paine / kant

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment


Roxy Paine: Checkpoint, 2014 / Maple, aluminum, fluorescent light bulbs, and acrylic prismatic light diffusers / 14 ‘ h x 26′ – 11″ w x 18′ – 7 1/2″ d

The American artist Roxy Paine (1966- ) exhibited the diorama Checkpoint at the Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York, NY, September-October 2014) Checkpoint was shown with other sculptural works in Paine’s first solo show with the gallery titled Denuded Lens. Checkpoint represents a life-sized airport security room carved and fabricated in maple wood. The perspective of the diorama is set on a single point. This single point perspective distorts the trompe l’oeil effect depending on the viewer’s position in the room (an 80’ room is compressed into an 18’ deep diorama).[1]

Paine’s monochrome Checkpoint represents a space overlooked in the anxiety of hyper regulated air-travel security. We normally do not think of such a space as aesthetical—or even beautiful. Yet, the scrupulous (computer aided) attention to detail begs to be noticed. Much in the same way, we do not normally think about the complexities of a judgment of taste, as much as Kant did in the 3rd Critique (Critique of the Power of Judgment). Kant’s 1st Critique (Critique of Pure Reason) alluded to a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, whereby his transcendental idealism changed the philosophical perspective from empirical skepticism and rational dogmatism. The beauty of philosophy has to do with a focus on that which seems insignificant and mundane, while at the same time exposing what is significant and profound.

The extreme and laborious work involved to create Checkpoint stands as a salient quality of the aesthetic experience. Part of the way we appreciate Paine’s diorama is closely attributable to the way we reify work itself. We admire the hours it took to fabricate the piece. Work itself becomes aestheticized. I will argue that Kant’s philosophical efforts are aestheticized in a similar way. Kant’s perilous intellectual heights come close the extremes of work found in a finely crafted artwork. Aestheticized work aspires toward universal agreement about its ability to please. Such work becomes normative. It creates, as much as it wants to be a regulative principle exemplified by its own high standard. Nonetheless, sheer labor cannot serve as a logical concept to create beauty. Yes, we admire hard work, while we also know that some things become overworked.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790-6), commonly referred to as the “Third Critique,” deals with aesthetics and teleology. Kant says that the power of judgment “is the faculty for thinking of the particular as contained under the universal” (5:179).[1] Given the notorious complexity of the text, we cannot get into numerous details, such as the differences between “determining” and “reflective” judgments, other than to point out that aesthetic and teleological judgments are considered “reflective.”

An aesthetic judgment, for Kant, is based on a feeling of pleasure or displeasure. He names four types of aesthetic judgments: (a) a judgment of the agreeable (b) a judgment of the good,[2] (c) a judgment of taste (&/or) the beautiful, and (d) a judgment of the sublime. A judgment of the beautiful is to be distinguished from primary cognitive judgments.

First Moment (§§1-5): A judgment of beauty is essentially based on a feeling of pleasure. Yet, the pleasure felt has to be disinterested, i.e. it is not to be confused with lust, or covetous desire. A judgment of the beautiful is to be distinguished from cognitive judgments because it is based on a feeling, whereas a judgment of the agreeable is that which “gratifies”[3] (empirical things such as comfort, food, drink, &c.).

Second Moment (§§6-9): Judgments of beauty claim “universality” or “universal validity.” We have the notion that when we claim something is beautiful, everyone else ought to share the same feeing about the object in question. Yet, universality is not conceptual. A judgment of beauty is not based on logical concepts. We cannot prove an aesthetic judgment. A judgment of beauty has “subjective universal validity” (5:215). It is subjective because it is based on a feeling and it aspires to be universal. A judgment of taste must be an agreeable “free play” of the understanding and the imagination (5:218).

Third Moment (§§10-17): Beauty is seen as a special kind of non-teleological “purposiveness.” It is purposeful without conceptual or perfectible utility. A judgment of taste is aloof from emotion or charm (5:223). There is a connection with the a priori in a judgment of a moral/practical good. A moral connection is not exactly the same with an assessment of (non-conceptual) beauty, but judgments of beauty and the sublime are related to moral freedom.

Fourth Moment (§§18-22): Judgments of beauty lean more toward subjective necessity. Still, we know that everyone will not agree with our judgments of taste, but we feel they ought to (re: judgments of taste are normative). The aspiration of universality can be thought of as sensus communis (common sense) (5:238). Although a judgment of taste is subjective, it presupposes agreement. The drive for universal agreement normalizes its subjective claims. Taste yearns for regulative principles.

[1] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 66.

[2] Note: an aesthetic judgment is not an agreeable judgment or a judgment of the good, although there are intrinsic connections between them all.

[3] Kant, Immanuel, “Analytic of the Beautiful,” Philosophy of Art, 274.

[1] …see the press release for the show:

john dewey / art as experience

September 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

john dewey art as experience

In the first and second chapters of his 1934 book Art as Experience, “The Live Creature” and “Having an Experience,” the American philosopher John Dewey begins to lay down his aesthetic theory with a primary emphasis on experience. Dewey wastes no time cutting to what he sees as a central problem with aesthetic theory. Common misconceptions hold that aesthetics and artworks are distinctly separate, and that art and daily experience are held apart. This binary way of approaching the activities and practices of art needs to be avoided to make an appeal for the primacy of experience. The aim of this paper will be to explicate Dewey’s implicit claim that letting go of the binary distinction of art as separate from everyday experience, will allow for a more invigorating approach to aesthetics that benefits our understanding of art, aesthetics, and experience. Detailing these benefits takes us through a few of Dewey’s arguments that make room for a view of art that speaks to the quality of appreciation, rather than seeking a staid text-book definition of art’s value and meaning. We will conclude with an assessment of the strength of Dewey’s position with a nod to the art making process itself.

What are Dewey’s reasons offered for art’s power to change people? (A-α) Dewey’s aesthetics begins with the way that we as living creatures experience the world. When artworks are set in a museum or gallery space, they are isolated from the day to day lives of viewers. In this way, an artwork becomes cut off from its origins, its functions, and from the ways in which it was created. Refined institutional isolation creates an unnecessary distance from the artwork and its audience. Dewey’s stated task, then, is to “…restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and everyday events…”[1] We must be careful to note that Dewey is not suggesting that art needs to be taken out of museums, or that his is a overt critique of institutions. Instead, his position is simply to look at the ways in which we can let a museum, or gallery setting, get in our way of experiencing and understanding the artworks.

It is surprising, if not radical, that instead of choosing to talk about art objects, Dewey emphasizes the experiences behind the objects, as well as the way we experience the artworks themselves. Art must be seen as a way that humans interact with the world. For Dewey, focus on the experiential takes art from being a simple object, to being a complex of interactions in the world from which it was created. We intuitively know that life, creativity, innovation, and discovery are distilled into artistic expressions, yet we need someone like Dewey to remind us of this.

Incredibly, art and the experience of it (aesthetics), take on a central place within Dewey’s total philosophy. “Dewey opts to select aesthetic experience as his primary instance of meaning…”[2] As mentioned above, there is a long standing tradition of demarcating, and partitioning off, of artistic objects into the rarified space of museums and gallery spaces. All of this begs the question (A-β) what in people is affected, and how, in Dewey’s embrace of experience? Dewey wishes to obviate the everyday demarcation of art as aloof, cold and distant, to stake a claim for the primary importance of experience. Not only does Dewey’s idea promise to bridge the gap between art and an experience, but also, by implication, he offers a means by which to put us back into contact with the ways in which experience contextualizes and enriches life, only if we are keen enough to take notice of art’s dynamic presence aesthetically. Taking aesthetics out of the stringent realm of contemplation into the world of lived experience, allows for experience to speak for itself. Dewey’s refreshing insistence on finding equilibrium, harmony and rhythm of experience’s confrontation with tension, speaks to the inherently imaginative course of artistic practice. Hence, we are put in a position to appreciate the quality of the ways in which we encounter, not only art, but life itself.

