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Desire has been the subject of religious and philosophical speculation in most cultures. The problem of desire has been a fundamental obstacle to the attainment of personal happiness as well of social harmony. The problem of desire has been the problem of which desires are appropriate to personal and social morality as well as beneficial to society. Desires are roughly categorized by their result. Some are uplifting and edifying while others are either self-destructive or destructive to the social organization. Since desires don't come with a clear outcomes attached, cultures have created ways of thinking about them and moral rules and guidelines to help their society and their society's members navigate the realm of desire.

Eastern tradition


Taṇhā (Pāli: तण्हा) or Tṛṣṇā (Sanskrit: तृष्णा) means "thirst, desire, craving, wanting, longing, yearning."


  • 愛 Cn: ài; Jp: ai; Vi: ái
  • Tibetan:

The most basic of these meanings (the literal meaning) is "thirst"; however, in Buddhism it has a technical meaning that is much broader. In part due to the variety of possible translations, taṇhā is sometimes used as an untranslated technical term by authors writing about Buddhism.

  The 12 Nidānas:  
Mind & Body
Six Sense Bases
Old Age & Death

Taṇhā is the eighth link in the Twelve Nidanas of Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda/Paṭiccasamuppāda). Taṇhā is also the fundamental constituent of Samudaya–the Noble Truth of the Origination of Suffering, the second of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhist teachings describe the craving for sense objects which provide pleasant feeling, or craving for sensory pleasures. Taṇhā is a term for wanting to have or wanting to obtain. It also encompasses the negative as in wanting not to have. We can crave for pleasant feelings to be present, and for unpleasant feelings not to be present (i.e., to get rid of unpleasant feelings).

According to Buddhist teachings, craving, or desire, springs from the notion that if one's desires are fulfilled it will, of itself, lead to one's lasting happiness or well-being. Such beliefs normally result in further craving/desire and the repeated enactment of activities to bring about the desired results. This is graphically depicted in the Bhavacakra. The repeated cycling through states driven by craving and its concomitant clinging Upadana.

The meaning of Taṇhā (craving, desire, want, thirst), extends beyond the desire for material objects or sense pleasures. It also includes the desire for life (or death, in the case of someone wishing to commit suicide), the desire for fame (or infamy, its opposite), the desire for sleep, the desire for mental or emotional states (e.g., happiness, joy, rapture, love) if they are not present and one would like them to be. If we have an experience, like depression or sorrow, we can desire its opposite. The meaning of Taṇhā is far-reaching and covers all desire, all wanting, all craving, irrespective of its intensity.

Taṇhā is sometimes taken as interchangeable with the term addiction, except that that would be too narrow a view. Taṇhā tends to include a far broader range of human experience and feeling than medical discussions of addiction tend to include.

Further analysis of Taṇhā reveals that desire for conditioned things cannot be fully satiated or satisfied, due to their impermanent nature. This is expounded in the Buddhist teaching of Anitya impermanence, change (Pali: Anicca).

The Buddhist solution to the problem of Taṇhā (craving, wanting) is the next of the four noble truths, Nirodha, the cessation of suffering which is Noble Eightfold Path and the Six Paramita. The cessation of suffering comes from the quenching (nibbuta) of tanha, which is not the destruction of tanha as much as the natural cessation of it that follows its true and real satisfaction. The problem is not that we desire, but rather that we desire unsatisfactory (dukkha) things, namely sensual pleasures, existence and non-existence. When we have Right Effort, when we desire that which yields satisfaction, then tanha is not the obstacle to enlightenment but the vehicle for its realization.

Western tradition

Desire in Western Philosophy


Desire is identified as a philosophical problem in The Republic, a dialogue by Plato. Plato observes that people in the city should follow its leaders rather their their own interests and that therefore they must exhibit moderation. Personal desires must be postponed in the name of the higher ideal.

In Plato's Phaedrus the soul is guided by two horses, a dark horse of passion and a white horse of reason. Here passion and reason operate together. Socrates does not suggest the dark horse be done away with, since its passions make possible a movement towards the objects of desire, but he qualifies desire and places it in a relation to reason so that the object of desire can be discerned correctly, so that we may have the right desire.


In Aristotle's De Anima the soul is also seen to be involved in motion. Animals desire things and in their desire acquire locomotion. Thus, desire is implicated in animal interactions and the propensity of animals to motion. But Aristotle acknowledges that desire cannot account for all purposive movement towards a goal. He brackets the problem by positing that perhaps reason, in conjunction with desire and by way of the imagination, makes it possible for one to apprehend an object of desire, to see it as desirable. In this way reason and desire work together to determine what is a 'good' object of desire.

Modern philosophy

In Passions of the Soul Rene Descartes addresses the passions. As suggested by the etymology of the word, the passions were passive in nature; that is to say the experience of a passion was always caused by an object external to the subject. An emotion, as it is commonly rendered in both contemporary psychological discourse as well as popular culture, is usually explained as an event internal to, or taking place within, a subject. Therefore, an emotion is produced by the subject while a passion is suffered by the subject. The passion of desire is an agitation of the soul that projects desire, for what it represents as agreeable, into the future. (In some ways Descartes anticipates Freud's Beyond The Pleasure Principle.

