Philo Judaeus was a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, who lived contemporaneous with the Christ. While Jesus walked around extolling the positive attributes of a unitary God: compassionate, merciful, loving, kind. Philo preferred a different approach to describing the absolute — by negating characterizations.
In Philo’s allegorical exegesis on the Old Testament in Greek, he spurned the anthropomorphization of God. His view on human-like descriptions of God in scripture was that they were not to be taken literally, but instead considered metaphors. Since humans, “frame our conceptions of the uncreated from our own experience” (De Confusione Linguarum).
Rather than endorse the common maxim that God created man in His image, Philo propounded that man created God in his image. Philo believed that the true nature of the Absolute lay beyond the realm of our rather anthropocentric cognizance and could only be hinted at by negating all designations. Quoting from his work, De Mutatione Nominum.
Think it not then a hard saying that the highest of all things should be unnamable when His word has no name of its own which we can speak. And indeed if He is unnamable, He is also inconceivable and incomprehensible.
The antecedents of his position lie in the Jewish notion of the ineffability of the Absolute. The Absolute represents a divine perfection that couldn’t be sullied with words. With some orthodox sects even going so far as prohibiting the utterance of the name (יהוה), preferring the use of a substitute instead.
The Early Church Fathers, who were responsible for establishing the intellectual foundations of later Christianity were heavily influenced by Philo’s approach. Perhaps best evidenced by Saint Augustine’s famous saying, “if you understand something, it is not God”.
Si comprehendis, non est deus.
So, how does one goes about describing that which is indescribable? Well, by stating “what it is not” (apophasis).
There is, however, an important nuance in the application of negation here. As the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius notes in his work Mystical Theology, by negating an attribute, we don’t affirm the opposite. By saying that something “not alive”, we aren’t implying that it’s dead. Instead, we mean that it is in some sense beyond the characterization — transcending the attribute.
Vedantic meditation on the nature of the Atman also preaches of a similar negationary tactic of “not this, not this” (नेति नेति). The Atman refers to one’s true self, which is the witness of all experiences. In order to identify the true nature of the “self”, one must be able to distinguish it from the “non-self”. The non-self is described as anything that is observed. Since, if something is observable, then it axiomatically cannot be the observer.
This yields a rather surprising result when applied to the objects of one’s own cognition. Thoughts, feelings, emotions that are traditionally considered to be an integral part of one’s identity, are no longer identified with the Atman. Since all these things are observed, they cannot be a constituent part of the observer. They are then viewed as the impersonal, transient phenomena they truly are.
Advaita Vedanta holds that the nature of the Atman is beyond conception, because all concepts are reflected within it. It also goes on to negate the the idea of a self distinct from the rest of the universe and the apparent duality between the perceiver and perceived, equating the Atman with the divine absolute — Brahman. Leading to the statement, “I am the Absolute”.
The negation of all duality is supposed to lead to a wholly non-dual state, where all distinctions are dissolved and there is an experience of perfect unity. As described in a verse from Dattatreya’s Avadhuta Gita.
साकारं च निराकारं नेति नेतीति सर्वदा ।
भेदाभेदविनिर्मुक्तो वर्तते केवलः शिवः ।।
Always “not this, not this” to both the formless and the formed. Only the Absolute exists, transcending difference and non-difference.
In Buddhism too, the central soteriological concept of transcendent Nirvana is described in similar apophatic terms: as the unconditioned state, extinction of craving, freedom from desire and cessation. The word Nirvana literally translates to “blowing out”, akin to a flame being extinguished.
There is, however, a subtle difference in this position. It refrains from all positivist descriptions of Nirvana, and doesn’t attempt to establish Nirvana as a metaphysical absolute. By objectifying and exalting the inconceivable, our mind treats it as another idea to grasp on to. But the unconditioned state is only attained through liberation from all grasping. Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula elaborates in his book, What the Buddha Taught.
Language is considered deceptive and misleading in the matter of understanding of the Truth. […] Nevertheless we cannot do without language. But if Nirvana is to be expressed and explained in positive terms, we are likely immediately to grasp an idea associated with those terms, which may be quite the contrary. Therefore it is generally expressed in negative terms — a less dangerous mode perhaps.
Perhaps this is why the Buddha was silent on the question about the existence of an Absolute. He knew that affirming its existence naturally leads to a conceptualization and subsequent clinging, which hinders progress towards experiencing the unconditioned state directly — a state free of all clinging.
He was, however, unequivocal about the existence of transcendence in his discourses. If there is nothing beyond what we ordinarily perceive in this conditioned world, there would be no possibility of escape from mundane existence, and no point in any dharmic pursuit.
In a manner of speaking, Buddhism preaches of a purely apophatic approach to transcendence. I like to use the term apotheism, to refer to this view. It derives from the Sanskrit (अपोहाते) or Greek (apophasis) roots, both of which mean “to deny”.
While both make use of negation, the apophatic approach to transcendence differs significantly from an atheistic denial. Where the modern-day atheist epitomizes rationality and reason as the only true means of knowledge and dismisses anything that isn’t backed by material evidence, the apotheist hints at a state that is beyond the reach of reason, using means that are replete with apparent contradictions and inconsistencies.
This view also differs from the various forms of theism that attempt to assert the existence of a God as a fundamental truth, often portraying this God as a creator, source of all goodness or an arbiter of morality. While apotheism acknowledges the possibility of transcendence, it refuses to characterize the transcendence with any labels and only seeks to negate the any ideas that we intuitively associate with it. It is a transcendence known only through a direct personal experience that is beyond the desire to articulate or rationalize.