Symposium Introduction

The title and description of Johannes Hoff’s The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa could lead one to underestimate the creativity, range, and novelty of the task set out within it. The bundles of figures and topics covered—Nicholas of Cusa, an alternative modernity, theological aesthetics, and analogy—have become commonplace, and yet Hoff’s handling of them is far from common. There is, for instance, the invocation of Nicholas of Cusa, who is enjoying something of a small renaissance within theology and philosophical theology. This petit Renaissance of Cusanus can be traced to the search for a less self-defeating and more intellectually and politically productive apophaticism, to attempts to think through a cosmos and cosmology which have been rendered strange once again, and to Cusanus’ non-agonstic performance of paradox and dialectic and non-facile use of analogy. The “alternative modernity” outlined in the book is one in which the history of art, perception, and optics plays a decisive role and is also one in which the significance of the Kantian legacy is neither ignored nor downplayed but relativized such that not all premodern and early modern roads lead to Kant. As for the burgeoning field of theological aesthetics, Hoff devotes less attention to the beautiful or the sublime, or to the question of the relationship between revelation and natural theology, and instead attends more to social history, and in particular to interrelated changes in understandings of space, perspective, optics, and time as seen in the history of art, technology, and science. The book’s intellectual and historical creativity also shines all the brighter for its clear prose and digestible chapters.

While the range of the book is wide and its figures diverse, its overall argument and method are clear. Having interpreted the rise and legacy of modernity primarily through the lens of premodern and Renaissance accounts of space, perspective, and perception, Hoff then offers targeted readings of Nicolas of Cusa’s De docta ignorantia (1440–42) and De visione Dei (1453) as a way of outlining responses to a host of different issues. Hoff provides Cusanan responses to modernity’s narcissistic hyperreflexity, its understanding of perspective, its use of analytic rationality and individuality, its ‘liturgical crisis’, and he ends the work with Cusanus’ account of desire and the body of Christ. Hoff’s background as a Cusanist, his knowledge of recent scholarship on German Idealism, his familiarity with the history of art and science, and his interest in postmodern philosophy allow him to shift easily and ably through a host of different themes but perpetually with an eye to how an “alternative modernity” is offered to us by Cusanus.

As all the contributions to this symposium readily demonstrate, there is much to appreciate and scrutinize in this work. John Betz’s piece captures the vim and range of the book and beautifully highlights how Cusa’s metaphysics features both analogy as well as “precise paradox” and is all the theologically and phenomenologically sound for it. Michael E. Moore is able to decelerate the mercurial nature of the work and examine its argument regarding modernity, Christian learning, liturgy, and space. In his “appreciative critique,” Matthew Moser focuses on Hoff’s genealogy of modernity and its potentially distortive effects on Hoff’s reading of Cusanus’ Christology. Finally, Daniel O’Connell helpfully situates Hoff’s book within Cusanus studies more widely and offers critical questions regarding both the details and overall framework of Hoff’s genealogy of the Middle Ages and modernity and Cusanus’ place within it. That Hoff’s book is indeed a fascinating, creative, and daring work should be readily clear by the diverse topics and questions raised by our panelists and by the quality of the conversation which ensues.



To See with Nicholas of Cusa

A Mystagogical Review of Johannes Hoff's Analogical Turn

In his most recent book, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, Johannes Hoff describes Cusa’s body of writings as “a seriature (in the sense of Jacques Derrida): a cord, rope, or series of unique gestures designed to approximate the apocalyptic turning-point at which God comes to mind” (189). Something similar could be said here. The Analogical Turn is a work that defies—perhaps intentionally (see 56!)—linear analysis, exposition, or summary. Indeed, on a first reading the chapters appear to lack, as Hamann once said of Socrates’s maxims, “the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.” Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers a method that bears some analogy to the “bowling game” that Cusa invented and is the subject of his first book—a game in which “skillful players might be able to move their bowl in a helicoidal circle around the target point” (157). In other words, though the development of Hoff’s argument is not linear, and anyone looking for a straightforward exposition may very well be frustrated, each chapter nevertheless brings us closer to the target of seeing what Hoff sees in Nicholas of Cusa: a pre-modern visionary whose thought has the post-modern potential to lead us beyond the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, and back to an alternative, pre-modern analogical vision of the age to come (xv).

The basic argument here, accordingly, is that modern dialectics have blinded us to reality—either in the way that modern scientific rationalism tries to extort from creatures a univocal meaning they have never had, or in the way that postmodernism denies that creatures have any intrinsic meaning at all that is not a function of culture, the will to power, or the play of différance. In short, both of these extremes—“the univocity of modern scientific rationality and the ambiguous equivocity of post-modern pop culture” (xv)—have rendered reality opaque. And so we need to go back to Cusa’s analogical rationality if we are to go forward into an apocalyptic future in which the world will be seen for what it is, a transparency of divine things, and one can “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206). Fittingly, therefore, the work concludes with a mystagogical ascent to a Cusa-inspired vision of God. Given the richness of this work and the limitations of the present review, however, some delimiting and focusing of perspective will be necessary. In the following, therefore, I will limit my comments to those aspects of this work that I found most interesting, but also integral to the kind of perspective Hoff wants to provide.

The Analogical Turn turns on Cusa’s overturning of modern perspective, which Hoff traces back to the work of Cusa’s contemporary and fellow priest, Leon Battista Alberti (1406–72), who “applied the mathematical methods of Euclid to the art of painting” (47). On the face of it, there does not seem to be anything problematic here: Alberti’s mathematical mapping of perspective can subsequently be seen in the geometrical art of Piero della Francesca, who is best known and admired for his paintings of gospel scenes (e.g., The Baptism of Christ from 1450). Nevertheless, Hoff sees a problematic turning point here that will subsequently define the “world picture” (in the Heideggerian sense) of the modern age. The problem, as he sees it, is that the vanishing point of the work of art mirrors that of the viewer, eo ipso “putting the latter in the position of a sovereign observer who can control the space of his perception as if it were nothing but a mirror image of his subjective position” (48). In other words, from this point on, Hoff argues, modern perspective is defined not by a “being seen” (as one is seen by the gaze of an icon) or by a misty seeing of the invisible through the visible—one could just as well say, of the infinite through the finite—but by the dominant viewer (the new and only topos noetos) and this viewer’s imaging of reality in narcissistic terms, according to his conception of it. In short, reality is now configured in my image and according to my representation of it. Thus, according to Hoff’s genealogy, the “winged eye” of Alberti (which appears on the flipside of his portrait medallion) leads directly to the “thinking I” of Descartes’s cogito (57)—and thence, one might add, to the synoptic transcendental ego of Kant.

At this specular point a distinctly modern perspective is established (which for Hoff is also the presupposition of modern individualism). For once the artist no longer sees his or her task as a mimesis of the Creative Art, as an iconic rendering of the invisible through the visible—as Alberti insisted, “the invisible is not the business of painters” (57)—the symbolic universe of the Middle Ages gives way to the “digital universe of Descartes and Leibniz” (69). Corporeal entities, as for Descartes, come to be regarded as “nothing but ‘extended things’ (res extensae) that can be represented analytically, based on functions and equations, without remainder” (64); and so, inspired by visions of a mathesis universalis, matters of symbolic concern are “pushed aside in favor of simpler strategies of scientific progress” (65). Thus, as Hoff keenly observes, it was ironically modern artistic innovation—initially its obsession with geometrical “truth-likeness,” but then its dialectical flight into the dreamy, illusionary world of the Baroque (57)—that led to scientific contempt for art (as irrelevant to the search for truth); and, more generally, for the “symbolic sensitivities of theologians, artists, and poets” (65)—in short, for any metaphysical sensibility that sees in the world more than modern science, even in its wildest dreams of progress, can contain. To be sure, there were some things that did not fit the mathematical model perfectly, such as the “squared circle”; but Leibniz proffered a solution even to this seemingly insuperable problem by defining the mathematical constant as an “irrational number” (65), thereby making it possible to disregard “every deviation in mathematical space as a quantité négligeable” (65).

Now, turning to Cusa, what Hoff finds so interesting about the German cardinal, and why he finds him so important for us to consider today, is that Cusa understood Alberti’s vision of reality (its epistemology and corresponding ontology) and decidedly rejected it. Without denying “the possibility of representing a circle, for example, with a polygon composed of a potentially infinite number of sides and internal angles,” he nevertheless maintained that “mathematical comparisons can only provide us with conjectures and not precise descriptions of our analogical world” (67). In other words, anticipating Kurt Gödel mutatis mutandis by nearly half a millennium, Cusa argued that because the world is structurally analogical, and opposites coincide in God alone, an exhaustive mathematical account of reality is impossible (66). In short, nothing can be pinned down and mastered; the Continental, Hegelian desideratum of a complete system and the Anglo-American desideratum of a final analysis are equally impossible. For in our world, in which everything is “enmeshed in the comparative logic of excedens (exceeding) and excessum (exceeded), of larger and smaller” (68), “nothing has the analytic ‘property’ [of being] one with itself. We may make rational conjectures about the identity of individual substances, but they are never analytically precise” (164).

For this reason, as Hoff observes, “Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason.’ He felt no need to contort his mind in order to justify the uniqueness of our being in the world as ‘inalienable property’ by means of rational calculations” (165). On the contrary, Cusa saw in the modern dream of a mathesis universalis (insofar as this entailed the presumption of completeness) a distortion and flattening of reality, a reduction of its mystery to a deceptive mastery, moreover, a premature grasping (patterned on the story of Genesis 3) after godlike knowledge of all mysteries—and, as such, an obstacle to our mystagogical ascent through kenotic abasement (following the contrasting pattern of Christ, who did not cling to his “own” or to any “inalienable property,” but emptied himself, according to Phil 2:6f.). Thus, just as Heidegger once did for his own purposes, Hoff can summarize Cusa’s metaphysical vision in the words of Angelus Silesius’s famous poem, “Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet. Sie acht nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet” (165).

What gradually comes to light here has enormous metaphysical, existential, and even political consequences; for even one’s politics is invariably a reflection of one’s implicit or explicit metaphysical commitments. Whereas, on the modern model, which funds “the liberal societies of the modern age,” “every singularity is identical with its essence” (165) and thus a “one” unto itself, for Cusa “nothing but God is One and identical with itself” (164). This is not to deny that creatures possess an analogical “oneness” as images of the “divine simplicity” (162); but, as Hoff notes, as analogical singularities, “the uniqueness of created individuals is neither analytically accountable nor conceivable as a ‘property’ that creatures ‘have’” (162). Rather, “the miracle is that every creature and every person is a singularity, not despite, but exactly because it owes everything it is to a giver whose perfections cannot be owned” (163). Indeed, rather than being one’s own property, according to Hoff’s Cusa-inspired metaphysics I cannot but “receive the gift to be one with myself” (165).

Just how different this Christian-Neo-Platonic vision is from that of modern Western liberalism (for which the individual is his or her own inalienable property) goes without saying. In the language of Paul, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19); in the language of James, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas 1:17). In other words, in an image of the triune simplicity, to be one is to be related (which is also why the sexes cannot be understood in isolation but refer to one another). Or, to put it in the paradoxical words of the gospel, one finds one-self precisely by losing one-self in love (Matt 16:26)—as with marriage, which is therefore an icon of human completeness (Mark 10:8), pointing to the perichoretic completeness of the Trinity. Such, in any event, is the paradoxical precision of the gospel, which gives the lie to rationalistic dreams of a final analysis: nothing created can be itself by itself. But as Cusa and Plato before him realized, seeing things for what they are, as unique images of the divine “oneness,” is not something everyone can see. As Hoff puts it, “For the same reason that the believer has to lose herself in order to find herself, she has to lose the world in order to see it as it actually is” (206). Indeed, contra the myth of the Enlightenment, which is arguably an ignis fatuus, even a kind of darkness, it requires a conversion away from oneself to the light, which one does not by rights possess in oneself. In the memorable words of Augustine, arguably the greatest of Christian Platonists, “si ergo accedendo illuminamini et recedendo tenebramini: non erat in vobis lumen vestrum, sed in Deo vestro” (In Joh. Tract. XIX, xii).

Here is not the place to debate the extent of Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, or, for that matter, his criticism of the Platonists (e.g., in book VII of the Confessions, where the emphasis begins to shift toward divine humility and the necessity of the church and of sensible, sacramental mediation as a remedy for intellectual pride). It would be safe to say, though, that Cusa’s doctrine of divine simplicity as a coincidence of opposites makes it easier for him to say why this turning toward the divine light is not simply a Platonic epistrophē but precisely a turning toward Christ in humility and learned ignorance as the One in whom maximum and minimum incomprehensibly coincide. Indeed, for Cusa, the Platonic epistrophē, which demands a turning away from the mundus intelligibilis toward the mundus intelligibilis, is actually accomplished in no other way than by turning to the incarnate Word—in whom alone we face the One who is otherwise invisible and unknown. As Hoff wonderfully puts it, “Whoever turns his face to God turns his face to the face of Jesus” (213).

Thus, precisely at the height of the influx of Platonism into Western Christianity, in the wake of the Council of Florence (1438–39) and the subsequent establishment of the Platonic Academy under the leadership of Ficino, Cusa radically transformed Platonism by centering it not simply in an ad hoc way, but now with metaphysical justification, on the person of Christ. For “he is both uncontracted qua his divine nature and contracted qua his human nature; and this enable us to redirect our attention: whoever calls his name and turns his face to his face is facing the invisible gaze of the Father who sent him (Jn 12:45)” (213). Moreover, “Christ is not only the light of truth that manifests itself in the darkness of his creation. He is also the way to this truth (Jn 14:6); and this way can only be found in the ‘body of the faithful (corpus fidelium) . . . called the Christ-formed universal gathering (Christiforme ecclesia catholica) . . . and made up of all rational spirits adhering to Christ’” (219). For, as the one in whom the uncontracted and the contracted, the infinite and the finite, coincide, Christ is the one who “enfolds within [himself] (in se complicare) all multitude and, thus, is unreplicable, since it is the enfolding of all multiplication, or multitude” (161).

