Dr Howard Richards – The Positive Erotic

P Dr Howard Richards LE Thinkers Dec 2019

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I wrote this a long time ago, some time in the late 1990s,  but it has never been published.  It is Letter 66 in a projected third volume of my Letters from Quebec that has never been published. – Dr Howard Richards

Dr Howard Richards (born June 10, 1938) is a philosopher of Social Science who has worked with the concepts of basic cultural structures and constitutive rules. He holds the title of Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, USA, the Quaker School where he taught for thirty years. He officially retired from Earlham College, together with his wife Caroline Higgins in 2007, but retained the title of Research Professor of Philosophy.  A member of the Yale class of 1960, he holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the Stanford Law School, an Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) from Oxford University (UK) and a PhD in Educational Planning, with a specialization in applied psychology and moral education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada. He has practiced law as a volunteer lawyer for Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association, and as a specialist in bankruptcy.   He now teaches philosophy of science in the Doctoral Program in Management Sciences at the University of Santiago, Chile, and co-teaches “Critical Conversations on Ethics, Macroeconomics and Organizations” in the Executive MBA program of the Graduate School of Business of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is founder of the Peace and Global Studies Program and co-founder of the Business and Nonprofit Management Program at Earlham. Dr Richards is a Catholic, a member of Holy Trinity (Santisima Trinidad) parish in Limache, Chile, and a member of the third order of St. Francis, S.F.O  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Richards_(academic)

The Color Green

I understood her. She said she had an advantage in life because she enjoyed the color green. Being from California, having grown up companion to the eucalyptus and the sycamore, I was familiar with palms and pines growing together, and I knew the dark greens of juniper, cypress, cedar, bougainvillea, Spanish oak, live oak, scrub oak, as well as the lighter greens of camphor trees and of the grass on the hills after the winter rain.


We have much to learn from trees, “that vigorous and pacific tribe,” and nothing to fear from them. Without knowing why we are doing it, we invite them into our cities to instruct us and to keep us company. They speak to us of our own ancient selves as we are still, as we were when we stalked among the shadow and sunlight of forest and savanna, for hundreds of thousands of years before this brief blip on the time line called civilization. Their hues and tones touch unknown chords deep in the DNA-coded information circuitry of our bodies, like a blind man playing a piano. We plant trees to line our boulevards because, like good friends, they teach us who we are, who we really are. Of course we do not know why we do it –any more than we know our real motives for anything we do.


In a lover’s kiss protons lock and unlock electrons according to valences; electricity flows, energy is bound and released. The pressure of lips is like the pressure of a stone pressed upon the earth by gravity, and both, considered as pressures, are the same as any pressures anywhere.


He is a ceremonious young man, given to elaborate welcomes and to fervent goodbyes. His eye contact is never even a split-second late, or a millimeter misplaced; his laughter –due to a miracle only gods could understand– is both perfectly spontaneous and perfectly appropriate. Whoever steps into his presence steps onto a stage: young or old, male or female, newcomer or intimate –each has a role, and each is aglow with the joy of being in a bonding performance with a co-star and an audience. No ancient chieftain with painted face beating his drums amid billowing smoke, had a more exacting sense of the right moment, the right word, the right movement. Fate has placed him in the position of manager of an auto parts store, where he charms suppliers and customers alike. He is the soul of the place. All the styles of ritual observed in chimpanzees, baboons, and orangutans; and all those attributed to the earliest humans in their relationships with nature and with each other; find their echoes in his manner of conducting a telephone conversation to verify a credit reference, and in his way of making change for a twenty dollar bill. If fate had placed him elsewhere he might have been the founder of a church, or of a jazz band.


At the adult bookstore ©©I mean almost any adult bookstore– for a quarter you can see private videos of Sandra Deelite penetrated six ways by Mike “the stud” Hammer. (Actually I made up the names “Deelite” and “Mike Hammer,” for fear of possible adverse consequences of using real porn stars’ names.) Deelite and Hammer portray what Nancy Hartsock (Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987) calls a negative erotic, eros riven by layers of hostility.

Sea Pleasures

Among Spaniards who dance the bolero, there are some who, after sipping two glasses of red wine, will tell you that in a human life the magic of romance is lo indispensable. Among the more sensible races, the Chinese for example, the sentimental context for the complete enjoyment of the bolero is sadly lacking, and yet there is no more certain proposition than that the Chinese have pleasures akin to those of the Spanish. There is a community of blood, of adrenaline, of epinephrine, of sperm, of testosterone … which guarantees that throughout the gamut of historically created sentiments, any two are related, at least as cousins. All human blood can be traced to the same source, and that source is the sea. The salinity of blood is witness to an evolution through unbroken chains of intermediate liquids out of the oceans where life began. The beating of hearts is witness to an evolution through unbroken chains of intermediate rhythms out of the ebbs and flows of waters


“Circumambulate the city on a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see ? –Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the piles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep …. But look ! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange ! Nothing will content them but the extremist limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand –miles of them– leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues — north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chapter I.)

At the Cafe

The positive erotic. A nice phrase. Nancy Hartsock’s Money, Sex and Power –a good book. What better thing could I do, sitting at the Cafe Bianco with a cup of orange spice tea and a slice of banana bread, than develop a nice phrase taken from a good book ?


I find it hard to believe a key premise of Hartsock’s argument, which is that whether a stimulus is exciting, how much excitement it causes, and the quality of the excitement, all depend on society and personal history. I am not saying that Hartsock’s premise is not true –just that I find it hard to believe. I had been accustomed to believing that if I had an erection the cause was a woman. I suppose that what I had been accustomed to believe presupposed that I was programmed genetically so that when presented with a suitable stimulus –a young individual of the opposite sex with regular features and enlarged mammary glands– I would suffer an adrenaline rush and a tendency toward panting, penile expansion, and shaking; just as among certain species of wasps the male is fatally attracted to the female when the female, prompted by instinct, whirs its wings a certain number of strokes per second. Which is evidently not the case. Nancy Hartsock, supported by the sexologists cited in her footnotes, tells me that whether I am excited, how much, and in what way depends on how the ancient chemistry which encodes the construction of the tissues of my body has been overlaid and interwoven here in the city by and with my ethnicity, my religion, my language, the images in my mind, my childhood, my significant relationships with others … but I must admit, that even agreeing that what Nancy Hartsock says must be true, I still do not understand anything. I was in Los Angeles and I saw a drawing on a billboard of a buxom woman wearing sunglasses, with only a name, “Angelyne,” and a telephone number, and my palms were sweating. She was not a woman. She was not even a photograph of a woman. She was a cartoonist’s outline of an imaginary woman, expanded to three times the size of a large elephant, printed in bright ink, and posted on a large billboard placed skyward above Seventh Street on the roof of a small building. I am supposed to be a reasonable, educated, happily married, baptized person, and my hands were sweating and I still don’t know why.


Inside the Club Casbah an almost bare waitress dances on a table top. Outside the Casbah, on the sidewalk, passersby who cannot afford to enter the Club and see the show, stand a while to listen to the music. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses seize the opportunity to read to those who will listen, from the book of Revelations. On the side of the street, next to edge of the curb, a policeman stops a young man riding a bicycle with no headlight and speaks to him. Anger boils. Under the sidewalk, in a drain, a rat sniffs for food. Farther down, worms tunnel through the warm earth. Farther up, a bird flies in the night sky.


The problem many men face in life is how to get themselves motivated to do something constructive. Anthropology, history and common sense tell us that for most men there is one major motivation which does it: a good relationship with a woman. Jeremy Bentham was although not the first, the most famous and the most influential of the fools who imagined that men could be rehabilitated by putting them in prisons where they are systematically kept away from women. In his philosophy, which takes as its first premise that “Nature has placed man under two masters, pleasure and pain,” he overlooks the decisive fact that pleasure is found mainly in interpersonal relationships (as should be evident from “pleasure’s” etymology –its ties with “to please” and “to be pleased.”) As everybody knows, the prisons which Bentham and his loony friends bequeathed to western civilization and the world are, and have been since their inception, not institutions which accomplish rehabilitation, but schools for crime. Of course the regular public schools are also schools for crime, because they teach children that the purpose of life is success; the students show that they have mastered the implicit curriculum when they achieve success as drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps. It could not be otherwise. The reform of personalities and, ultimately, the reform of society, would be much more likely to be accomplished by following Nancy Hartsock’s philosophy, by changing the sign of the erotic from negative to positive.

