When Wonder Strikes: William Desmond’s Metaphysics of Excess

When Wonder Strikes: William Desmond's Metaphysics of Excess

William Desmond’s philosophy begins in wonder. It wonders at the aesthetic richness of the world, at our own mysterious depths, at the strangeness of there being anything at all. Dennis Vanden Auweele claims, “It is abundance that propels thought [for Desmond], not emptiness.”[1] Desmond argues that being is excessive, “overdetermined.”[2] It is more than we can take in. Being manifests a worth that we did not put there, a worth that can move us to care. The strike of wonder (re)awakens us to this abundance and worth. Perhaps we are struck by a starlit sky or by mote constellations suspended in a window’s light. Perhaps we are struck by the face of a newborn child, the face of a lover, or the face of a suffering stranger.

Desmond’s philosophy describes being’s abundance and affirms its worth. He moves beyond the modern tendency to focus on the determinate, on what can be pinned down in propositions. Many philosophers, for instance, dismiss wonder at the strangeness of anything existing at all. They treat such wonder at the mystery of being as philosophical nonsense, subjective mysticism, or mere superfluity precisely because it cannot yield a determinate answer. Desmond, on the other hand, thinks that our thought must be continually renewed in such astonished wonder. Otherwise, it will be prone to false closure or bone-dry rationalism. Still, Desmond does not wish to trade a (modern) focus on the univocal and the determinate for a (postmodern) focus on the equivocal and the indeterminate, which when taken to an extreme seems to allow for no determinations at all.

Desmond instead stresses the “overdeterminate.” He often turns to the work of art as an illustration of this. A work of art is “a unique singular,” Desmond explains, “which is yet big with an inexhaustibility that no set of finite determinations can deplete.”[3] Persuasive analysis must attend to an artwork’s concrete particulars, must try to discern what it communicates, but no analysis can exhaust its richness. Even the most authoritative critic cannot claim the last word. Another critic can always contest or supplement. This means that the artwork is neither simply determinate nor purely indeterminate. Desmond would say that it offers an excess of plausible determinations. This is what he means when he calls the artwork overdetermined. For Desmond, reality itself and the many others we encounter are best understood as overdetermined. We can make any number of determinations about them, but we can never fully grasp them. “What is true of great works of art,” explains Ryan Duns, “is true of anything or anyone worthy of love: we embrace mystery. The surplus of meaning behind a text, a painting, a person invites us into ongoing engagement.”[4]

Desmond claims that philosophy needs not only propositions, then, but also poetic description. The latter evokes the overdetermined richness of being. Such description recurs throughout Desmond’s writings. In his books God and the Between (2008) and Godsends (2021), Desmond even includes some original poems. One tells of a walk “Along the verge / Of the bay.” The speaker notes “People promenading,” a jet plane overhead tracing “a white line / To somewhere / Unknown,” a limping man who “pretends / He does not need / His cane.” The speaker notes a resurfacing cormorant, tracks the blood trail of a wounded creature, and then sits down on a bench to “Rest and write / Of these saturations”:

Soul a dripping sponge
Medium of a meaning
Whose message
It cannot pinion
As it passes

This poem dramatizes several of Desmond’s key concerns: our sponge-like receptivity; the sensual excess of the world that saturates it; the way universal propositions cannot contain the excess; the mystery of being, suggested here by the ocean depths and the “Unknown” passage overhead. This poem is marked by the “intimate strangeness of being,” to use Desmond’s own evocative phrase, by an awareness that we are intimately a part of a world that we can never fully grasp. It is not a saccharine poem. It reminds us of fragility (the limping man), finitude (the blood trail), and natural violence (the cormorant eating a fish). Yet it still affirms the excess and enigmatic worth of things:

I do nothing
To merit it
I ask for nothing
I have already received

The speaker begins to write on the bench, and the words come to “consecrate” these things. Desmond’s philosophy often consecrates, blesses, affirms. It draws attention to this as one of the primal capacities of language, as a primal vocation of not only religion but also poetry and philosophy.[6] This is a controversial or at least unfashionable claim in many philosophical circles. But Desmond argues that the affirming philosopher will be attentive to crucial dimensions that other philosophers forget, ignore, or refuse.

Desmond is a poetic thinker, then, but he is also a systematic thinker. He wishes to offer a systematic metaphysics of overdetermined being, a “metaxological” account of the relationships “between” overdetermined entities. Robert Cummings Neville claims, “William Desmond is one of those rare philosophers who has a philosophy, indeed a philosophical system. In this he is like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hegel, and Whitehead.”[7] As should be clear, though, Desmond does not offer a closed system that ignores or explains away excess; nor does Desmond’s metaphysics adopt a god’s eye view. He resists the temptation to disappear behind an impersonal system. His departure point is his own astonished wonder at the world, like that of the speaker walking along the beach in his poem. This seemingly humble departure point, however, launches Desmond on a wide-ranging, adventurous quest. “If Desmond is a major critic of philosophical gluttony that insists on speculatively mastering the entire range and depth of the real,” explains Cyril O’Regan, “this should not disguise the fact that the refusal of [comprehensive, closed] system does not function to narrow, but rather open up multiple phenomenological-metaphysical vistas into individuals, communities, selves, desire, drive, receptivity, the nature of art, religion and philosophy, and the good, the true, and the beautiful to name but a few.”[8] Desmond’s philosophy ranges widely, but it both begins and ends in wonder at a world about which we can continually learn yet never fully comprehend.

