Butler, Judith. “The Desire to Live. Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ under Pressure”. In Senses of the Subject. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015, pp. 63-89.
The desire to live is not an easy topic to pursue. On the one hand, it seems too basic to thematize; on the other hand, it is vexed enough as a topic to cast doubt on whether one can settle the question of what is meant by the phrase itself. The desire to live is not the same as self- preservation, though both can be understood as interpretations of a person’s desire “to persevere in its being,” Spinoza’s well-known phrase. Although self-preservation is largely associated with forms of individual self-interest associated with later contractarian political philosophers, Spinoza’s philosophy establishes another basis for ethics, one that has implications for social solidarity and a critique of individualism. The self that endeavors to persevere in its own being is not always a singular self for Spinoza, and neither does it necessarily succeed in augmenting or enhancing its life if it does not at once enhance the lives of others. Indeed, in what follows, I hope to establish within Spinoza not only a critical perspective on individualism, but also an acknowledgment of the possibility for self-destruction. Both of these insights come to have political implications when recast as part of a dynamic conception of political solidarity in which sameness cannot be assumed. The fact that Spinoza takes some version of self- preservation to be essential to his conception of human beings is undisputed, but what that self is and what precisely it preserves is less than clear. He has been criticized by psychoanalysts who contend that he leaves no room for the death drive, and he has been appropriated by Deleuzians who for the most part wish to root negativity out of their conception of individuality and sociality alike. He has been castigated, as well, by writers like Levinas for espousing a form of individualism that would eradicate ethical relationality itself. I propose to test these views and to consider in some detail Spinoza’s view of the desire to live—not to establish a definitive reading, but to see what possibilities for social ethics emerge from his view.
When Spinoza claims that a human being seeks to persevere in its own being, does he assume that the desire to live is a form of self- preservation? Moreover, what conceptions of the “self” and of “life” are presupposed by this view? Spinoza writes, “The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing” (IIIP7, 159). It would seem that whatever else a being may be doing, it is persevering in its own being, and at first, this seemed to mean that even various acts of apparent self-destruction have something persistent and at least potentially life-affirming in them. I’ve since come to question this idea, and part of the purpose of this essay will be to query what, if anything, counters the force of perseverance itself. The formulation is problematic for another reason, as well, since it is not fully clear in what “one’s own being” consists, that is, where and when one’s own being starts and stops. In Spinoza’s Ethics, a conscious and persevering being does not persevere in its own being in a purely or exclusively self-referential way; this being is fundamentally responsive, and in emotional ways, suggesting that implicit in the very practice of perseverance is a referential movement toward the world. Depending on what kind of response a being undergoes, that being stands a chance of diminishing or enhancing its own possibility of future perseverance and life. This being desires not only to persevere in its own being, but to live in a world that reflects and furthers the possibility of that perseverance; indeed, perseverance in one’s own being requires that reflection from the world, such that persevering and modulating reference to the world are bound up together. Finally, although it may seem that the desire to persevere is an individual desire, it turns out to require and acquire a sociality that is essential to what perseverance means; “to persevere in one’s own being” is thus to live in a world that not only reflects but furthers the value of others’ lives as well as one’s own.