us on what Desmond means by the passio essendi and the conatus essendi. I know you have written on this already, but it sure would be helpful to have a brief explication.

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    • brian says:

      Father,

      Conatus essendi is what we tend to think of as ourselves. It is the striving nature that acts to achieve particular ends. While there is nothing illegitimate about the conatus essendi, it can easily derail into deformations of being. The burden of building an identity as a project of the emerging self can seem a struggle against death, or the void, or a starting point from a neutral, indifferent nothing without value. An identification of our being with our activities may lead to utilitarian calculus regarding worth and the attempt to project value onto a reality fundamentally bereft of value. (Desmond adverts to this quandary in some of the material you analyse.)

      Passio essendi is what is forgotten by moderns. It is the gift of the agapeic Origin. This is the giftedness of being prior to active, (egoistic) activity that makes possible our striving action. Agape is the root that permits Eros to seek and then discover as its end what is always already the source of its power. What modern thought generally construes as dead passivity is a vital spiritual receptivity. In short, this is the porosity of being that the conatus essendi usually forgets. The irony is that only the passio essendi allows for the intrinsic worth of reality (discoverable and not merely a construct; though we may construct our knowledge, it is not from a neutral void, but dependent on what we do not construct) and offers a meaningful teleology to our striving acts.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thank you, Brian! That’s very helpful. May I again impose and ask you to explain what Desmond means when he speaks of “primal being” and “hyperbolic being.” TIA.

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  9. brian says:

    Father,

    As I understand it, primal being is the gift of being shorn of “interpretive modifications” made by created intelligence. So, when Desmond talks about the dystopic mess made by the “self-circling autonomy” of modern selves, he is pointing to a “secondary ethos” constructed upon primal being. Primal being thus always exceeds our attempts at conceptual mastery. Further, as fundamentally open (porous) to the Agapeic giver, primal being contains within it the corrective to every potential malformation due to sin or ignorance. Just as passio essendi is the safety net of God’s care underlying the “human, all too human” efforts of the conatus essendi, so does primal being secure the goodness of creation against the sinful distortions of a Fallen world.

    Hyperbolic being seems to me quite similar to Pryzwara’s understanding of Analogia entis. If one takes univocal being as a kind of useful, essential fixity that becomes a source of spiritual blindness when taken without gratitude as “objectivity without mystery or wonder,” then our individual encounters with being, the drama of “real life” reveals to the perceptive “slippage,” i.e. places where the conventional “just so” is inadequate to explain our lived experience. This experience opens up “equivocities” that permit both skepticism towards received univocities and possible efforts to articulate the aesthetic form of what escapes conceptual closure. Dialectic (in either Platonic or Hegelian versions) searches for the dramatic logos encountered in the equivocities. The danger, as Desmond indicates, is that dialectic will itself return to a “higher univocity” whereby the “creative fidelity” required by reverence for the real is lost to a more nuanced form of “mastery in solitude.”

    What Desmond calls his “metaxological metaphysics” is a refusal to tame the wild infinite. Ultimacy never ends in closure or a final state of comprehensive knowledge that precludes further discovery. In this way, I think Desmond’s grasp of “divine transcendence” fits in well with Nyssa’s eschatology. Hyperbolic being, then, is not so much a fixed structure as a continuous dynamic whereby the logoi of beings are “always already” more than themselves. Being is contextualized by a “living infinity” that opens up finite beings so that they themselves are given new depths, new connections, new analogical significance that can never be simply anticipated.

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