Apophatic Paths from Europe to China

Regions without Borders

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William Franke
SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , March
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy D. Knepper is Professor of Philosophy at Drake University and Director of The Comparison Project.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Franke is Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University and the author of many books, including A Philosophy of the Unsayable.


William Franke

Timothy Knepper’s review of Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions Without Borders has the virtue of giving an objective account of the content of the book reviewed before venturing upon evaluative judgments. It employs ample quotation, thus letting the book speak for itself. The review very laudably aims to make known the orientation of the book reviewed and the theses of its author. 

Knepper, nevertheless, has a basic disagreement with the book and sketches an argument against it that, from the author’s point of view, misconstrues its thrust. Fundamental, even if subtle, differences as to what the whole apophatic enterprise is about emerge. Knepper is himself an eminent exponent of a certain approach to apophasis, one that aspires to extract apophasis from its theological matrices so that it can be dealt with from a position unbiased by religious commitments of belief and thus, presumably, claim disinterested assent (see his Ends of Philosophy of Religion: Telos and Terminus). This manoeuver may even seem to be necessary in order to make apophasis suited for treatment as an academic discipline. 

However, a certain conflict, or at least deep-seated incomprehension, between the reviewer’s and the author’s points of view and approaches to apophasis comes out pointedly when Knepper states: “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.” This basic precept is, as a matter of fact, consistently evoked and applied in Franke’s books, for example, in A Philosophy of the Unsayable, pp. 295-96, and in On What Cannot Be Said, vol. 1, where it is taken as deriving especially from Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius. But in precisely what sense is kataphasis necessary to apophasis?  Here a crucial divergence open up.

“Apophasis 101” sounds like the basic course in which neophytes are supposed to learn the foundations of the discipline. However, apophasis defies just such foundations. Granted, apophasis does this always only in conjunction with critiquing and undermining kataphatic discourse. Admittedly, apophasis presupposes kataphasis – yet not as the discourse that founds or grounds it, but rather as the discourse that it inevitably un-founds and un-grounds. 

It seems to me (Franke) that Knepper loses sight of the fact that kataphasis cannot definitively establish or ground apophasis, not at least if we have anything like an adequate and appropriate understanding of apophasis in its discourse shattering purport. Kataphasis is undone and torn apart by apophasis. Kataphasis is necessary for apophasis, but it is not a foundation left standing intact. To acknowledge the interdependence of apophasis and kataphasis does not give us any stable handle on apophasis, as if that tied apophasis down to something objective and determinable that needs to be taken into account and that could serve us as a basic principle.

Knepper undertakes to “contextualize” apophasis by kataphasis, whereas I aim to acknowledge the apophatic as the uncontextualizable par excellence. Knepper emphasizes that apophasis can be spoken about at all only relative to kataphatic contents, which is true, and yet I discern in apophasis a dimension of something that cannot be spoken about, something that absolutely resists being relativized by discourse. What that might be cannot be said and so is not as such susceptible to being subjected to philosophical analysis. Its resistance to such analysis may be its only positive mode of manifestation. It can, nonetheless, be recognized as powerfully present and operative – as classic touchstone texts of apophatic thinking have persistently witnessed and acknowledged (see On What Cannot Be Said, vols. 1 and 2). 

Indeed, a kataphatic discourse is necessary for an academic discipline with introductory ground-level courses like “Apophasis 101,” but apophasis, in many if not all of its illustrious (and more often dark, enigmatic) practitioners, proves not to mind or abide within such disciplinary boundaries. Attunement to the apophatic requires unlearning more than mastering of basic principles, and there can be no standard introductory course to teach one how to unlearn. Paradoxically, of course, many a Zen master offers just such lessons in unlearning. Daoist mystics, Brahmans, and Sufis, too, are likely to offer something comparable – its inherent deceptiveness notwithstanding. 

However, just this sort of apparent amalgamation of traditions in my last remark is the sort of thing that seems to provoke Knepper’s critique. Ostensibly, Knepper’s complaint is that Apophatic Paths makes different “things,” different forms of apophasis, comparable, or even “the same.” He indicts such syncretistic comparison as an illegitimate blurring of differences. Ironically, Knepper’s own treatment of cross-cultural apophasis calls itself “The Comparison Project.” Is that not an open admission that even stressing the differences and disanalogies between various cultural expressions of apophasis amounts to a kind of comparison? Of course, Knepper’s point must be that minding the differentiated kataphatic expressions of diverse traditions is necessary in order to make such comparisons, whereas he takes me to be postulating one common ineffability for all. 

I am indeed interested in what is common for all, but I do not define it, nor do I characterize it as either different or similar. The similarities are in the different approaches of different cultures and their vocabularies. I believe that in practice Knepper and I are, in fact, perfectly aligned on this point and are working in “comparable” directions. And yet, there is surely something in my way of stating and envisioning the discourses of ineffability that grates against Knepper’s apophatic – or perhaps rather his academic and philosophically analytic – sensibilities. I think his review does not actually make clear why he has a problem with my project. Let’s go back to his initial objection.

