The systematic tension in medieval theology: the world has an order and rationality which is guaranteed by God; but God's unfathomability to rational inquiry becomes an ever more central theme.
Cusa's thought intensifies the tendency towards divine transcendence while also creating a path for man and the world to be seen as moving towards transcendence. He rejects, as does Nominalism, the Aristotelean binding of concept to originating object, seeing concepts as having an independent existence, but in addition he sees the human agent as having a creative role in shaping the order of concepts to understand reality. He rejects Aristotelean distinctions between orders of objects with different degrees of intelligibility.
Cusa's quest to save the Middle Ages fails, and must fail -- this necessity is the key point to be explicated.
Background to Cusa's thought: close relation of emphasis on divine transcendence and skepticism about all knowledge.
Medieval concept of transcendence: Neoplatonic and biblical. Neoplatonic transcendence is at least figuratively spatial, as something not part of a finite cosmos; biblical transcendence is temporal, related to a process which will come to an end.
Cusa's 'method' of docta ignorantia [learned ignorance] acknowledges that man does not have transcendent knowledge, but aims to understand the nature of this ignorance. Turns attention to man's process of pursuing knowledge. Construction of limit concepts for knowledge.
Idea of man being made in the image of God is the key that binds Cusa's theology and anthropology. Notions of complicatio and explicatio [folding together and unfolding] perform a similar function in binding his cosmology and theology.
Definition of God as the Not-Other (rather than the absolutely Other) provides a guarantee of stability for the world. Not-otherness as the metaphysical linchpin. (All beings are defined by God to be not other than what they are, and they also follow the divine principle by begetting only what is similar to them.)
Device of coincidentia oppositorum [coincidence of opposites]: use of logical antitheses to find a limit-point where language must be suspended on the path to transcendence -- but this is not just a resignation, but a procedure of testing different constructions tending toward transcendence (like the mathematical model of the circle whose radius is perpetually doubled). The specifically mathematical illustrations are called symbolic investigations (symbolice investigare) by Cusa. These constructions can also be reversed, providing a path from transcendence to immanence.
Function of language as pointing a path to transcendence rather than designating an object.
Knowledge of ignorance as a positive understanding of a predicament rather than mere resignation; not just recognizing that knowledge is incomplete and imprecise at any point, but taking stock of what is unknown as a preliminary step to pursuing further knowledge. Scholasticism (motivated by the eschatological reservation, God's withholding of himself, which required a limit) viewed knowledge as already completed; Cusa's method is a challenge to this static conception. Cusa's opponent Wenck saw the Cusan depiction of the pursuit of knowledge as futile because it had no definite end.
Contrasting deployment of medieval metaphor of the trace or vestige. For Wenck, this is akin to an image; it's relationship is one of analogy to the truth; there is a static proportionality between the trace and the truth (or God). For Cusa, the trace is a signal of the path to be pursued in seeking knowledge.
Cusa rejects medieval distinction of knowledge by concept and knowledge by image, of literal and figurative expression. For him both image and concept are provisional means to orient and direct thought toward a knowledge which is never fully realized.
Scholastic system relied on double-truth -- reason about what could be known with certainty and faith about what was theologically reserved -- and dogmatically asserted their agreement. Cusa fills in the space between these with the notion of conjecture.
501: "Here it turns out that faith and conjecture, fides and coniectura, are functionally equivalent; they provide reason with the presuppositions that it lacks,proceeding from which it can arrive at items of knowledge within the total system. The Cusan saw that the threat to the scholastic architecture posed by the cynicism of the 'double-truth' theory could not be removed from the world by obstinately repeating the apodictic assertion of the necessary agreement between reason and revelation but more likely by making visible a continuum of shadings, applications, projections."
Faith is like conjecture for Cusa in that it is assumed hypothetically in order to be proven by experience.
Function of faith as offering opportunity for reason to establish truth should be seen as a response to the crisis of certainty of the late Middle Ages.
Contrary to some interpretations, Cusa was not an astronomical reformer. His interest in the difficulties of contemporary astronomy was in the service of his principle of imprecision. (Though the necessity of confronting the fact of existing imprecision was a spur to later astronomical reform.) Similarly, Cusa insisted on the rotation of the earth not as a response to any astronomical problem but to vindicate his cosmology, which denied any fundamental difference between the earth and heavenly bodies.
