Symposium Introduction

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.”


Christopher Hackett

Stephen R. Palmquist

J. Aaron Simmons

Kevin Hart

Sai Bhatawadekar

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.



A Personal Reaching Out


Opening Performance

Franke walked into a bar, said to the bartender: hit me with an Absolut Spirit, pour in the Negativa Modelo, and reconcile the two, shaken and stirred. Oh, and don’t forget to salt and sublime it. The bartender fell . . . . . . . . . silent.

They told me not to open with a joke! I can’t expect the joke to be as amusing to you as it is to me, but hopefully it illustrates Franke’s book for its many aspects: the Hegelian pivot of the Absolut(e) Spirit, the Via Negativa model, and reconciliation of the two opposites, spiced up with the citrical-critical wordplays, puns, and ellipses.

Ad-1I read Franke’s book cover to cover, each word, aloud, twice, if not three times; I read it to myself in solitude, occasionally someone read it out to me; I stopped, explained, and discussed at important junctures what it meant and what it meant to me. This experience of Franke’s book ended up being much like how scriptures, epics, chants, or hymns are written, read, recited, and remembered. I read it with as much abundance, excess, repetition, and outpouring as Franke put into it, and I sincerely mean that as a compliment. A philosophy of the “unsayable” was either going to be a very thin book or quite a profuse one, much like the “unsayable” itself, the quest and performance of which is either in silence or in the poetics of plenitude, where what you say is both only allegorical and yet never enough. That is the apophatic “dimension” in thought and language, as Franke explains (296–97). Franke delivers what he promises at the beginning: “A certain dimension of literary performance is as crucial for this act of ventriloquism (of lending voice to the unspeakable) as are its conceptual contents” (5). The book pulls a remarkable variety of thematic threads and thinkers together—rational and literary, secular and theological—“reaching out toward the intention of apophatic discourse” while remaining “something of the order of personal witness” (6).

So let me assume the same stance in this review—a personal reaching out. Let me sketch my hermeneutic horizon for you at the outset, to give you an idea of the window through which I read this book: I grew up in a Hindu household; we viewed several gods and goddesses from the point of view of mythology and epic stories; their bizarre appearances—ten arms, elephant head, blue skin, etc.—were already indicative of very imaginative yet ultimately feeble attempts of depicting something beyond human capacities. Chanting untranslated, unexplained Sanskrit hymns at school and home was more of a matter of memory exercise than of religious indoctrination; we chanted multiplication tables in the same breath right afterward. Looking back I realize, negation was an essential part of our intellectual and critical training—from household arguments to decision-making to scientific methods—to test if our statements stood up to all questioning and contrary evidence. It was through German studies that I chanced upon comparative philosophy, and it was through Hegel and Schopenhauer’s interpretations of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies that I came back to investigate my own heritage in cross-cultural context. I am a Hindu, Advaita Vedantin, secularist, atheist, Hegelian, Schopenhauerian, Romantic, existentialist, nihilist, artist, intellectual, and much more all at once; these cross-cultural currents that I carry in my hermeneutic horizon ebb and flow within me in manic-depressive waves. On many levels, then, A Philosophy of the Unsayable resonates with me. In the following review I will present the themes that emerge for me in Franke’s book, rather than giving a chapter-by-chapter analysis. It is also a conscious writing-style choice on my part to mix in my spontaneous reactions and humorous takes together with an analytical inquiry into this book. The very subject matter of this book, Franke’s own persistent and impassioned bearing, and his urge to overcome the rational in favor of experiencing immediacy demand of me that I don’t simply deliver a strict analytical review, but bring in my unpremeditated and creative responses. Much like his, mine is also a “performance” piece “of the order of personal witness” (6).

Language and the Hegelian Pivot

A Philosophy of the Unsayable rocks me rhythmically between two extremes: the power of language and the powerlessness of language. It takes me back to my days of qualifying exams when I did language philosophy of two non-consecutive German literary periods—Romanticism and Turn of the Century: the oscillation between Romantic celebration of language to bring us to the brink of the sayable, and the utter despair of Fin de Siècle with the complete uselessness of language as a tool for meaning and communication. On the Romantic side, one celebrates the incredible creative power of language to evoke the elusive to appear, to become the vehicle for the imagination, to blur boundaries between worlds, being fully aware that language may not embody the unsayable, but it can point to it. The power of language lies in creating “a relation that is not conceptual so much as affective and projective” (255). On the Turn of the Century side of the same coin, one is struck with Sprachkrise, with the “signifier forever severed from its signified” (81). It unleashes agony and anxiety, mistrust, the dark lament and hopelessness that no matter how much one tries, one cannot express and communicate anything fully, not just God or the Other, but anything at all. Franke takes us further into post Holocaust poetry, where language breaks down violently in the face of an unspeakable singular event. Words, as wounds and dismembered corpses, must “enact annihilation” (117, 120); their tangible texture and taste must open up an intangible void (99, 104). As Franke says, “language is exposed in its inability to express, and this is its greatest, perhaps its only genuine, expressive power” (135). On both sides—the ineffability beyond language and in the midst of language (133), the creative euphoria and the destructive despair—language has the ability to bring itself to its own precipice; language and its poetic pursuit of the unsayable is an eternally ecstatic and masochistically longing and depriving foreplay that would never come to culmination, unless one was willing to leap and let go.

Hegel is indeed, as Franke says, “the historical anchor and pivot” in this oscillation (45). Hegel, with his progressively self-knowing fully articulated rational Spirit, reacted against the Romantic quest for the mysterious mystical ineffable beyond. And those who followed Hegel disintegrated language and structure and opened up to the unknowable to protest against Hegel’s certainty and closure of absolute knowing. Not surprising, that this intellectual back and forth should happen in an Hegelian style, as a negation of an established line of thought; as Franke says, we “need an opponent in order to gain traction” (294): Romantic thinkers wanted to go back to the origins of civilizations, religions, and cultures; Hegel spoke of origins only in terms of having overcome them in the line of progress. Romanticism sought an intuitive, immediate, intimate connection with the divine absolute; Hegel condemned such subjective intuition as it “cannot achieve objective expression and so can achieve no substantial, historical reality, either” (45). Romantic writers sought access to hidden secrets of the world, to cryptic, enigmatic, obscured layers and circles of experience; Hegel laid it all bare, parsed and analyzed, in this one plane of reality and linear direction of history. Romanticism found rationality limiting and finite; Hegel presented Reason itself as and in its infinity and absoluteness.

And now in turn, true to the spirit of negation, Franke’s book tackles Hegel to unlock him (not to undo or contradict him, Franke would say, but to surpass him, as he considers Hegel “indispensable . . . within the movement of thought that forges irrepressibly ahead” [202]): Hegel painstakingly separates religion from philosophy; the “philosophy of the unsayable” fuses them back together, declares that philosophy and theology require each other. Hegel explains that the spirit moves up from religion to philosophy—to a higher state of reflection; Franke at times reverses that direction and concludes that “philosophy, thought radically, does turn ineluctably into religion of sorts,” that the self-critical enterprise that philosophy is, has to turn to religion at its critical precipice, but ultimately even beyond religion; philosophy necessarily develops to “self-crippling reflection that makes a virtue of self-deconstruction” (199–201). Hegel vehemently criticizes both Eastern and Western strands of mysticism and states that a universal concept, about which nothing can be said, is all too abstract, passive, simple, and devoid of content. Franke plays with the poetics of language, with saying and unsaying, to ultimately open up to, what Armstrong calls, an “unspeakably rich and vivifying” infinity (299). Hegel thinks the un-knowing of that abstractness demotes human thinking down from being the vehicle of divine self-determinacy; Franke states that the unknowing openness to infinity is a more self-critical and self-aware state of human thinking. From Hegel to Franke, we go from rational to beyond-rational, reasoning to poetics, mind to body, language to apophasis, linear understanding to an opening up in all directions. We go from Hegel’s thought and language that can fully articulate the spirit to wondering if thought and language are only witnesses, pointing to but not fully expressing the ultimate. Hegel’s negation is his crucial dialectic step needed to enable the movement of a concept through its linear progression. We employ negation as an operation to stop any further movement of thought which hopes to arrive at full knowledge; negation as an operation to shatter our habit of categorical, logical, and consistent thinking; negation that makes room for inconsistencies, contradictions, paradoxes, and finally silence. Negation not of some-thing into its opposing thing, both of which are things, but negation as a function that opens to the mystery of no-thing (62). From Hegel’s negation that is wielded to ensure a fully articulated discourse, we go to a negation for what cannot be said, to show the futility of wanting to ensure a fully articulated discourse. We go from the tight closure of Hegel’s system of the self-revealing fully known Absolute, in which all questions are answered to a questioning “openness” that requires “unknowing” and “unsaying.”

From Opposition to Openness

The first instance in this book of this “openness” brought tears to my eyes, and I promise it was not because I was reading while in a massage chair getting a pedicure.

It is not the concept of God as “that than which none greater can be thought” . . . but rather the openness of thought to the infinity that is realized in actually thinking this . . . There is here no logical deduction of God’s existence from a necessary concept but, simply, the realization of infinite openness of mind, which is itself the very being of God conceived of as infinite Intellect (29).

To begin with, my immediate teary moment was a demonstration of the juxtaposition and the power of the sayable to push you/me to the experience of the unsayable. Secondly, it is an excellent example of taking a very Hegelian idea of “God conceived of as infinite Intellect” and unlocking it toward infinite openness. This sentence of page 29 is also a very important early checkpoint: the statement cautions against the common tendency that apophasis or the unsayable concerns an entity (God) that is beyond and outside of us and our capabilities. It is not simply a transcendent divine entity or the totality of nature or cosmic oneness, or any such all-encompassing idea, vis-à-vis which we stand ignorant and humbled; all of the above is nothing but our mental and emotional openness to infinity itself, by which token we are also contemplative and empowered. The unsayable is as much within us, as it is the ultimate Other.

Speaking of the unsayable within us, it is noteworthy of Franke to bring up Freud, however briefly; that aspect has tremendous potential to be explored elsewhere at some point. The unsayable within us is not just the post-rational infinity but also the pre-rational instinct. It is both what reveals itself after we have exhausted all categories and concepts and also what always was before we learned to categorize in the first place. It is both divine bliss and primal insanity. In that sense it is truly awe inspiring: “Still this indeterminate ‘it’ may actually be, as Benjamin and Blanchot in different ways suggest, more immediate than any immediacy that is caught between the poles of presence and absence, more present than any presence, although the unmediated experience of it could only be madness, or perhaps the bliss of beatitude” (153). The madness, along with the beatitude, that is to say, both (un)ends of the spectrum of the unspeakable, are worth examining equally. Speaking of Freud, the madness of the Trieb that nightmares are made of, the Trieb which is moderated and mediated in everyday life, the immediacy that we fear to experience ourselves and are unable to communicate with loved ones, that is also the dark infinite unspeakable abyss, just as the luminous blissful infinity. Primal rawness and ultimate finesse both belong to apophasis.

But ultimately, Franke moves us beyond all dichotomies; that is the best lesson of this book and the most productive push of negation toward openness (or the most frustratingly disarming one, if you are in Monty Python’s Argument Clinic). While using negation, it is all too easy to fall into the play of opposites, finite-infinite, transcendent-immanent, presence-absence, language-silence, absolute being-absolute nothingness, radical orthodoxy-secularism/atheism. The opposition of kataphatic and apophatic approaches is obvious, but even within apophasis, there seem to be the apophasis of fullness and the apophasis of emptiness, bliss and despair, spiritual speechlessness and philosophical and logical dead-end silence, because “anything you say can be used against you.” Apophaticism is either accused of being nihilist or a sneaky way to get religion into secular thought (327). Franke’s negation shows that arguing for or against either extreme is idolatrous (318). Negation is a preventative measure, a self-critical tool to keep yourself from idolizing philosophical concepts, from getting caught in the wordplay. Negation is not a stop; it is an opening to infinity. Negation is not a paralyzing hold; it is a release for you and everything else simply to be or not to be, or both, or neither, and all of the above, and none of the above, and so on . . . To me it feels like these logically dichotomous concepts are not on the opposite ends of a linear equation; rather it is as if they are in a dynamic dance on the loop of the infinity symbol itself— —rising and diving in each other in rhythmic momentum.

Knowledge and Kenotic Receiving

Reading Franke reinforces and expands the discussions I have had with my colleagues on our group project on apophasis and world religions. We have been meticulously defining and separating various terms regarding “knowledge” in and outside of the religious context: awareness, apprehension, grasp, understanding, cognition, comprehension, etc. These terms necessitate a certain subject-object relationship; the subject—I—has agency and puts active effort in seeking, gaining, containing, and possessing the knowledge of the object—God (or the divine, or Being, or an array of such concepts)—by linguistic, rational, or other manageable means. That is the literal meaning of the German word—Be-griff (concept): greifen is to reach for, grasp, and hold. Moving from knowledge to imagination already loosens that grip and lends the process of engaging with the divine a certain creativity and play. Moving to a more receptive term, such as experience of the divine, takes us one step further to the “kenotic self-emptying” that Franke advocates (165, 170). Instead of possessing knowledge on our terms, it is a process to let go, so it happens and “occurs” to us. Franke’s apophatic negation is a method for kenotic “self-suspension and “self-subversion” (242), surrendering and yielding of agency or an acknowledgment of lack of control, to let the divine come to us, reveal itself. Franke offers a new set of terms to allow for the interplay between agency and surrender:

This is, then, a poetic type of “knowing,” or rather not a knowing at all in the strict, scientific sense, but rather a “making” and performing—or a participating and a receiving—in which true knowing consists in becoming one with the known. It is also an “imitating,” where the resemblance to what is imitated remains pure conjectural or “constructivist.” Only by projecting ourselves into the world as open infinitely and as somehow beholden to an Infinite do we avoid delimiting experience and eclipsing its truth by confining it to the measure of some criterion of our own fabrication. (212)

This kind of knowing, this “spiritual movement of opening . . . is a kind of existential act, not a cognitive content” (268). Indeed!

