Primal Desire: The Desire to be Recognized

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

Psalm 139:1-6

Desire is the primary concern of psychoanalysis but it is also front and center in the biblical portrayal of human failure and redemption. The web of experience, conscious and unconscious, symbolic and beyond, is woven into the ordering and structure of human desire.  In psychoanalytic treatment, the goal is to lead the analysand to articulate their desire or bring it into consciousness or into full existence – which is an unending process.

In biblical terms, there is an effort to channel or rightly order desire as there is the presumption that it can be misdirected and destructive. In both psychoanalysis and the Bible desire cannot be fully articulated as there is a fundamental incompatibility between desire and speech. Speech and cognition cannot fully grasp desire.

Unlike a need, which can be met and satisfied, desire is a constant pressure which both theology and psychology call eternal, but there is a crucial difference in these two eternities. In psychoanalysis desire is a relation to a lack and this is its eternality. Though the Bible and theology distinguish a failed desire – a covetous or exponential desire of lack – there is also the description of desire as it relates to God and is primarily God’s own desire. So desire in the Bible takes on a positive eternality.

One of Jacques Lacan’s oft-repeated formulas, confirmed in the Bible, is: “man’s desire is the desire of the Other” (S11, 235). This can mean that basic desire is to be recognized by the Other or it can mean that one’s own desire is an imitation of another’s desire. In the first case, all humans want to be “desired” or “loved” or “recognized.”[1] The second meaning is partially tied to the first, in that desire is learned or mimetic, arising from the Other. The subject desires what the other desires or she desires from the perspective of someone else. It is not the intrinsic quality of an object but the vested quality of its being desired by another which makes it desirable. In Alexandre Kojève’s explanation, this second possibility is tied up with the first, in that imitating another’s desire is still an attempt at being counted worthy of recognition. To desire what another desires, goes back to the former point about desiring recognition, as possessing what is desirable the subject becomes desirable.

This mediated desire however, can take on a bad eternality in several senses. There is no end of the objects to be desired or of the models of desire. Since this desire is for what one does not have it will always be desire for something else. To have it is not to desire it. The impossible nature of desire may be Oedipal, or desire imitating the father’s desire for Mother – the primordial Other. As long as desire remains unconscious it is likely to take on this consumptive tenor of lack or impossibility in which one is continually climbing a ladder of desire and never getting off the ground.

To get rid of the bad eternalization of desire, not a clear possibility in psychoanalysis, requires recognizing the nature of primal human desire. The Apostle Paul names desire for recognition and places it front and center – trumping even one’s knowledge of God: “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” This is parallel to Galatians 4:9: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?” To be chosen, recognized, or loved by God speaks to a reckoning with desire which psychoanalysis never clearly approaches. Paul names this an alternative or resolution to the world’s elementary principle. Isn’t this the desire that drives the world, but in going unnamed it simultaneously orders the world and creates the consumptive drive destroying it?[2]


[1] This insight can be traced through Lacan to Alexandre Kojève and Hegel.

[2] The case could be made that this is the primary movement in redemption – to be known and recognized by God. 2 Timothy 2:19: “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.’” John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me.” John 10:27: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me,”


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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