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Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 9, no. 2, 2013



Wayne Cristaudo

ABSTRACT: This paper contrasts the apophatic tradition, which has been reinvigorated by the

post-structural emphasis upon ‘unsaying,’ with the dialogical or speech thinking tradition

represented by the Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, and his inimical dialogical partner, teacher and friend, Jewish apostate and post-Nietzchean Christian thinker, Eugen RosenstockHuessy. I trace the tradition back to Hegel’s critique of the dominant metaphysical dualism of his age, while arguing that the key weakness in Hegel’s argument is his privileging of reason above speech, and that his contemporary J.G. Hamann’s understanding of the role speech in world-making had already supplied the supplement and direction that would be developed by Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy. I argue that although the apophatic accentuates certain dimensions of our experience that are not insignificant, when those dimensions occlude the sociality of religious practice and narrative, reality becomes mystified, as our more mundane reality, which is the very reality we live and die within, is relegated to something secondary and relatively unimportant, in extreme cases a kind of unreality.

KEYWORDS: apophatic; speech-thinking; Hegel; Hamann; Rosenzweig; Rosenstock-Huessy With the theological turn in social theory this last twenty years or so there has been a growing recognition that the constitutive ideas and representations of religion have socioanthropological significance. This significance cannot simply be dissolved into the philosophical argument about whether they are true or not. Different religious narratives lead, over time, to very different social and political formations. And if we want to explore the tensions and potential concordances of humanity, the old Enlightenment picture of religion as the alliance of fearful people, feverish imaginations and a manipulatively clever priest caste must be dispensed with. Two thinkers who advanced this position almost a hundred years ago were the Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig and his inimical dialogical partner, teacher, and friend, Jewish apostate, and post-Nietzchean Christian thinker, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Both considered themselves to be part of a new tradition in which speech and dialogue took precedence over the www.cosmosandhistory.org 154 WAYNE CRISTAUDO 155 mind’s ideas, and in which religion was irrevocably connected to world making. I trace the tradition back to Hegel’s critique of the dominant metaphysical dualism of his age, arguing that the shortcomings in his arguments need to be supplemented by his contemporary J.G.

Hamann’s understanding of the role of speech in human world-making. I then look at how Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy develop speech-thinking beyond the promptings of Hamann and how this position draws out the short-comings of the apophatic tradition. The apophatic is a literary, philosophical and theological tradition which accentuates certain dimensions of our experience that are not insignificant. But when those dimensions occlude the sociality of religious practice and narrative, the reality we live and die within becomes relegated to something secondary and relatively unimportant.

*** Of the absolutely Other we can say nothing. That sentence is the basis of the apophatic theological tradition. It is, as a glance at William Franke’s masterly two volume collection of apophatic writings from the ancients to our contemporaries illustrates, a long and venerable tradition. 1 A great part of the venerableness of the apophatic tradition is due to the fact that it liberates the sacred from stale and rigid definitions, which imprison and reduce the sacred merely to being one other thing – albeit as the thing that is the source of any-thing. The apophatic, thus, serves the purpose of reminding us of our place in a greater scheme of things. And thus too we are reminded that our words share the same finitude as we ourselves; and yet we wish

to intimate something beyond ourselves and our finitude. Or, as Franke puts it:

‘Language must unsay or annul itself in order to let this unsayable something, which is nothing, no thing at any rate, somehow register in its very evasion of all attempts to say it. Only the unsaying of language can “say” what cannot be said.’ 2 Thus too, although the ‘apophatic’ can be a(n) (anti-)philosophical and aesthetic ‘tactic’ (from Gorgias to Beckett), generally though, the apophatic tradition defers to and reminds us of one of the most important features of life - its mystery. While our ability to measure, predict and account for nature through the accruement of its laws

See especially William Franke’s collections with theoretical commentary On What Cannot Be Said:

Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts. Vol. I: Classic Formulations and Vol. II:

Modern and Contemporary Transformations (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Also see Ben-Ami Scharfstein, Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), Michael A. Sells, Mystical languages of Unsaying, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), and J. P. Williams, Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), and Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller Apophatic Bodies : Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality, (Bronx, NY, USA: Fordham University Press, 2009).

On What cannot be Said Vol. 1, p. 2.

