Bringing Universalist Ethics and Politics Back into Ecological Harmony by the Apophatic Way

Greek philosophical thought constructed the tool of the concept that cuts thought off from its natural relation to and within the world of things—of things as they are without the artificial boundaries that are erected by thought. With the advent of logical thinking, which can be dated precisely from Socrates, thought defines and delimits its own field of operation. Pre-conceptual thought does not set up any hard-and-fast division between itself and what is other than it, between thought and what is not thought, between word and thing, between language and the world. It has not yet separated itself from the world of things in and among which it moves and dwells. Conceptual thought does enact exactly this separation and thenceforth relates only to what is of its own making and thus of its own kind and consistency. That is to say, conceptual thought relates directly only to conceptual creatures produced by thought—except to the extent that conceptual thought can still negate itself so as to be open to what is other than it.

This raises fundamental ecological questions regarding human beings’ relation with nature as a backdrop for the equally fundamental questions of human ethics and political society as judged by the newly emergent standard of universality, which represents a departure from nature but is perhaps viable only on the basis of recognizing this ground from which it emerges. This type of conceptual and logical thinking following in the lineage of Socrates that separates thought from nature by creating concepts as artificial objects that are instruments of thought and so can be manipulated by it dominates our world today to such an extent as to become a threat to planetary ecological and social harmony.

Classical Chinese wisdom and apophatic philosophy in the Western tradition together constitute alternative forms of rationality based on immanent and largely implicit critique of the limits of this logical and cognitivist rationality. I follow some of the historical applications of an emergent cognitivist rationality in order to suggest how it meets with defeat in its attempts at achieving an adequate cognitive grasp of all reality as an object and rather invites the approach of apophatic wisdom.

The paper proceeds by historicizing the growth of cognitive rationality from ancient to modern Western civilization viewed in an intercultural perspective in order to suggest that a viable universalism should be based not on cognitive universals but rather on precisely what cannot be cognized, on what cannot be comprehended within any given culture’s cognitive scheme. The paper’s theses are developed in dialogue and in dialectic with the views of François Jullien on classical Chinese thought and on the claims for cultural universalism that emanate especially from modern Western thought and civilization.

From the Globalism of Nature to the Universality of Thought

In On the Universal: The Uniform, the Common and Dialogue between Cultures, Jullien develops a theory of how Greece forged its distinctive brand of universal, logical thinking precisely by abandoning nature as its object of concern.(1).

Greek philosophical thought constructed the tool of the concept that cuts thought off from its natural relation to and within the world of things—of things as they are without the artificial boundaries that are erected by thought. With the advent of logical thinking, which for Jullien can be dated precisely from Socrates, thought defines and delimits its own field of operation. Pre-conceptual thought does not set up any hard-and-fast division between itself and what is other than it, between thought and what is not thought, between word and thing, between language and the world. It has not yet separated itself from the world of things in and among which it moves and dwells. Conceptual thought does enact exactly this separation and thenceforth relates immediately only to what is of its own making and thus of its own kind and consistency. That is to say, conceptual thought relates directly only to conceptual creatures produced by thought—except to the extent that conceptual thought can still negate itself so as to be open to what is other than it.

For all the empowerment that this momentous introduction of analytical, logical methods of conceptual thought brings with it, particularly in its full deployment in the technological development of modern civilization, with its awe-inspiring capabilities and staggering technical sophistication, such a conceptual metamorphosis of thought also entails a severance of the umbilical cord with nature as the mother of all. The artificial construction of the concept thenceforth intervenes and mediates thought’s relation to everything, including its own natural source and grounds.

Jullien describes the birth of logical thinking in Greece as coming about in Socrates’s shift away from the pre-Socratics’ attempt to think nature or things as a whole concretely by means of analogy. With Socrates begins the move to thinking rather in a formal mode “according to the whole,” kata holon (κατά ὅλον). Jullien contrasts the conceptual thinking invented by Socrates with certain pre-Socratic philosophers’ way of thinking things as a whole, particularly with the metaphorical mode of the so-called physiologists (φυσιολόγοι), for whom All was water or fire or air, etc. The whole of nature, things as a whole, could not be conceived except through such sensory images extended poetically to embrace all things. But just this whole of actually perceptible things, as intended by such metaphors for All, was erased, as wholeness became rather a form of thought. Thought’s object or intent was thenceforth defined by criteria internal to thought itself and was severed from the infinite, from relation with the All of nature: that All, the All of nature, was simply abandoned as not worth thinking about, since it could not be logically grasped through a concept. Thinking a concept of the whole or of all substitutes for and supplants the forms of thought employed for relating imaginatively to the All that is always beyond thought but that nevertheless encompasses and comprehends thought wholly. As Jullien explains, Socrates is no longer concerned with the ‘all’ of nature, as were his predecessors, the phusiologoi, who are named ‘pre-socratics’ precisely on account of this rupture; but rather, investigating ‘according to the whole’ (kat-holou), he makes the ‘whole’ from now on a formal (or logical) exigency: to philosophize is no longer to inquire concerning the all of the world, taken as object, nor after the principle of this all, but to think ‘conformably to the whole,’ in the mode of the whole. That is to say, in the mode of universality, i.e. conceptually.

