Apophatic Paths from Europe to China
Regions without Borders
- ISBN: 9781438468570
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: March 2018
With the title Apophatic Paths from Europe to China, and with a “geographical axis” that allegedly ranges “from the West to ‘the rest’” (xvii), William Franke’s latest monograph resembles a comparative study of apophatic methods in a robust diversity of religio-philosophical traditions. In substance, though, Apophatic Paths is more of a critical review of the voluminous corpus of François Jullien—especially as Jullien draws on the classical literature of China to wrangle against the Western notion of transcendence. Nevertheless, Franke’s preface identifies Apophatic Paths as the “first installment of a more comprehensive project,” to which he has given the name: The Universality of What Is Not: The Apophatic Turn in Critical Thinking (xiii).
What Apophatic Paths lacks in cultural content, it fills in aspirational scope, aiming to arrive at “globality” or “universality”—that which is beyond all cultural limitation. Thus, the subtitle of Franke’s book: Regions without Borders. The method of accomplishing this goal is that of negation—“to negate, if not to neutralize, first one’s own and finally any cultural framework” (xiii). In negating what is “culturally relative,” claims Franke, he not only gains “a critical perspective with respect to any and all cultural preconditioning,” but also glimpses “a dimension of the absolute that can perhaps be best interpreted as theological, or at least as religious, in nature” (xiii).
Apophatic Paths performs this “negation” in four long chapters, one short chapter, and a concluding epilogue. Chapter 1 (“All or Nothing? Nature in Chinese Thought and the Apophatic Occident”) looks to “Confucian thesis” and “Daoist antithesis,” primarily as interpreted by Jullien, to demonstrate a view of nature “as inherently negative, as the apophatic par excellence” (5). In chapter 2 (“Nothing and the Poetic ‘Making’ of Sense”), Franke locates the key to Confucian “poetic” texts, especially the Analects, “in what they do not say,” just as with apophatic texts of the West (40). Chapter 3 (“Immanence: The Last Word?”) takes issue with Jullien’s and others’s attempts to valorize the immanent vis-à-visthe transcendent as only dealing with representations of the transcendent. Chapter 4 (“Universalism, or the Nothing that is All”) maintains that the vision of Classical Chinese wisdom “doesremain open to a dimension of transcendence that reaches beyond what is humanly and culturally intelligible,” a dimension that “lends itself to being variously figured as sacred and divine” (183). In chapter 5 (“An Extra Word on Originality”), Franke draws on Ernest Fenollosa’s theory about the origins of the Chinese character to argue that, “Chinese language and the thought it embodies are naturally apophatic” directed “beyond language to things themselves” (208). Finally, Franke’s epilogue (“Intercultural Dia-Logue and its Apophatic Interstices”) attempts to demonstrate the dialectical reciprocity of immanence and transcendence, ultimately reiterating the thesis of Apophatic Paths: “Chinese wisdom and Western apophatic discourse are comparable in the face of the radical failure of saying to be able to grasp the real in the way envisaged by the logical proposition” (228).
It is with this claim of comparability, a comparability that extends beyond “Chinese wisdom” and “Western apophasis” to Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism that Apophatic Paths becomes problematic (55). It would appear that Franke has lost sight of the central principle of “Apophasis 101”—that apophasis and kataphasis are inextricably intertwined, and that negation therefore only ever removes that which affirmation states. Arguably, then, apophasis is not the same in West Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and beyond; nor does apophasis arrive at the same sheer indeterminacy or absolute ineffability, but only a relative indeterminacy or ineffability that is contextualized by what is negated.
To make this clear, I briefly draw on my own comparative study of the 6th-century Christian Neoplatonist, Pseudo-Dionysius, the 1st-century Indian Buddhist sutra, Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, and the “inner chapters” of the 3rd-century BCE Chinese Daoist classic, Zhuangzi. Sloppy scholarship notwithstanding, the Dionysian corpus does not negate anything and everything of the Trinitarian Thearchy. In the end, Dionysius negates very particular divine names of God to reveal God as the Trinitarian cause of all by means of the divine names. In the case of the Vimalakīrti’s chapter on “dharma door of non-duality,” a series of bodhisattvas take their turn at undermining a series of key Buddhist dichotomies, after which Mañjuśrī advises remaining silent, and Vimalakīrti actually remains silent. Here, if anything is “negated,” it is the traditional dharma of Pāli Buddhism, though only to drive home the core claim of early Mahāyāna philosophy: the emptiness of all forms of permanence, whether ontological or epistemological. With regard to this comparative class, what is most notable about the Zhuangzi—and really all Chinese philosophical classics—is that it does not contain anything like apophasis qua rigorous, systematic negation. Its second chapter does, however, contrast a “that’s it that deems” to a “that’s it that goes by circumstance,” thereby undermining the unqualified assertions of what is good/bad and true/false by Confucians and Mohists, in order to locate oneself at the “pivot of Dao” and “course in” its continuous transformations.
The point of all this is, even if we do have apophasis in each of these cases, it is practiced very differently and yields very different results. Moreover, even if we have ineffability in these cases, we do not have similar ineffabilities. Rather, these “things” are ineffable in different ways, for different reasons, and to different ends. Now, Franke might argue that all such ineffabilities are only “representations” of ineffability, not ineffability itself, which is beyond all representation. My response to this is essentially the same one that Steven Katz gave 40 years ago: an ineffability that is nothing at all is nothing at all; it cannot be similar or different to anything.
Where we find ourselves, instead, is in language, even when negating language. The details about how this is done, for what reasons, and to what ends are crucial for critical scholarship, which appears to be opposed to a perennialism for postmoderns.
Timothy D. Knepper is Professor of Philosophy at Drake University and Director of The Comparison Project.Timothy D. KnepperDate Of Review:April 13, 2019