Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Freedom as the Immanent Transcendence of Desire

Here is an introduction to my book manuscript that I wrote and discarded because it moves too slowly.  However, it is an excellent start to furthering the discussion of the first post on this blog that also explains its title, immanent transcendence.  Many of my professional struggles over the years have been over Dewey's theory of desire (~valuation) and its importance for his theory of inquiry.  The problem has been that most scholars I meet either focus on the reflective moment or valuation/evaluation, or do not think on it at all.  The discussion below will imply why this is a dangerous omission, and even if my points are granted, rarely do I see scholarship that thinks through the implications.  In essence, Dewey presumes far more of human agency than even his own theory allows, and thus over-promises on what his theory of inquiry can accomplish.  Since then, I have attempted another angle of attacking the problem that will become my second book.

One reason that I have struggled with this is because few scholars think "desire" in Dewey as akin to the conatus of Spinoza and as suffering similar problems as the seeds of desire (cosmogenesis) in Schelling and Hegel.  See Gouinlock for the clearest thought on this, and then contrast it with Lekan, Eldridge, or Campbell.  Dewey, for those of you not in the know, began his career as a Hegelian, and such thought left a "permanent deposit" on his thought by his own admission, but decades of Dewey scholarship has overlooked it until recently, e.g., see Jim Good and Jim Garrison.  Many of his basic concepts are derivations from Hegel, whom he is often said to have naturalize.  He has, as a prime example, a Hegelian concept of "experience," which is why neo-pragmatists such as Rorty nearly universally jettison the lynch pin of his philosophy despite its prominence.

I will most certainly revisit this topic.


There is an asymmetry in the struggle between desire and intelligence.  Desire always rules before reflection masters it, yet intelligent thought pursues desire's purposes.  This is the fundamental insight of this book, which leads to recognition of the basic problem.  Since desire partly constitutes thought, intelligent thought requires a momentary transcendence of its conditions to effect an immanent reworking of desire.  When thought arises, it finds itself bound in the structures of desire that it cannot escape, but only reconstruct, and it is autonomous only to the extent that it succeeds.  The question is, what is this transcendence that constitutes intelligent thought and how is it possible?

This book focuses upon the problem within the philosophy of John Dewey, as it is exemplified in two concepts, desire and experience. Neither term carries its usual denotation, and most of the book will consist in their exposition through historical and contemporary scholarship.  An extensive treatment is necessary because both concepts involve process metaphysics, which is alien to most readers.  I will slowly introduce introduce the concepts in this introduction that will illustrate the asymmetry of desire and reflective thought (intelligence).  "Desire" can be understood as the animate force of a creature to continue itself.  I will present three historic understandings, of this idea to triangulate my intended meaning.

For Hobbes, this animate force, or endeavour generates all the motions, feelings, and thoughts of the body as if the unwinding of a master spring in a watch.  However, Hobbes understood it on the model of corpuscular mechanics, which would later be known as Newtonian mechanics, whereby it is an inner drive or active power that determines the movement and thought of a person unless externally constrained.  Desire is then reduced to a generator of efficient, mechanical causality, a watch spring.  While the view that desire is a source of self-preserving activity is accurate for Dewey, its reduction to efficient causality and the perspective of Newtonian physics would reduce nature to clockwork mechanism.    The relation of desire and nature is better established through Spinoza, who also shares Dewey's views on the psychology of desire.

For Spinoza, the animate force is conatus. (III,p7)  It is the power of a thing to act alone or in conjunction with other things to persist in its own being.  Only its own nature and place within the system of nature constrains it, which are understood as "internal" (essential) constraints.  The same force becomes will, appetite, and consciousness of appetite ("desire").  We do not judge a thing to be good and seek it, but the reverse; we endeavor, will, and seek a thing and thereby judge it to be good (III,p9s).  Likewise, imagining a desired object moves one to seek it, and implies that the affect was occasioned by something prior to thought.  Consciousness of a desired object is the last phase of a process preceded by the workings of nature as environment, body, etc. that present ideas to thought.  Spinoza's position is anti-Kantian, because it denies the separability of nature, body, desire, and reason that is the core of Kant's critical philosophy.  Dewey shares these conclusions that he inherited as a student of German idealism, especially Hegel, and physiology that I will discuss in a later chapter.   I will begin to triangulate Hobbes' and Spinoza's view to locate the proximity of Dewey's theory of desire.

Desire is the individual source of self-preserving activity, per Hobbes, but is a part of a whole system of nature per Spinoza.  Nature is not separable from its parts, and the parts are not to be understood as bodies asserting themselves against each other, e.g., as colliding billiard balls, but as an organic, inseparable whole.  Nature is a whole from which the individual body, appetite, affect, will, and conscious of desire emerge, in which thought comes last and even imagining a desired object implicates prior activity.  This is the origin of the asymmetry of desire and thought.   However, contra Spinoza, individuality does not persist as an idea in the mind of God/Nature.  Dewey synthesizes the empiricist and rationalist traditions in a novel way, and agues for neither a Hobbesian billiard-ball universe nor the Spinozan duality of Nature/God into mind and body.   Triangulation requires two points of reference to estimate a third point, the approximate significance of desire for Dewey.

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