Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.36

Stephen Gersh, Being Different: More Neoplatonism after Derrida. Ancient Mediterranean and Medieval Texts and Contexts. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, 16.   Leiden; Boston:  E. J. Brill, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 249.  ISBN 9789004261402.  $141.00.  

Reviewed by Dylan Burns, Universität Leipzig (


Stephen Gersh begins Being Different: More Neoplatonism after Derrida by defining “Neo-Platonism” as would most—the Platonic tradition as understood from Plotinus on, a central player in the history of Western philosophy through Descartes, in part thanks to its “many subordinate phases, many interruptions and reprises, and many deviations” (p. viii). Recalling Jacques Derrida’s celebrated appropriations of Plato and Neoplatonism—and, in particularly, Neoplatonic negative theology—he continues, “one could … see Derrida’s quasi-method of deconstruction as simply the latest stimulus towards the continuance and transformation of Neoplatonism.” Few would contest this statement; fewer still would take up the challenge he proposes in the following sentence: “the project of ‘Neoplatonism after Derrida’ is designed precisely in order to facilitate Neoplatonism’s possible future enrichment from that source—however radical the transformation of Neoplatonism may turn out to be” (ibid.).

Gersh thus writes as philosopher rather than historian of philosophy, developing a post-Derridean Neoplatonism rather than chronicling Derrida’s use of Neoplatonic sources. Being Different is his second volume in this daunting enterprise; the first, Parallelograms,1 might be considered a “workbook” for scholars of Platonism seeking to understand Deconstruction, and vice versa.2 The major contention of Parallelograms was that, even if the Platonic tradition, confronted with the ontological wager of hyper-essentiality, bets on presence rather than absence, philosophers—including Derrida himself—have failed to recognize the depth of the parallels between Neoplatonic and Deconstructive approaches to the structure of language and thought. Being Different is an appropriate sequel, bringing in new players (Augustine, Damascius, Mallarmé) to revisit many of the problems explored in the first volume, while ultimately steering the inquiry into the tantalizing questions of the “performative utterance” and verbal theurgy. The three chapters of Being Different are starkly diverse in character and may be read independently of one another, but they form a surprisingly coherent whole, despite the protestations of the author, who, appropriately, emphasizes his method of “juxtaposition”—the non-hierarchical arrangement of textual units and their gaps, ideally generating meaning as a “combination of constative and performative elements” (pp. xi-xii). Conversely, the volume may be read independently of its predecessor.

Chapter One, “Neoplatonic Compulsions,” offers critical summary of two well-known readings of Neoplatonism performed by Derrida: “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” and “Circumfession: Fifty-nine Periods and Paraphrases.” Indeed, each section of Being Different comments upon and even recalls the structure of the former essay, whose themes—Derrida’s treatment of Plato’s epekeina tēs ousias and khōra, the difference(s) between negative theology and the “trace-structure” of Deconstruction, the concepts of the “secret,” and “prayer,” and the three paradigms of negative theology (see below)—are taken up with vigor. The structure enacted by the latter essay in its discussion of conversion, Gersh argues (22), is a fourfold-structure of terms that together comprises a “semiotic square”3—positive (affirmative seme a, negative seme b), combined (affirmative seme a, affirmative seme b), negative (negative seme a, affirmative seme b), and neutral (negative seme a, negative seme b). Gersh is particularly interested in Derrida’s treatment of prayer, both as “a non-predicative language of address to the Other” and “as a mixture of non-predicative language of address to the Other and predicative language of statement about the other” (24). Gersh concludes that Derrida’s treatment is superficial, insofar as he fails to apply “to Neoplatonic doctrines a dynamic version of that (fourfold-)structure in which the various configurations of affirmative and negative semes are based on shifting values,” which betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of crucial elements of Neoplatonic thought, such as the non-discursive thinking of Intellect, the intellection superior to reasoning that transpires at the level of Soul, or the practice of negative theology in its final stage (27-8).

Chapter Two, “Derrida’s Paradigms of Negative Theology,” turns inside out Derrida’s consideration of the “three paradigms” of negative theology (levied in “How to Avoid Speaking…”): Greek (Plato), Greek and Christian (Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart), and neither Greek nor Christian (Heidegger). Divided into four sections, the chapter begins with “Bridging the Gap,” aiming to show that even the arch-Platonist Proclus is less “Greek, Platonist” (sensu Heidegger, Derrida) than one might suppose. Examples include the ambiguity of the status of henads (associated more closely with the One or with Being?), Proclus’ mitigation of the “priority of temporal presence through the elaboration of structures of mediation” via “a weakening and subversion of that same priority through the coincidence of certain terms occupying the position of the Form of the Good with certain terms occupying that of Khōra,” conceptual maneuvers that bring one into the heart of theurgic practice (49-50, 52), and the ambiguous nature of the faculty of causality attributed to the One and the henads or gods (64-65). Gersh then juxtaposes Proclus’ account of the gods and their powers with that given by Heidegger. Predictably, the latter account emphasizes that any inquiry into the divine must be left in a state of hermeneutical “tension,” but “it is not the case either that the gods create man or that man invents gods but rather that the Truth of Be-ing, by enowning itself between them and enowning each to the other, decides on both” (74). The significance of this juxtaposition Gersh leaves to the reader to divine.

