Obdurate Love: Towards a Metaphysics of Intimacy


What is assumed to be constant within considerations concerning the ethical is the centrality of its constitutive elements: i.e. self and action. Moreover, that constancy pertains, it is argued, even if what is of concern is the private or the public realm. The project here is to begin to trouble the way these assumptions work. This involves a twofold move. In the first instance it is to begin with the way the assumed distinction between the public and the private is positioned. The end point is to be able to argue that the public is far more than the having become public of that which is initially private. This will occur by working through the consequences of the formulation of that distinction in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The second, and major part of the project, will be to develop an element of the self that could not be incorporated into either the public or the private. Such an occurrence would have its greatest acuity when the non-incorporable element is not merely a contingent aspect of selfhood but one which constitutes an essential element of self. There is, it will be argued, a moment that fissures the clear divisions, lines and domains that are taken to construct the self and which would ground both action and its subsequent evaluation or judgment. That moment is the presence of intimacy.

In this instance such a moment is staged within Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me.1Andrew O’Hagan. Be Near Me. Page 262. The scene has immediate significance. A Catholic priest reflects on his decision to kiss a boy. The boy had kissed and had been kissed before. Neither erotic encounter nor forms of sensuality were foreign to him.

At the centre of himself, a man cannot choose whom to love. He can choose how to live and can honour the truth of himself where he may. But he cannot choose whom to love, any more than he can choose how tall he is or how good. One can take up platform shoes or fine deeds, but the heart will always have the last word and when the word is love we can recognize, we can respond, we can submit and we can try to ignore, we can never choose. Love is not a matter of choice but an obdurate fact of surrender.

The love that becomes an ‘obdurate fact of surrender’ falls beyond the sway of a simple moralism. Equally, and more importantly, it falls beyond the hold of intentionality. He finds himself in love, finding himself taken over and defined by a feeling in which he is positioned and which holds him; the position of already-being-in-love. The question that arises here concerns the quality of this complex positioning. Note however that answering the question has to work with a twofold recognition both elements of which are already clear in the passage cited above. In the first instance what in this context will be described initially as obdurate love – the state of already-being-in-love – is neither willed nor intended. And secondly, that there is an important split defining this subject position. He finds himself. The finding falls within the domain of both intentionality and the will and yet what is found cannot be positioned in the same way. Here is a divide that marks a constitutive and founding plurality at work in the subject’s finding itself. Moreover, it is a form of plurality in which difference is original. There can be no synthesis of the willed and the unwilled. The subject is repositioned therefore as a plural event.2Plural Event Thus the finding is an act of return in which the subject or self is given back to itself though never completely. What endures within – though also as that which constitutes this impossible gift – is therefore a surrender that can be neither complete nor completed. What can never be driven out is the finitude that this love acknowledges. A finitude moreover that locates process at the centre of imbricated divisions causing them to become porous. Here, of course, a contrast needs to emerge. Both erotic and agapic love as well as the love in which the neighbour becomes the source of narcissistic identification (the neighbour as (is) myself) are all implicated in differing forms of reciprocity. Moreover, such conceptions of love, due to the constituting force of the structure of reciprocity, involve the centrality of self. A self whose totality is subject to the will and whose unity can itself be controlled by the operation of the will.

What has been identified above, as obdurate love stands distanced from love defined in terms of a projected universality, a projection that assumes and incorporates not just the subject but a subject whose totality is founded on its being subject to the will. (Such a conception of subject or self is already put into question by the founding divide marking the formulation, he finds himself.) The domain of obdurate love is the intimate. Were it to be thought philosophically then it would demand what can be called, albeit provisionally, a metaphysics of intimacy. In order to develop this position a path towards it will be traced through the way in which, in outline, the distinction between the private an the public is formulated in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.3I. Kant. Critique of Judgment. (Translation by Werner S. Pluhar). Hackett. Indianapolis. 1987. All references are to page numbers and are given in the body of the text. The value of this approach is that the way Kant structures the distinction means that the public and the private are far from a simple opposition let alone an either/or. As such, a space is opened for the intimate once it is able to figure as integral to any account of self.

