Introducing William Desmond: Metaphysics and the Fourfold Sense of Being

by Christopher Ben Simpson, Ph.D.


Metaphysics asks the question of being: the meaning of being—the significance of the “to be” (BB 3). Metaphysics also asks the ultimate “why” of being: why being and not nothing? (BB 4; HG 3). William Desmond understands the “meta” of metaphysics as double, as referring to how it is to meditate on both the “beyond” (implicit in the question of the “why” of being) and the “in the midst” of being as intimately related—an “interpretive fidelity” to the emergent happenings in the middle that refer one to otherness and transcendence (BB xiii). Part of the being “in the midst” that Desmond considers to be good metaphysics is its awareness that it always starts too late—in medias res—in the middle of things (BB 5; AOO 3). In this middle, the metaphysician encounters and struggles with an excess of being—not merely indeterminate but plural and “overdeter­minate”—that gives rise to the astonishment and perplexity that constitute the abiding engine of metaphysical thought (BB 52, 204). This excessive or gratuitous surplus of given being calls at once for a metaphysical thinking that is an act of gratitude for such gratuity (BB 230–31) and for a mindfulness that is itself generous toward its objects, its others (BHD 267). Such a generous endeavor to mindfully interpret the plenitude of being must, for Desmond, be itself plural—plurivocal. It must take up Aristotle’s observation: to on legetai pollachos (“being is said in many ways,” BB xiii, 34). As seeking to do justice to this fullness, metaphysics requires a finesse that recognizes that being—and our best intelligent understanding of being—extends beyond the horizons of determinate intelligibility and so disquiets our thinking and strains our language (BB 45). At the same time, metaphysics is not something to be overcome. Indeed, for Desmond, it cannot be; it is inescapable—for all reflection is dependent on and complicit in the question of the meaning of the “to be” that moves us to wonder and perplexity (BHD 341). Metaphysics proceeds from an inherent exigence—from our need to think it.

The Fourfold Sense of Being

Desmond begins his metaphysics with the “how” of metaphysics—how it proceeds—how to go about talking about being. This “how” of metaphysics takes the form of a “logic” reminiscent of—and indeed related to— that of Hegelian dialectic but with important differences—regarding the nature and the importance of difference. This “logic” (though Desmond does not call it such) intends to lay out the aforementioned plurality of ways of talking about and relating to being. Desmond’s name for this plurality is “the fourfold sense of being.” This fourfold sense of being proposes a way to think about metaphysics, and our relation to what is other to thought, that is plurivocal and thus appropriate to the plural fullness or overdetermination of given being (DDO 5). Desmond writes: My claim is that the fourfold sense of being offers a flexible systematic framework that allows us complexly and very comprehensively to interpret the variety of possible relations, and the very ontological richness of what is at stake in each of the perplexities (BB xiii). Such a plural and flexible framework is necessary in order to deal with the complex interplay of many elements—unity and multiplicity, sameness and difference/otherness, immediacy and mediation, determinacy and indeterminacy, immanence and transcendence—that is entailed in our understanding of being and in being itself. One moves through the fourfold sense of being, propelled by a dunamis, an immanent exigency, an eros whose orientation toward/desire for wholeness and otherness drives thought through the breakdown of less whole, less true understandings of being until all of the senses are teleologically suspended in the open whole of the metaxological community of being, which is the true. This fourfold sense of being is the basis for Desmond’s understanding of selves or ethical selvings (how we relate to our selves), of human ethical communities (how we relate to others), and of God and religion (how God relates to humans and the world in general and how we relate to God).

§1. The Univocal

The first of the fourfold senses of being is the univocal sense of being. The univocal sense stresses immediate unity and simple sameness over multiplicity, mediation, and difference (DDO 6; BHD 6; BB xii; PU 12). There is a unity, sometimes an immediate unity, between mind and being or between self and other. In this univocal relation, there is a heavy emphasis on determinacy such that all being is seen to be determinately intelligible—”that to be is to be intelligible, and that to be intelligible is to be determinate” (PU 12). Thus, mind can, in principle, know being fully and without remainder. So the univocal sense can be understood as a kind of “naïve realist” position that holds forth an ideal of “objective mind” (DDO 142; PU 105).

