The Misknown Desire of the Philosophers: On Evaluation and Hermeticism

“Yet here is a paradox that thinking immanence produces:it is impossible to judge in advance whether the elements of different assemblages, or the planes on which they insist, will be healthy or cancerous, salutary or deleterious to life (The Hermetic Deleuze, p. 180).”

Do philosophers ever know what they want? What drives a philosopher? What makes them undertake an ordeal? Or is it simply that the ordeal comes to them, prior to their identity as philosopher, that the ordeal is simply human or creatural? I’ve already expressed my admiration for Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze, but it is the attempt in this book to connect up the philosophical task with a simple creatural ordeal I find most laudatory about the text. It’s combination of the personal with the scholarly, sacrificing neither for the sake of the other. And though of course Joshua doesn’t speak directly of those personal ordeals, though he hasn’t revealed some of that along with some of his personal desires in the responses to this book event, but though he doesn’t speak to us about these ordeals one can sense them here. Philosophy, in Ramey’s hands, is a way of life – literally something to be taken up by a fleshy hand, perhaps soft from reading, but pressing up against other amidst a world of flesh, dead as well as living. There is an honesty, then, to Joshua’s book.

So it is odd then, and perhaps a redemptive move, that this honesty begins with the deceit of another philosophy.
I am speaking of Deleuze’s turning away from his explicit interest of his youth in esotericism. Deleuze scholars are of course familiar with this moment, but others may not be. The story is that when Paul Patton was compiling Deleuze’s official bibliography, bringing together all his original writings in French and translations thereof, he asked Patton not to list about four or five of his early essays. The majority of these essays concerned themes that intersect with religious tropes. The fame of this moment, of course, probably wouldn’t exist if it were not for this explicit suppression of the texts. It’s contingent, far from necessary, and yet it’s resulted in the sorts of free research I highlighted in the introductory post and to which Joshua’s book belongs. The suppression, the denial – the lie – gave way to the honesty of Joshua’s text.

But why did Deleuze want to suppress these texts? That’s not provided for us by the mythology around this event and it isn’t something Dosse’s joint biography of Deleuze and Guattari explores either. We don’t know why Deleuze it. We could speculate though. We can always speculate. It may have been because Deleuze genuinely no longer held these views, but the philosophico-historical research of Christian Kerslake makes that very unlikely. As Kerslake shows, and Joshua builds off of, the ideas and concepts of Deleuze’s mature philosophy intensifies the early lessons he took from this esoteric research. Was it simply because he wanted to be respectable? That the weirdos and freaks that populated these fringe experiences weren’t the sorts of people a bourgeois Parisian lecturer and philosopher ought to be hanging about with. Or maybe he just didn’t like his style. Or trust people to read this without heading down a completely deterritorialized reading of his work. Something else seems more probable to me, based off what I know about philosophers and his own remarks in What is Philosophy when he writes with Deleuze:

“The question what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely. In fact, the bibliography [the bibliography is always revealing! – APS] on the nature of philosophy is very limited. It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask. It was asked before; it was always being asked, but too indirectly or obliquely; the question was too artificial, too abstract. Instead of being seized by it, those who asked the question set it out and controlled it in passing. They were not sober enough. There was too much desire to do philosophy to wonder what it was, except as a stylistic exercise. That point of nonstyle where one can finally say, “What is it I have been doing all my life?” had not been reached (What is Philosophy?, p. 1).”

It’s a melancholy passage, despite the affirmation of old age that follows. But it seems more probable to me that Deleuze didn’t know. He didn’t know why he desired to write them in the first place and he didn’t really know why he wanted to suppress them in his old age, when midnight was no longer the midnight of being drunk.

This is not to reduce this moment of “misknown” desire to something psychological. That would of course be crass. I think rather that the way in which philosophers rarely know their desire bespeaks a more fundamental philosophical problem: the question of evaluation. This is ultimately what I mean by calling this desire misknown. It isn’t that our desire is simply unknown, we are more than aware that we want something when we are in the midst, the lived moment of academic thought. But the reflective moment that follows that lived moment, the act of asking ourselves “what is it that we’ve been doing with our lives?”, a moment that doesn’t always come so late, is separate from the act of doing philosophy and yet is the philosophical act par excellence.

In a way this is the challenge that hermeticism presents to philosophy, as Joshua presents it, for hermeticism is lived, it is practiced, it involves flesh and the manipulation of nature. These active forces within religion are in motion, they move forward, often blocked, often pointless, but they move. Philosophy so often becomes moribund, even McDowell sees that in his theory of philosophy’s purely therapeutic value. Yet, the danger with religion is the same danger with all those aspects of our human experience that lie outside of the rational. Like the rationalist and accelerationists and all those who want to kill everything off about humanity in the name of slime and automatons, the hermetic can also harass us. There is still no guarantee, of course, that engaging with the hermetic will do anything and even less of a guarantee that it will do something good. But those mystics, those hermetic practitioners, they seem to know what they want. Ramey summarizes that with regard to Faivre writing, “The goal of gnosis is to produce a knowledge of nature inseparable from ethical transformation viewed as theandric cocreativity (203).” The question that remains and that I suspect Joshua is working on in his latest work, is how to evaluate this goal and evaluate the tools of hermeticism in so far as they may be used for today and for creatures.