In A Philosophy of the Unsayable, William Franke examines the “valences and varieties” of what cannot be said—from the indeterminacy of language to the infinite openness of thought to the ineffability of the divine and the unspeakability of suffering. The work reflects Franke’s depth of study across the fields of philosophy, theology, and literature as a professor of Comparative Literature and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University and of Philosophy and Religions at the University of Macao. Here he condenses and clarifies some of the main themes and assertions of his two edited volumes On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature and the Arts (2007). Both projects draw attention to “apophasis” as a distinct genre that spans a host of related disciplines. Franke’s concern is to identify and set in conversation certain resources in the Western intellectual tradition that figure as “a kind of perennial counter-philosophy to the philosophy of Logos” (1). “Apophasis” specifically designates, for him, the “negation”—namely the “self-negation”—of discourse (80). Franke discerns within discourses as manifold and varied as Neoplatonism, negative theology, medieval mysticism, Romantic poetry, Death of God theology, Radical Orthodoxy, and especially contemporary continental philosophy “major monuments” of what he calls an “apophatic culture” (2). He concludes the work with the claim that “apophaticism is the soul of philosophy inasmuch as it critically questions everything that can be believed” (328).
In the first few chapters of A Philosophy of the Unsayble, Franke examines the theme of unsaybility in literature. Peppered with epigraphs and insights from literary figures such as Shakespeare, Rilke, Hölderlin, Dickenson, Beckett and many others, in these initial theoretical and literary-critical reflections, Franke turns to Hegel and post-Hegelian philosophy (chapters 1-2) as well as the “pathbreaking” post-holocust poetry of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès (chapter 3) (83). In the second half of the book, Franke more explicitly examines the relationship between philosophy and theology, enacting the “trans-philosophical thinking” he commends (5). One of his goals is “to situate apophatic thought as key to some of the most challenging developments and disputes in the philosophy of religion today” and “to mediate and unblock the deadlock between secularizing…and theologizing approaches” (274). He attempts to bridge discourses as apparently polarized as the “postsecular religious revivalist philosophy” (or Radical Orthodoxy) of figures such as John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, on the one hand, and the secular or atheistic philosophy of Thomas Altizer, Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and John Caputo, on the other (chapters 4-7). Franke says these discourses have a “common basis in critical, apophatic insight” (270). Apophasis is “the missing link.”
The way Franke relates philosophy, theology, and literature is a common thread in the responses comprising this symposium on his work. Franke believes that in the face of “what cannot be said,” 1) philosophy “necessarily becomes literary” and 2) language is pushed “in a direction which is best understood as theological” (4). Sai Bhatawadekar highlights the performative quality of a “philosophy of the unsayable,” integrating humor, hymnody, as well as some of her own aphoristic rhymes into her response. Bringing together modern German philosophy and South Asian Studies, Bhatawadekar’s engagement with Franke is set against the backdrop of her upbringing in a Hindu household where, she says, the “bizarre appearances” of various gods and goddesses represented “very imaginative yet ultimately feeble attempts of depicting something beyond human capacities.”
Kevin Hart, himself a theologian, philosopher, and poet, is well aware of the sorts of resonances Franke identifies across these distinct discourses. However, he is wary of collapsing the differences between the contemplative practices of medieval mysticism and, for example, the brokenness of language that marks post-Holocaust German literature. Hart suggests teasing out more thoroughly the various “modes” in which unsayability “impinges on us.” He also notes the fact that apophasis “is ineluctably tied to” kataphasis—a point Aaron Simmons makes as well. Writing from the perspective of modern philosophy of religion, Simmons raises a number of other important questions, including whether the “ground between philosophy, literature, and religion” might “be made a bit less slippery” and whether the discussion would benefit from a broader engagement with analytic philosophy and epistemology.
In light of the poetic and theological quality of Franke’s writing, Stephen Palmquist specifically considers the question of whether it is “properly named philosophy.” He believes Franke’s claims about apophatic language could be grounded more clearly in an apophatic logic that can make “sense out of language that might otherwise appear to be but a literary game.” William C. Hackett too draws attention to the problem of language and identity. His response to Franke takes the form of an extended reflection on Aristotle’s understanding of metaphor in light of Franke’s criticism that metaphysics has been “interpreted narrowly as a deductive system and without regard for its allusive and largely poetical power of vision” (39). Hackett, like Franke and some of the other panelists, notes the close affinity between the kind of apophatic questioning Franke describes and religious commitment. But Hackett wonders whether Franke’s valorizing of “leaving the question of religion undecided” (269) is itself “an a priori decision constricting the possibility of divine revelation” such that “the a priori character of (absolute) indecision” becomes a nihilistic “affirmation of the impossibility of a last word.”
In all, one of the most valuable dimensions of the book that surfaces in this symposium is the profound connection between thought and life within Franke’s “philosophy of the unsayable.” It embodies the fact that, in Simmons’ words, at its best “philosophy is itself lived engagement.”
Stephen R. Palmquist
J. Aaron Simmons
About the Author
William Franke is professor of philosophy and religions at the University of Macao and professor of comparative literature and religious studies at Vanderbilt University.