On a side note, considering how the analysis of language structures is important to Franke in the context of apophasis, it is not misplaced to bring up that this receptive knowing reminds me of some “indirect” structures in Hindi and Marathi. In these languages certain constructions are used both in direct and indirect structures, e.g., “I am happy/sad” but also “happiness/sadness happened to me,” or (funnily enough) “a daughter happened to her” (she gave birth to a daughter). These sentence structures imply that certain occurrences “happen to us” by an alignment of circumstances not all of which are under our control. What is interesting is that these indirect constructions are not limited to emotional or bodily occurrences, as in the above examples, which are declaredly out of rational reach; even mental operations and actual actions sometimes fall under this structure in everyday speech: e.g., one can say both, “I understand” and “it comes/arrives into my understanding,” “I know” but also “it is known to me,” “I remember” but more frequently “to me it is memoried” or “to me it is coming memoried.” “I have to go,” that is to say, I feel internally and externally compelled to go, is expressed as “(it) is to me to go.” Even learned skills and know-hows—cooking, swimming, playing music, etc.—“come to you”: “I can play the violin” is precisely expressed as “(the skill of) playing violin comes to me,” as if in diligent worship and “adoration” (177) and as a grateful receiver you let the gift of the skill grace you.

I come from a culture that is both hailed and criticized for this attitude of “letting things happen to you,” of “going with the flow,” as it were. Studying German philosophy and making a career in the United States has compelled me to unlearn or at least question some of that attitude: here there is a tremendous emphasis on having and exercising one’s agency and control over one’s thoughts, actions, interactions; there’s emphasis on knowing and asserting who one is and how one operates. Self worth and success depend on it, and in turn, fault, guilt, and self-critique (if not loathing) are attached to not possessing that agency and knowledge. Reading Franke on the one hand reassures me that my philosophy and practice is a sound one—that of letting it (whatever it may be) organically reveal and evolve. On the other hand, if one were to implement this philosophy seriously in vision and behavior (and I don’t think philosophies should or can remain only on the level of cerebral musings), then it would have stressful consequences that are not aligned with how we expect ourselves to live here. Maybe that’s the price of change! It is obvious that the philosophy of apophasis has commonalities with other religions and philosophies worldwide, as Franke mentions (320). Having been tossed around in waves of colonial, postcolonial, decolonial, transnational, and global dynamics, it will be interesting to see how apophasis reveals itself in cross-cultural comparative approaches. Five of us—Aaron Simmons, Michael Shuster, Amer Latif, William Edelglass, and I—are exploring apophasis in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, respectively, in our new book project; we are examining its avatars from within each tradition and also its cross-religious and modern implications.

In this project, among other aspects, I will be working on the Hymn of Creation from the Ṛgveda. It bears to be quoted here as a complementing example to the Neoplatonic “Hymn to the Transcendence of God” that Franke presents. The Ṛgvedic Hymn is a profound illustration of apophasis: giving open room for poetics to imagine being and creation not as “as” but as “as if,” as Franke explains Plotinus (298), creatively “effecting of presence, a tracing or arrival of transcendence within immanence” (268), while throughout and ultimately playing with the poetics of negation, questioning, and “learned ignorance” (310):

The Hymn of Creation

There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred?
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed-placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen
– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps He does not know.

Translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty


Aphorisms of Apophasis, Hymn of Inconclusion

In ancient Indian texts, as in Plato, Proclus, and gang, philosophical discourse was “hymnic in nature,” praising the divine, “assimilating oneself to divinity,” and yet also experimenting, doubting, and questioning (259). It is only in self-critical humor that I undeservedly call my following (a)musings aphorisms or hymns; I have no poetic genius, and these are but stumbling rhymes, but the questioning is genuine and sincere, and so is the unknowing, in line with the poetics of apophasis:

Is negation the most profound key

to all locks apriori

or is it the oldest trick you see

in the books to beat your foe?

I don’t know; I can’t tell; will I ever unknow?

Yes, negative theology

can indeed be

negated endlessly,

but can we foresee

idolizing “open infinity”

just as badly

as “to be” or “not to be”

or any other concept, high or low?

I don’t know; I can’t tell; will I ever unknow?

Is apophasis the apogee

of a “non-aggressive” quality (294)

that could end religious polemy

or will we perennially disagree

whose apophasis is deep and whose hollow?

I don’t know; I can’t tell; will I ever unknow?

What does it all mean to me

as I sit here in Hawaii

by the vast indifferent sea

Should I stop asking? Can I let go?

Yes yes yes, no no no.

I don’t know; I can’t tell; will I ever unknow?

  • Avatar

    William Franke


    Words and Wonder: Reply to Sai Bhatawadekar


    I cannot express enough—and this does call to be said—how grateful I am to all of the panelists and to Christian Amondson and the Syndicate Forum for this opportunity to receive and respond to these insightful and probing reactions to this book. The group of essays sets side by side an intriguingly varied range of responses. It honors and celebrates the work, as well as leveling telling critiques and raising provocative questions for further consideration and debate. The responses show how open this topic of the unsayable is to all different sorts of approaches and how unpredictable, how unsettled and unsettling, it remains. Like Saint Paul, it can become all things to all people and helps reveal us to one another through comparison on this elusively common concern.

    These are very substantive responses expressing sharp divergences and serious challenges, as well as heart-felt resonance and deep understanding and community of views. Although the responses are all quite different, the principal common thread I perceive running through them is the question of what “philosophy” is and of whether and in what sense A Philosophy of the Unsayable is indeed a philosophy. At stake here are larger questions of how philosophy, in the perspective of the unsayable, positions itself with regard to theology and literature, as well as with respect to truth and knowledge generally.

    I can say right away that I employ the word “philosophy” not to say what the book definitively is but simply to begin from somewhere in order to explore the ways in which what I say needs also to be unsaid. This issue will come up and be treated from specific angulations in the detailed responses to each essay and especially in the “conclusion” following the whole set of answers to each panelist, but of general relevance in all of these instances is the fact that the title on the cover of the book was intended by the author to be crossed out entirely. This was finally not allowed by the publisher. It would have fundamentally changed the perception of what is entailed in entitling the work “A Philosophy . . . .”

    *  *  *

    Sai Bhatawadekar’s comments on the book bear most significantly on how it is to be read. Bhatawadekar exemplifies how to respond in a personally engaged, joyous, and even quite humorous style that gives much more (at least in some regards) than mere analytical observations could. Her response is itself poetic, communicating rhythms that “rock” reading. I was not able previously to imagine the ideal reader that I would like to have for this book, but now see her! This is the type of communication of meaning through books that makes the whole wearying process of publishing and the sometimes alienating academic system seem worthwhile and even a godsend. I feel the same sort of spontaneous emotional response reading her that her response to the book conveys and expresses in her own beautiful, poetically charged language.

    Bhatawadekar’s text is thus much more than a commentary on or review of A Philosophy of the Unsayable. It is a primary text in its own right, a direct witness to unique personal experience, and an original enactment of the type of philosophical vision that the book articulates. She applies apophatic thinking in poetic inventions of her own and fashions it into a unique, real-life, existential appropriation. She reflects it through her own Hindu world and language. And she could do nothing better, since the virtues of this philosophy are demonstrated most powerfully not by disputation seeking to deploy coercive arguments but by the fertility of this vein of response issuing in further elaborations and creations.

    The markedly personal nature of this commentary (answering to the book’s already personal method of philosophizing) elicits from me also a more personal type of reaction. The more critical and fractious questions concerning philosophy will be dealt with in the other responses. But writing is not only for the sake of critique or conceptual analysis: it is also for life and celebration and hallelujah, wherever and whenever writing is able to rise to this higher calling! It is a great success for apophasis that it can inspire and enable such existentially life-transforming encounters in and through texts.

    One would not normally look for such original and such powerfully poetic and moving and spirited writing in the genre of the book review or of the philosophical commentary, but here is this beautiful gem of philosophical-spiritual literature produced within the space of an internet response forum. Chapeau!

    My own main response to Bhatawadekar cannot but be a feeling of gratitude and of gratification—and even more, of astonished admiration for such a beautiful piece of writing in response to my own discursions. The capacity of philosophy to edify and inspire beyond its functions of criticizing and instructing is vindicated here in an unexpectedly fresh and thoughtful and authentic way.

    The extensions and applications of apophatic reflection in the direction of the Ṛg Veda’s “Hymn of Creation” and of other ancient Indian texts is one that I have long wanted to pursue. Bhatawadekar’s citations and allusions point the way down one of the paths along which I knew I must take my apophatic philosophy. My now forthcoming book Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions without Borders pursues a cross-cultural comparison of Western apophatic traditions with ancient Chinese wisdom, particularly with classical Daoist and Confucian philosophy, but the encounter with the Hindu sources remains, for me, still to be explored. I receive here some precious indications marking out the path.

    Bhatawadekar offers her “(a)musings” also in the form of an original poem of her own. The poem epitomizes how the reaction incited by the thinking of apophasis may be a poetic performance perhaps even more appropriately than just more thinking. Thinking that poetically remakes itself into rejoicing and hymnic celebration is a telling index of its incandescence in the heart of the reader and writer.

    Paradoxically, however, Bhatawadekar’s poem is the textual location where she does finally open up a questioning perspective and some critical comments on the book. The poem starts by underlining a dubious ambiguity of apophatic negation. It is a key to unlocking spiritual insight, but it is also, potentially, an eristic maneuver for besting every possible opponent in debate.


    Is negation the most profound key

    to all locks apriori

    or is it the oldest trick you see

    in the books to beat your foe?


    It is Bhatawadekar’s poetry that questions the limits of the apophatic project and raises issues that expose its potential pitfalls. These include, naturally, the inescapable idolatry of any discourse about the unsayable.


    Yes, negative theology

    can indeed be

    negated endlessly,

    but can we foresee

    idolizing “open infinity”

    just as badly

    as “to be” or “not to be”

    or any other concept, high or low?


    Not just celebration in the positive certainty of first-person testimony to one’s own personal experience, the poem also give voice doubts that cannot be quelled merely by argument. These are expressed directly in its refrain, concluding each of its four stanzas:


    I don’t know; I can’t tell; will I ever unknow?


    The last occurrence of the refrain at the end of the poem expresses the complete uncertainty and insecurity to which the experience has led the speaker:


    Should I stop asking? Can I let go?

    Yes yes yes, no no no.

    I don’t know; I can’t tell; will I ever unknow?


    Bhatawadekar’s poem calls to mind another poem composed upon reading this book by another reader, Peter Kline, who posted his poem on the Amazon site for the book. Kline beautifully captures in the genre of the love poem certain motives for apophasis. These motives defeat the very purpose of the love poem to the extent that it consists in express declarations and verbal effusions. In this case, apophasis is not a source of uncertainty but rather a way of sweeping clean the factitious and fallacious certitudes of speech so as to let an uncapturable phenomenon like love leap from the page into the reader’s mind and heart and lap. I quote it (together with Kline’s one-line introduction) as a compliment and counterweight to Bhatawadekar’s poem by virtue of its ability to move beyond all the questions raised—questions which cannot be put to rest by words alone.


    A poetic response to and interpretation of Franke’s wonderful book:
    I knew language was a lie
    When I looked into your eyes
    And saw that liquid glance
    So swift and subtle
    Any word would overwhelm
    Hardening and freezing you
    Into the clumsy slowness of speech

    Let’s not, then,
    Undergo the usual orgies of words
    Declarations, promises, threats
    All lies, them
    Fleeting pleasures of recognition
    Always falling, never taking flight

    What is love but the love of secrets?
    What is fear but the fear of secrets?

    I knew language was a lie
    When I looked into your eyes
    And saw that liquid glance
    Boiling into you what I can never have
    Patience is swifter than desire that
    Races for words, arriving already at
    The secret that will never speak



On “Sowing a God-Created Flame”

“Perhaps only in philosophy—in fact, primarily only in academic philosophy—has metaphysics been interpreted narrowly as a deductive system and without regard for its allusive and largely poetical power of vision . . .” (Franke, Philosophy of the Unsayable, 38–39).

According to Aristotle in a famous formulation made in multiple places in his oeuvre, what is “lesser known” is only knowable through what is “better known.”1 The systematic character of knowledge builds itself up, like one laying bricks, through the security of the connections between these two basic regions of intelligence. Metaphysics, the “first philosophy,” the study of “first causes and principles of things,” and hence the realization of the definition of “wisdom,” is accomplished only by enacting this intellectual passage.2 Concerning the “better known,” Aristotle makes the profound and consequential distinction between the “better known in itself” and the “better known to us”: the causes and principles of things are better known in themselves, more naturally intelligible because universal, separate from matter and unchanging. The “better known in itself” is “lesser known” to us.