Cusa thus provides a remarkable metaphysical justification for the church in that here, in the one body of Christ, we see the manifestation of metaphysical reality: that multitude is nothing other than the unfolding and explication of oneness; that individuals are therefore metaphysically referred not to themselves, but to him. For metaphysically, “I am an image of the divine ‘one’ that owes everything it is to its participation in the divine oneness” (161). Indeed, in keeping with Cusa’s analogical metaphysics, for which nothing but God is by nature one with itself, it is in turning toward Christ that we are made whole and become by grace the “ones,” the unique individuals and—by incorporation into Christ—members of the one body that we really, metaphysically are. This is why at various points Hoff notes that, in our fallen state, “we are not what we are” (212), and that, picking up on a cue from Augustine (sermon 272), we must therefore become what we are, which is to say, that we must become what we are in Christ (13, 211). As Cusa writes in De docta ignorantia (before Luther!),

Our justification is not from ourselves, but from Christ. Since He is the complete fullness (omnis plenitudo), in Him we obtain all things . . . Therefore, the higher a man ascends in the immortal virtues, the more Christlike he becomes. For minimum things coincide with maximum things. For example, maximum humiliation (humilitatio) coincides with exaltation (cum exaltatione): the most shameful death of a virtuous man coincides with his glorious life, and so on—as Christ’s life, suffering, and death manifest all these points to us (185).

There is thus for Cusa, following Paul, no higher (Platonic) term of contemplation or speculation than what one can see in Christ and him crucified: “Sunt igitur omnia mysteria in crucifixione innocentis Christi complicate” [all mysteries are enfolded in the crucifixion of the innocent Christ] (181). Indeed, as Hoff notes, “the crucifixion is the key to Cusa’s ‘hunt for wisdom’” (181). For not only is Christ the real and symbolic center of the universe in that he manifests the oneness of God (as the coincidence of the infinite and finite, the absolute maximum and the minimum); he also invites us into his oneness with the Father as members of his one body: “That they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:23).

What is arguably most striking about Cusa’s re-vision of the Platonic tradition, however, is that this invitation to share in the oneness of God (at which point of self-abandonment it becomes possible to see God as the non aliud, as the “non-other” than every creature) is less an invitation to a Platonic-mystagogical ascent as it is an invitation to a Christian-mystagogical descent (to the point of conformity to the Cross of Christ). For “unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Thus, to employ that most precise trope of paradox, whose mysterious form is a sign of a greater precision than anything modern analytic method could attain, we come to see that, as Heraclitus prophetically intimated, “the way up and the way down are one and the same” (Diels B60): we come to see that the ascent occurs by way of a descent, by way of a following of Christ (to his cross) in order to rise with Christ (in his resurrection).

But, once again, such a metaphysical vision is inaccessible to the modern man, who is immured in his modern perspective—the perspective of “the modern Narcissus,”1 who puts himself “in the position of the eye point of a mathematically generated picture” (151), and precisely thereby makes his eye unreceptive to the light of the vision of God. As Hoff puts it, quoting Kleist, “nur schade dass das Auge modert, das die Herrlichkeit erblicken soll” [it’s just a pity that the eye molders that is called to the vision of glory] (167). As much as this book is about ontology, it is therefore also—and perhaps even more so—about conversion, metanoia: for it is only when one actually becomes “an image of divine simplicity” (169) by becoming one with Christ that one can see the world for what it most truly and most precisely is: an analogy of the One who is manifest in Christ. As Cusa puts it, “Created things . . . are not seen perfectly unless their Creator is seen” (207), which, in turn, is possible only when Christ their archetype is seen, and in him all things (John 1:3). Indeed, only then, as we are turned toward Christ (213), and the “incomprehensible light of the creator shines forth in our desire” (206), does the universe (uni-versum) in all its splendor come into view: only then are we able to see “in the real space of face-to-face encounters” (99) the “invisible in the visible” (203), and “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206).

There is much more to be said about this admirable book, which is itself like a beryl stone—to advert to the title of Cusa’s little book from 1458—in that it furnishes material suitable for a new perspective. I have not mentioned, for example, the importance of the vera icona (or, in this case, its replica) to Cusa’s inversion of the modern perspective (215). Nor have I drawn out the important political implications of the Analogical Turn, which seeks to overturn not only the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, but also its corresponding political dialectic between “individualism and totalitarianism” (227). All of this stands in need of development. In the meantime, given the richness of Cusa’s vision, we can be grateful to Johannes Hoff for having opened our eyes a littler wider to it—and to seeing just how important Cusa is to the recovery of the kind of metaphysical vision that the Church so desperately needs. Now is not the time to shrink back from metaphysics, as some are wont to do, but rather to give the Christian faith the kind of metaphysics it deserves and, in fact, implies—not an alien metaphysics, to which the faith must conform, but a metaphysics which the faith itself, as its proper articulation and explication, demands. One of the greatest attempts in this direction was made in the twentieth century by Erich Przywara, SJ, most famously in his Analogia Entis; and, given what Hoff has shown us in this book, we may not be surprised to learn that, in an interview from 1954, Przywara admitted that his own thought coincides most nearly not with that of Plato, or even Augustine, but with that of Nicholas of Cusa.2

  1. For a corresponding Lutheran appraisal, see Oswald Bayer, “Der Neuzeitliche Narziß. Reformation und Moderne im Konflikt,” in EK 26 (1993): 158–62; Gott als Autor. Zu einer poietologischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999), 73–85.

  2. Stefan Varnhagen, “Ehrung eines Grossen Denkers. Zwiegespräch zwischen Autor und Verleger anläßlich des 65. Geburtstags Erich Przywaras,” am 12 Oktober 1954 (Nürnberg: Gluck und Lutz, 1954).

  • Avatar

    Johannes Hoff


    Philosophical Pilgrim’s Paths: From Augustine and Aquinas to the Analogical Turn of Our Time

    I want to thank Christian Amondson and his team for providing me with the opportunity to participate in this innovative symposium for Syndicate Theology. I am also grateful to John Betz, Michael E Moore, Matthew Moser and Daniel O’Connell for reading and discussing my book so thoroughly. They provided me with a unique opportunity to rethink the aims, strengths and weaknesses of my book, and to become clearer about my position in the spectrum of contemporary Anglophone philosophical theology.

    The four reviews I received hardly could have been more different in terms of content and style. As in Cusa’s experiment with the monks of Tegernsee, described in his book On the Vision of God, they expressed heterogeneous perspectives on my ideas, arguments and insights that transcended my expectations. And the more I thought about their heterogeneity, the more they started to interact with each other until a quite coherent, new landscape emerged in my imagination. This, in my perception, was the most impressive outcome of the symposium.

    John Betz’s review captures the sources and focal aims of my book in a surprisingly clear-sighted way. His sympathetic observations about my writing style gave me pause and helped me to see more clearly why other readers might struggle to follow the “nonlinear” lines of my book. For this reason, I tried to be more explicit about the mystagogical method of my research, and the related epochal break of our time, that enabled historical philosophers and theologians to recover the premodern roots of this method—e.g. in Albert, and Aquinas, and in Augustine’s account of the way to the truth as a way of illumination.

    Michael E. Moore’s review displays a deep sympathy to my sources in Cusa, but also a certain perplexity about the methodology and the (in his view) backwards-oriented aims of my book. I interpreted this criticism as an invitation to dispel some fundamental misunderstandings, and to outline the broader context of my research on the “post-digital turn” of our time. In view of Moore’s historiographic background, I furthermore summarized the methodological considerations that guide my hermeneutics of classical texts.

    Matthew Moser impressed me by his sincerity. His review articulates his philosophical and spiritual commitment to engage with the theses and ideas of my book, but also his disappointment about the lack of a univocal Christological focus. In my response, I built on Piere Paolo Pasolini in order to express why the late medieval and modern aim to identify a univocal focus of Christian faith might be delusive.

    A further critical point connects Moser’s text with the review of Daniel O’Connell, namely the suspicion that my criticism of representationalism follows the paths of the Cambridge School of Philosophical Theology (“Radical Orthodoxy”). This suspicion provided me with an opportunity to clarify my position within the landscape of contemporary Anglophone theology. Apart from this criticism, O’Connell’s review expresses with great clarity why my book might appear as strange in the perception of readers who are shaped by the “epistemological” mindset of classical modernity. I interpreted this “fit occasion” as a prod to express more clearly how my hermeneutics of medieval philosophy relates to contemporary debates about epistemology.

    A response to John Betz

    After John Betz’s review I doubt that I would have done a better job had I been asked to summarize the core ideas that guided my reading of Cusa. I particularly appreciate how he emphasizes the unity of Cusa’s mystical ascent with the descent of Christian spirituality, and the consequent unity of his Platonism with his Christocentric ecclesiology. Betz is completely right about this focus: The Analogical Turn (AT) is not only a book about ontology, but also, and even more so, on metanoia (conversion)—the original, Christian version of Heidegger’s Kehre. It is this “univocal analogical” focus that holds my book together, not like a linear sequence of univocal arguments, or a systematically compartmentalized presentation of a pre-given truth, but more like a pilgrimage that leads via multiple and occasionally untrodden paths to a simultaneously universal and unique destination.

    In the light of these aims, I perceived Betz’s introduction on my nonlinear writing style as particularly thought provoking. Although I never took a deliberate decision to write in helical lines, he is correct in contrasting Descartes’s privileging of clear and distinct straight lines (56) from my own research “method.” The Greek word “method” means to move “after (meta-) a travelling way (hodos).” But should we always take the shortest path between two nodes? The Cartesian promise that everything will straighten out if we only stick to the linear principles of representational security and analytical rigor has failed on every level of philosophical, mathematical and scientific research. For this reason, I investigated alternative methods of thinking in my earliest publications on the “performative turn” of Foucault, Levinas and Derrida—until I discovered Nicholas of Cusa. In view of this discovery, Betz could have equally related his introductory remarks to my summary of Cusa’s mystagogical method: the contemplative method of “reaching out” to the truth through “acts of affirmation (kataphasis) and denial (apophasis),” which is guided by a pre-reflexive truth (truth1) that can only be expressed in the language of wonder and praise (AT 18–24).

    In the wake of thinkers as different as the early Romantics Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel and Martin Heidegger, we have learned that scientific reason is not reducible to true or false propositions. I have outlined this more extensively in my publications on the necessity of replacing the radicalized phenomenological reduction (or epoché) of Foucault and Derrida by a “doxological reduction.”1 The above summary of Cusa’s method built on this research when it distinguished between two aspects of “truth” that interfere with each other and undermine every attempt to think in straight lines: Our selection of true propositions (truth2) is regularly crossed by acts of wonder and praise (truth1) that guide our decisions about what deserves our attention and what does not.

    In our digitalized world this nonlinear concept of truth has become more relevant than ever before. The abundance of available (more or less) “true” propositions (in the sense of truth2) no longer permits us to confine our research to the straight lines of analytically precise “true arguments.” Take the example of Facebook: To push the Like button is an act of praise that almost always runs ahead of our reflexive thinking. Even scientists cannot avoid using such “doxology buttons.” But doxological acts of wonder and praise are anything but innocent. Rather they recall the doxological core question of Cusa’s “science of unknowing”: Are our acts of praise governed by the desire for the truth, or are we trapped in the idolatrous veneration of finite things which “ascribes to the image that which befits only the reality itself” (Docta ignorantia, I n. 86)?2 If every knowledge starts with the commitment to a truth that transcends our reflexive comprehension, then it is no longer possible to draw a clear demarcation line between the straight lines of evidence-based, secure thinking patterns and the tentative, helical lines of walking paths that are sensitive to delusive shortcuts and attentive to performative indicators and narratives that structure the space that we inhabit.

    As Michel de Certeau has pointed out, only subsequent to the fifteenth century did the “maps” that guide our cognitive and spatial movements become “disengaged” from the nonlinear “conditions of the possibility” of space.3 After all the philosophical theologies of pagans and the revealed theologies of Christians were dedicated to the same concerns—the concerns that occupy wandering pilgrims: the ascension to the truth, the desire for salvation and unification, questions of hope and faith (fiducia philosophantis), the experience of unity, etc.

    This family resemblance between theological and philosophical “methods” not only provoked forms of synergy and competition. Subsequent to Albert the Great, it also catalysed the emergence of mystical paths that were designed to transcend the difference between the orders of Christian faith and philosophical reason. According to de Libera, the latter tradition culminated in Meister Eckhart.4 But was Eckhart still committed to the spiritual core of Christian orthodoxy? Were the itineraries of his mystical philosophy (apart from the rhetoric of his sermons) still paths of conversion that are guided by the light of grace?

    Cusa was deeply convinced that Meister Eckhart never deviated from the path of Christian orthodoxy, but he was aware of those who doubted Eckhart’s orthodoxy. Hence, he kept his path (and his reading of Meister Eckhart, see for example Apologia Doctae ignorantiae, n. 37) as close as possible to the Augustinian tradition. According to this tradition, the way to our ultimate destination leaves no space for any kind of autonomy that is not guided by the divine light. Our path to salvation is a way of conversion and grace. However, theological considerations about this destination should never come last. If our attempts “to orient ourselves in thinking” (in the sense of Immanuel Kant) are to never be deceived by idolatrous doxological attachments, then our philosophical reasoning can (other than in Kant) never confine itself to the boundaries of reason alone. Rather, it is decisive to recall from the very beginning the name that alone deserves our unrestricted admiration and praise: The inexpressible four-letter name YHWH that became eventually replaced by the human proper name “Jesus” (cf. Sermo 20). Cusa already emphasized this crucial aspect of his way of thinking in his early tractate On Seeking God: The philosophers who trusted in their own intelligence perished in their vanities; only those who call THE NAME (invocantes nomen eium) escaped this fate, since they had become humble (AT 22f.).

    For this reason, I completely agree with Betz’s repeated reference to Augustine’s critical appropriation of the Platonic tradition which focuses on the concept of humility. I also agree with his emphasis on the significance of sensible, sacramental mediation in Augustine, although this point is less self-evident from a classical modern point of view. Augustine has been misread as a “Platonic dualist” since the thirteenth century at the latest. But our reading of Augustine has changed in the wake of paradigm shifts of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, even secular scholars recall how important it was for Augustine to cognize (as he put it) “out of intimacy with the flesh.”5 On the other hand, a new emphasis on the theological context of Augustine’s philosophical journeys has changed not only our understanding of Augustine but also our understanding of the “Augustinianism” of the Middle Ages. This is particularly relevant in terms of Augustine’s concept of illumination (as indicated by Betz) and in terms of Cusa’s relationship to Thomas Aquinas.

