Nothingness and Desire

Nothingness and Desire: A Philosophical Antiphony

James W. Heisig
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    Nothingness and Desire
    Book Description:

    The six lectures that make up this book were delivered in March 2011 at London University’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies as the Jordan Lectures on Comparative Religion. They revolve around the intersection of two ideas, nothingness and desire, as they apply to a re-examination of the questions of self, God, morality, property, and the East-West philosophical divide.

    Rather than attempt to harmonize East and West philosophies into a single chorus, Heisig undertakes what he calls a “philosophical antiphony.” Through the simple call-and-response of a few representative voices, Heisig tries to join the choir on both sides of the antiphony to relate the questions at hand to larger problems that press on the human community. He argues that as problems like the technological devastation of the natural world, the shrinking of elected governance through the expanding powers of financial institutions, and the expropriation of alternate cultures of health and education spread freely through traditional civilizations across the world, religious and philosophical responses can no longer afford to remain territorial in outlook. Although the lectures often stress the importance of practice, their principal preoccupation is with seeing the things of life more clearly. Heisig explains:

    “By that I mean not just looking more closely at objects that come into my line of view from day to day, but seeing them as mirrors in which I can see myself reflected. Things do not just reveal parts of the world to me; they also tell me something of how I see what I see, and who it is that does the seeing. To listen to what things have to say to me, I need to break with the habit of thinking simply that it is I who mirror inside of myself the world outside and process what I have captured to make my way through life. Only when this habit has been broken will I be able to start seeing through the reflections, to scrape the tain off the mirror, as it were, so that it becomes a window to the things of life as they are, with only a pale reflection of myself left on the pane. Everything seen through the looking glass, myself included, becomes an image on which reality has stamped itself. This, I am persuaded, is the closest we can come to a ground for thinking reasonably and acting as true-to-life as we can.”

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3956-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)
    James W. Heisig

    The pursuit of certitude and wealth lie at the foundations of the growth of human societies. Societies that care little to know for certain what is true and what is not, or those that have little concern for increasing their holdings—material, monetary, intellectual, geographical, or political—are easily swallowed up by those that do. The accumulation of certitude and of wealth has given us civilization and its discontents. Those at one end of the spectrum who doubt fundamental truths or who forsake the prevailing criteria of wealth in the name of other values are kept in check by the...

  4. Nothingness and Desire
      (pp. 9-11)

      The orbit of questions taken up in these lectures is defined by two focal ideas, nothingness and desire. The discussion is never centered on one without taking into account its eccentricity from the other. The movement of the argument is therefore deliberately elliptical, with no covert aim of collapsing the two into a common central point. The distance between them will depend solely on how they are applied to specific questions, not to any higher standpoint at which they can be shown to coincide. But neither are they meant to stand as opposing principles of reality that would land us...

      (pp. 11-16)

      I am proposing the notion of desire as one of the two mainstays of a conversation among philosophical traditions rooted in a plurality of cultural and linguistic environments. My resources will be limited to the East-West divide, but I take that divide as an analogy of broader application than I can demonstrate here. The elevation of desire to a primary category of understanding the human will serve us later when we come to question human being as the sole standard against which to measure the quality of experience and evaluate moral praxis.

      A good place to begin is the skepsis...

      (pp. 17-19)

      Insofar as particular wants and wishes belong to the real world of subjective experience, they have objects. Those objects may not be immediately identifiable; they may be idealistic and unreachable, but this does not affect the reality of the craving for them. Ifdesirewere only a general class name for these wants and wishes, we could hardly speak of it as a fiction except in the abstract sense in which all language fictionalizes experience. The desire that interests us here is distinguished from these wants and wishes by the absence of a proper object, real or imaginary, and therefore...

      (pp. 19-24)

      The notion of nothingness, apart from its metaphysical consequences for one’s view of reality, is primarily a matter of acknowledging the primacy of experience, not a subject experiencing an object, and not even an inner event of consciousness or even limited to human consciousness at all, but the pure transience of events that make up “the world.” The language may seem a little odd, since experience normally entails a subject or at least an experiencing consciousness, but it means just what it says. Wittgenstein’s remark that philosophizing requires “descending into primeval chaos and feeling at home there” does not refer...

      (pp. 24-28)

      The pairing of nothingness and desire may seem to recommend nothingness as providing a proper object for desire stripped of all attachment to objects in the world of being. It cannot, and the very suggestion harbors a serious bias against both ideas that is far from obvious in the foregoing explanation

      To begin with, nothingness and desire are not being conceived of in causal terms. They do not require the cause-effect modes of thinking and certainly not a premise about the categorical necessity of causality for all thought. Insofar as nothingness is an active force that holds being and becoming...

