Pseudo-Denys on the Law of Non-Contradiction

denisI’ve tapped into Denys Turner writings before (Unspeakably Transcended Series, Whatcha Reading? 2, Eadem est scientia oppositorum, and Mapping the Divine). I ran across an interesting and helpful portion of his Ch. 8 from Faith, Reason and the Existence of God that may address concerns some have about the abiding relevancy of the laws of logic in theological language. Here’s the portion of that chapter. It’s not a guest blog (I wish!), and it’s a bit long, but I hope those interested find it helpful.


Difference and hierarchy: the pseudo-Denys

At first blush, however, one would have supposed that classical forms of negative theology would hardly commend themselves to the ‘democratic’ temperament of post-modern philosophy, if only for the reason that hierarchy is ineradicable from the earliest classical formulations of negative theology; they are born twins in their first incarnations. And if not the first, then certainly the most influential of those incarnations in Western Christian thought must be that found in the pseudo-Denys’ Mystical Theology. For the pseudo-Denys a hierarchy is a differentiated structure of differences. Thus, in the fourth and fifth chapters of that work he describes a hierarchy of differentiated denials — denials, that is, of all the names of God. Those names, to use a later, medieval, metaphor, form a ladder, ascending from the lowest ‘perceptual’ names – ‘God is a rock, is immense, is light, is darkness…’ – derived as metaphors from material objects – to the very highest, ‘proper’, or ‘conceptual’ names of God: ‘God is wise and wisdom, good and goodness, beautiful and beauty, exists and existence’. All these names the pseudo-Denys negates one by one as he progresses up the scale of language until at the end of the work the last word is that all words are left behind in the silence of the apophatic. This ascending hierarchy of negations is, however, systematic, is governed by a general theological principle and is regulated by a mechanism. It has a grammar.

As to the general theological principle, the pseudo-Denys has already said earlier in Mystical Theology what he had emphasized in Divine Names, that all these descriptions denied are legitimate names of God and yield the possibilities of true and of false statements about God. Hence, these fourth and fifth chapters of his Mystical Theology are, in the first instance, expositions of an intrinsically hierarchical affirmative theology. Moreover, the foundation of this affirmativeness lies in God’s being the Creator of all things. It is God’s being the cause of all which justifies God’s being described by the names of all the things he has caused, even if what they mean as thus predicate of God must fall infinitely short of what God is; nor is there any sign, anywhere in the Corpus Dionysiacum, that Denys anticipates a problem of consistency between an epistemologically realist affirmative theology and a thoroughgoing apophaticism.

Indeed, it is probably one of the chief arguments of Divine Names that if we are not to be misled in our theological language, we not only may but must use as many different ways of describing God as possible: as he himself says, if we gain something in how we think of God be describing her as a ‘king in majesty’, then we ought to remember that she can appear to behave towards us in a manner so irritable and arbitrary that we may as appropriately describe her, in the manner of the Psalmist, as behaving like a soldier maddened by an excess of wine. Theological language, for the pseudo-Denys, consists not in a restraint, but in a clamour of metaphor and description, for negative theology is, essentially, a surplus, not a deficit, of description; you talk your way into silence by way of an excessus embarrassed at its increasing complexity of differentiation. Hence, if we must also deny all that we affirm, this does not, for the pseudo-Denys, imply any privileging of the negative description or metaphor over the affirmative. For those denials and negations are themselves forms of speech; hence, if the divine reality transcends all our speech, then, as he says in the concluding words of Mystical Theology, ‘the cause of all…is’ indeed, ‘…beyond every assertion’; but it is also, and by the same token, ‘beyond every denial’. You can no more ‘capture’ God in denials than you can capture God in affirmations.

The point of the serial negations of the last two chapters of that work, therefore, is not demonstrate that negative language is somehow superior to affirmative in the mind’s ascent to God; rather it is to demonstrate that our language leads us to the reality of God when, by a process simultaneously of affirming and denying all things of God, by, as it were in one breath, both affirming what God is and denying, as he puts it, ‘that there is any kind of thing that God is’, we step off the very boundary of language itself, beyond every assertion and every denial, into the ‘negation of the negation’ and the ‘brilliant darkness’ of God. But even here we should note that this ‘negation of the negation’ entails neither that some ultimate affirmation gains grip, nor that some ultimate negation does so. The ‘negation of the negation’ is precisely the refusal of ultimacy to both the affirmative and the negative, to both similarity and difference. In this sense the theology of the pseudo-Denys is neither an ‘apophaticism’ nor a ‘cataphaticism’. It is the entirely ‘unclosed’, ‘unresolved’ tension between both. It is within that tension that, for the pseudo-Denys, all theological language is situated; it is situated, in a certain sense, within indeterminacy.

