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On Not Being Silent in the Darkness: Adorno's Singular Apophaticism*

  • James Gordon Finlayson (a1)


Adorno's late work has often been compared to negative theology, yet there is little serious discussion of this comparison in the secondary literature.1 In most of the existing discussions virtually nothing is said about negative theology, as if it is obvious what it is and what the parallels with Adorno's ideas are. The truth is that negative theology is not self-evident, and neither are the parallels with Adorno at all obvious. To find out what they are would require a detailed account of both. In this article I shall make a start in this direction.



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1 Jürgen Habermas, “Theodor Adorno–The Primal History of Subjectivity–Self-Affirmation Gone Wild,” Philosophical-Political Profiles (trans. Frederick Lawrence; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983) 107; idem, Post-Metaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays (trans. William Mark Hohengarten; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995) 15; Albrecht Wellmer, The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetic, Ethics, and Postmodernism (trans. David Midgley; Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991) 7; Herbert Schaedelbach, “Dialektik als Vernunftkritik. Zur Konstruktion des Rationalen bei Adorno” in Adorno-Konferenz (ed. Jürgen Habermas and Ludwig von Friedeburg; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983) 70; Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (Hassocks, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1977) 195; Zoltán Tar, The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1977) 181–89.

2 A Greek English Lexicon (ed. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 225–26 (hereafter LSJ III).

3 Tar, The Frankfurt School, 281–89; Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, 107; Habermas, Post-Metaphysical Thinking, 15; Wellmer, Persistence of Modernity, 7; Schnädelbach “Dialektik als Vernunftkritik,” 70.

4 See for example Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, 107; Habermas, Post-Metaphysical Thinking, 15.

5 Habermas, Post-Metaphysical Thinking, 183.

6 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (trans. Thomas McCarthy; 2 vols.; Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1984-87) 2:385; trans. of Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (2 vols.; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981) 2:516. Wellmer make the same objection when he claims that Adorno “can only conceive mimesis as the Other of rationality.” Persistence of Modernity, 13.

7 Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1987) 185. In Post-Metaphysical Thinking, Habermas repeats the earlier objection, accusing Adorno's late work of taking a “turn to the irrational.” Habermas, Post-Metaphysical Thinking, 37 and 28–29. Arnold Künzli makes a similar objection. Arnold Künzli, “Irrationalism of the Left,” in Foundations of the Frankfurt School of School Research (ed. Judith Marcus and Zoltán Tar; New Brunswick, N.J.: Transactions Books, 1984).

8 In his earlier criticism of Adorno, Habermas uses the word gesticulation/gesture [Gebärde] to denote the non-discursive relation to whatever it is that is outwith the bounds of discursive thought that Adorno is proposing instead. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2:385; trans. of Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2:516.

9 The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 185–86.

10 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2:385; trans. of Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2:516; idem, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity,186.

11 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2:387; trans. of Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2:518.

12 “Like exiles we wander about lost in the discursive zone: and yet it is only the insistent force of a groundless reflection turned against itself.” Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 186.

13 Habermas glosses Adorno's position thus: “The wholly other may only be indicated by indeterminate negation, not known.” Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, 107.

14 Adorno, Negative Dialektik (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 6 of Theodor W. Adorno. Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 19–20 (hereafter, GS 6).

15 For instance in “Traditional and Critical Theory” Horkheimer refers to three such interests: the “interest in reasonable conditions,” the “interest in social transformation,” and the “interest in the elimination (Aufhebung) of social injustice.” Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in ibid, Critical Theory: Selected Essays (trans. Matthew J. O'Connell et al.; NewYork: Herder and Herder, 1972) 199, 241, 243; trans. of Kritische Theorie. Eine Dokumentation (ed. Alfred Schmidt; 2 vols.; Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1968) 2:147, 189, 190.

16 Habermas still uses the term interest in its emphatic sense in Knowledge and Human Interests. Habermas, Erkenntnis und Interesse (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973 [1968]). Frankfurt School critical theory conceives the interest of theory as the material expression of the practical, i.e., the remedial aim of critical theory: “the rational society” or “social transformation” for Horkheimer, “utopia” or reconciliation, for Adorno, emancipation from social oppression, and Mündigkeit for Adorno and the young Habermas.

