16.08.07, Flasch, Meister Eckhart

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Alex Dubilet

The Medieval Review 16.08.07

Flasch, Kurt. Anne Schindel and Aaron Vanides, trans. Meister Eckhart: Philosophers of Christianity. New Haven:Yale University Press, 2015. pp. 344. ISBN: 9780300204865 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Alex Dubilet
Vanderbilt University

Kurt Flasch's Meister Eckhart: Philosopher of Christianity is a highly readable, synthetic introduction to the thought of Meister Eckhart that builds on scholarship that the author has been producing in more specialized writings for many decades. As the title indicates, the book continues Flasch's long-term commitment to interpreting Eckhart as a philosopher, seeing him as primarily inheriting and transforming the Aristotelian and Averroist traditions, as well as the so-called German Dominican school centered around figures such as Albert the Great and Dietrich of Freiburg. That a readable synoptic account of such a position is finally available in English in a major academic press is much welcome. [1]

The structuring argument of the book is, as the title suggests, a reading of Eckhart as a philosopher of Christianity. As Flasch puts its: "A philosophy of Christianity would mean an attempt to prove Christian ideas rationally in such a way that believers and unbelievers alike would come to recognize them as true, and not merely as culturally contingent constructs of Christian communities of faith. Someone developing such proofs could be a believer, but need not be; either way, he would be creating a new methodological realm in which certain universal premises of humanity would replace the creed as the basis of proof" (15). Flasch takes Eckhart's project as one of precisely reading Christianity in light of reason, a project which as such engages in combat simultaneously on two fronts, the Christian front that emphasizes the irreducibility of revelation to reason and the philosophical front that insists on philosophy's singularity and distinction from Christianity.

In the beginning, Flasch reconstructs in broad strokes the emergence of philosophy as the inauguration of a transformation of the conception of God from one based in the framework of legality and sovereignty to one centered on the mind or the intellect (nous). "Instead of being represented as a royal court, religion became the relationship between God and the mind-soul... The models of the royal court, of the cult of one's ancestors, and of the ferial calendar continued to exist, but the concept of true religion was now inextricably linked with the mind-soul's self-awareness; its task was to judge false elements, even within religion" (21). Given the context, this interpretation is convincing and useful, albeit a tad triumphalist in its investments in the power and righteousness of philosophy. Flasch connects this move in Greek philosophy to the Dominican order's insistence on the primacy of the intellect. As a corollary, he argues that Eckhart deals with Christian theological material as a philosopher, approaching central Christian problematics such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, or creation with philosophical tools and with philosophical argumentation, ultimately seeking to reduce the plane of the supernatural, or, to put it differently, to eradicate the division between natural and supernatural knowledge. About creation, Flasch, for example, writes: "His interpretation of the creation narrative proceeds from two explicitly formulated premises. First, we know what God is from the analysis of the primary determinations: God is Being, Oneness, Goodness, Knowledge, Wisdom. The essential determination of God is intellect. He carries the world as the realm of ideas within himself. Second, all biblical interpretation has little or no value for those who have not already thought through its philosophical premises as the Opus propositionum was supposed to contain them and as the prologues sketch them out" (121). In general, Flasch perspicaciously notes that Eckhart deploys a rather speculative and free exegetical mode in his Biblical interpretation, in which scriptural passages are taken up to be expounded philosophically with the desire "to determine the philosophical truths contained within the text" (131). At the same time, however, it is possible to suggest that the texts of the Bible provided for Eckhart sites for rich theoretical experimentation--something in excess of merely enacting the reduction of the scriptural to the philosophical--and thereby insist that, in the end, Eckhart radically transforms both the theological and the philosophical perspectives that he inherits.

For the most part the book is structured chronologically, following Eckhart's movement across Europe, and provides cogent interpretations of his extant writings, while taking into account the various editorial and archival advances that have occurred in Eckhart scholarship over the last several decades. In a rather uncontroversial, but still notable, point, Flasch locates at the heart of Eckhart's thought the homo divinius, the deified or divine man. But the dominant contexts for this interpretation remain the scholarly debates of Paris, the Aristotelian-Averroes tradition of theorizing the intellect and the Platonic and Neoplatonic theories of transcendentals or primary determinations. Out of the many interpretations Flasch offers in the book, especially insightful are his discussions of "the primary determinations," Eckhart's theory of God as Being and Intellect, the figure of the Just or just man, and the topos of the birth of the Son. On the last point, Flasch is correct to emphasize the singularity of Eckhart's discourse, which is not "of convergence, of likeness, of participation, or of emulation of Christ, only of an identical flow of life that everyone can find operating within himself and recognize within himself" (61). Or, again, on the matter of divine filiation: "If the baptized are not simply called, but are sons of God, then "divine filiation" is not simply an image or a metaphor. It had to be more than mere similarity, but instead an actual, substantial origin and reality that could be formulated ontologically" (240). In this context, however, one curious omission is the lack of a discussion of the significance of univocity for the position of the birth of the Son, which is most clearly articulated in the opening pages of Eckhart's Commentary on the Gospel of John, an element which would be an important accompaniment to Flasch's rich discussion of Eckhart's use of analogy.

