Today What’s New in Patristics would like to commemorate and honour the memory of Prof. Halfwassen with a guest post by one of his former students and collaborators, Carl O’Brien.

            Jens Halfwassen (1958-2020) was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and is widely considered one of Germany’s finest historians of philosophy. Specialising primarily in Ancient Philosophy and German Idealism, he published numerous influential works such as Der Aufstieg zum Einen: Untersuchungen zu Platon und Plotin (Teubner, 1992) and Hegel und der spätantike Neuplatonismus: Untersuchungen zur Metaphysik des Einen und des Nous in Hegels spekulativer und geschichtlicher Deutung (Bouvier, 1999), both of which ran into multiple editions. Additionally, as editor of several prestigious German series with presses such as Universitätsverlag Winter and De Gruyter, or Mohr Siebeck’s journal Philosophische Rundschau, he assisted numerous other scholars in bringing their work to a wider readership. As a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, he was an editor of the complete edition of Karl Jaspers’ works. C. H. Beck have issued a recent (2020) reprint of his volume Plotin und der Neuplatonismus.


Halfwassen and Plotinus

Jens Halfwassen sadly passed away while we were close to completing the first full length English translation of several of his better-known publications. That volume, Plotinus, Neoplatonism and the Transcendence of the One (Franciscan University Press) has just appeared and today I would like to take the opportunity to present it to the readers of What’s New in Patristics. It is the second volume of the new Theandrites series (edited by Sarah Klitenic Wear and Frederick Lauritzen) which is set to publish other volumes likely to be of interest to Patristics scholars, given its focus on Byzantine Philosophy and Christian Platonism. (The first tome, The Byzantine Platonists 284-1453, edited by Wear and Lauritzen, has also been published recently.) The volume is intended to serve as something of a memorial to the work of Jens Halfwassen and an introduction for non-Germanophone readers to some of the key insights of German Platonic scholarship.


The main section comprises a translation of Halfwassen’s introductory work Plotin und der Neuplatonismus (C. H. Beck, 2004). After a biography of Plotinus, which locates him in his historical and intellectual context, Halfwassen discusses the One, Intellect and Soul in individual chapter-length treatments, providing a good grounding in the central insights of Neoplatonic philosophy. An appendix, “The Transcendence of the One”, translates a selection of Halfwassen’s articles previously only available in German: “Beyond Being and non-Being: How can One Argue for Transcendence?”; “Plotinus’ Interpretation of Plato’s Theory of Principles”; “Waking up to Itself: Plotinus’ Concept of Insight” and “Proclus on the Transcendence of the One in Plato”. An introduction outlines Halfwassen’s career and his influence, as well as the significance of the broader German intellectual tradition, for Neoplatonic scholarship, and the differences between the Anglophone and German approaches to the Platonic tradition. The volume is rounded out by a bibliography containing a comprehensive list of Halfwassen’s extensive publications.


Halfwassen’s Understanding of Platonic Philosophy

Halfwassen’s insights as a historian of philosophy are characterised by the following features:


  1. His relationship to the Tübingen-Milan School which distinguishes sharply between an esoteric Platonic philosophy, propounded within the Academy and Plato’s dialogues, which were intended for a broader public. In this way the Tübingen-Milan School regards Plato’s criticism of writing in the Phaedrus as applying to his own dialogues also and assigns weight to the Unwritten Doctrines, referenced within the dialogues themselves, for the correct interpretation of Platonic philosophy. (This contrasts sharply with the dominant paradigm in Anglophone scholarship.) Consequently, the Tübingen-Milan School regards the Theory of Principles (the One as the principle of unity and the Indefinite Dyad as the principle of multiplicity) as the core characteristic of Platonic philosophy, giving it greater emphasis than the Theory of Forms.


  1. This focus on Platonic principles led Halfwassen to see Neoplatonism as setting out to answer how multiplicity can arise out of unity, a fundamental question of metaphysics which he regarded as central to the western philosophical tradition, stretching from the Pre-Socratics and via Plato, (Neo)platonism, and Cusanus, to German Idealism and, especially, Hegel, who describes metaphysics as “the study of the determination of unity” (Hegel, Vorlesung über die Philosophie der Religion I, 100). This helps to explain the connection between the two main strands of Halfwassen’s research: Ancient Philosophy and German Idealism.