17 Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics, 21.

18 Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (trans. E. F. N. Jephcott; Radical Thinkers 1; London, U.K.: Verso, 2005) 39 (hereafter as MM); trans. of Minima Moralia (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 4 of Theodor W. Adorno. Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 30 (hereafter as GS 4).

19 Take for instance Bonaventure's distinction between vestiges (footprints) through which we can contemplate God (per vestigia), and vestiges in which we can contemplate, that is, directly experience God (in vestigiis). An example of the latter in Adorno would be the existence of lilacs and nightingales which, he says, “by their very existence—where the universal net has permitted them to survive—make us believe that life is still alive.” See Adorno, “Essay as Form,” in ibid, Notes to Literature (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen; 2 vols.; European Perspectives; New York: Columbia University Press, 1991–1992) 1:11 (hereafter as NL 1); trans. of Noten zur Literatur (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 11 of Theodor W. Adorno. Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 19 (hereafter as GS 11). On Bonaventure's distinction see Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 109. An example of the former would be certain works of art, particularly works of music: “The enigma of artworks is their fracturedness. If transcendence were present in them, they would be mysteries, not enigmas.” Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (trans. H. Pickford; New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 126 (hereafter as AT); trans. of Ästhetische Theorie (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 7 of Theodor W. Adorno. Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 191 (hereafter as GS 7). An austere negativist holds that there are no vestiges of utopia, or right living in the present social world, nightingales are no more exemplars of right living than works of art are symbols of transcendence through which the outlines of a good life can be discerned. Adorno makes both claims, in different contexts. But as I argue below, he is not particularly concerned to advance an internally coherent and stable philosophical theory.

20 Hence, also, the title of his third study on Hegel: Adorno, “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel,” in ibid, Hegel: Three Studies (trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen; Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993) 89–149 (hereafter as HTS); trans. of Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie. Drei Studien zu Hegel (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 5 of Theodor W. Adorno. Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 326–76 (hereafter as GS 5). Skoteinos means “the obscure one” and was an epithet for Heraklitus.

21 On this, see Schnädelbach, “Dialektik als Vernunftkritik” 70.

22 For example, Peter Osborne, J. M. Bernstein, and Simon Jarvis all reject Albrecht Wellmer's claim that Adorno's philosophy of art is a kind of negative theology. Peter Osborne disputes the reading of Adorno's work as a “negative theology” on the grounds that Adorno's aesthetic theory affirms the possibility of metaphysical experience. Peter Osborne, “Adorno and the Metaphysics of Modernism: The Problem of a ‘Postmodern’ Art,” in The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin (ed. Andrew Benjamin; New York: Routledge, 1989) 23. “The similarity between Adorno and negative theology stops at the point where what is termed the ‘absolute’ can be gathered only as a result of negations. For Adorno these negations are determinate and not abstract.” J. M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1992) 256. Simon Jarvis asserts contra Wellmer that “Adorno's thought cannot be adequately understood as a ‘negative theology.’ ”Adorno: A Critical Introduction (Key Contemporary Thinkers; Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1998) 112.

23 Gerrit Steunebrink is somewhat of an exception here. However, he states: “Negative Theology speaks of God in a negative way: God surpasses all finitude” (“Is Adorno's Philosophy a Negative Theology?” in Flight of the Gods: Philosophical Perspectives on Negative Theology [ed. Ilse Nina Bulhof and Laurens ten Kate; New York: Fordham University Press, 2000] 293). As we will see below, the first part of this sentence is not entirely true.

24 I make this specification because in the literature on Adorno the term “negative theology” is often used in a wider and less specific sense than that of a discourse about God by way of negation. For example, it is often used as a loose equivalent for Messianism.

