Thursday, July 20, 2023

Kevin Killeen's "The Unknowable in Early Modern Thought"

Kevin Killeen is Professor in English and Early Modern Literature at the Universityof York. His books include The Political Bible in Early Modern England (2017).

Killeen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Unknowable in Early Modern Thought: Natural Philosophy and the Poetics of the Ineffable, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Unknowable in Early Modern Thought describes how seventeenth century readers in Reformation Europe encountered, quite sceptically, the theological and poetic gymnastics of a fifth-century mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite, together with other figures who grapple with 'negative theology', what cannot be said about the divine, except by negation. In some ways, then, the page is untypical, in looking at a florid patristic figure and a medieval legacy, but the Renaissance is a magpie era, pilfering and recycling the past, plundering its resources shamelessly.

The book is an account of such plundering, how early modern thought was at one and the same time suspicious of and enamoured by the acrobatic paradoxes and the 'rousing impossibilities' of negative theology. Even while the Protestant North often considered the mystical to be bogus, mere Catholic candy floss, it remained impressed with its elegant poetics, its toolkit for imagining what lay just beyond the thinkable. And it borrowed this inherited set of logic-twisting strategies to think about the natural world, and natural philosophy. Science too, it turned out, needed its epistemological ruses. Reason and logic, the era discovered, could only take you so far.

As such, the book looks at the porous hinterlands of religion, science and the literary and addresses how early modern natural philosophy encountered its own set of unknowables - the physics of creation, the infinitesimal, the limits of reason - and how it concocted ways to speak about these elusive realms, and the forbidding complexity of a world that remained shot through with mystery.
Learn more about The Unknowable in Early Modern Thought at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue