Difference and indistinction Meister Eckhart

In the formulation of Meister Eckhart's theology, however, the Dionysian hierarchy - whether in the form of an ontology of degrees of being, or in that of the outflow of descending illuminations - notably plays little if any part. If 'difference' is central to that theology and spirituality, the carefully structured hierarchical gradings of the pseudo-Denys found in chapters 4 and 5 of his Mystical Theology in Eckhart are relatively underplayed, yielding central place within his theological scheme to one central distinction which entirely eclipses all others. This is the distinction, on the one hand, between those created distinctions which obtain between one creature and another - between each hoc aliquid ('this something') as an unum distinctum ('distinct individual') - and, on the other, that distinction which obtains between every esse hoc et hoc (this or that existent) and the unum indistinctum ('the-one-who-is-not-distinct') of the divine esse.

For Eckhart, a created individual is an instantiation of a kind, a hoc et hoc, a 'this, that or the other', enumerable on condition of falling under a description. I can count the number of people in this room if I know under what description something counts as a person, the number of desks if I know under what description something counts as a desk. But I cannot count the number of things in this room, because 'thing' is not a description definite enough that enumerable instances fall under it. Likewise, I can distinguish kinds from one another against the background of more general descriptions: I can tell horses from sheep because they differ as animals, or chalk from cheese because they differ in chemical composition or taste or texture. But there is here an apparent paradox, in logical form much the same as that of the pseudo-Denys: the less things differ, the easier it is to describe how they differ. It is easy to say how a cat and a mouse differ, because we can readily describe what they differ as; they belong, we might say, to a readily identifiable community of difference - that of animals. But how does this piece of Camembert cheese differ from 11.30 in the morning? Here, the community of difference is too diffuse, too indeterminate, for this difference, obviously bigger as it is than that of chalk and cheese, to be so easily described. In general, the bigger the difference, the harder, not easier, it is to describe the manner of its difference.

Of course, the logic of difference thus described does not require of us any deterministic account of types or species or 'categories', for this logic entails no particular ontological commitments as such. As it stands, however, this logic already has consequences for the question: how far can language cope with the difference between God and creation? It follows that it cannot cope at all; or, if we are to say anything about this distinction, it is the paradoxical sort of thing Eckhart says about it, namely that God is distinct from any creature in this alone, that if any creature is necessarily a distinct being, a hoc aliquid, God is not. A creature is, as he puts it, an unum distinctum, distinct from another by means of its difference in respect of some background sameness which they share, whereas God is an unum indistinctum, that is to say, is distinct from any creature whatsoever in this, that, unlike any creature, God is not distinct in kind from anything created at all - for there is no background against which a distinction of kind can be set. Therefore, God is distinct because God alone is not distinct. 'Indistinction', as he puts it, 'belongs to God, distinction to creatures.'29

Moreover, if God is not a describably distinct kind of anything, God cannot be an individual distinct from other individuals, and so cannot be counted at all. Suppose you were to count up all the things in the world on some lunatic system of enumeration - all the things that there are, have been and will be - and suppose they come to the number n. Then I say, 'Hold on; I am a theist and there is one being you haven't yet counted, and that is the being who created them all, God.' Would I be right to say that now the sum total of things is n + 1? Emphatically no. There is no need to paraphrase Eckhart here, for he says for himself in his Commentary on Exodus: 'God is one in all ways and according to every respect so that he cannot find any multiplicity in himself... Anyone who beholds the number two or who beholds distinction does not behold God, for God is one, outside and beyond number, and is not counted with anything.'30 But, we may ask, how can God be one - unum - if not countable in any series, if not in any way another individual, so as not to be one more something, not a hoc aliquid; how an unum, if indistinctum? And if God is not an individual, is God therefore many? That neither, for the argument which shows that God is not one more individual must also show that God is not many more individuals. Neither one nor many: so neither an individual distinct from everything else, nor many, identical with everything else; hence 'one', but not an individual; 'distinct' from everything, but not as anything; hence, an unum indistinctum. And we should note that what holds for the divine oneness holds also for the Trinity itself. If there are in any sense 'three' in God, there is nothing of which there are three instantiations in God, any more than there is any 'one' instance of anything called 'God' in which there are 'three'. The same principle of apophaticism holds of the divine Trinity - not three instances of anything, as of the divine essence - there is nothing of which God is one instance. In God 'one' and 'three' are equally mysteries; and the Trinity is the 'negation of the negation' between them.

