Derrida and Apophaticism
Peter J. Leithart, May 26, 2004
Denys Turner considers tradition and faith in the January 2004 issue of the IJST, but the more obvious subject is Derrida and the tradition of negative theology, particularly as expressed in Pseudo-Denys (no relation) and Eckhart. Turner deftly disposes of Derrida's dictum that "tout autre est tout autre"or "every other is wholly other" in this way: It "could perhaps mean that ever case of otherness Eof 'this' rather than 'that' Eis a case of complete otherness, so that there are no differences within the logic of difference, no kinds of difference, and that all difference is univocal, whatever substantives or substitutes for the pronouns 'this' and 'that.' But that is manifestly false. Or it could mean the opposite, namely that there are kinds of otherness, but that all othernesses are of completely different kinds from one another, and all difference is equivocal; which is also false, and as manifestly so, and for the same reason, namely that either way 'complete otherness' is an unintelligible notion." If this is so, and if Derrida's entire program springs from this dictum, then this raises questions about the tradition of negative theology's emphasis on the "otherness" of God.
Turner notes that Pseudo-Denys taught that the more we know of God (the more similar the similarities, the nearer our language gets) the more other He appears, and yet the more we are aware of the difference between God and creatures the less we understand the nature of that difference. This is because "there is no kind of thing which God is," and therefore there can be no "kind" or class of differences of which the difference between us and God is a single member. God is thus "beyond both similarity and difference." Finally, "whereas any one creature is different from any other in SOME RESPECT, God is 'different' in this alone, that there is NO RESPECT in which God differs from creatures: difference, therefore, is ultimate Etout autre Eonly where we no longer have any hold on EITHER 'sameness' OR 'difference.'"
To this extent, Derrida remains on board with the apophaticists. Differance, for Derrida, is NOT a proposal of an ultimate difference, or any ultimacy of any kind. It is a denial of any destination (any 'eschatology,' if you will), including a negative ultimacy. Derrida, however, charges apophatic theology with smuggling ultimate difference back into the equation: at the last minute, they retrieve a "there is an. . . ." and draw back from the consequences of their own negations. There is, Derrida claims, a contradiction at the heart of apophatic theology: "For the theologians must choose: either this 'there is an. . .' must itself either be cancelled as affirmative utterance by their negative theology of ultimate difference; and, after all, the theologians do concede this 'erasure,' for how can they allow an ordinary, undeconstructed existential utterance as a foundation for their apophaticism, and do they not insist that their God is 'being beyond beind' and 'within the predicate neither of nonbeing nor of being'? On the other hand, if not thus cancelled, must not this 'there is an. . .' remain in place as an existential quantifier, which therefore ontotheologically and idolatrously cancels the apophaticism. Hence, negative theology collapses either into the ceaseless penultimacy of an atheistic deconstruction or else into an idolatrous ontotheology. As a project, therefore, negative theology is an impossibility."
Turner responds by pointing out that apophatic theology does not trundle in "a" difference, because what is beyond similarity and diference is not a measureable degree of difference but a difference that is beyond description. If there is an otherness that is totally other, then the very otherness must be beyond conception and language. For the apophatic tradition, it is neither true that there is NO difference at the end nor that there is A difference. There is that otherness that is beyond sameness and difference.
Turner goes on to consider Thomas's doctrine of analogy, and comes to a more satisfying synthesis of cataphatic and apophatic. Citing Dionysus' claim "There is no kind of thing which God is, and there is no kind of thing which God is not," Turner insists that cataphatic and apophatic feed on each other: "God is beyond our comprehension not because we cannot say anything about God, but because we are compelled to say too much, more than we can know how to mean. In short, for the pseudo-Denys and for Thomas following him, the 'apophatic' consists in the superfluity of the 'cataphatic,' the darkness of God consists in the excess of light." Ultimately, Derrida's critique fails because he has not truly grasped the infinity of God.