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Feyerabend, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Ineffability of Reality


This paper explores the influence of the fifth-century Christian Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (Denys) on the twentieth-century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. I argue that the later Feyerabend took from Denys a metaphysical claim—the ‘doctrine of ineffability’—intended to support epistemic pluralism. The paper has five parts. Part one introduces Denys and Feyerabend’s common epistemological concern to deny the possibility of human knowledge of ultimate reality. Part two examines Denys’ arguments for the ‘ineffability’ of God as presented in On the Divine Names. Part three then explores how Feyerabend imported Denys’ account of divine ineffability into his own metaphysics to provide a novel argument for epistemic pluralism. Part four explains the significance of an appreciation of Dionyius’ influence for our understanding of Feyerabend. I conclude that Denys was a significant and neglected influence upon the later Feyerabend.

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  1. 1.

    For important recent studies, see Dear (2010), Harrison (2007) and Stark (2003).

  2. 2.

    See further Kidd (2011a).

  3. 3.

    Feyerabend probably first encountered Pseudo-Dionysius in Panofsky (1946). See Feyerabend (1987, 152).

  4. 4.

    See further Gersh (1978) and Rorem (1993). A classic study of Christian mysticism is Turner (1995), who remarks that ‘[t]here is no field of medieval theological endeavour which Denys leaves untouched’ (216).

  5. 5.

    References are to section numbers in Pseudo-Dionysius (1997).

  6. 6.

    See further Janowitz (1991, 365–370).

  7. 7.

    The emphasis upon the scriptural provenance of certain ‘divine names’ is necessary to preserve the authority of Christian scripture.

  8. 8.

    The very idea of ‘divine names’ seems to make a positive epistemic claim—namely, that God’s attributes are plural, enumerable, and unified. Dionysius responded to this problem through complex use of prefixes: each divine name is prefixed ‘hyper-’, signifying divine unity, thus emphasising that the divine names express aspects of God up to a point, but not beyond.

  9. 9.

    On the Divine Names treats the conceptual basis of human understanding of the divine, whilst its later, and sadly non-extant, sequel The Symbolic Theology, treated the perceptual basis. As Rorem puts it: ‘The Divine Names then affirmed the more numerous designations for God which come from mental concepts, while The Symbolic Theology ‘descended’ into the still more pluralized realm of sense perception and its plethora of symbols for the deity’ (Rorem, in Pseudo-Dionysius 1987, p.140fn).

  10. 10.

    There are many forms of scientific realism. For a recent survey, see Devitt (2008).

  11. 11.

    See Horgan (1997) and Carrier et al. (2000).

  12. 12.

    For a clear account of Feyerabend’s pluralism, see Oberheim (2006).

  13. 13.

    See Preston (1997) and, in response, Oberheim (2006, Ch6).

  14. 14.

    Of course, Feyerabend enjoys a more radical epistemic pluralism since, unlike Pseudo-Dionysius, he had no scriptural or doctrinal commitments.

  15. 15.

    As to the question of how ‘responsive’ or ‘malleable’ Being is, Feyerabend replied that ‘there is no way of finding out the limit to which the world permits [epistemic] relativism because Being itself cannot be known’ (quoted in Ben-Israel 2001, pp.97-8). The use of ‘relativism’ here is unfortunate, since ‘pluralism’ would be much wiser.

  16. 16.

    Interestingly, Turner remarks that Dionysius’ work exhibits ‘little sense of a synthesis of method or outlook’ and that his aim was to ‘restore the unity … between speculative theology and … the immediacy of experience’—or, in more contemporary language, between theory and practice, just as Feyerabend aimed to do in science (1995: 126).

  17. 17.

    I will shy off from giving a long list, but for some examples, see Feyerabend (1981: 21, 34, 82n4, 85–86, 139, 150–151), (1993: 266–267) and (1994). In fact, I propose that Feyerabend is engaged in ‘virtue epistemology’, but space forbids me from developing this further; see further Roberts and Wood (2007).

  18. 18.

    On the relationship between theological and epistemic humility in science, see Kidd (2011b: 188–189).

  19. 19.

    For a fuller account of the conception of philosophical inquiry at work here, see Kidd (2012).

  20. 20.

    See further Feyerabend (2000). In an interview shortly before his death, Feyerabend remarked upon the emerging ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ dimensions of his later work: ‘my philosophy now has a different shape. It can’t just be that the universe just goes ‘boom!’ and develops. Is there something else? There should be!’ (quoted in Horgan 1993, p.37). Feyerabend also acknowledged that he ‘almost speak[s] as if Being is a person’ and conceded that ‘[i]t may well be—as a matter of fact I would not at all be averse to thinking of it as a kind of deus-sive-natura’ (1991, p.44).

  21. 21.

    See Kidd (2011c) for some further thoughts on what this ‘doctrine of ineffability’ might be.


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I offer my thanks to E.J. Lowe, Claire Graham and to the journal referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Ian Kidd.

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Kidd, I. Feyerabend, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Ineffability of Reality. Philosophia 40, 365–377 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-011-9322-9

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  • Feyerabend
  • Pseudo-Dionysius
  • Pluralism
  • Realism
  • Ineffability
  • Humility