What has to be argued is that the force of the distinction between the private and the public as it appears in Kant’s text is that the public is the space created by what Kant describes as ‘subjective universality’ and does, of necessity, involve the opening and maintaining of a domain in which judgments are disputed. While the private, in regards to the aesthetic, locates particular dispositions or modes of response, e.g. ‘liking’, that have no greater extension than the individual. In other words, the distinction between the public and the private involves in the case of the former the necessity of the public and thus the role of the Other. On the other hand, the private is neither the domestic nor is it defined by the house. The private in this instance, as will be agued in more detail below, is the realm of the individual, a realm precluding the possible introduction of any real sense of universality. As such, the private is that which is held in place by the individual for an individual. What this means is that there is an essential and founding reciprocity since the private both assumes and maintains the individual. The consequence of this position is that the assumed distinction between the private and the public in which the same conception of self or subject obtains in both instances is questioned in Kant’s presentation. The value of this questioning is that it takes place in ways that allow for the introduction of the intimate. The initial formulation of the way the public and the private are differentiated from each other is worked out in Sections §6 and §7 of the Critique of Judgment.4The following discussion of the public and the private in Kant draws on develops the argument advanced in my ‘On Tolerance: Working through Kant.’ Contretemps. No 2. 2001.

In the process of distinguishing between different conceptions of ‘delight’ (das Wohlgefallen) in which one will enjoin a certain form of universality and thus become the ‘beautiful’, Kant allows for a conception that is no more than the ‘inclination of a subject’. (43) Positioning the subject in these terms has obvious consequences. One of the central passages in which they begin to be worked out is the following:

As regards the agreeable (das Angenehme) everyone acknowledges that his judgement, which he bases on a private feeling, and by which he say that he likes some object, is by the same token confined to his own person Hence, if he says that Canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: It is agreeable to me. (er ist mir angenehm.) (55)

As is well known Kant continues that section of the text concluding that ‘Everyone has his own taste (of sense).’ (55) Prior to taking up the way the beautiful is constructed and thus the presentation of what will become the public, it is vital to remain with the way the self or subject of taste is both created and positioned within this passage.

In Section §8 Kant writes in relation to judgments of the senses that in addition to the fact that they lack universal validity, what is more significant is that in regards to questions of agreement ‘people of their own accord are modest enough not even to require others to agree’. (58) There is therefore a conceded holding back. This restriction to self defines the self in relation to ‘the agreeable’. The basis on which any judgement concerning the agreeable is made individuates a specific conception of self whilst at the same time defining that conception in terms of a ‘private feeling’. Neither the content of the judgment nor its basis in a ‘private feeling’ has extension. The question arising here concerns how this impossibility of extension and thus the restriction are themselves to be understood.

While on one level the subject of feeling is already present in terms of its having the potential to feel and thus to judge, a potentially that is restricted to those senses that are already present, what is of interest is what occurs when that potentiality is actualised. Actualisation is not just the act of judgement. More is involved. Actualisation is the construction of the private self within the individualising act of judgment. What Kant means by the ‘agreeable’ therefore creates a self that is restricted to itself. In other words, it is not just that the private is the realm of the individual, the private creates the individual and thus the individual is restricted to such a domain. The important corollary is that the public is not the repositioning the subject in another domain. At this stage what matters is that the self within the private has been produced. While there is a version of the public that occurs with the individual, such a domain is described by Kant in terms of ‘sociality’. The rules of sociality he argues are ‘only general (as all empirical rules are) not universal.’ (56). The realm of the individual – the produced individual within and as the private – does not pertain to the public sphere. The point that needs to be noted here however is that the restriction to self that the ‘agreeable’ necessitates is equally a construction of the individual. The individual in question, both as the one who feels and to whom things are ‘agreeable’ and equally the concept of the individual, originates with the private and remains held in that domain.

