Apophatic Paths from Europe to China

Regions without Borders

By William Franke

Subjects: Comparative Philosophy, Chinese Religion And Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438468570, 270 pages, March 2018
Paperback : 9781438468587, 270 pages, January 2019

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Preface and Argument
Historical-Autobiographical Introduction
Introduction to an Intercultural Philosophy of Universalism

1. All or Nothing? Nature in Chinese Thought and the Apophatic Occident

The Nature of Dao, or the Dao of Nature
In Praise of Blandness: Litotes of the Neuter
Transcendence and Immanence of the Dao
Mencius, or the Naturalness of Morality: Is the All without Transcendence?

2. Nothing and the Poetic “Making” of Sense

The Art of Effectiveness: Doing or Saying Nothing
Poetic Approaches to the Limit of Expression
Neo-Daoism and Neoplatonism: An Uncanny Historical Parallel
Western Apophatic Poetics
One and Other, All or Nothing, East and West
The Absolutely Other and the Movement of Transcendence
(Negative) Metaphysics (or Pre-Physics) as Poetry
Coda on Chinese Expression of Negativity

3. Immanence: The Last Word?

From Figures of Immanence to Formless Transcendence: The Yijing and Negative Theology
Immanence and the Ineffable
The Matter of Method in Intercultural Philosophy
China and the Sense of Transcendence
Secular Self-Critique and Theological Transcendence
New Debates on the Relevance of Transcendence to Classical Chinese Thinking
Reality That Representation Fails to Represent

4. Universalism, or the Nothing That Is All

From the Globalism of Nature to the Universality of Thought
Historical Permutations of the Non-natural Universality Forged by Thought
Beyond Cultural Relativity and the Construction of Universality
Transcendent Universality and the Negative Way: Reclaiming the Enlightenment for Religion
Universality in the (Apophatic) Gap between China and the West
The Common Broken(open)ness of Cultures
The Self-Negation of Culture by (Negative) Theology

5. An Extra Word on Originality

Epilogue Intercultural Dia-logue and Its Apophatic Interstices
Appendix Analytic Table of Contents


An encounter between Franke’s philosophy of the unsayable and Eastern apophatic wisdom in the domains of poetry, thought, and culture.


In Apophatic Paths from Europe to China, William Franke brings his original philosophy of the unsayable, previously developed from Western sources such as ancient Neoplatonism, medieval mysticism, and postmodern negative theology, into dialogue with Eastern traditions of thought. In particular, he compares the Daoist Way of Chinese wisdom with Western apophatic thought that likewise pivots on recognizing the nonexistent, the unthinkable, and the unsayable. Leveraging François Jullien's exegesis of the Chinese classics' challenge to rethink the very basis of life and consciousness, Franke proposes negative theology as an analogue to the Chinese model of thought, which has long been recognized for its special attunement to silence at the limits of language. Crucial to Franke's agenda is the endeavor to discern and renew the claim of universality, rethought and reconfigured within the predicament of philosophy today considered specifically as a cultural or, more exactly, intercultural predicament.

William Franke is Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University and the author of many books, including A Philosophy of the Unsayable.


"…Franke has made a great contribution, perhaps as great as a paradigmatic shift, to the area of Western-Chinese comparative philosophical and theological study, especially regarding the topic of transcendence versus immanence. The promising comparative framework that he sets in the book incubates a great potential for scholars' further exploration, and we therefore have good reason to wish for considerable growth of scholarship in this area. " — Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"Franke rethinks East-West philosophical traditions to show the subcurrents in Western thought that correspond to the centrality of apophasis in Chinese and Asian thought, whether it be the empty transcendent or the Way as indicator or allusion. He shows how apophatic thought confounds the transcendent-immanent duality and reworks it into an inseparability that can be consequential for our philosophical understanding of a 'natural' universality. " — Prasenjit Duara, author of The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future

"The broad coverage of William Franke's book is impressive as it discusses many issues in philosophy, religion, and literature, but at the same time it also has a clear focus and a special 'apophatic' approach to the various issues in the humanities. It is innovative, creative, and makes an important contribution to East-West comparative studies and cross-cultural understanding. Highly recommended. " — Zhang Longxi, author of From Comparison to World Literature

"Up to now François Jullien's conception of Chinese thought has not had a full representation in English. This book responds to that gap and opens a dialogue with other traditions of apophasis. " — Haun Saussy, author of Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China

"By highlighting Western phenomena that are comparable to the Chinese, mainly in the apophatic tradition, Franke succeeds in exposing the biases and blind spots in Jullien's as well as in Hall's and Ames's respective treatment of Chinese 'philosophy. ' This book will stand as an important resource for the future of scholarly debates in these areas. " — Karl-Heinz Pohl, editor of Chinese Thought in a Global Context: A Dialogue Between Chinese and Western Philosophical Approaches