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Not long ago I attended a conference on a particular genre of educational technology. The conference presenters were endlessly positive, uplifting – they sought to inspire the attenders with the potential that their subject could offer for student learning. But some discontent rumbled among the attenders, rightly I think: these presenters are not really saying anything. Their theories are abstractions, perhaps even platitudes, that are difficult to disagree with but mean very little in application. Emotionally they can inspire us; rationally they give us no value.

In the conference’s smaller- group discussions (of which there were fortunately many), there was more of a chance to speak of problems, to complain, to be negative – and paradoxically, by being negative they were able to be more constructive. Why? It is far easier to understand what to do when you understand what not to do; you learn what’s true in part by learning what’s false. Endless affirmation of how good something is won’t tell you anything about what makes it good, let alone about how to put it into practice successfully.

As it happens, on the way to this conference I had been reading a book about Kant. In The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy, Eckart Förster notes that for Kant concepts require determination – determination meaning “the ascription of a predicate under exclusion of its opposite” (109). That is, to say what something is, we must also say what it is not. That, in a variety of ways, is what the conference presenters were not doing: in their positivity, they gave us little concrete detail about what was bad, what was a problem, what to avoid. Spinoza, in a letter to a friend, went further than saying that concepts require determination: he noted that determination is negation (determinatio negatio est). Hegel would soon be more emphatic still: “all determination is negation.” To say something is to negate something.

There’s an epistemological issue here that goes much deeper than any one conference. I’ve often struggled reading difficult thinkers (like Kant or Hegel) in the original for the precise reason that I often have nothing to contrast them to. I worry when I read something and nod my head thinking “that sort of makes sense”. If I find reason to oppose it, then I know I’m really grappling with it. The same goes double when I teach: if students parrot ideas they hear or even paraphrase them, I am concerned that they haven’t got it. Most of the students I taught at Stonehill had a very positive attitude, which made them happy but uncritical. They wanted and tried to affirm each other’s viewpoints; but to get them to learn, I needed to encourage them to negate.

That determination is negation seems to be widely understood among philosophers. We’ve seen something like it above in Kant and Hegel. I asked myself which philosophers wouldn’t accept the idea, and my mind went first to the philosophers who think all is one: the Neoplatonists and especially Advaita Vedānta. Surely for them, the ultimate is something affirmed as purely postiive?

I shortly realized that even they would likely be quite willing to accept the basic idea that determination is negation – with a twist. The Advaitins draw their philosophy from the Upaniṣads, and one of their favourite quotes from the Upaniṣads is neti neti — “not thus, not thus”, or more literally just “‘not’, ‘not'”. That is: of the ultimate one reality or truth (brahman, sat), nothing can really be said. And with good reason. Why? Because concepts are determinations, and determination is negation! To say anything about brahman – even to call it brahman – is to limit it. And therefore ultimate knowledge of it must eventually come on some nonconceptual level. The concepts with which we speak of it are like fingers pointing at the moon, rather than the moon itself.