This creation of the individual within a form of restriction is the self that is disclosed within and as the private. (Different modes of what will be termed ‘self disclosure’ will form an integral part of the argument to be developed here.) In regards to the judgement of taste, as opposed to judgment linked exclusively to the senses, there are a number of aspects that are of fundamental importance in terms of understanding the nature of the relationship between the public sphere and the self disclosed within it. While there are different ways to stage those concerns, the opening of Section §19 provides a way in. It begins in these terms:

The judgment of taste requires everyone to assent: and who ever declares something to be beautiful holds that everyone ought to give his approval to the object at hand and that he too should declare it beautiful. (86)

Having presented this position Kant goes on to argue in the rest of Section §19 that what ‘seeks’ (wirbt) agreement is not to be understood in terms of the judger but is defined in relation to the judgement. To the extent therefore that emphasis is moved to the judgement this has a twofold effect. In the first instance it attributes centrality to the space in which the judgment sollicts agreement. The space is the realm of the public that is opened up and maintained by the process of seeking. The second stems from the position that for Kant it is the judgement that ‘seeks’ agreement. What is entailed by the primacy of the judgment is that the judger is then a product of the act of judgment. As such the judger is the after effect of the process of judgment and thus the result of that process. This particular mode of self-disclosure is therefore importantly different – a difference of structural presence – to the one that concerns the self disclosed within the private.

The contrast between the private and the public is presented by Kant while establishing the interrelationship between the beautiful, the judgment of taste and ‘necessity’. In Section §22 the position is formulated thus:

Whenever we make a judgment declaring something to be beautiful, we permit no one to hold a different opinion, even though we base our judgment on our own feeling rather than on concepts; hence we regard this underlying feeling as common rather than a private feeling. (Privatgefühl) (89)

While the ‘common’ becomes an ‘ideal’ and the ‘sensus communis’ is given the status of an ‘indeterminate norm’, the are two central points at work here. The first is that the private is the production of the individual. The second is that the public involves the creation of a space of possible agreement and thus one of actual disagreement (the space being the public sphere) in which the judger comes into being as a consequence of the judgement’s solicitation of approval. As has been argued the judger is an after effect. In regard to the private as opposed to the public there are therefore two importantly different senses of self-disclosure. In both instances the self in question is the result of a process. However, what is produced, disclosed, are two fundamentally different senses of self. With Kant therefore the distinction between the private and the public does not assume that the same self is disclosed in each instance. The selves disclosed are only ever disjunctively related. Indeed, it is possible to go further and suggest that they are marked by a founding relation of non- relation. In the first instance the difference between them is defined strictly in terms of universality. While the private is delimited by a form of individuality without access to the universal, the inherently public nature of the judgement of taste presupposes universality. There is however an additional element which is of fundamental importance. Neither the beautiful nor the reflective judgement is willed. While ‘purposiveness without a purpose’ may suggest the presence of the will, nonetheless Kant is clear that there can be ‘purposiveness without purpose insofar as we do not posit the cause of the form in a will’. (nicht in einem Wille setzen.)(65). Hence the judgement of taste has its ground in that which is both universal and a priori, namely what can be described as the general conditions of intuitability. However, as will be noted, the will comes to be introduced the moment the judgment is announced.

The immediacy of the aesthetic therefore overcomes any possible form of restriction because it opens automatically within at least two forms of universality. In the first instance it is the a priori conditions noted above and secondly the axiomatic location of the judgement (coupled to the produced judger) within that which both presupposes and envisages universality namely the public sphere. While the formulation is not Kant’s what is of interest here is the immediacy of this opening. What might appear to have a form of singularity and thus pertain to the individual, in fact opens beyond that possible restriction by the introduction of forms of universality that work, as a consequence, to hold the public and the private apart. The produced judger is not the having become public of the individual. They are each restricted to and delimited by the own sphere of activity. They endure without relation to each other. This founding ‘without relation’ has the effect of securing each domain. Not only are they secure in their differentiation from each other, they are internally secure insofar as whatever might challenge the sovereignty of the two forms of produced subject has been excluded from the start.