Knepper states that it is my thesis of “comparability” that is problematic: “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.” Yet it can hardly be comparability per se that Knepper means to reject here, but only an unqualified comparison of “ineffabilities.” For Knepper himself steps up as the advocate of comparing contextualized ineffability and relative indeterminacy: “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.” 

By “what is negated,” Knepper, I surmise, intends something determinate, some content formulated in linguistic terms proper to a specific culture. Somewhat differently, I am indeed interested in “what is negated” by our human, encultured discourses as something/nothing that is sensed differently in diverse cultures but that, by the acknowledgment of each (or at least some), is never definitively grasped in any. While we can grasp and state only “relative indeterminacy,” we can intend, and various traditions aspire, to bear witness to something not delimited by our own language or by any specific cultural vocabulary. This something else is very often expressed as “absolute” or as “transcendent” in its indeterminacy. It is not a definite, stable, or realized content that can be subjected to philosophical analysis. 

Even if we wish to grant or postulate with Knepper that negation “only ever removes that which affirmation states,” still that is not the whole story. The whole is, in any case, not just a story (not just what can be stated in whatever words), but also something immeasurably more. My project attempts impossibly (indeed only “aspires”) to focus on that immeasurably more rather than only on the discourses accreting around it. I grant, however, that this is a matter of focus and aspiration rather than of substantially different contents. It is a matter of belief and projection, not of objective facts or ascertainable contents. Naturally, some (those who refuse such belief) will be committed to denying that it exists at all. It exists in manifest, worldly ways only to the extent that someone believes in it and lives in and through such belief and projection beyond determinate concepts.

I would add that to believe, as I understand it, means also to doubt. One doubts what one only believes, yet one nevertheless believes it and can even do so as a means of seeking illuminating insight, just as in the classic “credo ut intelligam” (“I believe in order to understand”) formulation of St. Anselm (Proslogion 1), which is itself indebted to St. Augustine’s similar formulation: “Credimus, ut cognoscamus” (“We believe in order that we may know”). This is simply to recognize that the regimes of willing and of knowing are not neatly separable but, instead, condition one another always already – from before either can be defined discretely and emerge as itself.

We might choose to limit ourselves and our interests to just what appears objectively in discourse as objective content. A certain analytic logic says that whatever does not appear and manifest itself cannot interest us or even be anything at all. Knepper quotes Stephen Katz to the effect that “an ineffability that is nothing at all is nothing at all; it cannot be similar or different to anything.”  This echoes, at least faintly, the well-known Wittgensteinian maxim: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent” (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen,” Tractatus 7). While apparently comforting a certain logical positivism, however, Wittgenstein also lets it be understood that what we must remain silent about is precisely what matters most. The Ockham’s razor type of appropriation of Wittgenstein’s thinking actually runs counter to its inextricable mystical strain.

We are often urged (as by logical positivism in the style of A.J. Ayer) to limit ourselves to talking only about what has specifiable content and is culturally and linguistically determinable. This would presumably spare us inane attempts to speak about the apophatic directly. We can speak about anything only to the extent that it acts and manifests itself visibly or verbally. However, in the case of apophasis, these may not be its only options or resources. Mystical yearnings and aspirations and their intentional objects are not necessarily accessible in this way. Yet, even if we limit apophasis to what is manifest in some presumably positive, verbal form, and thus admit its necessary involvement with kataphasis, still that does not make kataphasis the whole story. Rather, kataphasis is only the part of the intertwining of the manifest and the hidden that appears and is expressed. It leaves out the part of the whole that drives expression without being itself manifest as such.

The absolutes projected by belief cannot be analyzed as such but only in terms of the belief systems that they foster and their manifest expressions. So far, I take it, Knepper and I agree. The problem for Knepper is not that I compare different cultures in their approaches to ineffability (he does exactly the same) but that I do so from a position of some (indefinable) kind of belief in ineffability. This embrace of an equivocally “religious” form of projection or “aspiration” runs counter to his presumable (undeclared) belief in scholarly objectivity and perhaps philosophical neutrality.

The “nothing that can be said,” which drives various apophatic traditions from within, is indeed nothing when you step outside of them all. The purely philosophical analyst wants not to believe in any of these traditions but just to analyze the positive forms of language that they produce. This stance, however, achieved by stepping outside of belief, is itself a movement based on certain beliefs that demand themselves, in turn, to be subjected to examination and critique. The merely positive and objective content that is left once one steps outside of the belief systems that aim at “ineffability” is not what is most worth evaluating in them; it is not the soul of the beliefs in question, however interesting its extremely various articulations and diverse forms might be. Only believing in ineffability in one way or another can give its content any real and vital meaning. 

Thus, the ineffability produced by this stepping outside and intending nothing as actually real, but only recognizing different linguistic configurations as relative to context, has no sovereign right to be acclaimed as the superior decoding of the true meaning of the other ineffabilities. The philosopher’s abstraction from – or rather suspension of – all particularized, existentially committed belief in ineffability, in effect, has produced another absolute, even if a philosophically skeptical one. It is based on a negation of what is believed in religious systems oriented toward “something” (or “nothing”) that they acknowledge as eminently real and ineffable. That “something” has to be taken together with the forms of expression that it fosters rather than being separated from them by analysis in order not to fall into the void of Katz’s “nothing at all.”   