Because he attends to excess, Desmond evades the common charges that continental philosophers often level at metaphysicians. His metaphysics is not one of static presences or totalizing concepts. It is neither onto-theological nor logocentric. As his departure point in wonder suggests, he shares much with Heidegger, the great critic of metaphysics. Desmond acknowledges several valid concerns about metaphysics in the wake of Heidegger, concerns about overreach, static system, and false closure. Still, Desmond claims that Heidegger and his followers caricature the tradition(s) of philosophical metaphysics when they reduce it to, say, the forgetfulness of being. Desmond notes Aristotle’s claim that “being is said in many senses.”[9] Desmond argues there are practices of metaphysics that do not run afoul of Heidegger’s concerns, and they are not as forgotten in the history of philosophy as Heidegger sometimes holds.

Furthermore, we cannot avoid metaphysics.[10] We all have assumptions about the nature of being and its worth. We live an implicit metaphysics. Assumptions animate our cultural milieu as well. These of course mold our own assumptions in turn. “Metaphysical presuppositions about the ‘to be,’” Desmond observes, “are at play mostly unacknowledged, in common sense, in politics, in ethics, in art, in science, in religion, in philosophy, indeed in ‘postmetaphysical’ philosophy itself.”[11] Desmond notes a pervasive modern sense of being as a neutral resource, of “real” value as use value, of other values as secondary or subjective. Desmond calls this the “ethos of serviceable disposability,” wherein “things must be serviceable for us, but once they have served their use, they are disposable.” He notes that “persons too are often treated as items of serviceable disposability.”[12] Desmond joins many continental thinkers in decrying crudely instrumental approaches to people and the world. He breaks with most of them, though, in holding that the answer is not to “overcome” metaphysics but to offer a metaphysics that affirms value beyond use. Desmond wishes to recover a richer sense of being to counter the pervasive ethos of serviceable disposability and the politics it subtends. Our ongoing ecological crisis makes this a pressing metaphysical task.[13]

It is also an aesthetic task. 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 are the main focus of the larger study of Desmond’s thought from which this essay is excerpted.) 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.[14] 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—must open themselves to—wonder, and they must communicate this wonder to others. He claims that our contemporary crises call for a renewed sense of this kinship.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from the preface of Steven Knepper’s recently published book Wonder Strikes: Approaching Aesthetics and Literature with William Desmond. It appears here courtesy of the State University of New York Press. All rights reserved.

[1] Dennis Vanden Auweele, “Introduction,” in Dennis Vanden Auweele, ed., William Desmond’s Philosophy between Metaphysics, Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics: Thinking Metaxologically (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 6.

[2] Note that Desmond’s use of “overdetermined” thus reverses its most common usage in everyday speech, where it means that something is overly specified.

[3] William Desmond, Being and the Between (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 187.

[4] Ryan G. Duns, SJ, Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: Desmond and the Quest for God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 203.

[5] Desmond, God and the Between (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 116

[6] See Catherine Pickstock’s argument that there is a “doxological” trajectory in Plato in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998). See also Jean-Louis Chrétien’s remarks on philosophy and admiration in The Ark of Speech, translated by Andrew Brown (London: Routledge, 2004), 111–48.

[7] Robert Cummings Neville, Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018), 319.

[8] Cyril O’Regan, “Evil: From Phenomenology to Thought,” in Vanden Auweele, ed., William Desmond’s Philosophy between Metaphysics, Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics, 151.

[9] Desmond, The Voiding of Being: The Doing and Undoing of Metaphysics in Modernity (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2020), 2.

[10] Desmond discusses the unavoidability of metaphysics in Being and the Between, 3–46. See James L. Marsh, “William Desmond’s Overcoming of the Overcoming of Metaphysics,” in Thomas A. F. Kelly, ed., Between System and Poetics: William Desmond and Philosophy after Dialectic (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 95–105. See also John R. Betz, “Overcoming the Forgetfulness of Metaphysics: The More Original Philosophy of William Desmond,” in Christopher Ben Simpson and Brendan Thomas Sammon, eds., William Desmond and Contemporary Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, ), 57–91.

[11] Desmond, The Voiding of Being, 4. For Desmond’s historical account of philosophical metaphysics in modernity, see The Voiding of Being, 17–48.

[12] Desmond, “Wording the Between,” in Christopher Ben Simpson, ed., The William Desmond Reader (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 216.

[13] On the ecological affordances of Desmond’s thought, see Alexandra Romanyshyn, “Metaxology and Environmental Ethics: On the Ethical Response to the Aesthetics of Nature as Other in the Between,” in Vanden Auweele, ed., William Desmond’s Philosophy between Metaphysics, Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics, 303­–15.

[14] Desmond, Desire, Dialectic, and Otherness: An Essay on Origins (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 155.