  5. Self and No-Self
      (pp. 31-35)

      The usual way of understanding the notion of no-self has been to define it as a gloss on the notion of self. I would like to reverse the process and see no-self as the primary analog for talk about a self. To do this, we need to show how the notion of self is incapable of embracing the concept of no-self within itself. A good place to begin is by questioning Feuerbach’s project of unmasking all theology as a covert anthropology.

      Relying on mainstream theological descriptions of God, Feuerbach saw such talk as projections into the skies of human nature...

      (pp. 35-37)

      The “heart’s desire” is not a term that means very much all by itself. It is an analogical word whose content only makes sense when the distinctions it implies are laid out and interpreted. On hearing the word, we want to know what makes aheart’sdesire different from other kinds of desire, and what it is the heart desires. In putting these questions, we assume a notion of self different from the everyday self. After the psychologist Jung, the distinction between “ego” and “self” (or true self, or Self) became a customary way of making the point in many...

      (pp. 38-40)

      The critical difference between self and no-self is, of course, the “no-.” Unless it can be given a positive meaning as an affirmation of relationality, it remains a mere privative whose meaning is reduced to a paring away of those aspects of self that are seen as deleterious to its true nature and manifestation. No-self, as we have said, is one of the aspects of nothingness, the mind of nothingness. The impression that the mind is a kind of container that has nothingness as its “content” is altogether too crude, but, as we shall see, the way to a more...

      (pp. 41-45)

      Notions of no-self as they are expressed today typically begin by disconnecting mind from the idea of a discrete “I” at the core of consciousness in order to reconnect it to a nonsubjective, nonobjective flow of experience pure and simple. The disconnect and the reconnect each allow for any number of variations, as do the transition from one to the other, but we will focus on connections to nothingness and desire.

      As we saw in the images selected from the Dhammapada, the refinement of mind is accomplished, or at least cultivated, through a deliberate detachment from desires. The detachment involves...

      (pp. 46-48)

      Just as self-reflection raises the question of a duality within the self that allows a part of it to stand before the whole as a spectator, so, too, does talk of a desire for no-self entangle itself in the apparent contradiction of desiring not to desire. In speaking of a “deliberate” detachment from desires, we left open the question ofwhodoes the detaching. This is not a question that is asked as often as it might be among Buddhist philosophers. But when it is faced squarely, the notion of a true, deeper self that is said to act on...

      (pp. 48-52)

      At first sight, the differences between a no-self grounded in nothingness and a self-transcending self grounded in being seems to be cosmetic in comparison to their similarities. As unreflected modes of thought governing action, this may be the case. But when we consider them as consciously entertained models for thought and action, the difference in orientation takes on greater importance.

      Self-transcendence through divine grace is concerned with the salvation of the being of the individual by preparing it for a truer life in an otherworldly realm of existence. Belief in the true home of the self as beyond the temporary...

  6. God
    • 12 GOD AND DEATH
      (pp. 55-57)

      Primus in orbe deos fecit timor—It was fear that first made gods in the world—wrote the first-century poet Petronius. Hume went on to point to the origins of religion in unknown causes that hold us hanging between life and death and “which become the constant object of our hope and fear.” The hopes and fears surrounding death and the ultimate human desire for its cure are as obvious as they are difficult to tie to any universal theory of belief in a divine realm. But they give us a good place to start in considering the notion of...

      (pp. 57-60)

      Meister Eckhart speaks of the return to the ground of being in nothingness as a “letting go of God for the sake of God.” He acknowledges our dependence on concrete images of God to sustain us in life, but sees independence from that imagery as a higher state of insight orintellectio. His goal, as he says, is to “catch a glimpse of God in his dressing room,” where he is disrobing himself of one image to take on another. For Eckhart, the glimpse would at the same time be a glimpse into the ground at which the distinction between...

    • 14 GOD AND LIFE
      (pp. 60-64)

      It is entirely too simple to dismiss God as a mere creation of the imagination that can be reduced, without remainder, to other, more tangible things of life. Reflection on nothingness and desire pure and simple has a purgative effect on the literalizing of talk about God, but it does not do away with what it is that has been literalized. The symbols we use to speak of a divine being point to more than a mere self-deception, even if we are aware that we cannot literalize them. In returning to talk about God from the standpoint of no-self at...

      (pp. 64-67)

      An ailing planet offers us the first opportunity in human history to form a global community not based on the struggle for economic advantage. It is an opportunity that no religion and no civilized nation has been able to offer, and yet it goes ignored by the masses of humanity. As more and more persons are capacitated to consume more and more of the earth, the numbers of those who die of insufficient consumption continues to grow at an ever increasing pace. The data are public knowledge, but the manipulation of that data remains in the hands of a minority...

