Thomas Pfau’s study of images and visual experience is a tour de force linking Platonic metaphysics to modern phenomenology and probing literary, philosophical, and theological accounts of visual experience from Plato to Rilke.
Incomprehensible Certainty presents a sustained reflection on the nature of images and the phenomenology of visual experience. Taking the “image” (eikōn) as the essential medium of art and literature and as foundational for the intuitive ways in which we make contact with our “lifeworld,” Thomas Pfau draws in equal measure on Platonic metaphysics and modern phenomenology to advance a series of interlocking claims. First, Pfau shows that, beginning with Plato’s later dialogues, being and appearance came to be understood as ontologically distinct from (but no longer opposed to) one another. Second, in contrast to the idol that is typically gazed at and visually consumed as an object of desire, this study positions the image as a medium whose intrinsic abundance and excess reveal to us its metaphysical function—namely, as the visible analogue of an invisible, numinous reality. Finally, the interpretations unfolded in this book (from Plato, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Damascene via Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, and Nicholas of Cusa to modern writers and artists such as Goethe, Ruskin, Turner, Hopkins, Cézanne, and Rilke) affirm the essential complementarity of image and word, visual intuition and hermeneutic practice, in theology, philosophy, and literature. Like Pfau’s previous book, Minding the Modern, Incomprehensible Certainty is a major work. With over fifty illustrations, the book will interest students and scholars of philosophy, theology, literature, and art history.
Acknowledgments List of Images & Permissions Abbreviations
Introduction: Writing the Image: Reading – Reflection – Argument
PART I – Image-Theory as Metaphysics and Theology: the Emergence of a Tradition 1. A Brief Metaphysics of the Image: Plato – Plotinus 2. Theology and Phenomenology of the Byzantine Icon 3. The Eschatological Image: Augustine – Bonaventure – Julian of Norwich 4. The Speculative Image: Platonism and Mysticism in Nicholas of Cusa
PART II – The Image in the Era of Naturalism and the Persistence of Metaphysics 5. The Symbolic Image: Visualizing the Metamorphosis of Being in Goethe 6. The Forensic Image: Paradoxes of Realism in Lyell, Darwin, and Ruskin 7. The Sacramental Image: G. M. Hopkins 8. The Epiphanic Image: Husserl – Cézanne – Rilke
Epilogue & Conclusions
Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English at Duke University, with a secondary appointment on the Duke Divinity School faculty. He is the author, editor, and translator of twelve books, including Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013, 2015).
“Incomprehensible Certainty promises to be one of the most comprehensive accounts of the image and image theory to date. With an extraordinary command of art-historical, philosophical, and theological sources, Pfau proposes a highly ambitious treatment of the image that will push contemporary understanding to a new level of sophistication.” —Mark McInroy, co-editor of The Christian Theological Tradition, 4th Edition**
“Thomas Pfau approaches the philosophical question of images and their significance not abstractly but via forms of textual engagement with images. Incomprehensible Certainty amounts to a full appraisal of our culture’s life with images.” —Judith Wolfe, co-editor of The Oxford History of Modern German Theology
"There has perhaps never been written a more definitive rebuttal to the heresy of iconoclasm, which constantly recurs in novel forms, than Incomprehensible Certainty. With his nearly incomparable breadth and depth of learning, Pfau is uniquely positioned to fashion a response that is at once historical, literary, cultural, philosophical, and theological. This is a breakthrough book, not just because of its brilliant content but also because of the boldness of its approach, which quite evidently bears valuable fruit. It is not possible to read this book without coming to see the world with new eyes." —D. C. Schindler, author of Freedom from Reality
“Incomprehensible Certainty might . . . be understood as the positive response to the necessarily critical project of Minding the Modern. Like a good architect, Pfau cleared the ground before constructing his cathedral.” —The Hedgehog Review
"By examining the role of images in ordinary life, Pfau is able to show how his book’s genealogy of modernity is true, as compared to other books in this genre. Happily, the book is lavishly illustrated so that the reader can directly see the changes in ways that Western people have seen the world. It is a marvelous history of Western visual culture, packed with fascinating analyses of artworks, and of philosophical texts about them, from Plato and Plotinus to Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso." —Law and Liberty
"A new and refreshing reading of the tradition-rich debate about the relationship between appearance and being." —The Review of Metaphysics
"A very impressive work . . . . Written with lucidity and attentiveness, being both extensive in its range over a great field, while never lacking mindfulness of particulars encountered in the whole undertaking." —Modern Theology
