Transcendence, Immanence, and Intercultural Philosophy
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Transcendence, Immanence, and Intercultural Philosophy

Nahum Brown, William Franke, Nahum Brown, William Franke

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Transcendence, Immanence, and Intercultural Philosophy

Nahum Brown, William Franke, Nahum Brown, William Franke

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About This Book

This book presents detailed discussions from leading intercultural philosophers, arguing for and against the priority of immanence in Chinese thought and the validity of Western interpretations that attempt to import conceptions of transcendence. The authors pay close attention to contemporary debates generated from critical analysis of transcendence and immanence, including discussions of apophasis, critical theory, post-secular conceptions of society, phenomenological approaches to transcendence, possible-world models, and questions of practice and application. This book aims to explore alternative conceptions of transcendence that either call the tradition in the West into question, or discover from within Western metaphysics a thoroughly dialectical way of thinking about immanence and transcendence.

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Part I
The Debate: Methodological Position Statements
© The Author(s) 2016
Nahum Brown and William Franke (eds.)Transcendence, Immanence, and Intercultural Philosophy10.1007/978-3-319-43092-8_1
Begin Abstract

1. Getting Past Transcendence: Determinacy, Indeterminacy, and Emergence in Chinese Natural Cosmology

Roger T. Ames1
Department of Philosophy, Peking University, Haidian, Beijing, 100871, China
Roger T. Ames
Roger T. Ames
is Peking University Chair Professor of Humanities, and former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawai’i. He has authored interpretative studies of Chinese philosophy such as Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary (2011), and translations of Chinese classics such as the Confucian Analects (1998) (with H. Rosemont).
End Abstract

What Is Strict Transcendence?

Strict philosophical or theological transcendence is to assert that an independent and superordinate principle A originates, determines, and sustains B, where the reverse is not the case. Such transcendence renders B absolutely dependent upon A, and thus, nothing in itself. The formalist notion of eidos that is foundational in Plato as antecedent “ideals” that together constitute the single Good or the notion of an independent, absolute, eternal, self-sufficient, and hence unchanging creator God that emerges in mainstream Christian theology would be two philosophical and theological examples of such strict transcendence.
Much familiar cosmological baggage has followed in the wake of a philosophical or theological commitment to this kind of strict transcendence, beginning from kosmos or “uni-verse” as a single-ordered world and including metaphysics as a science of first principles, cosmogony that appeals to a single, metaphysical, originative source, teleological design and final causes, substance ontology and its essentialism, the dualism entailed by ontological disparity between essence and attribute, foundationalism, linear causality, objectivity, formalism, and a correspondence understanding of truth. And one important signature of strict transcendence that, as we will see, has immediate relevance to a discussion of “apophatism”—that is, the religious belief that God as completely “Other” cannot be known and thus must be described in negative terms—is a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.
Over the years and in different places, my collaborators and I have argued consistently against the relevance of this kind of transcendence and its philosophical entailments for Chinese natural cosmology. 1 But this is not a position we have just staked out for ourselves; early on, we participated in a nuanced and sustained argument being advanced by a community of scholars, both Chinese and Western, who we have come to regard as the best interpreters of Chinese cosmology. For example, Marcel Granet has said explicitly, “Chinese wisdom has no need of the idea of God.” 2 Tang Junyi 唐君毅 again has stated rather starkly:
The Chinese as a people have not embraced a concept of “Heaven” (tian天) that has transcendent meaning. The pervasive idea that Chinese have with respect to tian is that it is inseparable from the world. 3
Joseph Needham has in many different places made the argument that “Chinese ideals involved neither God nor Law .… Thus the mechanical and the quantitative, the forced and the externally imposed, were all absent. The notion of Order excluded the notion of Law.” 4 And Angus Graham, worrying about the eliding of classical Greek metaphysics and Chinese cosmology in our interpretation of Chinese concepts, observes:
In the Chinese cosmos all things are interdependent, without transcendent principles by which to explain them or a transcendent origin from which they derive…. A novelty in this position which greatly impresses me is that it exposes a preconception of Western interpreters that such concepts as Tian “Heaven” and Dao “Way” must have the transcendence of our own ultimate principles; it is hard for us to grasp that even the Way is interdependent with man. 5

William Franke’s Transcendent Apophatism

William Franke has written much that would contest the claim that strict transcendence has no relevance for Chinese cosmology by associating the “nothingness” that is pervasive in Confucian and Daoist philosophies with apophatism. How does he understand apophatism, and does it have an analog in Chinese cosmology?
In A Philosophy of the Unsayable, Franke sees an important role for apophatic thinking in our own philosophical and theological narrative, locating it between the sometimes shrill dialectic of what he describes as a kind of secularized immanentalism on the one hand and the Anglo-Saxon and Continental resurgence of a radical orthodoxy on the other. Secularized immanentalism in embracing Nietzsche’s death-of-God rhetoric is the kind of empiricism that rejects the utterly transcendent and the “theo-ontological thinking” that grounds it. As Franke observes, “starting from the world in its actuality—this world as it reveals itself in human life and society without externally imposed metaphysical and a fortiori theological constructions—is the bottom line for secular theology.” 6 Radical orthodoxy, on the other hand, starts at the opposite end by insisting that “it is necessary to start from theological revelation as expressed in the Christian vision and its narrative in order to understand the world—and not the other way round.” 7 Franke argues that while both positions tend to reject apophatic thinking, apophatism is, in fact, the common root or “radicality” that these two positions share. And I think he has a warrant for this argument.
Apophatic thinking in the form of a deconstructive nihilism is necessary for secularized immanentalism to challenge and ultimately negate historical pretenses of theological and philosophical tyranny—that is, to kill God—as a precondition for its own transvaluation of values. Secular immanentalism begins dialectically from a rejection of the transcendent followed by a secular overcoming of the consequent nihilism that such a rejection has produced, seeking to replace the putatively transcendent given with the audacious human genius who can do the ex nihilo job for us. For such existentialists, there is human “being” and there is nothingness.
And again, radical orthodoxy needs apophatism as its ultimate source of theological revelation—the erstwhile Christian vision and its narrative. The attempts to “produce” meaning in the case of secularized immanentalism and apprehend the “revealed” meaning for radical orthodoxy are deeply rooted in a transcendent “ex nihilo” apophatism—the former with human beings seeking to make great things out of our “nothingness” and the latter opening a space for an otherwise unknown Divinity to intercede in the human experience and in so doing, to invest our lives with meaning. As such, both appeal to transcendent apophatisms.
But Franke wants apophatic thinking to do more for philosophy and theology, much more. Where radical orthodoxy with enormous confidence is quite willing to speak on behalf of the revealed God, for Franke, this radically Other transcendent source is so lofty and distant that it is only in the negation of our familiar categories that we can even hope to gesture in Its direction. And while radical orthodoxy would appeal to revelation as the source of and justification for its own authority, Franke would marshal apophatic thinking against precisely this kind of doctrinal hegemony to serve as “a rigorous and sometimes an aggressive critique of every concept, especially of every theological concept.” 8 For him, negative theology must be “taken as a critical resource and finally as a means of infinite self-criticism of every possible philosophical formulation.” 9
Although Franke’s own critical apophatism would seem to join ranks with secular immanentialism as an unrelenting challenge to the kinds of religious and philosophical dogmatism that come to constitute an orthodoxy, still, as an avid defender of theology himself, Franke not only accepts but is also inspired by the assumption that it is ultimately a transcendent God that is the source of all meaning, and as such, is deserving of our abject deference. The theological and philosophical logos that provides the connections among the things of our world for Franke is certainly derived from God, and it is only through these things “and their immanent being that this glory of the transcendent being (esse) or God can express itself, be it ever so little and inadequately.” 10 That is, “it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves:” 11
This idea of Nothing as universal emanating source is developed penetratingly by the negative theology of the ancient Neoplatonic philosophers from Plotinus to Damascius. 12
Franke’s transcendent apophatism is clear. This “Nothing” is the single, independent source, and the human role is to surrender to and accord with this radical Other. In his own words:
Whenever Western tradition is seen in the light of apophasis as its deepest thinking, true mastery is always found only in the surrender to Nothing at the core of an all-encompassing Nature that cannot be adequately named in this way or in any other. 13

Is There an “Apophatism” with Chinese Characteristics?

But how then can Chinese cosmology join this conversation? The question that I will now turn to is whether or not Franke’s transcendent apophatism is helpful in our reading of Chinese cosmology as the interpretive context needed for understanding Confucian and Daoist philosophies. Indeed, I will argue below that given the irrelevance of strict transcendence and its ontological baggage for an emergent, processual Chinese cosmology, the “nothingness” that is central to both Confucian and Daoist philosophies must be clearly distinguished from the kind of transcendent apophatism offered by Franke as its best explanation. That is, the kind of “nothingness” we find in the Chinese canons, far from being prompted by positing the existence of antecedent, independent, and originative principles (including Nothing as an emanating source), is necessary precisely because of the absence of such determinants. The world is not created by something Other; it is an autogenerative, “self-so-ing” (ziran 自然), gerundive process, where “self” in this familiar mantra is inclusive of the world and all its bounty, and the only kind of creativity is a reflexive co-creativity. “It is we in the world who are making each other, and not God Himself.”
There certainly is an appeal to an indeterminate “nothingness” pervasive in Chinese cosmology that might evoke an association with apophatism. This cosmology begins from the assumed primacy of vital, constitutive relationality, and the persistent need we have as human “becomings”...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Frontmatter
  3. 1. The Debate: Methodological Position Statements
  4. 2. Critical Reflections on Traditions of Transcendence
  5. Backmatter