25 Adorno, “Letter to Benjamin December 17, 1934,” in Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin: The Complete Correspondence (trans. Nicholas Walker; Cambridge: Polity, 1999). Adorno is being disingenuous since his Kierkegaard book was heavily influenced by Benjamin's Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels. Gershom Scholem goes so far as to remark that Adorno's Kierkegaard book “combines an eloquent plagiarism” of Benjamin's ideas “with an unusual degree of chutzpah.” Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin, Briefwechsel 1933–1940 (ed. Gershom Scholem; Frank-furt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 109.

26 Adorno, Quasi una Fantasia (trans. Rodney Livingstone; London: Verso, 2002) 225–49 (hereafter as QF); trans. of Musikalische Schriften I–III (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 16 of Theodor W. Adorno. Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 454–76 (hereafter as GS 16).

27 Adorno is aware that he has “exacerbated” the ban on images. Negative Dialectics (trans. E. B. Ashton; London: Routledge, 2000) 401–2 (hereafter as ND); GS 6:394. The prohibition against naming God refers to the ban on pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, yhwh, that arose among Jews after exile in reference to Exodus 20:7. Adorno appears to take this as an extension of the ban on images.

28 Adorno, Vorlesung über Negative Dialektik (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003) 46 (hereafter as VND). With the previously mentioned proviso that in this respect philosophy secularizes religion, not theology.

29 Rabinbach calls this “the Jewish messianic idea.” Anson Rabinbach, “Between Enlightenment and Apocalypse: Benjamin, Bloch and Modern German Messianism,” New German Critique 34 (1985) 123. Authors who use the term “negative theology” to refer to the Bilderverbot include Buck-Morss, Origin of Negative Dialectics, 195 n. 51; Rudolf Siebert, “Adorno's Theory of Religion,” Telos (1983) 113; Adorno, CM, 236; Adorno, GS 16:463; see Elizabeth A. Pritchard, “Bilderverbot Meets Body in Theodor W. Adorno's Inverse Theology,” HTR 95 (2002) 291–318.

30 Tar's account is particularly misleading since he extrapolates from Horkheimer's family background and upbringing to Adorno's work (Tar, Frankfurt School, 281–89). Adorno's Jewish origins were far more remote and dilute than that of most other members of the Frankfurt School, and were much less present to him than much current intellectual history would have one believe. His relation to Judaism is a complex one, since many of his closest friends, and his wife, were part of the Jewish community. That said, far too many people give the impression that Adorno was Jewish. Siebert for example calls Adorno “one of those unbelieving Jews” (Siebert, “Adorno's Theory of Religion,” 110). Terry Eagleton writes of “Jews like Adorno,” The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990]) 343) and calls him a “devout, agnostic Jew” (ibid., 10). Even Susan Buck-Morss argues in her seminal work—The Origin of Negative Dialectics—against the claim that Judaism and negative theology had any positive influence on Adorno on the following grounds: “Unlike Benjamin he joined no Jewish youth groups as a student; unlike Scholem, he was not attracted to Zionism; nor did he participate with Siegfried Kracauer, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber in Rabbi Nehemiah A. Nobel's intellectual circle in Frankfurt.” Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (Hassocks, U.K.: Harvester, 1977) 7. This remark seems to ignore the fact that by race Adorno was only ever half-Jewish, and that by upbringing he was a Catholic, and that by self-understanding he was a secular humanist or atheist. Evelyn Wilcock, “Negative Identity: Mixed German Jewish Descent as a Factor in the Reception of Theodor Adorno,” New German Critique 81 (2000) 169–87.

31 Buck-Morss claims that Tillich, under whose supervision Adorno wrote his Habilitation on Kierkegaard, “cannot be said to have influenced him” (Origin of Negative Dialectics, 268). In his Lectures on Negative Dialectics, shortly after Tillich's death, Adorno claims that he is not justified in speaking about the decisive aspect of his friend Paul Tillich's work, namely “das Theologische” (Adorno, VND, 10).

32 Philosphie hat, nach dem geschichtlichen Stande, ihr wahres Interesse dort wo Hegel, einig mit der Tradition, sein Desinteresse bekundete: beim Begriffslosen, Einzelnen und Besonderen (Adorno, GS 6:20).