In the sixteenth century, Francisco Suárez will reason—in pseudo-Augustinian (and proto-Cartesian) fashion—that the “better known” to us is internal self-knowledge, which then becomes the condition (transcendental, indeed) for knowledge outside the self.3 But to speak of the general consequences of this fourfold distinction for Aristotle’s “pre-modern” scientific method—that the better known in themselves, the ultimate explanation of the appearances and the objects of wisdom, are only known by reference to the better known to us—we can say that the meta-physical is known by reference to and in terms of the physical, that is, nature, ta phusike, the world known by sense experience, the perceptible world.


The one who ventures to describe this paradoxical situation of human knowledge as “metaphorical,” i.e., of knowing one thing in light of another, might be on to something:4 Metaphor, said Aristotle, is “the application of a strange term” (from one species to another, or from a species to a genus, or a genus to a species, or finally by analogy) by being “transferred” across from one context of signification to another one.5 Metaphor discloses a surprising similarity between different domains of understanding. The “surprise” is crucial to the character of the metaphor as is often observed: the similarity is established by means of maintaining the irreducible difference. In the case of metaphysics, the difference (or “strangeness”) of the metaphorical represents the lesser known and the similarity represents the aspect of the better known. Aristotle himself would seemingly deny the figurative character and, indeed, metaphoricity of scientific knowledge (if that question would make any sense to him), although he did say, nevertheless, that “metaphor most brings about learning . . . creating understanding and knowledge” in its activity.6 It is an aid to learning, “creating” knowledge, a means of passage to knowledge properly so-called. It does so supremely in fact. And if “metaphor consists in giving a thing a name that belongs to something else,”7 we may say that such transfer of names articulates the character of the scientific (epistemic) passage itself, and which is perhaps not a little like the relation of myth to metaphysics that he famously adumbrates at the beginning of the Metaphysics.8 Both have the same basic content: myth is “composed of wonders.” One must therefore translate, as it were, myth into philosophy, narrative into concept (by understanding myth as seeking knowledge of the transcendent causes) in order to attain the wisdom contained within myth.

At a far end of Western philosophy Immanuel Kant will bring to one logical conclusion the implied hierarchical distinction between literary and scientific description by asserting that the symbol must give way to the concept once the concept is understood: what the symbol signifies indirectly through an image, the concept signifies directly, in a higher and more truthful way (if, that is, a concept is possible).9 Yet following this logic of transference (and logic is always a matter of the difficult question of the validity of transference of meaning: inference, the “matter” of logic, implies the analogical transference of meaning, as it were, that this conclusion, lesser known, is known in light of that or those premises, better known) we could finally suggest that all reasoning, every passage from one thing or state or condition to a conclusion, literally every movement of thought, occurs in what we could call a “poetic milieu.” And the poetic milieu of philosophical knowledge is signaled by Aristotle, as I have said, by reference to the identity of content between mythos and episteme. We may also note that in Aristotle the science of sciences, first philosophy, is most rightly “theological,” both because it is concerned with “divine matters” (“a kind of principle”), and because “God alone is the sole or chief possessor of this sort of knowledge.”10 Myth, metaphysics and theology (or even: narrative, science, ritual): what therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder. . . says philosophy.

The first thing I want to establish by these idiosyncratic comments on Aristotle is that A Philosophy of the Unsayable must be understood to be elaborating a central feature of Western thinking. This is not a light thing. Compare what was just found in Aristotle to the way Franke describes his own task: “Philosophical critique,” he says in the “Pre-face,” “as the rational examination of first principles, is overtaken and transforms itself into literary hermeneutics or poetics and into religious reflection” (4). “Religions reflection,” “poetry” and “rational examination of first principles”: Franke’s description of his project could summarize Aristotle’s own, no? Why, though, is this first philosophy—perhaps beyond Aristotle’s, in the end—a philosophy of the unsayable (as opposed to the “less sayable”)?

The answer is already found in Franke’s summary elaboration just quoted, as he subsequently explains: 1) There are, he observes, “certain rhetorical conditions, such as figuration and narration, that make meaningful discourse possible” (4). The components of philosophical discourse, concept and theory, require a milieu of intelligibility that is their source and permanent context. This situation leads to 2) “cultivated awareness of relation to an infinite, never exhaustively specifiable context of relations,” the opening or Erschlossenheit, that is the existential site for religion (4). The provocative meaningfulness of the human condition exceeds what we can say about it. It points beyond itself in its excess to an unutterable mysterium that unifies by excess. Myth rests on knowledge of God; metaphysics, and all rational discourse, rests on myth. Theology explores the truth that forms myth’s true content and it is this transcendent content, critically explored in theological thinking, that hands rationality as such to itself, the apophatic condition for theoretical culture itself.

Franke rightly makes much of the Derridean echo of the classical understanding of the apophatic milieu—it is this milieu that is, as it were, the truth of the philosophy of Derrida. The “surplus” or “extra” of meaning in literary texts, and in language as a central feature of human experience in general, marginalized by normative representation that seeks to circumscribe meaning in order to possess its significance, is in actuality the condition for the possibility of that normative meaning in the first place. In short, Franke gives us a hermeneutical principle that gives us an understanding of the continuity of the history of philosophy: the unsayable is its one sole aim, the one human aim of understanding.

Here, of course, we are far from the Aristotelian theory of rhetoric, though not far from an interpretation of Aristotle in light of Plato, on the one hand, and the Late Antique interpreters of Plato-Aristotle, on the other, Plotinus and his heirs.11 The poetic, narrative and symbolic character of understanding that precedes the conceptual-theoretic order is—or may be, such is the determining wager of philosophy—a domain of disclosure, of apocalypsis, of the “revelation” of higher modes of being. The conceptual order is buoyed up by the original coordinates of origin and end provided by the more expansive mythic order.

Ultimately the metaphysical is best seen as explication of the wider poetic milieu, which it cannot exhaust and cannot transcend, but which it may allow us to understand better, most importantly through its critical, eschatological function. The origin of this function is proximately found, for Greek thought, in the Platonic disambiguation between the Good and Being: what is is not what should be. Being requires fulfillment in a higher order that it anticipates, and from which it ultimately receives itself. The Platonic recognition is that this disambiguation is required if the defining wager of philosophy is to continue on its given path for truth and justice.12

Of course, we do not know what Aristotle fully thought about his scientific formulation and about its relation to his thought as a whole, because we do not have (evidently) any of his most important works. This is neither here nor there, except to say that it is possible—and this is my reading of Aristotle—that this principle of science (episteme, scientia: not just “knowledge” but “demonstrative knowledge,” episteme apodeiktike, though not at all yet “science” in the modern, Western, English sense), the (literally) metaphorical gap between the lesser and better known, the apocalyptic “spacing” at the heart of the knowable itself, is a sort of principle of principles for philosophy as such. I observed above that the lesser known is better known in itself—partaking of a greater intelligibility and universality than what is better known for us, and giving the little fragment of reality that is ours its meaning and justification:

“In itself” and “to us.” The ideas at the basis of Western philosophy are few but one of them is that the principles that justify the world of human experience are not coincident with that experience but must invariably be sought through it, Louis Dupré (I think) once said somewhere. Not only are the ways of being and knowing reverse images of one another, but also we understand reality in a mirror. Knowing requires an imaginative reversal of the human experience, a “reduction” of experience to what is considered its permanent components and the transcendent patterns of intelligibility that experiences evinces. These are clues to the truth that is not in our grasp, but after which we hunger and thirst. This hunger and thirst is a defining characteristic of our humanity: “All men by nature desire to know,” says the Stagirite in the first line of the Metaphysics. Where are we with philosophy and, mutatis mutandis, with the Unsayable? We are where we are and can only be, squarely in the world of human experience and knowledge. We can say at least two things about it, can we not: (1) we can know, or at least, we think we can, by virtue of the success of our imaginative transcendence of the situation of immediacy; (2) the human situation is intellectually precarious, difficult, tending towards error and even turned inside-out (as far as the truth “in itself” is concerned).

Given Aristotle’s place at the foundation of the university, of Scholasticism and at the origins of modernity, one would surely be forgiven for including Aristotle in the category of those “academicians” who reduce metaphysics to a “narrowly deductive system,” as William Franke’s clair-voyant quotation says so well—despite the adumbrated interpretation of Aristotle the thinker that I have sketched. The fact is that Heidegger was onto something historically and intellectually tangible when he observed that Aristotle’s (and Plato’s) definition of “wisdom” adds something ambivalent, and with dramatic implications, to what came before: if wisdom once meant in the first place life lived in accordance with the hidden and transcendent truth of things, then in Aristotle acutely, wisdom is defined (over against phronesis) as the highest knowledge.13 I will leave Plato out of it (though my reading of him—and Aristotle—differs from Heidegger’s and stands much closer to the “Neoplatonic” reading, according to which Plato’s theoria at the beginning and end of philosophical theory, is a mystical “love-making” with the divine principle of reality—a view for which Franke shows much sympathy: see chapter 4, sect. i). I still confess that in my narrowest and most critical moments I am tempted to agree that Aristotle reduces the Greek philosophical miracle to something like a proto-rationalism by insulating the conceptual from the narrative milieu in which it swims (or sinks . . .), and illusorily proposing the former as self-sufficient for human knowing. This insulation is precisely what makes science (in the modern sense) work.14 But that is all science can do; it cannot philosophize. “Science does not think,” said Heidegger, speaking of science in the modern sense, but acknowledging its prehistory that created the conditions for the present reign of technological “enframing.” Aristotle, at the very least, creates the conditions for the subsequent separation of phronesis from sophia, and, in the long run, reducing, as it were, theoria to (mere) theory, and (same thing?) finally to rationality conceived as tool corresponding to exploitable nature, the value of which is the same as its usefulness. But it is the union of moral judgment and wisdom that in fact defines the “Greek miracle,” which, according to Merlin Donald and countless others, was the first historical breakthrough of “theoretic culture” (that is, conceptuality and theory as a universal mode of understanding the human reality in its totality in inseparable tension with narrative and ritual at the heart of the immediately previous cultural form, the so-called “mythic” form that structured the prior “cosmic” or “archaic” cultures) among all of the civilizations of the world that I, for one, am still tempted, after Jaspers, to call “Axial.” There are some very fine lines in the conclusion to Robert Bellah’s masterwork on Aristotle’s “loosening” of the link between morality and knowledge.15

The simple point is that in this second manner, with A Philosophy of the Unsayable, William Franke has brought us to the crux of the issue, therefore, that defines Western philosophy. The question he makes us face is how we are to understand ourselves now. I do not think I know, but I continue to meditate on Franke’s answer to this question he has begun to sketch with his notion of “new apophatic [cosmopolitan] universalism.”16

We do not always know what we know because it is too knowable—existing in glorious, enchanting excess of our capacity to know it. Justice will not be done to this book, nor to Franke’s intellectual program that it adumbrates, in the final words I want to give here. Rather, I continue the moderate task I have undertaken so far by simply laying down some markers for the game (definingly philosophical and definingly human) that Franke appears to me to be proposing we should play as intellectual heirs of what has come about for us in the Western tradition, and, in turn, as links in the chain of transmission to an unknown future.

For Plato, the task of philosophy was, among other things, an endeavor to be faithful to that to which those before us have been faithful, and to be all the more critically faithful to a truth of which we are not the authors and to which those before us have been themselves faithful, as our reception—however partial, fragmented and veiled over due to the all-too-human character of our forbears—of the truth, a truth that is traced back, ultimately, to a divine author and which we bear ineradicably and hieroglyphically in ourselves.17

The truth is sacred and it is hidden. Wisdom is a matter of cultivating the virtues that make us fitting vessels to carry this truth. This game is called “the unsayable,” says philosophy, and it is the only game that matters—once we have been awoken to it—if we want to have any chance of interpreting the hieroglyphs of our human being. Life is a game and we do not know who the winners are in this life—if there is winning and losing for us, “playthings of the gods,” then it is on the other side of death that the scores are settled—at least according to Plato.

What do we want to say? What does Franke demand that we say? The only word that matters. What do we want to play? The only game that matters. There is nothing else to say, but this word cannot be said. All we have is names: we want to say “G*d.” Philosophy is concentrated on this name just as completely and madly as are the religions. God is the human enigma, the key to ourselves—if there is a key. We have reasons to think so, not least the unutterable fact of being itself, the showing that language is impotent to say, but which it says, emphatically, underneath and beyond everything it says, however great or small. For the mind that loves, when it loves, these reasons are as many as the sands on the shores of our receding shorelines, as many as the thoughts of man. To love is to be unsatisfied with anything but the beloved in the flesh, in one’s arms, in union. All we have is words—and before that, as their measure, our deeds. We speak, and if we are ravished by the beloved, it is beyond words, in the dark, too close for words. Everything we may say is only an echo, an attempt to remind ourselves of the experience of this unutterable ecstasy—or, for the rest of us, only the breathless pant for we know not what except what we know through the saturated meanings we find good in our most definingly human experiences. These, heavy with unspeakable certitude, the mystics attest to be the very worldly meanings, beyond words, most fit for signifying something of that which matters, in their sacred endeavor to communicate the incommunicable and to awaken our sleeping desiderium naturale. And even the mystic encounter itself is—to borrow Lacoste’s logism—“non-parousiac,” only an anticipation of the beatitude for which we hope and which gives the (last) meaning and measure of our words and deeds.