The following two sections (“Prayer(s),” “Hearing Voices”) hew more closely to the structure of Derrida’s essay by addressing Pseudo-Dionysius and Meister Eckhart. While Derrida argued in “How to Avoid Speaking” that Denys’ notion of prayer is to be sharply distinguished from the enactment of the deconstructive “trace,” Gersh responds that “Dionysius’ own doctrine can be viewed as a deconstruction of the Platonic model of negative theology in its depiction of prayer as a movement towards God as transcendent Other” (93). Similarly, Gersh turns Derrida’s deconstruction of Eckhart’s writings about negative theology on its head by demonstrating that Eckhart’s notion of the negatio negationis could be read as paralleling the “denial of the secret” explored by Derrida, the space of the “fourfold-structure” that governs the activity of Deconstruction, and even the “non-discursive mode of thinking” semantically expressed through the contradiction of terms (112-14). The final (and most interesting) section (“From the One to the Blank”) treats Damascius, who Gersh dubs “the Heidegger of antiquity” (119). As is well known, Damascius’ circumlocutions around the Ineffable—brilliantly assigned by Gersh the lexeme of [ ] (i.e., a blank)—“not only … establish an intimate relation between the denial of denial and the [ ] but also to deny the ineffability of the ultimate referent of discourse,” denials that are performed insofar as they lead to silence, a silence Damascius shows as much as tells (139, 150-1). This, Gersh argues, “corresponds most exactly to the common essentiality of Avoidance and Being in Heidegger’s writings” (155; also 158).

Chapter Three, “Philosophy [Space] Literature,” will make or break this volume for many readers. It takes its cue from Derrida’s “The Double Session,” which explores the tension between philosophy and literature by juxtaposing extracts from Plato’s Philebus and the Mimique of the symbolist French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a pioneer of strategies of writing through typographical arrangement. Gersh therefore juxtaposes passages from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés (“A Throw of the Dice”), Proclus’ Commentary on Euclid’s Elements, and his own scholarly commentary on each (not both!). It thus is more like a tool the reader may use to generate meaning —an oracle—than an explanation, as we find in the other chapters. Nonetheless, one could argue that its most central theme would be that exploration of Mallarmé’s notion of the “blank” (and demonstration of how readers use the “blanks” between juxtaposed texts to generate an infinity of meanings) helps us see that “the notion of infinity that sustains the emanative system” Proclus describes actually “performs most of the functions” of the blank (185). Indeed, Proclus and Mallarmé proceed through parallel terms, in Gersh’s arrangement: Mallarmé’s agonized protagonist reaches “the pinnacle of myself,” just as Proclus’ investigation arrives at “the triangle,” which “has a close relation to the gods” (204). Gersh concludes appropriately with meditation on the hermeneutics of chance, with nods (following Derrida) to Democritus as much as Heidegger.

The philosophical project itself is unlikely to win many converts. Readers who enjoy Proclus but not Heidegger will find little relief here. Yet those who already see Derrida’s engagement with the Platonic tradition as potentially fruitful for the philosophical enterprises of Platonism and Deconstruction will consider this study to be of great value indeed. The present reviewer is among them, and thus restricts critical remarks to niceties. Being Different is not without editorial lapses: the prose occasionally repeats itself, as for instance in the discussion of Proclus’ De arte sacrificiali at 59, much of whose content repeats what is conveyed in a lengthy footnote several pages prior (55 n. 111). The transition from discussion of Proclus’ Platonic Theology to the Elements of Theology at 61 is jarring, simply introducing the new text with “it is proposition 28 to the effect that…”—only a reader already familiar with the Proclan corpus will know that we have arrived at the Elements. Typos are occasional (see again 55 n. 111). Such complaints are less minor than usual in a book such as this, which, like Derrida, demands the reader to consider gaps in argument, jarring transitions, and / or contradictions as cause for reflection. Again, taking its cue from Mallarmé, Deconstruction sets a high standard indeed for typography.

Significant, then, is p. 140 n. 161, which contrasts “traditional Neoplatonic” notions of silence from “something like Valentinian Gnosticism (see below notes 131-133).” Yet nn. 131-3 are above, in this chapter, and of different content; p. 143 n. 170-2 (on the lexica of “silence” in the Chaldaean Oracles, Proclus, and Damascius) is probably meant, but refers to no Gnostic sources. This omission (enacted rather than explained, appropriately!) calls into question Gersh’s presentation of the contours of Neoplatonism. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Gnostic Christians were deeply involved in the development of Platonic philosophy in the second and third centuries CE, not least with respect to speculations about the transcendent and what discursive strategies we might use to address it.4 Would a “Neoplatonism after Derrida” that also addresses “Platonizing” Coptic apocalypses like Zostrianos (whose discourse on negative theology shares a source with Marius Victorinus, and agrees in content with the anonymous Turin commentary on the Parmenides) or Allogenes (whose enactment of Neoplatonic apophatic theology is more explicit and cohesive than any in the Platonic tradition prior to pseudo-Dionysius or even Damascius) look any different than that presented by Gersh?5 One hopes we will find out in a third volume of Neoplatonism after Derrida.


1.   Stephen Gersh, Neoplatonism after Derrida: Parallelograms (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2006).
2.   D. Gregory MacIsaac, “Platonic Deconstruction,” Dionysius 27 (2009): 199-232, 201.
3.   Also so-called in Parallelograms.
4.   See recently John D. Turner and Kevin Corrigan (ed.), Plato's ‘Parmenides’ and its Heritage, 2 vols. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010).
5.   On the latter point see Dylan M. Burns, “Apophatic Strategies in Allogenes (NHC XI,3),” Harvard Theological Review 103 (2010): 161-79.

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