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The Intimate Strangeness of Being: Metaphysics after Dialectic

The Intimate Strangeness of Being: Metaphysics after Dialectic

by William Desmond

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Catholic University of America Press
Publication date:
Studies Philosophy History Philosophy Series
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Intimate Strangeness of Being

Metaphysics after Dialectic
By William Desmond

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1960-8

Chapter One

Being, Determination, and Dialectic

On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking


Dialectic is tied to the entire range of ways of thinking about being that we find in the tradition of metaphysics. I will return to that range in diverse ways throughout this work, but now I am concerned with the connection of dialectic and metaphysics. Metaphysics, of course, often now meets with outright rejection, as purportedly dealing with what lies beyond our ken, or as a conceptual projection onto an illusory transcendence of our own powers and impotences, or as the cunning conceit of an intellectual will to power. The intimacy of connection between dialectic and the thinking of being also defines part of the problematic situation of so-called postmetaphysical philosophy. It has been a recurrent catch-cry for some time that we are now to think beyond all that, beyond dialectic, beyond metaphysics, beyond being. None of these more recent claims is immune from question. I want to consider this contested place of metaphysics, and the complex, indeed ambiguous, role dialectical thinking has played in defining that place.

Often we attribute the sources of this contested place to Hume, and in a more qualified way to Kant. By contrast, Hegel is frequently presented as embodying a postcritical resurgence of metaphysics, a recrudescence of what seemed to have been safely stowed in its grave. True, one finds interpretations in which Hegel as metaphysician is subordinated to Hegel the true heir of the Kantian project. Nevertheless, Hegel's continuity with the prior tradition is so massively evident, and not least in his respect for the Greeks, especially Aristotle, that this interpretation has much to do with the commentators' own embarrassments with metaphysics. Even granting that, yet Hegel has been a contributor, sometimes witting, sometimes not, to the contested place of metaphysics.

The view that Hegel represents a kind of summation of major strands in the Western tradition is not without some truth. This being so, if we wish to follow in his footsteps, we must strive for as comprehensive and nuanced an understanding of the possibilities of the philosophical tradition as he had. This is extraordinarily difficult. One might say that it is something of Hegel's stature that has made things more difficult for metaphysics rather than easier. To be a philosopher of such stature is not only to release essential possibilities of thinking, it is to cast a shadow over descendent thinkers under which they must struggle for light. Excess of light can illuminate but it can also blind.

If Hegel offers a kind of summation of the essential possibilities in the metaphysical tradition, more accurately, the modern rationalist tradition, there can seem something unsurpassable about him. And yet just the alleged consummation leaves us strangely disquieted and hungry. The completion attributed to Hegel shows forth starkly that something was missing in the quest, perhaps from the outset. If any such completion suggests the full richness of metaphysics, yet the richness seems also to show (in Marx's phrase) the poverty of philosophy. If we are to "surpass" the alleged end of metaphysics, we must do so beyond the alleged poverty of philosophy. It goes without saying that such language about "the end of metaphysics" is not only the fashionable rhetoric of post-Heideggerian thought. It names a task that a plethora of thinkers set themselves in Hegel's wake: Marx, for instance, in his will to realize, complete, and surpass philosophy in revolutionary praxis; Kierkegaard in his desire to be "postphilosophical" in religious faith; Nietzsche in his eros to be a "philosopher of the future," celebrating the aesthetic theodicy of Dionysus. As much as, indeed more than, the more positivistic or scientistic heirs of Kant or Hume, the continental heirs of completed idealism have been the "surpassers of metaphysics," be they rhapsodic descendants of Nietzsche or deconstructive heirs of Heidegger.

I do not invoke this throng of "postmetaphysical" overcomers of "metaphysics" to enlist in their company. I think that much of the contestation of metaphysics is bound up with crucial ambiguities in dialectical thinking. I will explain what I mean in due course. But in advance I want to reject the view that Hegel embodies the culmination of the tradition of metaphysics. I say this not because I want to surpass metaphysics, in whatever direction, be it to praxis or rhapsody or poesy or scientism or grammatology. I say it because Hegelian dialectic represents a very powerful interpretation of thinking, yet one that hides nuances, nuances that, if resurrected for rethinking, shed a different light on metaphysical thinking, and the possibilities of its contemporary renewal.

The claim that Hegel represents the culmination of metaphysics has had disastrous consequences, not quite because Hegel was a disaster, but because the reiteration of this claim has stood in the way of rethinking metaphysics. It is like a mesmerizing fetish whose bewitching spell we cannot break. Why are we in its spell? Perhaps because of Hegel's stature, and the great difficulty of thinking philosophically at a level comparable to Hegel's. We cannot surpass Hegel because Hegel surpasses us, and the seemingly comprehensive system freezes us, or exhausts us, instead of freeing us. It need not be so. Nor need one's strategy be just the predatory exploitation of this one aspect of Hegel's system to call that other aspect into account, as if we could beat one bone of Hegel's head with another bone taken from the dismembered body. We cannot confine ourselves to Hegel and his legacy. We must return to the sources of metaphysical thinking.