The univocal sense of being is at once true and untrue to being—bearing an indispensable role but intimating senses beyond itself. Desmond sees the univocal sense as true to being—indeed, as necessary to talk about being—in that we need determination to identify and distinguish in the happening of the between (BB 48; PU 12). Yet it is when univocity is made the exclusive sense of being that one encounters problems, namely, that it cannot account for the complexity either in the external object/other/being or in the internal subject/self/mind or in their relation to each other (BHD 6). Univocity, in trying to fix truth determinately—in seeking to attain comprehensive consistency and coherence—runs against limits that undermine its claims to absoluteness (BB xiv–xv, 73, 81–82). Univocity, pressed to the extreme of making such absolute claims, subverts itself in two principle ways. First (on the side of the object/ other), univocity abstracts itself from the chiaroscuro, the ambiguity of being, and ignores what does not fit into its determinate framework—thus equivocally contradicting itself by actually ignoring that to which it intends to attend. Second (on the side of the subject/self), the univocal sense of being cannot univocally account for the will to univocity—the desire to account for all of being in terms of determinate intelligibility—itself (BB 81–82).

§2. The Equivocal

The second of the fourfold sense of being is the equivocal. The equivocal sense stresses manyness over unity, difference over sameness, ambiguity over clarity (DDO 6; BHD 6). It calls attention to unmediated (even un-mediat-able) difference—seeing a sheer plurality and a fragmented dispersal that cannot be brought into any kind of a unity (PU 12–23). There is such a stress on immediate difference that there is little if any relation between mind and being—there is no mediation between self and other. Otherness recedes into unintelligibility. Thus, the equivocal sense of being stresses indeterminacy in our relation to being—a doubling of voices that cannot be brought to a unity (BB 87). This reflects a kind of “subjective mind” that sees no community between mind and being (and any supposed community in being but as a subjective projection) that one finds in a strong empiricism or skepticism (PU 105).

The equivocal sense, like the univocal, is at once true and untrue to being—bearing an indispensable role but intimating senses beyond itself. The equivocal sense of being, for Desmond, is truthful in that it points to the equivocity in being itself—in being’s becoming. The equivocal sense calls attention to being as an ongoing process (a “universal impermanence”) in which there is often an intermingling of opposites and in which univocal determinate labels thus have limited staying power (EB 123). However, the equivocal sense, taken on its own, advocates a sheer plurality that is merely fragmenting. Here being and mind are set in opposition to one another such that there is no relation but only unmediated difference (BHD 6; BB xii; PU 12–13). Like univocity, equivocity is a privative relation in which there is only a negative sense of separation. The univocal and the equivocal senses “are two sides of the same orientation to the immediate” that sees all relation in such either/ors as total presence/absence, total union/difference, total determinate-clarity/indeterminate-ambiguity (DDO 6, 237). The equivocal sense, again like the univocal, subverts itself in that remaining with sheer equivocity means not only the dispersal of being but the dissolution of mindfulness itself. There is no reason the absolute claim of equivocity should stand when all other absolute claims cannot. For Desmond, the inherent drive of mindfulness cannot stop with equivocity’s mere fragments; it calls for a deeper understanding of the differences, othernesses, and ambiguities in the flux of being (BB 132, 142). This calls for the mediating work of the dialectical sense of being.

§3. The Dialectical

The dialectical is the third of the fourfold sense of being. The dialectical sense, unlike the univocal and equivocal, stresses neither simple sameness nor simple difference. Ultimately, the dialectical stresses a unity of the same and the different—a unity produced from the side of the self to encompass the difference of otherness (DDO 6). The dialectical seeks to recover or return to the promise of the univocal sense beyond the difference and dispersal of the equivocal (BB 143, 175, 178). The dialectical sees the contradiction of the equivocal, not as a dead-end for thought, but as a source to drive thinking on to seek a better determination of the significance of such contradiction and ultimately of the meaning of being (BB 144). The dialectic dwells with otherness by placing it in the context of—by subsuming it within—a deeper togetherness, a larger whole, a more embracing totality (EB 120). This greater unity is thought itself—thought that thinks itself in thinking its other (BB 175, 446).

