- Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions Without Borders by William Franke
To best appreciate the contribution of William Franke’s most recent addition to his ongoing work on the philosophy of the unsayable, readers are advised to begin not with the “Preface and Argument,” nor with the first chapter, “All or Nothing?: Nature in Chinese Thought and the Apophatic Occident,” but rather with the Epilogue, “Intercultural Dia-logue and Its Apophatic Interstices.” By beginning with this helpful intervention appended at the end, the reader will then be able to proceed through this book without feeling perpetually distracted by what, for me, became a nagging question: if this book is (as suggested by its title and the publisher’s ad copy) an attempt to mitigate the propagation of East–West dualism by demonstrating the universality of apophatic thought, then why is the author so focused on expounding, defending, arguing with, justifying, and modifying the work of the French philosopher, François Jullien? Is there no other way to make this argument?
Of course, any reader familiar with Jullien’s work—whose provocatively personal thinking through of the “gap” between the Greek and Chinese classical philosophical traditions remains as stimulating as it is [End Page 424] controversial—would fully expect Professor Franke to refer to Jullien (along with a plethora of other scholars grappling with the difficulties of comparative philosophy) as needed, at specifically relevant moments throughout a discussion that seeks to align “Western” and Chinese “cultures.” But why does Jullien figure so prominently in this book, so much so that Haun Saussy’s blurb quite reasonably describes it simply as the first “full representation in English” of François Jullien’s work? How does the author’s passionately ambivalent regard for Jullien figure in the methodology that shapes this project as described? Without a clear understanding of this strategy, it is difficult to evaluate the validity of Franke’s arguments, be they general or local.
The answer, fortunately, is clearly articulated in the epilogue, and it is both refreshing and elucidating. Jullien, besides being Professor Franke’s primary port of entry into early Chinese texts, is also, in Franke’s own view, a thinker whose approach to philosophy writ large is “remarkably close” to his own, and whose representation of “classical Chinese thinking” resonates strongly with the apophatic thinking he himself has long been exploring in Western thought and literature. Of course, being remarkably close also means being surprisingly—and usefully—different. And so it is that Jullien is recruited to serve as both a (necessarily suppressed) conduit to the Chinese materials, and a (necessarily highlighted) foil for Franke’s own views. In view of Franke’s insistence, across many volumes of work, on the unique power of negative discourse to convey what is most true and real about human experience, his decision to articulate his views largely through the use of a foil, rather than exclusively through extended, positive analytical discourse, is a recognizably pragmatic, if (in this case) not always a wholly effective, move.
It is easy to summarize what Franke believes he shares with Jullien: both of them recognize that the only way to gain access to what is real and true is to recognize and distance oneself from the contingencies of one’s own culture, language, and historical situatedness; and the only way to achieve this capacity for self-critique, for that is what this entails, is through engagement with “an other.” For Jullien, that other is classical Chinese culture and language (especially those aspects of it that are shaped by Daoist thought). For Franke, that other is the ever-present, and ever-peripheral tradition of negative theology that runs through (or, more accurately, alongside) the history of Western thought. Even more to the point, their respective “others” further share the characteristic of relying on language to signify what lies beyond its reach.
For Franke, it is specifically this common ground that makes Jullien particularly useful as the positive value against which Franke can posit...