Peter Kalkavage on Hegel’s Anti-Aristotelian Account of Desire

Hegel has sometimes been called an “Aristotelian” It is indeed undeniable that he was heavily influenced by Aristotle’s hylomorphism, the theory of nous, and so on. But there is a great gulf between Hegel and Aristotle. It is the abyss between the ancients and the moderns. One way of understanding that abyss is in terms of the account of the good and its relation to desire. Marcus Berquist once wrote that since the good is the cause of causes, the first principle, it is disagreement about the good that “defines modern philosophy, as it separates itself from the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, and the teachings of the Catholic Church.” To the moderns the good is good because it is desired, while to Plato, Aristotle, and the Catholic tradition it is desired because it is good. The following passage from Peter Kalkavage’s brilliant book on Hegel shows very clearly how central the modern principle is to Hegel’s philosophy. The passage is a bit long, but eminently worth reading.

Desire, for Hegel, is different from desire, as we normally understand it. We tend to think of desire as a stretching out toward an object different from ourselves—as the urge to have this object. The apple over there on the table is the object of my desire to eat. I pick it up and take a bite. I gratify my desire, fill a void. On this naturalistic view, the desire for knowledge is no different from my desire for an apple. “All humans,” says Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysics, “by nature desire to know.” The word for desire, here, is oregesthai, to reach or stretch out. For Aristotle, the fruit of knowledge, which determines my desire, is already there, waiting for me, as it were, on the table of the gods. I need only stretch out for it by engaging in philosophy.

In the classical and medieval view, which supports the natural view, desire is defined in terms of its object. This object is other than the being that does the desiring. In general, the object is prior to the various faculties or powers by which we relate to objects. In the De Anima, for example, Aristotle discusses the faculty of vision in terms of color as the object of vision. At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, he affirms an end or highest good for the sake of which we do all the things we do. Without such an end, he says, desire, orexis, would be “empty and futile” (1.2.1094A 21). For Plato, erōs is for the good and the beautiful. The lover desires that the good be his own forever (Symposium 206A). In medieval thought, God is the ultimate Beloved. Dante’s Beatrice is the Other who leads him to God. Dante’s love for this Other is a desire, not to possess or assimilate her for the sake of his self-certainty, but to be with her in the world in which she belongs, the heavenly City of the Paradiso.

In modernity, the priority shifts from the object to the faculty or power, from object to subject We do not love things because they are good: they are good because we love them. This inversion of ancient-medieval desire is most visible in Spinoza: “By the end for the sake of which we do some thing, I mean appetite” (Ethics, part IV, definition 7). Man, for Spinoza, is defined not by the natural end of his desire but by the desire itself, by mans conatus or striving for self-preservation. Desire, which is this striving inso far as it involves “mind and body together,” is “man s essence” (Ethics, part III, scholium to proposition 9). For Hobbes, desire is infinite in the sense of infinitely ongoing—what Hegel calls “bad infinity.” There is no highest good, only “a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death” (Leviathan, part I, chapter 11). That is why happiness, for Hobbes, is impossible.

For Hegel, as for his fellow moderns, the end of desire is not the object but desire itself. The desirous self stretches out for itself and for the proof of its self-certainty. It longs to make itself objective or real. There is a deep bond here between desire and nothingness. Non-being is dynamic. It is an active force, or rather, the active force. It is the engine and soul of all the cancellations and undercuttings we have witnessed in the dialectic of experience. In desire, I feel this force of negation as identical with my very self. Desire is the being-at-work, the raw energy, of my inner void or nothingness striving to make itself an objective something. I turn my attention, for a moment, away from all objects to my pure inwardness. What do I “see”? Nothing. But this nothing, for Hegel, is not a mere blank or absence. It is not a nothing toward which I can remain indifferent. This nothing is the self-relating negativity Hegel discusses in his Preface. There, Hegel asserts: “the negative is the self” [37]. The nothing I “see” when I look within, the nothing of self-intuition, is my infinite restlessness or anxiety. This is the core of my selfhood, which feels its difference from all objects and longs to destroy them in order to make itself the only reality. Desire is subjectivity in its raw, most immediate form. It is not a being drawn out by an object’s apparent goodness, much less its beauty, but a being driven from within by a dynamic nothingness that compels me to fill the void that is myself and transform it into a something. This understanding of desire makes it clear that the self for Hegel is its own end. (pp. 102-103)

4 thoughts on “Peter Kalkavage on Hegel’s Anti-Aristotelian Account of Desire

  1. Pingback: Freedom and the Philosophy of Nature | Sancrucensis

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  3. I think you should simply, or perhaps not so simply, read Hegel himself. He is concerned with elucidating the mechanisms by which humans come to know themselves and others, and become independent and interdependent at the same time. Moreover, you must understand these parts of Phenomenology to fit with the Phil of Right … Hegel is unlike the other moderns in that he holds that we can know the other directly … unlike Hobbes thru Kant, etc., who held in good Lutherian form everyone is isolated by original sin


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