The dialectical sense of being seeks to attain unity through mediation. The mediation of difference is an expression of the self-transcending dynamism of thought which is itself internally differentiated and complex—itself a process of finding unity in difference (DDO 6; BB xii). Mediation endeavors to think through the immediate equivocity, difference, and ambiguity of being (BB 131; PU 14). Dialectical mediation tends to see all mediation in terms of self-mediation—difference and otherness is ultimately but an occasion for the self to come understand itself—to return to itself—to attain greater self-consciousness (BHD 6–7; BB xiv–xv). With regard to determinacy, the dialectical sense sees self-mediation as proceeding through a process of self-determination. The dialectical sense agrees with the univocal in taking all being to be determinately intelligible, but it also sees this as the fruit of a process in which the indeterminate is shown—or made—to be determinate by the thinking self (EB 117). This self-mediation and self-determining dialectical sense of being can be understood in terms of idealism—an “erotic mind” that strives to incorporate all otherness into itself (DDO 142; PU 105).

The dialectical sense, like the univocal and the equivocal sense of being, is at once true and untrue to being. The dialectical sense of being, for Desmond, is truthful in that it points to the necessity of thinking through the ambiguity and instability of partial truths and of coming to have some intelligible understanding of being in its becoming and its otherness (DDO 124; BB 131, 141, 362). The dialectical points to the immanent development—the inherent exigence—of thought as it develops and comes to further articulation and determination (EB 123, 125). However, the dialectical sense taken on its own tends to absolutize itself and its self-mediation such that thought thinking itself becomes a univocal totality that is deaf to any mediation but its own—a solipsistic circle that closes in on itself (DDO 124; BB xiv–xv, 163, 164; PU 14). The problem with self-mediation’s self-absolutizing is that it fails to take otherness or genuine plurality—as that which is other to thought thinking itself—seriously (DDO 118; PO 210; BB xiv–xv). Reference to the other is always a subordinate moment to the self-mediating whole (BHD 2).

The dialectical sense of being, again like the univocal and the equivocal, ultimately (in Desmond’s view) subverts itself and intimates the metaxological sense beyond it—dialectical thinking is itself aufgehoben, so to speak. Desmond sees the dialectical sense as subverting itself in its failure to adequately pay attention to othernesses—transcendences and infinities within, without, and above—that resist the dialectical sense’s total reduction to immanent unity and remain sources of persistent perplexity (DDO 4; BB xiv–xv). By failing to account for these othernesses, the dialectical sense fails in its own project of total self-mediation and calls for another—an otherwise—kind of mediation or dialectic that is not constrained by the dialectical sense’s univocal ambition. The breakdown of the dialectical sense intimates the metaxological sense of being inasmuch as it presents another manner of dialectic, one displaying an awareness of other forms of mediation than self-mediation and “a more discriminating sense of otherness”—an openness to transcendences or certain irreducible excesses to self-mediation (DDO 4, 118–19; BB 137, 178).