Cusa rejects both the finite world of the Aristotelean-medieval tradition and the arbitrary world of nominalism. The world is a creation adequate to the Creator; it unfolds the original unity in indefinite time and space -- unfolding (explicatio), and hence movement, is essential to the world.
Cusa displaces the earth from the cosmological center to create space for God as the metaphysical center from which everything else emanates. Furthermore, God's relation to the earth is not mediated through other levels of creation as in the Aristotelean-medieval tradition -- for there are no levels of creation for Cusa, God's relation to all of creation is immediate.
For Cusa, man lacks the ability to grasp the entire order of the world directly (in a subject-object relationship), but, because of the imaginative powers he possesses as one made in the image of God, he is able to conceptually reproduce the path of creation.
Cusan notion of transcendence -- not just external, not just seeing the world, from the point of view of the infinite, as vanishing into a single point, but also internal, seeing everything as capable of indefinitely greater proximity, of being indefinitely better understood.
518: "But what happened to man while the cosmos grew into the infinite with its Author? The step in metaphysical speculation by which finitude was suspended had as its consequence not only that from then on the world was, as it were, 'on the point of' itself becoming divine, but also that it became -- instead of a realm of experience capable of completion and thought to have been largely completed -- a field of data that are in principle always surpassable, an inexhaustible store of objects of knowledge."
Cusa's theology has God creating the world without reservation -- i.e., having no special place and provision for man. Man's dignity comes not from his central location in the world, or of it having a teleology directed at him, but in his capacity to create the world again in thought.
Tension in medieval thought between uniqueness of the individual and creation as expression of finite set of forms -- brought into the open if not resolved by Cusa.
Cusa fails to resolve medieval tension between (Scholastic) rationalism and (Nominalist) voluntarism. Early Cusa of Docta ignorantia saw God creating a world that was as great as possible. Later Cusa retreats to voluntarism -- what is created is no better than any other possibility. Cusa still tries to resolve the tension in De possest by arguing that possibility is much part of the original creation as actuality -- but this doesn't reduce the apparent arbitrariness of actuality for man.
Providence seen as God's unfolding (explicatio) of all possibilities, bringing unrealized possibilities into equal status with realized ones, doesn't confer on the world greater reliability or intelligibility (as providence had originally been intended to do). Humanity as the unfolding of infinite different possibilities for man does not confer on any individual the dignity of having been necessary.
Individuality is secured for Cusa (and similarly for Pico della Mirandola) by man's freedom, specifically his freedom to orient and shape himself.
Knowing as projective rather than receptive. Knowing is not reflecting each object in the world into its appropriate concept. As God's creation of the world is a systematic unfolding of possibilities, knowing is constructing a system of conjectures that in effect recreates the world in thought. It is man's ability to construct a potentially limitless system of thought parallel to the world system that makes him possess the character of being in the image of God.
528: "The isolation of man's quasi-divinity was a detachment of the self-comparison to God from its foundation in the relation of image to original, a reverse translation from the quality of a distinct substance into marks of accomplishment. The adoption of ancient formulas could not be the motive operating in this process because divinity for the ancient world meant primarily not at all omnipotence and omniscience but rather immortality and self-sufficiency, in other words, a syndrome of characteristics that does not manifest itself in actions."
Medieval thought is faced with a burden of contingency in understanding why any particular object in the world should exist. For Cusa, the system of thought that man creates still needs to reflect the system that God created and not any other system, so this really doesn't overcome the burden of contingency, but transfers it to the original ground from which the system is unfolded.
Man as creator -- defining feature. Man's creativity has its highest and characteristic form when the creation is an invention of man's mind rather than the imitation of a model -- language, syllogism, invention of games, geometry (although Cusa sometimes sees this as a lesser, imitative, form of creation).
Man's autonomy -- metaphor of a picture that looks at each of its observers individually -- corresponds to model of world with no center, no privileged location -- Cusa launches from this metaphor into a vision of relationship between God and man -- that God liberates man to follow his own path. Contrast with both Nominalism, which saw man as having no freedom to secure salvation, and the Stoicizing withdrawal from question of salvation and assertion of autonomous control of nature. Attempt to give autonomy a theonomic origin.
Cusa's Christology makes the Incarnation a necessary consequence of the Creation -- creation cannot reach its maximum perfection without the realization of the maximum perfection of human nature -- and this is possible only through God's self-restriction in the Incarnation of Christ.