Negativity is not a negative or destructive idea. It allows us to define terms by distinguishing one from another. It identifies a particular by differentiating it from others. It makes the positive stand out by marking it off from nothingness, evil and otherness. Without paying attention to deficiency, misunderstanding, disagreement, evil and resistance in everyday life, to operations of negation and distinction in the order of signs, to the recognition of differences in the social sphere, and to the conflicts of power in politics or the tensions of transcending in religion, we cannot come to grips with contingency and otherness, subjectivity and power, transcendence and immanence, and other manifestations of the pluriform dynamics between signifier, signified and signification in human life and culture. Negation and negativity help us to understand phenomena by pointing beyond the obvious and by disclosing the hermeneutical depth of what we perceive and the backdrop to what we single out for study. Construction and destruction, deconstruction and reconstruction involve negativity; and whatever is can be understood as the negation of a negation.
However, is the discourse of negativity symbolic, ontological, or epistemological? On this point opinions differ widely. Some argue that negativity functions in the symbolic order as the principle that helps to define the meaning of a sign as the totality of its differences from other signs. Others adduce it in the ontological order as that which entities reject by striving towards full realization. And again others employ it epistemologically as the principle that helps us critically to distinguish between our concepts and what we (try to) conceive through them. Hegel’s philosophy has made negativity prominent in philosophy, and he has learned this from theology. What is has been created from nothingness, and what is becoming is not yet what it can be. Creation is what it is by not being God, and vice versa. Thus, wherever there is God there is negativity, and wherever there is creation there is the negation of negativity. This, of course, is a contentious view. For Spinoza negativity is merely “imaginary” and results from our failure to grasp the actual causal chain. For Adorno it is the motor of a ‘negative dialectics’ that moves beyond anything given by refusing to arrest it in reconciliation. For Badiou negativity results from the occurrence of events that break into the orders of life and provoke their transformation into a new order. And for Lacan it marks the symbolic void that needs to be named but cannot be sublated into any symbolic discourse. Others go even further and understand negativity and the negative as basic traits of reality. Where Western thinkers emphasize being, presence, and becoming, Asian traditions focus on nothingness, nonexistence, absence and emptiness. How does this relate to Western attempts at thinking about being and non-being, evil and suffering, perfection and destruction? And how does the emphasis on the negative differ from existential nihilism and ontological despair?
Clearly negativity plays a central role in both philosophy and theology in more than one way. Philosophy of religion has for a long time ignored or underestimated its profound importance. It is time to focus on it again. This is why we have chosen the meaning and power of negativity as the topic of the 38th Philosophy of Religion Conference in Claremont, California, on February 17-18, 2017.