I cite four reasons why we need to do this: first, to have self-knowledge of what we are doing, and thus to understand the lack of understanding in much talk about the completion of metaphysics; second, better to understand Hegelian dialectic in the flawed incompleteness of its claim to completion; third, to search out clearer direction from the equivocal legacy of dialectic in respect of some of Hegel's successors; fourth, to see how and why metaphysics will always continue to be reborn, beyond every claim to determinate completion, since the sources are never simply behind us. In the considerations to follow I will be primarily focused on the sources of metaphysical thinking, and will offer only a mediated glimpse of what one thinks when thinking thus.


The beginning of mindfulness is in an original wonder before the givenness of being. Such wonder is often recognized but its significance is not always plumbed. Being is given to us; we are given to be, and to be as mindful; we do not first produce being, or make it be as for us; originally it is given as an excess of otherness which arouses our astonishment that it is at all. There is something childlike and virgin about this. I do not say childish. A child looks into the night sky and sees the silver orb of the moon. He or she may merely point, or exclaim: Look, the moon! The point is not definite indexical reference but an elemental acknowledgment of the being there of that beautiful being.

None of this is determinately known as such. It is lived, with a mindfulness that may be more or less rudimentary, more or less articulate. As has often been pointed out, children tend to ask the "big questions." They are not normally chastised for this; sometimes they are indulged. There are philosophers who will chastise the child in themselves for the seeming indulgence. There are philosophers who believe that if this virgin openness is lost completely then metaphysics has truly reached its dead end. The metaphysician keeps alive this elemental astonishment, and it is never dead even in the most articulated and developed of his categorial thoughts.

Why do we sometimes chastise the child, or more mellowly, indulge him or her? Because we have this inveterate tendency to think that to be is to be intelligible, and that to be intelligible is to be determinate. But—and this is the rub—the original astonishment is not determinate in that way at all. We tend to believe that we must make definite every indefiniteness, made determinate all indeterminacies. Only thus, we hold, do we come to the proper knowing of being. Moreover, this movement from the indefinite to the definite is often seen as a progressive conquering of the indeterminate, and hence a progressive process of leaving behind the original astonishment. Astonishment may be a beginning but it is one that is left behind as knowing fulfills its own destiny of completely determinate cognition.

Something of this is implied, for example, in Aristotle's discussion of thaumazein (Metaphysics 982b11ff.). Wonder may be the beginning of philosophy, but the end of the question is the dispelling of wonder in as determinate as possible a knowing of matters. This is why he uses geometry as an example of knowing (Metaphysics 983a13ff.). There is a solution that leaves behind the indefiniteness of the initial wonder, and that offers a definitely articulated answer. It is not that wonder is deepened in the end, it is dispelled. Significant for our purposes here is the fact that Hegel cites Aristotle's opening observation, and while he does not see the end in geometrical cognition, for this, after all, is not true self-determining knowing, nevertheless, he does hold that the attainment of true knowing is the overcoming of wonder. Thus Hegel connects wonder with intuition and indeterminate certainty, but "philosophical thought, however, has to raise itself above the standpoint of wonder." Intuition and wonder are only "the beginning of knowledge." Not incidentally, we find a similar fate of the dispelling of wonder when Hegel reflects on the destiny of art.

By contrast, one has the sense that Platonic wonder in Theaetetus (155d3–4) is not to be simply dispelled in the end but deepened. I know it was said that over the gates of the Academy the admonition stood: Let none who has not studied geometry enter here! But this directive does not say that geometry is all we will study, once having entered, or that it epitomizes the highest kind of knowing. Indeed if we take geometry as a figure for completely determinate cognition, it is not incidental that it reappears as an honorific goal throughout the tradition of philosophy. We see it in Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and Husserl, to mention some. What Pascal calls l'esprit de géométrie stands for a way of knowing deeply beloved by philosophy. But as Pascal knew otherwise, there may be needed other modes of mindfulness, captured under the name of l'esprit de finesse. There may be indeterminacies or overdeterminacies about the ontological situation that demand metaphysical finesse that does not conquer astonishment or perplexity but deepens and disquiets thinking even more radically.

What are some instances of such overdeterminacies? The question of being is one such: why being at all, why not nothing? The question of nothing is another. The question of the very givenness of being at all calls forth an indeterminate perplexity before an overdeterminacy that resists complete conceptual determination. So is the question of the meaning of freedom, as posing an enigma beyond complete determination. Our confrontations with, say, the suffering of the tragic, with the enigma of death, with the monstrousness of evil, offer occasions of the resistant indeterminacies, if not hints of the overdeterminacies, in the ontological situation. One could make similar claims about philosophy's constant concern with the being of truth, of the good, of the beautiful. Likewise, the question of the ground of intelligibility falls in the same family of perplexities: Can we give sufficient reason for the principle of sufficient reason? Is there a surd to intelligibility—that the intelligible is intelligible at all—a surd that is not just absurd?

