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From Word to Silence II: The way of negation, Christian and Greek by Raul Mortley pp. 242-252

The invention of reason, and scepticism about it; the hypostatization of reason; word as mask; the desire for knowledge; names and nature; Augustine and the vindication of language; the via negativa; silence and the via negativa.

The via negativa appears to be a form of non-language, of the absence of language. At first sight the two ideas seem intimately related, since that to say that God is unknowable, incomprehensible, unspeakable, seems to constitute an approach which will perfectly well accommodate the call to silence.

But in fact the negative way and the silence of the mystic are not closely related.

The use of negatives is over and over regarded as a linguistic technique, that is to say, part of the armoury itself. This is particularly true in the case of Proclus, who is perhaps the foremost exponent of the via negativa in antiquity. Proclus asserts over and over again that the negative method produces positive notions, that it is the 'mother of affirmation'. The approach to negation of the modern philosopher will no doubt be different from that of the ancient philosopher, since in modern logic it is often considered that negation is a dispensable form of discourse, in that a negative can be replaced by another type of positive in most circumstances. In late Greek philosophy the way of developing this same problem is located in the specific context of epistemology and transcendental ontology. It is the capacity of the negative statement to produce knowledge which is explored in this context. But the negative way is always a part of language: it is a linguistic maneuver. Thus, what is negated is almost as important as the negative itself. 'It is important to note that words to be negated are not just chosen at random: if one were to compile a list of all negative statements made about God in late antiquity, one would find the same characteristics negated over and over by different authors. Festugi5re has done this for the writings of the middle Platonists, and a similar task could be carried out for the later Platonist and Christian philosophers, though this would not be a particularly revealing activity. It is immediately obvious that the same things are negated over and over again and the net effect of this is the question. Clearly the positive value of the words negated have some importance: otherwise they would not have been selected. A list of negatives attached to a series of positives somehow fix thought in a certain position, or more accurately a certain posture: they point it in a certain direction. Now the fact that these positives are negated does not dismiss them from the mind, or annul them completely. The negative is not like some sort of science fiction machine which causes things to cease to be, to evaporate completely. The negative and the positive are interdependent.

Augustine says in the Confessions that God is like a perfume, but which is not borne away by the wind, or like a taste which does not fade in the mouth: he has negated his two images but the aura of the positive concept remains through the negative. It is this interdependence of the negative and the positive which was most fully explored by Proclus and it is this which led him to develop his view of hyper-negations, that is the type of negation which is in fact the assertion of something higher and fuller than the positive at first envisaged.

On this view then, the positive statement is negated in order to point to a higher and fuller form of existence: if God is said to be unintelligible, then this means that he is of higher order intelligibility. The negative, for Proclus, points in a direction of transcendence. There is no negative without a positive: we can have no negative theology without firstly the enunciation of certain statements of positions, and certain images. Negative theology is parasitic on positive theology, and will not be able to function until the assertion of positive statements has been carried out. It will then attach itself to these positive statements and effect its own modification. The question is, what exactly is the modification thus effected? It is Proclus on the Greek side, and Pseudo-Dionysius on the Christian side, who give the clearest answer to this question about the role of the negative: both point to the positive, transcendent significance of negating the traditional epithets about God. The via negativa is a second-phase activity, which depends on positive theology for its value.

The negative is virtually a trick. It appears to dismiss or annul a concept -while allowing it to remain visible in the linguistic presentation. To say that God is unintelligible is different from saying nothing at all: the negation of intelligibility is different from the absence of any statement. Though one might have negated it, the notion "intelligibility" remains as part of the formula and exercises some influence over the concept formed. The negative does not evacuate the concept of its meaning: it constitutes some form of modification which is not equivalent to complete annulment of the concept.

It is for this reason that I stress the difference between the negative way, and the way of silence. For the way of silence is just this total absence of concepts: it is the way of silence which constitutes the complete annulment, which the negative fails to achieve. In this sense the way of silence is a far more radical renunciation of language, than is the via negativa: it envisages no props whatsoever, whereas the negated assertion allows a prop to remain.

If this were not the case, the same negatives would not continually reappear in the works of the later Platonists and Christian philosophers. It is somehow important that certain specific concepts be negated, not just any concepts, and the negation of these constitutes a linguistic act of a certain kind. If the authors concerned had not wished to retain some aura of the positive concepts which they negate, they would not have asserted these negations: they would simply have refrained from any statement whether negative or positive.

It is this ability to communicate despite itself, which constitutes the negative way as explored in late Greek and early Christian philosophy. It is not by accident that the negative way is coupled in its initial formulations, with the way of analogy. The way of analogy first appears among the Middle Platonists, and constitutes a resounding statement of faith in the techniques of language: the via negativa is coupled with this as one of the ways to knowledge of the ultimate. It is clearly conceived as a way of working within language.