While the will does not operate within this setting in the strict sense that it would be a named presence, nonetheless there are, in both instances, staged forms of restriction. In the case of the private, it is the concession not to universalize. In the case of the judgment of taste, it is the refusal to introduce a concept as determining. The immediacy of the reflective judgment necessitates an intentional act occurring after the event of immediacy. Hence, the importance of the indeterminate judgment’s specific use of the concept. Within the determined lines that separate these two domains differing forms of sovereignty endure. Two specific senses of a sovereign subject are at work both of which are produced. In order for this form of positioning to be maintained the judger, within the public sphere, must at all times be open to the possibility of a universalizing form of assent. Within the confines of the private the produced individual must remain, and do so without equivocation,. The private is a domain created and recreated by the dominance of the ‘to me’. Acts of restriction and delimitation are central. Sovereignty not only depends upon this being the case. It also depends firstly upon the continuity of the ‘without relation’. A set up whose repetition must be maintained. Equally, it depends upon the presence of a self that is always subject to these staged forms of restriction. In other words, in regards to restriction the produced self must respond without equivocation. As such sovereignty presupposes both a mastery of self and equally all aspects of self must be subject to being restricted. Concessions and restrictions are not just possible they must be accepted. Accepting them however entails that they permeate all aspects of the self. It is as though there is another conception of the will, an implicit though willed law of subjection, that constructs the subject in its continuity, a continuity of itself with itself, as always not just answerable to a specific form of determination, but being a subject in being answerable. What answers is the sovereign subject. (The latter involves a conception of sovereignty that is divided between the public and the private and thus between two differing modes of self disclosure.)

Now, while there are two radically distinct conceptions of subject and thus what sovereignty entails in both cases is importantly different, there are possible modes of transgression. However, they necessitate differing forms of refusal. At no point would the line that separates the public from the private be troubled. Equally, in both instances, it would be the subject acting in response to a situation over which it exercised control. The refusal, for example, by the subject produced with the domain of the private to accept the restriction of the ‘to me’ does not open up the public sphere. The subject remains within its initial setting. Intentionality and control rule. In addition, in regards to the judgment of taste and therefore in the public realm, there must be universal communicability. There has to be, in Kant’s terms, a ‘universal communicability of feeling’. (88)

If there is a possible limit to the way that Kant formulates the project then it occurs in Section §13 of the Critique of Judgment. The section is concerned to establish that judgements of taste must do without either ‘charm’ or ‘emotion’. The threat posed by their addition to the judgment can be obviated by ‘carefully defining these concepts’. (69) Central to the overall argument is the immediacy of taste. In this regard Kant writes that:

Any taste remains barbaric if its liking requires that charms and emotions be mingled in, let alone if it makes these the standard of its approval. (69)

Note the movement of argument. ‘Charm’ and ‘emotion’ could only ever be added on after the event. Deploying them as part of the measure to persuade reverts to ‘barbarism’ because it is pitted against the universal communicability that is assumed to be already at work within judgments of taste. (It would be, for example, to undo the ‘without relation’ that holds the private and the public apart.) The necessity for the elimination of ‘taste’ and ‘charm’ is that their presence would undo the possibility of the subject being present within a setting in which an original simplicity and unity of self has to obtain. Taste’s immediacy, the insistence on a universal communicability, taken in conjunction with the assumption of agreement while opening up the public sphere delimits the subject as bereft of an exacting sense of finitude. Finitude within such a setting is merely abstract. Section §13 concludes thus:

