Tokens of Love: Part 2: John Donne and the Indeterminacy of Presence

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In the second installment of this contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium "Contextualism—the Next Generation," Donne's religious poetry is set in dialogue not only with the "Great Controversy" of the 1560s over the nature of the eucharistic sign but also with pre-Christian semiotic discourses. From the perspective of contextualist scholarship, which recognizes in any temporal context a limited number of discourses available, Donne's religious poems of the period from about 1607 to 1620 register many contradictory conceptions, but contradictory only in the sense that no contextualist map of religious identities allows for their miscibility or even collocation. Notoriously resistant to psychological and phenomenological interests, contextualism has no place for an early seventeenth-century Christian writer whose concern is less to join a school of thought on the Real Presence in the Eucharist than to dismiss the issue as vexingly trivial in comparison with the question of whether God thinks that each or any of us adequately loves him. For the questions that concern Donne, there are no determinate answers available, and no standard vocabulary. But the poet's alternating acquiescence in and fretfulness about indeterminacy and incomprehensibility constitute an intellectual and affective identity as much as does the attachment to any one or other more recognizable set of arguments and ways of framing them.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)176-251
Number of pages76
JournalCommon Knowledge
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2021


  • contextualism
  • CONTEXTUALISM (Philosophy)
  • DONNE, John, 1572-1631
  • indeterminacy
  • John Donne
  • LORD'S Supper
  • RELIGIOUS identity
  • sacraments
  • tokens


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