Philosophical Aesthesis (Apophatics) (Elliot Wolfson)


I finished a week or two ago Elliot Wolfson’ new book, A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream, and like everyone I know, I can’t speak highly enough about it. For my purposes, Elliot is one of few of our colleagues at work in Jewish philosophy and thought at all who take philosophical aesthesis at all seriously. I’ve always found reading Elliot is always a pleasure and challenge, always because I tend to find myself on half of the opposite side of the same philosophical coin as he, mainly as these concern apophasis.


One thing that has always confused me about Elliot’s work is always what confuses me in Jewish philosophy. Where does the hermeneutics stop being simply text interpretation and turn into the fusion of philosophical horizons?  This becomes especially pronounced in Elliot’s case because so many of the sources upon which his own ideas trade are gnostic, while his own thought remains committed firmly to this-world. I was never sure what to make of this, but I think I figured it out this way. On p.270, Elliot used the word “admittedly” in reference to the world-denying cosmology of some of his medieval and Hasidic source material. The use of this term suggests to me that while his source material is “admittedly” world-denying and gnostic, his own position is certainly not. Perhaps the analogy is too cute perhaps, but he is more like R. Meir than Acher, even as he relies profoundly upon Elisha ben Abuyeh?


The other thing that confused me is this tension in in Elliot’s work as whole. I think I finally got a handle on it reading A Dream.

On the one hand, Elliot insists on holding on to the garment of the image, that there is no way to see-without-a-garment except with a garment. On p.200 mention is made of gap[s] that are continuously crossed but never collapsed. This to me sounds like Scholem insofar as it goes right up the edge of unio mystico, but not over the line.

On the other hand, there are those apophatic points or moments in the text where those gaps (subject-object, God-self, dream-reality) collapse (eg. p.273).  And also all those points in the text at which Elliot resists predication, representation, names etc. (pp.31, 33, 34).

The use of the term “collapse” on both p.200 and p.273 makes this, to me, a very severe tension.

So I have two ways of thinking about it, this tension. Either it’s a contradiction, which I don’t believe it is, or it’s a paradox, which is a word which I tend not to like if only because it seems too easy a way out of what might in fact be just a flat out contradiction. My own gloss here would be that the two poles to this tension are modal. It’s my sense that the more radical positioning doesn’t represent a stable point as much as a moment in which the apophatic imagination kicks up into high gear, in which the imaginal parts of the system or stream of consciousness spin faster and faster. The high apophatic in Elliot’s work would then be the moment of deterritorialization that happens in Deleuze, the deterritorialization of a position pr point that depends upon a prior territorialization and a subsequent re-territorialization of thought.

I was not planning on this at all, but I’m now reading Husserl’s Ideas, if only to get to the bottom of this.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Philosophical Aesthesis (Apophatics) (Elliot Wolfson)

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    Is this the same question I had when I was reading it? Because I was wondering about genre, too, specifically: how much of this book is designed to be a work of philosophical history that tracks a set of ideas through time–a history of what people have said? And how much of it is EW saying “Yes, this is what’s up.”?

    • zjb says:

      most if not all contemporary forms of Jewish philosophy work this way, turning to historical material as a way to formulate one’s own constructive-contemporary agendas.

      • donovanschaefer says:

        So it’s safe to say that the sources EW draws up are speaking in his voice/vice-versa?

      • zjb says:

        yes, it would be safe to say that EW is a “strong” “misreader” of the Jewish textual and philosophical tradition in the way “intended” by Harold Bloom. not so much that he speaks in its voice as much as the tradition has been made to speak in his.

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