Owen Joyce-Coughlan, What Might it Mean for a Thinker to be Systematic? The Case of Meister Eckhart

Owen Joyce-Coughlan

PhD Candidate, Theology, UChicago Divinity School

Respondent: John Marvin
PhD Student, Philosophy of Religions (Divinity) & Philosophy, UChicago
What Might it Mean for a Thinker to be Systematic? The Case of Meister Eckhart
TUESDAY, November 14th, 4:30 PM, Swift 207
This workshop will focus on a pre-circulated paper, which can be accessed here (please contact us for password), and the event will be largely discussion-based. We hope to see you there!


It is generally agreed that Meister Eckhart was an original thinker, and that, with a striking variety of expression in both Latin and the vernacular, he enjoined a certain form of life to his readers and listeners.

Eckhart’s appeals are grounded in his view that it was possible ‘in this life’, so to speak, for his readers and listeners to achieve some form of union with the divinity. Eckhart repeatedly insists that we must live out of a recognition that every created thing is so inferior in comparison to God that it is best considered “nothing” in itself. To live in such a way will be to follow the course of “detachment” (abegescheidenheit), where we give up everything that binds us to the created order of things, and we will become one with God.

Beyond his teaching something like this very minimal set of facts and value judgements, however, it has proven difficult for scholarship on Eckhart to agree on his ideas about even those themes to which he most devoted his attention. Among points of controversy are, for instance: whether it is proper or desirable to say that ‘God is’ or is ‘good’; in virtue of what in the human soul is union with God possible; whether union with God is produced through his own grace or through our compelling God to unite with us; and many other issues of equally fundamental importance to Eckhart’s work, as well as to first philosophy and Christian theological doctrine.

The reason for this scholarly disagreement, I claim, is that Eckhart is profoundly inconsistent on such matters of primary philosophical and theological significance. This paper will, due to limitations of space, explore just one particular site of inconsistent statements on Eckhart’s part, in order to make the case that the fact that many of Eckhart’s writings are contradictory is not at all detrimental to his purposes. Indeed, a study of that very contradictoriness can guide us in understanding what his purposes actually were, what the philosophical virtues of his methodology in pursuing those purposes are, and how his work can and ought to be considered ‘systematic’.

Hosted by the Philosophy of Religions Workshop at the University of Chicago.



The Workshop on the Philosophy of Religions is committed to being a fully accessible and inclusive workshop. Please contact Workshop Coordinators Danica Cao (ddcao@uchicago.edu) or Taryn Sue (tarynsue@uchicago.edu) in order to make any arrangements necessary to facilitate your participation in workshop events.