Impossible Desires

21 July 2010


Industrial accidents are intrinsic to industrialized society, and cannot be wished away.

The desire to keep one’s cake and eat it too is thoroughly human, and consequently we must not overlook the role of impossible desires in all aspects of human life. One would think that there would be no need to be reminded of something so obvious, but I frequently see assumptions to the contrary implicit throughout contemporary culture. Many miscalculations made in statecraft, diplomacy, espionage, and even in military maneuver derive from an insufficient appreciation of the role of impossible desires.

Sometimes I think that there is a tendency to interpret the ideas and actions of others in an overly-rationalistic way to spare the other embarrassment from pointing out the failures in their reasoning, but this usually only happens among friends, or at least among acquaintances who want to spare the feelings of each other. Otherwise, it is the stock-in-trade of contemporary politicking to point out the implied contradictions in the positions of one’s opponents while deftly managing one’s own eclectic positions on issues to maintain a facade of consistency and rationality. Both positions are intellectually dishonest and both follow from impossible desires.

While on the one had we can credit impossible desires to irrationality and emotional responses to a flatly natural world, on the other hand there is a sense in which our tolerance for impossible desires is sustained if not abetted by the thoroughly rational faculty of abstract thinking. Overly simplistic and schematic thought makes it easy to hold impossibilities in the mind without also keeping in mind all that impossibilities entail which makes them impossible.

Hegel in particular pointed out how it is the ordinary person rather than the philosopher who typically thinks abstractly. This was especially brought to my attention by the Hegel lecture by Professor Joel F. Richeimer (which I mentioned in An Exposition of Hegel). Hegel wrote a short essay on this topic, Who Thinks Abstractly? The more I think of this, the more I realize how right Hegel was on this, though Hegel is here developing a Kantian theme. I have several times mentioned a short work by Kant, That May be True in Theory, But It Won’t Work in Practice (for example, in A Theory in the Kantian Sense), in which Kant suggests that the problem with defective theories is not their theoretical approach, but simply that the theory isn’t sufficiently sophisticated to meet its explanatory demands; what is needed is not less theory, but more theory.

So it is with Hegel’s account of abstract thinking: what is needed is not less abstraction, but more abstraction. A sufficiently sophisticated abstract conception of things would be adequate to those things, rather than betraying them through artificial oversimplifications. But most thinking is not adequate to its object, and so we routinely tolerate simple concepts of complex things, and as long as we tolerate simple concepts of complex things our oversimplifications allow us to hold in mind impossible desires, and furthermore to allow ourselves not to see that they are impossible. It is a classic illustration of bad faith.

Thus we desire to have capitalism without bankruptcy or business cycles, though it has been said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell. And we desire the comforts of industrialization without any industrial accidents, although every activity incurs risks specific to that activity. It is only in thinking about capitalism or industrialization abstractly that we can manage to think ourselves into making unreasonable demands that will inevitably be disappointed.

And in pointing out the necessary pairing of capitalism and bankruptcy or industrialism and industrial accidents, I am not suggesting (after the manner of Hegel) that these pairs constitute a dialectic, and that history must swing back and forth between them. When we think in terms of pairs of concepts it is all-too-easy to fall into this assumption, but this particular instance of sloppy thinking is again another example of abstract thinking. We must think about our thinking with greater clarity and concreteness.

The pairs mentioned above — capitalism and bankruptcy, industrialism and industrial accidents — are not dialectical oppositions, but rather what we might call the socio-political equivalents of thema and thematic field. Husserl, in his phenomenological analysis of the structures of consciousness, used the ideas of thema and thematic field (as well as the related concept of the margin of consciousness, which we will not address here), but we can extrapolate from Husserl’s application of this structure to the mind, and apply it to the social equivalent of the mind: socio-political structures that we find ourselves living within.

Capitalism creates the social equivalent of a thematic field — a capitalistic society — that must intrinsically include bankruptcy, business failures, business cycles, labor/management disputes, and much else besides. (Marx would say that the thematic field of capitalism intrinsically includes escalating cycles of crises, but I wouldn’t go this far.) These phenomena are the themas that are to be found within the thematic field. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution began a long term process of changing society, industrializing society. Industrial society is, again, the socio-political equivalent of a thematic field, the thematic field of industrialization, and intrinsic to the thematic field of industrialized society are the themas of industrial accidents, wage labor, industrial pollution, depletion of fossil fuels, and much else. You cannot have one without the other. In so far as we did not choose industrialization, but it happened to us as part of a large social transformation that was not the act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals, it it difficult to accept. Nevertheless, it is the case.

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