But what kind experience is worth taking notice of?—is it just any experience? Although, all of life is composed of a continuous stream experiential comings and goings, Dewey chooses to emphasize what he calls a “consummatory” [3] experience, whereby a given activity is seen as whole, rather than fragmented parts that consist of interruptions, or even ambivalence. Emphasis is given to a complete event that holds together without a distracted falling apart, e.g. writing an essay, carving a sculpture, printing a complicated broadsheet, enjoying a concert, &c. Generally speaking, we tend to call these events an experience, instead of just experiencing them. This subtle point is what Dewey wishes us to notice as aesthetical, and again this has to do with the quality of the experiential.

Here, we could ask about (A-γ) the benefits and detriments of art for the larger common good, found in Dewey’s aesthetics. Dewey writes of taking notice of experience with a recognition that life is full of deeply felt connections with our environment, made evident in our earnest (and aesthetic) efforts to overcome resistance, “Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.”[4] When the past is made to reawaken the resonant possibility of the present moment, the future is no longer a mundane continuation of the past—art takes us to these epiphanies. Past, present, and future coalesce into a recognized whole. Attuned experience shows us that the past harmonizes with the future in the present moment. A way of moving forward that favors the possibility of what can be, rather than what should be, reawakens our minds to an affirmation of life. Such experiences lead us to commune with the artistic and the aesthetics of life as exemplary examples.

Detriment would have to be found in the negative outcome of the above ideas, for example, when we continue to reinforce the status-quo of art as a vaunted intellectual practice. Experience too, is obscured by the contemporary infatuation with multi-tasking. Doing too many things at once quickly reduces experience to hastily drawn out conclusions with distracted imprecise attention. This is what Dewey calls “anesthetic,” when we take shallow and cursory notice of events and conclusions, “things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift.”[5] So much of life is fettered away in this anesthetic mode, including art appreciation. Often, if the art doesn’t offer up its message fast enough, we lose patience. Sometimes art’s rewards are measured in years, instead of summoning instantaneous results.

Now we ask (A-δ) which (benefit or detriment) is greater? The positive benefits of claiming a place in aesthetics and art, by way of primary experience, sheds light on all three of these components. Recall that Dewey wanted, not only to invigorate an investigation into the ways experience informs art-making, he also wanted to blur the delineation between art and aesthetics. According to Dewey, the artistic and everyday experience contains patterns of doing and undergoing.[6] For instance, it takes a patient intelligence to know that the intense effort of carving wood requires a mainstay of tenacious strength to overcome the boundaries of hardness, combined with maintaining the sharpness of one’s tools, to create a desired sculptural effect. As much as the artist has to undergo the painstaking control of a particular medium to find expression in the inanimate resistance of base matter, so too must the philosopher (writing about aesthetics) find the right words, methods, and strategies to appreciate creative accomplishments. Founding art intermixed with aesthetics on the grounds of experience by no means excludes the acts of appreciation and perception it takes to observe these qualities in tandem, as they are all working in rhythmic synchronicity with each other.

With all of this said, the reader could still be left wondering about art itself. What is art composed of for Dewey? The short answer is probably surmised in the book’s literal title Art as Experience, i.e. art is to be reevaluated as an experience. Drawing this out a bit more, Dewey also brings in many concrete links via all of the above mentioned points, but a salient feature of art stands out as having to do with the relations of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, “…art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience and experience.”[7]

As an artist, I wholeheartedly agree with Dewey’s position, and here are a few of the reasons why. The doing and undergoing of the art making process sounds much simpler than it actually is, but we needn’t fault Dewey for putting it into simple words. Afterall, doing really is about making, it is about the process that lies beyond words. An artist has a multitude of ideas, but the proof of those ideas is only made possible by enacting those ideas into a physical creation, never mind the planning that has to take place to get to work in the first place. The artist has to source his materials while taking into account their cost, and whether or not they are in his budget, so even this little detail of affordability is part of the experience of the project. The idea will then have to be modified if the artist cannot afford to put the idea into actuality, then, and only then, will the artist have to undergo the process of making, fabricating, creating his idea. This undergoing does not promise a successful outcome. The creative energy he puts forth depends on any number of factors that determine the artwork’s overall effect—time, patience, endurance, intelligence, &c., all play a part. This is just the beginning. The artist will then have to market and promote the work before it even gets to be seen by a wider audience, if it even makes it to that stage. And even then, there is no guarantee that it will be received with any acclaim. Dewey’s aesthetics enables these seemingly insignificant elements to be a part of the whole aesthetic experience, i.e. the aesthetics of getting art from the drawing board to the gallery to be considered by an audience becomes a viable way to understand art. An appeal to experience itself is a fantastic way into any art. We just have to be willing to let experience speak for itself. The strength of Dewey’s argument resides in its ability to apply to the wide range of creative expressions, not only as finished products, but also as a way to become more creative with our aesthetic appreciation.

There are the conditions art must undergo, and if we are to take Dewey’s philosophy seriously, we’ll become attune to the qualities and nuances of key aspects that might remain unnoticed, or ignored. Yes, there are an infinite amount of qualities to be noticed about art, and the art making experience, yet if we are intent on adhering to exhausted old fashioned modes of thinking, we cannot move to alternative connections and unthought-of concepts. Dewey’s philosophy allows for a new range of aesthetic experiences, no longer confined to worn-out questions of beauty and tradition. When the struggle of the past is made to be harmonious by the present wisdom of life’s potential, then the future becomes luminous. Art offers us the strength to transform. John Dewey’s experiential aesthetics brings us closer to this brilliant potentiality.

aurelio madrid

[1] Dewey, John, Art As Experience, New York: NY: Perigree, 2005, p. 2.

[2] Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling, Albany, NY: State University of New York press, 1987, p. 186.

[3] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 37.

[4] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 16.

[5] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 41.

[6] Dewey, Art as Experience, pp. 45-7.

[7] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 50.


Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: Horizons of Feeling. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York, NY: Perigree, 2005.

Hildebrand, David. Dewey: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2008.

marx & alienation

August 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

textile factory 1900

Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of practice.

—Karl Marx “Theses on Feuerbach” (Thesis VIII)

For a better understanding of what Karl Marx meant by the term alienation we will examine three of his early texts from the 1840s, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843-44); the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” (hereafter the “1844 Manuscripts”); and the posthumously published “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845, published by Frederic Engels in 1888).[1] We will briefly examine how Feuerbach’s critique brings Marx to his analysis of alienation. Then, using Marx’s descriptions, from his “1844 Manuscripts”, alienation will be further investigated in order to identify key moments of estrangement in the working life of laborers. Final consideration will be given to Marx’s VIIth thesis on Feuerbach, and its relation to alienation within the dynamic role of praxis.

In Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” there are opening references to Feuerbach’s critique of religion, whereby Feuerbach arrived at the realization that “man makes religion; religion does not make man.”[2] This idea propelled Marx toward his own critique of religion (Christianity) which places man in an alienated relationship with a spiritual ideal that can never be fully actualized.