Where we Live

Two and one half million people live in the city of Santiago, but nobody lives in Santiago. Each lives in the world of his or her imagination.” (translated from your humble servant’s Apuntes de Filosofia. Santiago: Taller de Editores, 1972)

The Mirror Where My Adrenaline Enjoys Seeing Itself

If “physical” means “not social,” then the erotic is not physical. It is outgoing, gregarious. The best part of ecstasy is not being carried away; it is being carried away together. For this reason achieving a positive erotic can not be a private project. Nor can it be, if it is to be deep and stable, the project of two, an egoisme a deux. The tendency of desire is toward the desire to be desired –by a family, by the shadowy titans of the unconscious mind, by an audience, by a choir of angels, and –why not?– by the singing forests, by the brooding spirits of the mountains, by the Milky Way. A perfected human society –one that satisfied the tendency of desire– would make it easy for every person, from the youngest to the most senior, to feel wanted, affirmed, cared for –and not only to feel it, but to know it; and not only to feel it and know it with the top of the head, but to feel it and know it with every cell of the body from the end of the longest hair of the head to the tip of the longest toe. Those tiny creatures, the sperm and the ova, who inhabit our genitalia, are like us. They love attention too. They are mega-êsocial.

Charm Secrets

Sometimes I imagine that each person I meet is someone with whom I have shared a bonding experience, or a special caring relationship, such as sitting up with them while they struggle with an illness, speaking kind words and serving them chamomile tea; but that the love we have shared must, for mysterious reasons, remain forever undisclosed. The person’s apparent indifference to me when we meet again by chance is due to their zealous protection of our secret, but I, being given more to risks and to generosity, permit myself a twinkle in my eye, a slight smile, and a slight gesture to signal so imperceptibly that no one else will notice– our complicity in past joy. We are pretending that one of us is just an ordinary customer standing in line, the other, just an ordinary bank teller, but in reality we are linked by treasured memories of great passions, in reality in our hearts we are celebrating a sweet mystic communion; each knows, and each knows that the other knows, that we are from the sea, which held us together and rocked us both to sleep, before several million years of separation which, with each passing day, have made our unity more sacred because more ancient. We will never be frustrated by present or future loneliness, because our memories of the embraces we have already enjoyed will forever comfort us. We will never be unfaithful to our wives, husbands, lovers, or friends, because every secret rendezvous has already happened, and would only be spoiled by repetition.

The Ballots are Counted

If one person, more or less, finds that his palms are sweating, the phenomenon hardly proves the existence of a trend. But a billboard in a city with a phone number implies that enough people are dialing the number, and paying somebody money for something, to make this particular sex business profitable. It is by a similar deduction that Nancy Hartsock shows that sexual excitement in our culture is predominantly linked to hostility. One line of evidence is from studies of pornography. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it can only be the massive institution it is because people are thrilled by pain, death, humiliation, and destruction. A second line of evidence is from studies of rape. It is also a massive reality, and it is found to be rarely the result of erotic fascination per se, almost always the result of a need to have power, control, revenge. The ballots are counted, and the negative erotic has won a majority in both houses of parliament; it will form the government.

I do not wish to debate the statistical issues (e.g. Is soft porn hostile? Is date-rape rape?) According to any reasonable interpretation of the data, the conclusion is that in the psyches of our neighbors there rages an epidemic of rage and violence. It may be that to a certain extent there is nothing to be done –because biology and not culture decrees that violence shall be sexually exciting. However, as Nancy Hartsock says, there will be time enough to bemoan the fate to which nature has abandoned us after we have done what we can do to improve our culture.


I had a dream that when Michel Foucault arrived in heaven, the first thing he did was to request a leave of absence, recognizing –like Proust requesting a vacation on the first day of his employment at the Musee Mazarin– that his inner call led him elsewhere. Foucault asked Saint Peter, the keeper of the keys, for permission to attend an academic congress on Herbert Marcuse’s Concept of Surplus Repression at the University of San Diego, and would he please allow him to depart with an extra key, just in case, upon his return, his arrival at the pearly gate should turn out to be at an hour later than eleven p.m. Saint Peter granted Foucault’s requests, but as a precaution sent Saint Thomas Aquinas along as a chaperon.