So much for the theological principle of his apophaticism – which is necessarily at the same time the general principle of his cataphaticism. As for the mechanism which governs this stepwise ascent of affirmation and denial, we may observe how that mechanism is itself a paradoxical conjunction of opposites: the ascent is, as I have said, an ordered hierarchical progression from denials of the lower to denials of the higher names, and yet at every stage on this ascent we encounter the same phenomenon of language slipping and sliding unstably, as the signifying name first appears to get a purchase, and then loses grip, on the signified it designates. We may say legitimately, because the Bible says it, that ‘God is a rock’ and as we say the words they appear to offer a stable hold on the signified, God: we have said, Denys supposes, something true of God, albeit by metaphor, and something of the divine reliability is thereby disclosed. But just as we have let some weight hang from the grip of this word ‘rock’ on the being of God, the grip slips: God is not, of course, ‘lifeless’, as rocks are, and we also have to say, since the Bible tells us we must, that God is love and must be possessed of intellect and will, and so enjoys the highest form of life of which we know. Hence, in order to retain its grip on the signified, the signifier has to shift a step up the ladder of ascent, there itself to be further destabilized. For God is not ‘intelligence’ or ‘will’ either, and the signified again wriggles away from the hook of the signifier and shifts and slides away, never to be impaled finally on any descriptive hook we can devise, even that of existence. For in affirming that ‘God exists’, what we say of God differs infinitely more from what we affirm when we say that “Peter exists’ than does ‘Peter exists’ from ‘Peter does not exist’. For the difference between Peter’s existing and Peter’s not existing is a created difference, and so finite. Whereas the difference between God’s existing and Peter’s existing is between an uncreated and a created existence, and so is infinite. Hence, any understanding we have of the distinction between existence and non-existence fails of God, which is why the pseudo-Denys can say that the Cause of all ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’. Mysteriously, the pseudo-Denys insists that we must deny of God that she is ‘divinity’; more mysteriously still the signified eludes the hold even, as we have seen, of ‘similarity and difference;’ mysteriously, that is, until we are forced to discover just why God cannot be different from, nor therefore similar to, anything at all, at any rate in any of the ways in which we can conceive of similarity and difference; or else God would be just another, different, thing. Just so, for the pseudo-Denys: for ‘there is no kind of thing’, he says, ‘which God is’. Therefore, there is nothing we can say which fully circumscribes what God is, and, which is more to the point, there can be no language of similarity and difference left with which to describe God’s difference. In short, for the pseudo-Denys, only the otherness of God could be ‘totally’ other, and that otherness of God is, perforce, indescribable – God’s ‘otherness’ is to be beyond ‘otherness’. Hence, as to ‘this’ difference between God and creatures, we cannot even describe it as a difference, the difference, of which we can give an account.

Moses_Burning_Bush_Bysantine_Mosaic_thumb[1]For the pseudo-Denys, then, we are justified in making true affirmative statements about God, because if God is the Creator of all things, all things must in some way reveal, in what they are, the nature of their origin. That is his concession, as we might put it, to ‘foundationalism’. But creatures do not all reveal the same things about God, or in the same way, or to the same extent. For this reason, it is correct to say that, for the pseudo-Denys, there is a ‘grammar’ of talk about God, a grammar which governs equally its cataphatic and the apophatic ‘phases’. For even if we do not have a proper ‘concept’ of God (there being no kind of things which God is for there to be a concept of), we have a use for the name ‘God’, a use which is governed by determinable rules of correct and incorrect speech. In fact, it is clear that, for the pseudo-Denys, that grammar is complex and differentiated, governing, that is to say, different logics of grounding in truth, different logics of consistency, and above all, different logics of negation, negation being the foundation of all logic, and so of ‘difference’. These ‘logics’ are determined by the order of creation in so far as creation is an order and scale of revelation, a hierarchy, for as some things are ‘nearer’ to God in their natures, and others ‘further’ from God, so their likeness to God is more or less ‘similar’. Of course, all the names of God fall short of what God is: you can even say that God is equally ‘other’ than all these names, though they are not equally other than God. But because there is a hierarchy of affirmations, there is a corresponding hierarchy of denials.

For, in general, what you are doing in negating predicates of God depends on the logical standing of the predicates you are negating, and four logical types of negation – and so of ‘difference’ – seem to be theologically at play. First, at the level of metaphor, and so at the ‘lowest’ level of our discourse about God, we affirm and deny of God what is proper to material creation: ‘God is a rock’, ‘God is a lion’. Obviously ‘God is a lion’ negates the force of ‘God is a rock’ to the extent that a rock is lifeless and a lion alive. Hence, one metaphor is negative by its metaphorically negative counterpart. But even metaphors which cancel each other in one respect are with consistency affirmed of one and the same thing in another, for there is no inconsistency in saying that God has the stability of a rock and the fierce energy of a lion. In any case, a negative metaphor, as ‘no man is an island’, negates an affirmative, such as ‘some men are islands’, but is for all its negativity still a metaphor. Consequently, the relations of affirmation to negation within the metaphorical differ from those between a metaphor, whether affirmative or negative, and its negation as a metaphor.