Before Marx, alienation as a philosophical concept was dealt with in Hegel’s description of the way self-consciousness becomes self-alienated in order to become socialized, and ultimately, how self-consciousness knows itself (re: the absolute knowing of self-consciousness and Geist).[3] Marx’s critical contribution, thanks to Feuerbach’s critique of religion and Hegel, was to emphasize that man’s labor is the origin of culture and society, instead of the other way around, whereby man is subordinate to the state and religion as it was according to Hegel. In order to critique capitalism, we need to comprehend such mystifications. Man is not a predicate of society, society is made by man. Marx’s aim was to critique Hegelian, Feuerbachian, religious, societal, and economic mystifications. This meant critiquing how things are in actuality, according to Marx and Engel’s incessant erudition, instead of appealing to traditional philosophical abstractions.

In Marx’s “1844 Manuscripts,” the first section “Estranged Labor” reveals an in-depth description of the phenomenon of alienation as it relates to the political economy of his day—otherwise known as economics. Marx writes that capitalism carries with it the integral components of private property, and the profits of capital. Both of these elements require a division of labor whereby the workers become a mere commodity of the capitalist’s mode of production. The property owners (capitalists), by way of competing for profits, consolidate, and form monopolies. Society is taken to the level of property owners competing with each other for bigger profits, and workers who have little to no property, who form the base of capital. Marx identifies the way in which this model of capitalism is usually explained in veiled terms that favor the capitalist’s viewpoint at the expense, and ignorance, of the laborer’s perspective. Hence, “the worker becomes an even cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates.”[4]

A worker, entrenched in a capitalist circumstance, is encouraged to be productive, while his life becomes evermore devalued. Capitalist production not only produces commodities in the form of objects, but the laborer’s work also becomes a commodity, therefore, the worker is a dispensable commodity. Marx shows that the product’s value stems from the labor produced by human beings. The products, in-and-of-themselves, become alien, distant, and necessarily objectified from the hands that produced them. Yet, objectification itself should not be mistaken for alienation, since objectification is a necessary part of making things for human beings. The phenomena of alienation comes about because the products and the worker’s labor’s are no longer his own. Production and its products are not controlled by the worker after the products leaves his hands. Alienation becomes more trenchant as the worker’s human-nature is detached from the private property born from his labor.

There are four modes of alienation identified by Marx, and each mode is not mutually exclusive of the others. Alienation is an “avaricious”[5] byproduct of capitalism’s competition and it represents a detachment, or alienation/estrangement, from (a) the product: whereby the product is objectified from the worker, but the product is not his own, since the product is produced as a basic means to earn wages; (b) the process: whereby the labor required to produce the commodity is not his own, the process is also an objectification from the man’s will, his base labor is a means to earn wages and to create private property; (c) his species being or human-nature: Marx, after Hegel, recognized that man’s way of being, and interacting in society, is primarily defined by products of his labor, however this essential interaction of man’s environment/ nature is cut off by the capitalist, since the capitalist’s abstract interaction with nature is more important, the capitalist uses (and exploits) the laborer’s human-nature as his base means of production; (d) other people: as a direct result of becoming alienated the relationship of the capitalist and the laborer becomes an abstract market relation. “Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over man.”[6]

Lastly, when we turn to Marx’s VIIth Thesis on Feuerbach[7], quoted above, we are immediately reminded of the theme of praxis (re: practice). Praxis has roots in Hegel as well as ancient philosophy. Marx felt that in order to understand the effects of alienation we have to understand the practices of capitalism. “The medium through which estrangement takes place is itself practical.”[8] This suggests that to address the symptoms we have to know, and therefore, critique the causes of the alienation as it is made manifest in the working world. With the advent of new practices, new problems, and their accompanying concepts emerge.[9] If we don’t actively expose the causes of the multiple problems surrounding the capitalist practices that enable and foster alienation, we cannot overcome the resulting suffering and careless oversight of existing conditions. For Marx understanding alienation makes way for revolution.

Aurelio Madrid

[1] All three texts are from: Robert C. Tucker, ed, The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1972, 1978.

[2] Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 53.

[3] See G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, (1807).

[4] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 71.

[5] “The only wheels which political economy sets in motion are avarice and the war amongst the avaricious—competition.” Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 71.

[6] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 78.

[7] Recall that Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” was written in 1844-5, i.e. within close proximity to the “1844 Manuscripts.”

[8] Marx, “1844 Manuscripts,” 78.

[9] Paraphrase of Dr. Chad Kautzer, Marx and Marxism lecture, September 10th, 2014


Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 1995.

Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background” in Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1972,1978.

“the objects one finds”

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment


The following poem is by Brian Dickson from his recent book of poetry: Maybe This is How Tides Work

“The Objects One Finds”

The objects one finds

to envelope a body’s wish:

bolt from the trestle,

Alabama license plate,

scalp ripped from a baseball,

hide hanging by a thrill.

Liter of 7-Up with twine fastened

for a fishing pole in the ravine.

Catfish bate the shore, limitless.

in their mud-glint

Traces of stay, stay,

trailing the twine.

[Aurelio’s remarks] Visiting a new place suddenly brings about the innocent desire to find things. These things might be purchased, or these objects will be sought for amidst the scattered afterlife of commerce. A landscape offers rejected things. These offerings are often of questionable souvenir quality. Still, a day’s meandering search brings moments to be recalled later within a few lines on the clean page. Although trash is regularly overlooked, appreciating its broken edges evokes the memory of that place—where the semi-natural water met the edges of a ravine. Travelling must then mean taking our seeking body from the familiar over to the yet-to-be-found.

And, although trash is mistakenly forgettable, it again is an emblem of where it came from. Trash had a onetime use that is easily let go of. A careful poet attends to these connections and negations. Alabama is not just another state, it is the south. The license plate identifies itself, as much as it emphasizes where it is now, perhaps not too far from where it was thrown. Fallen in there with a bit of torn baseball showing its leather in the water becoming considerably less functional than what it was. How many games was it batted through? How many runs did it make over the fence? The water’s constant flow soaks away this human potential.

A transparent liter bottle repurposed into a clever tool to catch fish elevates itself above the useless. The bottle was already trash before it became an inventive means to catch fish. If we could only turn most castoffs into things that are used longer than the time it takes to drink warm 7-Up. We are infrequently innovative when we have a plastic bottle, string and a hook. We want to be able to see this as ingenuity beyond wastefulness. The dirty twine around the bright green bottle stays sun-bleached, the bottle takes in opaque water, and we take in a subtle mode of living in the south. Seeing this dense water, we aggressively wish to be respectful of the irrepressible catfish that live amidst the wet detritus (human and natural).

Dirt mixed in with water makes muddy this place that’s probably unsuitable for a memorial. Yet we’ve found a tangible link here at the water’s edge. The persistence of the water’s current pulls pieces of what will not stay, and the land’s edge keeps pieces of what cannot go away. We stay there with this poem in mind for another minute, then leave, all the while knowing that the objects, waste, trash, mud, water, fish, plants, and the past linger weeks longer, staying with the redolent brown-green of a place not marked by maps. There too was a humid southern landscape full of objects, and once-having-been-there.

…& thank you again Brian,


deleuze’s hume (the copy principle, &c.)

