William Desmond’s Metaphysics, Pt. I: The Nature of Being and Metaphysics

[On William Desmond’s metaphysics: pt. ii]

I’m reading through William Desmond‘s metaphysics, presented in his magisterial Being and the Between. This is my first of many posts on the subject… (and yes, I know John Milbank loves Desmond and his thought. But I’m not going to let that deter me).

William Desmond’s project is a continental metaphysics. That’s right, despite all the fuss about ‘overcoming metaphysics’ and the postmodern distaste for ontotheology, Desmond has forged ahead anyway. And I have to admit, his system is rather impressive.

Firstly I think it belongs, along with Whiteheadian process metaphysics, in the category of constructive postmodernism. It is indeed a postmodern system for several reasons, but most importantly because of its hospitality for otherness: it’s respect for difference and its acceptance for what it doesn’t and can’t know. It’s a radically open system with significant epistemological humility.

One of the things I like most about Desmond’s system is that it is phenomenological in orientation. He asks the question of being-itself. Desmond claims that the meta in metaphysics has a double meaning, “above/beyond” and “in the midst of.” This latter sense is the oft-forgotten one, he claims, and must be reasserted as the origin of metaphysical thinking. This second sense of meta means all of our knowing and theorizing begins with a primordial ontological intimacy, what Heidegger would call pre-ontological knowing (and Rahner would call pre-thematic). This primordial intimacy of participation is the place metaphysics must begin and remain in touch with.

Desmond claims that the starting point of metaphysics is ‘agapeic astonishment.’ This is his appropriation of Heidegger’s question of fundamental ontology. Desmond wants to remind us that we begin – our consciousness, our knowing, and our theorizing – always already in the midst of the plenitude of being. There is always more to being, and he will say the same about beings, than can be known or accounted for. This isn’t formally an epistemological problem, however, but an ontological one. Desmond sees being as containing an “excess of all determination” (Being and the Between, 13). Any and all speculative systematizing is done with this in view, rendering our thinking incomplete.

For Desmond being is dynamic – becoming – but not because of a mere logic of negation or lack (a la Hegel in The Science of Logic). Rather being is dynamic because it is overdetermined plenitude or excess. This is an important point for Desmond, who sees the dialectics of Hegel to be dependent upon both the resolution and overcoming of difference in a higher unity and the logic of negation – both of which he sees as problematic. Desmond asserts that being is plurivocal – comprised of difference not overcome in a sublation – which is intrinsically dynamic/energetic. Here is the Thomist/Milbank connection, understanding being analogically, which I will address more specifically later.

To me Desmond’s is a more desirable way to conceive of the dynamism of existence than, say, process metaphysics, because it still allows for questions of being/existence itself. Process thought posits the principle/force of creativity as metaphysically ultimate. The universe is subject to this principle and therefore endlessly dynamic. This is evidence of Whitehead’s thought process, though, which seems to have been an attempt to explain the origin of novelty and the dynamism of the universe. Yet positing this ‘outside’ of existence – for Whitehead creativity isn’t an actual entity – is an interesting move. Why not locate it firmly within the nature of existence itself?

Of course part of the answer here is that ‘existence itself’ does’t really make sense in an event-based ontology. This is ultimately why it doesn’t seem a process thinker can/would ask, why is there something rather than nothing? and mean it in the same way a Heideggerian would. A process thinker would probably take that to be a question of the instantiation or identification of particular actual entities, as in, why are there actual entities (or these and not others)? It would (to mix the language) be perceived as a question of beings, things. But a Heideggerian asks it in a more fundamental sense, as in, why is there existence at all?  Thus it is the question of being rather than beings. It seems to me that process thought is impoverished for not being able to ask questions of existence as such, including the question of existence itself. Echoing Heidegger, Desmond claims that “we wish to think beyond the mind that instrumentalizes” (B&B, 46).


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