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.
List of Images & Permissions
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