The Congress proved to be not at the University itself, but at the Hyatt Regency Hotel nearby, and to be divided into seventeen concurrent panels in separate rooms. The visitors from heaven slipped into a room where there were five panelists, and only two in the audience (besides the two visitors from heaven, who were, of course, invisible). At the end, one of the two people in the audience commented that whatever else one might say about the concept of surplus repression, the word “repression” is poorly chosen. It evokes a mechanical image; it suggests a bad power above holding down a good instinct below.

Marcuse agrees with Freud that sex must be repressed and sublimated to channel energy into the necessary work of civilization, but then he agrees with Marx that much of the so-called necessary work is necessary only to keep a privileged class in power. Less work is really necessary; and therefore less repression is really necessary. The unnecessary repression is surplus, and it is morally questionable as is the capitalist’s extraction of surplus value from the worker.

The problem, said the unidentified member of the audience, is that the image implies that something would be gained by taking the lid off sex, so to speak, or, for that matter, taking the lid off instinctual expression in general.

The second unidentified member of the audience agreed. “What is needed,” she said, “is the re-interpretation of sex.”

The invisible Saint Thomas whispered gently into the invisible Foucault’s invisible ear, as if discreetly seeking to seduce him with reason, “Methinks these mortals reinvent the wheel. Plato re-interpreted sex as love of wisdom in the Symposium and in the Phaedrus in the fourth century before the Word became incarnate. And in the thirteenth century I summarized sixteen centuries of Christian, Jewish, and Arabic tradition in my dazzling and compendious demonstration that the positive erotic is none other than God, may his holy name be praised per omnes saeculae saeculorum.”

The Shouting Silence

“Only beauty will save the world,” wrote Dostoyevsky. A revolutionary doctrine. It calls for the overthrow of the ruling boredom. The radical agitators for beauty’s revolution are those who are decency’s enemies: the drive-by murderers, the addicts, the racist bigots, the death squads, the Islamic fundamentalists, the Serbian nationalists, violent ethnic militants of all kinds, the armed cults, the Neo-Nazis, gangs, the corrupt TV evangelists, terrorists, school dropouts, computer hackers, child abusers, serial rapists, druglords, white-collar crooks,…. They are the messengers who are trying to tell us that there is something deeply wrong with our mainly liberal, mainly modern, increasingly democratic, and increasingly global society. If we ask ourselves over and over again why mainstream life offers the indecent so little that they decline to join it, then we will, I believe, eventually come to agree with Dostoyevsky.

The Positive Erotic

Nancy Hartsock (Money Sex and Power, pp. 166-67) uses the term “erotic” to describe three related aspects of human life which have been named as eros traditionally and in contemporary psychology: (1) What Sigmund Freud called, “the aim of making one out of many,” both in what he called a vita sexualis normalis, and in the forms he called perverted or sublimated –the perversions being pathological, and the sublimations providing “the spiritual treasures of civilization;” (2) Sensuality, what Plato called appetites; (3) The enjoyment of creativity. The third category is very broad for Hartsock; it plays in her work a role similar to that of joy in non-alienated human labor in Marx; it includes the pleasures of creative effort in philosophy, in art, in physical labor, and in raising children.

I would almost define the positive erotic as pleasant emotion which helps to mobilize resources to meet needs. The reason why I think such a simple definition would not be far off is that pleasant emotions untouched by the deep passions, untouched by the deep need to be recognized and desired, are not likely to motivate people to move very much very far. Hence any pleasant emotion that makes any considerable contribution to mobilizing resources to meet needs is almost certain to tap erotic energy.

I Want to Come to You as the Spring Comes to the Cherry Trees

The soul (Latin anima, Greek psuche) is the active and esthetic element in human being. Marx chided materialists for failing to appreciate it. The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism –that of Feuerbach included– is that the object, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or contemplation. but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Thus it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism. (First Thesis on Feuerbach) As if in response to Marx’s call for a subjective materialism, some of the best evocations of the positive erotic have been composed by Communist authors: A. K. Makarenko, Pablo Milanes, Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, Jose Saramago.