The way of silence is therefore non-linguistic, but the via negativa is a function of language. It is nevertheless true that the via negativa uses Ianguage in a way which is unexpected and could almost be said to be anti-linguistic.

For the positive concept encloses, but the negative expands the field of understanding. If God is "good" then certain limitations are placed on our picture of him: if he is said to be "non-good", then we have our minds opened up to an infinite number of possibilities. The negation frees thought in such a way as to allow it to envisage a greater range of concepts - all concepts, in fact, except the one negated. This delimiting activity of the negative must surely be part of the attraction of it in the epistemology of late antiquity.

The negative de-specifies, so that thought is holistic, rather than fragmented. In this way the negative liberates human thought and opens it up to the vastness of the positive and transcendent concepts envisaged by the later Platonists. The via negativa thus has a twofold mode of operating: in the first place the positive concepts selected fix the thought in a certain approach, and in the second place the negative opens it up to the vastness of that same concept in a fuller and more perfect mode. This "opening up to vastness" is an essential part of the function of the via negativa, but even in this phase, it is still parasitic on prior affirmations being made.

It is probably for this reason that Damascius, the most sceptical of all the most ancient writers, rejects the via negativa. Ir is too thoroughly a linguistic ploy. Damascius' objection is that after negating a positive concept, we are simply left with the unknown. He advances several arguments against the via negativa, and appears to be at odds with Proclus in this: in the end for Damascius we are left with intractable silence, that is to say silence which cannot be made over in any way. Language for him may be of some use but only in the sense that it indicates the way: language is thus reduced to little more than a gesture of pointing. The One "abides in the inner sanctuary of that silence".

Damascius, even more than Pseudo-Dionysius emphasises that in the end language terminates in silence. There is in fact a comparative lack of emphasis on silence in the works of the Areopagite, and this is probably because he is closer in spirit to the positive via negativa of Proclus. The Areopagite is full of negations but is very intent on framing them: he is not about to suggest that they be abandoned as useless, or that we give up speaking in favour of pure silence. This is probably because he has in view a positive contribution from the via negativa and this faith in linguistic activity is like that of Proclus, and in the end rejected by Damascius.

Damascius really represents the turning of the full circle from the period of Parmenides. The discovery of logos by Parmenides has led to its own rejection. Parmenides had thought logos to be suitable for the higher metaphysical tasks, and it is precisely for these tasks that Damascius rules it out.

Parmenides wrote with the consciousness of being part of the advance guard, giving expression to the victory of philosophy over common sense and mythos.

Damascius writes with the benefit of centuries of enquiry into logos, and makes a sceptical contribution to the last stages of classical Platonism. But there is no new stage offered. Unlike Parmenides, he fails to recommend a new epistemological tool.

As far as the Christians are concerned, the via negativa is in fact of little prominence overall. The Areopagite constitutes the exception to this generalization, since with him the via negativa attains a kind of climax, but he is atypical, and one may indeed wonder whether he was a Christian thinker at all. As for the general Christian position, even those writers who are normally considered to be the most prone to the emphasis on mystery and on the negative way, the Cappadocian [philosophers, Basil the Great  and Gregory of Nyssa], have been seen to give a thoroughgoing endorsement to language. The Christian thinkers are quite able to reconcile an assertion of the unknowability of God with the general endorsement of language. Ecclesiology must play a part here, since language and ecclesiastical authority go hand in hand. Without the endorsement of doctrine and without the ability to clarify positions, the Church would have failed to maintain its social structure. In the end, the via negativa is anti-institutional, and the more radical assertion of silence, much more so. The institutionalization of Christianity required doctrine, expressed in propositional form, and the via negativa is inimical to such a tendency. The via negativa opens, rather than closes, options, and it is for this reason that it could not become part of mainstream Christianity. Thus it has been argued that Christianity in the Patristic period has almost no via negativa, in comparison with the fullness of its development within Neoplatonism. Augustine was able to assert that God is best known by not knowing, but at the same time he provided the most resounding statement of faith in discourse to be found in antiquity since the classical period of Parmenides and Plato. It is in fact the Christian tradition which maintain [respect? that] serves logos, following its discovery by the Greeks.

The Greeks become sceptical about it, but Augustine offers, in the Confessions and the De Doctrina Christiana, the most complete statement of the value of discourse and of the function of discourse that we have in antiquity: these statements parallel, and are intimately involved with, his great statement of the value and progress of history in the City of God. Augustine most fully recognises the principle of the word becoming flesh, and logos is caught up with the new Christian validation of history. In a way which could never have been foreseen by Parmenides, logos is preserved by a barbarian religion which has logos disclose itself in the immanent.



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