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment


The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in §II “Of the Origin of Ideas,” from his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (hereafter: the Enquiry), outlines what has come to be known as the ‘copy principle.’[1] Hume’s empiricism divides human perceptions into two types: impressions and ideas. This fundamental principle has to do with the way we immediately perceive things empirically and that those perceptions become ideas. The means that the ideas are brought to the mind—via memory and imagination—from the sensual impressions is known as the copy principle. In short, ideas are copies of sense impressions. In the 20th century, the French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) writes about David Hume’s empiricism with creative and unexpected modifications.[2] In this post it will be argued that there is not simply one standard direction in which to read Hume, and that Deleuze’s approach offers a perspective that not only respects Hume’s position, as it originates with the copy principle, but it also radicalizes Hume’s empiricism to become Deleuze’s unique (un-Kantian) concept of transcendental empiricism. But, before we step into Deleuze’s innovations, Hume’s copy principle will be outlined as it was put forth in the Enquiry.

§I. Hume’s Copy Principle: Hume doesn’t formally call his principle ‘the copy principle,’ it has this name due to the fact that, for Hume, our ideas are copied from impressions, and that even if there is an association of ideas brought together by other ideas, those ideas can always be traced and found to originate (copied) from primary sense data, otherwise known as impressions. Hume divides perception into two basic ‘classes’: ideas and impressions. (A) Ideas: “the less forcible and lively are commonly denominated thought or ideas” (¶3).[3] For ideas, Hume illustrates the difference between being told about love and having an idea of what it is, which is a lot different than actually feeing in love. In other words, an idea of love cannot be the same as feeing in the passionate throes of love. The former (idea) is a less robust version of the latter (impression). (B) And there are impressions: “by the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will” (¶3).[4] From this, it should be noticed that the impressions are not simply, sense data alone, but the impressions are also passionate, emotive and willful. As in the love example, Hume humorously characterizes the passion of love as being that of “disorders and agitations” (¶2).[5] Hume writes “All our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our more lively ones” (¶5).[6] Again, an idea of love is to be sharply distinguished from feeing in love. To repeat a small step further, Hume’s description of ideas presents them as compounded by various elements of sense data “We shall always find that every idea which we examine is copied from a simple impression” (¶6).[7] Following the copy principle, ideas are threaded together by the three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity and cause and effect.

Hume offers two arguments to prove the copy principle. Whenever we choose to look closely, and analyze our ideas, it will be found that they all stem from a common source: impressions. For example, even an idea of God can be deduced from impressions.[8] With an idea of God we have our own faculties of thought taken to their ultimate conclusions, as with goodness, wisdom, omnipresence, etc. Hume then tries to argue that “a blind man can form no notion of colors, a deaf man [can form no notion] of sound” (¶2).[9] Although Hume is trying to show that, for instance, a blind man can have no notion of color. On a certain level this argument is true, since a blind man cannot actually see color. Yet, it can be argued that a blind man has the ability to learn about colors, i.e. he can be easily taught that a rainbow’s order of colors consists of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, he does not need to necessarily see the colors to have a notion about this one singular fact concerning the rainbow’s order of colors. Therefore, there must be plenty of other related notions a blind can know about concerning colors without ever having the eyes to see them. Aside from this argument about a blind man knowing about color, there is Hume’s copy principle in a few sentences. Now we transition to Deleuze’s post-structuralist reading of Hume.

§II. Deleuze’s Radicalization: It has been said that “although Deleuze is usually faithful to Hume’s writings, his readings are idiosyncratic and go well beyond the original texts.”[10] So the question is: how does Deleuze modify and extend Hume’s copy principle to fulfill his own philosophical ends? Deleuze’s first book from 1953, Empiricism and Subjectivity, is devoted entirely to Hume’s 1738 book A Treatise of Human Nature. It must be noted that we are reading Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, from 1748, written ten years later than the ‘unsuccessful’ Treatise.[11] Deleuze’s posthumously published book, from 2001, Pure Immanence has a chapter devoted to Hume’s philosophy in general. Needless to say, Hume was an important influence on Deleuze’s philosophy. Preliminaries aside, Deleuze writes on the copy principle (though he too does not name it as such), roughly put, if ideas contain nothing more than what can be known by the senses, then “relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms.”[12] This statement is ‘transcendentally’ important, which will be looked with more detail later. To this externality of terms, Deleuze writes that empiricism (i.e. Hume’s empiricism) “always fought for the externality of relations.”[13] But there is always the problem of how to constitute the origins of knowledge. Deleuze feels that Hume accomplishes this by maintaining that, of course, relations are not internal as a rationalist would argue, but that relations are external and exogenous, i.e. happening outside of their terms. If we have nothing but the base impression from which our knowledge of the world is derived, then the way relations between things are connected is exterior to the atomic impressions. Deleuze recasts this (i.e. Hume’s copy principle) further to say “thus the difference isn’t between ideas and impressions but between two sorts of impressions or ideas: [1] impressions or ideas of terms and [2] impressions or ideas of relations.”[14]


For Deleuze it isn’t important that the ideas and impressions are distinct, instead he places emphasis on the difference between terms and relations. This means that Hume’s terms are “veritable atoms” and his relations are “veritable external passages.”[15] In other words, Deleuze is saying that the ideas and/or impressions are in fact atomic—they are both atoms of knowledge, and, that ideas and/or impressions are both external passages—knowledge is a relative (indeed, a relational) passage to the external world. To say it another way, for Deleuze’s Hume we have what Deleuze calls the “physics of the mind [atoms]” and the “logic of relations.”[16] It should be noted that what Deleuze relies upon, in this philosophical turn, has to do with impressions and ideas, and how Hume extends the copy principle to include the “principle of connection between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind” (¶2).[17] Again, Deleuze is suggesting that if all we have is an empirical base to know the world via ideas and impressions, the associations and relations we make of those atoms happen eternally to their terms. Deleuze calls this a “world of exteriority,” […] “a world in which the conjunction ‘and’ dethrones the interiority of the verb ‘is’.[18] This dethroning of ‘is’ by ‘and’ can be interpreted as a Deleuzian way to say that Hume’s empiricism places top priority on relations rather than on rationality.

But what in all this is so radical? To be sure, Deleuze’s concept of transcendental empiricism originates from his commitment and transformation of Hume’s empiricist philosophy. Given his idiosyncratic reading of Hume, it is important to understand that human nature essentially begins at the atomic level of the copy principle. And it is also important to remember that all relations (and associations etc.) are derived from these primary atomic connections which are external to their terms (“relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms” as quoted above). This means that the relations, associations, and connections we make from the various atomic elements consisting of ideas and impressions happen outside of the elements. Relations happen outside of the terms themselves. This process which Deleuze calls human nature is transcendent. But to be very careful, it is not transcendent under what Immanuel Kant would call transcendent, i.e. as happening due to a table of universal a priori categories of the mind. Rather, the transcendence Deleuze speaks of is simply the way the human nature inherently, habitually, and imaginatively puts the terms of empirical experience together. Human nature is transcendentally relational. As the human mind is for Hume, there is no Kantian centripetal, universal, or transcendental core to the mind, there are just the relations we make between things. This is what is meant by human nature for Deleuze—the mind has no necessary center. Deleuze’s transcendentalism focuses instead on the multiplicity of experiences that can be derived from the relations we make with things. Worded another way, his transcendentalism is not paradigmatic like Kant’s. It is entirely contingent on the relations made because of experience. Transcendence of this kind happens because of our empirical, atomic, and indeed Humean way of knowing the world. Hume’s empiricism enables and informs Deleuze’s transcendence, not the other way around.

