Book Review: The Intimate Universal



William Desmond, The Intimate Universal: The Hidden Porosity Among Religion, Art, Philosophy, and Politics. Columbia University Press, 2016. 520 pp. $65.00 USD, Hardcover ISBN 9780231178761.

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William Desmond’s is a philosophy of the μεταξύ, of the between — of the tacit betweenness between the received perplexities of the perimediterranean metropolitan tradition: the One and the Many; the I and the Other; the Universal. Such radically “metaxological” inquiry (similar to that of Simone Weil), classically understood, ostensibly demands two commensurately radical commitments. First, a methodological commitment to a certain “indeterminacy” or paraconsistency in argument: a self-consciously impressionistic, “plurivocal” mode of inquiry fit to the eluding “amplitude” of ineluctable dualities. Second, a prior commitment to a certain intimacy between ostensible dualities: a tacitly universal “opening”, “porosity” or “overdeterminacy” that secretly bridges them. It is this last prior commitment —a postulate of an intimate universal, to be outlined in the sequel— that chiefly occupies the present book.

The Intimate Universal comprises two methodologically distinct parts. Part I offers what Desmond terms “exoteric reflections” — oblique, in medias res propaedeutic adumbrations of the intimate universal as lived through four “determinate spheres of human significance”: religion (Chapter 1), art (Chapter 2), philosophy (Chapter 3) and politics (Chapter 4) (p.7). Part II offers what Desmond terms “systematic thoughts” on the intimate universal as lived through four —roughly commensurate— “ontological dimensions of our being”: the “idiotics” (Chapter 5), the “aesthetics” (Chapter 6), the “erotics” (Chapter 7) and the “agapeics” (Chapter 8) (pp.12-13). Each of these, metonymically, are terms of art in Desmond’s oeuvre —some further articulated in earlier works. Such polysemy makes for rich —if sometimes hermetic— reading.

But what, then, is the “intimate universal”? For one, one cannot do methodological justice to the notion —less to Desmond’s assiduously metaxological articulation— in the present genre, with all its stipulative expectations. We shall, instead, offer a few oblique mathemes and similes from comparative philosophy —if only as a rough Leitfaden or map to the overall articulation.

In particular, consider Nāgārjuna’s equiparable catuṣkoṭi in the received Mūlamadhyamakakārikā [MMK] (XXI [Saṃbhavavibhavaparīkṣā], k.13):

na svato jāyate bhāvaḥ parato naiva jāyate |

na svataḥ parataś caiva jāyate jāyate kutaḥ ||

No[thing] is derived from itself, nor derived or determined from another;

Nor derived from both itself and another —whence is it derived?

—or, diagrammatically, the Necker cube-like lattice


where the nodes of the lattice denote the different corners (or koṭī) of the tetralemma[e] in implicational propositional notation, with sous-rature denoting ‘negation’. The typographical ambiguity is intentional: note the ‘negation’ of both O and ∅ —whatever received dualities they may stand for— is thus written

—hence the ‘overabundance’ of koṭī above (vis-à-vis the usual, four-cornered tetralemma).

But what does the matheme above have to do with Desmond’s intimate universal? Well, for starters, as G. Priest and others have pointed out, the Madhyamika catuṣkoṭi above plausibly schematizes various kinds of paraconsistent logics — logics which, by construction, formally disavow what Desmond calls “either-or thinking”; the avoidance of which is (arguably) the cornerstone of metaxological inquiry. In this narrow formal sense, then, we may expect Desmond’s intricately metaxological articulation to (roughly) follow the paraconsistent matheme above —however abstractly.

Furthermore, throughout the book, Desmond’s articulation of the intimate universal does recognizably follow the catuṣkoṭi formulation above —if only as a first approximation. Indeed, we can —crudely— map Desmond’s fourfold articulation onto each of the koṭī above — so that, e.g., the “idiotics” of the intimate universal qua “elementary”, predeterminate singularity (as articulated in Chapters 1 and 5) may then correspond to either of the two ‘singleton’ koṭī

O                   ∅

—or, dually, to their (identically typed) ‘negated’ counterpart

(roughly) corresponding to the “subtracted porosity” or “fertile void” of the idiotic, prior to its own “self- surpassing” (cf. pp.209-214). Likewise, we may think of the more ‘[self-]determining’ koṭī

as (roughly) denoting the more relatively “self-determining” dimensions of “aesthetics” —qua mimetic happening or [Panofskian] “adornment” of ‘the Other’ (cf. pp.256-266)—, and “erotics” —qua relatively “self-surpassing” intimacy of ‘the Self’ (cf. pp.315-319)—, respectively. Lastly, we may perhaps think of the typographically ambiguous koṭi


as (opaquely) denoting the commensurately intricate “agapeics” dimension of the intimate universal elucidated at length in Chapter 8 —which, alas, is too elaborate to abridge in such a short margin.

The crude Leitfaden above, it should be said, hardly does justice to the expansive articulation of Desmond’s book — but we hope it serves as an invitation to engage this deep, allusive work.

Review by PhD Researcher, Miguel Solano.

ReviewsThomas Hampton