But if'to know an affirmation is to know its negation', then God's being beyond difference entails God's being beyond sameness. If what Jacques Derrida means by saying that 'every other is completely other' is that there is no ultimate 'sameness' of such nature that it stands in no possible relation of 'otherness', then of course he is right, for of course every 'sameness' is determinable by reference to its differences from something

29 Eckhart, Commentary on Exodus 20.104, in Bernard McGinn (ed) with Frank Tobin and

Elvira Borgstadt, Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, New York: Paulist Press, 1986, p. 79.

else. But then it follows also that there can be no ultimacy to any particular 'difference' either: it is 'difference' which is ultimate, not a difference. For 'sameness' and 'difference' have the same apophatic destination, as it were, in that they can only ultimately disappear into that same vortex of unknowing which is beyond both. Just as you could not have a sameness which establishes itself beyond all possible difference, so you could not have a difference which is, without qualification, altogether beyond all possible similarity.

With which Derrida may be construed as thus far agreeing: he affirms this hegemony of 'difference', he says, not in order to affirm some new ultimacy, only now a purely negative one, but in order to affirm only a penultimacy - which is not, we may add, to insist upon anything, but rather to desist from all possible forms of ultimacy, from every 'destination', even an ultimacy of the negative. To declare the ultimacy of 'differance' is precisely not to propose, but on the contrary to deny, some new ontology of difference, according to which there is an ultimate difference. But that is what he accuses the negative theologians of affirming when they insist upon their 'ontological distinction'. For it is precisely in that insistence of negative theology, in what appears to be a surreptitious, last-minute, retrieval of the existential quantifier 'there is a ...' attached to their ultimate difference, that an onto-theological sleight of hand is forced out into the open, thus to regain for their apophaticisms a divine 'destination', their postponements and deferrals notwithstanding -a given, superessential presence of an absolute absence, generative of all lesser, postponable, essential difference. More to the point, it is precisely this dilemma which a natural theology, purporting to demonstrate that God exists, must face - since a natural theology would seem to say both that God's existence is unknowably 'other' and that it is demonstrable, in which case how could it be other than knowable? In any case, for Derrida, this khora, this 'place' of 'otherness', cannot possess the name of the God of the negative theologians because it cannot be, as God is, 'a giver of good gifts',31 and could not therefore be the Creator. A 'place of indeterminacy' can do nothing.

Therefore, this tactic of the negative theologians contains, he thinks, an impossibility, a contradiction. For the theologians must choose one position or another, they must be required to resolve their ambiguities. On the one hand, they may mean that this 'there is a ...' is itself cancelled as affirmative utterance by their negative theology of ultimate difference; and the tendency of their apophaticism would seem to force them down this line, for after all, the theologians do concede this 'erasure', for how

31 Derrida, 'How to Avoid Speaking', pp. 106-8.

can they allow an ordinary, undeconstructed existential affirmation as a foundation for their apophaticism, and do they not insist that their God is 'being beyond being'32 and 'within the predicate neither of nonbeing nor of being', as Denys says? On the other hand, if not thus apophatically cancelled, must not this 'there is a ...' remain in place as an existential quantifier, thereby onto-theologically and idolatrously cancelling the apophaticism? Hence, negative theology collapses either into the ceaseless penultimacy of an atheistic deconstruction or else into an idolatrous onto-theology. As a project, therefore, negative theology will resolve its ambiguities only to be caught on one horn or other of a dilemma.

To which, in turn, it may be provisionally replied: the negative theologies of the pseudo-Denys and of Eckhart do not affirm, as if at the last minute to hypostatise, some one difference as a sort of ultimate 'absence', any more than they affirm the ultimacy of some sameness and presence, of some given identity. For both recognise that a difference, any difference, is determinable. But what is 'beyond similarity and difference' is not in some measurable, calculable degree of difference from creation, even if different beings in the created order are in determinably different degrees of difference from God, because in determinably different degrees of difference from one another. God's 'difference' does not cancel created differences. Nor is 'the ontological distinction' between God and creatures in any knowable sense or degree 'beyond' anything knowable; for our language of 'difference', that is to say, our language as such, falls short of God to a degree which is itself absolutely beyond description; it therefore could not be the case that we could say how different God is. This ontological distinction is 'beyond' precisely by reason of its unknowabil-ity and indetermination, so that it inhabits some place neither of absolute presence nor of absolute absence; hence, we might just as well say, as Nicholas of Cusa in fact does say, that God is ly non-Aliud ('the one and only not-other') as say that he is in any way 'ly Aliud' ('the absolutely other')33 - which, after all, is the same logic as Meister Eckhart's '[God is] distinct by virtue of indistinction'.