33 Adorno, ND, 9/GS 6:21 [English translation amended.]

34 I hesitate to say that the idea of the non-identical is a central idea of Adorno's Negative Dialectics simply because Adorno repudiates the idea that philosophy has a central idea. “In a philosophical text” he writes “all propositions ought to be equally close to the centre.” Adorno, MM, 44, 71. GS 4:79, 44. That said, to the extent that Adorno fails to abide by his own principle, this interest and the demand it issues are closer to the center of Negative Dialectics than almost anything.

35 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness; London: Routledge, 1993) 72.

36 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine. (trans. D. W. Robertson Jr.; New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958) 10–11. See also Sermon 117, Augustine, Essential Sermons (trans. Edmund Hill, O.P.; New York: New City Press, 2007) 195–97.

37 Basilides already makes a similar point: “Now that which is called ‘ineffable’ is not absolutely ineffable, for we ourselves give it that name of ineffable; whereas that which is not even ineffable is not ‘ineffable,’ but infinitely above every name that can be named.” Hippolytus, “Refutation of All Heresies,” 7.20 = PG 16, 3302C. Basilides was a Gnostic who lived and taught in Alexandria in the second century. Thanks to David Smith for the reference.

38 Augustine does not pass over the contradiction in silence. Like all of the mystical writers and the apophatic theologians, his response to this paradox is prolix. Indeed it is quite possible that Augustine sees this argument as a reduction to absurdity of a position he himself does not espouse. “L'ignorance que le metaphysician professe au sujet de Dieu, qui est la clef de voûte de sa spéculation sure l'être, n'a rien de mystique: ce n'est qu'un humble reconnaissance des limites de l'entendement humain in via.” Vladimir Lossky, Théologie Négative et Connaissance de Dieu chez Maître Eckhart (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1961) 29. See also William Alston's general remark, cited by Cooper: “Given how fulsomely mystics do report their experiences ‘one can hardly take literally the claim that the experiences are ineffable.’ ”William Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991) 32, cited in David Cooper, The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility, and Mystery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002) 288.

39 This is David Cooper's argument (Measure of Things, 291).

40 For Adorno's rejection of Wittgenstein's injunction to silence see GS 6:395/ND, 403, where he praises Wittgenstein for rejecting the idea of truth in play in positivism, and yet also condemns his injunction to silence as “a falsely resurrected Metaphysics” that is indistinguishable from Heidegger's “wordless rapture of belief in Being.”

41 The former is a Greek idea of erôs, the latter a Christian notion of agape, although, according to Nygren, Proclus prepared the way for the later Christian conception of agape. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (London: SPCK, 1954) 569.

42 Dionysius, Divine Names. (ed. J.-P. Migne; vol. 3 of PG; Paris: Migne, 1857–1866) 592C 700B, 708D, 865C–D (hereafter as DN)

43 Dionysius, Mystical Theology (ed. J.-P. Migne; vol. 3 of PG; Paris: Migne, 1857–1866) 1000D (hereafter as MT). Exodus, chs.19, 20, and 33:20–30, particularly the last. “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me and live. And the Lord said. Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.” Dionysius, as an anonymous reader for this journal pointed out, uses the term “theology” to mean “discourse from God” which engenders a “discourse to God.” This is rather different from the way I have been using the term, to mean a discourse about God.

44 MT 3:1037C.

45 MT 1:3, 1000C.

46 MT 1:3, 1000D and 1000B.

47 MT 1:3, 100A.

48 Rolt translates this as “passive stillness.” Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology (trans. C. E. Rolt; London: Macmillan, 1957) 194.

49 Although, according to Turner, for Dionysius “silence is the goal, paradox and contradiction the means to it” (Turner, Darkness of God, 150).

50 This falsifies Steunebrink's in my view too simple claim that “[n]egative theology speaks of God in a negative way” (Steunebrink, “Adorno's Philosophy,” 293).

51 MT 1:3, 997A.

52 MT 3:1033B and 1040B; Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy (vol. 3 of PG; ed. J.-P. Migne; Paris: Migne, 1857–1866) 3:141A–B

53 DN 5:8, 824A–B

54DN 2:4, 641A. “And hence it is not out of place [atopon] when we mount from obscure images to the cause of all things, with supercosmic eyes behold all things [theorēsai panta] (even those things which are mutually contrary existing as a single unity).” DN 5:7, 821B.