The quotation that serves as the exergue to these remarks observes a distinction between philosophy as such and the philosophy qualified as “academic.” This is an important distinction. It reminds us that philosophy is not determined by the home it has inhabited in Western culture since the institutional distinction between the Faculties of Arts and of Theology at the foundation of the university in the Middle Ages. This distinction, besides being the proximate origin of “modernity,” is a fortiori the origin of the (defining) modern discourses known as “philosophy” and “theology.” Now theology is today less and less an academic enterprise: perhaps this is a good thing. Heidegger said that university philosophy today is mostly “idle chatter.” (Even more so for university or academic theology.) I do not see how anything has changed since then. All of our teachers—including Aristotle, as I have wanted to show—are ambiguous. We are ourselves certainly ambiguously related to the philosophical ideal of the Unsayable. Things like this (and this above all) “can only rightly be said by a god,” said Plato, and so he, a mortal, told a story.18 I have not even gotten that far here, but I may be permitted to believe in some divine words, the ones that we have received in our sacred stories. In their apophatic excess of reason, which reaches into them, its living milieu, through antinomies that confound it and give to it its peculiar joy, do they not require of reason to breathe them in like air, to absorb them like the sun, to drink them like water, to believe them like a child? Do they?

In order to conclude, there is a single question that I—a deeply grateful reader of a profound figure in the contemporary philosophical landscape—pose to William Franke. I say it in three ways.

(1) Is the “leaving the question of religion undecided” (269), which for Franke is a virtue of Derrida and which is the (modern European philosophical expression of the) essence of the apophatic—something of Franke’s own view too, I think—not an a priori decision constricting the possibility of divine revelation? If the mytho-logical order of narrative (and let us add ritual) enjoys an intelligible density by which conceptual-critical clarification is supremely, indeed transcendentally conditioned, then must not the a priori character of (absolute) indecision be at least possibly an “affirmation of the impossibility of a last word” and therefore a fulfillment of the essence of technology, the instrumentalization of being, and hence, indeed, fully partaking of the “nihilism” of the present order?19 (The intelligibility of this question depends on accepting the Heideggerian name given to the present order, but this can be done minimally . . .) Is there not a choice to be made between Jean-Luc Nancy, for whom transcendence can only ever properly signify the sheer “transcending” intrinsic to immanence, and Jean-Luc Marion, for whom “there is no outside the Christological question, ‘who do you say that I am?’”20 Isn’t there a choice to be made between Proclus (or Damascius) (and the profound notion of “similar dissimilarity”), on the one hand, and Ps.-Denys, on the other, who conceives, to gloss Pavel Florensky or Hans Urs von Balthasar, that the more materially crude, archaic and infected with positive belief (that is, the positive-with-content character of the narratively and ritually given) are our metaphysical concepts themselves, the more dense with transcendent intelligibility they possibly are?21

(2) To express it in the way that I want to, my question is: how does the concept of pure “transcending,” of opening, of the sacred ciel, require a “transcendent,” a term or goal, purpose, a G*d that one, as human as I, can love, in order to be transcending at all?22 Not that I like this distinction very much, but does a philosophy of the unsayable have anything to gain from a theology of the unsayable? What may revelation give to reason if reason, founded in the Unsayable, allows revelation to exceed its possibilities, to be its impossible par excellence?

(3) But I allow you to turn the tables on me again. The religious believer, the orthodox practitioner, the one who desires to stake their life and its meaning on the (fully but not merely) historical character of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, can practice the faith in full coincidence, say, with evolutionary biology, without losing a single minute of sleep. Why is it, still, that I cannot do the same with the question that you raise for me?

  1. See for example Metaphysics Z.3, 1029b3–12; Physics A.1, 184a16–20; Posterior Analytics 71b32.

  2. See Metaphysics A.1, 981b28, for this understanding of the study of first principle and causes as the fulfillment of wisdom.

  3. See, for example, Suarez, Disputatio metaphysica, 2, 1.1–9 and 2, 2.3, 24. I refer the reader to two texts among many: Olivier Boulnois, Être et représentation (Paris: PUF, 1999) and Jose Pereira, Suarez: Between Scholasticism and Modernity (Milwaukee: Marquette, 2007).

  4. For the background to some of the following remarks, the reader should consult in particular Eberhard Jüngel’s essay “Metaphorical Truth” (1974), Theological Essays (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 16–71.

  5. Poetics 1457b7.

  6. Rhetoric 1410b.

  7. Poetics 1457b7–9.

  8. Metaphysics A.1, 982b19.

  9. Kant, Critique of Judgment, § 59.

  10. Metaphysics A.1, 983a7.

  11. See Peter T. Struck, The Birth of the Symbol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

  12. See, on this, the final pages of Miklos Vetö, L’Élargissement de la métaphysique (Paris: Hermann, 2013).

  13. See Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist, §9c. And Jean-Yves Lacoste’s remarks in the opening pages of From Theology to Theological Thinking (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

  14. See Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, §§ 8–10.

  15. Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 590–97.

  16. William Franke, “The New Apophatic Universalism: Deconstructive Critical Theories and Open Togetherness in the European Tradition,” Parrhesia 21 (2014) 86–101.

  17. See for example Plato’s comments in Philebus 16c5–6 and in many other places.

  18. Phaedrus 246a–f.

  19. These are the words with which Jean-Yves Lacoste describes the essence of “nihilism.” See his interview in Tarek Dika and Chris Hackett, Quiet Powers of the Possible: Interviews in Contemporary French Phenomenology (NY: Fordham University Press, 2015).

  20. See the “Débat” between these two figures that is the appendix to the collection Dieu en tant que Dieu, ed. Philippe Capelle-Dumont (Paris: Cerf, 2012).

  21. See Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, “Letter 4: The Light of the Truth” (quotation on p. 63), and Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. V, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, conclusion. For the distinction between Proclus and the Areopagite that I imply, see Daniel Cohen, Formes théologiques et symbolisme sacre chez (Pseudo) Denys l’Aréopagite (Paris: Ousia, 2010).

  22. I refer you, finally, to Jean Wahl, Traité de métaphysique, 642–49.

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    William Franke


    Philosophy and Faith: Reply to W.C. Hackett

    Chris Hackett focuses on the question of philosophy in my work—indeed, a crucial and not an obvious or transparent question. It is not even clear that the book should be called A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Its argument in many ways undermines the very possibility of philosophy as it is understood and upheld by many of today’s purported practitioners. (This is so particularly for those in the ranks of the so-called analytic philosophy, who will be addressed in the response to Simmons). Philosophy is portrayed in A Philosophy of the Unsayable not as an autonomous self-grounding discipline but as a mode and manner of discourse that cannot be disentangled from the metaphysical and mystical discourses that it should in principle, according to at least one of its own common self-understandings, be able to critique authoritatively. But within A Philosophy of the Unsayable’s ground plan, philosophy occurs alongside and coupled with literature and with theology. It is always only a partner in a dance instead of being the choreographer or legislator of rules and principles. Philosophy is placed into play and into question. So philosophy occurs in the title not as a stable term on which the book is grounded, and not as a disciplinary frame into which its argument can be securely fit, but as an evocation of a form of thought or speech that is proffered in the very process of its own self-subversion and vanishing.

    Bound up with this approach is a view of philosophy that gives more importance to metaphorical modes than to propositional forms of discourse. Hackett wonderfully explains metaphorical knowing (knowing of one thing in light of another) on the basis of Aristotle’s account of metaphysical knowing as requiring explanation of what is not physical, or beyond (“meta”) the physical, in terms of the physical. He applies Aristotle’s principle of reasoning from the better to the lesser known to knowledge by metaphor as the perception of similarity in difference. The unexpected similarity that is highlighted by the metaphor relates something that is relatively unknown to what is better known and thereby illuminates two different domains of understanding so as to allow at least one of the them to become better known to us.

    This principle applies in an eminent degree to apophasis as the discourse on the unsayable and unknowable. Everything in the realm of the known is taken as an approach to knowing something about the realm of the unknown (and, strictly speaking, unknowable). Whatever is sayable is understood as being more deeply about the unsayable. By explaining metaphysics in terms of metaphor, Hackett applies the principle that he explicates in his very explication: he thereby illustrates and immediately verifies it. Philosophy, especially apophatic philosophy, is this type of self-reflective thinking that reflects on itself—and especially on its own limits—in order to illuminate something ungraspably and unfathomably other than itself.


    Hackett’s placing the book in the context of the most fundamental questions of metaphysics and philosophy of religion performs a great service and also issues in a great challenge. This is precisely the depth of inquiry that I would most fondly aspire to reach in a philosophy of the unsayable. I do feel that apophasis addresses the most fundamental questions of philosophy from its beginnings. Apophasis may even address what is, in some sense, more fundamental than philosophy’s questions because it is what gives rise to those questions. Hackett’s response accords the topic all the seriousness with which I wish for it to be taken. Beyond that acknowledgment, I allow that all positions and approaches need to be tried out in order to test their limits. I would not presume to prescribe in advance which ones are legitimate or correct. Nevertheless, only some will be felt as relevant and indeed urgent.

    Hackett’s final questions turn especially (I suspect) on the question of faith, even specifically of Christian faith, which seems not to be at the center of this philosophy of the unsayable, although I will answer him that it is—or at least certainly can be. This (potential) centrality is made (somewhat) explicit finally in the “Inconclusion” to that philosophy in the book under discussion. Where philosophy ends inconclusively, only faith can stride further. Actually, an indeterminate sort of faith, or at least a will to believe, is divulged here as having guided each step along this path of thinking from the beginning. It may come as a surprise (like the revelation of similarity through metaphor), but how we think about what is unsayable tends to depend entirely on what we believe about what is said in religions particularly about God. The centrality of the God question was in no way denied from the start of the book, which, in fact, recognizes negative theology as the ancient source and ground of apophaticism. But the question of faith emerges explicitly into its own only at the book’s end.

    We do not usually, in philosophical discussions, directly declare our faiths, at least not at first, but in the end one’s stance vis-à-vis the question of God and of God’s presumed historical revelations (such as that purportedly occurring in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) does prove to be decisive in how one thinks about whatever one does or does not acknowledge as unsayable. We all have some pre-theoretical dispositions concerning ultimate and unsayable things. A skeptical position of not believing in the unsayable and of not being willing to accord credence to discourses that invoke it turns out to be based on the same sorts of dispositions and decisions as atheism, or not believing in God. At stake in the unsayable is our overall orientation to reality as a whole, and this is a religious question par excellence. In terms specifically of unsayability, religion involves the question of the role of language in revelation. Revelation through the incarnation of the divine Word sets in motion the dialectic of the sayable and the unsayable. Such revelation lends itself to being understood as a subjectively situated and metaphorical saying of the unsayable. But rather than claiming, by virtue of this revelation, to know something relatively unknown in terms of the better known, in philosophical apophasis, as I conceive it, what was supposedly known reveals itself more deeply and absolutely as unknown.

    Apophasis would, on this account, turn out to be the exact inversion of philosophical (exemplarily, metaphysical) knowledge as defined by Aristotle. However, whether this inversion operates from within philosophy or from outside it remains an open question. The turning of the tables can be performed by philosophy itself, if it is willing to step outside of itself.



Out of Apophatic Concerns

William Franke is concerned to identify and investigate what he calls “modern apophatic culture” (2) and “a perennial philosophy of the unsayable” (79). The first of these comes into sharp focus with the writings not only of poets such as Paul Celan and Edmund Jabès but also of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, once one begins to look around, Franke believes, one sees this motif everywhere, in Kafka and Rilke, in Hölderlin and Dickinson, and we could extend the list on our own almost indefinitely and in a range of directions: Maurice Blanchot, André du Bouchet, Philippe Jaccottet, Tomas Tranströmer, and Charles Wright, in the field of literature, while, with regard to philosophers, one would want to include people as close to one another (and as far from one another as well) as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion and Robert Sokolowski.

The second focus, the perennial philosophy, marks a massive, slow undertow of Western culture; that is, the intense yet sideways attention that we have paid to the ineffable at all times, from Plotinus to Eriugena, from Eckhart to Schelling, from T. S. Eliot to our own day. “We are in an age,” Franke tells us, “in which discourse becomes acutely conscious of its intrinsic limits and is dominated by what it cannot say” (1). The point is, I take it, partly that many of our finest artists are concerned with the unsayable and partly that, because of their interest, we notice that motif throughout our history. It is less a repetition of a motif than a transformation of one. As Franke says, modern apophatic culture is rooted “in millenary discourses of mysticism and negative theology that can be traced back to the origins of the Western intellectual tradition” (1). We hear it when listening to Charles Simic testify to a “feeling granted everyone / Of living in two worlds / One of which is unsayable.” Also, we recognize it when painfully reflecting on the Shoah, but then we need perhaps to distinguish the unspeakable from the unsayable.


What is striking to a theologian when reading Franke is his calm assurance in speaking of a modern philosophy of the unsayable, especially when he does not have ancient φιλοσοφία primarily in mind. For apophatic theology is ineluctably tied to kataphatic theology, whether it is regarded as fundamental (it begins with the conviction that “God” names that which exceeds all categories or that which evades them by dint of being absolutely singular) or as consequent (it corrects anthropomorphic statements about the deity as they come in revelation and metaphysical statements that occur in reflections on revelation). Moreover, apophatic theology does not derive exclusively or even fundamentally from epistemic concerns; it is embedded in practices of contemplative and even meditative prayer, and is oriented to and throughly imbued with divine love. It is amorous before it is epistemic, part and parcel of prayer before it enters the seminar room or a poet’s study. To be sure, apophaticism draws from θεωρία, as considered by both Plato and Aristotle. Is contemplation something one does and that then drives one to action in the πόλις, or is it something that comes as a reward for hard work as a philosopher or as a statesman? There is a Platonic thread that runs through Christianity as well as an Aristotelian thread, and of course in some schools of Neoplatonism, which variously seek to make Plato and Aristotle cohere, one finds the two knotted together. These threads, and the knot as well, are folded into Christian discourses, eastern and western, that are themselves grounded in Jewish conceptions of the ineffable holiness of the divine.

