History and Historicity, or Realism and Ineffability, redux.

This post is in many ways a response to my friend and colleague, Aaron’s post on “Realism and Ineffability.” There, Aaron asks, among other things, whether any religious discourse about ineffability is necessarily committed to realism of some sort. My own work orients itself around slightly different traditions than those Aaron is referencing, and I’m especially not (any longer) much interested in figuring out how to situate (so-called) ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy, but nonetheless there are common themes here about how to think these relations.

One way to raise this point is to cite a chapter that I have been enjoying recently. It is from William Franke’s A Philosophy of the Unsayable; there Franke spends the chapter looking at the poetry of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès. On p. 97, he frames the two poets as exemplifying two alleged lineages of apophatic thinking:

This comparison between Jabès and Celan can help us to discriminate between what are historically two distinguishable lineages and logics of apophatic thinking, one based on the ineffability of the singular existence, whether of God or of the individual human person or event, and another based on an ineffability inherent to language itself.

Franke wants to say roughly that on one hand, one of these (Celan) relies on an apophaticism that is based on the inability of the human epistemological apparatus to properly capture an event or experience or phenomenon (or whatever). This sort of stance, at least it seems to me, exactly seems to be both epistemically non-realist and metaphysically realist. Why can our human apparatus not capture the phenomenon in question? Because it is the sort of thing (used here just as a logical place-marker, not as a term taking an ontological stance) that cannot be captured. On the other hand, another option (Jabès) is to see language itself as leading to the apophatic domain, where language itself is defined above all by overflowing its meaning–expressively, figuratively, in fact, linguistically (I am inclined, in order to make sense of this option, to conceptually link this idea to how Kant frames at least one strand of his thinking about reflective judgment in the 3rd Critique, where what is significant is that the phenomenon in question–say, beauty–is incapable of being exhausted by conceptual capacities, but it is not thereby non-conceptual or a-conceptual, it is still conceptual, through and through). In this way, I think that this other option is epistemologically realistbut metaphysically anti-realist: there just is no (stable) phenomenon there, but the problem is not with our conceptual capacities, which are working just fine (another way to put this, as Kant does in framing the experience of natural beauty, is that the issues arise because of how the world links up to our conceptual capacities — all of this with the important caveat that this entire discussion is thoroughly un-Kantian, to the extent that he is committed to transcendental idealism).

I have wanted to stress this point for a few reasons:

1. I have done some work on the role of language in relationship to ethics, especially in the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Stanley Cavell (in fact, I’ve got a very lengthy piece on Davidson, Levinas, and Cavell called “On the Ethical Basis of Language” forthcoming on this topic in a special issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory edited by Aaron). I find this to be interesting in this context because Levinas is frequently presented as an apophatic thinker (and, of course, elements of this are undeniable in his oeuvre). At the same time, when one explores the connection to Cavell, especially on how they think about language, I think it is interesting to figure out where such an apophaticism is to be located. In Cavell, there are two moments: one is in what he terms “word projection,” where he is describing our ability to project old and current words into new contexts, where such contexts are true forms of novelty, presently inexpressible, but because linked to and dependent for their projection on an entire form of life, capable of being understood, even if entirely new (this theme is present in Levinas, as well as Davidson, as I show). The other is in our inheritance of language altogether. Cavell says this more elegantly and persuasively than I likely could, so I’ll just quote him here:

Language puts us in bonds, that with each word we utter we emit stipulation, agreements we do not know and do not want to know we have entered, agreements we were always in, that were in effect before our participation in them. Our relation to our language—to the fact that we are subject to expression, victims of meaning—is accordingly a key to our sense of our distance from our lives, of our sense of the alien, of ourselves as alien to ourselves, thus alienated (from In Quest of the Ordinaryp. 40).

Cavell is here highlighting the extent to which exactly the form of life in which we are embedded and is responsible for our having language in the first place, is one whose parameters we can never entirely grasp. Our abilities in language cannot be known in advance. In part, this is because they are not entirely up to us: the threat of skepticism is a perpetual worry (of another not understanding me, refusing to understand me, misunderstanding me, or of me misunderstanding myself, just to name a few options).  In another part, because they are themselves historically evolving (and so even more not entirely up to us). We thus feel alien to ourselves, alienated, as Cavell points out. If this might be called an apophaticism, then it seems to revolve around notions of history: the history of the human form of life as well as the language that animates and accompanies it, is one which is forever closed off to us (even despite our best efforts at history and historiography). But if that is the case, then the apophaticism in question is not one tied to our epistemological capacities (more on this shortly–but say now, they’re working just fine) and it is also not tied to any sort of metaphysical realism (history is not the sort of thing that is knowable in this way, its meaning exactly always is incomplete, because the meaning of history depends on how it is understood by us, i.e., on the social, and because it is always underdetermined, leaving out some perspective or other).