55 DN I:7, 632B. “They praise it as ‘nameless’ even while they call it by every name.” DN 1:6, 596A.

56 MT 1:997B.

57 Turner, Darkness of God, 32. As he puts it “apophatic theology” in this sense ought really to mean “that speech about God which is the failure of speech.” Turner, Darkness of God, 20.

58 ND, 15, GS 6:27. See also GS 6:21/ND, 10 “Die Utopie der Erkenntnis wäre, das Begriffslose mit Begriffen aufzutun, ohne es ihnen gleichzumachen.”

59 The subtitle Philosophical Fragments is curiously omitted in the English translation by John Cummings.

60 QF, 226/GS 16:455.

61 MM, 49 See also the earlier remark in DE, 118 “But only exaggeration is true.”

62 Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (trans. John Cumming; London: Verso, 1997) 156 (hereafter as DE).

63 MM, 25.

64 ND, 320

65 DE, 24. See also MM, 71/GS 4:79: “The point of philosophy should not be to have absolutely correct, irrefutable cognitions—for these invariably boil down to tautologies—but cognitions that turn the question of correctness against themselves.” MM, 71/GS 4:79.

66 MM, 71/GS 4:79. This normative principle is itself a principle of composition of Schoenberg's middle period. Of Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet, and of the mature Berg, Adorno writes that, in spite of their development: “Every bar is equally close to the centre.” Adorno, “Form in the New Music” (trans. Rodney Livingstone) Musical Analysis 27:2–3 (2008) 201–16, at 213. While earlier he writes of the “inescapable claim of twelve tone music that in all its elements it is equidistant from its midpoint.” The Philosophy of New Music (trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor; Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 59/Adorno, Philosophie der Neuen Musik (ed. Rolf Tiedemann; vol. 12 of Theodor W. Adorno: Gesammelte Schriften; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 73 (hereafter as GS 12).

67 ND, 162/GS 6:166.

68 Adorno describes the constellation in another way also, as a kind of unreifying or liquefying gaze, which brings to light the occluded history of its coming to be, which history is stored up in the object (ND, 163/GS 6:167). It is not clear how these two notions of the constellation relate to each other.

69 NL 1:11/GS 11:18.

70 NL 1:16/GS 11:25.

71 NL 1:19/GS 11:27.

72 DN 7:2, 869 A (). There is an important underlying point of theology here. God is the cause of everything, and all being is in God. For Dionysius evil, does not exist and has no existence, and causes nothing to exist (DN 4:19–34). Hence to say that God lacked existence would be to say that God was evil.

73 Dionysius's “negative theology” is distinct from and offers no support for what John D. Caputo has recently christened a “generalized apophatics” (John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion [Indianapolis: Indiana Press, 1997] 28 and 55). Some deconstructive commentators, following Derrida, and Derrida's own writing on negative theology, are happy to describe any discourse about the other, about otherness, or about difference, as an apophatic discourse or a negative theology. They take the lead from Derrida who writes that “tout autre est tout autre”; that every other is wholly other. For Dionysius it is only God that is wholly other. To conflate God with other kinds of otherness or difference is to commit the kind of idolatry and confusion he is warning against. Thus there can be no generalized apophatics.

74 MT, 1040D–1048B.

75 MT 1:1000B; MT, 1048B; DN 8:3, 641A.

76 Turner maintains that Dionysius's negation of the negation “is not some intelligible synthesis of affirmation and negation; it is rather the collapse of our affirmation and denials into disorder, which we can only express, a fortiori, in bits of collapsed, disordered language, like the babble of Jeremiah” (Turner, The Darkness of God, 23). I think “collapse” and “babble” do not capture the extent to which Dionysius is rehearsing a deliberate dialectical strategy.