Unlike speculative dialectics, hermeneutic practice of the kind also pursued throughout this book constitutes more of an ethos than a method. It pivots on our receptivity to phenomena as they give themselves in intuition, rather than being seized by conceptual means and extruded as a dialectical sequence of “reflexive determinations.” At its heart, hermeneutic practice acknowledges that, far from being self-evident and univocal, “the meaning of the determinate has to be interpreted.” Put differently, hermeneutics does not so much reject Hegel’s conception of Reason (Vernunft) as self-regulating, and of Being as speculatively self-determining, as it reminds us of the dialogic nature of all philosophical insight. Knowledge does not arise out of a play of mutually exclusive, monologic claims and incompatible standpoints. Rather, it presupposes an essential porousness and receptivity presupposed by the very notion of rational, specifically human agency, that is, a “willingness to let something communicate itself to us [sich etwas sagen lassen zu wollen].” As a practice that, to an extent, always contains an aleatory element, hermeneutics turns on the cultivation of epistemic humility, somewhat analogous to the “cloud of unknowing” into which medieval contemplatives seek to enter. On this model, the visible forms that give themselves in intuition mediate a reality that is only ever accessible per analogiam, and can never be claimed “in and for itself,” as Hegel would have it. Phenomenology and hermeneutics do not regard mediation as a matter of historical contingency, that is, as provisional scaffolding waiting to be disassembled once speculative reason, having parsed being and appearance, declares itself fully self-aware and pronounces the world as exhaustively “determined” (bestimmt). The drama of phenomenality, of manifestation as an irreducible event, reminds us is that we must not “identify intelligibility, indeed being at all, with determinacy” and that, appearance is an integral, not an accidental, feature of “the intimate strangeness of being.” Transposed into a theological language that will feature prominently throughout this book, this is to say that an apophatic account of divine self-concealment in the order of images and, more generally, appearances, far from constituting an obstacle to be remedied by dialectics, furnishes the very source that calls forth and guides all hermeneutic reflection. Hence, when understood as a necessary extension of phenomenological description, hermeneutics amounts to a “showing of its own kind; it is a showing-at … Speaking is connected fundamentally with perceptual manifesting, for speech after all points to things. Moreover, only if hermeneutic speech understands itself as responding to something antecedently given, as the recipient of a gift rather than claiming possession of an object, will it be able to give back what it has received from tradition in augmented form.
Finally, a word may be in order as regards this book’s somewhat fluid interdisciplinary approach. Prompting this book’s persistent back-and-forth movement between phenomenological description, literary and art-historical, as well as theological and philosophical reflection is the fact that the dynamism of images manifestly exceeds the scope of any one of these disciplinary formations. For one thing, wherever we inquire into intuitive or “pre-predicative” (Husserl) forms of experience, such as the call-and-response relationship between image and consciousness, soon confronts the fact that no single method is ever adequate to the task at hand. For by its very nature, method is a discursive construct, whereas visual cognition is always tinged with (though not reducible to) a pre- or extra-linguistic, intuitive dimension or what Patristic authors such as Gregory of Nyssa or pseudo-Dionysios call “spiritual senses.” To reject that pre-discursive aspect as a priori unreal, simply because it does not accommodate itself to the conceptual schemes and methodological protocols of Cartesian and post-Cartesian, rationality, would obviously to beg the question of the image on a grand scale. In fact, there always remains in humanistic inquiry, taking that phrase in its widest sense, an aleatory and improvisational element that shows the knowledge produced to be as much a function of discernment as of some particular method. Avoiding the equivocal Greek term technê, which straddles the boundaries between methodical “making” and inspired “creating,” Hans-Georg Gadamer had opted for the Latin subtilitas so as to distinguish between three distinct yet contiguous levels of hermeneutic practice: explication, interpretation, and application. Far from considering this state of affairs as a predicament, I regard it as an opportunity for hermeneutic discernment and creative reflection that is entirely apposite to this book’s topic and, more generally, as something to be embraced rather than resisted. Hence, too, this book does not purport to offer a systematic “theory of the image,” nor for that matter does it attempt to outline a Neoplatonist or theological account of beauty. Instead, theological and philosophical insights are meant to arise more organically from a series of focused hermeneutic studies of images and their unique power and efficacy.