In A Treatise on Human Nature David Hume suggests that reason is subject to passion. Motion is put into effect by desire, passions, and inclinations. It is desire, along with belief, that motivates action.

Desire in Kant can represent things that are absent and not only objects at hand. Desire is also the preservation of objects already present, as well as the desire that certain effects not appear, that what affects one adversely be curtailed and prevented in the future. Moral and temporal values attach to desire in that objects which enhance one's future are considered more desirable than those that do not, and it introduces the possibility, or even necessity, of postponing desire in anticipation of some future event.

In the Critique of Judgment, Kant establishes a relation between the beautiful and pleasure. He argues that "I can say of every representation that it is at least possible (as a cognition) it should be bound up with a pleasure. Of representation that I call pleasant I say that it actually excites pleasure in me. But the beautiful we think as having a necessary reference to satisfaction." Desire is found in the representation of the object.

Hegelian desire

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel begins his exposition of desire in Phenomenology of Spirit with the assertion that "self-consciousness is desire." It is in the restless movement of the negative that desire removes the antithesis between itself and its object, "...and the object of immediate desire is a living thing...," and object that forever remains an independent existence, something other. Hegel's treatment of self-consciousness, or desire, is grounded in his larger project of Spirit coming to know itself. It is literally the self-realization of the Holy Spirit.

In the famous section on "Lordship and bondage," Hegel specifies that self-consciousness requires the recognition of the other. He creates a myth of the encounter between two self-consciousnesses who struggle to the death for mastery, to be recognized by the other. The result is that one becomes master, the other slave. Hegel's idea of the development of self-consciousness from consciousness, and its sublation into a higher unity in absolute knowledge, is not the contoured brain of natural science and evolutionary biology, but a phenomenological construct with a history; one that must have passed through a struggle for freedom before realizing itself.

Death struggle

A struggle to the death ensues. However, if one of the two should die the achievement of self-consciousness fails. Hegel refers to this failure as "abstract negation" not the negation or sublation required. This death is avoided by the agreement, communication of, or subordination to, slavery. In this struggle the Master emerges as Master because he doesn't fear death as much as the slave, and the slave out of this fear consents to the slavery. This experience of fear on the part of the slave is crucial, however, in a later moment of the dialectic, where it becomes the prerequisite experience for the slave's further development.

Enslavement and mastery

Truth of oneself as self-conscious is achieved only if both live, the recognition of the other gives each one the objective truth and self-certainty required for self-consciousness. Thus, the two enter into the relation of master/slave and preserve the recognition of each other.

Post-Hegelian developments

Hegel's myth proved very productive, becoming the basis for an entire vein of theories of desire, particularly in the wake of Alexandre Kojeve's anthropomorphic treatment of it in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.


For Kojeve, the goal of the struggle is not "Spirit coming to know itself," as it had been in Hegel, but rather a development in hominization. The goal is recognition, what he equates with Hegel's self-consciousness. Man was born and history began with the first struggle, which ended with the first masters and slaves. Man is always either master or slave; and there are no real humans where there are no masters and slaves. History comes to an end when the difference between master and slave ends, when the master ceases to be master because there are no more slaves and the slave ceases to be a slave because there are no more masters. A synthesis takes place between master and slave: the integral citizen of the universal and homogeneous state created by Napoleon.[1]

Mimetic desire

Kojeve's analysis was fundamental for the development of two theories of mimetic desire that arose in the twentieth century. This first was that of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan's désir unites the Kojevian desire with the Freud's wunsch as the central concept to his thought. For the aim of the talking cure—psychoanalysis—is precisely to lead the analysis and to "recognize" the truth about his/her desire, yet this is only possible when it is articulated in discourse. Thus, "It is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire appears in the full sense of the term"[2]; "...what is important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring desire into existence," and "That the subject should come to recognize and to name his/her desire, that is the efficacious action of analysis. But it is not a question of recognizing something which would be entirely given. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world."[3] Now, although the truth about desire is somehow present in discourse, discourse can never articulate the whole truth about desire: whenever discourse attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus.

In the "mirror stage," the subject of Lacan's first official contribution to psychoanalytic theory (Fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress at Marienbad in 1936), the formation of the Ego occurs via the process of identification. The Ego develops as a result of infant's identifying with its own specular image. At six months the baby still lacks coordination, however, he can "recognize" himself in the mirror before attaining control over his bodily movements. He sees his image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with his own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens him with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego. (Dylan Evans, op.cit) The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery.[4] Yet, the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother. (La relation d'objet) This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.