COSMOS AND HISTORY 156 enhances all manner of possibilities for human organization and social existence, it is the irruptive that is the original quality of existence we must respond to in the what and how of our lives. Our philosophical reflections, if they are to be of any value, must deal with this relationship of irruptiveness and responsiveness. We are pulled and pushed, formed and unformed, united and torn by life. Suffering, death, disease, pestilence, natural catastrophes and humanly caused cruelties and horrors – the panoply of evils - are as intrinsic to our experience of life as bounty and beauty. (And we recall that prior to philosophy, evil was not reduced to moral intentions, nor only to what humans had done). Narratives of a fall and God’s wrath, the disjunction between the self as godhead and the world of suffering as an illusion, or a decline from a golden age are different ways in which the fundamental disjuncture of creation and fecundity, and suffering, sickness, and death are dealt with. The gods are first and foremost mysterious, irruptive and hidden powers of life. And just as polytheistic societies are the social and historical preconditions of monotheistic ones, the tension between life’s powers forming a concordance, and the endless proliferation of powers that ‘rule’ is one which we see constantly repeated amongst pre-modern peoples. (Moderns who have lost a sense of God, if we may build on an insight from Kant’s first Critique, are endlessly caught up in metaphysical quandaries that stem from the fact that our reasoning requires specification and generalisation.) Not all peoples approach life with a reverence for its very presence, even if all peoples (prior to the truncated vocabulary that flows into modernity from the mechanistic metaphysical revolution) participated in life-worlds where awe-some powers, whether good or evil, friends or foes, were intrinsic to its very fabric. And first and foremost, a god is sacred because it is the awe inspiring. The disjuncture between the mundane and the sacred is based upon the primordial recognition of the awe-fullness of existence, and the irruptive nature of hidden forces which compel us to acknowledge the limitations of all that we think we know and have done before. The irruptive does indeed render past speech mute, at least momentarily, as we confront the mysterious implacability of existence being ‘that which defies expectation’ - whatever ‘that’ is.

If irruptiveness is a quality that precedes our classification of life’s qualities, and if irruptiveness does indeed force us to rethink so that we may continue our participation within reality, it will be no surprise that the apophatic, though a central feature of neoPlatonism and neo-Platonist tributaries of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is not confined to one exclusive tradition. The irruptive, as that which eludes any previous narrative, is a constant of human experience, and thus we can find this idea spread across various cultures and traditions. 3 Thus Franke calls for an exploration of this tradition in non-Western cultures, Ibid., p. 5.

WAYNE CRISTAUDO 157 But just as the apophatic is evoked in recognition of the awe-inspiring Otherness of the sacred, it is also the case that we only know that there is an apophatic tradition because we speak of it. Thus Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller in their Introduction

to Apophatic Bodies : Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality:

Surely the paradox entailed in this traditional apophatic gesture is mind-bending enough— speaking as unspeaking, knowing as unknowing, darkness as light— to keep us occupied for all these pages. The apophatic mystics— Jewish, Christian, Muslim— do surely speak. They speak and unspeak volumes. With uninhibited kataphasis (the presumed affirmative opposite of apophasis), at once confessional and speculative, liturgical and philosophical, they speak about God. The more they speak, the more they unspeak; and yet because of the infinity of which they speak, it would seem they can never stop speaking. 4 Likewise, if the apophatic instructs, requests, or, even more strongly, commands that the encounter with the sacred is one that is so Other that silence is the only appropriate human response to it, it remains the fact that its Otherness is so vastly important that we are also compelled to speak of it. 5 That speech is perhaps a speech of recruitment (calling for others to come and contemplate) as well as inspiration: it may also be a speech of parable and analogy - a confession of inadequacy, which is also a poetic dive into the possibilities of language to express the vast infinitude and beauty of the Nothing that is the awe-inspiring source of everything.

Language laps and ebbs around the sacred as the sacred is sedimented into language at its most majestic and humble. From my remarks thus far, then, I hope it is evident that my argument is not to deny that specific experiences are of such depth and solemnity, or awe, or ecstasy that they have the power to momentarily blast away the significance of all manner of other kinds of experiences, and thus what names we may call upon to express them. Nor is my argument against such experiences having a Apophatic Bodies : Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality, p. 13.

Chris Boesel also addresses this in his essay in Apophatic Bodies, ‘The Apophasis of Divine Freedom:

Saving “the Name” and the Neighbour from Human Mastery,’ which, drawing on Kierkegaard and Barth, is a rather orthodox, but finely argued riposte to Derriderean and post-modern aphophaticism.

Note especially the following observation, which I fully concur with: ‘The negative gesture of the apophatic, then, always accompanies the necessary and appropriate kataphatic— that is, positive— speech to and about God, in order to preserve or ensure its faithfulness and ‘‘truthfulness’’ as creaturely thought and speech in relation to its divine referent— a divine referent, of course, whose infinite nature exceeds all such creaturely thought and talk. As such, the apophatic itself— like the kataphatic— is seen as a response to divine command, the command against idolatry in all its guises: the confused reduction of God to, and identification of God with, a particular creaturely reality of whatever form— inorganic or organic bodies, the bodies of words, texts, traditions, canons, the bodies of ideas, conceptual bodies— wherein the divine might be presumed to be grasped, limited, contained, comprehended in thought and speech, as an object of our knowledge, and so brought under our control and mastery,’ p. 310.

COSMOS AND HISTORY 158 certain elevation, although not at the expense of other elevations. We may wish to draw circles around them, as it were, and point others toward their awe, as we gesture, perform rituals, prayers and chants, or simply enter into stillness in order to be reminded of, or directly encounter, a presence of such overwhelming potency and oceanic immensity. But surely the summoning and supplicating powers of language are every bit as, if not more, intrinsic to language than mere description. Further, it is also all too understandable that within the modalities of such solemnity, ecstasy or stillness, the worth of the mundanity of everyday life, not to mention the carnage and cruelty that have been the perennial accompaniments of social existence, not only take on a very different hue, but becomes the something that is really nothing in comparison.

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