77 MT 2:1025A–B, DN 1:5, 593C. DN 7:3, 872B

78 MT 2:1025A. Jones has “to praise the Transcendent One” which sounds too explicitly Plotinian for the noun phrase “τὸν ὑπερούσιον.” Rolt has “Him that transcends all things,” which is better. Rolt, Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, 194–95

79 Derrida casts suspicion on this negativity in Dionysius's sense of hyperessentiality. “La promesse d'une telle presence accompagne … la traversée apophatique. Vision d'une lumière ténébreuse, sans doute … mais encore l'immédiateté d'une présence.” Jacques Derrida, Psyché. Inventions de l'autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987) 542–43. On the same point, John N. Jones argues that while Dionysius holds that God transcends what can be expressed by any individual denial, he also claims that through the denial of all beings some human minds achieve “transcendent knowing.” John Jones, “Sculpting God: The Logic of Dionysian Negative Theology” HTR (1996) 359–62. The metaphor Dionysius uses in the following sentence seems to add credence to this suspicion. “We would be like sculptors carving a statue. They remove every obstacle to the pure view of the hidden image, and by removal alone [] bring to light the hidden beauty.” This passage which alludes to Plotinus's metaphor of the statue (Plotinus, Enneads appears to support the view that some minds can achieve positive knowledge of God. C. E. Rolt holds that this simile shows “the via negativa is, in the truest sense, positive” (Rolt, Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, 195). However, the Plotinian metaphor is misleading in this context: i) negation in the sense the metaphor puts in play is ordinary privation (or removal), so by Deny's own lights it is not the sense of negation operative here; ii) the block of Marble is finite and not infinite like God; iii) for every piece of marble removed something remains; so iv) the remainder forms a determinate and positive image.

80 Habermas's objection to the emptiness of Adorno's late work is targeted at his procedure of determinate negation. See n. 10 above.

81 ND, 162: GS 6:164.

82 Adono, Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000) 144 (hereafter as MCP).

83 “Woher also soll die Bestimmtheit der Negation stammen, ohne daß die positive Setzung, nämlich die des Geistes, in dem alles aufgehe, von vornherein si geleitet?“ Adorno, VND, 48.

84 VND, 49.

85 VND, 51.

86 Adorno, Probleme der Moralphilosophie (ed. T. Schroder; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 260 (hereafter as PDM).

87 “Ich meine … daß es so etwas wie ein … positives Movens des Gedankens gibt: wenn man es nicht will, und ich sage mit Absicht >es<, weil man >es< nicht sagen kann, nicht ausdrücken kann, – ja, dann gibt es keine bestimmte Negation” (Adorno VND 46). Brian O'Connor has a nice way of putting this, when he speaks of a vertical relation to something, as distinct from the horizontal relations between concepts. This vertical relation is to a non-identity that is out of the range of what any concept can grasp (Brian O'Connor. Adorno's Negative Dialectics: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality. [Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004]).

88 Interestingly Adorno uses the originally platonic and neoplatonic image of the blinding light for this notion of the good. See the motto (from Goethe's Pandora) to “Essay as Form.” Bestimmt Erleuchtetes zu sehen, nicht das Licht. [Destined to see what is illuminated, not the light.] GS 11 9/NL 1:3.

89 Erkenntnis has kein Licht als das von der Erlösung her auf die Welt scheint. GS 4:287/MM, 247 [Emphasis mine].

90 GS 4:287/MM, 247.

91 Lossky, Théologie Négative, 22.

92 Reiner Schürmann in his book on Eckhart claims that that the word mystic—and hence I suppose the Greek words (mysteries) and (initiate)—stem from the Greek verb , to close or be shut of the mouth and eyes. I don't know whether this is right. However, if true, the etymology points us in the wrong direction in interpreting Eckhart's mysticism. For Eckhart, the darkness and inscrutability is first in God, and second, consequently, in our incomprehension. Schürmann, Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1978) xiv.