It is fascinating how an empirical philosophy that is fundamentally based on the copy principle as elucidated by David Hume can suddenly appear be post-structuralist or even postmodernist. The radical shift comes with Deleuze’s exogenous transcendence implied by Hume’s relations, more commonly thought of as associations. In the opening paragraph on Hume in Pure Immanence, Deleuze states that Hume’s “empiricism is a sort of science fiction universe avant la lettre.”[19] Paraphrasing this must mean: if Hume’s empiricism lacks a Kantian and rationalist center, the brilliant possibilities of a science fiction universe are transcendentally and imaginatively within reach—all we have to do is creatively bring about the multitude of relationships from the very base of our ideas copied from our impressions.

——Aurelio Madrid

[1] David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” in Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd Edition, edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009), 533-599.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, “Hume,” in Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, translated by Anne Boyman (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2002) 35-52. Deleuze’s first book Empiricism and Subjectivity is also about Hume, specifically Hume’s Treatise. It is not clear if I’ll stick to using his last book Pure Immanence, or not.

[3] Hume, Enquiry, 539. Also, the paragraph citations from Modern Philosophy will be indicated as: ¶1, ¶2 ,,, etc.

[4] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[5] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[6] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[7] Hume, Enquiry, 539-540.

[8] Recall that Hume also calls impressions: feelings or sentiments.

[9] Hume, Enquiry, 540.

[10] Cliff Stagoll, “David Hume,” in The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr, (Edinbugh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 124-126 .

[11] Hume writes in his “Author’s Advertisement” for the Enquiry: “But not finding it [the Treatise] successful, he [Hume] was sensible of his error in going to the press too early and he cast the whole anew in the following pieces,… [i.e. the Enquiry is the Treatise ‘cast anew’].” Hume, Enquiry, 533.

[12] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 37.

[13] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 37.

[14] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[15] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[16] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[17] Hume, Enquiry, 541.

[18] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[19] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 35.


Bell, Jeffery A. Deleuze’s Hume: Philosophy, Culture and the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Buchanan, Ian. Deleuzism: A Metacommentary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Hume.” In Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. Translated by Anne Boyman, 35-52. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2002.

——, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Translated by Constantin V. Boundas. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” In Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd Edition. Edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, 533-599. Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009.

Marks, John. Gilles Deleuze: Vitalism and Multiplicity. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1998.

Parr, Adrian. Editor of The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

…on wadsworth’s ambivalent miracles

July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

ambivalent miracles II

Yet he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his.” Ralph Waldo Emerson—Self Reliance

“To rescue difference from its maledictory states seems, therefore, to be the project of the philosophy of difference.” Gilles Deleuze—Difference and Repetition

This post isn’t a book review, I’m simply writing down thoughts after reading Nancy Wadsworth’s book Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing. Already knowing Dr. Wadsworth affected my reading of her work, which shouldn’t be overlooked since our acquaintance brings about an understanding of the book that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t already know her. Before I get into a couple of issues the book raises, I’ll quickly glimpse at how personally knowing her affected how the book was read. This is a work that consists of scholarly research, interviews, church going (she’s a non-believer), conversations and typing, which all took her a span of time to get into final publication. One doesn’t usually pay too close attention to such details if we do not personally know the author. When I met Nancy we had a quick connection to the issue of religion, mainly the mutual acknowledgment that the conventional animosity toward religious practice—primarily Christianity—is just too limited and narrow. I shortly learned that she had been working on this book for some time before we met. It is because I have this personal connection that enabled me to have a better appreciation for the labor, empathy and patience that’s needed to write a book of this kind. That’s not to say I now know what it takes for anyone to write a book, but I do have a slightly better picture of what it takes for someone, like Dr. Wadsworth, to publish a book. I can’t help but think of these considerations, while at the same time, disallowing myself to see these personal things as unimportant, or as not meaningful. To clarify, the hard work itself, the endurance it takes to see a project through, to put something into print, is remarkable to take notice of, not only in and of itself, but for what it’s worth, as way to become. Indeed it’s a creative endeavor to think and layout a multitude of concepts in the pages of a book. That the book was an ongoing project over a period of years shows a grace with the subject matter that only she can attest to in the fullest, and that we as her readers participate with in place of her actual experiences. Though we must be ever careful to note that the actual experiences of her book are not the only reason to value the effort, what is also important to notice are the words, ideas, and connections being made. The very acts of scholarship have their own agency apart from the actions, ideas, problems and concepts depicted. These kinds of relations need to, and can be, observed in any work of art.

Wadsworth’s general thesis is surprising and eye-opening. She argues that American multi-ethnic evangelicals over the years have been slow to engage politically with the racial reconciliation they’re already doing. Although important racial work is getting done, it’s usually within the safe confines of the religion itself. Creating new racial bonds is often tinged with a deep underlying fear that politics will somehow corrupt the process. Miraculously, where a religious (Christian) mandate might require blacks, whites and other ethnicities, to forge better relationships within their multiple congregations, political gestures of ‘social justice’ are often treated with ambivalence. Social justice is mistakenly thought of as having the potential to veer out of control into progressive identity politics. Essentially, there is the misconception that if one gets too involved with politics, the church might lose sight of God. The eye-opening (miracle) part of Wadsworth’s study has to do with the reconciliation between races that is getting done, apart from the noted political ambivalence. The topic of race in the evangelical church is no longer put to the side. There are plenty of well meaning people, black, white, latinos, etc., making careful, and actionable steps to ameliorate past wrongs. Unless you’re experiencing it yourself in depth, as Wadsworth did, these steps typically go unnoticed in today’s binary, oversimplified media coverage. A misconception that evangelicals are backward, narrow minded people is a view Wadsworth stays studiously away from. Sure, there was a blatant history of racism within the evangelical practice, yet to categorize all evangelicals into fixed categories ignores the efforts that people are doing and have done to actualize racial healing today. Wadsworth deserves high praise for the compassion she demonstrates for this misunderstood cohort of the American population. She’s not an apologist for evangelicals. She tells their story as much as she sees room for improvement—namely for evangelicals to become more politically active.

I should confess now that while I read Wadsworth’s book, I was also studying Gilles Deleuze. If there is anything we should know about Deleuze is that he advocated for a philosophy of difference. After reading Deleuze we are compelled to ask: how can we displace our conventional thinking which over-prizes sameness, exemplified by identity and representation, with a philosophy that places difference as more primary than sameness, uniformity, and homogeneity? Just this line of thinking (okay, line of flight) can be contrasted/compared to C. Peter Wagner’s (and Donald McGavran’s) “Homogeneous unit principle.” HUP figures prominently in the history of the American evangelical church as detailed by Wadsworth, Wadsworth sees HUP’s vantage as possibly being the seed of ambivalence evangelicals have toward politics today. The best way to illustrate HUP would be to say that ‘separate is better.’ In other words, even though Wagner advocated HUP as not being a racist ideology, he felt that it would be easier if monoracial people congregated in churches with others who were of the same racial groups. Wagner also promulgated the above mentioned idea that politics should never come before the evangelical mission. The idea must’ve been that evangelicals need not get side-tracked with the political work it takes to fight for minority issues, and should instead focus on their missionary goals of globally spreading the word of God.

Wagner’s HUP sounds like thinly veiled racism, and it probably is. For this reason we are inclined to think that we should not embrace difference in a racial context (‘we are all the same despite skin color’ is a typical refrain) . But when we remove the overt racial problems HUP presents, we suddenly see that group uniformity is valued. It doesn’t take long to think of examples: the military, manufacturing, commercial culture, all, in some degree, value sameness over uniqueness, while at the same time these examples value the hero; the one-of-a-kind product; and the next big thing, respectively. We make the same paradoxical and contradictory shifts when we think of ourselves ‘personally’ in terms of uniqueness, ‘we are all the same underneath these differences in skin color’ while at the same time ‘we should stand apart from the crowd, if we are to truly be ourselves.’ We honestly don’t know what it would mean to establish the radical Deleuzian claim that everything (everyone) is different in the most profound sense of the word. Difference is only thought of with respect to the same. In a racial context a homogeneous kind of thinking is frightfully primary and omnipresent. Yet the news is not completely bad, since in significant ways, Deleuze’s multiplicity is coming to be more acceptable—these days it’s just better to embrace racial difference. Wadsworth’s book shows us the beautiful multiracial work that evangelicals are doing today. She makes no mention of Deleuze, still, the ideas of racial multiplicity are implicitly Deleuzian in their urgent actualization. None of these same/different problems are resolved. I’m happy to become a minority.

Another aspect of Ambivalent Miracles that is worth further consideration looks to meaning making practices. Inspired by Lisa Wedeen’s research on ethnographic meaning-making practices, Wadsworth systematically examines how evangelicals make the practice of racial reconciliation into cultural and religious reality. Taking such elements as community, prayer, ritual, “apology-forgiveness rituals,” testimony, etc. Wadsworth demonstrates how meaning happens within the context of the church. We usually do not understand, nor comprehend, how meaning happens. We just think meaning is already there, pre-given. It is only when it is drawn out in its elaborate specificity, that it becomes clear that meaning is not static. Meaning itself is creative, and we need to see this in order to make conscious the racial concepts that are beyond assumed ubiquity. Epistemology is more valuable if we are open to how it happens, and if we admit the evident pitfalls it discloses. We need to do more work, and we cannot discount the work we’ve already done. Thank you Nancy Wadsworth, I pray that your book will reach anyone who is becoming a minority, and to those who continue to deterritorialize the landscape of race in the church, the US, and beyond.

—Aurelio Madrid

speaking & thinking of the divine

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment


Yves Klein: Leap into the Void, 1960

For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the apparition of what is not apparent, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the bodiless, the essence of the superessential, the form of the formless, the measure of the measureless, the number of the unnumbered, the weight of the weightless, the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible.

––John Scottus Eriugena, Periphyseon (P, III 633A, 678C) [1].

The divine is unknowable in the purest sense of the word. To title this essay “Speaking and Thinking of the Divine” needs additional clarification, since the aim will be to write and think about the apophatic via two ancient Neo-Platonic philosophers who have contributed to writing about negative theology, Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (hereafter Ps.-Dionysius[2]). This means that speaking and thinking of the divine becomes not speaking, and not thinking of the divine. Their cosmology was hierarchical, so the higher up we transcend reality to an understanding of the mysterious divine, the less we know. Their complementary doctrines offer insight into the so-called divine mysteries, and into the 20th century philosophy of deconstruction. Jacques Derrida wrote about negative theology and Ps.-Dionysius. How the apophatic relates to the deconstructive term différance will be briefly considered. Then there is the German theologian Rudolph Otto’s delineation of the ineffable aspects of religious experience that must owe something to Plotinus and Ps.-Dionysius. Otto’s contributions to the holy cannot be overlooked. Otto provides for a 20th century perspective in this essay on that which cannot be spoken—the ineffable. Before introducing Plotinus and the others, Simon Oliver’s observations will set the tone for negative theology with his reference to the wise humility of Socrates knowing nothing in Plato’s Apology.

The University of Nottingham produces a series of videos featuring various professors speaking about their academic specialties and why prospective students should study with them. One recent video features the theologian Simon Oliver, where he gives a nice synopsis of what negative theology is all about.[3] Oliver ties negative theology back to Plato’s Apology where Socrates is on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens. A colleague of Socrates is said to have consulted the Oracle of Delphi inquiring if Socrates is in fact the wisest person, and the oracle says ‘yes’ Socrates is the wisest. Socrates is dubious of this oracular reply since he claims he doesn’t know anything. Wondering about wisdom, Socrates is said to have questioned upstanding members of the polis as to whether they thought they were wise, and they said yes, we are wise because of all the things we know. Socrates concludes that he is the wisest person, and where other people (like the ones he questioned) claimed to know a lot, they were actually not very wise. Socrates conversely admits that he does not know anything. He realizes his own ignorance where they cannot. Therefore, Socrates is wise because of his ignorance. Here, Oliver points out that we see the beginnings of a way of knowing things as defined by not knowing things.

It is no mistake that those who take up the tradition of Platonic philosophy, the Neo-Platonists: Plotinus and Ps.-Dionysius (and others) should have an apophatic way of addressing The One,[4] with Plotinus (who we will look at now) and addressing the Christian God with Ps.-Dionysius (who we will look at later). The 3rd century philosopher Plotinus’ collection of treatises, the Enneads, stands as an immediate example of negative theology with respect to The One. Andrew Louth in his The Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition writes praise for Plotinus, he is ‘the supreme exponent of […] ‘mystical philosophy’” and “he represents man’s inherent desire to return to heaven at its purest and most ineffable.”[5] Little is known about Plotinus’s life (he is said to have been exceedingly humble).[6] The writings we do have, were collected by Porphyry, a former student, who arranged and named the Enneads, “arranged according to themes in six groups of nine treatises—hence Enneads, meaning nine.”[7] It is tough to decide where in the Enneads to start with Plotinus’s account of The One, since he talks about The One all the time. A convenient place might be in the treatise titled “The Three Primal Hypostases” (V, 1 [10]). It is in this account where we find his general schema for reality. The three primal hypostases[8] consist of a triadic hierarchy beginning with The One, which is where everything comes from. Secondly, there is The Intelligence which contemplates The One, as much as it also is the comprehensive totality of all form and ideas. And there is The Soul, begotten from The Intelligence. The Soul where being is said to reside, and it is the part of the hypostases that touches our souls, our individual souls[9] which are descended from The Soul—the universal soul.

Again, The One is on top of the hierarchical hypostases. Even though The One is the source of everything, it still is problematic to think of it as multiple. When Plotinus addresses and questions The One as possibly multiple, he evades the question “let us do so not with words but with a lifting of our souls to it and thus pray alone to the Alone” (V, 1 [10], 6).[10] The Alone in this case is The One, and it is implicitly beyond the multiple, beyond a numerical understanding. The One is beyond multiplicity and it is often referred to as a simplex.[11] P.V. Pistorius in his Plotinus and Neo-Platonism helps the matter to suggest that the “ultimate reality [The One] is a One-in-Many, containing the potentiality of the universe.”[12] Although The One is simply one, in its singularity, it contains the possibility of the multiple. The One is unity, not multiplicity. The One is not a number.

But still, the One is beyond being, if it was being it would be limited by whatever form being would take. Herein is the apophatic departure from the way the divine is conceived of these days, whereby we imagine a deity residing somewhere in the heavens that looks like a white-haired bearded fellow in robes. A being like this (or of any other kind of being) is just too limited for The One. Being is too determinate. The hypostases—that triadic infra-phenomena of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonic reality has The One above it all.

