Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go. This week’s edition is part of a sub-series on theological terminology, which will continue for a few weeks.
This week’s entry into the Lexicon is apophasis, and its more relevant corollary, apophatic theology. The term apophasis more broadly construes any form of knowledge that is based in a denial. On the surface, it’s a bit of a trick. Merriam-Webster defines it thus:
: the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it (as in “we won’t discuss his past crimes”)
But in terms of theology (and epistemology in general), the term is more than just a pretense; it’s a door to the unknown. Simply put, there are two ways to deal with the unknown; on the one hand, if something is unproven or unexplained, we can write it off as false or untrue. If there is no evidence of a thing, then that thing must not be there. Apophatic epistemology, on the other hand, looks at things a little differently; if there is no evidence of a thing, then all we can say of that thing is what we know we don’t know of it. To rephrase, all we can say of that thing is what we know is not true of it – what we know cannot be proven or shown by means we have available to us.
The difference is subtle, but important. The first option is limiting, while the second is open-ended. In science, the difference would come down to the pragmatism. While working within a specific scientific paradigm, it’s necessary to rule out that which lacks evidence. But in a larger theoretical sense, it’s also important to keep an open mind to that which is immeasurable or unknowable. Even though such big-picture openness is welcome among more theoretical scientists and philosophers of science (Bronowski, Kuhn, Popper, Feynman, Einstein, etc.) such apophatic epistemology isn’t very common in mainstream visions of scientism, which tend to prefer the reliance solely on positive evidence, as it evident in the obvious sarcasm of the “black cat analogy“. The argument runs thus:
Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.
Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.
Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting “I found it!”
Science is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat using a flashlight.
The assumption here is that truth can only be asserted in a cataphatic way, meaning that the only things which could be said to exist are those things for which there is clear, positive evidence. “Positive” here does not mean “optimistic”, but rather that the evidence and truth can be actively affirmed. Apophatic epistemology is negative, meaning not that the knowledge is “pessimistic”, but rather that it has no substantive, affirmative content – that we can only express what we know for sure by means of denial.
In the case of the black cat in the dark room, apophasis would have us look around the room with the flashlight, and then instead of deciding that the cat, if not found, simply did not exist, that the things we could potentially say about the cat could only be formed in the negative. We could know for sure only that, if there was a black cat in existence, it was not visible to the human eye, or not present in the room the same way we were, or something of that fashion. We could speculate that the cat was invisible, that it purposefully hides from the light, that the light makes it disappear, or that it was outside of the room entirely, but that would be speculation, not knowledge. But an apophatic epistemology would say that affirming the non-existence of the cat entirely would also be just as speculative; the argument is that just because we can’t say something positively or affirmatively about a thing, it does not necessarily follow that the thing does not exist – it just does not exist according to the parameters we have positively defined.
In terms of apophatic theology, when coupled with faith in God, such a negative epistemology takes on a more explanatory character. Rather than simply holding the door open to the unknown and currently unknowable, apophatic theology is more specifically metaphysical and mystical. It asserts that the only thing we can say with certainty about God is that God is outside of our knowledge and parameters for positive affirmation. Rather than saying that God is anything in particular (powerful, personal, etc.), negative theology says that all we can say is what God is not. While it’s opposite approach, cataphatic theology, positively asserts attributes and possessions to God, apophatic theology says only that God is not mortal like we are, else he would not be God. Thus we can say that God is immortal. God is not limited in the same way we are with clear measurable boundaries, so we can say that God is unlimited, immeasurable, infinite. We cannot see God, thus we can say with some certainty that God is invisible, or intangible, immaterial. And so on. Knowledge comes in the form of not asserting truths or characteristics, rather than by positive affirmation.
For many theologians (Pseudo-Dionysius is a great example), this leads to mysticism, and the idea that knowledge of God can only be gained by shedding all that we know, but in general, apophatic theology says that all we can really know of God is that he cannot be seen with a flashlight in the dark room, and having faith means knowing that there is more than what can be illuminated with a flashlight we have made.
Next time in this theological sub-series of The Philosopher’s Lexicon, I’ll be tackling theodicy.