Incomprehensible Certainty

Caldwell Auditorium, Caldwell Hall, The Catholic University of America

Join the IHE for a panel discussion on Thomas Pfau’s Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image (Notre Dame Press, 2022).

A livestream is available here.

Incomprehensible Certainty presents a sustained reflection on the nature of images and the phenomenology of visual experience. Taking the “image” (eikōn) as the essential medium of art and literature and as foundational for the intuitive ways in which we make contact with our “lifeworld,” Thomas Pfau draws in equal measure on Platonic metaphysics and modern phenomenology to advance a series of interlocking claims. First, Pfau shows that, beginning with Plato’s later dialogues, being and appearance came to be understood as ontologically distinct from (but no longer opposed to) one another. Second, in contrast to the idol that is typically gazed at and visually consumed as an object of desire, this study positions the image as a medium whose intrinsic abundance and excess reveal to us its metaphysical function—namely, as the visible analogue of an invisible, numinous reality. Finally, the interpretations unfolded in this book (from Plato, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Damascene via Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, and Nicholas of Cusa to modern writers and artists such as Goethe, Ruskin, Turner, Hopkins, Cézanne, and Rilke) affirm the essential complementarity of image and word, visual intuition and hermeneutic practice, in theology, philosophy, and literature. Like Pfau’s previous book, Minding the ModernIncomprehensible Certainty is a major work. With over fifty illustrations, the book will interest students and scholars of philosophy, theology, literature, and art history.


Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English, with a secondary appointment in the Divinity School at Duke University. He has published some fifty essays on literary, philosophical, and theological subjects ranging from the 18th through the early 20th  century. In addition to two translations, of Hölderlin and Schelling (SUNY Press, 1987 and 1994), he has also edited seven essay collections and special journal issues and is the author of four monographs: Wordsworth’s Profession  (Stanford UP 1997), Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, Melancholy, 1790-1840  (Johns Hopkins UP 2005)  Minding the Modern: Intellectual Traditions, Human Agency, and Responsible Knowledge  (Notre Dame UP, 2013), and Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image (Notre Dame UP, 2022). He in the early stages of a new book project focused on the relationship between poetry and theology from 1800 to the present.

D.C. Schindler is Professor of Metaphysics and Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. He is concerned above all with shedding light on contemporary cultural challenges and philosophical questions by drawing on the resources of the classical Christian tradition.  His principal thematic focus is metaphysics and philosophical anthropology, but he also works in political philosophy, phenomenology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of religion, and philosophical theology.  His main historical areas are ancient Greek philosophy (especially Plato and Neoplatonism), German philosophy (especially Hegel and Heidegger), and Catholic philosophy (especially Aquinas and 20th Century Thomism).

Msgr. Robert Sokolowski is a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut. He was a Basselin Scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, studied theology at the American College in Louvain, Belgium, and was ordained in 1961. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy at Louvain in 1963. He has taught in the School of Philosophy since then, with visiting positions at the Graduate Faculty of the New School University in 1969-1970, the University of Texas at Austin in 1978, Villanova University in 1983, and Yale University in 1992. He also served as a consultant at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1981-1989 and gave the Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture in 1996. He was appointed the Elizabeth Breckenridge Caldwell Professor at The Catholic University in 2001.