    Lydia Schumacher has provided us with a concise summary of this historiographic paradigm shift in her monograph on Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. In contrast to anachronistic attempts to separate Augustine’s philosophy from his theology, Schumacher focuses both on the philosophical and on the theological research on Augustine (such as we find in Rowan Williams, Lewis Ayres, Michel Barnes and Carol Harrison). Consequently, she reads Augustine’s philosophy of illumination (e.g., in De magistro) in its theological context (particularly in De Trinitate) without making concessions to modern disciplinary boundaries. This approach enables her to show convincingly where typically modern readings of Augustine went wrong.

    Take the example of “ontologist” readings of Augustine, as in Ficino and Malebranche: Such readings are not supported by an unselective reading of the primary sources. They rather build on hermeneutic prejudices that emerged in the Franciscan tradition of the thirteenth century subsequent to Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure. Under the influence of the Arab philosopher Avicenna, Bonaventure no longer considered the concept of illumination as something that is intrinsically related to the autonomous movements of pilgrims.6 He rather assumed a kind of a priori knowledge of being that was accompanied by extrinsic illuminations.

    According to Schumacher, this reading of Augustine anticipated two later developments: On the one hand it anticipated ontologist theories of knowledge, in which the divine light imparts to the human mind ready-made contents. On the other hand it provoked the emergence of proto-epistemological theories of knowledge that considered the extrinsic intervention of a divine light as redundant, and even contradictory, given that it seemed to interfere with the process of active cognition. The last point explains why Franciscan followers of Bonaventure, starting with Duns Scotus, focused (in a proto-Kantian way) on the a priori nature of our acts of knowing at the expense of forms of divine illumination (ibid., 194–201).

    This new “Augustinian” focus did not emerge out of a logical necessity, since it built on a very superficial reading of Augustine. In Augustine, the process of illumination did not compete with the freedom of human acts. Our mind is capax intelligibilis lucis (De Civitate Dei 12.3) because what we passively receive from the giver of light coincides with our ability to be knowing agents that generate our own ideas during our pilgrimage to God (cf. ibid., 25–67). The Franciscan “Augustinians” made us forgetful of this truth. Only Aquinas remained faithful to the original Patristic (and Platonic) sources when he considered the divine light as a gift that actualizes our cognitive capacity to engage in abstractive reasoning starting from our sensual perception (cf. ibid., 154–80).

    Cusa followed Aquinas at this crucial point: The divine light is never something that turns us into passive receivers. This becomes most evident in Cusa’s famous sentence: “Be your own and I will be yours” (AT 210). Betz confirms my conviction that this sentence builds on Augustine when he relates it to his Sermo 272 (estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis): We must become and enact what we are, then we will be truly receiving.

    Seen from this angle, Bonaventure is no longer the great exponent of medieval Augustinianism that early modern historians considered him to be. That honour has to be transferred to Aquinas. For the same reason, Duns Scotus’s rejection of Bonaventure’s theory of illumination should not be confused with an Aristotelian gesture that brought the Franciscans closer to Aquinas. The original Aristotelian concept of abstraction was compatible with Augustine’s view that abstractions are the outcome of a gradual, cognitive work (a kind of via remotionis) that starts with our sensual perception. Hence, the early modern dividing line between Augustinians and Aristotelians (which was still prominent in Gilson) is utterly misleading. Aquinas was neither a member of the one nor of the other party. He rather radicalized Aristotle’s original concept of abstraction by translating Augustine’s theological concept of illumination into Aristotelian terms.

    If there is any dividing line, it separates not Aristotelians from Augustinians but Franciscans from Dominicans. This becomes also evident if we look at the most recent research on Albert the Great, who was one of the most influential sources of Cusa. Although Albert left more space for an “autonomous” philosophical account of the mystagogical ascent, his concept of abstraction was compatible with a noncompetitive concept of illumination both in philosophical and theological terms. Against the Avicennian teaching regarding the dator formarum (which shaped Franciscan theories of knowledge from Bonaventure onwards), Albert denied that the universals that illuminate our mind are discrete entities that we receive passively. Rather, as de Libera has pointed out, he considered the divine light as a “univocal stream”: a stream of light that relates always to the simplicity of God.7

    In a similar way, Albert the theologian built on Denis the Areopagite and Maximus Confessor, when he developed a liturgical concept of emanation in which our susceptibility to the divine good coincides with an active act of doxological return: “Maximus Episcopus says that ‘the good’ [bonum] is said from ‘boo, boas,’ because it calls those that are not, as much as those that are [Rom 4. 17]. But it ‘calls’ only insofar as it impresses its form onto those things as if through some kind of natural listening; and thus it seems that it is the specific act of the good to bring the [individual] goods into being, and that none of the caused things is, unless it has the cause of the good.”8

    As I have pointed out in AT, Cusa built on this Dionysian tradition—although he emphasized more than Albert (and in line with Aquinas) the unity of theology and philosophy: As in the case of doxological acts of prayer and praise, our intellectual power is a gift that we receive from the “father of lights.” And this gift is never received passively. Rather, the gesture of attentive receptivity coincides with the gesture of return: To receive the gift of the father of lights is tantamount with the realisation that my whole being is a gift that actualizes itself through acts of giving.

    Against the backdrop of this Anglophone and particularly French research, I agree with Betz that the trajectory of my critical engagement with the representationalist metaphysics of modernity is in line with Erich Przywara’s conviction that theologians cannot build on a metaphysics that is inconsistent with the demands of Christian faith. However, some aspects of Przywara’s research might require a reassessment. Przywara was aware that the metaphysics of the Franciscan tradition took a different trajectory than the Dominican tradition after Duns Scotus. But he still took it for granted that Aquinas’s contemporary Bonaventure was “the pinnacle of the older Franciscan tradition in which the Augustinianism of the early Middle Ages was at home.”9 This assessment was supported by the mainstream research of Przywara’s time, but it is no longer supported by the historical research of the twenty-first century. The latter rather indicates that the pathways of Franciscans and Dominicans already diverged in Aquinas’s time.

    1. See, e.g., Johannes Hoff, “Mystagogy beyond Onto-theology: Looking Back to Post-modernity with Nicholas of Cusa,” in Arne Moritz, ed., A Companion to Nicholas of Cusa (Leiden: Brill, 2014); and Johannes Hoff and Peter Hampson, “Nicholas of Cusa: A Premodern Post-modern Reader of Shakespeare,” in Zoe Lehmann Imfeld, Peter Hampson, Alison Milbank, eds., Theology and Literature in Post-modernity (London/New York: Bloomsbury/T. & T. Clark, 2015), 115–37.

    2. Translations of Cusa’s works are based on The Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas of Cusa, edited by Jasper Hopkins. The numbering system is based on the critical edition (h).

    3. Cf. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91–130.[/foonote] However, the premodern concept of spatial movements has returned in our time—it is no accident that Certeau’s writings first attracted the attention of behavioural economists who investigate our consumer behaviour.

      This return of the repressed sheds light on a historiographic paradigm shift of our time. In contrast to the analytic rationality of modernity, premodern philosophers resisted the inclination to draw a clear demarcation line between the scientific cultivation of rational arguments and the religious cultivation of the symbolically charged nonlinear practices that guide our attention. For this reason, Pierre Hadot was right when he pointed out that philosophy was considered a spiritual form of life in antiquity. Hadot only misdated the point where this spiritual approach started to fade out. As Alain de Libera has demonstrated, the famous condemnation of 219 philosophical and theological propositions by Bishop Tempier of Paris in 1277 marked the decisive breaking point. Only after 1277 did philosophers feel increasingly forced to sunder their evidence-based rational arguments from the spiritual hotbed of their thinking patterns in everyday life.

      With the benefit of hindsight we might perceive this break as the starting point of modern secularism. Hence, it might come as a surprise that those who encouraged the modern separation of philosophical arguments from the spiritual ascent to the truth were not rationalist agnostics. Rather the decisive break of 1277 was enforced by theologians who wanted to subject a purified concept of reason to the oversight of a purified concept of revelation and faith. Before that time it was possible neither to draw a neat separation line between philosophy and theology, nor to treat these disciplines as functionally differentiated modules of a philosophical-theological “system” in the style of Neo-Scholasticism. As de Libera has masterfully pointed out, up until the thirteenth century the “big choices” were not between faith and reason, or theology and philosophy.[footnote]“Les grands choix du Moyen Âge ne passent pas entre raison et foi, théologie et philosophie comme telles ni même entre la théologie révélée et une philosophie tout entière absorbée dans ce que Gilson appelle théologie naturelle.” Alain de Libera, Raison et foi: Archologie d’une crise d’Albert le Grand Jean-Paul II (Paris: Seuil, 2003), 28.

    4. “Il appartient à Maître Eckhart d’avoir explicitement thématisé ce double sursaut hors de foi et de raison” (ibid., 348).

    5. Cf. David van Dusen, The Space of Time: A Sensualist Interpretation of Time in Augustine, Confessions X to XII (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

    6. Knowledge is no longer “described as subject to gradual growth through ongoing participation in a unified mode of thinking.” Lydia Schumacher, Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 236f, cf. 110–53.

    7. Cf. Alain de Libera, Albert le Grand et la philosophie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1990), 122–23, 144–211.

    8. Albertus Magnus, Summa Theologiae, I. 6. 26; cf. Philipp W. Rosemann, Omne agens agit sibi simile: A “repetition” of scholastic metaphysic (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1996), 217f.

    9. “Bonaventura (…) ist Zeitgenosse Thomas von Aquinas und damit eigentlich mehr Höhepunkt jener älteren Franziskanerschule, in der der frühmittelalterliche Augustinianismus seine Heimstätte hatte.” E. Przywara, Religionsphilosophische Schriften (Einsiedeln: 1962), 472.

Michael E. Moore


Via Antiqua

I. Refugium

With this work of philosophical theology Johannes Hoff hopes to recover an ecclesial framework for life, and along the way, to reexamine old categories such as Christian learning, sensus communis and liturgical space. The book traces a self-described “Ultra-Orthodox” itinerary—influenced by the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. Beyond that, the book aims at nothing less than the overthrow of the “nihilistic rationality of Western modernity,” and the modern world picture.

Hoff turns to the fifteenth-century theologian and cardinal Nicholas of Cusa to find “an alternative vision of the age to come.” The philosophy of Cusanus might offer “new insights into the ‘completely ordinary chaos’ of post-modern life.”

II. Bad Modernity

The life of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) extended over the greater part of a century which saw the opening of modernity, however understood: the Battle of Agincourt, the Italian Quattrocento, the fall of Constantinople, the Council of Constance. Nicholas was aware of these movements, and was perhaps energized by the atmosphere of disruptive change. He offered “an uncompromisingly orthodox response to the challenges of early modernity.” In doing so, like other humanists of his day, Nicholas searched in the past to find new resources for the future.

In this fascinating treatise, theologian Johannes Hoff does something similar, by returning to the writings of Cusanus, who “offers an alternative modernity.” Hoff’s own critique of modernity provides the central impulse behind this work, and like Gillespie (Theological Origins of Modernity), he is critical of the secularization thesis. What is wrong with modernity? Modernity undermined religion and demystified the world, causing the loss of liturgical space and the world picture it sustained—while the sensus communis was abandoned. Modernity unleashed nihilistic rationality—which flowed from Franciscan sources to Cartesian and Kantian outlets. Late modern technological society seems to haunt the discussion, which Nicholas of Cusa is said to have opposed “just at its point of emergence.”

Hoff regrets the loss of a poetical, vague world in which religion and selfhood flourished in the presence of the symbol. Rationalism—of a type here rejected as “nihilism”—seems to mean a deconstructive criticism of cherished beliefs, a pattern of thought corrosive of common sense and destructive of the shared spaces of liturgy and orthodox religion.

To lay the groundwork for his approach to optics and spatial representation, Hoff explores the problem of objective space and its connection to selfhood. Fichte diagnosed the abyss between subject and object, but like other Romantics, failed to bridge it. The early Romantics drove their carriages ever farther away from the intellectual legacy of medieval times, and the warm hearths of orthodoxy:

The philosophy of early Romanticism did not build on the habitualized wisdom of liturgical attempts to touch on . . . the untouchable limits of human language and reason through contemplative practices of prayer and praise.

Two stark abysses: between God and the world, between subject and object, yawned wider as modernity unfolded.

Hoff dislikes “modern liberal society” and its world picture. In considering this viewpoint, which one often hears from both the right and the left, I fell into a reverie, imagining the bourgeois order of late medieval cities, defended by stone walls and towers with pointed roofs, where a new cultural intensity was sparked by literacy and numeracy. Prosperous burghers walked down narrow streets, jingling their keys, but thinking within a Mediterranean-wide perspective, especially in seaports. Communal life was still centered in huge late-Gothic cathedrals. This was the generous soil of Renaissance humanism, which opened new possibilities for the laity. My reverie went so far as to recall Thomas Mann’s essay “Lübeck as a Way of Life,” with its praise of bourgeois civilization. What are the benefits of a liberal, bourgeois social order? A degree of personal safety, the availability of higher education and public libraries, café tables, symphony orchestra performances? Yet when it comes to intellectuality and brilliance, scholarship after 1914 (to choose a date) was shaped by ardent seriousness and tragic experience, sheer abundance of knowledge (including of other religions) and virtuosity. If we need the depths of ancient-medieval religion and ecclesiastical tradition, we also need the energy and pensive brightness of modernity. At the same time, scholarship now exists in a culture which Von Balthasar termed “technical civilization in its final state, in which we run the risk of being overwhelmed and dehumanized.”

III. Christian Learning

It is surprising and wonderful to read Hoff’s appraisals of Dionysius, Augustine, and Aquinas. These are like stars shining overhead for those travelling along an ancient road, the via antiqua. Nevertheless in Hoff’s view, the divisive hand of the moderns was raised against them. The Kantian tradition, because it absorbed nihilistic elements from Alberti to Descartes, has something “profoundly wrong” with it. The alternative to such destructive trends would be the restoration of Christian learning as a basis for a shared world. We should recall, however, that it was the Kantians and post-Kantians, from Hermann Cohen to Ernst Cassirer, who set out to recover Cusanus for the modern world.

