Between System and Poetics: William Desmond and Philosophy after Dialectic. Edited by Thomas A. F. Kelly


Pp. xi, 307 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , $100.00.

It is fitting that the first book-length treatment of William Desmond's work, Between System and Poetics, would arrive on book shelves in 2007 only a short time before Desmond completed his third and final explicit reflection on what he calls the ‘between’ in early 2008. Desmond's approach to philosophy and his conception of the ‘between’ (or the metaxu) is provocative and insightful, but also challenging to the uninitiated. For this reason, Between System andPoetics is a welcome companion volume. Those unfamiliar with Desmond's corpus might find it fruitful to spend some time with this volume before turning to God and the Between, where Desmond relies on much of the work he has already done to begin a ‘metaxological’ attempt at a philosophy of God.

The book is comprised of eighteen essays covering a broad range of topics that nevertheless continue to revolve around the central core of Desmond's work over the course of his productive career. Contributions have been made from thinkers as distinguished as Cyril O'Regan, Richard Kearney, and John Milbank, and they are a testament to Desmond's influence in his field. But the volume also includes a number of essays by emerging scholars, who have bring new problems to the table and add to the breadth of inquiry that this volume covers.

Of considerable importance to the volume is Desmond's own contribution. In this essay, the uninitiated will immediately get a sense of Desmond's idiosyncratic style: the poetic resonance, the rhetorical questioning, and the exploratory manner in which he proceeds. They will also get a sense of what he is all about: his frustration with certain modern and contemporary developments in philosophy, as well as his awareness of his own debt to such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Pascal, and even Nietzsche. But whether veteran or novitiate, this essay will impress upon the reader Desmond's overall approach to philosophy: at once critical of the modern totalizing will to system, yet at the same time haunted by the belief that philosophy must still be able to say something. Much of his philosophy and his own articulation of the ‘between’ seems to aim at making the latter possible, while avoiding the former.

The ensuing essays in this volume serve to supplement this aim. Garret Barden's essay on ‘Transcendence and Intelligibility’ is a superb example. In a simple and straightforward way, he defines and clarifies the ‘plurivocal’ senses of transcendence that Desmond often makes use of in his work. Barden at once exemplifies what is best about this volume; he isolates significant moments of Desmond's thought and clarifies what at times can become lost or muddled in Desmond poetic and exploratory style.

Richard Kearney's essay is an important contribution to an on-going conversation with Desmond. Through his charitable reading of Desmond's 2003 critique of his own work, Kearney nicely articulates the central tenets that are decisive for Desmond's own thinking about God. The essay usefully points out the common ground shared by the two philosophers of religion and at the same time does not shy away from demarcating the line of difference between them. In light of the fact that Desmond's newest book God and the Between is explicitly concerned with the question of God, this is a highly relevant and timely essay.

Finally, there are several contributions that pay tribute to Desmond's work by using his notion of the ‘between’ and taking it in their own direction. Thus this volume includes interpretative readings of the Symposium and the Phaedrus, a ‘metaxological’ critique of modern architecture, and a meditation on a contemporary film. John Milbank's essay falls into this category. With his characteristic density and difficulty, he meditates on the nature of life post Newton and Darwin, and indicates his sympathy with Desmond that the metaphysics of the ‘between’ is also a metaphysics of a ‘gift.’

Owing to the eclectic and varied nature of this volume, it will probably not be a book read cover to cover with uninterrupted interest. But for those interested in coming to Desmond for this first time, finding time for select essays will be helpful way to make a beginning. For those more attuned to Desmond's thought, it will be a volume to come back to again and again after new questions have surfaced and new clarifications are needed. In turn, it will likely spark its own questions as it pushes Desmond's work into new and unforeseen directions.