Socrate ne se préoccupe plus du ‘tout’ de la nature, comme l’ont fait ses prédécesseurs, les phusiologoi,qu’on appellera précisément en fonction de cette rupture les ‘pre-socratiques’; mais, cherchant ‘selon le tout’ (kat-holou), il fait du ‘tout’ une exigence désormais formelle (ou logique) : philosopher ne sera plus enquêter sur le tout du monde, pris comme objet, ni même sur le principe de ce tout, mais penser ‘conformément au tout’, sur le mode du tout. C’est-à-dire sur le mode de l’universalité, i.e. conceptuellement. (68)

Thinking according to the whole rather than thinking the All entails a subtle but momentous shift from the All of nature to the all of thought itself. Thought takes this step because the latter alone is within its reach and can be defined rigorously in terms of thought and nothing else. But thought thereby also renounces the poetic saying, such as one found it in the pre-Socratics, of the All in a metaphorical word reaching beyond thought towards the unthinkable whole of reality that exceeds thought. Thought thus rigorously limits itself to itself, that is, to what it can encompass with its concepts, and thought thenceforth forgets the open, uncircumscribable mystery of All that it had previously endeavored to sound by a poetic word, a word for All. Words such as water, air, and fire, as used by Thales, Anaximines, and Heraclitus respectively, were made through Titanic metaphorical stretching to span the entire spectrum of beings and to fathom the whole unencompassable element of circumambient nature. Precisely this is what Socrates’s logical-conceptual interrogation puts an end to, at least as far as philosophy is concerned. According to Jullien, “in learning to think ‘according to the all,’ or universally, Socrates makes us forget the dream of saying with a word the total truth, and he forms—or forces—thought to conform to the hard path of its rigor” [“Ce faisant, apprenant à penser ‘selon le tout’, ou universellement, Socrate fait oublier le rêve de dire d’un mot la vérité totale et forme (force) la pensée au dur chemin de sa rigueur,” 69].

Of course, Plato is still struggling with the paradoxes generated by the unthinkability of the all (τὸ πᾶν) and the unanalyzability of the whole (τὸ ὅλον), for example, in the Sophist (starting from 236E, see particularly242E and 244E), where the problem of how to say or think that falsehood really exists (ὅπως γὰρ εἰπόντα χρὴ ψευδῆ λέγειν ἢ δοξάζειν ὄντως εἶναι), without falling into contradiction, proves logically insoluble. Plato is forced to resort to myth in order to adumbrate the non-being (τὸ μὴ ὂν) of the false that in some sense does exist and so cannot be excluded from the whole of the all but is nonetheless inconceivable, inexpressible, unspeakable, and irrational (ἀδιανόητόν τε καὶ ἄρρητον καὶ ἄφθεγκτον καὶ ἄλογον, 238C). Aristotle rejects this solution of making recourse to myth. For him, moreover, there can be no science of all things (992b30), since there is no genus of all genera, but only the principle of non-contradiction that alone embraces all knowledge, without enabling the all as such to be thought (1062a2). In his dismissal of those who deny the principle of non-contradiction, he effectively excludes anything that is unthinkable from the whole as self-contradictory and therefore as simply nothing (Metaphysics Γ 6). He no longer admits in any way or shape or form the unthinkable non-being that is part of and that haunts being as its “other” in Plato. Plato still in his Parmenides (142b1ff) was wrestling with the aporiae of discourse about the Whole and about the negations that are in some sense integral to it. These aporiae can still be found today at work in the paradoxes of modern set theory as it revolves around the set of all sets that are not members of themselves and the question of whether this set is, or cannot be, or must be a member of itself (Russell’s paradox).

The All as such remains unthinkable from this point on at the origin of self-consciously conceptual thinking in philosophy, since any object requires some kind of delimitation or closure in order to be thought, and such closure cannot but be artificial in the case of the All: there is always more to the All than what can be known or thought or gathered into a concept. But, with the advent of formal logic or conceptual thinking, thought renounces, or in any case turns away from, its impulse to imagine the All from within an infinite, uncircumscribable relation to All and turns to the task of mastering a delimited field of thinkable, formal objects that it has defined for itself in a frame that it stands outside of and can thus control. The awesome powers of technology, with their terrific—and sometimes terrifying—consequences, are the remote result and heritage of this type of logical thinking and its sequestering of a field of objects. By such means, a humanly regulated domain that can be surveyed and controlled is set off from the All of nature that abides always beyond thought’s control and yet remains the enabling ground and context of any and every human endeavor. Such a humanly cordoned-off realm is the result of what Martin Heidegger calls “framing” (Gestell) as the characteristic mode of technology. In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger writes that “man exalts himself to the posture of the lord of the earth” and then “it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself.” (2).

By turning away from the All, humanity turns away also from all that constitutes the human being in its relationship to and within the overall order of things. Considered logically, thinking becomes universal by elimination of all that belongs to the unique, concrete relation of some particular individual to and within the All—that is, by suppressing all that is one’s own in order to think only what is identical or the same for all thinking individuals. This makes for the rigor of logical thinking such as it was forged in Greek philosophy. It requires a rupture of one’s own personal relation to what is thought: nothing subjective or circumstantial can be allowed to enter into the purely logical content of thought. One’s own thought thereby becomes equivalent to what can be thought by anyone else under any circumstances and in any relations whatever within the world. Such is the ideal still in modern times of rational and experimental science.

Such abstraction from the particular seems to mark an advance towards universality. However, there is another kind of universality of thinking, one that remains undefined and yet connected with nature, one which is lost in and through this “advance” to conceptual thinking. This other universality is what traditional Chinese models of wisdom can help us to recollect and recover. They can do so, however, not by substituting another paradigm, say, that of immanence for that of transcendence, but only dialectically, through sharpening our critical awareness of the liabilities of Western logical thinking, specifically of what is lost through the type of universality that logical thinking invents and has “successfully” imposed on modern thought and civilization. This “success” is measured chiefly in terms of the power of intervening upon our natural environment and massively transforming it. This “power” of abstract logical thinking has enabled the Western model of civilization to impose itself, brooking no opposition, from one end of the globe to the other.

