REVIEW: Timothy D. Knepper, Negating Negation. Against the Apophatic Abandonment of the Dionysian Corpus, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2014. Kindle edition at Amazon Kindle Store.
Timothy Knepper has written a book on Dionysius which exhibits an extraordinarily thorough knowledge of the text and a robustly philosophical manner of exegesis: he places his analysis within a broad debate over the philosophy of religion, without however labouring this. This book on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite revolves around the issue of ineffability, and whether we find in this author support for an absolute ineffability, which places an unbridgeable gap between us, members of the created world, and the unknown or unknowable God. He points out the currency of this discussion in the current debate over religious language in theology, and whether one might seek to find an identity between theologies, or a homogeneity in religious aspiration which could end the separation of religious traditions and bind them together. This is a debate which is as old as the West: Isis described herself as Isis of ten thousand names, a relativistic statement if ever there was one, and one which might prove politically useful in the binding together of a religiously diverse Roman Empire. The issue is whether the ultimate phase, namely the negation of even negations themselves, leads to a characterless deity capable of belonging to anybody’s creed. Whether the ineffability involved is similar to that of the Buddhist tradition is also a question: much then depends on how we construe the negation involved in the apophatic tradition.
Knepper lets the text speak for itself, and is not inclined to be overbearing with his interpretation, or to correct or improve upon Dionysius in some way. There are some key issues in his treatment, for example the emphasis on causation throughout the text [see for example loc 4006, Kindle edition]: the divine names are the causes of things. Causation provides a link between us and the ineffable God, which means that however many times one throws away the bit of language one is using in order to approach true ineffability, there will be a linkage of some kind throughout the process which binds us all together. This surely is a very important point and is tied to the fact that at bottom the Neoplatonist system is a kind of monism, with a single source and a single cause. This emphasis on causation is one of the key features of Timothy Knepper’s contribution. As a reader I ask whether some ontic continuity is envisaged here.
Dionysius represents the endgame for the apophatic tradition, and thereafter it will revert to the more experimental and less propositional approach of Plotinus. With Damascius and Dionysius the apophatic tradition has reached a pitch of complexity, and possibly even of over-development. Dionysius looks not only at negating the ordinary assertions about God, but also at negating the negation itself. For example we would in ordinary parlance say that God is wise, but in the apophatic tradition we would aspire to more accurately understand what God might be by denying this, and asserting that God is not wise. Clearly we avoid the trap here, as Knepper points out, of thinking that this means that God is unwise, i.e. possessed of the contrary of wisdom. But just what does the negative do in the above sentence? The classical apophatic move is to suggest that wisdom is to be seen as an infinitely small part of a vast ocean of the quality of being wise, which exceeds any imagining of it that we might have. So that in attributing wisdom we run the risk of importing the common or garden, or parochial, experience of wisdom, that of the man next door for example, in seeking to characterize the wisdom of God. But then even the negation of wisdom, not-wisdom, is negated, in a leap into super-ineffability, an exploration of our capacity, as Damascius would say, for “unknowing”.
Is the non-wisdom which we attribute to God in the apophatic mode something entirely different and other, utterly unlike wisdom, in the way in which it exceeds wisdom? That is really a simple way of putting the question which lies at the heart of Timothy Knepper’s analysis. In Aristotle the negation is said to suggest otherness, that is not-wisdom means everything other than wisdom. There seems to be a suggestion here of unlikeness: maybe whatever God is or has is completely unlike, and other than wisdom. There is then a problem, in that we ask why on earth we said that God was wise in the first place. So much then depends on how we construe negation: Aristotle allows for an indefiniteness and an unlikeness which makes a very different proposition of the act of negation, in that the negation produces a very different territory than we had imagined.
This is the key question tackled by Knepper and which he investigates very thoroughly: there is much valuable analysis of the logic of negation in his book. For Dionysius negation is “hyperochic” [see for example loc 1699] and involves exceeding the negation of the concept which is initially put forward positively [and then negated]. As we have said, Dionysius goes a step further and negates the negation itself in order to find yet another remove from ordinary reality. Here we should bear in mind Timothy Knepper’s emphasis on causation, in that despite the series of ruptures in ordinary thinking provided by the negations, and then the negations of the same negations, we are still dealing with a reality which is bound together in continuity.
The question of the role of kataphatic theology is obviously very important here, and this includes the whole area of the language of Scripture, but in addition the divine names and all the language of symbolic theology. There are propositions, or easily grasped scripture-based descriptions of God: the Lord is my shepherd. Knepper repeatedly discusses this, sometimes in debate with John Hick. It seems to be clearly the case with Dionysius that all this amounts to a prescribed language, which is the sine qua non of successful engagement with the ineffable. This language, and only this language, is that which is to be negated, and then hyperochically negated. In other words we cannot simply throw away the original words, as the wide interpretation of Aristotelian negation might seem to imply: we have to stick with the words given to us. This seems to be the finding of Knepper’s work in relation to the approach of Dionysius, but it also seems to ring true to the way in which the apophatic tradition is practised both by Christians, Greeks and Platonists: each word has an aura, which lingers after it is negated, and that aura provides the field of knowledge or simply of awareness, which is the next phase in the pursuit of the ineffable. So the apophatic depends upon the kataphatic for its success: but a given kataphatic.
Raoul Mortley 28.ii.15