Presence and Negative Theology

This is inspired by the following quote from Graham’s blog on deconstruction:

“Hägglund follows Derrida in conflating ontotheology with realism. He doesn’t do this sloppily, but openly proclaims the identity of the two, when attacking Kevin Hart’s claim that pseudo-Dionysius is a deconstructive thinker.

Hägglund does this with a turn of phrase that might sound congenial to my own work, though in fact it’s diametrically opposed. Hart claims that the God of negative theology is deconstructive because it lies beyond all affirmation and negation. Hägglund counters that this is still classically metaphysical, because being beyond human predication does not mean being beyond classical concepts of identity and presence.”

Now, I don’t know Hägglund, but I do know Derrida and negative theology. As much as I really like some of Derrida’s work (his Hauntology, obviously), I’m fairly critical of his work on negative theology and Hägglund seems to be making (based on this tiny bit at least) the same mistake that Derrida made. That is, conflating all Neo-Platonisms (and there are many). While it is true that some thinkers in this tradition have made God = Being and made Being = One, this is not a universal claim for all Neo-Platonists.

Pseudo-Dionysius is actually an excellent example of this, because he places no highest in his system, but leaves the space empty for the mysterious God whose face is never seen.

“Trinity!! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.”

– Pseudo-Dionysius

What does this mean? Well, when Hägglund says that “being beyond human predication does not mean being beyond classical concepts of identity and presence” it means that actually, it could be beyond classical concepts of identity and presence. The whole point of negative theology is to deny that God is = Presence (or perhaps as a negative theologian would say “mere Presence”). The point is that no claim can be affirmed. I’m much more sympathetic to Kevin Hart in this case, as my own reading of Negative Theology (at least Pseudo-Dionysius, and Meister Eckhart as those are the thinkers in this tradition I’m most comfortable / familiar with) is quite deconstructive. When Eckhart “prays God to rid [him] of God” is is precisely a deconstructive move, a claim that God must be MORE THAN GOD HIMSELF or else He’s not God. In this way, God cannot be made mere presence and when Pseudo-Dionysius makes God = Highest (actually, higher than the Highest!), it is a move away from the pitfalls of presence, to a God that is always more than Presence, but is actually that which gives Presence (since God is Love). I’d suggest that if anyone wants to read more about this, Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being and his essay “In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology'” are both excellent sources, even if you’re not a fan of his phenomenology (which I’m not).

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6 responses to “Presence and Negative Theology

  1. kvond

    Nice post.

    I believe there is a strong sense in which Derrida did not capture the fullness of Pseudo Dionysius’s neo-platonic conception. We know for instance that Pseudo Dionysius heavily influenced Duns Scotus who was his Medieval translator, and thus helped shape his own conception of the “Formal Distinction” they way that the names of God are not only in the mind, nor in the real of God, but perform some kind of mediating force, or interactive force. We see the conclusion of this in Spinoza in his own adoption of Duns Scotus’s Formal Distinction (a connection which I post on here: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/a-river-runs-through-it-scotus-spinoza-and-then-davidson/ ). In this version the entire emanence of the NeoPlatonic One is made Immanent. It is not so much that God is beyond all human predication, but rather than God “exists and acts” through the totality of the modal expressions of the world. Thus God does not “negate” the world, but is the very condition of the world which expresses him.

    This transformation of Pseudo Dionysius (Scotus to Spinoza) I think reveals something about the Neoplatonic formation of the One that lies even beyond the predication of Being. It is not the negation so much as the surpass of predication, the assumption that any determinations must be caused. Pseudo Dionysius’s repeated and profuse “hyper-s” are rather arguments toward plentitudes.

    I agree as well there are many Neoplatonisms, and it is a mistake to conflate them. Some of the genuinely work to “negate the flesh” in the pursuit of binaries, some not so much. It is hard to fully evaluate the persistence of Neoplatonism, and distinguish it from the necessary dualism carried over by Christian Theology with which it was combined.

  2. Not to ruin your comment and post, which I liked very much, but it was Johannes Scotus Eriugena who translated Pseudo-Dionysius and worked off of his Neo-Platonism, not Duns Scotus. I’m not sure what this does to the importance of Duns Scotus’ Formal Distinction for you. Duns Scotus wasn’t a Neo-Platonist, but a Franciscan (e.g. Voluntarist) Aristotelian (Realist).

  3. kvond

    Awesome correction thanks. Mind Boggled.

  4. kvond

    Michael,

    From what I understand is that though I certainly did conflate the names, Pseudo Dionysius did have a determined impact on Aquinas, and the Duns Scotus did read both Pseudo Dionysus and Augustine closely (both Neoplatonist). The conflations of names did throw me. It was this reference to the “names of God” by Deleuze that confused.

    “And the univocality of being itself leads to the univocality of divine attributes: the concept of attribute that may be taken to infinity is itself common to God and creatures, as long as it be considered in its formal reason or its quiddity, for “infinity in no way abolishes the formal reason of that to which it is added” [Duns Scotus, O.O. I.viii.4 (a2n13)]. But formally and positively predicated of God, how can infinite attributes or divine names not introduce into a God a plurality corresponding to their formal reasons, their quiddities?”

  5. kvond

    If I might add, it is specifically that Duns Scotus’s Formal distinction grants the univocality of Being (contra analogical being) that it bears its closest connection to Neoplatonism, both of the Pseudo-Dionysius and Plontinus’s sort. He was not a Neo-Platonist, but it is this univocality of Being that puts him within the Neoplatonic solution. As Deleuze points out, by making the names of God distinct by not breaking of the Unity of God, the question of Negation is surpassed, eventually in Spinoza’s Immanence.

  6. kvond

    And to add again. Here is an article I ran into a few weeks ago which directly addresses Derrida’s take on Neoplatonism. http://percaritatem.com/2007/04/13/derrida-on-dionysius-a-mystical-iconoclast-or-a-misread/

    It makes something of the same point that I do, that not only is the One beyond thought and Being, but also fully present in thought and Being (citing P. 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).'”

    The One (or God), for P. Dionysius, but also Plotinus, is not only is the One beyond signification, but a part of, expressed through signification. It is not merely a case of negation.

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