Aristotle describes how this type of generally or universally valid knowledge is to be constructed or attained. He theorizes the passage from unique, individual sensation through experience, in which abstraction is made from a series of cases and their diversities, in order to isolate what they share in common and on that basis reach universal knowledge and more specifically knowledge of causes (Metaphysics A, 1-2). This is the method of attaining knowledge through abstraction from the particularity of experience that becomes canonical in Western philosophy and science. Such knowledge by abstraction, however, has become an object of intensive critique in recent continental philosophy, given the latter’s multifaceted and plurivocal, yet widespread and concerted, rejection of metaphysics.

François Jullien has mounted a kindred critique from a specifically intercultural perspective. He suggests, moreover, that without such a perspective affording an external vantage point, philosophical critiques of abstraction are not able effectively to escape from the closures of Western metaphysics that they are attempting to bring to self-conscious reflection and thereby overcome. According to Jullien, classical Chinese philosophy, being typically naturalistic, is far more apt than Western philosophy to avoid abstraction as the artificial segmenting of reality into thinkable and manipulable objects. Nature provides a kind of normativity in Chinese philosophy and, more generally, in pantheistic or immantentist religions. In such forms of thinking, nature answers to the demands of the universal and supplies a universally and necessarily valid standard and an all-embracing ambit for all that is. It is, to this extent, an absolute.

Nature has very often been summarily dismissed in critical forms of Western philosophical rationality: only by exiting from natural contingency, it seems, does man become the master of his world and establish necessary norms and laws. But if nature is understood more apophatically, as is typically the case in the East, or even more in line with natura naturans than with natura naturata (in the terms Spinoza recycles in the West), then it can perhaps provide the kind of normativity that has been tortuously sought along the paths of abstraction to the universal in the West. In other words, perhaps the great but ungraspable All, as fathomed exemplarily by nature-oriented Chinese thought, is indispensable; or perhaps, at least, it can serve us best in order to make good on the claims of universality that are still widely felt to be necessary, even if so very problematic, in Western philosophies. Claims to universality show up as transparently arbitrary, particularly in those philosophies that have resorted to constructive systems, which become merely formal and arbitrary impositions. There is something vital in any thinking that remains still ensconced within the natural world, something which even sophisticated philosophical thinking needs to reconnect with in order not to suffocate in its own self-generated, self-enclosed sphere of autonomous, supposedly “free” activity. Apophatics aims to foster insight into, or at least reverent respect for, the nature of this nature that is beyond thought and speech and yet is more essentially natural than any manifest natural phenomenon could possibly be: such a nature is more universal than any universal concept that can be concocted.

Nature in Chinese thought is an all-encompassing reality and in this capacity provides a kind of universal standard for validity. The quest for universality in the West can benefit from being evaluated in comparison with modes of practice common in the East, particulary in classical forms of Chinese thought, which aim at corresponding to nature: the issues concerning universality map on to those concerning nature, notably that of its transcendence or immanence. Nature, in classical Chinese thinking, imaged particularly as “Heaven” (Tiān, 天), is in crucial respects transcendent and yet also immanent to the world. Heaven as Tiān is constant or absolute and above all, yet it is also a principle of harmonization internal to the cosmos rather than a principle or Will imposed on it from without, as if by a Creator.

The absolute or the All is conceived in classical Chinese wisdom, according to Jullien, on the model of a regulated natural process (“processus régulé”). In Dialogue sur la morale, Jullien, traces the evolution of “Heaven” (Tiān) in Chinese thought from being a transcendent notion to being a factor of absoluteness in cosmic regularity that is then supposed to be embodied in right human conduct. Mencius, in particular, reflects on humanity’s relation to this process. Instead of proposing a speculative system of the universe, Mencius, like Socrates, regulates humanity’s role in ignorance of any general truths of the universe as such—or apophatically, we might say. It is rather through a self-critical application day by day of the principle of cosmic regularity (which cannot be known in itself but only as invented and projected by human conceptualities) to one’s own conduct that man discovers the virtue of humanity (rén 仁, also pronounced and translitterated jén), and this discovery grants humans, after all, a kind of “access to transcendence” through raising consciousness of the “process of things” along “the great Way of regulation” [“ils pourront avoir accès à la transcendance et prendre conscience de la marche des choses (la grande ‘Voie’ de la Régulation)”](3).

We are accustomed to thinking that an urgent question concerning nature is that of whether a source and norm for our life and action is given in the nature of things, or whether it must be sought instead from somewhere else outside, beyond or above, nature. However, in consideration of a classical Chinese notion of nature, which envisages nature before it is reduced to a formal concept, we are led to ask whether this standard for conduct might be elicited in some way that breaks down the seeming exclusiveness of these alternatives. Perhaps in the end such a natural norm can be addressed adequately only by an interculturallyoriented philosophy, since the answer must avoid remaining enclosed within its own cultural-conceptual framework and, indeed, in any culturally given construction of thought whatsoever. In order to approach or envisage nature as an absolute, supracultural standard or source of value, intercultural critique is necessary, for only by such means is it possible to ferret out and expose any given culture’s inevitable blind spots. No culture’s formulation of this natural absolute can be transparent to it, without biases and distortions or, in any case, arbitrary delimitations. The supracultural can never be positively present as such. It can be elicited only by the negation of its finite formulations in the limited vocabularies of any and every specific cultural code. It is only in the gap between cultures—what Jullien terms their écart—that the truly universal, or any absolute type of natural norm, can emerge.

