Inaugural Lecture by Prof. William Desmond 'The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being'

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 19:00 to 21:00
Renehan Hall, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

My reflections depart from the fact that today we often meet an ambiguous attitude to beauty among some who proclaim their advanced aesthetic authenticity. Beauty seems bland and lacks the more visceral thrill of the ugly, indeed the excremental. We crave what disrupts and provokes us, not what gives delight or even consoles. The “really real” is the disturbing, even the revolting. Bland beauty is the death of originality. If this is our attitude, how can we be open at all to beauty as gift? Granted, we need not, indeed cannot avoid the ugly, yet something is lacking if our primary emphasis on it makes it impossible for us to be honest and true to beauty.  The fact is that we often are disturbed paradoxically by beauty: both taken out of ourselves, hence disquieted, yet awakening to our being at home with beauty, hence enchanted and enlivened. Beauty arouses engimatic joy in us, and we enjoy an elemental rapport with it as other.  Surprised by beauty, our breath is taken away, we are more truly there with the beautiful yet taken outside of ourselves: both at home with ourselves and not being at home, in being beyond ourselves. We are first receivers of the gift of surprise and only then perceivers and conceivers. My attention to the passion of being stresses a patience, a receptivity to what is other. What happens is not first our construction. There is something given, something awakening, something delighting, something enegizing, something of invitation to transcendence.
Our being disarmed by the beautiful I hold to be in tune with our being as marked most deeply by what I call a primal porosity to being. Beauty sensuously communicates in and through this awakened porosity. We are a patience of being before we are an endeavor to be. Our passio essendi is on the boundary between receiving and responding – responding that may itself become creative in attempting to bring into being works of art in communication, secretly or more openly, with the originating reception. I grant that in modern aesthetics and culture, originating receptivity tends to be downplayed as a depreciation of our claims to creative power. The predominant stress often falls on human autonomy and self-determination. We love only what we construct ourselves, not what we receive. We worry that what is given is a curb or threat or occasion of resistance to our constructive conatus essendi.  A guarded attitude to beauty as given must follow; a guarded attitude also to the surprise of beauty for we cannot construct true surprise. By contrast, I would say there is something of the godsend in what is truly beautiful. This might be a way of talking that is not fashionable but the vocation of the philosopher is not to be fashionable but to be true.

The speaker:

Prof. William Desmond will be the first holder of the new Thomas A. F. Kelly Visiting Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He is also holder of the David Cook Chair in Philosophy at Villanova University, and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the Institute of Philosophy, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. His work is primarily in metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of many books, including the ground-breaking trilogy Being and the Between (1995), Ethics and the Between (2001), and God and the Between (2008). Being and the Between was winner of both the prestigious Prix Cardinal Mercier and the J.N. Findlay Award for best book in metaphysics. Other books include Art and the Absolute (1986); Desire Dialectic and Otherness: An Essay on Origins (1987); Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind (1990); Beyond Hegel and Dialectic (1992); Perplexity and Ultimacy (1995); Hegel’s God (2003); Art, Origins, Otherness: Between Art and Philosophy also in (2003); as well as Is There a Sabbath for Thought?: Between Religion and Philosophy (2005).  He has also edited five books and published more than 100 articles and book chapters. His book The Intimate Strangeness of Being: Metaphysics after Dialectic appeared in 2012, the same year in which the William Desmond Reader also appeared. His most recent book, The Intimate Universal: The Hidden Porosity among Religion, Art, Philosophy and Politics appeared with Columbia University Press 2016. Among the Visiting chairs he has held are the J.N. Findlay Chair at Boston University, the Gadamer Chair at Boston College, and the O’Malley Chair at Loyola Marymount University. He is Past President of the Hegel Society of America, the Metaphysical Society of America, and the American Catholic Philosophical Association.

The lecture will be followed by a wine reception.