Whitehead and the Apophatic
Four Helpful Ideas
"There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to the finality of a statement is an exhibition of folly."
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
There are many kinds of darkness, both positive and negative. The darkness of the ocean's depths, the darkness of a tranquil and sacred night, the darkness of a calloused heart, the darkness of dreamless sleep, the darkness of a cave or coal mine, the darkness of despair, the darkness of a creative imagination, and the darkness of unknowing. We can speak of physical darkness, moral darkness, creative darkness, and what some call mystical darkness, or the darkness of unknowing.
The darkness of unknowing is also a kind of knowing. It is unknowing in that it is a falling away of words and concepts - the very means by which things are ordinarily known. This falling away can include a sense of uncertainty, bewilderment, and insecurity, not unlike walking through a forest on a dark night without a light. But it is a knowing in that it includes forms of non-verbal and non-conceptual awareness that have cognitive value in their own right, but not of the verbal or conceptual type. We know something in our unknowing, It is, as it were, "apophatic awareness."
The term "apophatic" comes from the Greek word "ἀποφατικός" (apophatikós), which is related to the verb "ἀποφάναι" (apophánai), meaning "to deny" or "to speak away." In philosophical and theological contexts, "apophatic" refers to a way of knowing or describing something by saying what it is not, rather than saying what it is. The thing that is described is "not this and not that." The word is often used in discussions of mysticism, especially in Christian and Neoplatonic traditions, where it is employed to describe a form of mystical theology that seeks to understand and approach the divine by emphasizing what cannot be said or known about God through human language or concepts. It is typically juxtaposed with what is called a cataphatic approach. The word "cataphatic" is comes from the Greek word "κατάφασις" (kataphasis), which means "affirmation" or "positive statement." It is a theological and philosophical term that refers to a positive or affirmative approach to describing the divine or the ultimate reality. The Christian and Neoplatonic traditions include both the apophatic and the cataphatic, sometimes woven together: a mysticism of silence and a mysticism of affirmation.
My interest here is on what I'd like to call apophatic awareness or apophatic knowing, rather than apophatic theology. I am interested, not so much in what we can or cannot say about God or the world, but in how we might feel the presence of God and the world in ways that are non-linguistic and non-conceptual. These ways are "dark" in that the ostensive light of words and concepts has fallen away, bringing with the falling a sense of uncertainty, bewilderment, and insecurity. And they are also "light" in that they include ways of knowing that are non-linguistic and non-conceptual. Imagine you are in a small boat in a wide and deep ocean, aware of the depths of the ocean which your mind cannot fathom. You are filled with a bit of fear and wonder. This is apophatic awareness.
Some apophatic forms of awareness, of knowing, are quite ordinary and not usually called "mystical." They include musical knowing, in which we know things through melodies, harmonies, and beats; kinesthetic knowing, including knowing through movement; introspective knowing, in which we know our own moods and feelings; and empathic knowing in which we feel the feeling of others. It also includes intuitions of depths beyond conceptual comprehension. In all of these modes, we have a certain kind of positive knowledge, what the tradition calls cataphatic, but the positive knowledge is not of the conceptual or linguistic type. It includes a sense that what is experienced is always more than, and not reducible to, what is conceptually known, much less what is said. Apophatic forms of awareness are non-verbal experiences of transcendence.
These various forms of apophatic awareness can be felt in relation to the finite world as well as the infinite God. If we think of the divine or ultimate reality as "above" us or "deeper" than us, as represented by the horizontal axis of a diagram, then our apophatic awareness of another person, animal, or the rest of the natural world, or of the collective unconscious within us, can be represented by the horizontal axis. Apophatic awareness can be horizontal or vertical, or both. In either case we intuit a mystery we cannot fully grasp as something that is present to us but transcends us. I do not mean to suggest that the vertical sacred – God or ultimate reality – is radically different from the depth of, say, another person. The divine reality may well be inside of, not apart from, the other person whose depths we experience. The very metaphor of horizontal and vertical has its weaknesses.
Four Helpful Ideas
So, how can we apprehend what we do not and cannot fully comprehend? Four ideas in Whitehead's philosophy can help us understand and appreciate apophatic knowing.
- Non-Verbal Prehensions: Whitehead's doctrine of prehension offers a framework for appreciating these diverse modes of knowing. He suggests that, at every moment of our lives, we are emotionally or affectively taking into account other realities, incorporating them into our immediate experience. He characterizes the subjective act of considering others as "prehending" them, whether consciously or unconsciously. He also posits that every act of prehending includes some form of emotional tone, a "subjective form," as he terms it. Acts of prehending, with their various subjective forms, can encompass the physical, mental, imaginative, anticipatory, sensory, and extra-sensory. These subjective forms can include appreciation, disgust, attraction, repulsion, wonder, fear, anger, love, anxiety, and a sense of mystery. We can prehend other actualities in the physical world as well as possibilities in the mental realm. In fact, he suggests, we can and do prehend the inclusive consciousness and encompassing context in which the universe unfolds - God. We do so through the experience of ideals that are beyond words: truth, goodness, beauty for example. We do so through the experience of moment-by-moment callings (initial aims) which include, within their very content, not only fresh possibilities but also the divine desire that we actualize them. We feel God's feelings. And we do so in feeling part of a larger Whole of wholes in which we live and move and have our being, which is not itself an object among objects, but a fathomless milieu in which the entire universe swims.
- Ideas without Words: A second aspect of Whitehead's philosophy that lends itself to an appreciation of apophatic knowing is his idea of non-verbal “propositions.” For Whitehead, propositions are ideas that function in human life as lures for feeling. They may be true or false or anywhere in between, but, he says, it is just as important that they be interesting. Whereas many might presuppose that propositions are, by definition, linguistic, Whitehead uncouples propositions from their linguistic expressions and, more particularly, the subject-predicate mode of grammar. Ideas can be communicated in other ways: through gestures, movements, sounds, rituals, and architecture, for example. This means that we can know about people, have ideas about them, that do not come through discursive language, but may nevertheless carry truths or insights about them. We may be ‘in the dark’ conceptually but ‘in the light,’ so to speak in other ways.
- Unconscious Experience: A third aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy that lends itself to apophatic knowing is his rich concept of unconscious experience. Like Freud, Jung, and other depth psychologists, he believes that most of our experience occurs beneath the level of consciousness and that, as Sheri Kling points out, we can know things unconsciously that are not yet brought into the light of consciousness. The “things we know” can be about other people, the natural world, or God. Inasmuch as discursive knowledge is connected with consciousness, a roadblock to discursive knowledge (in Zen koans, for example) can be an occasion for the welling up of non-discursive, previously unconscious knowing.
- The Depths: A fourth aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy that lends itself to an appreciation of apophatic knowing is his notion of the depth of each moment of experience. In Whitehead’s philosophy, every moment of experience, our own or anyone else’s, includes prehensions of the entire past history of the universe, directly or indirectly, and, added to that, is the idea the universe itself may have not absolute beginning. This means that the collective unconscious within each person, the collective memory, is uncountable and unfathomable. When we look into the eyes of a person, the universe is present, even though we are glimpsing but a fraction of it. The same applies when we look into ourselves.
These four ideas can help us appreciate the non-verbal forms of knowing that elude discursive knowing and that are, in this way, apophatic. Five points must quickly be made.
First, there is no reason to assume that apophatic knowing is perfect, certain, or complete. We may know others, ourselves, and God apophatically, and yet all are incomplete. Apophatic forms, too, are puny, if presumed to capture the depths of things.
Second, apophatic knowing can include non-linguistic forms of knowing evil as well as good; what is destructive as well as what is constructive; what is harmful as well as healing. I have focused on the positive side, but it is not the whole story. When we encounter horrible forms of destruction and hatred, cruelty and greed, we are thrown into mysteries beyond words.
Third, apophatic knowing need not require a rejection of linguistic knowing as valuable in its own right, It inevitably abstracts from the depths of things, but it may well abstract features of the depths that are important and offer guidance. Humans cannot live by apophasis alone.
Fourth, linguistic and mathematical forms of knowing can open us into various forms of apophatic knowing. Poetry, for example, takes us into a world beyond words, as does music. And mathematics does the same, taking us into levels of awe and beauty that include non-verbal intuition as well as conceptual clarity. Any sharp dichotomy between linguistic knowing and non-verbal knowing misses the point that they often go together, feeding one another.
Fifth and finally, it is important to recognize that there may be dimensions of reality that cannot be known at all, apophatically or cataphatically, non-conceptually or conceptually. They are "not this and not that," and also, from the perspective, human knowing, not anything at all. At least not anything with a form of any sort that can be known.
Creativity and God
Interestingly, Whitehead describes the ultimate reality of the universe, which he calls Creativity. He often speaks as if it were a reality of some kind, but adds: "It is only then capable of characterization through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality." (Process and Reality). Thus understood, Creativity is not God or a finite reality in the world; it is not an actual entity or an eternal object; it is not this or that. It lacks actuality except as embodied. And yet it is the ultimate reality. Can we be aware of it? Only through apophatic and cataphatic awareness of God and the world.
It is disappointing to many that Whitehead does not offer a more apophatic approach to God. To be sure, as with any actual entity, God is both a timeless envisioning of pure potentialities (the primordial nature) and an everlasting empathy for each and every finite actuality (consequent nature). In both respects, God includes depths far beyond conceptual and verbal description and apprehension. And yet when it comes to experiencing God, Whitehead's focus is on love not mystery, and in this sense cataphatic not apophatic. In speaking of the Christianity he writes:
"There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present."
Is an experience of the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world apophatic? Certainly it is in that the experience is non-verbal. This, I believe, is as close as Whitehead gets to apophatic awareness of the divine. Perhaps it is enough.
- Jay McDaniel