Historical Permutations of the Non-Natural Universality Forged by Thought

The question of all, or of the universal, is treated thus by Jullien in an intercultural dimension and context moving between China and the West, and it demands, accordingly, application of an intercultural method. In De l’universel, Jullien describes how China provides the methodological exteriority with respect to Western culture that is necessary to enable us to investigate the latter’s claim to universality and to ask whether there are any truly universal notions (such as time, or being, or truth). (4) Although China and the West developed for millennia in complete independence from one another and in virtual ignorance of each other’s cultures, they are nevertheless symmetrical in representing fully developed and self-reflective forms of civilization, each in its own genre. “China is a world of thought that is as developed and textualized, as explicit and commented upon, as is ours in Europe: the two can thus be placed in relation as equal and symmetrical” (“la Chine est un monde de pensée aussi développé, textualisé, explicité, et commenté que le nôtre en Europe: la mise en rapport pourra donc être égale et symétrique,” De l’universel, 129). The comparison that Jullien proposes as a philosopher is, accordingly, different from the kind of comparative undertaking typical of anthropology. Anthropologists’ work is based not on parity but rather on the “dissymmetry” of the primordial cultures and peoples they study with respect to their own civilization.

By focusing on the question of universality, Jullien discovers a very high degree of parallelism between China and Europe, particularly between classical imperial China and the Europe of the Roman Empire: both were for a long time fully engaged upon civilizing missions and did not even need to raise the question of the universality of their values. Both empires were implacable engines of ideological integration and cultural centering and, to a degree, homogenization. Their superiority as purveyors of civilization and humanity, where it had not yet been attained among those still living savagely or barbarically (by “civilized” standards), was typically taken to be self-evident. Neither for the Chinese Empire nor for the Roman Empire did the question of its universal validity as the most evolved and humanly desirable form of life even arise—not, at least, for the imperialists. They simply took their own superiority for granted.

This leads Jullien to the hypothesis that reflection on universality is spurred specifically by crises of ideological unity in a culture: only such crises create the need for focusing on an ideal and justifying its universality. Such reflection occurs in earnest first in modern rather than in medieval Europe. The Middle Ages in Europe were characterized by the cohesion afforded by a nearly universal creed, the Christian faith. This faith convoyed also a historical mission and destiny such as are alien to the Chinese experience. In this regard, China is closer to traditional Indian and even Islamic civilizations in their relative closure to history and the world outside the order that they themselves establish and transmit (117). The question of universality in such cases arises only technically and on a logical level rather than as fundamentally questioning the leading values of the triumphant civilization. It is when Europe finds itself in want of ideological cohesion (“en manque d’intégration idéologique”) that the issue of its universalism becomes conscious and acute. Jullien sees this lack not as a state of self-doubt to be avoided or overcome as quickly as possible but rather as a peculiarly productive or “fecund negativity” (“une négativité féconde,” 119).

The idea of universality in the West has evolved historically, and the historical nature of universal values in the West owes very much to Biblical religion and especially to Christianity, with its missionary spirit. Unlike the cosmic universalism embraced by the Stoics as something natural and necessary, Saint Paul’s universalism is a sheer historical event: he proclaims an act of God on the world-historical scene and urges all to recognize that this divine event demands in response action on the part of human beings everywhere, namely, an act of conversion, an act that will inaugurate for each individual a new personal history and destiny. (5) Such an event rises up against the givens of time and place, tribe and family, country and culture, affirming a new belonging that transcends all such natural communities and their contextually given circumstances. It constitutes a radical break with all natural givens in the name of a unique historical event, one that is supposed to become a personal experience of salvation.

With Christianity, the figure of the universal becomes individual, personal, and incarnate (95). The universal opening of the Christian subject to participation in the event of Christ empties the subject of all that is merely proper or its own, and of all determinations that may be deemed natural (“Il en découle un complet évidement du sujet chrétien ne possédant plus rien en propre, par sa nature,” 94). By virtue of this self-emptying or kenosis, Jullien remarks, the Christian subject comes to possess nothing that is its own by nature: instead, it is made radically open to the universal (“ce sujet libéré de toute détermination spécifiante, l’affectant en lui-même, est le plus radicalement ouvert à l’universalité,” 94). It is in this sense, I would add, that Paul can say, “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20) (6).

This Christian subject constitutes a reversal of the ancient Roman subject with its rights rooted in natural determinations of birth, family, class, and citizenship. The ancient Roman citizen was a subject constituted by plenitude. But Paul’s new universality reaches to what is unique in each person called to the faith as a single individual summoned out of all previous ties of belonging. Instead of superimposing itself on regional identities and customs, as was the case with Roman law and institutions in their extension all around the Mediterranean basin, Christian universality (in Jullien’s reading) abolishes all such particularities (83). In tandem with this eradication and replacement of indigenous cultures, Europe develops the idea of its own exceptionalism, of its having a unique right to rule and a mission to educate and to civilize all peoples. These pretensions and self-understanding are hardly unprecedented and unparalleled in other civilizations. Nevertheless, they underwrite the notion of the West’s own values being extendable to other cultures elsewhere. Such beliefs were implemented, in all their far-reaching and often dire consequences, in the historical colonization of the globe by Western powers in modern times, especially since the discovery of the “New World.”

For Jullien, Paul’s new Christianity entails a loss of our rootedness in nature rather than the radical re-discovery of an enriched, authentic nature and therewith of a new vocation to universalism. Here, however, Jullien perhaps underestimates the extent to which Christian universalism propagates not just an abstract philosophical truth, the same for all, but a lived event that becomes incarnate differently in the cultural-historical particularity of individuals who offer their own unique bodily “witness” or “testimony”—one that is all their own and that no other person can authentically experience or share except through an experience appropriating it to their own particular background and to the unique determining coordinates of their own lives. This witness must be expressed bodily, since all members are constitutive of the body of Christ. Jullien wishes to see Christianity as extending the erasure of a self-generating nature, an erasure that has been operative in Western metaphysics since its inception. But he seems here to ignore the radical reversal of intellectual abstraction that is effected by the biblical revelation of an incarnate universality that can and must be assimilated existentially and even corporeally. Elsewhere, in the context of other arguments, Jullien does, after all, appreciate Christianity’s radical contradiction of the (Greek) logos by the “folly” of the word of the Cross, in the historically resonant and shattering terms of I Corinthians 1 (7).