Such questions put thinking on trial. They provoke determinate thinking, but they issue in perplexities that do not yield a univocal answer; indeed, they resist being conclusively formulated as univocal problems. A constitutive ambiguity persists, a constitutive openness remains, beyond our efforts at determination. Since such questions concern the being or the good or the intelligibility of the determinate, they come to articulation from beyond the determinate. We may not be able univocally to answer such perplexities, but we cannot negate them. They continue to be reborn. Though we cannot master or dissolve them completely, we must return to them again and again, and with thinking informed by mindfulness of what comes to be at the edge of determination.

The point is not to undermine or deconstruct the importance of definite cognition of the determinacies of beings or processes. Rather, philosophical mindfulness is not simply a progressive conquering of an initial indefiniteness by a more and more complete determination or definite cognition. There is something about the beginning that is not only in excess of objectification and determination at the outset, but that remains in excess at the end, even after our most strenuous efforts at determination.


I think we need to distinguish between original astonishment, perplexity, and the curiosity that leads on to definite cognition. Astonishment is closest to the original wonder. I use the term "astonishment" because contemporary usage of the word wonder easily slides into the sentimental. We are struck into astonishment. We do not think our way into astonishment; we are overcome by astonishment. There is a certain shock or bite of otherness in astonishment. There is also a certain receptivity, indeed patience. The givenness of being is offered for our beholding. We are patient to its giving insofar as we do not produce it, or bring it toward ourselves only for it just to be cognitively possessed by us. There is always an excess in astonishment. Something is both given to mindfulness, and yet is in excess of what mindfulness can grasp clearly and distinctly in that given. Astonishment is aroused when there is, so to say, a "too-muchness" about the givenness of something that both overcomes us and fascinates us. Moreover, this astonishing, although not at first within our control, and though resistant to exhaustive illumination in clear and distinct concepts, is not a mere vague indefiniteness. If we were to say that it is indeterminate, it would have to be called indeterminate in a positive and affirmative sense. This is why I prefer to speak of an overdetermination: such a sense of the indeterminate/ overdeterminate is not antithetical to determination. Rather it exceeds every determination we will later attempt, exceeds complete encapsulation in a definite and exhaustive definition. This affirmative overdetermination of the beginning is crucial to granting the surplus sources of all thinking, and will be very important in understanding the equivocities of dialectic below, and indeed the reason why there is no end of metaphysical thinking.

Perplexity, by contrast, is a movement of mindfulness that arises subsequently to the first astonishment. The very excess of what is first given rouses thought and questioning on our behalf. Something excessive is given, and we would fain interpret its meaning. Perplexity arises when mind becomes troubled about the meaning of the original astonishment and what is given to thought in it. There is something indeterminate about perplexity, but there is also a more concerted movement to overcome the indeterminate. The very troubling of thought here seeks its own overcoming in a peace of mind that is no longer troubled or perplexed. Thus we find the beginnings of the movement toward determinate cognition, but in such a fashion, so to say, that the aura of the beginning still wraps itself around mindfulness. Perplexity is not patience to the otherness of being in quite the same way as is the original astonishment. In its troubled mindfulness there works a vector of self-transcendence that would go toward this otherness of being, and if possible overcome its own perplexity. Thus perplexity is often felt as a lack of definite cognition, driving out beyond itself to overcome that lack.

From this drive there arises the movement of mind toward determinate cognition. That is, perplexity becomes curiosity when the indefiniteness of perplexity is focused more specifically on particular beings and processes. Perplexity may have an indefiniteness about it, in that one might be perplexed and not know quite what one is perplexed about. But curiosity is more clearly definite; one is curious about this, that, or the other. Curiosity is not vague, though it may be itchy, that is, greedily extend itself to everything coming within its purview. It is with curiosity that definite questions arise about particular beings and processes, definite questions that seek determinate answers. Yet like perplexity, the movement of curiosity is out of an initial sense of lack: I lack the definite knowing of this, that, or the other; nevertheless, I take the definite steps to acquire proper determinate knowing; and the goal is just such determinate cognition as brings to an end the thrust of curiosity, and overcomes the initial lack of knowledge that drives the seeking.

Overall, then, there is something excessive and overdetermined about the astonishing beginning; then there is a troubled indeterminacy and sense of lack, in the perplexity of mind that is subsequently precipitated; finally, there is a drive to definiteness and determination in curiosity that seeks to overcome any survival of troubled indefiniteness and lack, such as we find in perplexity.


Excerpted from The Intimate Strangeness of Being by William Desmond Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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