CFP: Negative Knowledge

Submission deadline: May 31, 2018

Conference date(s):
November 21, 2018 - November 23, 2018

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Conference Venue:

Centre Gilles Gaston Granger, ECHANGES, Université Aix-Marseille
Aix-en-Provence, France

Topic areas


Call for papers

Aix-Marseille University, the Center Gilles Gaston Granger (CEPERC UMR 7304), and the Research team ECHANGES (EA 4236) is organizing an international conference on Negative knowledge, from November 21th to November 23rd, 2018 (Aix-en-Provence, France).

The advent of Modernity was accompanied by a radical criticism of traditional metaphysics. First during the Enlightenment, and later even more so with Nietzsche and his criticism of all “backworlds” (“Hinterwelten”), any attempt to identify ultimate justifications or knowledge that transcends immanence has become largely suspect. If the reinstatement of metaphysical systems whose aim is to “explain everything” – as formulated, with irony, by Kierkegaard – no longer appears to be possible or even desirable, it remains an open question as to whether metaphysical questions can still be legitimately asked in the post-metaphysical era and, if so, in what form. This particular question is at the root of several recent philosophical enterprises, which bring back into focus types of knowledge that a positivist understanding of knowledge had relegated out of the realm of rationality if not confined to the realm of myth and which promote negative approaches to redefine the horizon of rationality. Negativity is thus thought to serve as a methodological tool which allows us to ask those questions that man cannot not ask, all the while respecting the epistemological demands of the 21st century. In France, Jean-Luc Marion for instance has theorized on “negative certainties” (certitudes negatives), and the German philosopher Thomas Rentsch who criticizes the predominance of a one-sided positivistic-scientistic rationality develops a metaphysics built on negativity. Similar figures of thought can also be found in Bernard Waldenfels’ ‘hyperphenomena’ which can be read as another attempt to go beyond the limitation imposed by reductionist concepts of rationality which could be called, following Horkheimer, instrumental reason.  

The systematic use of negativity has a long tradition in Western philosophy. Thus, the idea of a rational apophatic or aphairetic approach, moving forward via negation rather than affirmation, has its beginnings in Antiquity. More specifically, the first traces are found in the works by the Neoplatonist Plotinus, and were further developed in later Neoplatonism and then in the Christian world, notably in the form of negative theology. In this tradition, the ability of the human spirit to understand a transcendent reality hinges upon the construction of a discourse which is entirely made up of negative propositions, and is yet considered likely to lead to knowledge.

The conference on Negative knowledge sets out to examine this renewal of reflections on negativity in order to evaluate the contributions negative approaches can make to 20th and 21st century philosophy. Do approaches based upon negativity that are explicitly or implicitly inspired by the ancient apophatism and negative theology allow for a redefinition of the horizon of human rationality and for a critical reflection on transcendence? Can negativity provide a convincing methodological tool for providing answers to metaphysical questions in the post-modern context? Or is the reintroduction of figures of thought inherited from Antiquity and Negative Theology simply a rearguard action carried out by certain onto- and theorsauruses (Onto- und Theosaurier), as Franz Josef Wetz says with irony? In order to favor a reflection on these questions, we welcome proposals for talks that develop different facets of these issues, both as concerns contemporary discussions and its historical anchor points. Potential topics include, but are not limited to

-          situating the contemporary reflection on negativity within its historical context (Ancient Apophatism, Negative Theology)

-          discussing the epistemological potential and the limitations of contemporary negative approaches

-          discussing the potential of negative approaches beyond their original fields of application, theology and philosophy of religion

-          comparing contemporary approaches with those of the late Antiquity and Medieval periods; analyzing in what manner historical negative approaches can stimulate the current-day discussion within the field of theories of knowledge

-          Providing an epistemological horizon for the discussion of scientific rationality in its positivist and anti-metaphysical forms

-          exploring potential parallels with non-Occidental thought with regards to negativity

-          renewing epistemological reflections on themes including the intuition, the frontiers of what is thinkable, the limits of the effable, and the relationship between thought and language.

Abstracts of no more than 500 words will be accepted in English, French, or German. Please send your proposal and a short bio-bibliography  to and no later than May 31st 2018. Authors will be notified of acceptance by June 30th 2018.

Additional information:

reading time for each paper is 30 minutes (including discussion).

Conference fees are 30 € (no conference fees apply for graduate and PhD students) Conference fees cover coffee breaks, lunch, and dinner. We will not be able to provide funding for travel and accommodation. However, limited funding may be available upon request for participating graduate and PhD students.

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