One pertinent question raised, in any case, by Jullien’s analyses is that of whether the unnatural universality of Christianity, in distancing itself from the tribe or clan does not—by an irresistible logic and energy—incur difficulties, paradoxes, and contradictions and thereby eventually induce to its own demise. Nietzsche’s backlash against Christianity develops just this kind of reaction. Yet Nietzsche typically targets especially the philosophical appropriations and reformulations of Christianity: the Christianity against which he inveighs is heavily alloyed and amalgamated with Platonism. According to Nietzsche, the supposed disinterestedness of universalism brings with it the destruction of our life-instincts and of our natural base of motivation. It produces, as a fatal consequence, the Kantian ideal of disinterestedness, in which the narrowly universalizing penchant of philosophy peaks. To counter this, we require—and Nietzsche presumably would recommend—a critical movement that turns against disinterest and particularly against the claim to disinterested universality. In order not to sap our own vitality, we need to be able to return to and connect with the drives of particular, interested individuals striving against one another in their inevitably conflictual situations. Our inextricable involvement in particular historical situations is recognized, for example, even by Hegel in his constant endeavor, pushing apparently beyond Kant, to elicit the concrete universal. Hegel turns attention to the collective, historically determinate, cultural morality of Sittlichkeit as necessarily undergirding any purportedly categorical imperatives issued for isolated wills of agents. This mediation is for Hegel still very Christian in its inspiration. And yet, for Hegel, it is all still a construction of thought, all still the work of the concept. In this regard, Hegel conducts the Aristotelian heritage of universal, thinkable, conceptual essences to its apogee and indeed to a sort of apotheosis.

Especially as informed by a consideration of Chinese approaches to universality, for example, that of Mencius, a certain apophatic wisdom is called for here that can serve to put us on guard against any universality that can be thought. Universality is not what it is thought to be by means of any of the universals that we can think. The naïve faith of the Enlightenment in thought and education, moreover, as per se emancipatory is belied by history (De l’universel, 64). Nazi Germany sprang up from the midst of a rich and explosively creative period of cultural ferment and flourishing in the effervescent civilization of the Weimar Republic (1918-33). Already to Hegel himself, in the wake of the French Revolution, it was all too evident that history manifested no natural necessity to realize the ideals that it nonetheless projected as possibilities and as regulatory principles (8). The universal remains an ideal rather than a manifest fact in the course of history. It cannot be approached except always by making allowance for a margin of the negative. The reality of history, in its specifics and in the human sacrifices it exacts, indeed tends to be profoundly anti-universalist and anti-utopian. Rather than speaking glibly along with Enlightenment-style idealists about emancipation, we need to consider the real and pragmatic conditions of freedom. The ideal of universality—of a universal order of justice and peace—has proven itself to be a chimera more often than not in the course of world history, with its empires and alliances and Reichs and global economic orders (at present, in effect, capitalism without limits). The conditions of freedom and equality for all in real historical contexts are very often the opposite of what we would expect on the basis of principles alone. The principles tend to be contradicted by their applications and to require creative adaptations reversing their immediate, first-order effects in order to reinstate their original sense and intention. Universality that is defined and thereby circumscribed by thought quickly becomes dystopian.

An exemplary case is human rights as they emerge from a specific, contingent history and yet are oriented and take their aim by reaching toward something unconditioned. If they are defined and spelled out, they inevitably reflect a certain cultural code and its attendant biases. Their universal application cannot be expressly justified except through appeal to merely conditional motives (9). There is, then, no preestablished universal principle that could validate them. Such validation can only be a matter of persuading others to adhere to such principles through a kind of common sense that can be proposed and that must be recognized as binding by any single individual—and potentially by all. But its terms of expression need still to remain open to negotiation with those of others arriving with their own different convictions concerning the Unconditioned. All see something unconditioned from the situated ground of their own specific cultural history, with its different narrative models and social contexts and motivations in terms of values accepted among them as normative.

Jullien cites Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment as depending on a universal rule that cannot be explicitly given (“ein Beispiel einer allgemeinen Regel, die man nicht angeben kann,” Kritik der Urteilskraft, § 18). It cannot be given as binding by purely logical reasons but rather only by appeal to a common sensibility (Gemeinsinn). Jullien does not want to posit some innate common sense that is the same for all everywhere independently of cultural difference. Nevertheless, there is something that can be called a common sense which is “refracted raw in all experience,” however variously, just as it “never ceases to speak in all language” (“ce sens commun est bien ce qui transparaît à vif dans toute experience, de même qu’il ne cesse de nous parler dans tout langage,” De l’universel, 158). But the common sense of the human is rather a possibility and an ideal, not a ready-made psychological faculty or a given biological endowment. To explain it, Jullien evokes Kant’s idea of a “universal communicability” (allgemeine Mitteilbarkeit, 159).

Jullien notes that when Europeans endeavor to extend their values universally, for example, under the aegis of the “rights of man,” they are overlooking the way in which their judgments are culturally conditioned, for example, by their (supposedly) characteristic striving after autonomy and abstraction. Part and parcel of such tendencies, European values are beholden in his view in particular to theology, as well as to the West’s own specific history of battles for emancipation from theology. Jullien admits that there is in all European thinking an inveterate “feudal” dependence on “the theological” that cannot perhaps be completely overcome (“inféodation invétérée—à quel point dénouable?—au théologique,” 156). Just as for Derrida and for other thinkers of the French left, theology tends to be targeted also by Jullien as the deeply embedded, unreflected and yet fettering ball-and-chain from which Western thinkers today must strive to free themselves.