A philosophy of the unsayable, then, can come about when the unsayable has been lifted away from its theological contexts, especially from Judeo-Christian concepts of God and from the command to worship only this God. This philosophy is therefore sequestered from theology. Unless an apophatic theology cuts its figure against the ground of a kataphatic theology (or vice versa), it is useless as a guide for the believer or as a way of thinking for the theologian. A general apophaticism yields a God much like Kant’s noumenon, and invites Fichte’s response to it: since it does nothing, remove it at once! Thomas Aquinas, who certainly was driven by apophatic concerns, and who greatly prizes Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, nonetheless holds that there are affirmative predications one can and must make about God: that God is form, for example. Curiously, when the apophatic passes from theology to philosophy, as it does for William Franke, the distinction between figure and ground is eroded, even if it does not quite collapse. If apophaticism begins as so many “counter-discourses” (1), it soon marks discourse itself as it begins to fray at the limits of speech.

Even so, philosophical apophaticism has quite different modalities. We find one inaugural moment in Kant’s first Critique (1781; 1787) when God is detached from theoretical discourse and repositioned in the realm of ethics. Here the unsayable is a bound beyond which we pass only at the risk of exceeding human cognitive powers: philosophy looks inward to the subject, and theology prefers to attend to the Kingdom rather than the Trinity. This is a triumph of transcendental thought; we seek conditions of possibility which cannot appear but which fascinate us endlessly. With Derrida these conditions no longer form a ground as they do for Kant and they concern the impossible as well as the possible: hence his endlessly inventive evocations of la différance. We find another founding moment in Burke on the sublime, and its extensions into German idealism (including Kant’s third Critique [1790]), and, from there, into postmodern art. Here, the unsayable is often to do with the transcendent and not the transcendental. For some, it functions as a nostalgic replacement for a deity in whom one can no longer believe, while for others it is the consequence of the presentation of aesthetic Ideas (Jena Romanticism and the aesthetics of the fragmentary) or an ethical imperative of moral height (Levinas).

Of course, in postmodernity the transcendental and the transcendent are often difficult to disentangle and have even morphed into different forms. Epistemic interest in the transcendental can become fascination with what Jean Wahl calls the transdescendant, while affirmations of the human as transascendant (to use Wahl’s other coinage) can readily lead to contemplation of a deity who comes to mind in human encounters but who prefers to withdraw behind moral engagements. One momentarily contemplates that which is beyond being, but the contemplation quickly yields to action. In that style of thought, primarily associated with Levinas, we find Talmudic debate converging with the ethics of the critical philosophy. Nonetheless, we should resist any attempt to homogenize the transascendant and the transdescendant, if only because the unsayable never vacates an embedded context but merely changes from one context to another. The transascendant invariably evokes contemplation, so much so that Levinas must move quickly in Totalité et infini (1961) and summon all his gravitas in order to resist it: the face must never, for him, be simply visual least it yield its status as enigma for that of phenomenon. Yet the transdescendant edges us towards the phased counterpart of contemplation, namely fascination. The person kneeling before an icon contemplates Christ, while the writer who apprehends the approach of le Dehors, the philosopher who notes the play of le supplément or the teenager who, strolling through a mall, witnesses the transfiguration of world into image, is fascinated.

Contemplation and love are co-ordinate practices in the Christian tradition that comes to us from Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, on the one hand, and from Augustine, on the other. Yet they can be nudged sideways at any time so that they become another couple, fascination and desire, which can easily be taken as a disenchanted version of the original twosome. The endless theological exegeses by St. John of the Cross of his own poems can be set against the relentless disturbing narratives of the Marquis de Sade or Le bavard (1946) of Louis-René des Fôrets. Tout dire: such is the desire of the one who gazes upon the face of God and the one who simply speaks, whether to transgress socio-religious conventions or (as Novalis prompts us) to avoid the familiar in art. (Think today of John Ashbery, especially of a poem such as Flow Chart (1991) or, if you prefer, of A. R. Ammons’s Sphere [1974].) Yet the impulse does not allow itself to be formalized in just the one way. For the mystic can “say everything” in a phrase (Eckhart’s “I pray to God to rid me of God,” for example), and the poet can do the same by folding long chains of epistemic concerns with ultimate limits and theological sequences of love into short lyrics (Celan’s “Die Niemandsrose,” for instance).

So it is enticing, and not overly difficult, to find the unsayable everywhere these days. There is all the more reason, then, to seek to discern the different modes in which it impinges on us. (Recall Beckett’s remark in The Unnamable [1953], “For it is all very fine to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”) Also, there is all the more reason to credit those authors who shy away from the unsayable, or who regard it as only part of what interests them, whether out of principle or because they are tone deaf to the different ways in which people, God, and the world can be silent. Consider Robert Sokolowski. God creates the world out of love, he stresses, as all Judeo-Christian thinkers agree. This means, as Sokolowski tells us, that the distinction between “same” and “other” abides in the world, and that God is other than anything we can situate within any economy of same and other. Yet because God is “other” in an absolutely singular manner, there can be no contrast between God and the world: the deity is with us, in sacraments and kisses, as well as utterly beyond us. God is unsayable and yet God is involved in the immanent, the ordinary, and the quotidian, in everything we say and do. And think too of Karl Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik (1932–67) and Eberhard Jüngel’s Gott als Geheimnis der Welt (1982), along with, more recently, some writers in the emerging field of analytic theology: the unsayable is not what animates them. With regard to literature, let us also remember Francis Ponge’s Le Savon (1967), James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (1976–80) and, in a quite different key, Alan Wearne’s The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers (2001, 2004). Here we have poets who wish to “say everything” but not, I suspect, out of apophatic concerns, however displaced they may be.


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    William Franke


    On Generalizing Apophatics: Reply to Kevin Hart

    Hart’s challenge is related to Hackett’s question. It turns on my purported “calm assurance” in speaking of a philosophy of the unsayable, whereas for a theologian the apophatic originates not in philosophy nor in primarily epistemic concerns at all but in prayer and contemplative practices that run up against the limits of kataphatic (affirmative) theology. In fact, the decision to present my work as a “Philosophy of the Unsayable” is not an inevitable or objective description but a decision to take a certain angle of approach, one that attempts to make this thinking universally relevant to the whole spectrum of intellectual disciplines and even to an undelimited range of fields and signifying practices in society at large—not to say, “in general.” The same work could designate itself as a theology of the unsayable or a poetics of the unsayable, and indeed parallel projects of such natures are also sketched and indirectly articulated in the work. Moreover, this philosophy of the unsayable is surely “philosophy” only in an improper sense: it traverses philosophy on its way to changing into something else, which is not properly philosophy at all. So there is certainly no calm assurance of being in the right in designating itself as philosophy. But this work is also not theology and not (literary or cultural) criticism in any proper sense either.

    The philosophical apophaticism that I propound is not to be sequestered, or even ultimately distinguished, from a theological apophaticism or even from a poetics of unsayability. To present my apophatic thinking as a “philosophy” is a strategic choice answering to how I think I can approach readers from an angle that will make them receptive to a kind of thinking that is really no more philosophical than it is poetic or religious, or even mystical. I certainly do not wish to make a unilateral move in which “the apophatic passes from theology to philosophy.” I stress instead that the apophatic is not to be contained by either discourse or discipline; it is proper to none. Its nature is to escape from and to deny every definitive discursive formulation, not to mention categorization. The passage from theology to philosophy seems productive, but so does the inverse passage, and indeed it is only in its passage from one discourse to another—and even out of discourse altogether—that the apophatic is able to register at all.

    Most sharply, Hart objects to seeing the unsayable everywhere. This becomes too easy and too uninteresting. It is far too general. The proper method of scholarship is to sharpen vision of specified fields of objects by making fine and exact distinctions. It takes apart by analysis such amalgams as our words inevitably produce. This is what scholarship at its best can offer. However, there is also another, not very scholarly, kind of vision—we could call it unitive vision—that does tend to see whatever it sees everywhere. The visionary is prone to seeing God in everything. It is harder to gain scholarly leverage and legitimacy for this type of vision and its corresponding discourse(s), harder to prove them objectively true, but scholars have often recognized—and finely differentiated by types—the many testimonies to how humanly compelling such vision can be.


    Of course, there are many writers and thinkers and theologians who are not motivated by apophatic concerns, not in their own self-understanding, anyway, and that, I agree, is what counts most, or at least first, for understanding them. While the apophatic visionary may see the unsayable everywhere, an apophatic can also see that not everyone sees things that way. There is a certain decision as to what is important at the base of an apophatic outlook and approach to life. Depending on one’s own values, more important than, and in some sense prior to (in an epistemological order) the distinctions made between different sorts of thinking and belief and culture, are the enabling conditions of making any distinctions at all. Does one want to give priority to the distinctions made by rational analysis, since they alone can give us a certain and articulable assurance as to where we stand, or rather to their enabling ground and condition that is not perhaps susceptible of differentiated apprehension but only of poetic evocation?

    Hart’s essay issues a warning against certain excessively generalizing tendencies of apophaticism. This is a genuine risk and one which can easily and quickly vitiate apophatic discourse. At the same time, it is a necessary risk for the same reason that Christian universalism or any philosophical universalism is a necessary risk. The aim to articulate something that is universally valid drives all of these perennial and powerfully motivated enterprises. How many humans have given their lives in dedication to such universalizing causes! Political and social revolution, too, aspire to something that is valid for all. The apophatic turns back critically on the articulation of this universal truth, but precisely in the interest of promoting its universality.

    Our interest in the distinctions between cultures, our attention to contexts, our detailing of differences, are of vital interest and belong to the most important work of scholars. But there is also the limit where accurate representation of differences is less important than the common source of everything human and everything that is at all, a source which perhaps does not exist but which can be posited or constructed, an ideal that is necessary for enabling us to think and work together. There is always tension between the analytic and the synthetic capacities of mind, between tendencies to scientistic research or to speculative thinking. I maintain that both poles are necessary and that they can critique and check one other and that they also need each other. We all know how sterile generalization becomes if it does not communicate with particulars. But the reverse is true, too: mere taxonomizing that does not articulate a general morphology turns out to be unenlightening and vacuous. Differentiations without any understanding of the underlying unity from which they come and are made intelligible are also at risk of becoming sterile.

    Hart’s caution against the generalizing tendencies is well-taken and necessary. His naming of specifics in differentiating between types of approach to the unsayable is crucial for a scholarly grasp of the field. And his pointing to what is not within this field at all (those writers for whom the unsayable apparently does not count) is also perfectly sane. But there is also a visionary mode that sees past and through analytical distinctions to an underlying unity—or rather to a unifying and universally leveling Nothing. We should not allow the authority of positive knowledge to block our many diverse, uncanny visionary channels of seeing and relating to the world. I have tried to represent this vein of insight, which many have mined, and to do so from within a visionary perspective rather than from a detached scholarly point of view. What drives apophatic visionaries is perhaps (as Hart suggests) what Kant recognized in his own way as the “noumenal,” but apophatics are not ultimately fixated or fascinated by that definition, nor by any other conceptual definition of what spurs them beyond their ability to define it.

    To see the apophatic everywhere would be problematic if one were seeing one thing only, always the same thing. But seeing nothing everywhere is not quite the same as that. It is, instead, seeing a depth dimension that is not any one thing as opposed to another, and this is what many have understood seeing God to be. It is seeing God as “other” in that “absolutely singular manner” in which he alone is “not other,” non aliud in Nicolaus Cusanus’s matchlessly lucid—and elusive!—exposition.

J. Aaron Simmons


Speaking About Silence (Sort of)

William Franke opens his 2014 book, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, with the following claim:

The present volume sketches a distinctive philosophical outlook that emerges irrepressibly from the predicament of philosophy today. . . . We are in an age in which discourse becomes acutely conscious of its intrinsic limits and is dominated by what it cannot say. Especially the last two and a half centuries have abounded in new and radical currents of thinking about the limits of language and what may or may not lie beyond them. . . . This thinking is rooted, however, in millenary discourses of mysticism and negative theology that can be traced back to the origins of the Western intellectual tradition. A kind of perennial counter-philosophy to the philosophy of Logos has resisted its claims throughout the history of Western thought. (1)

Franke goes on to explain that the counter-discourses that constitute such perennial counter-philosophy “can position themselves not only at the limits and margins of normative discourses, but as infiltrating it through and through” (2). Such “apophatic” discourse, hence, is “necessarily preceded by and predicated on what cannot be said” (2). “Metaphysics, monotheisms, and mysticisms, as well as philosophies of existence and poetics of revelation,” Franke contends, “can be understood in their deeper, driving motivations only from this perspective, which nevertheless all too easily slips from view because it eludes logical articulation and defies discursive expression” (2; emphasis added).

