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Among the categories examined by the enlightenment, few were so elusive as desire. Then as now, the term lent itself to an equal balance of meanings and vagaries. What did seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers intend when they sought to demarcate the nature of motivation and name the experience of wanting? One answer is that they endeavored to bring sexuality into a new culture of expertise. “Desire” became one of several areas of knowledge laid bare for the separate disciplines of moral philosophy and experimental science. But enlightenment theorists also summoned the category to help explain institutions that dwelled outside the realm of the personal, such as the market, civil society, and the aesthetic. The erotic seemed to have this special feature: it accounted for one’s habits of mind and gave form to the grand systems of a secular culture. Often at the same time. Witness Bernard Mandeville’s Search into the Nature of Society (1723): the “sociableness of man,” he there argues, “arises from these two things, viz. the multiplicity of desires and the continual opposition he meets with in his endeavours to gratify them.” 1 The social order initiates a longing from which it also takes shape, hence the “search” turns from the realm of public life to the inner world of the self: “I beg of my serious reader that he would for a while abate a little of his gravity and suffer me to examine these people separately, as to their inside and the different motives they act from.” 2

In the lair of feeling lies the map of society, and in the form of society reside the springs of affection. But that is not to say that the enlightenment found it easy to navigate between the two. One way that we can get a sense of the effort that went into naming desire and to tracking it within the new, secular institutions of market and culture is to follow closely the changing meaning of the term. The following pages thus attempt something like a comparative philology of the erotic at the close of the British seventeenth century; they place the word “desire” in what was arguably its most significant array of philosophical use and speculative meaning. Lexical shifts create a pattern that is intelligible within some of the leading tensions of the age. We may state these briefly as follows. According to many, the modernity of modern society lay in the differentiation of its parts: politics from commerce, art from science, religion from reason. 3 Each was a separate discipline of thought or an independent domain of value. No single system of faith inhibited the cultivation of knowledge or the accumulation of capital. Yet the advent of modern, disciplinary culture cast a certain shadow. The same sharpness of focus that provided new levels of expertise appeared to estrange intellectual concerns from the habits and language of daily living. 4 The imagined fluidity of public or intimate life unmoored [End Page 189] from tradition entailed new varieties of risk. The resulting strain placed on the concept of “desire” was unique: it criss-crossed the subjective and the social, the personal and the disciplinary, at their most sensitive points of contact and so became inseparable, as we shall see, from a certain “uneasiness.” 5

This configuration will become clearer by turning now to our example. Few writers bring into bolder relief the contrary aspirations of their period than John Locke. A philosopher of mind and political theorist, medical doctor and economist, Locke shows by his example the enlightenment’s ambivalent regard to the very disciplines it cultivated. 6 Nowhere is this more evident than in his effort to name desire and calculate its provenance. In the first edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke describes an inner drive toward the good, a direction of the will by the moral sense. The second edition (1694) has a more forbidding cast. When we desire something, Locke there argues, we anxiously covet its presence. Between the first and second edition, Locke engages in a fervent correspondence with the Irish scientist William Molyneux. Their letters often reach a peak of tonal intensity—with resonant...

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