Book Plug: A Philosophy of the Unsayable by William Franke

For those those interested, Syndicate will host several excellent book symposia in the near future. Of the many noteworthy books to be discussed, William Franke’s book, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, caught my attentionBelow is a brief description of the book taken from Syndicate’s website.Philosophy of the Unsayable


In A Philosophy of the Unsayable, William Franke argues that the encounter with what exceeds speech has become the crucial philosophical issue of our time. He proposes an original philosophy pivoting on analysis of the limits of language. The book also offers readings of literary texts as poetically performing the philosophical principles it expounds. Franke engages with philosophical theologies and philosophies of religion in the debate over negative theology and shows how apophaticism infiltrates the thinking even of those who attempt to deny or delimit it.

In six cohesive essays, Franke explores fundamental aspects of unsayability. In the first and third essays, his philosophical argument is carried through with acute attention to modes of unsayability that are revealed best by literary works, particularly by negativities of poetic language in the oeuvres of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès. Franke engages in critical discussion of apophatic currents of philosophy both ancient and modern, focusing on Hegel and French post-Hegelianism in his second essay and on Neoplatonism in his fourth essay. He treats Neoplatonic apophatics especially as found in Damascius and as illuminated by postmodern thought, particularly Jean-Luc Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity. In the last two essays, Franke treats the tension between two contemporary approaches to philosophy of religion—Radical Orthodoxy and radically secular or Death-of-God theologies. A Philosophy of the Unsayable will interest scholars and students of philosophy, literature, religion, and the humanities. This book develops Franke’s explicit theory of unsayability, which is informed by his long-standing engagement with major representatives of apophatic thought in the Western tradition.

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.

Jean-Luc Marion: A Postmodern Dionysian of Sorts

As I noted in a previous post, a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology, giving special attention to Dionysius. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found Dionysius a valuable resource in the development of his own theology. In this post, I want to briefly mention some of the ways that Marion incorporates Dionysian thought into his own project. Both Dionysius and Marion are concerned with upholding God’s transcendence and avoiding conceptual idolatry of any sort. For Marion, there are two basic orientations to world: (1) an iconic consciousness or (2) an idolatrous consciousness. As Marion explains, “[t]he idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it.” Hence, an idol is produced when we attempt to conceptually circumscribe God, which is in essence to limit God to the human gaze. In our attempts to measure God by human understanding, we become trapped in a kind of self-reflexivity in which the idol becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move through the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. That is,

“[w]hat characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of man but from the infinite depth that crosses it—or better, orients it following the intention of a gaze. The essential in the icon […] comes to it from elsewhere. […] Contemplating the icon amounts to seeing the visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible—strictly, to exchange our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.”

Following a Dionysian emphasis on the positive value of symbols, Marion likewise underscores that signs and images are not to be despised, as they can and should be used as contemplative aids in our worship of God. In fact, not only does creation itself function iconically to reveal the invisible things of God through that which is visible (Rom 1:20), but Christ Himself is said to be the Icon of God (Col 1:15). Moreover, given the kind of creatures that we are, it is fitting that we embrace signs and images which simultaneously hide and reveal that which exceeds this, so to speak, “clothing” of the formless.

Marion’s aim is of course to bring us into a more iconic consciousness, which in turn allows God to manifest himself according to his terms (not ours). If we embrace an iconic orientation, then, as Marion puts it, we must abandon any attempt to measure the divine by our own human gaze. Here Marion again seems very much in harmony with Dionysius. That is, for both Marion and Dionysius, there is no concept that adequately captures God. God, who is beyond being, is ipso facto beyond definition, and Marion is at pains to free God from our limiting (idolatrous) gaze. As Robyn Horner observes, Marion both continues within the Dionysian trajectory and also furthers the conversation with his own distinctive contributions. That is, in addition to drawing our attention to conceptual idols, Marion likewise speaks of conceptual icons as a way of thinking God in a non-idolatrous way. This path does not move “through the traditional metaphysical route that focuses on being, but through the mystical route of love.” Marion also adds to the discussion of icons, the idea of our being gazed upon and hence transformed by the other. Instead of a self-reflexive gaze necessitated by the idol, the icon breaks the circle of reflexivity and “gives the invisible to thought, not on the basis of the capacities of the metaphysical ego, but on its own terms.” Contrasting the two gazes, Marion writes that with the icon

“our gaze becomes the optical mirror of that at which it looks only by finding itself more radically looked at: we become a visible mirror of an invisible gaze that subverts us in the measure of its glory. The invisible summons us, ‘face to face, person to person’ (1 Cor. 13:12), through the painted visibility of its incarnation and the factual visibility of our flesh: no longer the visible idol as the invisible mirror of our gaze, but our face as the visible mirror of the invisible. […] It [the icon] transforms us in its glory by allowing this glory to shine on our face as its mirror—but a mirror consumed by that very glory, transfigured with invisibility, and by dint of being saturated beyond itself from that glory, becoming, strictly though imperfectly, the icon of it: visibility of the invisible as such.”