93 Meister Eckhart, Die Deutsche Werke (ed. and trans. Josef Quint; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1936–1963) Sermon 22 (hereafter as Q)/Meister Eckhart, German Sermons and Treatises (trans. O.'C. Walshe; 2 vols.; London: Watkins, 1970/1980) 2:67 (hereafter as W 1 and W 2). See also the following excerpt for which I have lost the reference: “The final end of God is the darkness or nescience of the hidden Godhead whose light illumines it, but this darkness comprehends it not. Therefore Moses said: “He who is has sent me.” He who is nameless, [namelôs] who is a denial of names [ain logenung aller namen] and never had a name, wherefore the prophet said: “Truly thou art a hidden God” (Isa 45:15).

94 Jean-Luc Marion distinguishes between “idole” the representations of God which render God visible to man, from “l'icône” the sign given by grace of the invisible God to man (Marion, Dieu sans l'être [Paris: Quadrige, 1991] 15–39).

95 Q, 16a/W 1:121. This recalls Aquinas's doctrine of the image e.g., in ST, 1, q. 35, a. 1. For Aquinas Christ is the image of God in a very similar sense.

96 Gen 1:26–27.

97 See article 26 of the Bull of John XXII In Agro Dominico, March 1329. W l:1.

98 He also uses the metaphors of the crown, the castle, the citadel, and the ground of the soul. Q, 2/W 1:72; Q, 86/W 1:76; Q, 48/W 2:103.

99 In spite of this defense, a similar doctrine was condemned in the Bull In Agro Domenico, Article 27: “There is something in the soul that is uncreated and uncreatable. If the whole soul were of such a nature she would be uncreated and uncreatable. This is the intellect” (W 1:li).

100 Q, 71/W 1:153.

101 Q, 22 W 2:63.

102 Q, 41/W 1:289.

103 According to the Scholastics, when a human perceives something, a sense faculty receives a “sensible species” (or “form”) in the form of a “phantasm,” which is that by which an external object is perceived. Qua sensible, it allows cognition only of determinate particulars. In order for humans to know any object as a kind of thing, they must abstract an intelligible species from the phantasm, through the exercise of the ‘agent intellect.’ But angels do not have senses. Hence the do not and need not abstract intelligible natures from sensory givens. Their cognition is “intellectual.” Nevertheless, according to Aquinas, for example, their knowledge involves intelligible species/forms, which are not abstracted from sensory images, but are “connatural” to the angel. I owe A. D. Smith for this suggested interpretation.

104 Quint suggests that Eckhart might be referring here to Aristotle's theory of perception in De Anima 419a12–15, according to which there has to be a medium, air or water that connects the eye to the object it sees. However, since Eckhart is talking about knowledge, and angels' knowledge in particular, and since angels don't have any senses, this seems like a complete red herring. W 2:254.

105 Alternatively he is recalling Aquinas's notion of the “figure” which is an image without a likeness to a specific nature (as a son is the image of his father), but rather which is a sign of the species, i.e., a pictorial representation of a man or animal, but not a particular one (See Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas [trans. Francesca A. Murph; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007] 211).

106 Q, 70 W 1:289.

107 Theologians generally speak of the relationship between God and his creation from the point of view of the created; Eckhart, however, chooses to view the matter from the point of view of the Creator. On this see Oliver Davies, God Within: The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1988) 65–66.

108 “Der Gedanke ist kein Abbild der Sache … sondern geht auf die Sache selbst … Was ans Bild sich klammert, bliebt mythisch befangen, Götzendienst. Der Inbegriff der Bilder fügt sich zum Wall vor der Realität.” ND, 205/GS 6:205.

109 ND, 207/GS 6:207. “Abbildendes Denken wäre reflexionslos, ein Undialektischen Widerspruch … Bewußtsein, das zwischen sich und das, was es denkt, ein Drittes, Bilder schöbe, reproduzierte unvermerkt den Idealismus; ein Corpus von Vorstellungen substituierte den Gegenstand der Erkenntnis, und die subjektive Willkür solcher Vorstellungen ist die der Verordnenden.”

110 ND, 207/GS 6:207. “Die materialistische Sehnsucht, die Sache zu begreifen, will das Gegenteil: nur bilderlos wäre das volle Objekt zu denken.”