A pure judgment is one that is not influenced by charm and emotion (though these may be connected with a liking for the beautiful) and whose determining basis, therefore, is merely the purposiveness of form.(69)

Precisely because form pertains to the general, finitude, in the sense of its abstract presence, is inextricably bound up with the type of separation that sustains purity and universality. Moreover, it depends upon it. At this point a question arises. What if finitude were not a singular and original abstraction? In other words, how would finitude be understood if it were given by a mark that accompanied, a mark whose trace was only ever present within what then would have become the merely putatively abstract? It would be as though ‘charm’ and ‘emotion’ – though their functional presence would be reworked in the process – preceded the judgment such that within it, the judger, rather than emerging as abstract was marked in advance? Thus particularized, having become finite, determination and universality would then define the locus of finitude.

The first part of any answer to this question – What if finitude were not a singular and original abstraction? – would be that there is no reason to suppose that either the nature of the public sphere or its description as the site of actual disagreement and potential agreement would be called into question as a result. What is being questioned is quite different. It concerns the nature of finitude rather than either the presence of the public sphere or the presence of the judger as an after effect of judgment. The force of this questioning arises from the necessity within Kant’s formulation that the will predominates both explicitly and in terms of an implied presence (the latter there in terms of the necessity for decisions, actions, restrictions, etc). The failure of the will, a failure that is evidenced, for example, by the admixture of ‘charm’ or ‘emotion’ results in barbarism. The distancing of the will with the result that mere ‘agreeableness’ would predominate gives rise to a possible equation of finitude with animality. (cf §5) What precludes results of this form is finitude as abstraction, occurring in this instance as a result of the equation of finite being with rational being. And yet, it is the continual possibility that forms of restriction will not operate, recalling that restriction is already at work in the decision that the agreeable is based on a ‘private feeling’ and is thus restricted to the self in question, that there arises not just a continual threat to the conception of sovereignty that is inherently at work within this set up, it is also the case that overcoming that threat involves the continuity of a process that precludes a founding mark of finitude from becoming actual.

Furthermore, now in regards to the public, the implicit position that maintains universality through both the immediacy of the judgement – immediate in the precise sense that it is not dependent on a concept – as well as the universality of feeling also involves a form of decision and thus as an act in which possible intrusions are precluded. As such the abstract finitude of the judger is maintained. In both cases, even though the self- disclosed in both instances differ significantly, what is at work is a process of abstraction that, in fact, always occurs after the event.

Abstraction, which is itself an activity with a specific result, is integral to self-disclosure and thus not simply given, necessitates the act of restriction. Abstraction, within the public domain, demands therefore acting in relation to the assumed universality (abstract universality) of ‘our feelings’, actions that are themselves premised up the simultaneous exclusion of the private. Hence the presence of the ‘without relation’ as defining the way the private and the public are presented. The significant point to be made in this context does not involve an argument against the importance of a version of these actions, indeed they are essential if the notion of the public is to be maintained. Rather, the significance lies in the fact that they are themselves after effects. Abstraction is therefore never an original position but one which is created within and thus holds in place a specific sense of self-disclosure. The recognition of abstraction, universality and thus the self-disclosed with the judgement of taste as part of the movement of the after effect, means that were there to be another sense of finitude then its location is the moment prior to abstraction. A moment that will always be precarious thus marked by an inherent fragility as it is positioned prior to the emergence of the abstract individual.