      (pp. 67-69)

      Christian theology, in its apophatic mode, has long recognized a sense in which God is not personal. Feuerbach once remarked that if we were birds, our God would be winged. Paul Tillich makes the point more sensibly in noting that, strictly speaking, the most we can affirm is that God is only a personfor us. If personhood is only possible through an encounter with other persons, the only way to maintain our own personhood is to personalize God. But this is a symbolic move and does not require that we jump to ontological conclusions on the basis of the...

      (pp. 70-74)

      Let us say, then, that the idea of God, whether personal or impersonal, is fundamentally a wandering star that, although it has no fixed orbit, revolves around something else to find its place in the scheme of things. Let us say, further, that within the universe of being, the sun that stands at the center is nothing other than the pure desire to be and to become. This way of speaking seems to sidestep the question to which the God of being has been an answer: What is finally, and absolutely, behind it all? It argues that things simply are...

      (pp. 74-76)

      Earlier I spoke of God as a wandering star without a fixed orbit. Unless one assumes that only a single, doctrinally certified, and internally consistent notion of God is worthy of our investment of value in it, there is no reason why there should not be a plurality of images of the divine that do not form a logical unity. This is neither polytheism nor pantheism in the ordinary sense of the words. There is always the possibility of a high level of abstraction at which everything fuses into a single idea, but such an idea is incapable of being...

  7. Morality
      (pp. 79-82)

      Of themselves, nothingness and desire have no concrete ethical content. Their intersect occupies a place between those two orders—theisand theought to be—whose conflict is a central concern of philosophy. It is the place we stand as we fear the finitude of our lives such as they are and from which we hope for a more desirable world. What wedoabout what we see there is another thing. Mythical stories of a primordially good world, the way it was before evil came into the picture, stand in the same place with the same ethical neutrality....

      (pp. 82-84)

      In the last lecture we spoke of the divine as the absolutely relative. We return to that idea to begin consideration of how moral reflection and action function at the intersection of nothingness and desire. The image of God as an absolute nothingness, we suggested, points to creative dynamism that links all things in the world to each other by being the one thing to which everything is related. For that reason, God cannot refer to any particular item in the world of being that can be affected by its relationship. Not that God is beyond change; God is intimately...

      (pp. 84-88)

      Seen from the middle ground, the goal of morality is to broaden the scope and depth of the harmony, to act more divinely within the convivium of interconnectedness. This is, of course, more possible for conscious beings, and more so as the full range of conscious activities is engaged. Morality always includes a blend of social customs, personal habits, and distinct decisions. The less these are represented, the less we can speak of morality. Thus to focus morality on personal decision makes it difficult to give harmony its rightful place.

      A critical history of the emergence of free will in...

      (pp. 88-93)

      Habits are cultivated not only to alter the actual things we do or do not do, but also to alter the reasons we act or refrain from acting. The idea of “cultivating” habits immediately suggests the ascetic discipline of a moralagere contra. The aim of the struggle against our baser impulses is to tune our way of acting and thinking to an accepted standard of perfection. This standard can be seen as coded in laws, accepted mores, divinely revealed commands, classical texts, philosophical maxims, and the like, but it can just as well be associated with the imitation of...

      (pp. 93-95)

      In displacing moral principles and decision from moral reflection to relocate them at the intersection of nothingness and desire I do not mean to displace the moral subject from moral philosophy. To do so would be to deny the obvious fact that only human beings are possessed of a subjectivity capable of overriding the drive of instinctual desires. My intention is rather to define a perspective within which the subject is not viewed primarily as an agent of free will while maintaining its role as an instrument of the good. It is not that we need to stop talking about...

      (pp. 96-100)

      If the purpose of moral reflection is a pursuit of the good life, the goodness cannot be defined in such a way as to exclude the desire for happiness. Everything depends, of course, on how we understand happiness and this, too, is a task that belongs to moral reflection.

      The idea of the convivium as a moral universal whose desires inform and enfold the individual cannot be expressed apart from a specific perceptual world within which the moral subject finds itself. This is why we spoke of the moral ideal as an enhancing and expanding of relative circles of harmony....

  8. Property
      (pp. 103-105)

      In this lecture I will be treating the notion of property in a much wider sense than normal in order to draw together some of the many loose ends left dangling in the discussion thus far. The primary analogy for property, we will suggest, is consciousness of having a body “of one’s own,” but we begin with the notion of ownership or possession of things.

      Accumulating possessions is a way of feeding desires for health, power, knowledge, and status in the human community. Anything can become property, including the way we accumulate it and the way we define ourselves as...

      (pp. 106-108)

      It is time we drew out more clearly the distinction between property and possession hinted at in the foregoing. In its literal sense, property refers only to the perception of one thing “belonging” to another. It is merely something appropriated or “made one’s own.” In this sense, no thing, no one is without property, and no property exists without a relationship in which the owner and the owned are one and the same. Possession, if also taken in the literal sense, means to have or be master of, or, in its rawest Latin roots, “to be able to sit on.”...

