Nebula Rasa: Exploring the Diaphanous, #3.

Mr Nemo
5 min readApr 1, 2024

By Otto Paans

“Diaphanous” (2024) (Author, AI-generated via



1. Introduction

2. Two Suggestions about the Diaphanous

3. Historical Background

4. Cognitivism and Creativity: A Concise Overview

5. From Cognitivism to Propensity

6. The Work at Work, or, the Effective Present

7. The Diaphanous as Generative Stimulus

8. Conclusion


This essay was previously published in a slightly different form as (Paans, 2024a), except for the Introduction, which was written specifically for APP.

It will be published here in eight installments; this is the third.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of the post and clicking on the Download tab.


3. Historical Background

The notion of the diaphanous derived initially from Aristotle, although it is mentioned already in an embryonic form in Plato’s Timaeus. In De Anima, Aristotle describes it as a phenomenon that renders objects visible. The word diaphanēs itself is comprised of the Greek “dia” (through) and “phainein” (to show). Importantly, Aristotle draws an explicit parallel between “light”, the diaphanous, and actuality:

Light is as it were the proper colour of what is transparent, and exists whenever the potentially transparent is excited to actuality by the influence of fire or something resembling “the uppermost body”; for fire too contains something which is one and the same with the substance in question. (Aristotle, 1991: p. 33, 418b4.8–12)

The link between potentiality, actualization and an object or phenomenon that becomes visible can be discerned in the wording: the excitation of the “potentially transparent” into something actual is rendered as “phôs de estin hê toutou energeia, tou diaphanous hê diaphanès.” The word “energeia” does not just mean “energy” in the way we commonly use it. It connotes activity or an active operational principle. Anca Vasiliu notes that this way of framing the diaphanous stages an “impossible ontological encounter”: it conjoins the (1) subject’s sense of sight, (2) an external object to which the gaze is directed, (3) the medium that ensures visibility or at least tangibility, and (4) a principle of actualization (Vasiliu, 2023: p. 123). Neither a body nor a body’s property, the diaphanous participates in the visibility of everything, without being part of anything. It is a phenomenal attribute that suffuses the visual realm and that structures and stages its accessibility.

When classical Aristotelian philosophy was transmitted to Medieval Europe via the Islamic world, the word was rendered in Latin as diaphanum, leading ultimately to the introduction of the neologism transparens, and later on becoming synonymous with the Latin perlucida, which both connote visual transparency in the way that we use commonly use the term.

Some of the properly operative nature of the original Greek concept was retained in the Eastern Christian theological context, whereby the presence of God was equated with the character of light or so-called “noetic illumination.” This development can be traced back to Plato’s treatment of knowledge as illumination, using light as a metaphor for achieving insight. Still, we can see the influence of the Aristotelian concept, for instance in the thought of St. Gregory Palamas, who held that everyone participates in God’s energies — using the Greek word energeia again (Meyendorff, 1983: pp. 139–142). God is immanently present throughout creation, and in the moment of noetic illumination, one fully experiences the creative force of the Divine (Pseudo-Dionysius, 1987: pp. 146, 184). God’s energies are not special powers, rather they are akin to divine potentials that can be experienced rather than talked about.[1] This approach derived from so-called apophatic (or negative) theology. The idea is that certain phenomena (like noetic light) cannot be described in determinate, clear concepts. All one can do is try to say what they are not by tracing a silhouette that negatively demarcates them. There is a certain parallel with creative processes here: often, it is hard to tell what defines a good idea or what influence contributed to its (final) form. The (artistic) concepts to define an idea clearly are lacking or remain to be invented, yet the creative impetus that shapes ideas is undeniably present.

Due to semantic changes that occurred during translation and the scattered usage of the concept in Medieval Europe, the notion of diaphanous became almost synonymous with visual translucence, including partial opacity. While this usage is not explicitly ruled out by the original Greek concept, it is worth remembering that Aristotle’s usage is certainly broader and closely related to the phenomenal structure of perception, instead of being narrowly focused on the visual character of an image. In its modern, narrower usage, we typically equate diaphaneity with the visual characteristic of being vague, ambiguous, nebulous, veiled, translucent, opaque, blurry, or indistinct.

Although this interpretation of the diaphanous represents it as a visual characteristic, it also invokes a creative, visual dimension due to the fact that it visually stages the “impossible ontological encounter” in the perceptual field. This generative aspect of the original Aristotelian concept becomes obfuscated if we focus only on the diaphanous as a visual characteristic. Notably in architectural design processes, such seemingly impossible encounters are essential for developing ideas and design concepts alike.


[1] Pseudo-Dionysius provides allegorical descriptions of the creative, dynamic force of the Divine. In the following passage, we can see how he introduces the ceaseless play of creativity by comparing it to fire, a theme that François Jullien would take up while discussing Chinese thought:

It lights up everything and remains hidden at the same time. In itself it is undetectable and becomes evident only through its own workings on matter. It is unstoppable. It cannot be looked upon. Yet it is master of everything. Wherever it is, it changes things towards its own activity. It bestows itself upon all who draw near…. It makes distinctions and is nevertheless unchanging. It rises up and penetrates deeply. It is exalted and never brought low. It is ever on the move, moving itself and others. It extends in all directions and is hemmed in nowhere. (Pseudo-Dionysius , 1987: p. 184)

Note how all this applies to the characteristics of the Dao, the characteristic of diaphaneity, and the concept of shi (efficacy).




Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 1 April 2024

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.