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William Franke


William Franke

Professor of Comparative Literature


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).  A sequel, Dante and the Sense of Transgression: The Trespass of the Sign (Continuum, 2013), 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 some calamitous weaknesses in modern thought as represented by hermeneutics and deconstruction respectively.

Franke has extended his philosophical and theological interpretations of literature—which are at the same time 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 in dialogue with the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas concerning the status of theology as a form of knowing.

Franke has also published over a hundred journal articles and book chapters, consisting in large part in philosophically 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.  Another category of these publications consists in theoretical essays treating subjects such as figurative rhetoric, dialectical versus deconstructive logic, and psychoanalysis as a hermeneutics of subjectivity.  Further theoretical essays have been dedicated by Franke to the canon debate, postmodern identities, postcolonial ethics, and cultural theory in the wake of the death of God.

Two further works of philosophical and theological reflection combined with criticism give definitive shape to Franke’s comprehensive poetics of revelation.  The Revelation of Imagination: From the Bible and Homer through Virgil and Augustine to Dante (Northwestern University Press, 2015) develops through close readings of major classics in the epic genre a theory of knowledge in the humanities as based on and deriving from theological revelation.  The modern counterpart to this reanimation of ancient and medieval thought, Secular Scriptures: Theological Poetics and the Challenge of Modernity (Ohio State University Press, 2016) explores the role of literature in the cultural secularization characteristic of modern times.  It shows 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 Christian and secular poets alike.  Taken together, these books examine the most significant, epoch-making poetics of revelation leading up to Dante and following in his wake respectively.

Appointed in comparative literature at Vanderbilt University since 1991, Franke is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, a senior fellow of the International Institute for Hermeneutics, 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 Salzburg (Summer 2008) and the University of Macao (2011).  He has taught and lectured in German, French, Italian, and English on three continents.

Recruited as Professor of European Studies at the University of Hong Kong in 2012, Franke 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. This work has crystallized in a monograph called Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions without Borders, which is currently in production at SUNY Press for the series on Chinese Philosophy and Culture edited by Roger Ames.  A further volume of this project in course of elaboration is entitled The Universality of What is Not.


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