However, this purge against theology and “God” as typically Western hang-ups that have kept the West from achieving genuine wisdom does not do justice to the deeper logic of Jullien’s intercultural critique. Jullien and I strongly agree, in any case, that one must be able critically to negate whatever is one’s own. Self-negation, in the form of unlimited self-critique, is the only formula—actually a subversion of all formulas—for progressive and potentially unlimited growth and emancipation and for avoiding the constrictive confinement of the concept. Yet this critical stance vis-à-vis theology has been built into theology itself, I maintain, all along in the form of negative theology, alias apophasis. (10)

Jullien himself proposes what is, in effect, a perfectly apophatic approach to the universal that proves still to be inescapable, even after the shipwreck of Europe’s attempt to impose its brand of universality on the rest of the world through colonization. Contemporary philosophical and intercultural discussion concerning the universal may have reduced it to next to nothing: Nothing seems to be able to stand up as truly universal, once the singularity of diverse cultures is duly respected. And yet this does not necessarily mean that the universal is dead and powerless. Instead, “it is this void itself, which no signification can fill in or satisfy, that renders the universal still operative” (“c’est ce vide même, qu’aucun signifié ne comble ni ne satisfait, qui fait qu’il opère encore,” 144). Jullien, guided by classical Chinese wisdom, explains that the universal is nothing positive or possessing a distinct content, but just the opposite: in other words (which Jullien does not as such employ), the universal is the apophatic. Jullien speaks of the “operativity” of the universal, but this in the end is exactly the opposite of anything positively manifest and verifiable or directly observable and identifiable.

It [operativity] does not consist in a positive given, whatever it may be (and it is always suspect), of the order of values, but in this negative function: that, precisely, of emptying every formation-or-institution of its assurance, born of its self-sufficing totalization, and reopening a breach in the comfort of closure.

Elle [l’opérativité] ne consiste effectivement pas dans un donné positif, quel qu’il soit et toujours suspect, de l’ordre des valeurs, mais dans cette fonction négative : celle, précisément, de vider toute formation-institution de son assurance, née de la totalisation dont elle se suffit, et de rouvrir une brèche dans ce confort de la clôture. (144)

Jullien completes this description of the new form in which universality is still operative today by stressing that it is intrinsic and immanent. And yet such universality is not a given or common ground but rather a vector of motion and promotion pointing in the direction of a “passing beyond” (“dépassement,” 145), beyond any given culture’s achieved formulations. To this extent, one could say that it is also a form of transcendence. It is at least a form of self-transcendence along a horizontal axis. To the extent, moreover, that self-deconstruction is carried out without limit or reserve, it opens theoretically to all others and thus even to others imagined along a vertical axis, which means, of course, also to the God imagined by theology. An impermeable categorical distinction between human others and trans-human or supra-human alterities cannot be maintained without some fixed sense of what is human, but exactly such sense is abandoned by negative theology, which necessarily entails also a negative anthropology (11).

While Jullien sees Christianity as extending imperialistically the non-natural universality of the concept to some of its most lethal consequences, I bring out instead a kenotic side of Christianity that breaks the concept open to the inconceivable and finds there the true universality that can unite without the divisiveness which is inevitable in the concept. In this apophatic perspective, there is a kind of intrinsic self-deconstructive propulsion at work in any conceptually stated form of universalism. Its definition of itself will be undermined and pass into the more truly universal instance that it does not and cannot grasp or say—except indirectly, figuratively, projectively, and poetically. Universalism, so construed, instead of being the imposition of one’s own paradigm, to the exclusion of others, becomes practically the opposite: it becomes an opening to others and to their paradigms as prerequisite to having any sense of one’s own. What is at stake in intercultural philosophy and religion is negating one’s own cultural frame, with its inevitable background assumptions, and thereby relativizing culture per se so as to open the dimension of the absolute or religious. What is interesting to me about intercultural philosophy and religion is that it opens a space between cultures and even beyond culture—what may be clumsily called the absolute or the religious—that no culture can adequately conceptualize.

The exploration of another culture is a privileged opportunity to (re)discover one’s own. Curiously, what François Jullien discovers in China, as the counter-culture to Europe, is the lack of need for anything theological: all transpires on a plane of immanence. This is in essence the view that has been taken since Voltaire and other philosophers of the European Enlightenment, most significantly Christian Wolff (1679-1754), who, thanks to the reports of Jesuit missionaries, discovered with wonder and amazement China’s incomparably ancient, rationally administered, and hierarchically ordered civilization. What struck Wolff most was that this organizational structure seemed capable of bringing an enormous empire under the unified rule of a single authority without any appeal to God(12). The considerable archive of such accounts, inaugurated by the explorations of St. Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century and extended into subsequent centuries, made a great impression on Europe, particularly in the eighteenth century, the century of Enlightenment (“siècle des lumières”), as demonstrating that universal order in human affairs could be perfectly well achieved without recourse to a monotheistic deity. There was also, of course, the countervailing theological view, represented by Leibniz and Malebranche, that ancient Chinese wisdom embodied a natural theology compatible with Christianity and disclosing in its own way the universal rational principles of understanding and peace among humans (13).

What I am suggesting is that today, without taking sides for or against theism, one can discover through this intercultural experience how transcendence, even and especially in a theological sense, need not be opposed to immanence and its unfolding in unlimited variations of form. On the contrary, classical Chinese thought does not exclude heaven or the transcendent and divine but rather lives and thinks such dimensions in and through the sphere of what Jullien and Gilles Deleuze call “immanence.” Such immanence is a sphere, however, which, more deeply considered, cannot be called properly by any name at all. This is what Western theology, which must be understood more radically as negative theology, has signified all along, even though much of the rhetoric of theology, particularly in its more exoteric, prescriptive, and dogmatic forms, typically suggests the opposite. And yet overcoming static formulas by rejecting or forgetting theology is not the solution either. For as Hölderlin, somewhat enigmatically, put it: “where, however, danger is, there grows also what saves” (“Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst das Rettende auch,” “Patmos,” lines 3-4).

