Saturday, June 26, 2021

What Is a Desire for Dignity and Recognition?

If you want to burnish your credentials as a deep thinker, you should toss around Greek words. It never fails. Try this one.

The word in question, thanks to one Francis Fukuyama, is “thymos.” As you know Fukuyama fashions himself a big thinker. In order to maintain his status, he regales us with neo-Hegelian bull. Of course, since Hegel is the godfather of Marxism, it is ironic to see a somewhat conservative thinker leading us down the path toward radical leftist ideology.

Apparently, the word thymos has something to do with desire. And we all know what desire is. We feel it in our loins or perhaps even in our gut. Freudian theory is filled with references to desire. Those theorists who do not mewl about feeling your feelings tell you to discover what you really, really want and then to go for it.

Yes, I understand that I am echoing a Spice Girls song, but still, that’s the level we are at. We are in the world of adolescent girls.

One notes that in terms of finding out what you want, the only fair statement we can make is that if you have something-- a house at the beach-- you cannot properly be said to want it. You might have wanted it in the past, but if you have it, you do not want it. 

So, you can only desire what you do not have. By definition. And yet, just because you do not have something you do not necessarily want it. You might not have a shack in your backyard but that does not mean that you want to have a shack in your backyard. This means, if I may, that there is no objective or empirical basis for determining that you desire something. That means-- therapies that want you to get in touch with your desire are usually conning you. Surely, they are not about science.

For those who do not know it, Freudians get around this problem by saying that you can only really, really want something if it is tabooed. Like incest or pedophilia. It's not just that you do not have what you want, but that you are not allowed to have what you would then desire. Always wanting something that you can never have-- that's the Freudian way to produce desire. It doesn't really work, but don't tell anyone.

Anyway, Fukuyama screws up his courage and explains that the ultimate desire is a desire for a desire. He then goes on to sow confusion by saying that a desire for a desire is really a desire for recognition.

We might well imagine that ultimately you want the person you desire to desire you back. It sounds erotic and romantic, and it even involves consent. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with a desire for recognition, whatever that means, or even a desire for dignity and respect. When someone desires someone else, the issue is not dignity and respect. Intimate relations are not the same as social relations.

Strange to have to say it, but if you desire Pat or Amy you certainly want your desire to be returned. But, that does not a relationship make. It is a useful rule when it comes to an assignation, but that is all it is. Besides, when you desire Pat or Amy how do you know that your desire merely reflects the fact that Pat or Amy wants you.

In any event, here is the muddle that Fukuyama has found himself in, from the Wall Street Journal.

The Greeks called it thymos. It’s the desire for a desire, and it says that the deepest form of desire is to have another person desire you. It’s not a desire for something. It’s not a car or a nice house or a vacation. There are many people who are angry right now because they feel they’re not respected. They feel that people disregard them or look down on them. Capitalism is very good at fulfilling material desires, but it’s not so good at fulfilling the desire for others’ desires. It also produces a lot of inequality, and one of the problems with being poor is not only the lack of materi-al resources but the problems it creates with regards to respect. If you’re poor, you’re not remarked upon. Politicians don’t pay attention. Capitalism may be able to satisfy some of those material desires, but the desire for dignity is something different.”

Fair enough, people get angry because they are not respected. He might have mentioned that respect must be earned. It is not enough to desire to be respected. And you can earn respect without desiring it.

One might also notice that many politicians manipulate those who have not earned very much respect, by pretending to respect them. About this Fukuyama might have something to say, but it does not appear in the above paragraph.

As for the presumed indictment of capitalism, it does not make very much sense. As opposed to certain other systems of political economy, capitalism allows for more opportunities to work. That is, to earn respect. Obviously, your salary will help you to satisfy some of your material desires-- you might even purchase the favors of someone who will pretend to respect you and will even pretend to want you-- and this will also produce an increase in your self-respect and dignity. Analogizing this process to make it correlate with the satisfaction you feel when you are hungry and eat an apple feels like a step into a theoretical void.

We do not work to fulfill a desire. We work because we have a moral obligation, a veritable duty, to our community, our family and our company. 

Acting as an ethical individual does not necessarily correlate with a desire. You would not say, for example, that you have an appetite for recognition or even for dignity. You would not say that you are yearning for recognition. No one properly talks of an appetite for dignity. It merely sows confusion, and we have enough of that already.

In Chinese thought, to take an obvious example, when your face, that is your dignity, is threatened, you have a moral obligation to save face. Hopefully the concept sounds somewhat familiar. It is not because you have a desire welling up inside, but it is duty dictates certain actions.

Moreover, you do not have dignity and respect because you wanted to have them. You have them as your birthright-- in the same way that you are respected because you belong to a certain family. It's called having a good name.  

To be more precise, face and dignity and recognition are conferred on people because they belong to social groups. If your nation has achieved a quantity of success, you gain recognition as a member of the group, even before you have contributed to the group success. And if your group loses the respect of others you are obliged to work to restore it, even if you were not directly responsible for the loss. 

So, your relationship to group dignity is defined ethically as a duty that you have to yourself as a member of the group, but especially to others as members of the same group. You have a duty to your community, your family and your nation. You may or may not want to do your duty, but strictly speaking, the duty precedes your desire and your duty should be the basis for your action.

As for thymos, it does appear in one English word in particular. It appears in a psychiatric diagnosis, of something called dysthymia. It refers to a chronic depressive state, and is characterized precisely by the absence of desire.

You may or may not know it but depression, by most diagnostic manuals, involves a loss of desire, a loss of appetite and a loss of libido. In the clinical world, desire is limited to food and sex. It is not a good thing to confuse the issue by thinking that it correlates with a desire for recognition.

A clinician treating a case of dysthymia will not succeed if he tries to activate a desire; there is effectively no desire to activate. That is why Freudian treatment has always failed with depression. Even the Freudian suggestion that depression is really anger directed against the self does not lead to effective treatment. If it induces people to express their anger, they do not thereby save face-- because they often recognize, after the fact, that histrionic displays of anger cause you to look foolish, and thus to lose face.

A clinician will only succeed when he teaches the patient to do what needs to be done, even when he does not want to do it. In short, he will be exercising authority. He teaches his patient to function as a responsible social being, one who will fulfill the obligations that make him a member of society, even if he does not know why he is doing so.

Admittedly, the distinction is somewhat subtle, but treating depression is not about desire. It is about the ethical duties that one has, not only or even especially to oneself, but to one’s group identity. When one succeeds in doing one’s duty, one is often recognized, not for having satisfied a desire, like a desire for lunch or for a vacation in Tahiti, but because one has performed an action that does not merely benefit oneself, but that benefits others.

As for a desire for dignity and a desire for recognition-- the bottom line is-- there is no such thing. Better to run off trying to catch a chimera than to imagine that we desire dignity and recognition. Of course, that does not mean that we do not want to have them, but when we have them and when we increase them, we are not doing so because we have a burning desire to do so.


Sam L. said...

I must not be "with it". I've heard of the Spice Girls but never their songs. I don't desire "desire".

The only things I have depressed were buttons in the panels in my underground lairs.

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