March 18, 2021

A Brief Reflection on the History of Apophaticism

Apophaticism is the view that affirmative statements about God cannot be both literal and univocal. 'Literal' is here opposed to 'metaphorical'. (How precisely to spell out that opposition is a rather difficult question that I won't pursue here—I will just assume we have some kind of grasp of the concept of metaphor.) 'Univocal' means that the word has the same meaning when applied to God as in its other uses. So, for instance, to say that 'wise' is used univocally in 'God is wise' would be to say that it has the same meaning in this sentence as in the sentence 'Socrates is wise'. On some theories, non-literal speech is never univocal, so it may not be necessary to list these two items separately. But, in any event, apophaticism says that in order to affirm something truly of God, we must use words in a non-standard way. If we want to use words in their ordinary, literal senses, we must speak of God only in negative terms. It is for this reason that the view is given the name 'apophaticism', from the Greek for 'denial'.*

Apophaticism was originally motivated by the doctrine of divine aseity, and two (putative) consequences of that doctrine, simplicity and transcendence. Aseity is the notion that God is 'from Godself', that is, completely independent of any other entities. Simplicity—the doctrine that there is no complexity of any kind in God—was thought to follow from aseity because if there were any kind of complexity in God (for instance, if God were made up of parts, or if God had multiple properties/attributes) then God would depend on these simpler constituents and not be perfectly independent. Transcendence—the idea that God is utterly unlike anything in the created world—was thought to follow from simplicity (since everything in the created world exhibits some degree of complexity), and also directly from aseity (since everything in the created world depends, at least, on God).

Simplicity was thought to imply apophaticism because it was thought that (ordinary) affirmation implies complexity. For instance, if we say 'Socrates is wise', this implies that there are two things—Socrates, and Socrates' wisdom—and a relation between them, which is indicated by the word 'is'. Transcendence was thought to imply apophaticism because if a predicate can be affirmed of two things in the same sense, then those things have something in common (namely, the property expressed by that predicate).

The point here is that the original motivations for apophaticism had to do with attempts to make internal sense of theistic metaphysics and theological language.

Apophaticism became considerably less popular in late medieval and early modern philosophy and theology. There are various reasons for this. However, one key issue was rising fear of (one might even say, paranoia about) 'clandestine atheism'. Hobbes and Spinoza were the poster boys here. Both of them talk a great deal about God but defend highly non-standard conceptions of religion. It was generally thought that, despite their 'God' talk, both were really atheists.

In giving their own analyses of their talk about God, however, both Hobbes and Spinoza appear to draw on the apophatic tradition. Hence, in the 17th century, there is a rising sense that apophaticism has become a cloak or atheism. To defend real theism, and not just the propriety of using the word 'God', thinkers like Ralph Cudworth and Samuel Clarke thought, we need to defend the claim that the first principle of the universe is a mind—in the ordinary, everyday sense of that word.

This approach has the advantage of giving a quite precise and easy to grasp sense to the claim that God exists. But precisely insofar as (compared to apophatic conceptions of God) it gives us a firm grip on the content of this claim, it also makes it much easier to derive paradoxes and apparent contradictions from that claim. Apophatic conceptions of God are much more slippery, and evade easy refutation. And, indeed, from the early 18th century we see apophatic conceptions of God being revived in an evasive or defensive mode, to escape atheistic objections. (See especially William King.) This pattern is continued and amplified with the rise of liberal theology in the 19th century, where it is thought that straightforward readings of religious claims are somehow unacceptable to 'modernity' (whatever precisely that means), but the resources of apophaticism may somehow be used in new ways to save religion in modernity.

What interests me here is this. Apophaticism was originally thought to be motivated by factors internal to theism. Certainly there are still philosophers and theologians trying to make that case. But since the late 17th century much of the debate around these issues—by both religious and anti-religious thinkers—seems increasingly to presuppose that the theist really wants to believe in a bearded old man in the clouds but is forced to back off of this conception in the face of a variety of objections. In this context, apophaticism looks like an attenuated theism, whereas anthropomorphism looks like the 'full strength' version. This represents a quite dramatic shift compared to ancient and medieval thought.


* Two brief notes here. First, some radical apophatic philosophers-theologians, such as Maimonides, deny that we can make true affirmations about God at all. For Maimonides, there are statements like "God is wise" and "God is merciful" that appear to make affirmations about God and express truths. However, in the last analysis these always turn out to be either disguised negations ("God is not foolish") or statements that are really about the world and not God ("the needs of creatures are provided for in the natural world, in a manner similar to the way a human moved by mercy provides for the needs of others"). Second, most apophatic philosopher-theologians make no exceptions at all to this principle and say that even 'God exists' cannot be a literal and univocal statement. But views that make a few exceptions should probably still count as versions of apophaticism.
Posted by Kenny at March 18, 2021 10:11 AM
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