In his treatise “The Good or The One” Plotinus plainly asks “what then is The One?” (VI, 9 [9], 3).[13] Plotinus tells us that The One is not being, and that it is beyond form too. So if it is beyond being, and it is beyond form, then it is formless and without being, this is where the encounter with The One becomes increasingly negative. It is too difficult to wrap the mind around something that is a formless being. Plotinus anticipates this problem, he says the soul (our soul) when it gets closer to The One “fears it will encounter nothingness” (VI, 9 [9], 3).[14] Essentially, our soul is more comfortable with the things of sense, the tangible, and the known. Let it not be forgotten that Plotinus’s cosmology is hierarchical, this means that our souls are several layers removed from The One, i.e. on the top is The One, then there is The Intelligence, then there is The Soul, and then there is our soul (The One →The Intelligence → The Soul →the soul of man → the soul of animals → the soul of plants, etc.). When man tries to think of The One, he has no choice but to observe The One through the lens of The Soul, and then through the lens of The Intelligence, while at the same time recognizing that The One is not any of those things in the hypostases.

Another problem with contemplating The One, according to Plotinus, has to do with the limitations of our discursive reasoning. Why is discursive reasoning a problem? Pistorius writes “there is nothing that we can know immediately by the aid of discursive reasoning. Even the most simple statement presupposes analysis.”[15] There needs to be a limited (and multiple) range of conditions (and logical premises) in place for such reasoning. These things need to be in place in order for discursive analysis to get at a reasonable explanation of what a particular thing actually is—but The One is not any of those things. All those rationally discursive things derive indirectly from The Intelligence, via The Soul, and lastly, via our individual souls.

Then there is the ever-mysterious Ps.-Dionysius writing sometime during the 5th and 6th centuries. He is known to us as Pseudo because he wrote as pseudonymously as Dionysius the Areopagite, the 1st century Christian convert of Paul the Apostle. The key to knowing that the Syrian Ps.-Dionysius was actually not Dionysius the Areopagite, was that his Christian writings were written in a distinctive mystical Neo-Platonic idiom—probably after his readings of Plotinus, Proclus, and other Neo-Platonic philosophers. There is no small irony to recognize that here we have one of the most apophatic of thinkers, and he is known only by a pseudonym of who he was not. He wrote a handful of works, but only two will be looked at here: the Mystical Theology and the Letters.

The name Ps.-Dionysius is synonymous with via negativa, apophatic theology, or most plainly said: negative theology. With Ps.-Dionysius there is the idea of hierarchical transcendence whereby an assent to the upper realms of the divine becomes increasingly less knowable, and therefore in the descending hierarchy things become easier to understand. In Ps.-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology, he recounts the biblical story of Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to commune with God, Moses becomes increasingly separated from the multitudes, and when he finds himself in the highest place on the mountain, he “enters into the gloom of the Agnosia; a gloom veritably mystic” (Caput I, §3).[16] This is to say, when in the proximity of God, though not in the actual presence of seeing God, Moses is put into the realm of unknowing—the Agnosia. Nothing about God is discernable, he can’t be seen, he is beyond everything, he is not something or something else, he is known by Moses without knowledge, God is “altogether Unknown, and by knowing nothing, knowing above mind.”[17] For Ps.-Dionysius, God is always greater than our conception of him. To try getting to know God, one has to un-know God, which is to say there is no such thing as knowing God, since he is un-knowable.

Remarkably, in the 1st letter of Ps.-Dionysius, is found another connection between a way to know God, and a way to not know God. It is addressed to Gaius “a monk.” Two sentences stick out:

Taking these things [God’s light that causes ignorance to vanish] in their higher sense rather then as a privation, you will maintain more truly than truth that ignorance according to God eludes those who have real light and knowledge of beings, that His transcendent darkness is hidden by all light and eclipses all knowledge. […then in the closing lines of the letter] Complete ignorance in a higher sense is knowledge of what is above all known things. (1065A-1065B)[18]

In these two sentences there are some curious turns of phrase. In the first line quoted here, Ps.-Dionysius wants to emphasize that any talk of the taking away, the vanishing of ignorance should not be a privation, which is another way of saying that these things should not be taken as lacking. Still, there is the seemingly contradictory idea that knowledge of God dispels ignorance, and this cannot be thought of as a privation. Then what does he mean? He means to focus on that which cannot be focused on: God. Knowledge of God is a kind of knowledge, but it is the kind of knowledge that is openly aware of its limitations. Our knowledge of God, in this apophatic sense, is knowing that there are things that you will never know, there are things greater than you, and it is an acknowledgement of ignorance as a way of knowing (what you do not know). This is highly reminiscent of the professed ignorance of Socrates who claimed to know nothing.

In the Mystic Theology there is frequent mention of the term “superessential.” For instance Ps.-Dionysius writes that God is “the superessential ray of Divine darkness” (Caput I, §1),[19] or “for this is veritably to see and to know and to celebrate super-essentially the Superessential” (Caput II, §2).[20] Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, wrote about this word in his lecture/essay on apophatics “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” from 1987. Early on in the lecture he works with some of the issues surrounding negative theology and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to deconstruction. There is an odd word that Derrida coined that is deconstructive in its meaning: différance.[21] Basically, the word combines the French words for difference and defer—its meaning is always escaping and becoming different at the same time. In “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” Derrida weighs the similarities of negative theology with his term différance. He explains that Ps.-Dionysius used the word superessential in relation to negative theology. Derrida wonders how this theological term applies to différance.

One can always say: hyperessentiality is precisely that, a supreme Being who remains incommensurate to the being of all that is, which is nothing, neither present nor absent, and so on. If the movement of this re-appropriation appears in fact irrepressible, its ultimate failure is no less necessary. But I concede that this question remains at the heart of a thinking of différance or of the writing of writing.[22]

What Derrida is basically saying is that the theological implications carried over by Ps.-Dionysius’s negative use of the term hyperessentiality (being beyond being) must have a connection to différance. The elusive word différance then implicates a being that is beyond being, and by extension a knowing that is beyond knowing. Thereby we find a semi-secular way of thinking about negative theology: a way of differing that becomes different—always an aporia, a mystery. Perhaps Derrida is saying that negative theology, because it is superessential, cannot be wholly secularized. Theological being beyond being becomes only slightly secularized by the deconstructive gesture of différance.

In his 1917 book The Idea of the Holy the German theologian Rudolf Otto, there is a chapter titled “The Numinous.”[23] Otto never associates his concept of the numinous to the apophatic per se, but surely the ineffable relates to negative theology. Otto first wants to separate and refine an idea of the word holy apart from the common understanding of the word as related to issues of ethical goodness. He writes that “we generally take ‘holy’ as meaning ‘completely good’; it is the absolute moral attribute, denoting consummation of moral goodness.”[24] However, he does not want to eliminate altogether an ethical understanding of the word holy. Otto suggests that the numinous is even beyond the rational, so not only should the word holy be considered above an ethical understanding, it also is beyond the rational. There could be a slim comparison with the notion the numinal and fideism, i.e. that faith and reason are not necessarily compatible, but admittedly, Otto’s numinal is not a question about faith. The extra quality of the holy is unsayable. It cannot be expressed in words. Otto defines the ineffable as ἄρρητον (arreton). But the word numinous is derived from the Latin numen, meaning divine. The numinous is to be conceived of as relating to a way of apprehending the divine.[25] The numinous is that particular religious feeling that cannot be put into words. Otto writes “this mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other.”[26]

Otto then elaborates on particular elements of the numinous, an ineffable religious experience in connection to Friedrich Schleiermacher[27] (the late 18th to early 19th century German theologian) who spoke of an element of religious experience that is characterized by ‘a feeling of dependence.’ Otto does not accept Schleiermacher’s full meaning of this concept, since what is being describe cannot really be handled in its fullest realization by conceptual ways of knowing things. Otto opts for what he calls ‘creature feeling,’ a “submergence into nothingness before an overpowering might of some kind.”[28] This ‘creature feeling’ cannot be fully described in words, yet if there were a way to introduce it: it would be a feeling of awed insignificance before a power greater than you. That the divine is greater than you is like saying that the secular universe is so vast that we are infinitesimally tiny in comparison. Still, Otto points out that Schleiermacher’s account of the ‘feeling of dependence’ is merely self-referential, while Otto wants to propose that his ‘creature feeling’ involves the numinal element. This means that the numinal element of a religious feeling of insignificance must be felt in relation to the ineffable that lies outside of our own knowing and understanding, as opposed to just a subjective feeling that one is insignificant in the presence of the divine.