Chinese culture, too, since ancient times is actually no stranger to this implicitly theological dimension, which is, more exactly, negative-theological or apophatic. David Keightley lays great emphasis on the metaphysical and divinatory aspects of ancestor worship as it has been disclosed through decipherment of the oracle bones of the Shang. Piecing together an implicit metaphysics from the archeological record, he interprets the oracle bones in terms of a Late Shang dynasty (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.) ancestral “theology.” These records, he writes “should not, of course, be considered in terms of a purely secular historiography. The oracle-bone inscriptions record a series of ritual acts, and the theology of those acts affected the nature of the records kept.” (14) Such theology may, admittedly, be very positive and even crudely idolatrous, but it nevertheless lays the ground for apophatic negations that raise theology to the level of a critical insight indicating something beyond all merely finite determinations.

Starting right from its foundational Ur-text, the Yijing (the Book of Changes), Chinese culture displays its reverence for the endless play of changes, for what remains always other than what has already been formulated, while at the same time keeping in play the metamorphosis of forms of expression that never completely capture what they intend. Chinese culture awakens us to this always evasive, unspecifiable universality as the more subtle meaning also of our own traditions. This meaning is manifest not in any set of unchanging ideas and dogmas but in their ever-renewed and newly revealing incarnations in evolving, shifting cultural contexts.

The very idea of universalism in recent decades has undergone radical transformation, and yet the notion has proven to be resilient and has become ever more indispensable in a world of vertiginous complexity that is spinning ever further out of control so that it can no longer be comprehended by any static formulas. A wide variety of current philosophical initiatives testify to this continuing and intensified indispensability of the universal. Jullien notes the way that the critique of universalism inevitably turns against those who deploy it as a weapon for whatever interested ideological cause. The apparent challenges to universalism in the name of particular ethnicities, gender identities, or social classes turn out finally to confirm its claims and aspirations. The protest or fight on behalf of excluded minorities (Chicanos or blacks or gays or women or the disabled) remains dependent on the universality that it contests, not as such, but rather as not being universal enough because not yet including them among the recognized, which means almost inevitably also the privileged, given the virtual impossibility of not creating vast shadowy areas of anonymous neglect through focused recognition of defined categories. The exigency of recognizing every other excluded group as equally entitled to the status in question dissolves the particularism of the claim that is being asserted. The universal claim to rights cannot be fulfilled except in being emptied of all specific content and of all differential identity. It is therefore not a full-filling but rather a self-emptying that is the telos of universalism. According to Jullien, the universal is the effect of lack which reveals every identity to itself and constitutes its vocation; and which, never filled, spurs it to transform itself at the same time as it transforms its other, and therefore to not satisfy itself with its own identity either; to not close itself and stop there, at the risk otherwise of finishing in a form of exclusion which, in its triumph, would be equally abusive—in need of being overthrown. Cet effet de manque qui la révèle à elle-même et fait sa vocation ; et qui, jamais comblé, la porte à se transformer elle-même, en même temps qu’elle transforme son autre, et donc à ne pas se satisfaire non plus de sa propre identité ; à ne pas s’y clore et s’y arrêter, au risque, sinon, d’aboutir elle aussi à une forme d’exclusion qui, dans son triomphe, serait également abusive—à renverser.” (146-47)

For Jullien, the universal is not purely residual, not just a reaction against particularist claims, or their necessary opposite. Universality has more presence and power than that, even if only through and as negation. As lacking plenitude or fullness, as continually defective (continuel défectif, 148), it exerts the continual and indefectible power of the negative. From the inside, the universal is turned toward its own overflowing. The universal keeps up a constant pressure of self-surpassing on all forms of achieved identity: it undermines the self-satisfaction or sufficiency of any institutional form or structure. As such, it is the unconditioned that moves in history, reversing and overstepping all exclusions in its path. It keeps the common run of history and politics on the march and constantly in search of itself throughout all its metamorphoses, which are never final. The universal prevents the common from declining into mere communitarianism, with its inevitably sectarian tendencies. The universal keeps humanity in quest of itself—guided by an ideal of unity. Even though no culture can ever step outside of its own singularity, so as to be universally valid as such, since there is no position (or stable ground to stand on) outside all cultures and their respective languages, still a transcendental Unconditioned nevertheless motivates such universalistic aspirations. In Kant’s terms, which Jullien evokes, the universal is effective as a “transcendental ideal” (“transzendentales Ideal”).

The Kantian aesthetic judgment is a model of a singularity that paradoxically lays claim to a form of universality, even though it is not of the same categorical nature as logical judgments, since it depends on some commonality of sensibility that might be inborn but might also need to be constructed or sought out and produced. Jullien endeavors “to integrate the absolute into the singular perspective proper to diverse cultures” (“intégrer l’absolu dans la perspective singulière propre aux diverses cultures,” 155). The key, for him, to doing this is recognizing that we are “cultural subjects” rather than merely epistemological or purely transcendental subjects. He thereby seeks to circumnavigate the Scylla of a “facile universalism” (“l’universalisme facile”) that uncritically projects its own vision of the world onto others, ignoring their cultural difference, as well as the Charybdis of “lazy relativism” (“relativisme paresseux”), which uncritically leaves each culture, with its own specific values and identity, in mutual isolation, as if these specificities could never be called into question or be challenged and contested from without. By steering such a course, Jullien endeavors to extend the Kantian project of critical Enlightenment in a specifically intercultural direction. This entails, however, some highly significant differences with respect to similar undertakings conceived in terms of Western Logos philosophies. Jullien critiques in particular Jürgen Habermas’s extension of the same project in the direction of a universal logic of rational argument and an ethics of dialogue.(15) Some of the specific differences here will be brought out in the next subsection. But my reading and argument will continue to insist on the importance of (negative) theology and religion to the project of the Enlightenment and its critique—indeed on the fundamental importance of negative theology to understanding enlightenment as critique, particularly as unlimited critique.