      (pp. 108-110)

      The shift of standpoint from possession to property also affects our attachment to the things that define our lives from day to day. A great deal of moral and religious literature is devoted to the virtue of detachment. Attaching ourselves to things, as well as to our ideas about things, holding fast to what will sooner or later be taken from us, is no doubt the cause of much unnecessary suffering, mental as well as physical. Behind it all lies the desire for attachment to the objects of desires. This is no less true when the attachment is to an...

      (pp. 110-112)

      The affirmation of the bodily enjoyment of life reaches deep into the ground of mystical experience where the roots of eastern Buddhism and western Christianity are tangled indistinguishably. I have long felt that a return to that ground could aid in recovering the senses from the displeasures of having to consume more and more at an ever faster pace in order to keep up with the paradigms of happiness advertised at us from all sides. Selfless efforts to see the things of life more clearly and to improve the convivium of life in all its forms are finally suspect if...

      (pp. 112-115)

      It is commonplace today among moral and religious leaders concerned with the quality of human life to speak of modern consumer society as a colossal beast with a ravenous appetite for goods and services on the one end, and a shameless disregard for dumping its waste on the other. The idea of looking at a human society as a corpus that feeds off the earth and either competes or cooperates with other human societies for available resources—that is, as a moral entity accountable to the community of all human societies and to conventional ideas of the natural world—has...

      (pp. 115-120)

      The cultivation of habits necessary to sustain a balance between attachment to the completeness of our human condition and detachment from self-centered desires is reflected most concretely in in our relationship to things. Having second thoughts about the things we more or less own and the things that more or less own us makes us more nervous than almost any other grand philosophical or moral thought can, as when a bee lands on your arm and your body stiffens, squeezing the whole of your attention into that small patch of skin where the six small legs have alighted, in anticipation...

  9. The East-West Divide
      (pp. 123-125)

      Half a life spent in a research center in Japan after a formal education in the United States and Europe has left me chronically pestered by thoughts about the East-West divide. They buzz around inside of my head like flies that, try as I might, I cannot swat down. Often enough I catch myself envious of people who live within a more or less stable horizon where the sun rises at one end and sets at the other, within a worldview whose major landmarks give it if not certitude, then at least the consolation of being able to locate all...

      (pp. 125-128)

      Philosophy, despite its preeminent commitment to self-criticism, is far from above suspicion in the misunderstandings caused by the East-West distinction. There are many superstitions about the origin of certain ideas that can be swept away easily by textual proof, but such arguments rarely succeed as well as self-illumination through the antiphony of dialogue. More often than not, I have the impression they perpetuate the divide. More is at stake in eliminating the divide than the correction of mistakes, something in the nature of a metanoia, whose proper language is one of symbol rather than of the written word. In these...

      (pp. 128-131)

      Nothingness and desire, then, represent modes of thought that are problematic precisely because they are so easily understood by one side of the divide looking at the other. From the standpoint of western philosophy and religious thought, nothingness seems a very shaky ground to build up a rational view of the world. None of its affiliate ideas in the mainstream of western intellectual history, no version of a via negativa, has ever been able to play more than a skeptic’s role toward established systems of thought. Consequently, nothingness looks to be assuming the very thing it seeks to criticize, not...

      (pp. 131-136)

      Philosophy in the twenty-first century is poised to become philosophically universal for the first time. Although philosophers have aimed at such universality from its first beginnings, they have been bound for the most part by cultural assumptions that have blocked the path before them. This is a rather bold statement to make for a legacy that reaches back over twenty-five centuries, but I know of no humbler way to express what seems to be taking place. The fact is, the philosophical tradition from the pre-Socratics to the present has suffered from a certain failure of coincidence with its own aims...

      (pp. 136-140)

      The structures of thought and practice holding the East-West divide in place are far less stable than they were a century ago. The specific consequences of this shaking of the foundations are hard to predict, but there seems little doubt they will be far-reaching. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the readership of East Asian philosophical texts has come to include more and more academics with professional training in the western philosophical tradition. The reasons for and against venturing into that largely unfamiliar territory cover a wide spectrum from outright refusal to rethink the borders of western philosophy proper,...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 141-142)

    The shadow of intolerance cast by the pursuit of certitude is no less long and menacing in the intellectual adventures of the East than it is in the West. Each side has its own correctives which today, more than ever, need to be consulted to combat the global institutionalization of knowledge as information. It has become clearer to me in hindsight than it was when I set out that the ideas of nothingness and desire stimulate the consultation at every turn. Insofar as the correctives define themselves in terms of the prevalent modes of intolerance and do not offer radical...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 143-176)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-190)
  13. Index of Proper Names
    (pp. 191-194)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-195)