Accordingly, Franke attempts to provide “a philosophy of the unsayable” that would both be original and yet admit its participation in the long history of this counter-discourse. Specifically, he explains the originality of his contribution as “an original enactment of what is discerned as a perennial type of trans-philosophical thinking” (5). Franke builds quite a bit into the idea of “enactment.” He explains that his account cannot be “reduced to a thesis” because,

it is the saying itself that is original, that strives to draw direction from the origin of apophatic thinking—and therewith of all thinking—in the bottomless abyss of the unsayable that is marked only by the never exhausted streams of discourse that issue out of it. In that depth absconds the namelessness of whatever or whoever speaks in the silent night of luminous darkness. (5)


When considering Franke’s general account of the task and aims of his book, four questions importantly begin to press:

1. What is the philosophical “predicament” to which Franke’s project is meant to be a response?

2. If there is no way of reducing the claim of the book to a thesis, then what, exactly, is the book claiming? It would seem that any answer to that question would itself be a thesis.

3. Can writing that is irreducible to a thesis be rightly considered philosophy? The common examples of philosophical writing (e.g., the work of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or some texts by Derrida) all seem to be able to be expressed by readers as having a thesis, even if the particular style of writing employed by the author makes such a thesis implicit rather than explicit. Is the same true of Franke’s “philosophy of the unsayable”? If not, then, again, why consider it philosophy? If so, then it seems that his account can be expressed as a thesis, he just chooses not to do so. But, if that is the case, then we are back to question (1).

4. What is the difference between an apophatic counter-discourse and simply a self-refuting discourse? It is not problematic to say that language is probably limited in important and fundamental ways. It is problematic to say that this present sentence is false. Getting clear on how apophatic discourse is the former and not the latter is crucial to understanding properly Franke’s “enactment” as something worthy of serious philosophical consideration.

I am honored to be part of this review symposium because it gives me the chance to work through each of these questions and, along the way, hopefully sketch a way of interpreting Franke (and apophaticism, more generally) that is both philosophically sustainable and also existentially viable.

Let’s begin, then, by considering the “predicament” in which Franke finds contemporary philosophy of religion. In some of my own recent work, I have used the distinction between a generally apophatic approach and a generally kataphatic approach to distinguish between the respective tendencies of continental philosophy of religion and analytic philosophy of religion (see Simmons 2012; Simmons and Benson 2013, esp. 113–31, 192–99). Although one might raise reasonable objections to this way of characterizing things (and some have), I think it is a helpful way of seeing the intersection of epistemic and metaphysical alternatives on display in contemporary philosophy of religion. Rather than choosing between extremes, though, I have encouraged what I term a “postmodern kataphaticism” that combines epistemic humility with the possibility of the truth of metaphysical realism. As such, what results is a way of doing philosophy of religion that draws both on continental and analytic resources in the attempt to live out the middle-ground between kataphatic and apophatic excesses. That said, seeing many sites of resonance with my own project, I am supportive of Franke’s attempt to draw on apophatic tendencies in philosophy, religion, and literature in order to sketch a positive philosophical account of his own about the structure of language and reality.

Impressively aware of the historical situation in which he is writing, Franke devotes a nearly seventy-page chapter to the topic of “Apophasis and the Predicament of Philosophy of Religion Today.” He begins by noting that “the situation of philosophy today makes it peculiarly receptive to a great variety of apophatic discourses” (139). Franke’s basic suggestion is that “mysticism and negative theology have again become powerful paradigms for knowledge in a postmodern age,” precisely because such knowledge is “no longer bound to the rational foundationalism that guided the leading strains of philosophical thought and culture throughout the modern period” (139). Focusing specifically on the Neoplatonic tradition of apophatic Christian theology, Franke suggests that “Neoplatonism provides . . . a general theory for why philosophy and indeed knowledge in general must, in rational terms, remain foundationless” (143).

This Neoplatonic critique of strong epistemic foundationalism does seem like an important site of potential engagement between some strands in contemporary philosophy of religion and some dimensions of medieval apophatic Christian theology. However, I want to highlight something that might otherwise go unnoticed in how Franke frames his project. Specifically, I am troubled by the ease with which “philosophy today” and “philosophy of religion today” end up referring only to a very specific continental approach to philosophical inquiry.

Had Franke specified that he was only concerned with a “situation” and “predicament” that some deconstructive phenomenological continental philosophy / philosophy of religion faces, then fine. Indeed, designating the scope of one’s inquiry is always helpful and a narrow scope need not entail a narrow set of potential appropriations. However, although Franke does at one point refer to “the situation of philosophy today, especially of Continental philosophy . . .” (147), and later to the “apophatic moments” of “contemporary phenomenological philosophies” (153), he is not consistent in the delimitation of scope, but returns to the trope of “the situation of philosophy today” (156) as a broad context even when specifically discussing the work of Jean-Luc Nancy.

There is no problem with using a specific example as illuminative of a larger tendency, but absent from Franke’s very long chapter on contemporary philosophy of religion is any substantive engagement with a philosopher who is likely to appear in a recent philosophy of religion textbook. Now, admittedly this could reflect the limitations of contemporary philosophy of religion, and the general “analytic” assumptions and authorities operative therein (thus displaying its own narrowness—as diagnosed by Kevin Schilbrack 2014), but regardless, to refer to the “predicament of philosophy of religion today” and not engage the dominant strands in contemporary philosophy of religion is problematic.

In another recent book, The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion, edited by Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins (2014), three guiding themes are put forth as especially promising directions for this “future”: the messianic, liberation, and plasticity. Focusing on the work of John Caputo, Philip Goodchild, and Catherine Malabou, respectively, as leading examples of such directions, the book explores how such themes might invite constructive philosophy of religion in light of the “death of God” and “radical theology.” Although Crockett, Putt, and Robbins make clear the focus of their collection is a specifically continental approach to the philosophy of religion, and the three sections reflect different trajectories within continental philosophy itself (thus displaying the dynamism and plurality of continental philosophy), their book envisions a future for continental philosophy of religion that is defined by a continued disregard for the vast majority of contemporary philosophy of religion.

As I see it, in light of Franke’s text and also the book by Crockett, Putt, and Robbins, if there is a “predicament of philosophy of religion today” then perhaps the most troubling aspect of it is that there are two philosophies of religion and neither is interested enough in appropriating and learning from the other. Given Franke’s specific interest in apophaticism, he reasonably draws on continental texts, but I wish he had done more to show that apophaticism is not itself of relevance only to continental philosophy, on the one hand, and that continental philosophy is not the only relevant discourse when considering the “predicament” of philosophy of religion today. As such, I see Franke’s project as something of a missed opportunity in this regard. Though importantly demonstrating the important resonance between continental philosophy of religion and apophaticism, Franke does not then go on to consider different philosophical resources on offer for those attempting to be attentive to the complexity of religious phenomena and the dynamics of faith (as one possible example of how such cross-traditional work might unfold, see Simmons 2015). Importantly, such engagement could actually strengthen Franke’s overall proposal regarding the unsayable font from which all discourse and meaning flows. As just one particular instance where such engagement would be beneficial, consider Franke’s critique of “academic philosophy” insofar as he takes it to understand metaphysics “narrowly as a deductive system . . . without regard for its allusive and largely poetical power of vision” (38–39). More engagement with alternative philosophical methodologies and traditions that defend metaphysics as enacted in “academic philosophy” might give his critique of such an approach more traction. However, it also might illustrate that such a critique depends on problematic generalizations about what goes on in “academic philosophy.” Either way, such cross-traditional engagement is what would yield justification for the critique as expressed, or yield the need for a nuanced revision of it.

Were Franke to be more attentive to work occurring in philosophy of religion more broadly, then it would allow him to make clear that his analysis of Nancy is but one possible site in which the limits of thought and apophatic trajectories might appear in contemporary philosophy of religion. Similarly helpful in a variety of ways might be Graham Priest’s (2002) analysis of dialetheism and logic “beyond the limits of thought.” Alternatively, William Alston’s (1993) influential account of religious experience might facilitate thinking about the ways in which apophaticism can countenance the possibility of experience that resists linguistic expression.

My point is this, there is nothing that necessarily ties any of these debates to specific philosophical traditions other than the history of their occurrence therein. So, when I discuss the generally apophatic tendencies of continental philosophy of religion, I mean this as a contingent descriptor of an historical state of affairs and not a normative account that appeals to some “essence” of continental philosophy, say. Importantly, Franke notes that the demise of some versions of strong epistemic foundationalism opens the space for thinking more productively about what it is that we are able to think, and speak, about. I agree with him, but that very agreement leaves me perplexed at the absence of any engagement with contemporary (generally analytic) epistemology. For example, there are many versions of foundationalism and some “weak,” “modest,” or “falibilist” versions continue to gain significant traction in the current debates. I have argued elsewhere that such options remain live even within the context of postmodernism (and specifically within the traditions of deconstruction and new phenomenology upon which Franke draws) (see Simmons 2008, chapter 11; see also Simmons and Aikin 2012). Recent epistemological work on foundationalism and also the emerging literature on the epistemology of testimony, in particular, both stand as valuable for Franke’s own appeal to the variety of experiences operative in apophatic discourse (14–15; see also 73–74) to which one can only “witness” (61; see also 72–74).

There exists important room in contemporary philosophy for integrating apophatic resources, but not obviously as an endorsement of a specific trajectory occurring in philosophy of religion itself. Instead such resources might initially, and perhaps primarily, be deployed as an important reminder of the humility that should guide all philosophical and theological inquiry. Indeed, Franke explicitly claims that “apophaticism is the soul of philosophy inasmuch as it critically questions everything that can be believed” (328). Epistemic humility may or may not lead to apophatic silence, however, and it is important not to too quickly be convinced of the truth of a metaphysics that would immediately underlie such an assumption. Nonetheless, tarrying patiently with the wide range of apophatic (re)sources upon which Franke draws is an important corrective to the often witnessed over-confidence on display in philosophy and religion. Hence, Franke’s project is important and much needed in that it presents apophaticism as a “perennial philosophy” that challenges the logocentrism so often assumed to be necessary for meaning-making.

In this way, there are good reasons for Franke to draw substantively upon the work of recent French thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Michel Henry in his attempt to articulate “a philosophy of the unsayable.” But, as a philosophy, it is crucial that Franke give an argument for the truth of what he is claiming. Crucially, though, the importance of justification does not hinge on the viability of strong epistemic foundationalism. Indeed, even showing the problems with such foundationalist accounts requires that one give good reasons for preferring other epistemic alternatives.

Accordingly, it is precisely by resisting temptations to think that there is a stable “predicament of philosophy of religion today” that we are able to live into a “future” where continental and non-continental philosophies are participants in the shared discourse of philosophy of religion, tomorrow.

This brings us to the other three questions raised earlier. Namely, doesn’t Franke need to be able to express his “philosophy of the unsayable” as a thesis if it is to be philosophical? Moreover, if it is expressed in this way, how is his account anything other than merely a defense of self-refutation—which would, itself, be self-refuting? These questions are important not merely for Franke’s project, but more broadly for any attempt to incorporate historical apophatic discourse into contemporary philosophical inquiry. It is because I am convinced of the value of Franke’s overall project that I think these difficult questions must be met head-on.

When Franke declares that his claims can only be “enacted” and not reduced to a “thesis,” there are various ways of making sense of his contention. The most promising, it seems to me, is to read his account as akin to Søren Kierkegaard’s notion of “indirect communication,” which is developed by Johannes Climacus in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Kierkegaard 1992). Therein, Climacus suggests that the difference between indirect communication and direct communication is that the former stands as something of an invitation to the reader to work through something for oneself—specifically, a “dialectical knot” is offered, but not untied. In this way, to borrow from Martin Heidegger, indirect communication allows the author to “leap ahead” of the reader and thereby open the reader to her own freedom in relation to the questions asked by the text, without, thus, “leaping in” for her and simply handing over the answers to such questions as already finished (Heidegger 2010, 118–19). For Heidegger and Kierkegaard, the stakes of communication and authorial intent are existential: the reader’s subjectivity is either fostered as a task of self-making, or closed down as a task that is “handed over” as already completed by someone else.

I suggest that we understand Franke as engaged in a similar sort of philosophical project such that defending “a philosophy of the unsayable” is best understood as making space for a particular way of life that is characterized by both questioning and also commitment. Rather than see these as at odds, such that active questioning would be what resists resolved commitment, it is crucial to see them as two aspects of reflective life. Questioning always starts from somewhere. Commitments always open onto other questions. Franke himself animates this productive tension when he claims that “apophaticism . . . refuses to definitively reject all beliefs that it nevertheless questions. It retains the beliefs that it questions and even affirms them as opening to questions pointing beyond its own powers of conception” (328). So, as a recommendation of a way of life, Franke’s account of the unsayable might not reducible to a thesis since it is best understood as existential investment. So, Franke might well be said to be doing philosophy, but perhaps most obviously in the sense described by Pierre Hadot (1995). As I see it, for Franke, affirming a philosophy of the unsayable amounts to understanding that philosophy is itself lived engagement, rather than merely an account of how one ought to answer questions about life.

However, if I am right about this way of reading him as a philosopher, then it is an overstatement to suggest that the aim of Franke’s book can’t be expressed as a thesis even though it might not be “reducible” to the affirmation of one (and at various points in the book, Franke does seem to nuance things in this regard such that beliefs expressed as theses are admittedly important to apophatic life). Along with Gianni Vattimo, for example, Franke rightly notes that “one is already inevitably within a position of belief, even in first positioning oneself vis-à-vis belief” (327). As such, he goes beyond merely offering an argument for the truth of a particular proposition, while still recognizing that affirming some propositions is involved in living a life committed to “letting [reality] be all it can be” (328). Minimally required, of course, would be holding beliefs about subjectivity and reality such that this committed life would itself be possible.