The thinkers and ideas mentioned in this book amount to a theoretical syllabus of the West, from Augustine to Derrida. Chesterton defends Aquinas against Descartes, Certeau disputes with Henri de Lubac, Hölderlin stands on the edge of a Kantian abyss. Lacan, Hugo Ball, Angelus Silesius add a note of mystery and melancholy. I like the intensity of these discussions. Hoff wants to “read [Cusa’s] philosophical writings in the light of later developments.” These encounters fascinate, but temporally they clang on the ear of an historian, as in these passages:

As distinct from modern Christians, who frequently feel intimidated by the indisputable success story of the analytic rationality of the Western sciences, Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason.”

Cusa never tried to decompose the misty proportions of our everyday experience into . . . the Cartesian opposition between body and soul, or the transcendental-philosophical distinctions between subject and object.

Hoff is more drawn to the misty north than to the clarity of the Mediterranean. The artistic achievements of northern Renaissance painting, and the philosophical and theological work of Cusanus are highlighted, while Quattrocento Italy is blamed for the arrival of modern spatial knowledge. Ocular, nihilistic trends of the West are said to have their origins in Italian early modernity.

Renaissance humanism comes in for negative appraisal, having set in motion a bad modernity with its negative analytical reflexes and its revival of ancient philology. Nicholas himself was an exponent of Christian humanism, if an eccentric one. While admitting this, Hoff blames humanist philology for the “nominalist disconnection of language and imagination.” Worst of all, it led to the rise of the expert. Mathematical scientists dominated the visual world, while

educated scholars subjected the authority of the divine word to the authority of institutionalized teaching-agencies, which assured the credibility of their public representatives through the historical-critical hermeneutics of a revealed body of linguistic knowledge.

Biblical knowledge is only fully alive in the echoing voices of the liturgy. One strange effect of Hoff’s discussion is that Cusanus appears as a figure in contrast to the direction ultimately taken by modern rationality and the liberal arts.

Hoff views biblical philology as something destructive, rather than as a scholarly encounter with temporal and intellectual depths in the Word. He argues that, as a consequence of biblical philology and historical criticism, Christians were alienated from liturgy and the Word: “The liturgical cultivation of attitudes of trust in the common sense of our everyday perception disappeared.” However, modern-day philology, exegesis, and philosophies of language and hermeneutics have been companions to theologies of the Word. This was partly due to the influence of Buber and Gadamer.

Christian learning is not well explained, although frequently mentioned. As a form of intellectual life, Hoff argues that it was undermined by Scotism and the via moderna. Christian learning was something contemplative, rather than analytical, and deeply rooted, rather than willfully chosen. Hoff does not directly call for a return to the (pre-philogical) “biblical and Platonic roots of Christian learning,” but he does hint at the excellence of an older way.

However, as Henri de Lubac explained, masters in the school of Chartres liked to say that those erudite in biblical studies were blessed: beati sunt literati. Given that Christian learning is a centuries-old tradition, how should we appraise its history? Pelikan’s Christian Tradition might serve as shorthand for the diversity of sources. And patristic streams became medieval rivers: as detailed in Ghellinck’s Patristique et Moyen Age or Lubac’s Exegèse medievale.

While recognizing theology as the ne plus ultra of theory, one admires biblical criticism and source-critical patristics as a sophisticated and dedicated kind of research. Historical study has been a basic form of Christian learning for centuries. Its excellence greatly flourished in modern times, to name only Jean Mabillon, Caesar Baronius, and the Bollandists. Christian learning thereby absorbed the methods of criticism, la critique. We might include modern scholars such as Louis Bouyer, Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, and Henri de Lubac. This was a scholarly and religious trend. With the help of a ressourcement in patristics, Vatican II became a forum in which the voices of the dead could be heard. This phenomenon seems to accord with Cusa’s concern for earlier times and former generations, as Hoff explains:

[The mystical body] denoted the abiding presence of the past in the liturgical gathering of the present time, and indicated our responsibility to interpret the visible signs of this sacramental presence in the light of an unfulfilled cosmic future.

Finally, considering the collaborative project Biblical Thinking by Pierre Ricoeur and André LaCocque, one should not admit that Christian learning lies in ruins.

IV. Lob den Herren

In Hoff’s view, Cusanus thought along entirely different lines than the Italian painters and thinkers of his day: because of his theological and liturgical orthodoxy, he recognized this lovely world as a misty space. Misty space is a key term, often used here. Hoff explains it by reference to the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The Fathers at Chalcedon insisted on the faultiness of the world and its separation from the divine, while affirming their intimate connection. This kind of space remained open to Cusanus—who (so to speak) resolved the Kantian antinomies from within the misty liturgical space of a cathedral.

Liturgical praise is a genuine encounter with the invisible. Liturgy discloses ultimate realities: therefore Cusanus could say that the “most wise science consists in the praise of God who fashioned all things from out of His praises.” Nicholas never strayed far from the setting of liturgical space: the actual naves, columns, choirs, and candles, thus pointing a way out of modern alienating space. Cusa taught a mystagogical ascent

that leads, via the misty space of a conjecturing power that is characterized by liturgical practices of faith and belief, to the contemplation of the invisible source of the visible creation.

The practice of liturgical praise (latreia) can “inform our perception of the world.”

If liturgical space can be rediscovered, so might liturgical wisdom. Unlike the stag’s leap of Romantic philosophy, liturgical wisdom is the “habitualized wisdom of . . . contemplative practices of prayer and praise.” We might even recover the “ecclesial tradition of the Middle Ages”:

the living community of the body of Christ was called to rediscover the testimony of the Holy Scriptures time after time through the shared liturgical exercise of our perception, imagination, and theoretical contemplation.

It is harder to praise the Maker starting from the coordinates of Cartesian space. Hoff contrasts the spatial understanding of Cusanus with the mathematical precision and virtual reality of perspectival art.

V. Gold Sky

Misty space is an imprecise, traditionalist, communal world. You might think of it as “the world unplugged.” This misty world reflects the divine face, and depends upon it. This is the “uncompromising, orthodox character of Cusa’s ontology of perception.” Hoff therefore rejects the “lethal state of purity” instituted by Kantians and Hegelians, in favor of Cusa’s liturgical imprecision. Two ontologies and two accounts of perception and art are in perpetual conflict.

A major strand of this book is Hoff’s concern with the artistic representation of space in the Renaissance, and its legacy for the Western imagination. Following Paul Klee’s Credo of 1920: “art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible.” Hoff asserts that liturgical modes of space were overthrown by the introduction of linear perspective in the Italian arts after Masaccio, and the theorization of this method in Leon Battista Alberti’s De pictura (1435). Throughout, Hoff engages the work of Hans Belting, as painting, perspectival theory and the “picturing” of the world are developed as a central theme. Hoff blames Alberti for initiating a sense of space in which the viewer’s eye is transfixed by an artificially obtained point, a deadening of living space. Hoff’s point seems to be confirmed if we consider the perspectival scheme of Masaccio’s Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella (1425–1428). It is as though Alberti set these perspectival theories in stone, in the marvellous interior of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua (1472–1492).

Alberti’s perspectivism contributed to what Heidegger called the modern world picture. Historians and philosophers have perhaps overlooked the fact “that the innovators of Cusa’s time were largely thinking with paint and brush, not with paper and pencil.” This means that the history of philosophy must be complemented by art history. Linear perspective allowed for mathematical control, but it brought about a “nihilistic obsession with representational security.” Hoff says that the early Renaissance merger of the liberal and the fine arts was “just another step in the representationalist direction of Bacon, Duns Scotus, Ockham, and Alberti.” This lineage is blamed for the rise of a bad modernity. As a result of perspectivism, point of view became just another place to get lost, causing selfhood to drift and float.

Here again, in Hoff’s view, Cusanus conceived of space as mystagogical rather than analytical. The “yardstick of our search for the truth,” to follow Nicholas, “can only be approximated . . . in the analogical language of prayer and praise that unites the universal with the particular.” Cusa’s understanding of space led from the faces and objects around us toward the God on whom the world rests. God is absolute vision and absolute looking. But it should be recalled that, in the view of Cusanus, our knowledge is uncertain without the light of mathematics: Nihil certi habemus in nostra scientia, nisi nostram mathematicam. This was a call to precision.

Hoff considers Cusanus to have been part of “a north Burgundy network” associated with the devotio moderna (c’est discutable). Such a network might connect Cusa’s theory of space to the practices of northern painters such as Jan van Eyck and the Cologne Master of the Life of the Virgin. Here was a misty realism “more rigorous and realistic” than the mathematics of the Italian style. Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece eschewed the use of a vanishing point, since the goal was to lead viewers “via the mediation of the visible, to the contemplation of an invisible light.”

However, the Altarpiece is by no means easy to fathom, because of the very intensity of the visible. Crowds of clerics arrive in Dionysian droves, old hermits step gingerly through a mountain pass, crusaders approach on prancing horses as saintly women advance with palm branches. All these figures converge on a liturgical vortex: the hallucinatory, unearthly image of the sacrificial Lamb. The eye wanders off to the horizon, where the lofty towers of heavenly Jerusalem are seen, with its unknowable gardens, fields and mountains fading into blue.

As Hoff explains, painters like Van Eyck moved away from the high gothic style, with its elongated figures and saints frozen in otherworldly pools of gold. That traditional golden background had been a liturgical space:

The coincidence of natural colors with the supernatural qualities of gold was perceived as the touching point between the not yet fully actualized reality of our visible world and the invisible plenitude of its creator.

What is missing from this account is the fact that Burgundian painters depicted direct encounters, such as Dieric Bouts the Elder’s Virgin and Child (ca.1455–1460) with its tender portrait of mother-love, or visionary encounters, such as Van Eyck’s Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (1435).

Hoff maintains that painters in direct contact with Nicholas of Cusa offered different solutions. The triptych in Nicholas’ Hospital in Kues returned to the “mystagogical use of gold.” The triptych, attributed to the Cologne Master of the Life of the Virgin, no doubt reflects Cusa’s own ideas and spiritual practices. The crucifixion occurs in an eerie landscape that recedes to a blue horizon of woods, meadows and mountains. But overhead the sky has become a gothic field of gold, an unapproachable realm of difference. In Hoff’s view, this golden sky teaches a Cusan lesson about the need for conversion, an absolute turning point, metanoia.

Nicholas of Cusa dedicated his life to a “hunt for wisdom.” But if no sky of gold should appear overhead, perhaps wisdom can still be searched for in the blue depths of the mountains, by those walking along an ancient road?

  • Avatar

    Johannes Hoff


    Beyond the Liberal Dialectic of Disenchantment and Re-enchantment: Recovering the “Between” in a Post-digital Age

    A Response to Michael E. Moore

    I like Michael Moore’s vivid description of Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and his emphasis on the significance of face-to-face encounters in the painters of north Burgundy. In the twentieth century the awareness of the irreducibility of face-to-face encounters was particularly kept alive by Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas. It seems that this focal dimension of the symbolic realism of the past resisted modern attempts to “demystify” the world—from van Eyck up to the 20th century.

    However, educated, philosophical movements like these were not the only point of resistance against the narrative of a progressive disenchantment. As a matter of fact, the promotion of a “disenchanted” rationality was always accompanied by more or less idolatrous ways to re-enchant the world—from the sentimentalisation of private relationships up to the commodity fetishism of modern capitalism. Already the industrialisation of the nineteenth century was accompanied by a superstitious re-enchantment of our social life, as Walter Benjamin clairvoyantly pointed out in his Arcades Project (1927–40) when he analysed the archetype of modern urbanity, the flâneur of nineteenth-century Paris, and how the habits of this “gentlemen stroller” inspired the construction of department stores that were designed to sell commodities. Meanwhile, historians have challenged the sociological narrative that modernity was about disenchantment from multiple perspectives. The linear “disenchantment” narrative has become out of date. It rather seems that it was the dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment that motivated the classical Western vision of modernisation.

    For a long time, this dialectic appeared enchanting and fascinating. Only in the late twentieth century did it become stuck in a kind of inertie polaire (in the sense of Paul Virilio), the sped-up standstill of our time. For this reason, I struggle to relate sentences like the following to what I have written in AT: “What is wrong with modernity? Modernity undermined religion and demystified the world, causing the loss of liturgical space and the world picture it sustained.” What is wrong with these sentences?

    Given that I do not consider every vision of modernity to be “wrong,” I will bypass the first sentence and start with the second half of the second sentence instead. Up to a certain point (this would require further discussion), my genealogical deconstruction of the Western version of modernity converges with Heidegger’s thesis that the modern age coincides with the “age of the world picture.” According to my reception of this thesis, the modern “world picture” did not replace (as the above sentence suggests) an older, medieval world picture. It rather replaced (what I called) the “liturgical space” of face-to-face encounters with a picture of this space. I do not buy into the modern myth that the medieval world sustained a (more or less narrow) “world picture” that was finally replaced by a more open picture. The idea that we need a representative “picture” of the world in order to behave rationally was a counter-intuitive invention of early modern theologians and philosophers.

    Now, it is important to recall that the modern justification of this need built upon scientific considerations: The pictures that guided our rational attitude towards the world had to be painted in accordance with the standards of a disenchanted “scientific” rationality. This leads me to another disputable part of the sentence quoted above. I tried to demonstrate in AT (and other publications) that the “disenchanted” world picture of classical modernity was never more than a show window that concealed a highly aggressive and superstitious form of re-enchantment. To use the notorious words of Bruno Latour’s pertinent book title: “We have never been modern.”

    In line with this observation, AT is not an attempt to overcome the “demystified world” of modernity. It is rather an attempt to overcome the modern dialectic of disenchantment and re-enchantment through a new focus on analogical “in-between” spaces: “misty spaces” that resist not only the analytic fallacies of modern sciences, but also the dialectical counter-reaction against this representationalist obsession, namely the subjectivist inclination to outsource the suppressed, symbolic dimension of our everyday world into a sentimentalized “private sphere.” To use an expression of the Irish philosopher William Desmond (who is one of the editors of my book): AT tries to recover the metaxu1 between these dialectical poles. This aim is in line with the hermeneutical principles of a “doxological reduction” (as outlined in my response to the review by Betz): Cusa’s orthodox conviction that only the inconceivability of God deserves our unfractured admiration has to be interpreted as a plea to overcome every kind of idolatrous attachment to “images,” including the “world pictures” of modern sciences and the sentimental self-images that enchant our narcissistic “private” life.