  1. The centrality of the Platonic principle, the One, to Halfwassen’s concept of metaphysics. He also emphasises the absolute transcendence of the One, beyond Being and thought, its absolute simplicity and its role as a prerequisite for thought, since in order to think of something we need to view it as possessing some kind of unity and therefore think of it as one. Halfwassen’s metaphysical interests, then, can be regarded as henology.


Neoplatonism and Patristics

This final aspect is where the volume is most relevant for Patristics scholars: the Neoplatonic tradition of negative theology, which is a consequence of this emphasis upon the One’s transcendence. Halfwassen thematises this issue in a chapter-length treatment of Neoplatonism’s post-Plotinian Nachleben, including Christian Neoplatonism. As is well-known, Christian Trinitarian theology – including that of the Church Fathers, as well as heterodox positions such as Arianism – is heavily dependent upon Neoplatonism. The transcendence of the One, which is treated at such great length by Halfwassen, could be appealed to by the Arians, as it was by Eusebius of Caesarea, in support of the claim that the Logos could not have the same substance as God the Father. Halfwassen had a special interest in Marius Victorinus who is of special relevance in this context, given his employment of Porphyry’s triadic concept of God to philosophically justify the Trinity. (He offered courses on Victorinus at Heidelberg and wrote the article on him for the Metzler Lexikon antiker Autoren.) The Neoplatonic concept of the One was fundamental for Victorinus’, Augustine’s and Boethius’ understanding of God; their employment of negative theology is a further indication of their Neoplatonic heritage, even if this is more prominently associated in a Christian context with Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, who in turn was of significance for both Aquinas and my compatriot Eriugena. Consequently, Halfwassen’s volume serves not only to provide a detailed introduction to Plotinus and Neoplatonism, but also to outline the significance of Neoplatonism for the Christian tradition.


In this manner, Halfwassen treats Neoplatonism from two separate, but complementary, perspectives: First, its significance within its own historical context, tracing its fortunes right up to the last scholarch, Damascius, enriched with numerous anecdotes drawn from ancient texts. Second, by comprehensively analysing Plotinus’ metaphysical system and looking at the solutions which he posited to the philosophical problems confronting him, Halfwassen is able to place it within the context of the overarching philosophical tradition. His treatment, therefore, means that he never presents Neoplatonism as merely of historical importance, but rather as a vital part of the European intellectual tradition, examination of which can shed light on similar philosophical speculations in other periods.


Another aspect likely to be interest for Patristics scholars is Halfwassen’s concern with the ontological proof of God, treated here in a translation of his 2012 seminal article “Beyond Being and Non-Being”. The ontological argument claims that God necessarily exists and (usually) that He exists as the existent Absolute. If God is “something beyond which nothing greater can be thought”, as Anselm of Aosta tells us (Proslogion, cap. 2-4), then his non-Being cannot even be thought. With this in mind, Halfwassen seeks to verify which conception of the Absolute can be regarded as authoritative. If the Absolute is detached from everything else (as its name implies), then it must be absolute transcendence: the One. Just as this conception of the Absolute originates with Plato (first hypothesis of the Parmenides), so too does the understanding of the negation of Being as transcendence, rather than as privation. As pure transcendence, the One is therefore neither Being (Sein) nor existent thing (Seiende) and not only beyond Being and non-Being, but it transcends the very opposition between Being and non-Being, just as it transcends all oppositions. Such an interpretation of the Absolute is only possible as a result of Plato’s Theory of Principles and shows how fruitful this approach to Plato can be, including from a theological perspective.


A final piece of information intended for an Italian readership: the cover image is of The Young Plotinus Number 3 by Giuseppe Blasotta, an international artist originally from Foggia, but now based in Heidelberg and a former student of Jens Halfwassen. It represents a tribute from Halfwassen’s many students: both those active within academia and those who have applied their philosophical training to other careers.


Of course, a single volume, even one such as this which contains a broad cross-section of his research, cannot do justice to the richness and depth of Halfwassen’s metaphysical thought, worked out across six monographs, 73 book chapters and 38 journal articles. His unexpected loss dealt a great blow to the German academic community and the profession more broadly. Halfwassen was a gifted teacher and scholar; this volume and the numerous academic events that have been organised in his honour are just some of the ways in which his legacy will continue.

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