On Whether the First of the Twelve Steps is Really Necessary

To those who believe that communities of joyful solidarity can be built without trust in Divine Higher Powers, I say, “go for it !” “Do it!” As for myself, I find applicable a phrase I learned from Padre Miguel, who was (and may still be ) the pastor of Santisima Trinidad parish in Limache, Chile. It is una tarea tan superior a nuestras fuerzas. (Literally translated: “a task far superior to our forces”)

The Bitter Root

Nancy Hartsock’s proposal is not just to change the sign of the erotic in order to make human relationships beautiful. She works through Marx’s analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, and finds that communities based on exchange are necessarily fragile and false. But she finds that at an even deeper and older level our culture rests on combat and intimidation. In the exchange society friendship becomes a liability and people are constrained to be strangers to each other. But an agonistic society is even worse –people are enemies to each other. The negative erotic we experience is the overlay given by a commercial culture to an older layer of fear. The positive erotic is a key to building communities which are stable and true; and it is therefore a contribution to building better neighborhoods, cities, and global structures, not just a key to a more rewarding intimacy.


A perfume. A word with a beautiful history. Delirium beyond fun. Deeper and more spontaneous than pleasure. Medieval Christian theologians declared joy to be a gift whose source was friendship with God. Buddhist theologians raise joy to the second power: sympathetic joy, joy in the joy of others.

Color, Flavor

Audre Lorde, in her short essay, “The Uses of the Erotic,” refers to an experience only we older folks will remember. After World War II margarine was sold in solid white one pound blocks sheathed in plastic, with a small pellet of intense red dye wrapped in its own small plastic sheathe placed in the middle, as if the red pellet were the white margarine’s belly button. After buying the margarine you break the sheathe of the red pellet, and then you knead the pellet in the block up and down, back and forth, like bread dough, until the whole block becomes yellow. The erotic is like the red pellet of concentrated dye: if you open it, and work with it, it gives color and flavor to life.

Mater Dolorosa

Savants there are who will tell you that community is created only by suffering. The Cross. The martyrs. The battlefields made sacred by bloodshed. The pogroms. Enduring the siege of Stalingrad together. Losing the battle at the Plains of Abraham in 1763; the assassinations of Gandhi, King, Kennedy, Romero …. Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique de la Raison Dialectique offers the similar concept that unity comes from sharing danger, as when conspirators, guerrillas, criminals, or soldiers in battle depend for their lives on each other’s loyalty.

I would not want to be interpreted as asserting the contrary, that only pleasure forges commitment. I say only that a positive social construction of the erotic is one which helps to integrate a way of life, helps to make it beautiful in its entirety. Humanity’s fine ethnic traditions have always woven meaning and practice from not one but several of the Great Obsessions to which the tissues of our brains and bodies, the blood, the sperm, and all our fluids, already commit us: Sex, Violence, Ceremony, Nostalgia, God. But since they have not, on the whole, woven their strands very well, the history of our species recites, nevertheless, that most people most of the time have been poor and miserable.

The Interior Journey

Every smell, every taste, every sight, every stretch of a muscle, every movement, every catching of a rhythm, every sound, every touch … is a voyage backward in time, a discovery from the inside of the emotions of our hunter-gather ancestors, of our primate ancestors, of our mammalian ancestors, of our reptilian ancestors, of our ichthyan ancestors … of the stardust from which the earth was formed.


It was like the sun bursting through the clouds, dazzling what had been a darkened landscape; and it was like looking through the window of a climbing airplane when it breaks through the top of a fog bank into the blue above. Suddenly I realized, as if in a flash of light, that a thousand books about socialism were somewhat beside the main point. They are books about how the masses, led by the socialists, might constitute themselves as effective political actors and take power. But the revolution is not a change in power; it is a change in norms, in rules. Most people believe that socialists have held enough power in enough unsuccessful social experiments to justify drawing the conclusion that the rules of the game of capitalism are the only rules that work. God knows they work very badly, but most people doubt that there is any alternative. The tasks of those of us who still are socialists, in this age of doubt, are to live socialism, to prove it feasible by doing it; and to publicize socialism’s very real historical accomplishments, to prove it feasible by correcting memories. Until we can show the public that there are real alternatives, we shall neither have power nor deserve it.

Kisses Can Tell the Truth

I do not want to expect too much or too little from the positive erotic. I have reason to believe that it exists; that there could be more of it; that it could be a part of the motivating energy that will build a better world; and that when a better world is built it will be a part of the motivating energy that sustains it.

© Dr Howard Richards