Imperative Sense and Libidinal Event

Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University (2007)
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My dissertation presents a comprehensive rethinking of the Kantian imperative, articulating it on the basis of what I call originary sense. Calling primarily upon the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-François Lyotard, I show (1) that sense constitutes the ontologically most basic dimension of our worldly being and (2) that the way in which this sense happens is determinative for our experience of the ethical imperative. By originary sense I mean to name something that is neither sensible sense (sensation) nor intelligible sense (meaning), but rather a kind of unity of these two that is ontologically anterior to their separation. In the first chapter I follow Merleau-Ponty’s argument in Phenomenology of Perception that sensible sense and intelligible sense belong originarily together at the level of the lived body. We are able to intend the meaning of worldly situations (Husserl’s Sinngebung) only insofar as we are responsive in an embodied way to the imperatives that are given in the sensible itself. The intelligible lawfulness so characteristic of the Kantian imperative is thus shown to be grounded in a more fundamental unity of intelligible and sensible sense. The second chapter follows Merleau-Ponty’s later works, especially The Prose of the World and The Visible and the Invisible, showing how the sensibility that is inseparable from the imperative introduces important limitations to the universalizing tendencies of Kant’s moral philosophy, drawing us back to the irreducible situatedness of ethical situations. In the third chapter I turn to the very different articulation of sense given by Gilles Deleuze, primarily in his Logic of Sense. I show there that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological conception of sense does not allow us to think the singularity of the imperative, the fact that the ethical command weighs on a me that cannot be grasped in terms of the generalities of my public identity. This singularity corresponds broadly to the idea of dignity in Kant’s moral philosophy. I argue that Deleuze, who conceptualizes sense as an event, gives us the resources to think singularity and to understand what it entails for our ethical practice. Finally, I attempt in the fourth chapter to think these two sides of the imperative—its demand for universality and its emphasis on singularity and dignity— together in the idea of libidinal sense. Calling on Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy and, to a lesser extent, on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, I show that these two apparently incompatible requirements of the imperative have a common source in the event of libidinal investment (cathexis). In thus locating the source of the imperative in originary, libidinal sense, I hope both to shed some light on the irreducible complexity of our ethical being and to present a more humane, less moralizing version of the imperative than is typically articulated in moral philosophy.

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Bryan Lueck
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville


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