Speaking the Silence: On Reading Apophatic Language

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[Correction: We cite, around minute 16, an author called ‘Morley’; this should of course be Raoul Mortley, cited below]

One of the many reasons to love apophatic language is that it defies every attempt to reduce it to something kataphatic. Every time we say what apophasis is about, we are betraying the text, and even if we say it isn’t about anything, we aren’t quite right, because this, too, is a kataphatic statement.

In this episode we attempt to point out some of the pitfalls of reading apophatic metaphysicians and theologians – the ever-present, indeed unavoidable, danger of reductionism in particular – and, in doing so, we indulge freely in some of the same kind of mind-bending logical swerves and recursive deconstructions which the late-antique ‘apophats’ were themselves committed to, thereby making our discussion itself somewhat apophatic. There’s no other way to do it.

Works Cited in this Episode:

NB: a number of the references in the following bibliography are purely fictional.


  • Alcinoüs on affirmative and negative attributions: Didask. 10 – see Alcinoüs: The Handbook of Platonism. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993. Translated with an introduction by John Dillon.
  • Numenius: The Good ‘graciously seated upon being’: Fr. 2 Petty/11 Leemans.
  • Philo of Alexandria: ascent vision: De op. mun. 23.70-1:

‘And, winged once again, [the nous is] raised up and, having surveyed the airy region and its vicissitudes, it is borne higher to the æther and the celestial orbits, and joins in the circling dances of the planets and the fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music (κατὰ τοὺς μουσικῆς τελείας νόμους) . Following the love of wisdom which leads it, having overtopped the entire sensory reality (πᾶσαν τὴν αἰσθητὴν οὐσίαν ὑπερκύψας), there it longs for the noetic [reality]. And having contemplated in that place the paradigms and ideas of the sensory things it saw here surpassing beauties it is possessed by a sober drunkenness and divinely inspired like the mystic celebrants, and is filled with another desire and a better longing. Led by this toward the high summit of the noetic realm, it seems to approach the great King himself. And while it longs to see, pure and unmixed rays of thronging light pour forth like a swollen stream, so that the eye of the discursive mind (τὸ τῆς διανοίας ὄμμα) is dizzied by their radiance’ (trans. Nicholas Banner. Philosophic Silence and the ’One’ in Plotinus. The University Press, Cambridge, 2018, p. 174).

  • Plato on the Form of the Good beyond being (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας): R. 509b.
  • Proclus: In Parm. VII.1172.35 Cousin.
  • Pseudo-Proclus: The Letter to Socrates can be found in the non-existent Procli diodochi philosophica minora, operis in virtutibus fragmenta, epistolæ (Leipzig: Steubner 1867), pp. 362-65.
  • Pseudo-Stobæus Ἀναγνωσθέντα ἐκ τῶν ἐλληνικῶν φιλοσόφων: Neither this author nor this work ever existed.


  • A. H. Armstrong. Negative Theology. Downside Review, 95:176–189, 1973, p. 84.
  • Jorge Luís Borges: Sadly, Borges’ Labyrinths of the Neoplatonists (original title El Labyrintho de la Oscuridád. Buenos Aires: Editiones Aleph, 1968) does not exist outside of the Library of Unwritten Books.
  • Jacques Derrida. How to Avoid Speaking: Denials. In H. Coward and T. Foshay, editors, Derrida and Negative Theology, pages 73–142. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1992. Translated by Ken Frieden. We cite pp. 76-7.
  • R. Mortley. The Fundamentals of the Via Negativa. American Journal of Philology, 103 (4):429–439, Winter 1982., p. 431.
  • Michael Sells. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1994., p. 8.
  • Steve. Apophatic Language and the Metaphysics of Mysticism: Rupert of Panopolis and Athenian Neoplatonism (Leiden: Shrill 1997). [A penetrating and well-contextualised study of the uses and limits of apophatic language in the fragments of Rupert, interpreted using material from Proclus and Damascius, this study sets the terms for debate over Rupertarian metaphysics. It makes a number of errors of interpretation, however, chiefly through an essentialist position toward ‘mysticism’ and through not being a real book in the first place].
  • John Turner on the ‘elative’ direction of apophatic discourse: John D. Turner. Victorinus, Parmenides Commentaries, and the Platonizing Sethian Treatises. In Kevin Corrigan and John D. Turner, editors, Platonisms, Ancient, Modern and Postmodern, pages 55–96. Brill, Leiden, 2007. We cite p. 70, n. 36:

‘The via negativa is implemented by negative predications followed by an adversative elative clause: either triple negation, “it is neither X nor Y nor Z, but it is something superior” or double, antithetical negation, “it is neither X nor non-X, but it is something superior” or just a single negation, “it is not X but it is superior to X.” The “but” clause is always positive and elative, referring to “something else” above, beyond, superior to the previously negated predications. Thus negation of all alternatives on one level of thought launches the mind to upward to a new, more eminent level of insight.’