In the meantime, Derrida's collapsing of all 'otherness', whether created or uncreated, into a uniformly 'total' otherness, is logically incoherent nonsense, yet it is a nonsense which appears to be forced upon him

32 Eckhart, Sermon 83, Renovamini Spiritu, in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense, ed. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, London: SPCK, 1981, p. 206.

33 Nicholas of Cusa, De ly non-Aliud, the text and translation of which are in Nicholas of Cusa on God as Not-other, ed. and trans. Jasper Hopkins, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1979.

out of grounds in a hardly more than rhetorical, and hyperbolic, moralising about the 'otherness' of the 'other person'. Derrida's generalised apophaticism of 'otherness' as such seems to have its roots in a view of the 'otherness' of persons which takes to a point of absurdity their irreducible inaccessibility to my subjectivity, to my ego, so that he can insist that

God, as the wholly other, is to be found everywhere there is something of the wholly other. And since each of us, everyone else, each other is infinitely other in its absolute singularity, inaccessible, solitary, transcendent, nonmanifest, originally nonpresent to my ego ... then what can be said about Abraham's relation to God can be said about my relation without relation to every other (one) as every (bit) other [tout autre comme tout autre], in particular my relation to my neighbor or my loved ones who are as inaccessible to me, as secret and transcendent as Jahweh.34

It is true that it is such things which you have to say if you are to speak intelligibly of an 'otherness' which is 'totally other'. But if no such otherness could be a finitely knowable, determinable, otherness, then it could not be true of any finite relation, which is why Derrida's principle, 'every other is completely other', is not only a straightforward logical absurdity, it is also an ethically offensive one, for all its apparently benign origins in Levinas's less radically stated ethics of 'alterity'. For the 'otherness' of another person is not and cannot be an absolute heterogeneity; an incorrigible and incommunicable 'thisness' which is not a this something or other; it cannot be an absolutely inaccessible 'singularity', not unless some ethic is to be founded upon the otherness of the other as some blank, anonymous reference point of a semantically empty demonstrative pronoun. For I love my 'loved ones' certainly as 'other', perhaps as 'irreducibly other', but certainly not as 'wholly other', for that is to love them into a vacuous non-entity, and if I love you as making 'all the difference', it is as making all the difference to a shared whatness, that is, to what we humans are. It is God whom we cannot love on terms of any antecedently given common ground, which is why Eckhart can say that 'you should love God as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage'.35 But if that is so, it is also why, as Eckhart says, we cannot know or love God as any sort of individual, for there is no sense to the notion of an individuality, but of no sort, which is why my 'singularity' cannot be total: it is only God who is totally singular, not being any sort

34 Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996, p. 78

(emphasis added).

35 Eckhart, Sermon 83; Essential Sermons, p. 208.

of thing,36 and so, paradoxically, is not in any created sense an individual at all.

In consequence, Derrida can have no God precisely because either he collapses all the differentiations of difference into a monolithic, logically and ethically vacuous univocity of absolute difference, or else he reduces it to a multifarious equivocity, depending on which way we (and he) read it. But neither Eckhart nor Thomas Aquinas thought either of these things: either, that is to say, that there is no end to difference, or that there is a difference at the end. That being said, however, Derrida's question remains a fair one, requiring an answer: how consistently with this emphatic negativity, and on what grounds, can the theologians say, 'God exists'? What is the logic of this 'existence' of God?

36 It will, of course, be said that there being common ground between God and human beings is precisely what the incarnation brings us news of, such that we can love God and be loved by God on that common ground - without it we could not love God at all. Just so. The gift of that common ground is what Eckhart, following Thomas, means by grace. But rather than Eckhart's apophaticism standing in the way of such a gift's being given and received, it is precisely Derrida's which does so, for it is as excluding the possibility of an 'economy of gifts' that his conception of 'otherness' is stated in terms of incommunicability. Eckhart's, as we have seen, is an 'otherness' which is beyond both 'otherness' and 'sameness', as is that of the pseudo-Denys.

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  • Amina
    What was meister eckhart's negative theology?
    7 years ago

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