As Flasch notes, Eckhart's works propose radical reinterpretations of dominant Christian topoi like humility, obedience, and poverty beyond their ecclesiastical formation. It remains debatable, however, whether this is necessarily to be explained by appealing to Eckhart's theory of the intellect; or, whether, for example, such reinterpretations could be explained by drawing on Eckhart's theories of detachment, self-abandonment, ethics of freedom, and life without a why. Flasch does indeed mention most of these--but their discussion firmly revolves around the role and power of the intellect and reason. As is often with interpretations of Eckhart, the key decision is where one locates the center of his work--the other elements cluster around that center--and in Flasch's work, the hermeneutic center is undoubtedly the theorization of intellect and reason as activity.

In this book, as in many previous of Flasch's writing, his interpretation combats the view that Eckhart should be read as a mystic or through the lens of mysticism. The deconstruction of the portrait of Eckhart as a mystic has, in large part, resulted from the long-term recentering of his corpus around the Latin works, which have began to be known starting at the end of the 19th century, but have remained for a long time secondary in portraits of Eckhart. Although Flasch's polemical invective against a "mystical Eckhart" was originally an important counterpoint to mystifying interpretations based in "sentimentality and neoromanticism," one wonders whether the persistence of such a polemic is still productive in the current climate of scholarship. After all, what an intransigently polemical dismissal of the "mystical Eckhart" obscures is the rather careful work that scholars have done, for example, in tracing Eckhart's intimate relation to the Beguines and their linguistic and conceptual world. Here, the work of Amy Hollywood and Michael Sells comes to mind. Or, one could think of the careful scholarship on the role of mystical and negative theological operations and tropes persisting in Eckhart by such scholars as Alois Haas and Niklaus Largier. Pace Flasch's polemics, exploring such dimensions hardly makes one a bad or careless interpreter of Eckhart. Moreover, as Alain de Libera has shown, serious explorations of Eckhart's imbrication in the German Dominican schools can, in fact, be productively explored alongside the so-called Rheinish mysticism, without necessarily installing a rigid polemical divide.

However compelling one finds the framing of Eckhart as a philosopher of Christianity, there does remain the question of the effects such a reading has in the present. If, originally, it was meant to extract Eckhart from a certain Germanophilic triumphalism and romanticism, the question is what does such a perspective theoretically do in the present. The worry is that, Eckhart winds up naming a certain kind of philosophical reconciliation with Christianity, in which philosophy retains the upper hand, but Christianity is itself not rejected, but incorporated. Instead of finding in Eckhart a figure who might be able to challenge the self-legitimating stance of philosophy or the triumphalism of Christianity, he seems to become a tool which, rather than questioning these two dominant discourses, allows them instead to be reciprocally enlivened and strengthened. Perhaps, one needs to stress even more powerfully something that Flasch already mentions, namely, that the condemnation of Eckhart's thought is not an accident or a strategic power play, but comes as a result of certain key deviations of his thought from the framework of Christian orthodoxy, to such an extent that he might no longer be easily fit within the framework of even a philosopher of Christianity. Moreover, one should add here, that he was condemned (as Flasch mentions, but does not appropriately theoretically weigh), not only for the content of his teaching, but for its form: that is, he was accused of teaching lofty things to the common people, a fact that brings to the fore questions of vernacularity, the sermon form, and an insistence of teaching radical forms of self-abandonment and freedom to broad audiences--all element that cannot be easily subsumed into a tradition of pure philosophy and its institutional and linguistic sites, the University and Latin, respectively.

This is where one might also resist Flasch's condescension towards figures like Gustav Landauer, who Flasch dismisses, with a flair of false modesty, as an unscholarly and deeply mistaken approach to Eckhart. Whatever Landauer's faults, and there are plenty, the drive to think the relevance of Eckhart beyond a merely historical one, and moreover one that has radical political valences, is something that should not be dismissed through potshots. I would suggest that this is likewise the power of such books as Reiner Schürmann's Wandering Joy--they bring to the front the theoretical freshness, inventiveness, and excitement that can be recovered in Eckhart's thought--a speculative engagement that exceeds the boundaries of the interest of the historian. Flasch's textual and historical precision are important--there is no question about that--but these more speculative engagements with Eckhart should be seen as valuable alternatives of an rich and diverse approach to Eckhart--but the polemical tone Flasch adopts obscures such a possibility.

Ultimately, whatever the critiques, Flasch's book should be taken as the more philosophically-oriented counterpart to the most definitive and systematic monograph to appear in the English speaking world on Eckhart, Bernard McGinn's The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing. If, however, one is to read only one monograph in English that attempts to systematize Eckhart's thought, life, and the tribulations of intellectual engagements with him, it should still, no doubt, be McGinn's.



1. Burkhard Mojsisch's Analogy, Univocity and Unity could be said to be convergent with this interpretation, and has already been translated into English, but unfortunately without much circulation.

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