Excessive Love: Exploring Immanence as the Conceptual Condition for Reading Hadwijch of Brabant – Univocity in the Medieval Period

I. Introduction

II.  Univocity in the Medieval Period

In his recent book After Life, Eugene Thacker tracks a conceptual trajectory starting with Aristotle’s distinction (or problem of distinguishing) between Life and living. Aristotle is unable to articulate this ontology of life fully because “it is as if, in proposing a concept of the principle-of-life, Aristotle is forced to think ‘life’ in terms other-than-life.”[1] This is a fundamental question of mediation that continued to play out in the medieval period taking up questions of how to speak about the relation or non-relation between Creator and creature or God and nature/humanity. Thacker goes on to outline the various theologies and philosophies that approached this relation that was deemed both necessary and problematic.

Thacker begins by introducing neoplatonism. In this model (deriving from Plontinus) the transcendent One (Life/Creator) emanates the Many (living creatures/nature). The Creator is wholly unaffected by creation residing above the creatures, though in its spiritual or theological forms there are ways in which creatures (or more accurately their Souls) are able to re-trace their steps and find union with the Creator, though this union never alters the transcendent position of the Creator. So while positing the soul as a sort of mediator the God/nature or the Life/living relation remains directly unthinkable (we remain forced to think God with something other-than-god). Two schools of medieval thought emerged wrestling with this continued problem.[2]

  • Positive (kataphatic) theology – Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas are used as notable examples. In this mode the transcendent divine, while inaccessible by human means, eventually pours forth in the excessive or overwhelming imagery of light or radiation. Talking about God in this mode meant filling all the partial attributes that are accessible in nature lifting them to a divine status. Human is x and God is the perfect x.
  • Negative (apophatic) theology – In contrast to positive theology, thinkers like Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scottus Eriugena relay on the imagery of darkness and nothingness to indicate the gap between nature and the transcendent divine. Talking about God in this mode meant emptying language of anything associated with nature and in attempting the soul reside in that darkness / absence / nothingness. Human is x – God is not-x.

Both positive and negative theology typically worked with some understanding of analogy as mediating Creator and creature. Analogy was the compromise between the two poles of equivocity (no relation between realms) and univocity (all relation of one substance). In this way it was possible, or at least maintained, that positive theology could speak of God in nature in proportion to the relationship of cause and effect while maintaining the transcendent and unaffected otherness of God.

While theological orthodoxy maintained a hierarchy and unassailable procession of order mediated by analogy there remained elements or traces of univocity later referred to as pantheism that, as developed in the work of Deleuze, began to influence the emerging concept of immanence.


[1] Thacker, After Life, 20-21.

[2] Thacker introduces this distinction in 37-40.


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