    Cusa’s philosophy was orthodox, because it focused on the right (orthe) practice of worship and praise (doxa). But does this mean that he defended a “religion” that became finally undermined by a disenchanted world picture? This leads me to the first part of the above quotation from Moore: Did modernity undermine religion?

    In order to answer this question it might suffice to quote the introductory paragraph of my forthcoming essay on Contemplation, Silence and the Return to Reality (The Way, 2015):

    Globalized societies have much to say about the return of “religions.” But on close examination it is hard to see what has returned. The modern concept of “religion” designates a special domain of human life.2 For this reason, modern societies tend to draw a clear demarcation line between religious practices like meditation and yoga, and secular practices like the creation of scientific theories and medical therapies. In a similar way they try to draw a clear demarcation line between religious values like clerical creditworthiness or symbols of religious veneration, and secular values like economic creditworthiness or symbols of cultural and political veneration. But what is the difference between yoga and a medical therapy, or meditation and theoretical contemplation? And to what extent is our trust in the financial market distinct from a more or less superstitious kind of religious faith or confidence? Only in our time, have we started to realize that the demarcation lines that secured the modern dualism between the “religious” and the “secular” are as arbitrary as the interstate boundaries in Africa that cut across ethnic groups and overrode geographic and economic demarcations.

    In the light of all this, my answer to the question “Did modernity undermine religion?” would run as follows: Modernity did not undermine religion; it rather created (and still creates, as the example of the “Islamic State” demonstrates) the “religions” that it pretended to undermine.3 To cut a long story short: The modern use of the concept of “religion” is just another version of the liberal dialectic of dis- and re-enchantment that we are called to overcome.

    Another passage that made me wonder when I read Moore’s review relates to my use of the expression “misty space.” To begin with, I was astonished about the attention that it attracted in Moore’s reading. According to my count, I used this and related expressions twelve times in a book of more than one hundred thousand words; Moore’s review uses it nine times in a text of three thousand words.

    In my understanding the technical term “misty space” designates what William Desmond calls the “between.” In terms of Cusa’s philosophy, this is particularly relevant for his understanding of indivisible remainders (like the “angle of contingency”) that remain unaccounted for when we try to approximate spatial entities with the comparative strategies of arithmetic and geometry. I have investigated this problem more thoroughly in my German monograph on Cusa.4 Take for example the touching point between a circular arc and a tangent: Cusa was convinced that it is not possible to square the circle; for this reason he argued (contrary to modern mathematics, but with better arguments) that it is not possible to provide a precise, comparative description of this touching point. The phenomena that lead him to this conviction might be illustrated by an example of our “digital age”: It is impossible to digitalize a circle, or to reduce a circle to the squared computer pixels that represent it on my screen. This illustration helps us to understand the mysterious features of the “between” spaces in Cusa and the Burgundy Painters: the “between” was in their view mysterious (and in this sense “misty”) not despite but precisely because of their increased appreciation of the idea of mathematical precision and pictorial realism.

    It seems to me that Moore has read something quite different in AT: “Misty space is an imprecise, traditionalist, communal world. You might think of it as ‘the world unplugged.’” I can hardly reconcile this reading with my intention in AT to recover a concept of “analogical rationality” that is compatible with the challenges of our time. In my current research, I am trying to meet this challenge by developing a “post-digital” concept of rationality.5 AT was a preparatory study for this research. Hence, I struggle to accept Moore’s insinuation that AT is a plea to pull the plug. I would rather say that it is a plea to use the analytic rationality of an outdated version of modernity (and the digital tools that emerged out of this era) like “augmented reality devices”: conjectural tools that enable us to modify and enhance our perception of the world, without getting out of touch with the real world that we inhabit. In terms of this plea, the expression “misty space” designates the points of resistance against the (all too real) project of “post-humanist” thinkers like the director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, who strives to “upload” the remains of our human intelligence onto a gigantic supercomputer (let’s call it Google) that will do its job without the “obsolete wet ware” of the human body.

    The foregoing might suffice to explain why I felt somewhat uneasy with Moore’s review. Nevertheless, I do not fault him for the unease he provoked. It indicates to me that Moore felt also uneasy with what I have written in AT, and I am grateful that he did not hesitate to express his discomfort. His review helps me to understand where readers, who feel less at home with my writing style, might struggle to follow the lines of my texts. But it might also be a sign of a deeper communication problem that needs to be investigated more thoroughly.

    When I first read Moore’s review, it reminded me of an exemplary dispute that might shed light on this problem: the Davos disputation between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer. If Peter E. Gordon’s reconstruction of this encounter in the Continental Divide6 is correct, Davos revealed a communication problem between two ways of thinking: On the one hand a thinking style that focused on the unthinkable (Heidegger), on the other hand a thinking style that built on the reflexive certitude and precision of scientific reason (Cassirer). Does this divide still exist? And if yes, to which party do I belong?

    As a philosopher who has always been impressed by Husserl’s vision of a “rigorous science,” I have hesitated throughout my scholarly life to align myself with one side or the other. Nevertheless, something has changed since I moved to the UK, because I increasingly realized that the two sides of this conflict belong to each other in an asymmetrical way. To use an image of Iain McGilchrist:7 I realized that the analogical rationality of our everyday experience is the “master” and the “digital” rationality of comparative reasoning its emissary. In my view, Cusa is the mastermind of this asymmetrical ontology of reasoning. Hence, I wonder if Moore would have been happier with my book if he had read it as a sequel to this double-gesture of Cusa’s writings. After all, he seems to feel well at home with the writings of the Renaissance sage from the Mosel.

    Given my admiration for philologists like Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jean Daniélou, Yves Conger and Henri de Lubac, and given that AT might occasionally “clang” in the ear of historians, I would like to conclude my response to Moore’s review by summarizing some methodological considerations that I have expounded in my German monograph on Cusa.8

    I developed my hermeneutical approach to the philosophical and spiritual masters of the past starting from a critical discussion of the hermeneutics of the German historian of medieval philosophy Kurt Flasch. In the introduction to his 1998 monograph on Cusa, Flasch criticized modern attempts to make the thinking of the past relevant for our time.9 He particularly attacked scholars who combine a more or less conventional, linear reading of Cusa with the attempt to use Cusa’s writings as a storehouse for props that embellish the prosaic reality of our disenchanted world. Instead of supporting the subjectivist demand for mystical props, Flasch recommended to create glass coffins—polished glass cabinets, in which the thinkers of the past can be examined from a respectful, educated distance. According to Flasch, our rationality has become self-referential. We no longer stand on the shoulders of Giants. Snow White is dead—the past no longer speaks. Hence the achievements of historiographical reason can only teach us what it is like to face corpses.

    This educated response to the modern sentimentalisation of the past is, in my view, as sincere as a German scholar can be. However, it is still trapped in the modern dialectic of disenchantment and re-enchantment. Moreover, my education in contemporary philosophy prevents me from sharing the basically historicist assumptions that guide Flasch’s hermeneutic of the past. Following Michel de Certeau, I already questioned these assumptions in my first publications. Similar to the hermeneutics of early twentieth-century philosophers such as Heidegger and Benjamin, I consider it not only possible but a matter of necessity to make the past speak again. The act of “writing history”10 is frequently an act of violence that silences the voices of the dead for a second time. The worst we can do in such a situation is to use their remains as props. But Flasch’s recommendation to expose silent copses is hardly more than a cynical capitulation in the face of a self-enchanted rationality that employs the memory of the past in order the support the myth of its superiority. For this reason, I tried to invert the relationship between the muted past and its eloquent examiners in order to demystify the narcissistic narratives of our present time.

    We have learned to employ similar hermeneutic strategies with regard to the victims of historical class battles. Cusa was not a victim in this obvious sense—to the contrary. However, the genealogy of his vision of the age to come shows that his voice was already muted when the political battles about the modern age started to take shape. For this reason, I have learned to read his writings as the traces of a silenced voice that (ironically) can provide us with a prototypical example for a hermeneutics that reemploys the “inverted perspective” of Cusa’s own writings in order to make them speak again.

    I am aware that this hermeneutical strategy, and the accompanying inversion of the relationship between the tenses of historical research might occasionally clang like a noise that signals acts of violence and alienation. The attempt to “re-inscribe” the traces of a dead master or mistress into the context of developments that she was not yet able to anticipate might make her appear as alien, not only in our perception, but also in terms of her original self-understanding. But this is the risk we have to take, if we do not want to silence his or her voice for a second time.

    In the preface to my German monograph, I tried to articulate this challenge, starting from a conversation in Plato’s Sophistes. Faced with the Sophist misuse of arguments of “father Parmenides” the stranger of Elea urges his interlocutor that “we must take courage and attack our father’s theory here and now” (242a). I still consider this dialog as an archetypical example for a hermeneutics of the history of human thinking that enables an inverted perspective on our present time to emerge: “The ‘big other,’ that is always the voice that returns after it has been betrayed, sacrificed and silenced: ‘Do not assume that I am becoming a sort of parricide!’ (241d) begs the stranger from Elea (was it Plato or Parmenides?) his interlocutor Theaitetos.”11

    1. Cf. William Desmond, Being and the Between (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

    2. For the following cf. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Timothy Fitzgerald, ed., Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations (London: Equinox, 2007); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions; or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Derek R. Peterson and Darren R. Walhof, eds., The Invention of Religion: Rethinking Belief in Politics and History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

    3. Cf. William T. Cavanaugh, “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” in Modern Theology 11.4 (1995) 397–420.

    4. Johannes Hoff, Kontingenz, Berührung, Überschreitung. Zur philosophischen Propädeutik christlicher Mystik nach Nikolaus von Kues (Freiburg: Alber, 2007), 85–142.

    5. Johannes Hoff, “Liturgical Turn: Gottesrede in einer post-digitalen Welt,” in Heinrich Schmidinger; Klaus Viertbauer, ed., Glauben Denken: Zur philosophischen Durchdringung der Gottesrede im 21. Jahrhundert (Salzburg: 2014).

    6. Peter Eli Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

    7. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

    8. Cf. Hoff, Kontingenz, Berührung, Überschreitung, 11–50.

    9. Cf. Kurt Flasch, Nikolaus von Kues: Geschichte einer Entwicklung; Vorlesungen zur Einführung in seine Philosophie (Frankfurt/M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1998), 650f.

    10. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

    11. Hoff, Kontingenz, Berührung, Überschreitung, 17.



The Analogical Turn . . . to What?

Johannes Hoff’s The Analogical Turn is a dazzling, though often dizzying study. Though its subtitle purports it to be a study of Nicholas of Cusa, its actual subject is far grander and more ambitious. Hoff’s book is nothing less than a penetrating genealogical study of modernity itself, focusing especially on the realms of science and culture. The great achievement of Hoff’s book is the way he manages to think “outside the Age of the World Picture” by disputing Martin Heidegger’s infamous claim that Western nihilism was the inevitable result of the philosophical trajectory that began with Plato and Aristotle. It was possible, so Hoff avers, to avoid our nihilistic fate well into the early modern period (xxi). The burden of Hoff’s book is to demonstrate that the nihilistic malaise of modernity—the “inability to reconcile the seemingly black and white univocity of scientific rationality with the ambiguous equivocity of postmodern pop culture” (xv)—is escapable through a turn to analogy.

In this appreciative critique, I will respond to two main aspects of Hoff’s work: his genealogical narration of the rise of modernity and the ambiguous place of the incarnate Christ in the “alternative modernity” that Hoff proposes through his creative reappropriation of Nicholas of Cusa. My concern is that Hoff’s reading of Cusa is largely controlled by his genealogy of modernity, and this leads to a problematic reading of Cusan Christology. Whereas Cusa’s “analogical turn” is to the incarnate Christ, it seems that Hoff’s analogical turning is toward a Christ who is more principle than person.

I: A(nother) Genealogy of Nihilism

According to Hoff’s narrative, modernity is the fruit of the artistic rejection of the symbolic sacramental realism of the ancient world in favor of an anthropocentric perspectivism. Influenced by the representationalism of late medieval theology, especially that of the Franciscans following Duns Scotus’s so-called “univocity of Being,” painters and artisans of the burgeoning Italian Renaissance begin developing a new form of perspective. This modern perspective creates a crisis of vision that results in a kind of schizophrenia in our contemporary sensibility: the irreconcilable split between the all-seeing, totalizing vision of rationalist philosophy and science and the empty ambiguities of postmodernism. Hoff lays most of the blame for this at the feet of Leo Battista Alberti. It is Alberti whose reformation of our experience of the world in terms of our viewing of the painting sparks a revolution in the metaphysical imagination, drawing us into the age of the World Picture. By developing (and indeed over-emphasizing) the vanishing point of the painting, Alberti’s artistic legacy is a dramatic bifurcation of the world into the poles of “visible” and “invisible.” According to Hoff, our modern world was forged by figures split along the lines of this dichotomy:

1) Those who privilege the invisible at the expense of the visible: Hölderlin, Novalis, Wagner

2) Those who privilege the visible at the expense of the invisible: Alberti, Descartes, Locke

Then there is a third group:

3) Those figures who opt for a dialectical synthesis of the poles that “compromised the ontological difference between creator and his creation”: Hegel, Schelling, Moltmann, and Žižek (141).

It is the second group—those who privilege the visible at the expense of the invisible—that have won the day, at least insofar as our contemporary world is driven by the attempt to gain technological mastery over abstract representations of the world. The scientistic aesthetic of our day is one that sees the world as a straightforwardly materialistic, demystified place. This superficially materialistic world can be genealogically traced back from Locke and Descartes through Alberti’s polarizing of the world, back to the “representationalist Franciscans” of Radical Orthodoxy folklore. In other words, the confluence of the Franciscan emphasis on the abstract representation of the world and the mathematization of space in the Italian Renaissance, results in the “freezing” of the world in abstract and idealized representations that can be conceptually or technologically mastered. Alberti and the Franciscans inadvertently set the stage for the Cartesian “masters and possessors of nature” to appear.

Thus far, Hoff’s genealogy follows the well-trod path of Radical Orthodoxy with relative fidelity. Hoff’s Scotus does not carry quite as much of the blame as in other RO books, but the Subtle and Marian Doctor is read suspiciously and without much attention to his, well, subtlety. As Daniel O’Connell highlights in his own review of Hoff’s book, there is a preexisting genealogical narrative at work in this text, one that is historically and philosophically problematic.