So, even if Franke does not eschew the idea that his philosophy of the unsayable involves theses, he complicates things when he goes on to say that “rendering explicit this predicament, which precedes our affirmations and its negations, and then embracing it without qualifications . . . is characteristic of the strategy of apophatic thought” (327–28). Although this might be understood innocuously enough as simply the recognition of an historical context for all decision (whether affirmative or negative), it is difficult not to understand his claim here as a suggestion that somehow apophaticism goes all the way down, as it were. Yet, if that is right, then self-refutation looms large. Specifically, any such “rendering explicit” would itself be an affirmation of this fundamental structure of openness, but what is rendered explicit is precisely said to be prior to “our affirmations and its negations.” Yet how can an affirmation be prior to all affirmation without, thereby, not being an affirmation? Alternatively, wouldn’t such affirmation always contain within itself its own negation such that the openness continues to press more deeply than the affirmation that expresses the openness? Franke admits such difficulties, but I think he could go further, as a philosopher, to address them.

Since it would take much more room than I have here to begin to think through these difficult questions, I will simply let them stand and conclude by suggesting at least one way that is available to Franke for overcoming the worries of self-refutation while maintaining the apophatic questioning/commitment that defines the way of life he defends. In brief, this way consists of affirming three basic claims:

1. Apophatic negation should always be seen as parasitic rather than primary. In this way, apophaticism and kataphaticism are always necessarily in tension, but the kataphatic has an existential priority. On this model, Franke’s appropriation of Vattimo holds together as a hermeneutic realization of the ways in which lived understanding outstrips knowledge acquisition and linguistic expression. Yet, such linguistic and conceptual limits are not themselves simply linguistic and conceptual. Rather, they are existential. Our very living is what constantly serves to situate us somewhere such that we find ourselves not only asking questions, but being in question. Here, several similar moves made by recent philosophers might be especially helpful. Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of counter-intentionality, Michel Henry’s discussion of the auto-affectivity of Life, and Jean-Louis Chrétien’s notion of the priority of the call/response structure to the question/answer structure are all examples of profoundly philosophical accounts of the limitations of philosophy understood as a matter of propositional adequacy. In other words, with Franke, they all show that understanding philosophy as a way of life necessitates living Apophaticism, then, should be viewed as rooted in a (kataphatic) way of life in which apophatic counter-discourse is enacted.

2. Epistemology must be brought back in as one of the key domains in which to consider the status of such lived existence in relation to one’s account of it. As previously suggested, I think that modest epistemic foundationalism proves to be especially helpful here since it shows how humility and justification can co-exist even though they might initially seem to be contraries. Indeed, isn’t at least part of humility a matter of admitting that one’s beliefs are not the only options? Similarly, isn’t at least part of justification a matter of claiming that one’s beliefs are the best options given the relevant available evidence? Sure, but the questioning/commitment tension can be understood to underwrite the humble/justified ideal for philosophical inquiry. Again it seems that Franke’s account would be benefited from a deep engagement with contemporary epistemology, rather than appearing to leave epistemology behind as a remnant of modernist objectivism. Critique continues, but never without context.

3. The ground between philosophy, literature, and religion needs to be made a bit less slippery. At present, Franke’s account moves effortlessly between the registers of poetry, philosophy, and theology. There is certainly value in this method because it speaks to the ways in which human existence is irreducible simply to rationality, or to imagination, or to faith. Rather, all three aspects are constitutive of the philosophical way of life Franke advocates. However, there are different historical ways in which one can “witness to the sense of a reality (or irreality) resistant to conceptualization” (72; see also 61). Franke is occasionally too quick to make philosophy simply a name for a reflective and humble way of life, rather than a particular reflective and humble way of life in which one operates especially by means of argumentation, logical criticism, and linguistic/conceptual analysis. There is no reason to police the boundaries of disciplines/discourses as reflective of disciplinary natural kinds. However, there are reasons to locate the discourse in which one finds oneself and in relation to which one writes. In particular, it allows for interpretation to be enacted in responsible ways. So, when Franke says, for example, that “the unsayable is not an object at all” (60; see also 73), this is, I believe, best understood as a claim that he takes to be true in the Tarskian sense of saying of what is the case that it is the case. I am not sure that anything philosophical is gained by downplaying the hope that this assertion is expressed with appropriate warrant and is meant to garner the assent of the reader. Yet, such a hope is distinctively philosophical (in relation to literature and theology) in regards to the evidence that is available to motivate such warranted assertability. Again, such standards need not reflect some trans-social philosophical essence, but they should reflect being located within a specifically historical philosophical community.

These three claims do not challenge Franke’s conception of “a philosophy of the unsayable,” but they do situate it as existentially aware, epistemically responsible, and philosophically identifiable. All three traits are ones to be desired, it seems to me, for any philosophical account—whether or not the truth for which one is accounting is ultimately sayable or not.

In the end, then, I deeply appreciate Franke’s important book and hope that my suggestions for productive ways of reading it serve to encourage serious philosophical reflection on what apophaticism says, doesn’t say, and perhaps can’t say. In this way, perhaps philosophers might be better able responsibly to speak about silence . . . well, sort of.


Works Cited

Alston, William. 1993. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins, eds. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Franke, William. 2014. A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 2010. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Priest, Graham. Beyond the Limits of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Malden: Wiley Blackwell.

Simmons, J. Aaron, ed. 2015. Mashup Philosophy of Religion. Special issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 14, no. 2 (spring).

———. 2012. “Postmodern Kataphaticism? A Constructive Proposal.” Analecta Hermeneutica 4, in a special issue edited by Michelle Rebidoux, entitled “Refiguring Divinity: Continental Philosophy of Religion.”

———. 2008. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Bruce Ellis Benson. 2013. The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury.

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Scott F. Aikin. 2012. “Prospects for a Levinasian Epistemic Infinitism.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 20, no. 3: 437–60.

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    William Franke


    Analytical Philosophy and Apophasis: Reply to J. Aaron Simmons

    Simmons’s comment turns to a considerable extent on the difference that he points out between continental and analytic philosophy; he shows himself to be very well versed in both. He deems both to be crucial for adequately filling in the meaning of the term “philosophy” in our contemporary world, and certainly both are pertinent to delineating our contemporary philosophical “predicament.” In the treatment of A Philosophy of the Unsayable, however, “philosophy” seems to be restricted to continental approaches and to ignore analytic forms of philosophy. This is accurate, if one considers the book’s specific reference points. An undeclared selection within the field of philosophy that draws always from broadly continental traditions is operative in the book. But even more tellingly, A Philosophy of the Unsayable does not necessarily use “philosophy,” or perhaps any other term, in a purely descriptive sense. It chooses to mean something by “philosophy” that is not dictated by the dictionary or even by the politics of the university and what this institution recognizes as philosophy, which seems to consist increasingly in only those forms that can qualify as analytic!

    A Philosophy of the Unsayable’s use of “philosophy” is, in effect, a proposal for envisaging a certain kind of wisdom. This view draws especially on the historical currents of philosophy stemming from Plato and Aristotle, moving through Hegel and Kant, and continuing with postmodern thinkers in places like France and Germany and the Italy of Agamben today. A Philosophy of the Unsayable also cites, in a comparative spirit, esoteric traditions from the West and the East that have been considered philosophy only in a very broad sense, if at all. A word like “philosophy” has innumerable different meanings and ways of being understood. Today it is being given more and more of a technical sense by reference to a developing analytic discipline whose power is being asserted ever more imperiously in our contemporary world in tandem with the ascendency and rise to power of technical and analytical methods in virtually every branch of our social activities. Stating analytic theses in propositional language is certainly part of almost any type of philosophy, but it is best seen as embedded in broader practices of signifying and thinking. These practices include at a minimum narrating and figuring in language (the employment and forging of figurative language). They also include speculative thinking that lacks a stable object for analysis because it is self-reflective on its own process of thinking in act.

    Is this just a way of evading the rigor of philosophical logic and its subjection of theses to judgment? As Simmons himself recognizes later in his paper, philosophy’s not being reducible to a thesis does not mean that it cannot employ theses at all, that it cannot be formulated in or be partially expressed by theses. Theses indeed constitute an essential element in A Philosophy of the Unsayable’s argumentation. But they are not there for their own sake alone. They are indicative of something more than what they can exhaustively express by their own conceptual contents.


    The question of whether A Philosophy of the Unsayable is “philosophy” comes up again here and brings forth the qualification that it is philosophy under erasure. The entire title of the book was meant to be clearly crossed out on the cover rather than having only the word “Unsayable” lightly crossed out. The existing cover was the publisher’s decision as to how to sell the book rather than the author’s choice as to how to make its statement. I would also stress, moreover, another word in the book’s title, its first: A. The book makes no claim to being more than a philosophy, one among many possible ones. It does not even claim to be more than a philosophy of the unsayable. Surely there are others including, notably, analytic philosophies of the unsayable.

    Simmons points accurately to the ignoring of analytic philosophy of religion in my delineation of the predicament of (continental) philosophy today. Of course, there are many who have quite a different understanding of what “philosophy” is and what comes under it. I am surprised and heartened if analytic philosophers show interest. In my experience, what I call “philosophy” very often just does not count for analytic philosophers. Even Heidegger was considered a charlatan by Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle. So I simply was not trying to address myself to those who understand philosophy in strictly and exclusively analytic terms. However, these distinctions and dichotomies have evolved quite a bit since I did my philosophy degree at Oxford University (a name practically synonymous with analytic philosophy), and Simmon’s essay wakes me up to the possibility of a dialogue on this front. In fact, I was aware that analytic philosophers of religion (Plantinga, Hicks, Swinburne, etc.) are also very interested in the limits of language and in the limits of the conceivability of God. Still, I felt that since we are dealing with what finally baffles analysis, analytical philosophy would not take us very far. From most of what I have seen, this line of inquiry has left me with the impression that if philosophy sticks to strictly analytical methods, it has little of interest to contribute on this topic. But that is a prejudice that is bound to prove wrong if put to the test. Simmon’s work is doing just that and gives me a new angle for rethinking some of my claims and assumptions.

    A key for Simmon’s work seems to be the effort to unsettle analytic and continental approaches to philosophy of religion by making them react to one another. His Levinasian, new phenomenological approach, taking account of the theological turn in phenomenology, does break open the horizon so that analytic work can appear in relation to others in all their hardly exhaustible interest. This is just what is necessary for me to see the interest of an analytic philosophy of religion. Analysis has always been a crucial part of any reasoned discourse about religion, but to set it up as arbiter and as unquestionable methodological principle seems self-defeating when dealing with that which unifies everything beyond all possibility of analysis and requires acknowledging otherness rather than schematically imposing one’s own analytic grid. Of course, even absolute otherness can be apprehended by us only through some kind of differentiating experience that calls to be analyzed. By taking analytic philosophy as developing vitally in relation to its other, to non-analytical and pre-reflexive styles of thought, Simmons oversteps what has very often been a gesture of methodological circumscription that rules out the kinds of unanalyzable depths of experience that so fundamentally condition inquiries in the domain of religion. Simmons’s bringing analytic philosophy into contact with phenomenology enables him to attend acutely to the apophatic underpinnings of religious experience. If analytic philosophy becomes a resource for thinking and no longer claims to define the one valid frame for all knowledge, excluding others, it is indeed an invaluable partner in this discussion.



Synthetic Logic as the Philosophical Underpinning for Apophatic Theology

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

These well-worn lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be more true—and more misleading, if William Franke’s wide-ranging exposition on “the unsayable” is taken to heart. The book’s six numbered chapters, divided into two parts consisting of three chapters each, are framed by short chapters fancifully entitled “Pre-face” and “Inconclusion.” These word-plays accurately reflect the author’s tendency to stretch words beyond their ordinary meanings to make points that are often (intentionally?) only partially expressed. Thus, despite its unusual title, the opening Pre-face is strikingly similar to a standard preface; yet its title’s unexplained hyphen bears silent witness to the book’s apophatic premise (2), that “discourse” is always “necessarily preceded by and predicated on what cannot be said.” Likewise, the book’s concluding chapter is refreshingly straightforward, offering a clear and succinct statement of the book’s accomplishments and limitations, saying nothing about its non-standard title. The reader is thus again left wondering: is the provocative title meant to imply that, “in conclusion,” the cryptic style permeating the book (thanks to which the book aptly exemplifies the thesis it promulgates) is being set aside and replaced by a more straightforward use of language, or that this final statement of the book’s purpose, despite its definitive appearance, remains ultimately “inconclusive”?

The three chapters of part I address themes relating to the interface between philosophy and literature. Chapter 1, elusively entitled “Invitatory,” boldly introduces the book’s central claim (21): “Any language capable of making determinate statements pivots on an internal distinction between that in it which . . . remains unsayable versus that which it is able to articulate.” Although Franke has thereby stated that this distinction exists, he assumes the “mechanism” that keeps it in place “is itself below the threshold of the articulable” (21)—an ellipsis I shall fill later in this essay by showing that language about “the unsayable” has a distinctive logical form that can be stated. Chapter 2 (“In the Hollow of Pan’s Pipe”) adopts Hegel’s philosophy as a sounding board: guided by the (implied) metaphor that language is like music (for it conveys meaning more through the space hollowed out by the instrument of our words than by the words themselves), Franke portrays the philosopher of Absolute Spirit, who writes as if he can say it all, as in fact carving out a space for a silent experience of Truth and Totality that transcends any of his written words. Chapter 3 juxtaposes two post-holocaust poets, Edmond Jabès and Paul Celan, in hopes of demonstrating (81) that “each in a different way lends language to silence in order to give voice to the unspeakable.” Taken together, these three chapters establish “the paradigm of apophasis as a mode of poetry and of discourse generally” (134). Given their unmistakably poetic style, they read more like works of art than philosophical essays per se. Like a good painting, one can dip in and out of their kaleidoscope of images, without needing to digest them systematically; the masterful achievement of their synthesis deserves appreciation, as long as the word “philosophy” is not interpreted too narrowly. Thus, when Franke writes of the “feigned and literally ‘fictive’ truths” that characterize all “discourse” (77), he must have literary discourse in mind; consigning all truth-claims to this fate would destroy science as we know it and render philosophy nothing but an art form. For philosophy and science assume a logical form that poetry and art may freely ignore.


