Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, Introduction and Chapter 1, "Nicholas Cusanus"

Introduction: Received view is that the philosophy of the the Renaissance did not share in the main intellectual current of the era, which emphasized the individual and distinctive. Rather, its main concerns were inherited theological ones. The burden of this work is to show that there is a unity of direction in Renaissance philosophy, and that this unity is in fact a "Hegelian focus" of the Renaissance as a whole.

Key doctrine of Neo-Platonic mysticism, which is absorbed into Scholasticism: graduated cosmos from the finite (the world of man) to the infinite (God). Cassirer claims that Cusanus does not deviate from this (which seems like a stronger claim than might be justified). His difference is in focusing on our ability to know God. He finds that the condition for knowledge as it was then conceived -- comparison or measurement -- does not exist for man with respect to God. He sees logic as based on concepts of comparison, which can only tell us about the finite. But there is not a finite series of steps to the absolute.

Feeling is not enough either. God must be known to be loved. So then, a new kind of knowing is required: visio intellectualis. A single act. Hold contrary ideas together. Takes mathematics as its launching point. (It's a bit hard to make anything of this from Cassirer's sketch.)

To understand Cusa, he must be seen as a key figure in the reception of Plato, or rather the recovery of the original doctrine of Plato: a sharp distinction between the sensible and the intelligible, with knowledge of this opposition being the key to all philosophy, all thought.

The medieval Scholastic tradition inherited by Cusa, on the other hand, drew mainly from Aristotle and Neo-Platonism. Aristotle rejected Platonic dualism -- his fundamental idea is that processes of development unify the sensible and the ideal. Neo-Platonism tried to bridge the difference between Plato and Aristotle; it reasserted transcendence, but then retracted it with its key concept of emanation (which is adapted from development) -- that the absolute overflows and thus provides form to matter.

Cusa returns to the fundamental Platonic concepts of separation and participation. On the one had, no series of steps based on what is empirically given can lead us to what he calls the Maximum (This truth constitutes knowing ignorance). In fact, the process of reasoning through comparison can never reach any finality. Nevertheless, this process participates in the ideal in that it seeks determinateness, which is the characteristic of what is ideal. So man can at least legitimately aim to make empirical knowledge ever more precise (This is ignorant knowing).

Aristotelean-Scholastic cosmology: a graded order of four changeable earthly elements and an immutable substance of the stars (whose only change is perfect movement). Cusa rejects any ordering of elements because he does not accept that anything in the world can be closer to the ideal than anything else; instead, all bodies are composed of mixtures of elements. Nor does Cusa accept the possibility of perfect movement for anything in creation, which is always marked by imprecision. This leads Cusa to his central cosmological views -- the earth is in motion, and there is no central unmoving point in the universe (there can only be a metaphysical center -- God -- not a physical one).

Each thing in the universe has its own infinitely complex motion centered on itself. Souls have an analogous individuality. This infinite and irreducible individuality is in both cases the mark of the universal. Individuality is not a limitation; it has positive value. Universal order consists in this infinite variety; so existence participates in the ideal through having infinite individuality. From this, Cusa assigns a positive value even to the diversity of religious rites.

Image of picture that seems to look at observers in every direction -- symbol of god's relationship to individuality. Illustrates visio intellectualis -- intellectual vision -- comprised of unified totality of individual relationships to God.

Incarnation seen not as a temporal event, but as something always happening in very soul -- view adopted from German mysticism, devotio moderna.

Sources of Cusa's thought: devotio moderna, Nominalism (via moderna) and Italian Renaissance's recovery of antiquity. Cusa incorporates these into a realization of the individualism characteristic of the age within religion and philosophy. God can only be grasped through the limitation to an individual view; the truth about God is the totality of views, empirical multiplicity.

Cusa's thought develops from emphasis on Platonic concept of chorismos to that of methexis.

37: Cassirer attributes common cosmological views to Cusa and Bruno. In this point in particular it is clear how much Blumenberg's concluding chapters of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age respond to Cassirer. Blumenberg seems to tend to take for granted Cusa's endorsement of multiplicity upon which Cassirer lavishes attention -- his focus is to distinguish the function of this in Cusa and Bruno -- this is the point of taking such care as well to argue that Bruno was not persecuted for these same doctrines, but for the rejection of the Incarnation which was the systematic corollary of infinite multiplicity for Bruno.

For Cusa, the Incarnation is a systematic requirement. Even to understand that we cannot know God implies a relation that must be mediated by something. This something is Christ, as the general self, the universal content, of humanity.

Cusa sees man as a microcosm of nature -- in this sense, man includes all of nature in himself. Necessitates a break from the medieval notion of redemption as liberation from nature. Instead, all of nature is redeemed with and through man.

Knowledge for Cusa is not a reproduction of ideas, but a creative act of an individual mind, an unfolding, a movement along a chain of ideas.Space and time -- or at least the ability to measure and understand them -- are produced by the mind. Positive evaluation of man's embedding in time, his historical nature. Man realizes his particular nature within time, and in so doing reflects God's nature.

Human beings particular creative function is to give, create, attribute value to things. It is only through judgment of a human intellect that anything has value. Positive function of sensible world -- instigator and material of creative human intellectual activity.

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