For, secondly, the negation of metaphor simply consists in a recognition of its literal falsehood: ‘It is not the case that God is a rock’, which is simply a way of acknowledging that ‘God is a rock’ is a metaphor. But then again, at a third level, a literal affirmation entails the negation of its literal contradictory, for eadem est scientia oppositorum. Hence, you may legitimately say that ‘God exists’, which is in no way a metaphor, and is no more than to say the contrary of what the atheist says; and you may legitimately say that ‘God is good’, which entails the falsehood of ‘God is evil’. In either case, the first, being true, excludes the truth of the second. And all these three relations of affirmation and negation are straightforwardly ‘Aristotelian’; they are negations governed by the laws of classical logic.

But as to a fourth level of negation, that which the pseudo-Denys calls ‘denial by transcendence’, this is the ‘negation of the negation’, as when he says that the Cause of all ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’. And it is clear that the pseudo-Denys’ apophatic negations are of this last kind. For in the sense in which it is correctly said that ‘God is not good’, it is not now entailed that God is evil; in the sense in which God is said, correctly, not to be ‘a being’, ‘not-being’ equally fails of God. What is being negated, therefore, is that any creaturely understanding of the difference between good and evil, between being and non-being, finally holds its grip on God. The ‘negation of the negation’ is ultimately the negation of that hierarchy which structures the oppositions of affirmation and negation which lead up to it. For that hierarchy is a structure of differentiation, an articulation of a scale of negations; whereas the ‘negation of the negation’ places God beyond hierarchy itself, for to say that God is ‘beyond both similarity and difference’ is to say that God is not different by virtue of any of the differences on the scale, but that God is, ultimately, off the scale itself. But how do such denials – the double negation – achieve this?

It is sometimes said that they do so by ‘going beyond’ Aristotelian logic. And this is in one way true, and in another way distinctly misleading. For in so far as what is meant by saying that the ‘apophatic denials’ reach out to some space ‘beyond’ the realm in which the principle of contradiction holds is that here, when talking about God, we happily say contradictory things without ‘Aristotelian’ scruple, this clearly misrepresents the pseudo-Denys’ view. For it is, on the contrary, because two propositions which formally contradict each other could not both be true of God – in other words precisely because here, too, Aristotelian logic does hold – that we know our language to be failing of God. The ‘negation of the negation’ is not the abandonment of logic’s hold on language. On the contrary, it is precisely because logic does retain its hold on language that the negation of the negation is the abandonment of language as such. Hence, for the pseudo-Denys there is no such thing as ‘apophatic language’. If it is apophatic, then it is beyond language. If it is within language, then it is obedient to the laws of ‘Aristotelian logic’. It is only ‘beyond speech’, therefore, that, for the pseudo-Denys, indeterminacy rules. In the meantime, and leading up to that point, there is a hierarchical differentiation and structure within negativity, and so within ‘otherness’, a hierarchy which is intrinsic to the statement of his apophaticism.

(Pictures here and here.)


3 comments on “Pseudo-Denys on the Law of Non-Contradiction

  1. Chad says:

    I found some similarities between the message of this blog post and what Peter Rollins has to say in his book, The Idolatry of God. Here Rollins likens the product or “Idol” that the church makes of God to the other “Idols” that the world offers which are all intended to bring satisfaction and certainty. Rollins explains how God is beyond the “Idol” that the church all too often makes of him. I think you would appreciate what he has to say and I’d be interested in your thoughts about the book if either of you get around to reading it.

    Thanks for the post.


    • tgbelt says:

      Haven’t read Rollins. I’ll check it out. These are tough waters to navigate for me, because we have to speak of God and we have to do so within the constraints of our experience and language. Idolatry is always a possibility. But really helpful, freeing, transformative language is also a possibility too.


  2. Jeff says:

    I think Denys Turner does a good job (unintentionally, it seems) of explaining why nothing, per his “knowledge” of God, is even communicated by terms like “idolator” and “heretic.” Per Turner, it seems, “God” language fails as language to communicate meaning. This would then seemingly include letter concatenations like “i-d-o-l-a-t-r-y,” “i-d-o-l-a-t-o-r,” “h-e-r-e-t-i-c,” etc. Because that (e.g., “idolatry,” “heretic,” etc) which cannot be distinguished from it’s contrary by language (because its contrary cannot be communicated by language) has no linguistic import itself. It seems that Turner is saying that “knowledge” of God is utterly non-conceptual. And, hence, we can’t meaningfully talk about “theology.” Because words per se are mere symbols assigned conventionally to mental concepts.


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