Introducing William Desmond
by Ken Myers
On Volume 157, I interviewed Steven Knepper about his book, Wonder Strikes: Approaching Aesthetics and Literature with William Desmond (State University of New York Press, 2022). While Desmond’s work has enjoyed a great deal of attention in certain scholarly circles, his accomplishments and insights are virtually unknown to laymen.
The following paragraphs from the Introduction to Knepper’s book will set Desmond’s work in context.
“For Desmond, aesthetics does not narrowly pertain to art and literature. It deals broadly with our sensual experience of the world. It begins in the ‘aesthetics of happening,’ in the stream of sensuality that continually washes over and through us. Close attention to the aesthetics of happening reveals that being is not inert. It is not neutrally, flatly there. It manifests in aesthetically rich ways. It thrills, soothes, and stings. It makes our skin crawl or prickle in gooseflesh. It grabs our attention and startles. We can only treat being as neutral if we abstract it from this primordial experience. Such abstraction involves a dubious subject-object dualism, one untrue to our constitutive receptivity. We are not self-contained subjects sealed off from the world ‘out there.’ We internalize, and we are drawn out of ourselves. We are, as Desmond says, ‘porous.’
“Still, while Desmond begins in the broad aesthetics of happening, he does not disregard art and literature. They not only depict being’s excess and worth — they also incarnate it. As noted earlier, the artwork is overdetermined. A single analysis can never exhaust it. The richness of the artwork can reawaken us to the richness of being more broadly. The artwork has the ‘ability to recharge our sense of the world’ and its worth. It can challenge the ethos of serviceable disposability.
“According to Desmond, though, art cannot counter this pervasive ethos on its own. It needs religion and philosophy, its ancient ‘siblings.’ All three have their origin in wonder at the mystery of being. This wonder is not stupefying. It stirs self-transcending desire. It might give rise to a work of art, to worship, or to speculative thought; it might give rise to care for being in its excess and mystery. Like so many siblings, art, religion, and philosophy have grown more distant over time and have often been hostile to one another. Desmond does not deny either the differences or the tensions between them. Yet he insists that their ancient kinship remains. To be healthy, to thrive, all three must still draw on wonder, and they must communicate this wonder to others. He claims that our contemporary crises call for a renewed sense of this kinship.
“Desmond’s own roots are in art, religion, and philosophy. He was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1951. His childhood passions were poetry and mathematics. He notes that his ‘family background contains no philosophical prefigurements.’ He did grow up in a deeply religious community, though, ‘the Middle Ages’ of mid-century Irish Catholicism, as he jokingly puts it. He was ‘fostered on a sense of the mystery of God and God’s ways, on a sympathy for the rejected and the outsider whom we cannot judge not to be God’s favored, fostered, too, on an esteem that God's creation, nature, was good.’ He spent time in the Dominican novitiate at age seventeen, claiming, ‘I took and still take religion with ultimate seriousness.’ He began undergraduate studies in engineering, in part for pragmatic reasons and in part because of his aptitude in math, but he soon transferred to English to study his other first love, poetry. The big questions these studies raised, though, led him to transfer once more, this time to philosophy: ‘Great poetry exhibits a spiritual seriousness which can shame the thought of some philosophers. But then [at his university] poetry was presented as if it had nothing to do with thought.’ Desmond stayed on at University College Cork to pursue an MA in philosophy, writing a thesis on the aesthetics of R. G. Collingwood. He went on to study for a PhD with Carl Vaught and Stanley Rosen at Pennsylvania State University.
“Desmond grappled with Hegel’s philosophy at Penn State. He appreciated Hegel’s sense of dynamic mediation, his feel for the concrete, his sophisticated aesthetics, and his claim that art, religion, and philosophy are ‘the three highest modes of human meaning.’ Desmond later contributed to the North American Hegel revival and served as president of the Hegel Society of America. Even in his doctoral studies, though, Desmond feared that Hegel’s dialectic tilted too much toward categorical determination and self-mediation. Hegel, he concluded, did not attend enough to the excess of being. In his dissertation, Desmond tried to honor this excess and to draw the Hegelian dialectic back toward the openness of the Platonic dialogue, to keep the dialectic open as a metaxu, a between, where self and other are not exhausted in mediations from either side. This dissertation, eventually published as Desire, Dialectic, and Otherness (1987), established the framework of Desmond’s ‘metaxological’ philosophy, which he would develop across more than a dozen other books, including his trilogy Being and the Between (1995), Ethics and the Between (2001), and God and the Between (2008). Desmond spent his early career at Loyola College in Maryland, but he eventually returned to Europe to take up a professorship at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven’s Institute of Philosophy. He currently holds visiting chairs at Villanova University and Maynooth University. Desmond is highly regarded as a Hegel scholar, a philosopher of religion, and an original metaphysician. Paul Weiss, an influential metaphysician in his own right, once called Desmond ‘the leading philosopher of his generation.’”