For O’Connell, the danger of such a preexisting narrative is that it obfuscates Nicholas of Cusa. My own concern is that it obfuscates the so-called villains of the narrative—the Franciscans (Bonaventure, Scotus, Occam), and perhaps even Alberti himself.1 The complexities of history are elided in favor of statements like:

That these [sacramental] visions were later deleted from our collective memory was not the outcome of an Hegelian or Marxist law of history, but rather the contingent effect of power games that favored analytical accounts of “scientific realism,” despite their inferior grasp of reality. (72)

Or vague assertions, such as:

Unlike the representationalist tradition of the late Middle Ages and modern age, God was not an entity beside other entities that might be part of a totalizing theistic “world picture” or excluded from it in favor of an atheistic counter-image. (81)

Such claims are big and important and interesting, but they are more often than not left in a “misty space” in the grand narrative.

Despite a great deal of impressive analysis of Alberti, Hoff’s large-scale genealogy suffers because he does not show his work. The associations between Franciscan representationalism, Alberti’s perspectivism, and Cartesian philosophy are intuited but not demonstrated. Insofar as Hoff’s creative reappropriation of Cusa is presented as a solution to “modernity,” the historical dimension of his argument is of critical importance. If Alberti’s artistic revolution was as transformative as Hoff claims, then certainly the connections can and should be drawn with more care. His genealogy may work for those of his readers who, like me, have spent time in RO circles and are familiar with the narrative. But for readers on the outside, I fear the genealogy as it currently stands fails to convince. I worry that at this point the RO narrative has become a kind of echo chamber and thus a kind of static representation of history that Hoff so clearly wants to escape.

In opting for the genealogical method, Hoff signals that his book is not meant to be read primarily as a history. His genealogical method is deeply voluntaristic, but its real value comes through its aesthetic power: seeing the history of the West in a new way. The conviction that even ideas embedded in artistic innovation have far-reaching philosophical and scientific consequences is one of the great strengths of Hoff’s genealogical method. But such claims must be handled with care, acknowledging that the proposed narrative is heuristic and rhetorical. The danger consists in the aesthetic being presented as a straight-forward history. Instead of a complex and nuanced account that highlights the complexities of the birth of modernity, we get a flattened out, progressive series of monocausal events (e.g., Franciscan representationalism leads to Alberti’s perspectivism, which leads to Cartesian abstraction, which leads to modern nihilism, etc.). I am concerned that Hoff’s genealogy ends up reducing the complexities of history in favor of a controlled and controllable monocausal narrative that can be overcome by means of the applied technē of “counter-narration.”

The specific danger of this technique of counter-narration for Hoff’s book is that it sets up a philosophical problem that requires a philosophical answer. Rather than giving an explicitly philosophical rebuttal, Hoff opts to respond theologically and mystically, turning to Cusa’s liturgy and Christology for resources to address the philosophical and aesthetic perils of modernity. The problem is that these theological themes end up as idealized, metaphysical abstractions that are used as philosophical solutions. In other words, I fear that Hoff’s genealogy often ends up controlling his theology.

II: “Misty” Liturgy and an Abstract Christ

Though the first half of Hoff’s book is dedicated to his genealogical narrative, more important and more interesting is his creative reading of Nicholas of Cusa and the possibility of an “alternative modernity.” Cusa’s figure pragmatica stands in direct contrast to the myopic narcissism of Alberti’s modern perspective; likewise, Cusa’s cosmology contrasts with the frozen, representationalist world of Cartesian ontology.

According to Hoff, Cusa stands in direct lineage with Aquinas and the symbolic or sacramental realism of the medieval period. The modernity that we have is the legacy of Franciscan representationalism; the modernity that we could have is the legacy of Thomist and Cusan symbolic realism. The possibility of the latter is what Hoff’s book presents us with.

Cusa’s alternative modernity opens with the turn away from the univocity of Being (the evident legacy of the Franciscans) toward the analogical: the “misty space” between the absolute universal and the absolute particular—the appreciation of the “abstract, interchangeable values” and the “singular and unique” (68). Cartesian univocity attempts, but fails, to “develop a universal vision of the world on the level of rational abstractions or proportional mathematical calculations alone” (69). Descartes’s “scientific realism” is exposed as anything but realistic—it can only emerge in a frozen representation of the world: “A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe . . . The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.”2

Throughout the book, Cusa is triumphed as a philosopher and theologian of common sense—or at least a thinker whose mystagogical metaphysics begin with a commonsense, realistic vision of the world in all of its dynamism and mystery. Cusa’s learned ignorance “never began with paradoxical or counterintuitive basic assumptions that rested on the promise that everything will straighten out once we have allowed him to twist our mind” (73). Whereas Alberti’s rejection of the invisible “paved the way to a non-realist, representationalist view of scientific ‘realism,’” Cusa preserves the sacramental, mysterious nature of the world. He gives us a world in which the visible is theophanic of the invisible.

There are two central aspects of Cusa’s thought that Hoff draws on. The first is Cusa’s “coincidence of opposites,” outlined in his majestic On Learned Ignorance (1440). The second is Cusa’s mystical theology, developed especially in terms of the icon in De vision dei (1453). Through these two dimensions of Cusa’s thought, Hoff develops an alternative history of the West—one in which liturgy is the source of wisdom, the sensus communis is the way to understanding, and truth is apprehended not by mathematical vision but the apophatic grasp of love. Such a happy future is only feasible within the conceptual “misty space” of analogical vision. According to Hoff, this analogical seeing is formed in us primarily through the liturgy and its apophatic language of prayer and praise.

Though Hoff’s Cusa is largely controlled by his reading of de Certeau, the brilliance of the Renaissance theologian gets to shine in the latter half of the book. Cusa’s great accomplishment was his doctrine of the coincidence of opposites, a method of resolving contradictions from the perspective of divine infinity.3 At true infinity, that is in God, all philosophical and metaphysical contradictions are resolved without sublating the differences or denying the reality of their contradiction. In On Learned Ignorance, Cusa outlines a series of coincidences which culminate in the hypostatic union in the person of Jesus Christ. His three coincidences are as follows:

  • God as the “absolute maximum” beyond all discursive knowledge. This is the source of Cusa’s mystical apophaticism, wherein God is non-Aliud who enfolds all Being;
  • The cosmos as the “contracted maximum” where all finite things are part of a united whole, but unfolded throughout the world.
  • Most centrally, in Christ who, for Cusa, is the analogia entis. As the God-Man, Christ is the coincidence of the absolute and contracted maximum.4

For Cusa, the “analogical turn” is the turn to the incarnate Christ. Christ is the revelation of the truth of God and the world, and the meeting place of heaven and earth. What Cusa’s Christ does, through his becoming a visible image of the invisible (Col 1:15), is open the pathway to a contemplative, ecstatic vision of God. The divine union with the world in the hypostatic union enfolds all created being within the universality of his divine filiation. For Cusa, there is an undeniable emphasis on the incarnation and the historical Christ. It is through history that Christ transforms history, making possible the broken unity between God and world. Christ, the historical and visible image of God, counters the idolatrous gaze of fallen humanity by raising humanity’s vision through the visible world to the invisible, ineffable God. For Cusa, Christ is both icon and sacrament. Christ, in fact, re-renders our world sacramental, that is, as the “explicatio of the complicatio.”5

This is also where, for Cusa, the tasks of philosophy and mystagogy meet. Philosophy “is always simply the view through the unfolded into the enfolded.”6 Mystical theology—or Cusa’s “philosophical mystagogy” (213)—is learning to see and to experience that “every creature is an image of its creator” (214). When we learn to see God in the finite faces around us, we discover (beyond knowing), that our vision of God is nothing other than the vision of God of us: “Our ability to see God is nothing but a mode of participation in God’s loving seeing” (206). In Hoff’s construal, liturgical performance becomes a theological aesthetic, or an aesthetic path to Christ.

Hoff is a little light on Cusa’s incarnational Christology, but he nevertheless indicates that Christ’s flesh is the location of the ultimate coincidence of the universal and the particular, the truth of God and the truth of the world. “It is the contingent singularity of the incarnated universality of God alone that mediates between all differences, including the difference between the universal and the particular” (68).

Yet this is what I find curious. Who is Christ in Hoff’s narrative? According to Hoff, Cusa “considered our natural desire to see God as more than a matter of religious concern: the praise of God is a matter of scientific significance” (69). Certainly. To confess Christ as the “truth” (John 14:6) is to confess him as the truth of all things. But I wonder if the way Hoff construes Cusa’s Christology leaves us with a Christ who functions more as a cosmic cipher—the “universal principle” (69)—than as the Son of God who meets me through faith in Word and Sacrament. I am not confident that I am reading Hoff correctly here, so I hope he will be good enough to clarify: in constructing his “aesthetic path to Jesus” (xxvi), are we encountering a Christ of Cross and Resurrection or a Christic élan that functions as a metaphysical counter to a domineering philosophical rationalism? Has Hoff given us an aesthetic path to Jesus or an aesthetic path through Jesus to a different end? Surely a Christ whose function is limited to completing an ontological aesthetic is more suited to Hegel than to Cusa.

And so I wonder how exactly the incarnate Christ functions for Hoff’s Cusa: does he simply render the world a visible theophany of the “invisible” or does he also draw us into a living imitation of himself whereby human nature and subsequently human culture are transformed through personal reunion with God? Much of this will hinge, no doubt, on Hoff’s genealogical diagnosis of modernity. Is modernity a conceptual problem that can be redressed through a conceptual reimagining? Is modernity an aesthetic problem that can be redressed through an aesthetic reimagining? Hoff’s narrative seems to favor both of these. It seems though that Cusa’s emphasis on the incarnate life of Christ (especially, but not exclusively, in On Learned Ignorance) also challenges us to consider the need for a dramatic reimagining of modernity.7

Hoff offers a tantalizing prospect of this dramatic turn in his final chapter when he indicates that Cusa was part of the late medieval devotio moderna and its emphasis on the imitation of Christ (214). This idea is dangled in front of us and then quickly passed by. If Hoff wants to reclaim a realist and sacramental world, then Christ, Church, liturgy, and sacrament—no matter how aesthetically useful they are—cannot be “frozen” in an abstract conceptualism. They must be performed. Hoff often insists, quite rightly, that the language of prayer and praise do metaphysical work. But for all this insistence, Hoff’s Cusa reflects but he does not pray.

I recognize that no single book can do everything, and perhaps the questions I’m asking are beyond the purview of Hoff’s book. Yet I cannot help but think that Hoff’s claim that prayer and praise are metaphysically performative should be demonstrated through a consideration of the actual liturgy. The dazzling thing about Nicholas of Cusa is the way that he manages to hold all of these together—the conceptual and the doxological; the philosophical, theological, and spiritual. Each abide in the One who himself is the truth—the analogical meeting place of heaven and earth, where the love of wisdom and the love of God are one and the same.

III: Conclusion

Hoff’s book is a fascinating account and raises the question of the relationship between science, philosophy, and the arts. It is interesting and important reading. But it is tantalizingly incomplete. The question presses: now that Hoff has invited us to see modernity in this way, now what? The diagnosis has been made. Can we—should we—labor to turn back the clock and undo the last six hundred years of industrialization, war, genetics, capitalism, medicine, and indoor plumbing? Can Hoff’s Cusa function for us today except in a world that has been artificially repristinated to the late medieval context of Cusa himself? That Cusa proposed an alternative modernity is an intriguing idea. But is that alternative still open and available for us today? Can we rediscover the path that Cusa took, certainly overgrown now with brambles and weeds, and make our way down it, undoing the works of our ill-conceived modernity? Hoff’s ressourcement of Nicholas of Cusa is still in need of a constructive vision of the way forward from within the modernity that we do have, and not simply from a vision of an alternative modernity that we don’t. I am eager to see what comes next; it has already been a journey well worth taking.

  1. It must be said, however, that Hoff’s presentation of Alberti is nuanced and allows for some of the complexity of his character and thought to come through. Hoff never reverts to ad hominem in his genealogy, which is a welcome thing.

  2. G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas / St. Francis of Assisi (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002), 133f.; quoted in Hoff, 72.

  3. It should be said that, though Cusa claims this teaching was divinely revealed to him as a gift from the “Father of Lights,” it is widely held that it was the Franciscan Bonaventure in whom the coincidence of opposites reached its medieval apex. See especially Steven P. Marrone, The Light of Thy Countenance: Science and the Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

  4. The preceding relies on the helpful introduction to Cusa’s theology in Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings, ed. H. Lawrence Bond (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1997), 3–70.

  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 5:210.

  6. Ibid.

  7. My use of “drama” is of course reliant on Hans Urs von Balthasar and his tripartite articulation of theology as aesthetics, dramatics, and logic.

  • Avatar

    Johannes Hoff


    “The Displaced Body of Jesus”: Overcoming the Representationlism of Modern Theology

    A response to Matthew Rothaus Moser

    I admire the candour of Matthew Moser’s review, and I am grateful for his insistence that I should be more explicit about my philosophical and theological position. Occasionally his critical statements seem to vacillate between different assessments, but they always display a sincere effort to figure out where the “analogical turn” of my book might lead.

    I hope that I have already answered some of Moser’s questions in my responses to the two previous reviews—for example, the question what “a constructive vision of the way forward” might look like. Another urgent question, which I have not yet addressed, is raised by Moser’s suspicion that my genealogy of modernity “follows the well-trod path of Radical Orthodoxy with relative fidelity” (i.e., the Cambridge School of Philosophical Theology).

    It is not easy to respond to this criticism given that I am in a certain sense still a foreigner in the community of Anglophone theologians. Academic and scientific communities often appear like the families of alcoholics to a stranger (to extend a comparison that the German psychologist Manfred Lütz has introduced to describe the Catholic Church). At first glance they all look pretty similar in character; but once they are asked to express their worries and concerns, this impression changes. The internal splits that separate the family members from each other might then look larger than the gap that separates them from the rest of the world. It might be dangerous to get entangled in family quarrels like these, but I hope that it will be possible to enter this field without becoming trapped in the habit of repeating again and again the same intra-family divisions.

    This leads me back to the question at stake: Have I just walked along the well-trodden paths of a couple of well-known members of the family of Anglophone theology when I criticized the representationalist tradition of Western philosophy? At this point, it might be worth recalling that the debate on representationalism originated not in theological, but in philosophical circles. In my view there are at least two trajectories in play in this debate, one of Anglophone, and the other of Francophone origins.

    The Anglophone trajectory focuses on more obvious examples of representationalism, such as we encounter in Descartes and Locke. I have referred in AT to Charles Taylor’s essay Overcoming Epistemology, which summarizes this trajectory masterfully (36n8). Seen from this angle, we might consider Immanuel Kant as the starting point of modern attempts to overcome representationalism, although a stronger countermovement emerged only later, e.g., in the Early Romantics, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. According to this reading, Kant was still somewhat attached to the representationalist tradition—yet his position was anything but obvious. Hence, it does not come as a surprise that the same ambiguity characterizes the Anglophone perception of Kant’s most subtle forerunner, Duns Scotus.

    My own approach to this issue builds not on the Anglophone or German, but on the French tradition. In this tradition, Husserl marks the decisive turning point. This makes a significant difference, since the early Husserl tried to recover the core intuitions of Descartes’s representationalism in a more rigorous way. Derrida’s groundbreaking reading of the early Husserl in La voix et la phenomenon (1967) is exemplary for this phenomenological debate.

    Given these philosophical discussions, it is important to notice that the phenomenological deconstruction of representationalism also shaped a new generation of historiographers of philosophy. It is no accident that the leading representatives of the contemporary paradigm shift in this area are writing in French. I have discussed, for example, the work of Alain de Libera in my response to the review by Betz. Another important historiographer of this generation is Olivier Boulnois, to whom I referred in the already mentioned footnote of AT. Whenever I read Olivier Boulnois’s 1999 monograph on the representationalism of Scotus, it feels like going back to the time when I was doing research on Husserl, Foucault and Derrida. It reads like a sequel to the French phenomenological debates on representationalism, and I think this text of more than 560 pages provides strong evidences that Scotus was already part of the tradition that culminated in the early Husserl.

    I will come back to Boulnois’s research in my response to O’Connell. At this point, it might suffice to recall why these broad lines of the debates on representationalism came to my mind as I read Moser’s review: I struggle to understand why John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock should take the blame for a paradigm shift that some of their critics do not want to face. Milbank and Pickstock belong to the few Anglophone scholars who have engaged with Francophone academic debates for many years now, both on the level of the philosophical controversies of our present time and on the level of the related paradigm shift in the historiography of philosophy. I think they have done an honourable job, and that they have done so with an extraordinary level of originality. However, I also think that we exaggerate the originality of their thinking, if we reduce the post-phenomenological deconstruction of representationalist traditions to a kind of “Radical Orthodox folklore.” It was already possible to engage with this debate when the lexeme “Mil(l)bank” signified in the ears of German theologians (including me) still nothing but a Pier at the river Themes.1

    Given the above two trajectories, I would consider myself to be a descendent of the French line. However, AT was designed to develop a mediating approach to this debate. On the one hand, I stressed that Cusa’s radicalisation of Aquinas might be interpreted as a reaction to the stronger representationalist tendencies of his time. On the other hand, I argued that the Franciscan tradition only facilitated the emergence of the representationalist rationality of modernity.

    The second line of Moser’s slightly ambiguous critical assessment of my position captures this point very well: I did not argue that Duns Scotus had the intention of creating a naïve representationalist epistemology like in Locke or Descartes. I rather adopted a genealogical approach in the sense of Foucault. The main lines of this genealogical approach might be summarized in four steps:

    1) Given that the representationalist tradition of early modernity built on extraordinarily counterintuitive basic assumptions, it is hard to imagine that any philosopher or scientist who is healthy minded could have developed a full-blown representationalism deliberately.

    2) For this reason, I tried to uncover the “missing link” and argued that the modern “age of the world picture” was not invented by philosophers or scientists but was rather “the outcome of an artistic vision of space and autonomy” (AT xiv).

    3) Against this background, I tried to sketch in rough lines how the proto-representationalist depiction of the world by Early Renaissance artists became, against their own intentions, the starting point for the emergence of a full-blown representationalist world picture that survived its originators, becoming detached from its artistic roots.

    4) The conclusion of this genealogy could have been made more explicit, but it is in my view easy to figure out: The relevant scientific and philosophical founders of the modern world picture were no longer aware of their artistic roots, but they were prepared to use the analytic language of the late medieval Franciscan tradition to conceptualize this world picture based on the simultaneously emerging principles of modern mathematics and logics.

    To cut a long story short: I did not argue that the upshot of my genealogy of representationalism was a necessary consequence of its Franciscan starting point. But I argued, indeed, that Duns Scotus’s “epistemology” was a significant step in this counterintuitive direction.

    This leads me to Moser’s second criticism, which relates to my presentation of Cusa’s Christology. I appreciate this criticism, since it enables me to see more clearly that Moser’s second critical point belongs to the first one like one side of a coin to the other.

    One of the most characteristic features of representationalists is their inclination to commit analytic fallacies (see AT 143–65): The tendency to confuse the technical virtue of analytic rigor with regard to the conceptually determinable parts of a whole with the intellectual virtue of philosophical rigor. Already, Cusa perceived the analytic fetishisation of subtlety as a delusive ritual of “Aristotelian sects” (Apologia Doctae Ignorantia, n. 7, 19–22), since he was more than anyone else convinced that the investigation of metaphysical questions requires a different kind of rigor. As Rowan Williams puts it, it requires us to deliberate “states-of-affairs in their most comprehensively imagined contexts.”2

    The modern fetishisation of Jesus illustrates, in my view, the impact of the above analytic fallacy on the spiritual practice of the Christian everyday life, although it is hard to say what came first. Since the late Middle Ages, Western Christians have tended to focus on the historical Jesus, and particularly on the crucified Christ. In terms of the modern history of spirituality and art, this is consistent with a line of development that starts with late Gothic depictions of the crucified Jesus, and leads via the sublime realism of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–16) to Mel Gibson’s pornographic splatter film on the Passion.

    In AT, I contrasted this approach with the altarpiece of the hospital chapel of Bernkastel-Kues, which was painted on Cusa’s behalf, and likened this painting with what is arguably the best Jesus film of all times: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). What is the difference between Pasolini and Gibson (apart from Pasolini’s atheism)?

    Pasolini achieved the impossible by combining a plain “realist” perspective on Jesus with a strategy of contextualisation. This strategy permitted him to imagine the “historical reality” of Jesus’ life without undermining the distance which allows a personality of world historical significance to appear. Using only literary citations, he develops an extremely minimalist and quiet depiction of the Nazarene; a fragmented, moving image of the man of Galilee that uses the faces of the surrounding poor people (played by lay actors) to provide us with an indirect glance at the protagonist of Matthew’s gospel. Comparable with the rosary, we discover Christ through the faces of his witnesses. Even the suffering of Christ is exhibited only indirectly: While he becomes crucified in a crowded scenario of mass crucifixions, only the face of his mother Mary, contorted and screaming in pain, reveals the unimaginable passion which is hidden behind the scenery of gambling soldiers.

    Pasolini reinforced this account of the “liturgical space” of face-to-face encounters on the temporal line by an extremely repetitive, fragmentary selection of musical echoes of different epochs that resonate with the gospel. Byzantine and Gregorian chants, Bach, Mozart, Webern, Prokofiev, Ramírez: Pasolini employed the effective history of Jesus as the echo chamber of an event that, for the time being, can only be uncovered “through a mirror, darkly.”

    Hence, Pasolini provided us with an ingenious filmic realisation of 1 Corinthians 13:12. It takes seriously the historical-realist imagination of a modern movie audience without caving into the plush sofa perspective of Renan’s The Life of Jesus, or the pornographic realism of Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. While he keeps the tension between the intimacy of private perspectives and the detachment of public perspectives on historical persons, Pasolini’s concise selection of literary citations of Matthew’s gospel amplifies this approach. This is most forcefully conveyed in the scene of Jesus’ rejection of his mother Mary—“Who is my mother?” (Matt 12:48)—who is was played by Pasolini’s own beloved mother.

    I do not think this is an abstract Christology. But I do consider Pasolini’s masterpiece as a “moving image”; and moving images require us to engage in a certain level of contemplative abstraction. Cusa would doubtless have looked for a similar “solution” had he been already familiar with the artistic means of cinematography; and I am convinced that this is also consistent with the patristic and high medieval Christology that he inherited. The latter tradition never indulged in the analytic inclination to focus “hysterically” on the historical “parts” of the history of salvation without focusing simultaneously on the ecclesial gathering of the church and on the cosmic gathering that it is destined to anticipate. After all, Christ was perceived as a pars pro toto: the part that reveals the universal meaning the church as body of Christ. Cusa built on this tradition, when he experimented with moving pictures and shapes even in his mathematical writings; his whole mindset was averse to the representationalist inclination to focus on a part at the cost of the whole (see the final chapter of AT on the “body of Christ”).

    The same spatio-temporal principles apply to my understanding of Cusa’s “liturgy” and his “doxological” meditations on the name of Jesus. I have discussed these topics more explicitly in two publications mentioned in the introduction to AT (xx), namely in my (still forthcoming) essay on Mystagogy beyond Onto-theology and my essay on Michel de Certeau’s misreading of de Lubac’s Corpus mysticum. Compared with these publications, AT is indeed somewhat evasive. But it is evasive for comprehensible reasons. It moves along “nonlinear” paths (in the sense of Betz’s review), while it tries to gather together some of what we have lost in the wake of the spiritual narrowing of the Western perspective on Jesus.

    In the years since my first engagement with the French phenomenological tradition as a student, I have become all the time more perplexed by Emmanuel Lévinas’s rejection of the “sentimental communion with the love of a God made flesh” (AT 189).3 However, I have also always been convinced that this “sentimentality” was part of a dialectic that betrayed the cosmic breadth of Christian spirituality. In AT, I have tried to rediscover the ethos of this spirituality under the guidance of a nonlinear logic that focuses on the “displaced body of Jesus” (see AT 181ff.). And I am convinced that Graham Ward was right when he wrote that this is the key to the biblical teaching on Jesus.4

    1. See, e.g., Johannes Hoff, Spiritualität und Sprachverlust: Theologie nach Foucault und Derrida (Schöningh: Paderborn, 1999), 31–82; and Johannes Hoff, “Das Subjekt entsichern: Zur spirituellen Dimenion des Subjektproblems angesichts der Dekonstruktion des cartesianischen Wissenschaftsparadigmas,” in Heinrich Schmidinger and Michael Zichy (Hg.), Tod des Subjekts? Poststrukturalismus und christliches Denken (Innsbruck/Wien: Tyrolia, 2005), 214–42.

    2. “The reader familiar with German will recognise a partly comparable pattern of building up a complex definition by the successive qualifying of an act or phenomenon. What emerges from this discussion is that Metaphysical discourse is focussed on what Masterson calls ‘clusters’ rather than statements—that is, it works by displaying states-of-affairs in their most comprehensively imagined contexts rather than simply describing the condition of a primitive solid unit here and now.” The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 105–6. I am grateful to Prof. Peter Hampson for drawing my attention to this text.

    3. Cf. also Hoff, Spiritualität und Sprachverlust, 153ff.

    4. Cf. Graham Ward, “The Displaced Body of Jesus,” in John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, eds., Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1989), 163–82.



Cusa, Modernity, and the “Other” Dominican Tradition


This new work from Johannes Hoff is a daring and fascinating attempt that explores not merely the philosophy and theology of the high and late Middle Ages, but what those positions taken then might mean for us and our own understanding of both the modern and postmodern periods. As he notes in his preface:

The central thesis of this book is twofold: first, that Kant’s primary achievement was a brilliantly succinct summary of the late medieval and early modern decline of Christian learning, but no more than this; and second, that Cusa’s encounter with Alberti in the first half of the fifteenth century marked the critical moment when an alternative version of modernity was still possible. (xxi)

In a bold claim, he tells us that Heidegger was mistaken “in proposing that the emergence of Western nihilism was an inescapable fate that originated in Plato and Aristotle. On the contrary, it originated in early modernity, and it would have been possible, in principle, at least, to avoid this fate” (ibid.).

This is only the latest step in the long journey of Cusa research. Looking back over the past century, one can witness a certain dialectic in the history of Cusan studies. For a long time, it was common that one would insist that Cusa, while not a direct influence on moderns such as Kant, had in fact anticipated themes of Kantian and even early Romantic philosophy (e.g., Fichte and Schelling) and, to a lesser extent, those of Hegelian philosophy. This tendency to see Cusa as a forerunner of the moderns was perhaps inevitable, given the key role that Ernst Cassirer played in the early days of Cusan studies, and his own philosophical orientation as a neo-Kantian. By 1927, Cusa was dubbed “the first modern philosopher” in Cassirer’s groundbreaking study, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy.

More recently, however, ideas of this sort came under suspicion and a chorus of voices were raised against the idea of Cusa as “the first modern.” One of the stronger voices of the past fifteen years is that of Jasper Hopkins in his “Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464): First Modern Philosopher?”1 Hoff also takes up this theme in his book, and agrees, in general, with Hopkins. One might say that Cusa, from early on (with Cassirer, with Klibansky), was “sold” as one of the first modern philosophers (or at least a proto-modern), perhaps to raise interest among the larger scientific community in Cusanus research and the production of a critical edition. Now that one takes a second look, however, it would seem that he was not really modern in these ways and that, if we follow Hoff, his ideas were in many respects opposed to the Cartesian analytic stream of early modern thought.


In this ambitious book, Hoff takes us a step further into the topos of Cusa and his relationship to modernity. Hoff proposes to find lines of division not only between Cusa and Descartes, but also in Cusa’s own day and before, during which some—in particular, Leon Battista Alberti—set off along a path that would lead almost inexorably to Cartesian thinking about the world and the self—a thinking based in a mathematization of the space of the world. Others, however, according to Hoff, Cusa chief among them, chose a different path: one which preserved the symbolic and analogical thinking of the high Middle Ages, while putting forward certain ideas which represented an alternate modernity, albeit one which ultimately did not come to fruition.

One of the most refreshing elements in this work is that Hoff is well read in the work of the “younger” Cusan scholars (Inigo Bocken, Harald Schwaetzer, Tom Müller, Niels Bohnert, et al.). Too often, the groundbreaking work of these younger scholars is left out of account—a sort of “gerontocracy” all too familiar in Germany holds sway in the attention paid to this scholarship and the places given it at conferences. Here, in Hoff’s work however, they are not merely cited but their ideas are integral to Hoff’s thesis about the emergence of modern thinking about space and autonomy.