2. To highlight this last point, I would mention Walter Benjamin’s work. What’s crucial for Benjamin–speaking from a very high altitude view–is that history is written by one group of people (the victors), but any such history necessarily neglects the (just as important) views of another group (the vanquished). This is one way to understand his critique of Hegel’s procedure (notably in the Phenomenology). Hegel’s historicism is, in many ways, commendable, it allows for the (alleged) solution to many philosophical problems by showing how they are through and through historical, tied to particular places and times. But, as I have argued elsewhere (see the fourth chapter of Autonomy after Auschwitz), there is a reason the book is called the Phenomenology of Spirit, i.e., that its historical second-half is essential to what the book is (it is not, as Hegel’s first title for the book suggested, ‘simply’ A Science of the Experience of Consciousness). But if that is the case, then that history can always be disputed, and therefore the project of the Phenomenology is infinitely capable of problematization (this is one way to situate scholarship which highlights Hegel’s problematic understanding of non-European history and culture). (I should note, though, that as I argue in the aforementioned chapter, I do not believe this impugns Hegel’s project in the Phenomenology, since he never intended it to be complete or totalizing). This problem, though, is not an epistemological one in any plain sense though: our conceptual capacities are capturing history, but they are our conceptual capacities, and there are the capacities of others (working fine themselves), which are also (equally) important to what history is, which is something that is fundamentally incomplete, and also infinitely sedimented (much like language itself). In this way, the problem is something I might term moral or ethical in nature.

3. In this way, to take up some of Aaron’s thoughts and terminology, I’m not sure that anti-realism vs. realism (whether metaphysical or epistemological) are our only options in thinking about apophaticism or negativity. In fact, the option that I want to explore is when the negation in ‘negative theology’ occurs or is spurred by means of something like an ethical or moral orientation, where what drives what we can’t say are such ethical/moral concerns (much in the same way we don’t say certain things in, say, polite company–for a first stab in this context, I cite my presentations this year at the Academy of American Religion and the Society for Contemporary Jewish Philosophy).


4 thoughts on “History and Historicity, or Realism and Ineffability, redux.

  1. What are the specific categories/modalities of encounter that motivate this “ethical negativity” inside apophantic discourse as you are putting forth? I’ve heard you gesture towards politeness before, but do you have other examples, even a schema for this? If you do (even provisionally) please share. Offense and mercy would be two particularly important categories for me, but there must be others. (as always I feel indebted to how clearly you set these things forth, it helps.) My other question is: on your scheme it is clear why apophatic discourse can show a trace of ethical negativity (I’m just trying to stick close to your words, these are not loaded for me); but it is not clear if ethical negativity is discursive through and through. I’m thinking of gesture and movement, (and of course laughter, etc.) as modes of “discourse” that we may not want to project linguistically discursive schema onto. In fact gesture would seem to be apophatic in a way that is even deeper than conceptual, etc.


    • Tim — thanks for your excellent questions. I feel like they are related: I am tempted to say the following. The *only* category or modality that I would take as a condition for the sort of negativity I’m describing is something like language, conceived in very broad (perhaps the broadest possible terms) as referencing something like what Wittgenstein might refer to as a form of life (in one of Cavell’s memorable elaborations of this notion, he terms it “all of the whirl of organism” that goes into making up a form of life), and so it would surely include gestures, movements, laughter, feelings, bodily comportments, and whatever other things that go into making up our complex “whirl of organism.”

      Is all of this conceptual? I would say so, because I find McDowell and others fairly convincing on this point (and I have never been able to make much sense of something being a-conceptual or non-conceptual). I am open to the idea, though…but I also wonder what’s at stake here? Given how difficult it is to make sense of notions that are non or a-conceptual, why do we you (we) feel drawn to them? I think we can get everything we want (again gestures, laughter, feelings, bodily comportments, etc.) and still be conceptual–to speak with McDowell–all the way down.


  2. Hello!

    I have some questions about things you bring up in your post. Maybe they aren’t really questions in the sense that they directly relate to your post but some things you wrote make me wonder about other things. Hmm that was a vague sentence….

    I understand what you are saying about Jabes and Celan and their realism being either epistemological or metaphysical. I currently understand this to mean that there are many ways to go about apophatic thinking. My question here is are there any apophatic philosophers/topics covered that are both epistemologically and metaphysically realist? I am so new to all of this (it is quite confusing) and would like to know your opinion.

    When you write about Cavell and his “word projection,” are you saying that this part of his views on language are apophatic because future context of different words is something that cannot be known (presently inexpressible) but can be understood? I assume you mean then that they can only be understood in the future. Is that what apophatic thinkers believe God is like-currently inexpressible and unknown but able to be known and expressed in the future?

    Also, on Cavell and language, you say the meaning of history is incomplete because it is leaving out some perspectives at all times (the perspectives not in existence yet?) which makes it tied to society (people) and that is what makes it not tied to metaphysical realism. If that is what you are saying then I wanted to mention how I liked that point.

    You talk about what we can’t say in order to be polite as being an ethically/morally motivated unsayable. Now this might be completely irrelevant but I am just thinking about those times where etiquette is breached and some person speaks out or acts in a way that offends in order to get a point across (or perhaps just to spite). In those situations the words have not become unsayable because they have been said. I think though, that once they are said something else is unsaid. But I was just thinking that in that case the morally and ethically wrong thing to say or do was actually done. How then can the unsayable be morally/ethically motivated when it can actually be said? Or are you saying it cannot be said in some circumstances? I guess what I am saying is, please tell me more (which I think you will get to that anyway soon).



  3. I like bringing the discussion of what’s going on in a religious sensibility to Kant’s thoughts on beauty and the sublime. Being overcome by either — not being afraid of being overcome by either — like not being afraid of being overcome by love (of another, of the world, of a text) brings us into tremendously fertile territory, I think. It can be a morally and religiously (as well as aesthetically) important moment for philosophers (and non-philosophers) of all stripes to acknowledge. We want to master these moments of being overcome rather than yield to what their overcoming us might mean. And in the process we kill them.


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