111 PDM, 224.

112 “Solche Bilderlosigkeit konvergiert mit dem theologischen Bilderverbot. Der Materialismus säkulisierte es, in dem er nicht gestattete, die Utopie positiv auszumalen; das ist der Gehalt seiner Negativität” (ND, 207/GS 6:207). Of course for Adorno philosophy cannot achieve this aim, it can at best help, in various ways, to hold open the space for it. (For more on this, see Finlayson, 2007.) This is exactly parallel with Eckhart.

113 Q, 16b W 1:127.

114 Eckhart, Die lateinische Werke (ed. and trans. Josef Quint; Stuttgart; Kohlhammer, 1936–1963) 1:187 (hereafter as LW).

115 Q, 5b/W 1:117.

116 Q, 5b/W 1:117. See also Eckhart, ‘Reden der Unterweisung,’ Die Deutsche Werke (ed. and trans. Josef Quint; Stuttgart; Kohlhammer, 1936–1963) 5:507 (hereafter as DW).

117 “We should not content ourselves with the thought of God, because when the thought passes, so does God. One must have an essential God (einen wesenhafter Gott), who far surpasses the thoughts of man and all creatures” (‘Reden der Unterweisung,’ DW 5:510).

118 Q, 5b W 1:116. This also applies to the so-called negative way.

119 DW 5:507

120 DW 5:508 [Emphasis in original].

121 See the following five articles of the Bull, In Agro Domenico. Article 7. “Whoever prays for this or that, prays for something evil and in evil wise.” Article 8. “Those who seek nothing, neither honour nor profit nor inwardness nor holiness nor reward nor heaven, but who have renounced all this including what is their own—in such men God is glorified.” Article 16. “God does not expressly command good works.” Article 17. “An external work is not really good and divine, and God does not really perform and beget it.” Article 19. “God loves souls, not external works.” W 1:xlvii–xlix.

122 W 1:56–57.

123 DW 5:296.

124 Finlayson, “Adorno on the Ethical and the Ineffable.” European Journal of Philosophy 10 (2002) 11. See section 2 above.

125 GS 6:358/ND, 365. See also Adorno, Critical Models (trans. H. Pickford; New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 90–91, 202–3 (hereafter as CM)/Adorno, Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (vol. 10.2 of Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften; ed. Rolf Tiedemann; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 10.2:555–73, 674–91.

126 GS 6:281/ND, 285. See also: “In the condition of their unfreedom Hitler has imposed a new categorical imperative on human beings, namely: to order their thought and actions such that Auschwitz never reoccur, nothing similar ever happen.” ND, 365/GS 6:358. See also Adorno, CM, 90–91, 202–3/GS 10.2:555–573, 674–91; and Adorno MCP, 116.

127 Adorno, MM, 156.

128 “These sentences are only true as impulses, when it is reported that somewhere torture is taking place. They should not be rationalized. As abstract principles they lapse into the bad infinity of their derivation and validity.” GS 6:281/ND, 285.

129 Adorno, PDM, 249.

130 MM, 156/GS 4:178.

131 MM, 39/GS 4:43.

132 No evidence is needed to show that Adorno's philosophy contains a critique of positivism, of which he has a very permissive understanding, and of which he takes a very dim view. Almost any text of his would show that. More surprising, given the alleged propinquity between apophaticism and mysticism, is that the former, according to Turner, is better seen as a rejection of the very idea of “individual religious experience” and a critique of the experientialism “that is, in short, the ‘positivism’ of Christian spirituality.” Turner, Darkness of God, 259 and 268.

133 Hence there is something awry with Alston's complaint about how fulsomely mystics report their experiences. See n. 38 above. The experience of being shown something might not be ineffable, even when what one is shown is.

* Many thanks to the two anonymous readers for this journal for their insightful and helpful comments. The paper is improved because of them. Special thanks also to Peter Poellner, David A.D. Smith, Stephen Mulhall, Michael Rosen, Lydia Goehr, Evelyn Wilcock, Nick Royle and to all the members of the North American Critical Theory Roundtable in New York, September 2008, notably Max Pensky and Matthias Frisch.


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