Tag Archives: negative theology

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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Derrida and Realism

When I wrote my undergrad thesis, I had it clear in my mind what I wanted to write. My thesis was to be on how the two greatest critiques of the Philosophy of the Middle Ages constructed in the Twentieth Century had already been written and solved by Meister Eckhart.

The first of these two critiques was Heidegger’s critique of onto-theo-logy, which became the topic of my thesis. At some point I’ll have a revised edition of my thesis (it will be published as an essay by this time next year) and I’ll share it here.

The second of these critiques was Derrida’s critique of negative theology. My intention when coming out here for grad school was to write this as my MA thesis. At the time, I was hopeful in regards to deconstruction, and I was quite taken by the possibilities held within this school when it came to religion.

Of course, that didn’t last. I quickly became dissatisfied with people like John Caputo (and his Weak Theology), and abandoned my thesis on deconstruction in order to find the “superior empiricism” of Schelling’s early work. I see connections between Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and thinkers like Bergson and Deleuze, who I’ve become quite taken with. This obviously puts me squarely into some sort of realism, whereas deconstruction seems to be some sort of textual idealism, lost in language.

But what do we do with Derrida? There seems to be much of his writing worth working with. I still see his Hauntology as particularly important (although I see proto-hauntological ideas in Schelling’s Clara and his Weltalter). The idea of the spectre, and more importantly, of parts of reality that are missing or incomplete (or even decaying) seem applicable to a new Schellingianism (not that unlike the old Schellingianism. . . ), a realist Schellingianism, but an “imperfect” realism.

So is there room for Derrida in a realist philosophy, or must we abandon him entirely?

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