§4. The Metaxological

The fourth sense of the fourfold sense of being is the metaxological. This neologism of Desmond’s refers to a logos—word, discourse, account—of the metaxu—the between, the middle, the intermediate. It is “a discourse concerning the middle, of the middle, and in the middle” (DDO 7; BB xii). The metaxological sense is a discourse of and in the middle—a thinking that is between the totalizing closure of rigid univocal “objective” thinking and the fragmented discontinuity of equivocal “subjective” thinking (DDO 28, 114, 207; PO 3–4; PU 108). The metaxological sense is also a discourse concerning the middle—striving to be mindful of what is at work in the happening of the ethos, the milieu, the between of being as our given place—to be attentive to the community of being’s plurality of others in interrelation (PU 12). Thus, the metaxological focuses on thought in terms of interest or “inter-esse“—as being moved by wonder and perplexity at the fullness of our being in the between—our interest in esse arising from our inter-esse (BHD 137; BB 64, 452). The metaxological sense of being stresses plurality, “doubleness,” difference, and otherness over oneness and sameness while seeking a form of unity that is a being-with that is not reductive to otherness—namely, a community. Desmond, in his concept of the metaxological, advocates an “affirmative doubleness”—a genuine plurality—that takes the dia of dialectic seriously and resists the reduction of the double—the plural—to a simulacrum of otherness in the self-division of the one in a single, dialectical process (PO 5; BHD 113, 114, 120, 274–75; BB 158, 163, 188, 196; PU 15). Such a view of genuine doubleness or plurality places an accent on otherness (emphasizing Desmond’s second requirement or exigency of thought) even in the context of togetherness (BHD 7, 81, 248, 272; PU 14–15). Thus affirming otherness and togetherness leads the metaxological sense of being to present the relation between mind and being, between self and other, between the diversity of beings as a community—as a plurality of singulars in interplay in an “open whole” (DDO 127–28; BHD 129; BB 418, 451; PU 15).

The metaxological sense of being also focuses on mediated relations over the immediate relations of the univocal and equivocal senses. The metaxological is like the dialectical in its affirmation that the self and the other are neither absolutely same nor absolutely different (DDO 7; BHD 23; BB 129). However, unlike the dialectical, the metaxological sees the difference between the self and the other as being mediated from the side of the other as well as from the side of the self. This double mediation entailed in the metaxological sense of being consists of both self-mediation (thought thinking itself in thinking its other) and intermediation (thought thinking its other) such that dialectical self-mediation is limited in its trajectory toward the self-enclosure of total self-mediation by the irreducible otherness of the other in its own relating to and mediating with consciousness (BHD 130, 176–77; BB 162; PU 15, 56). Thus, the metaxological sense treats the middle in which the self and the other meet as a plurally mediated community in which the self is but one mediating center of power and thus should be hospitable to the mediation of the other out of its otherness (BHD 7; BB xii; PU 14–15; EB 481).

From a hypothetical third-person perspective on the happening of being in the between, there is a situation of general intermediation in which there is an open community of singulars, “a plurality of centers of active being” mediating out of themselves with their others—multiple self-mediating wholes mediating with one another such that there is an excess to any single self-mediating whole (DDO 115; BHD 129; BB 188, 196; PU 15). From the first-person perspective of the involved (interested, inter-esse, between-being) singular self there is, again, a situation of double mediation, of both self-mediation (of coming to intelligent self-articulation and self-understanding in relation to one’s others) and intermediation (of seeking to come to terms with the other in its otherness as it manifests itself to us), so as to articulate our relations with our others intelligently while preventing closure—while obviating the temptation to reduce all mediation to self-mediation in the name of total(izing) intelligibility (DDO 116; BHD 8, 128; BB 163, 196, 418). This intermediation of the metaxological sense stresses surplus otherness—it calls attention to and tries to find ways of intelligently talking about the overdeterminacy (neither reductive univocal determinacy, nor lacking equivocal indeterminacy, nor totalizing dialectical self-determinacy) that characterizes the community of being—the “between.”

The metaxological sense of being is a plurivocal way of speaking, in kind, of the plural community of being. This can be seen in two ways: first, in the way that the metaxological sense includes or takes up the truth of the prior senses of being; and second, in the way that the metaxological sense views genuine plurality, otherness, and transcendence in being. First, the metaxological sense of being is, for Desmond, the truth of the other senses—it takes up their plural perspectives on being, which “is said in many ways” (PO 60; BB 33). The metaxological sense (or “metaxological realism”) is superior in that it maintains the best of the thus-far partial truths of the preceding senses in a fuller and more inclusive and complex open whole that avoids the failings and blind spots of these more limited perspectives. The metaxological sense includes or reiterates or redeems the promise of the sense of unity and the lived immediacy of our community with being, the sense that we really do reach the other, intimated by the univocal; the awareness of a certain irreducibility to otherness, difference, indeterminacy, and rich ambiguity recognized by the equivocal; and the rejection of simplistic dualism (between self and other) and the sense of togetherness in the midst of difference understood by the dialectical. It does this without including the fixation on determinacy and blindness to complex otherness inherent in the univocal (or naïve realism); the discontinuous plurality of the equivocal (or skeptical empiricism); or the totalizing, self-mediating holism of the dialectical (or idealism) (DDO 142–44; BB 178). It is thus, in its plurivocity, that the metaxological is the fullest sense of being—giving the fullest articulation of the overdetermined middle (PO 210; BHD 101; PU 12).