Part II’s three chapters address themes relating to the interface between philosophy and theology. Chapter 4 interprets various postmodern French philosophers as faithful participants in the Neoplatonic tradition of negative theology. The historical roots of the postmodern suspicion of all foundations, Franke maintains, stretch back to Parmenides, for whom all knowledge rests on a “One” that is not a foundation because it is ineffable (145): “nothing at all can be said of the One that must not also, at the same time, be unsaid. It cannot even be said unequivocally to be One.” From Parmenides to Damascius, these thinkers prefigure the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, whose path from an “aggressively anti-theological” nay-sayer (158) to an equally ardent defender of Christianity as an essentially de-constructive faith (165f) exhibits the depth and passion of all apophatic reasoning. Chapter 5 similarly unearths apophatic undercurrents in the work of theologian John Milbank and his Radical Orthodoxy movement, for whom Kant and Enlightenment “transcendentals” are to blame for whatever problems plague the modern world, and ingeniously shows that “the ancient theological hymn” shares much in common with such “postmodern philosophical theology” (257). Chapter 6 concludes part II with a daring synthesis of Radical Orthodoxy and “postmodern secular theology” (270); it turns out that both contemporary theologically currents share a “common basis in critical, apophatic insight into the generative source of reality, culture, and language,” calling us to a new path of “openness to the ‘radically Other.’”

A central claim, running like a thread through Franke’s work, is the ultimate contingency of all names—including (especially) the divine Name that is in fact no name because it is beyond naming. Given the significance of this claim to the book’s deep message, the author’s ironic habit of name-dropping can be disconcerting at times. One paragraph occupying merely eighteen lines (56) mentions nine names with barely a hint as to which of their ideas are being cited. (Five lines near the top of p. 178 similarly rattle off four names.) Admittedly, this tendency exhibits the truly impressive breadth of Franke’s knowledge of relevant literature; yet by merely naming so many interrelated thinkers he risks alienating his readers, for those who have digested the ideas defended by the scholars whose names so frequently season the text do not need to have the text salted with these names in order to taste of the relevance of their ideas, while those who are unaware of these scholars’ work are left hungry whenever the salt appears without the food of any substantive ideas for it to flavor. When Franke names a given author without offering a word of explanation as to which of that author’s ideas he is highlighting, his attempt to season the text may paradoxically result in the salt losing its savor.

This book’s poetic style and theological undertones give rise to a key question: Is this kind of writing properly named philosophy? Franke repeatedly refers to the apophatic tradition as primarily a form of (“negative”) theology, and both the form and content of the book frequently exhibit a literary flair that is uncharacteristic of standard philosophical prose. In keeping with the book’s apophatic theme, however, let me clarify what a negative answer to this question would imply. If we respect Franke’s own terms, then stating that the book is not a work of philosophy would not necessarily imply that it is unphilosohical. Rather, it might merely indicate that the book attempts to adumbrate the philosophy of negating the philosophical. Indeed, this is implied on the very cover of the book, where the word “Unsayable” is overlaid with a thin-lined “X.” Obviously, in order to philosophize, one must be able to say what one is thinking about. So writing a book about “the unsayable” paradoxically requires negating the very thing one is attempting to exhibit.

Ironies and paradoxes, such as those that permeate this book, are inevitable whenever one uses words in an attempt to describe what is essentially mysterious. Nevertheless, Franke’s exposition could have been rendered considerably clearer, and its core (philosophical!) message significantly strengthened, had he adopted an explicit position on the nature of apophatic logic. Franke repeatedly hints that he thinks such a logic is possible, as when he praises “Nancy’s anti-logic of sense” for being “exactly what I have been calling ‘apophatic’” (183). Yet he never fleshes out what this possible “mechanism” of the unsayable, this “anti-logic of discourse” (60; cf. 132), would entail—perhaps because, even though we must always “assume terms and apply rules,” these “can never be completely articulated or explained” (22; cf. 151). As a result, his whole book might appear to some readers to suffer the same fate as the playwrights discussed in chapter 2, whose work is ultimately “senseless—except inasmuch as they expose a radical senselessness at the root of speaking per se” (77–78). Poets might accept this fate—as might Franke himself, insofar as his writing aims to be poetic; but should the philosopher settle for nothing more than using ultimately “senseless” words to evoke an experience of “senselessness”?

Saving this masterful book from such a disconcerting predicament is not as difficult as Franke’s silence on the matter might suggest. In various publications (see e.g., The Tree of Philosophy, chapter 5) I have distinguished between “analytic logic” (which bases propositional truth on the application of Aristotle’s laws of identity, noncontradiction, and excluded middle) and its negation, called “synthetic logic” (based on the negation of Aristotle’s three key logical laws—which I call the laws of nonidentity, contradiction, and included middle). A conscious awareness of how synthetic logic operates in the use and interpretation of apophatic language would go a long way in removing the impression some readers may have that Franke’s use of language is intentionally mystifying and even obscurantist rather than being genuinely philosophical. That is, when synthetic logic is clearly in view, words can be used in a way that makes sense even though, according to their literal meaning (i.e., according to the standards of analytic logic), they remain senseless. This does not resolve the paradox of the unsayable; it still requires the word “unsayable” in the book’s title to be crossed out. But it explains why crossing out this crucial name is more than just word-play, why apophatic language must be paradoxical. Indeed, one of the main themes running through Franke’s book is that apophatic language is the negation of language; it is but a small step from this insight to the awareness that apophatic language attains the status of philosophy through its grounding in synthetic logic.

A few brief examples will illustrate how synthetic logic makes sense out of language that might otherwise appear to be but a literary game, revealing it to be a genuinely philosophical mode of exposition. The law of nonidentity (A ≠ A) grounds many of Franke’s truth-claims: it explains how Franke can truly say, for example, that Shakespeare’s Bottom “says [A] . . . what cannot [≠] be said [A]” (13–14) and that apophatic “language . . . negates itself as language” (61) through “discourse undoing its own identity” (65). Likewise, the law of contradiction (A = -A) grounds claims such as that the “pregnant pauses” (A) created between apophatic words nonetheless “point to an ultimate impotence [-A] of the word” (18; cf. 68), and that the goal in apophatism is “that language [A] must annihilate itself [i.e., be -A]” (120). And the law of included middle (A = A + -A or 1 = 0) is the logical basis for Franke’s claim that “we understand only on the basis of what we do not understand” (28), so that “everything that is” (1) is “deriv[ed] from Nothing” (0). At one point Franke himself inadvertently expresses all three laws in one sentence (57): “The unsayable [0] must be expressed in contradictory forms [i.e., A = -A] because it can have no proper identity of its own [A ≠ A] but exerts absolute, decisive influence in all directions [A = A + -A] on everything else [1=0].”

That Franke does not explicitly acknowledge anything like synthetic logic as the linguistic foundation for apophatic discourse should not detract from the impressive achievement his book makes. Indeed, I know of no other work that manages to evoke the depths of the Nothing that is Everything in so many profound and interesting ways. Naming is the ultimate human act of creativity. It distinguishes us from all other animal beings while uniting us with the unspeakable One that religions call God, Kant calls “the supersensible,” and postmodern nihilists call “the Other.” What Franke’s book shows, without ever saying so, is that nothing is more important than names.

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    William Franke


    Synthetic Logic and Apophatics: Reply to Stephen Palmquist

    Palmquist’s fundamental demand is that I state openly the synthetic logic that he perceives operating decisively all through the book. Yet I find his response most interesting for its own unstated ambivalence. What if the deepest springs of our thinking require indirect statement and withdraw from the direct, explicit statements of philosophy? In another expression of impatience with implicit arguments that are not explicitly spelled out, Palmquist also criticizes me for name-dropping, for crowding numerous proper names into a couple of paragraphs while giving very little guidance as to exactly what ideas are meant to be evoked by those names. I grant his point and understand his perplexity, yet these moments of name-dropping at a particularly fast tempo are, after all, rare and not the normal rhythm of thought in the book. Tastes differ as to when such rapid consumption becomes insipid. Levels of tolerance vary for surfing on common connotations without altogether losing traction and so going nowhere.

    Like Simmons, Palmquist questions what is required by the term “philosophy” and whether this book and its discourse can qualify. He perceives and acknowledges that one possible mode of philosophizing is to question what philosophy is and to critically revise some of our commonplace assumptions about it. But in any case, for Palmquist philosophy has to make sense. And yet, unmaking sense might also belong to philosophy as a critical enterprise. Philosophy should be able to call into question the sense it makes and to entertain the view that sense may in some way be grounded on senselessness.

    The idea of synthetic logic pointing to the collapse of the three Aristotelian postulates for logical thinking is very pertinent and helpful and welcome. Is it necessary for grounding the enterprise of apophatic discourse? Only if grounding is deemed necessary, and this is a philosophical position that would seem to lie well outside of the apophatic viewpoint. Grounding in logic is representative of a certain kind of philosophizing. But apophatic philosophy is more inclined to call into question the systematic foundations of traditional forms of philosophizing. It thinks that it does not need a logical grounding but can rather show the limits of such claims to grounding. Not that it does not employ the sorts of principles that Palmquist points to in order to make sense of the unmaking of sense. But they serve as tools rather than as foundations.


    I consider the introduction of synthetic logic into the discussion to be an illuminating way of rendering explicit something that is effectively operative in apophatic discourse—but not as a necessary presupposition that has to be stated in order to legitimate the discourse in the first place. Synthetic logic provides a way of understanding what apophatic discourse is doing, and an illuminating one. However, to make it the missing and necessary foundation is to circumscribe apophatic discourse by philosophical logic, and that is exactly what apophatic discourse does not intend to do or even allow, according to my fundamental claim. I speak of a philosophy of the unsayable precisely because the claim of this apophatic philosophy is to be a universal discourse that does not require inscription within any other antecedant and legitimizing discourse. On the contrary, the claim is that the ultimate source of legitimacy can be no discourse or logic but only what cannot be said or understood logically. The apophatic perspective seeks its legitimating authority precisely outside all discourse and even in the negation of the authority of discourse. This turns out to be an anti-philosophical claim for philosophers to the extent that they tend to be defending a discourse, a logos.

    I call this discourse that strives to escape from its very status as discourse a “philosophy” because philosophy usually counts in our culture as the discourse in which everything can be questioned. It counts as the discourse which does not have any body of dogma to defend (like theology), or even just a set canon of practices to follow (like criticism of literary texts) or an extrinsic object whose intrinsic integrity must be respected. Philosophy is in principle the untrammeled, free, critical investigation of everything. I believe that this ideal is something of an illusion, but I conceive of apophatic discourse as having no presuppositions that are given it from any discourse. To this extent, it is destined to critically call all discourses, even its own, as well as discourse per se, into question. So it seemed, on the basis of this commitment to unlimited critique, even of itself, that my apophatic discourse should style itself, in the first instance, a “philosophy,” that designation being the nearest approximation to an accurate classification in terms of the available labels and disciplines. It had to start by presenting itself as something in order to belie and elude the structure and implications of that designation.

    Incidentally, contrary to Palmquist’s writing that the aberrant spellings “Pre-face” and “Inconclusion” are left unexplained, there is actually a well-developed paragraph explicitly interpreting their meaning in the middle of page 6, beginning, “In regard to the performative language demanded by this project . . .” What this lapsus points out is that Palmquist’s comments are de facto about some of the book, but not all of it. This I would recognize as a virtually inescapable predicament of reading. Reading as “legere” (Latin) or “lesen” (German) or “lire” (French) is etymologically an activity of picking out or selecting. But this inescapable selectiveness is one reason why we cannot give fully adequate grounds for our readings, such as logic would seem to require. This is not to eschew explanations but only to loosen up the canons of what counts as explanation and perhaps to increase the demand for real explanation as opposed to formal explanation in terms that have to be accepted without always further possibility of explanation. In fact, Aristotelian logic frankly acknowledges the impotence of explanation to be really complete and total by its being based on and beginning always from “self-evident” premises.

    I would, therefore, like to stress in closing that I have surely not replied to more than (a small) part of what Palmquist’s essay offers as food for thought. I have surely, so far, “read” it only very partially. I picked out and reacted to a few divergences that jumped out at me and seemed to call for clarification, but I realize that I might read again and find in the essay completely different tendencies moving in other directions. These remarks in a critical and contrastive vein, punctuated by “but” and “however,” came to me as a first layer of response. That said, I would actually like to explore, with Palmquist’s guidance, the potential of synthetic logic for giving a more positive (kataphatic) articulation of the principles at work in apophatic thinking. It is not enough only to say nothing about them, so I recognize the necessity of Palmquist’s endeavor and appreciate its generosity.

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