A Philosophy of the Unsayable

By Gray, Brett | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

A Philosophy of the Unsayable


Gray, Brett, Anglican Theological Review


A Philosophy of the Unsayable. By William Franke. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014. 384 pp. $37.00 (paper).

To an important stream of the Christian theological tradition, passing through figures such as Pseudo-Dionysius and Nicholas of Cusa and stretching back not only to biblical inspiration but to Neoplatonic thought, God is different. God is a difference beyond any difference humanly imaginable. God is a difference so great that difference itself as a concept is negated. Thus all properly chastened language about God has a renunciatory moment, a space where the inadequacies of its formulations are confessed, and conceptual idols are renounced as they break upon this divine difference. This is, notes William Franke, the proper self-abnegation inherent to theological discourse. There is even (to play, as he does, on the trope of a theologia crucis, inflected by Hegel's speculative Good Friday) a proper crucifixion of all words/the Word in theological speaking. But, this is more than just a theological insight. To Franke all self-critical discourse comes to discover that it has its ground in a hinterland of something unsayable. "Truth," the "whole," whatever noun one cares to throw at it, whether one even grants its actual existence, persists for Franke in a space of unutterable difference towards which human language distends itself inadequately, endlessly, but not quite fruitlessly.

Franke explores this distension as it appears almost fractally across a multiplicity of discourses-theological and secular, philosophical and poetic. He notes, in a series of intense investigative essays, that the unsayable (whether or not it is explicitly coded as theological) persists in all discourses in a way that is both generative for language, and a crisis for it. Yet it is still the peculiar genius of theology, explicitly negative theology, chastened by its "knowledge" of the ineffability of its proper object, to attend to this unsayable. The essays in this volume build upon one another, if at times obliquely, to make this case. The persistence of an unsayable hinterland is assayed in literature, and philosophies both antique and contemporary. Particular attention comes to rest on the post-Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan and Edmond Jabès, and upon those thinkers loosely associated with French post-structuralism and Jacques Derrida. Jean-Luc Nancy gamers special notice as an example of a secular apophatic who comes to realize the common cause critical philosophy might have with Christian thought. …

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