That moment has, of course, already been announced. It occurs within the divisions already enacted in the formulation: he finds himself. While finitude always remains part of a process of individuation, the division that occurs here is positioned by the complex presence of the will. The division in this instance is neither complete nor is it limited to a single occurrence, a founding act of separation. Indeed, the opposite is the case. The ‘finding’ is a process. The self that is found and the self finding are only distinct insofar as the former falls beyond the hold of the will while the later is the site of willed activity. And yet, that which is positioned beyond the range of the will nonetheless insists within the ineliminability of a relation. There is a relation in which the line dividing the willed from the unwilled can be rethought as porous to the extent that the unwilled, i.e. the subject that is found, always plays a role within the finding. What intrudes, a colouring, perhaps a seeping, in which the subject’s centrality and sovereignty is interrupted, is the unwilled and thus the intimate, i.e. that dimension of self that precludes its own universality. The unwilled and the intimate are, of course, subject specific, they position this subject, a named presence here and now, however that specificity does not exist ‘without relation’ to the self that finds and thus the self located in the public sphere. A location that is no mere place but one defined, in part, by the necessity to negotiate continually the insistent presence of the intimate.

Returning to the passage with which these considerations opened. The kiss becomes the moment of impossibility. Not the impossibility of the act but the impossibility of its absorption into either side of a divide, as though it could be automatically assimilated to either the private or the public. The kiss opens. Welling at, though crossing a porous border. Opening up as the moment that is the coincidence of the willed and the unwilled. A coincidence – one that is always doubled because of assimilability’s impossibility – which while demanding a decision nonetheless causes the sovereignty of the self to be disarmed. A disarming that must of course engender another conception of sovereignty. It will be one that takes the primacy of relation as central and repositions the decision within a structure of negotiation.

The locus of relation involves a complex doubling. In the first instance there is the relation already captured in the formulation: he finds himself. That relation is between the self that occupies the public realm and the intimate. The latter is the locus of love, friendship (though perhaps also of form enmity that resists the dictate of the will.) What occurs therefore is a setting in which the there is on the one hand the necessity for relation while on the other there can be no final synthesis or assimilation of one to the other. The self becomes the site of an original difference. A difference thought within the necessary continuity of relation. Maintaining that difference is to maintain the self as a plural event. The other element of the doubling of relation can be located within what can be described, as the inherently inter-subjective dimension of being in the world. In sum there is an always already present relation to the other. Intersubjectivity is not a relation between the Same; except as pure abstraction. It is always a relation between differences. And yet, there are different modes within which the intersubjective takes place and therefore there are different modes of relationality.

What is of importance here are intimate relations. Once it can be argued that such relations hold between those aspects of self that resist universalization such that intimacy is lived out in relation to the will rather than being subject to it then it becomes an end in itself. The sense of self- referring, a form of enclosing, is that which cannot sustain its own universalization. The intimate is an instance of absolute particularity. There is however an important consequence. To the extent that the intimate involves particulars in their particularity there can be neither a politics of friendship nor one in which love would be a universal condition. Love cannot open up to include every other. Nor can love work as a precondition that would allow for its own transcendence (love as the precondition for knowledge). All the intimate can ever do is sustain itself. In lieu of a politics of friendship and a community of lovers what the there can be is a conception of the political that wants to maintain a continual opening to the intimate; an opening in which the disarming effect of the unwilled enters into a relation.


  1. Andrew O’Hagan. Be Near Me. Page 262.
  2. Plural Event
  3. I. Kant. Critique of Judgment. (Translation by Werner S. Pluhar). Hackett. Indianapolis. 1987. All references are to page numbers and are given in the body of the text.
  4. The following discussion of the public and the private in Kant draws on develops the argument advanced in my ‘On Tolerance: Working through Kant.’ Contretemps. No 2. 2001.


Andrew Benjamin is Professor of Critical Theory and Philosophical Aesthetics in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies in Monash University. He was previously Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature at Warwick University. An internationally recognised authority on contemporary French and German critical theory, he has been Visiting Professor at Columbia University in New York and Visiting Critic at the Architectural Association in London. His many books include: What is Deconstruction? (1988), Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1991), Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism (1997), Philosophy’s Literature (2001) and Disclosing Spaces: On Painting (2004). He also edited The Lyotard Reader(1989), Abjection, Melancholia and Love: the Work of Julia Kristeva(1990) and Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience (1993) and Walter Benjamin and Romanticism (2002).