The second way in which the metaxological sense is plurivocal is in how it lets there be genuine plurality, otherness, and transcendence in being. The plurivocity of the metaxological sense reflects the plurality of being in its character as an overdetermined excess made up of unrepeatable singulars (BB 34, 88, 465). Being is a manyness that necessitates a finessed many-sided thinking—able to regard simplicity and complexity, sameness and difference, clarity and ambiguity, stability and flux, immediacy and mediation, determinacy and indeterminacy, self-determination and overdetermination—in their relations and in their difference. In this facet (in its preference for the plural) the metaxological is a kind of reinstatement of equivocal difference (either/or) after dialectical unity (both/and)—a both-either/or-and-both/and that sees genuine difference in the midst of community. As such, the metaxological sense acknowledges the “being beyond totality” of certain irreducible transcendences or infinitudes that cannot be reduced to a single unity: the interior infinitude of the self, the exterior infinitude of becoming, the superior infinitude of the absolute (BB 201, 408).

(Go to Part 2)

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[Much of this two-part introduction was drawn from my Religion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern originally published with Indiana University Press in 2009 and reprinted with Wipf & Stock in 2016. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher. There are A LOT of parenthetical references to Desmond’s works: The intent is that the reader can find therein many points of entry to dive into Desmond’s own writings.]


AOO = Art, Origins, Otherness. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.
 BB = Being and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.
 BHD = Beyond Hegel and Dialectic. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
 DDO = Desire, Dialectic and Otherness. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1987.
 EB = Ethics and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.
 GB = God and the Between. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
 HG = Hegel’s God. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
 PO = Philosophy and Its Others. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.
 PU = Perplexity and Ultimacy. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.

* * *

Christopher Ben Simpson is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. He is the author of several books, including Modern Christian TheologyReligion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern, and The Truth is the Way, and the editor of William Desmond and Contemporary Theology and The William Desmond Reader.

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3 Responses to Introducing William Desmond: Metaphysics and the Fourfold Sense of Being

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Dr Simpson, I wish to thank you again for writing this introduction to the metaphysics of William Desmond.


  2. Thomas says:

    A few years ago, after reading Being and the Between and a few of Desmond’s shorter essays, I remember trying to figure out how to place him. Desmond’s critique of Hegel is clear and incisive. As a metaphysician in his own right, however, he’s harder to figure out.

    I tend to think of him along with thinkers like von Balthasar, and in contrast to many other traditional metaphysicians. The similarities between Theo-Logic I and Desmond’s thought are pretty striking. Desmond seems to be about expanding the philosophical imagination, offering new categories or systems for thought. I think of him as an exploratory philosopher, pushing into new frontiers and often leaving the task of settlement to others.

    Unlike many other metaphysicians, though, he doesn’t focus much on argument. He offers many fruitful categories, but relatively few extended arguments. Given that we have useful categories like the metaxological, there is still the task of being able to pass judgement, of being able to ascertain the truth, of moving beyond description and category construction to explanation and application. He is reminiscent of Hegel in his ability to make distinctions and move from one scheme of categories to another; sometimes I think he is also reminiscent of Hegel in stopping short of judgements about the objectively real.

    Anyway, I like Desmond, I think there is a place for exploratory philosophy, and my opinions on reading him may well be out of date. I am grateful for Dr. Simpson’s work on Desmond.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not begun to catch up with the recent samples of Desmond, here, yet, but wonder from this article (for which, many thanks!) if he is consciously interacting with Eric Voegelin’s attention to ‘metaxy’?


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