From Plato’s Socrates who claims he knows nothing, to Derrida’s semi-secular différance, and from Plotinus’s The One to Ps.-Dionysius’s mystical unknowing, from the divine to the ineffable, negative theology presents a simple, yet humble, lesson that requires few words to be spoken in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge: ‘I don’t know’ (as a way to know).

——Aurelio Madrid

[1] Eriugena’s quote is from Deidre Carabine’s, John Scottus Eriugena (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 49. Eriugena (ca. 815-877) was an Irish medieval Neo-Platonic scholar/theologian who not only wrote on religious matters, but also translated key authors from Greek to Latin, namely Ps.-Dionysius who influenced Erigena’s own style of negative theology.

[2] I have the scholar Ronald F. Hathaway to thank for this clever abbreviation. Hathaway utilizes this abbreviation throughout his amazing study of Ps.-Dionysius: Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius: A Study in Form and Meaning of the Pseudo-Dionysian Writings, (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1969).

[3] Simon Oliver, “Why Study Negative Theology with Simon Oliver,” YouTube video, 13:55, posted by “The University of Nottingham,” Jan. 29, 2013.

[4] For this essay, we will opt for capitalizing The One, The Intelligence, and The Soul as in Elmer O’Brien’s translation.

[5] Andrew Louth, “Plotinus,” in The Origins of the Christain Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981), 36.

[6] Louth writes “according to Porphyry, Plotinus was extremely unwilling to talk of himself, and would not celebrate his own birthday or allow an artist to take a likeness of him.” Louth, “Plotinus,” 36.

[7] Andrew Louth, “Plotinus,” 37.

[8] This word hypostases basically means: all that which underlies everything, all phenomena, etc., it is the underlying schema of reality for Plotinus.

[9] For Plotinus’s account of non-human souls, see the treatise: “The Post Primals,” (V, 2 [11]). This is where the souls of plants and animals are spoken of within his hierarchy.

[10] Plotinus, “The Three Primal Hypostases,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1964), 97.

[11] A quick glance at the Latin meaning of simplex, does not elucidate the matter beyond thinking of The One as not multiple, since it means: simple or single.

[12] P.V. Pistorius, Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study (Cambridge, Great Britain: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, Ltd., 1952), 26.

[13] Plotinus, “The Good or The One,” O’Brien, 76.

[14] Plotinus, “The Good or The One,” O’Brien, 76.

[15] P.V. Pistorius, Plotinus, 8.

[16] Dionysius the Areopagite “Mystic Theology,” Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897), translated by John Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 85.

[17] Ps.-Dionysius, “Mystic Theology,” 85.

[18] Ronald F. Hathaway, “The Letters of Ps-Dionysius,” in Hierarchy, 131.

[19] Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystic Theology,” 84.

[20] Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystic Theology,” 86.

[21]In collection of interviews from the 1970s titled Positions Derrida is interviewed by the Belgian playwright Henri Ronse, where Ronse asks Derrida about the word différance. Derrida replies “[…] First, différance refers to the (active and passive) movement that consists in deferring by means of delay, delegation, reprieve, referral, detour, postponement, reserving. […] Second, the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all oppositional concepts that mark our language […].” Jacques Derrida, “Implications: Interview with Henri Ronse,” in Positions, translated by Alan Bass. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-14.

[22] Derrida, Jacques, with Coward, Harold, Toby Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 79.

[23] Rudolph Otto, “The Numinous,” in The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5-7.

[24] Rudolf Otto, “The Numinous,” 5.

[25] Grace M. Jantzen in her 1994 article: “Feminists, Philosophers and Mystics,” works hard to show the limits of this view of Otto’s (although she does not address Otto directly), she writes “Contemporary philosophers and theologians, feminists among them, regularly speak of mysticism as though the term is clearly understood: it stands for a subjective psychological state, perhaps a state of ‘shared consciousness,’ in which an individual undergoes a private, intense, and ineffable experience, usually of a religious nature. A study of the historical records, however, shows that such and understanding of mysticism is a relatively recent one which bears little resemblance to those who are taken paradigmatically as mystics of the Christian tradition.” Grace M. Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” in Hypatia 9, no. 4, Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Autumn, 1994): 187. Her view is worth serious consideration. She follows from Michel Foucault’s (post-structuralist) critique of power relations. And she shows that academic/patriarchal power delimits the mystical to the narrow category of the ineffable. Perhaps such (male-dominated) ideas of the mystic stem from ancient times, where the mystical was largely kept a secret—it was hidden. But it is within this tendency to confine the mystical to a narrow definition that Jantzen has a problem with because it cuts female mystical experience out of the picture. She argues that female mystics, like Julian of Norwich, wrote about mystical experiences in ways that suggest that the mystical is much more than just ineffable, rather, they are experiences that can be communicated and expressed. It might be said that (male) philosophical authority regulates a narrow definition in the interest of maintaining authoritative power over female expressions of the mystical. Let us recall that Julian of Norwich spoke of ‘the motherhood’ of God and the association of God as a mother verges on the transgressive, and examples like this are not merely unspeakable, they just are un-masculine. If anything, Jantzen’s feminist perspective is expansive to include the mystical experiences of women that serve to widen the field away from seeing it as only ineffable.

[26] Otto, “The Numinous,” 6.

[27] Jantzen also cites Schleiermacher, “in his Speeches of Religion, [he] is happy to proclaim the greater religious consciousness of women, whom he also saw as ideally maintaining domestic bliss.” Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” 190.

[28] Otto, “The Numinous,” 7.


Carabine, Deirdre. John Scotus Eriugena. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Coward, Harold, Toby Foshay, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

—. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dionysius the Areopagite. “Mystic Theology,” Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897). Translated by John Parker. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

Hathaway, Ronald F. Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letter of Psuedo-Dionysius: A Study in the Form and Meaning of the Psuedo-Dionysian Writings. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969.

Jantzen, Grace M. “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics.” Hypatia 9, no. 4, Feminist Philosophy of Religion, (Autumn, 1994): 186-206.

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christain Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

O’Brien, Elmer. The Essential Plotinus: Representative Treatises from the Enneads. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1964.

Oliver, Simon. “Why Study Negative Theology with Simon Oliver,” YouTube video, 13:55, posted by “The University of Nottingham,” Jan. 29, 2013.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John W. Harvey. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Pistorius, P.V. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge, Great Britain: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, Ltd., 1952.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers