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Being What You Want: problematic kataphatic identity vs. potential of apophatic identity?


Being What You Want
Kataphatic identity -- the "positive" approach
Apophatic identity -- the "negative" approach
Definitions of identity and their unquestioning acceptance
Misappropriation of the apophatic way
Fruitful reframing: acceptance of doubt and alternatives
Potential socio-political implications
Expectation of resolution?
Recovering a fundamental right and freedom
Existentially paradoxical strategy of "being what one wants"
Emergence of a wisdom society?

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The terms apophasis and kataphasis were first used by Aristotle to describe categorical propositions as either affirmation or denial, saying or unsaying. Apophasis refers to the negation and kataphasis to the affirmation. In discussing the current significance of the apophatic and kataphatic traditions in the 20th century, David Henderson (2003) notes that the concept of apophasis was given its radical transcendence by the Neoplatonists, Plotinus and Proclus, and introduced into Christianity by Pseudo-Dionysius, the 5th century Syrian monk, who brought together Greek and Jewish concepts of the apophatic.

In reflecting on the nature of divinity, a distinction is commonly made in some traditions between kataphatic theology (also spelt cataphatic theology) and apophatic theology -- between two approaches to the essentially incomprehensible, even terrifying, nature of divinity. The former describes and defines the nature of divinity through explicit terminology. The latter highlights the inadequacies of such statements by stressing what deity is not. Hence the latter is also described as negative theology and the former as positive theology. In some traditions contemplation first focuses on the former before later focusing on the mysteries associated with the latter.

The current cognitive challenge considered here is essentially that of responding to complexity, uncertainty and unspeakable horror -- notably instigated and systematically sustained by those claiming to uphold the highest human values. Ironically it might be said to be well articulated in the words of the appropriately named Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (The Mystical Theology) in his effort in the 5th century to distinguish between the apophatic and kataphatic:

The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.

Aside from this theological focus, the question explored here is whether understanding of human beings and human communities -- and the global problematique -- might be fruitfully explored through analogous contrasting modes. Are the conventional efforts to articulate the challenge of the 21st century inhibiting appropriate understanding and action?

Are individuals more appropriately understood, if only by themselves, in terms of what they are not rather than how it is convenient to define them by social convention? What might be the implications -- especially where individuals currently identify with material products, thereby inhibiting the transition to more sustainable patterns of consumption.

The credibility of any such comparison in any faith-based context is notably reinforced in those traditions that recognize that individuals are made in the image of deity, or by those who promote a recognition of the divine within each person. Such understandings are held to be intimately associated with contemplation of the significance of the relationship of individuals with deity, of participation in the life of divinity and of divine participation in human life -- a focus of theosis and theoria.

Whilst there is an extensive literature on the apophatic approach, the obscure term is perhaps indicative of the manner in which the options it represents have been rendered obscure -- to the advantage of theologians and philosophers who use it -- rather than being presented as an opportunity for all, irrespective of their conventionally recognized expertise.

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