I take a position of believing in the ineffable, even while at the same time not believing in any express form of it.  Knepper evidently (whether consciously or not) takes this believing on my part to mean that I posit one ineffability into which I assimilate all other “ineffabilities,” without due regard for their extremely significant differences. (I quote Knepper’s substantifying locution “ineffabilities,” whereas really one is talking only about various expressions and conceptions of ineffability.) Indeed, for Aristotle and for the analytic logic that he bequeaths, to affirm that something is is to affirm that it is one (Metaphysics VII).

This, then, explains how Knepper can tax me with amalgamating all “ineffabilities” into one and misrecognizing their immense cultural differences in aim and scope, as well as in linguistic mode and in their very conception of the claim. He presumably thinks that he is neutral and avoids positing any actual or existing ineffability and, instead, objectively analyzes various forms of representing things called “ineffable” in different senses in diverse cultures. It may be granted that he does not postulate any one ineffability thematically as a presupposition of his own discourse. But his own unavowed ultimate or absolute is there, nonetheless, as the unspoken and unspeakable premise of his thinking and analysis. Being critically conscious of our own thinking entails eventually becoming aware of where we are presupposing belief in something absolute and universal. Such belief, I submit, belongs to the nature of thinking as such. 

The project of a philosophical analysis of religion, too, for all its neutrality, is trying to state something true absolutely about religion – or at least to make objectively valid statements about specific religions. It is, in this respect, comparable to the different religious or non-religious approaches to ineffability that it compares and does not stand above them as a meta-discourse. Philosophy’s own ineffable belief is not thematized as a transcendent divinity or inaccessible secret but consists rather in its claim to discern, in a generally valid (and to this extent, in principle, context-free) way, the truth about various enunciations concerning ineffability in relation to their respective contexts.

There are indeed many fascinating resonances and parallels between different cultures when they reach towards the limits of language.  It would be a great pity not to allow ourselves to contemplate them. In fact, investigating them is what Knepper’s (and Leah Kalmanson’s) project is all about. This project is in some ways an extension of Robert Neville’s Comparative Religious Ideas Project, which produced three volumes (The Human ConditionUltimate Realities, and Religious Truth) published in 2001 by the State University of New York Press. This sort of comparative work goes back further to the University of Chicago Divinity School’s “Towards a Comparative Philosophy of Religions Project.” Scholars have been comparing cultures and their different religious visions for quite a while. Something about such comparison manages to sustain interest. Not that we can adequately say exactly what it is! 

But might this last comparison of mine perhaps again provoke Knepper’s objection to an undifferentiated lumping together of different approaches? In any case, it is hardly more guilty in this respect than is dismissing “perennialism for postmoderns” in the name of “critical scholarship” (as Knepper does at the end of his review). Of course, this is a gesture that might well expect fairly widespread assent in the academy today. Still, we must ask, What is missed by it? Apophasis, for me, in the end, is about critiquing exclusionary gestures and practices. Exclusion is a condition of determinate sense, but apophasis aspires beyond sense. Academic discipline cannot go there. Nonetheless, it cannot refuse critique, even infinite critique of itself. Otherwise, it is already in an unavowable contradiction with itself.  

Knepper applies the central axes of his own critical scholarly project in this review. However, I do not think that they work in dealing with the book in question, which proposes a different vision and approach to apophasis. It proposes that something in apophasis remains recalcitrant to the usual methods of critical scholarship. The vision and approach of Apophatic Paths (in an “aspirational” register that Knepper accurately identifies) need to be excluded in order to define apophasis as a strict academic discipline geared to differentiating and demarcating distinct forms of culture. The apophatic vocation, in my understanding, entails calling such definitions and their exclusions into question. Apophasis is about the indefinable that confounds categorical logic, and it starts self-reflectively from its own indefinability.

Of course, this places apophasis as an academic discipline into contradiction and conflict with the very principle of an academic discipline. It renders impossible teaching the basic precepts of “Apophatics 101.” That might be grounds for its dismissal. But, at the same time, such an inherent contradictoriness in its discourse can also be the motive for the unique and incomparable interest of apophasis. It can be “crucial” to a self-sacrificial, kenotic vocation of apophasis – to apophasis as a matter of unfixable, mobile commitment and belief beyond objective analysis (as if analysis were even possible in abstraction from all belief).

Knepper wants to compare discourses because this is all that can be compared – at least publicly and demonstrably. I want to look beyond discourse to what it aspires toward, and I find that different traditions are comparable in this aspiration. This aspiration, in its own intention, is not reducible to anything objectively given and cannot be proven: it is stated in order to move us toward an experience of what cannot be stated. Such an approach works at the edge of what is objectively definable and academically acceptable and exposes a certain arbitrariness of disciplinary limits and definitions, since they too are based on what are in certain respects hidden aspirations. Therefore, it cannot help but make academic authority uncomfortable.


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