Theology and religion were most often conceived of as the main enemies of the Enlightenment and of the universalism to which it aspired. Something of this attitude can still be found in François Jullien, as in many of his contemporaries: it is plausibly traced to eighteenth-century French anticlericalism. What I endeavor to show, by contrast, is that theology, particularly negative theology, can be the agent effecting an opening of cultures to a universalism that can fulfill the Enlightenment’s aspirations much more satisfactorily than any cult of universal reason ever could. The self-deconstruction of reason carried out to the end without limits, in fact, opens upon the unrestricted openness that ideally characterizes religious revelation (16).

Accordingly, I take myself to be basically aligned with François Jullien’s analysis of the universality of culture, even while reversing the vector of his narrative concerning theology. In my view, theology and its claim to absolute transcendence are no longer the obstacles to untrammeled communication between cultures that they were in a certain scenario of the Enlightenment, in which religion was supposed to be in the process of being overcome historically. On the contrary, theology, particularly in its negative form, tenders essential keys to precisely the type of insight necessary to make possible and to promote cross-pollination and mutual illumination between and among cultures. Obviously, Jullien and I understand different things by “theology.” My argument aims to persuade that theology should be viewed in terms not of static historical dogmas enforced by authority through ecclesiastical power hierarchies but rather in terms of its dynamic revolutionary potential to undermine all static conceptualities whatsoever in the face of “God” as the Inconceivable par excellence. Drawing inspiration also from other apophatic thinkers like Jean-Luc Nancy, I argue, particularly in the final section of this chapter, that theology is most originally negative theology and that as negative theology it is the original iconoclastic reflection of human reason turned ultimately (in the postmodern age) against itself in a self-critical apotheosis (17).


(1) De l’universel, de l’uniforme, du commun et du dialogue entre les cultures (Paris: Fayard, 2008). Failing other indications, this is the book to which page references are keyed throughout this chapter. The work is also available in an English translation by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski as On the Universal: The Uniform, the Common and Dialogue between Cultures (London: Polity Press, 2014).

(2). Martin Heidegger, “Die Frage nach der Technik,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfulingen: Neske, 1954), trans. William Lovitt as “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper, 1977), 27. This passage from Heidegger is quoted by Thomas Carlson, who pursues the question of nature and its transcendence of human technology especially in Eriugena and his tradition of apophatic theology, in “Theophany and the Chiaroscura of Nature: Eriugena and the Question of Technology,” in Eriugena and Creation, eds. Willemien Otten and Michael Allen (Bruxelles: Brepols, 2014).

(3) Jullien, Dialogue sur la morale, 52-53.

(4) The question of time is pursued by Jullien specifically in Du « Temps », Éléments d’une philosophie du vivre (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2012).

(5) Paul has galvanized contemporary philosophical discussion of universality thanks especially to Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: La fondation de l’universalisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997), trans. Ray Brassier as Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

(6) For Paul’s provocation in the rediscovery of universality among contemporary philosophers, see further St. Paul Among the Philosophers, eds. John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) and John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, ed. Creston Davis, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2010). I treat this topic more extensively in “Saint Paul Among the Theorists: A Genealogy of the New Universalism,” in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion, ed. Mark Knight (New York: Routledge, 2015).

(7) See especially the final chapter of Si parler va sans dire, 173-74.

(8) Thoughtful reflection on this head is proposed by Mario Wenning, “Hegel, Utopia, and the Philosophy of History,” in Hegel and History, ed. Will Dudley (New York: SUNY Press, 2009).

(9) In “Agamben’s Logic of Exception and its Apophatic Roots and Offshoots,” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 41/2 (September 2015), I carry this specific critique of human rights further through reference to Giorgio Agamben’s Homo sacer: Il potere soverano e la vita nuda (Turin: Einaudi, 1995), vol.1.

(10) I bring to focus this specific point in “Le commencement et la fin de la philosophie dans la mystique apophatique: De Platon au postmodernisme,” in Philosophie et mystique chez Stanislas Breton: Colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle (août 2011), ed. Jean Greisch, Jérôme de Gramont, and Marie-Odile Métral (Paris: Éditions le Cerf, 2015), 129-43.

(11) Thomas Carlson, Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) effectively brings together these two domains of logos in their inextricable, reciprocal co-implication.

(12) See especially Wolff’s Rede von der Sittenlehre der Sineser (1740) and the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de Chine par des missionnaires jésuites 1702-1776, eds. Isabelle et Jean-Louis Vissière (Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1979).

(13) For detailed discussion of these complex relations, see Discovering China: European Interpretations in the Enlightenment, ed. Julia Ching and Willard Oxtoby (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1992).

(14) David N. Keightley, “Theology and the Writings of History: Truth and the Ancestors in the Wu Ding Divination Records,” in These Bones Shall Rise Again: Selected Writings on Early China (Albany: SUNY, 2014), 218.

(15) Habermas, “Diskursethik – Notizen zu einem Begründungsprogramm,” in Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1983), trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen as Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990).

(16) I develop this as a “Critical Negative Theology of Poetic Language” in Part 1 of my Poetry and Apocalypse.

(17) I offer an extended reading of Nancy in this frame in chapter 4 of A Philosophy of the Unsayable (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014).

Apeiron Centre, 2015


William Franke

Professor of comparative literature and religious studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and professor of philosophy and religions at the University of Macao in China.


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