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William Franke


William Franke

Professor of Comparative Literature, Italian, and Religious Studies


Holding degrees in philosophy and theology from Williams College and Oxford University and in comparative literature from UC Berkeley and Stanford (Ph.D. 1991), William Franke is a philosopher of the humanities with a theological (especially negative theological) vision of the traditional disciplines of liberal learning and of the origin and significance of human culture.  His A Philosophy of the Unsayable (University of Notre Dame Press, 2014) is the most direct statement of this philosophy to date.  It builds on the twin volumes of On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), vol. 1: Classic Formulations; vol. 2: Modern and Contemporary Transformations—which construct the tradition of such thinking in the margins of philosophy as a counter-tradition to the thought and culture of the Logos.

Franke’s philosophy has evolved in symbiosis with his work as a theorist in comparative literature.  His interdisciplinary approach centers on Dante’s Divine Comedy read as theological revelation in poetic language.  Dante’s Interpretive Journey (University of Chicago Press, 1996) elaborates this interpretation of the Commedia in dialogue with German hermeneutic theory (Heidegger, Gadamer, Fuchs, Ebeling, Bultmann).  The sequel, Dante and the Sense of Transgression: The Trespass of the Sign (Continuum, 2012), opens a similar dialogue with contemporary French thought of difference (Bataille, Blanchot, Barthes, Levinas, Derrida, Nancy).  Moving from Dante’s medieval theological vision, these books develop critiques of calamitous weaknesses in modern thought as represented by hermeneutics and deconstruction respectively.

Franke has extended his philosophical and theological interpretations of literature—which are in equal measure theoretical employments of literature to illuminate certain of the chief intellectual problems of our time—both forwards and backwards in history from this center in Dante.  His Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language (Stanford University Press, 2009; German translation, 2011) invents a theory of Christian epic poetry from the Bible to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and frames it within a critical negative theology of poetic language.  This theoretical frame is worked out in tension with the Frankfurt school of Critical Theory (Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin) and as an Auseinandersetzung with the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas concerning the status of theology as a form of knowing.

Franke has also published about a hundred essays, consisting mainly in meditative readings of poets ranging from Isaiah, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Yeats; Leopardi, Manzoni, Montale; Racine, Baudelaire, Jabès; Hölderlin, Rilke, Celan; Dickinson, Eliot, and Stevens, and in theoretical essays treating subjects such as figurative rhetoric, dialectical versus deconstructive logic, and psychoanalysis as a hermeneutics of subjectivity, as well as the canon debate, postmodern identities, postcolonial ethics, and cultural theory in the wake of the death of God.

Bringing together and reworking some of these essays, the forthcoming Secular Scriptures: On Theological Revelation in Modern Poetic Literature explores the role of literature in the secularization of culture that is characteristic of modern times.  The book argues that this process of secularization can itself be understood as a form of incarnate revelation of divinity and that it has been so understood by (especially) Christian and pagan poets alike.

Appointed in comparative literature at Vanderbilt University since 1991, he is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung and has been Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Intercultural Theology and the Study of Religions at the University of Salzburg (2007).  He has received international residential fellowships from the Bogliasco Foundation (2006, Fellow in Philosophy) and the Camargo Foundation (1999) and has been a member of the Dante Society Executive Council by general election of the Dante Society of America.  He has been Visiting Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong (2005), Professor of French in residence at Vanderbilt-in-France in Aix-en-Provence (2008), and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Macao (2011).  He has taught and lectures in German, French, Italian, and English on three continents.

Recruited as Professor of European Studies at the University of Hong Kong in 2012, he opted to start up a new graduate program in Comparative Philosophy and Religions at the University of Macao.  His current work extends his apophatic philosophy to engagement in intercultural dialogue with Eastern traditions concerning the unsayable, especially classical Chinese wisdom literature and its contemporary interpreters.

For detailed information and links concerning publications, lectures, events, courses, etc., click here:  https://my.vanderbilt.edu/williamfranke/