Though the icon indeed “opens distance,” it never claims nor pretends to exhaust God or to produce any kind of comprehensive knowledge of the incomprehensible.

Derrida on Dionysius: A Mystical Iconoclast or a Misread?

In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,

“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).

Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,

“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).

Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.

Dionysius’ Wise Silence

Dionysius, as is the case with Parmenides and Plotinus, firmly held that to be is to be intelligible. In other words, being and knowledge go hand in hand. Being implies that which is determinate and derivative; hence, God is not a being but is the creator of being, who necessarily transcends being. God is not a “facet of being. Rather, being is a facet of him. He is not contained in being, but being is contained in him” (DN V.8). Given what we have said so far, we discern a strict logic at work: if to be is to be intelligible, and God is not a being, then God is not intelligible. That is, God transcends our rational abilities—“He [in his essence] is completely unknown.” Moreover, since God is beyond being and knowing, he is likewise beyond predication. As Dionysius explains in the Divine Names, his purpose is not to reveal God in his transcendence—that is an impossible task beyond mind and words altogether—rather, he wants to “sign a hymn of praise for the being-making procession of the absolute divine Source of being into the total domain of being” (DN V.1). In other words, Dionysius recognizes that the divine names in no way (quidditatively) define God, yet this is not to say that Dionysius is confined to complete silence. Rather, Dionysius emphasizes the significance of the divine names in their liturgical, and hence, doxological context. Given that God himself, who is completely enfolded (and beyond our comprehension), unfolds himself via the hierarchs and a mediated process of illumination, the divine names do in fact refer to God and reveal him in a non-exhaustive, yet meaningful manner. In fact, Dionysius’ opening words of the Divine Names provides a kind of broad outline as to what he hopes to accomplish in his work, as well as what he understands himself to be communicating and not communicating. Though somewhat lengthy, the following passage is worth quoting in full:

“I come now to an explication of the divine names, as far as possible. Here too let us hold on to the scriptural rule that when we say anything about God, we should set down the truth “not in the plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit” to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor. For, if we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture, the things of God are revealed to each mind in proportion to its capacities; and the divine goodness is such that, out of concern for our salvation, it deals out the immeasurable and infinite in limited measures” (DN I.1).

As Dionysius explains, he seeks to explicate (to “unfold”) the divine names in so far as this is possible. Likewise, he contrasts “plausible words of human wisdom” with those of scripture, which were given in a revelation which surpasses human cognitive abilities. In other words, the scripture writers were granted a special illumination from God—not through their own rational processes—but through a union that surpasses human knowledge. Yet, they in turn hand down what they received in a way those below them can understand. Thus, the divine names are not the product of (merely human) theological activity in which human beings attempt to form propositions about God that define him in quid. Rather, the divine names are given by God through a process of mediated illumination, and thus “we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture.” Consequently, the divine names are one way in which Dionysius’ “wise silence” speaks.

Is Our Ultimate Perfection a Knowing or an Unknowing?

I am currently taking a very interesting course at UD on Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. Below is a brief comparison of St. Thomas and Dionysius in regard to our ultimate perfection. In his treatise, The Divine Names, Dionysius writes,

“[w]e now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses. And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity. But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. […] But as for now, what happens is this. We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine. We cal a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay hold of it nor can it at all be contemplated since it surpasses everything and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it. Transcendently it contains within itself the boundaries of every natural knowledge and energy. […] And if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge” (The Divine Names, pp. 52-53).

I certain do not pretend to understand nor to be able to unpack everything in this passage; however, I do want to focus on some of the differences that come to the surface between Dionysius and St. Thomas. In the passage above, three different activities are discerned: seeing, knowing, and unknowing (union). Both Thomas and Dionysius would agree that the senses will be used in the life to come (hence, above we read of a “sight of God”). Likewise, both would agree that we will engage in intellectual activities—as Dionysius puts it, “we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him.” However, Dionysius adds that the highest “activity” will be an unknowing, a union—that which is beyond nous. Thomas of course does not agree with this last addition, as he believes that our perfection is a kind of knowing. In other words, for Dionysius our perfection comes in a non-cognitive union with God (an unknowing or that which is beyond knowing altogether). Whereas for Aquinas, our union with God is a form of understanding, different (and superior) from the way that we understand now. In addition, for Thomas, we will (in our future state) know God’s essence (not in the sense of comprehending God). In Dionysius as well, we do have knowledge of God’s essence; however, that is an inferior knowing which is surpassed by a non-cognitive experiencing of God who is beyond being. This has to be the case for Dionysius given what he states in the last sentence of the passage quoted above, viz., “if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.”


Pseudo Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.