However, the mirror stage shows that the Ego is the product of misunderstanding—Lacan's term "méconnaissance" implies a false "recognition"—and the place where the subject becomes alienated from himself, since the ego is formed outside the self, or Lacanian terms, the process by which the ego is formed in the Mirror Stage is at the same time the institution of alienation from the symbolic determination of being. In this sense méconnaissance is an imaginary misrecognition of a symbolic knowledge that the subject possesses somewhere. It must be emphasized again that the Mirror Stage introduces the subject into the Imaginary order.

In The Signification of the Phallus Lacan distinguishes desire from need and demand. Need is a biological instinct that is articulated in demand, yet demand has a double function, on one hand it articulates need and on the other acts as a demand for love. So, even after the need articulated in demand is satisfied, the demand for love remains unsatisfied and this leftover is desire. For Lacan "desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second" (article cited). Desire then is the surplus produced by the articulation of need in demand (Dylan Evans). Lacan adds that "desire begins to take shape in the margin in which demand becomes separated from need" (article cited). Hence desire can never be satisfied, or as Slavoj Zizek puts it "desire's raison d'etre is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire."

It is also important to distinguish between desire and the drives. If they belong to the field of the Other (as opposed to love), desire is one, whereas the drives are many. The drives are the partial manifestations of a single force called desire (see "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis"). If one can surmise that objet petit a is the object of desire, it is not the object towards which desire tends, but the cause of desire. For desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque). Then desire appears as a social construct since it is always constituted in a dialectical relationship.

René Girard

René Girard was a professor of French literature in the United States at the end of the 1950s and sought a new way of speaking about literature. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he tried to discover what they have in common and he noticed that the characters created by the great writers evolved in a system of relationships that was common to the works of many authors: "Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is."[5] So there did indeed exist "psychological laws" as Proust calls them. These laws and this system are the consequences of a fundamental reality grasped by the novelists, which Girard called the mimetic character of desire. This is the content of his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961). We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. René Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be,"[5] it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.

Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

Through their characters, our own behavior is displayed. Everyone holds firmly to the illusion of the authenticity of one's own desires; the novelists implacably expose all the diversity of lies, dissimulations, maneuvers, and the snobbery of the Proustian heroes; these are all but "tricks of desire," which prevent one from facing the truth: envy and jealousy. These characters, desiring the being of the mediator, project upon him superhuman virtues while at the same time depreciating themselves, making him a god while making themselves slaves, in the measure that the mediator is an obstacle to them. Some, pursuing this logic, come to seek the failures that are the signs of the proximity of the ideal to which they aspire. This is masochism, which can turn into sadism.

This fundamental discovery of mimetic desire would be pursued by René Girard throughout the rest of his career. The emphasis on imitation in humans was not a popular subject when Girard developed his theories, but today there is an amazing amount of convergent support for his claims coming from empirical research. As Scott Garrels (Fuller’s School of Psychology) wrote:

The parallels between Girard's insights and the only recent conclusions made by empirical researchers concerning imitation (in both development and the evolution of species) are extraordinary. What makes Girard's insights so remarkable is that he not only discovered and developed the primordial role of psychological mimesis during a time when imitation was quite out of fashion, but he did so through investigation in literature, cultural anthropology, history, ...[6]


  1. Alexandre Kojève, Gerhard Lembruch, Iring Fetscher, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel: eine Vergegenwärtigung seines Denkens Kommentar zur Phänomenologie des Geistes (Suhrkamp taschenbuch, 97; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000, ISBN 3518276972).
  2. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by J. Forrester (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988).
  3. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Sylvana Tomaselli (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988).
  4. Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage," Écrits: A Selection, transl. by Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977, and revised version, 2002, transl. by Bruce Fink).
  5. 5.0 5.1 Rene Girard, Quand ces choses commenceront (Arléa, 1996, ISBN 978-2869593008).
  6. Scott R. Garrels, Imitation, Mirror Neurons and Mimetic Desire: Convergence between the Mimetic Theory of René Girard and Empirical Research on Imitation' Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 12-13 (2006): 47–86. Retrieved March 27, 2020

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bahm, Archie J. Philosophy of the Buddha. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1993. ISBN 0875730256
  • Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Lacan: the Absolute Master. Stanford University Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0804715560
  • Girard, Rene. Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde. Paris: Grasset, 1978. Trans. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: Research undertaken in collaboration with J.-M. Oughourlian and G. Lefort. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0804722155
  • Girard, Rene. Dostoïevski, du double à l'unité. Paris: Plon, 1963. Trans. Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 978-0824516086
  • Girard, Rene. La violence et le Sacré. Paris: Grasset, 1972. Trans. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. ISBN 978-0801822186
  • Girard, Rene. Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque. Paris: Grasset, 1961. (Trans. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1966.) ISBN 0801818303
  • Girard, Rene. Quand ces choses commenceront: Entretiens avec Michel Treguer. Arléa, 1996. ISBN 978-2869593008
  • Irvine, William Braxton. On desire: Why We Want What We Want. Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0195327076
  • Kojeve, Alexandre, and Allan Bloom (trans.). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Agora Paperback Editions, 1980. ISBN 978-0801492037
  • Morrison, Robert. Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities. Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0198238652

External links

All links retrieved January 29, 2024.


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