As he attempts to explicate the genesis of modern ideas about space and autonomy, Hoff distinguishes between the “conservative innovators” (e.g., Jan van Eyck, Fra Angelico, and Nicholas of Cusa), on the one hand, and “the main representatives of the finally dominating stream of the early Renaissance upheaval” (Brunelleschi, Alberti, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello), on the other. He seeks to locate the dividing line between them “in the broader context of later developments” (i.e., in the rise of Cartesian thinking) (60). One might be surprised to see a list (on both sides of this divide) composed mostly of painters and artists, but as Hoff points out: “Modern scholars tend to perceive Cusa as a Janus-faced maverick trapped between the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance . . . largely due to the post-Cartesian narrative of scientific progress that blinds them to the fact that the innovators of Cusa’s time were largely thinking with paint and brush, not with paper and pencil” (69). Indeed, it is one of the most refreshing elements in Hoff’s work that he takes account of the writings of art historians like Belting, Tritz, et al. and the philosophico-historical researches of Inigo Bocken and Harald Schwaetzer into the connection between art and philosophy, to make this point. The mathematization of space and the independence of the autonomous subject or ego are not invented by Descartes; they emerge almost two centuries earlier, in the dominant artistic culture of the Renaissance (as exemplified by Alberti and Brunelleschi), which then is taken up by others and, eventually, Descartes. Hoff cites Inigo Bocken in a footnote: “Descartes and Kant have essentially done nothing else than provide a philosophical justification of that which was presaged in the art of the Renaissance—in the art of painting, which Alberti wanted to justify as a type of science.”2


This portion of the book is well written, and the argument is clear. There does in fact seem to be an opposition between the ideas of Cusa regarding space and our vision of the world, on the one hand, and the perspectival representationalism of Brunelleschi and Alberti on the other hand. And it does seem plausible to say that the views of Alberti “won out” as it were, and went on to give rise to Descartes’s treatment of space and his notions about the autonomy of the thinking “ego.”

Unfortunately for the reader, beyond this distinction, Hoff presents us with a broader set of notions that attempt to display a fault line running through the history of philosophy. The two sides of this fault line he classifies as realist vs. representationalist. Representationalism, he tells us, is first glimpsed in the philosophy of Duns Scotus and other Franciscans (Roger Bacon and, as a proto-representationalist, Bonaventura). This representationalist “moment” or pattern of thought proceeds in the later centuries of thought to become a legacy of modern philosophy. Hoff will allow that this representationalist way of thinking is eventually questioned and deconstructed; but even those who deconstruct it do not escape from the representationalist dialectic, according to Hoff. Realism, however, is a view we can find in Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa, among others, and is a “common-sense” realism (of the senses and the intellect), and more true to the reality of the world. It is difficult to see where Hoff derives this realist/representationalist dichotomy, though he makes intellectual hay with this distinction throughout the book. Yet it seems to me that (although he distances himself somewhat from “Radical Orthodoxy” in his preface), his ideas seem to depend on the ideas of Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank, such as can be seen (most recently) in Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.3

This dichotomy, and the reading of Scotus which it entails (which Tim Noone has called “blaming the Franciscans”), is highly problematic from a philosophico-historical perspective. Moreover, certain postulates of Radical Orthodoxy, including this one, undergird Hoff’s entire project, which aims to show how Cusa presents us with an alternate modernity and what that alternate world-picture looks like. If this modernity is “representationalist” and its view of being breaks with the apophatic tradition (as he tells us: on account of “univocity” in Scotus), then Cusa must be shown to be “not-this”: he must be displayed to us as an analogical or symbolic realist in the “Dominican” school of Thomas Aquinas, and not only this, but as a thinker for whom the highest mode of discourse is based in faith and is liturgical (Pickstock’s work on philosophy and liturgy is cited here several times). The problem here is that these elements of Radical Orthodoxy are imported under cover of darkness, as it were, and they structure his arguments, but several of them are not made explicit. Moreover, they distort our understanding of Cusa’s own thought.


Among the several issues that could be raised by this use of Pickstock and Milbank’s ideas is, first of all, that this portrayal of Scotus’s thought—not least of all Scotus’s thought portrayed as lacking in philosophical rigor! (42)—displays a highly problematic view of the history of medieval philosophy. It is a view of decline, or entropy, one in which, after Scotus, the whole affair begins to go downhill and descends into modern and then postmodern decay (like Schlingensief’s decaying rabbit in his production of Parsifal). On the contrary, as Tim Noone and Steve Marrone have shown in various places, the narrative of the late thirteenth century is one in which both Scotus and Thomas Aquinas are on the side of a moderate realism, while Henry of Ghent, eager to preserve an illuminationist account of knowing derived in large part from Bonaventure, is the one who casts doubt on the ability of the senses to provide us with certitude.4 Both Aquinas and Scotus, rejecting illuminationist theories of knowledge, pursue a moderate realist course and defend the acquisition of knowledge through the senses against these attempts by Henry to unseat the senses as a reliable guide to knowledge. In the Thomist account (which Scotus follows), in exchange for giving up the proposition that humans can know divine ideas, one gains a naturalist account of knowledge attainable by human beings.

In other words, if Scotus is the beginning of a long decline, Thomas is right there with him, his partner in the “crime” of rejecting Augustinian illuminationism. But for Hoff, one must not reject illuminationist analogical realism. One must find this thinking in Aquinas and one must find it again in Cusa, since for Hoff Cusa and Aquinas are “on the same side” it would seem, the Dominican and the later Cardinal Cusa, radicalizer of Dominican ideas, arrayed against the Franciscan “enemy.”


There is a larger problem here, however, with Hoff’s account of Cusa’s own thought. He is so focused on portraying Cusa as a non-representationalist and someone who embraces the symbolic realism of Thomas Aquinas (which portrayal is no doubt true—quodammodo), that he neglects Cusa’s epistemology, even going so far as to claim that “the modern concept of ‘epistemology’ is not applicable to Cusa” (30). It seems to me, however, that this concept should apply to Cusa, that we should be asking ourselves about Cusa’s theory of knowledge and how this knowledge-theory functions scientifically. I don’t mean to suggest here that we should impose an anachronistic distinction between philosophy and theology on the writings of Cusa, or that we should work with a narrow definition of “science,” but, if we can, we should try to understand Cusa as a speculative thinker who has managed to reconcile in his own thought the two realms of the intellectual and the spiritual. Even at the “high point of theory” (apex theoriae), Cusa’s thought does not melt away into faith, or some sort of mysticism à la Teresa de Ávila, as Hoff would seem to think (cf. final paragraph of 166), but persists in its attempt “to embrace incomprehensible things incomprehensibly.” This high point of theory is something we are able to achieve through our own power, specifically through the sight of the mind (visus mentis), which Cusa called (in De apice theoriae) “the supreme power (posse) of the soul.”5 The “paradoxical truth” of this moment, when visus mentis confronts God himself, and sees that it cannot see, does not pass over into faith as a mode of knowledge, even if one would assume (and rightly) that the person undergoing these experiences has faith. But this moment for the sight of the mind is the high summit of contemplation or, as Aristotle would have put it, of theoria. It is still, through and through, philosophical.

But again, with Hoff, we are confronting yet another Milbank-ian notion, that philosophy does not ultimately abide, but passes over into theology and, more specifically, into liturgical theology—philosophy was always already implicitly theological. Philosophy’s natural place is in the context of theology. There is no independent philosophy, because to have an independent philosophy would only make theology one more discipline among many.6 This view—a sort of standing Hegel on his head—collides with the claim about a supposed symbolic (analogical) realism upon which Cusa and Aquinas agree (and therefore by extension they agree upon the subsequent absorption of philosophy by theology/liturgy). I say these collide because one entails a narrative about the history of philosophy and theology (Aquinas at the apex of thought and then the long slow decline initiated by Scotus and Ockham) and the other always already seeks to negate philosophy in its independence.


Some time ago, the intellectual historian Kurt Flasch made an attempt to “rescue” Meister Eckhart from the mystical current that would seek transform his rigorous thought, especially in his Latin works, into a “misty” affective mysticism.7 More recently, he has pushed this idea further, and presented us with similar narrative in which Meister Eckhart is put forth as the “philosopher of Christianity.” One whose “German mysticism” comes from—of all places—an Arabic spirit (specifically the teachings of Averroës as passed on by Albert of Cologne to Dietrich of Freiberg and Meister Eckhart). Flasch’s Eckhart is, in fact, rigorously philosophical in his thinking, even if it leads him into statements that imply otherwise to the casual reader.

I would like to make a suggestion deriving from these works by Flasch. One can agree with Hoff that Cusa’s theory of knowledge is an illuminationist theory, replete with various levels which symbolically reveal one another. One can also agree, wholeheartedly, that Cusa provides us (without his having been aware of it) an alternative to the clear and distinct modern world picture of Descartes. Nevertheless, these elements in Cusa’s thinking do not come from Aquinas: Cusa’s view of the deity as the form of all things, as the not-other owes much more to Dionysius the Areopagite (and Albert’s reading of him). Moreover, Cusa is an illuminationist in a different tradition, one which draws on Albertist thinking: not only of Albert himself but on Meister Eckhart and Dietrich of Freiberg. As Flasch and Alain de Libera have shown, the Dominican tradition was in fact quite heterogeneous, and historically, as much as one might value Thomas Aquinas, it is in fact more logical to place Cusa in the “illuminationist” theory of mind that descends from Albert of Cologne.8

My primary objection, then, to this work is that it distorts Cusa’s own thinking by attempting to fit him into a box, that of the Thomas Aquinas of Milbank and Pickstock, when in fact, not only is their account of Aquinas deeply flawed, but even if we had a more realistic, historiographical account of Aquinas’s thinking, we would be hard-pressed to join Cusa to Aquinas, not least because their two readings of Dionysius the Areopagite are so extremely different. This is a powerful work, strong and well worth reading, but because there is a ready-made history of philosophy and the ideas it contains, the work hobbles.

  1. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26 (2002): 13–29. Available online at

  2. Inigo Bocken, “Praxis der Theorie. Cusanus und die Kritik der Moderne,” in Die Modernitäten des Nikolaus von Kues: Debatten und Rezeptionen, ed. by T. Müller and M. Vollet (Bielefeld, 2013), 455–66.

  3. Although he also refers to an essay on Cusa’s “post-nominalist realism” by Milbank which is, unfortunately for the rest of us, unpublished—we will make due with what has been published.

  4. Timothy Noone, “The Franciscans and Epistemology: Reflections on the Roles of Bonaventure and Scotus,” in Medieval Masters: Essays in Memory of Msgr. E. A. Synan, ed. R. E. Houser, 63–90 (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas, 1999). Cf. esp. 90: “If one studies the actual progress of epistemological ideas in the period under consideration, one must conclude that Scotus’s epistemology is in fundamental continuity with that of Thomas Aquinas, although the focus of Scotus’s own thought is the doctrine of Henry of Ghent. To place a large divide between the thought of Scotus and Aquinas, or to portray one as the bearer of light and the other as a harbinger of darkness, is to exceed the historical evidence considerably. ‘Blaming the Franciscans’ may be convenient for didactic purposes but it does not stand up well under examination.” See also Steve Marrone’s excellent study of the role of Aristotelian science and Augustinian illumination in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, The Light of thy Countenance: Science and Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century, 2 vols. (Leiden, 2001).

  5. So Cusanus: “This capability of the mind to see beyond all comprehensible power is the supreme capability (posse) of the mind, wherein Possibility itself manifests itself maximally.” (De apice theoriae, trans. by Jasper Hopkins, 1428. This text can be found on Hopkins’s website:, or on the Cusanus Portal website.)

  6. For a refutation of this view, which Milbank and Pickstock claim to find in Thomas Aquinas, see Wayne Hankey’s article “Why Philosophy Abides for Aquinas,” Heythrop Journal 42.3 (2001): 329–48.

  7. See his “Meister Eckhart. Ein Versuch, ihn aus dem mystischen Strom zu retten,” in Gnosis und Mystik in der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. Peter Koslowski (Zürich, 1988), 94–110.

  8. As, for example, Markus Führer does in his excellent article, “The Agent Intellect in the Writings of Meister Dietrich von Freiberg and Its Influence on the Cologne School,” in Dietrich von Freiberg: Neuer Perspektiven seiner Philosophie, Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, Bochumer Studien zur Philosophie 28, ed. K.-H. Kandler, B. Mojsisch, and F.-B. Stammkötter (Amsterdam: Grüner, 1999), 69-88.

  • Avatar

    Johannes Hoff


    Franciscans vs. Dominicans: Why the Default Line of the Early Modern Historiography of Philosophy Has Become Out of Date

    A response to Daniel O’Connell

    I am grateful to Daniel O’Connell for his thorough and thoughtful engagement with my book. The critical questions he has asked made me realize that AT takes for granted many philosophical debates of our present time, and echoes of these debates in the historiography of premodern philosophy and theology, that are not necessarily self-evident to the reader.

    A further problem that calls for attention relates to the question of where I stand in the conflicted landscape of contemporary Anglophone theology. I hope my response to Matthew Moser’s review has dispelled the suspicion that AT is an attempt to smuggle in “Radical Orthodox” ideas “under cover of darkness.” But O’Connell’s criticism is also relevant in terms of some of the core aims of my book, which converge with the “radical orthodox” aim to deconstruct the modern compartmentalisation of philosophy and theology. Given this convergence, it would be foolish to deny that I perceive the writings of Milbank and Pickstock as inspiring and thought provoking. However, this does not dispense with the need to carefully investigate their readings of classical philosophical-theological sources, and to critically sound out the political implications of their rejection of liberal modernity. Hence, I would never subscribe to their theses and suggestions blindly; but I would also refuse to subscribe uncritically to the objections of the alternative party.

    Wayne Hankey’s criticism of Milbank and Pickstock is, in my view, a good example of this other party. O’Connell’s review builds on Hankey. In the following, I will start with O’Connell’s reservations about my reading of Cusa, before I outline my objections to Hankey’s criticism of Milbank and Pickstock.

    Cusa supports a theophanic concept of creation that is indebted to the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite (cf. AT 4–14). I agree with O’Connell, and the great German Cusa scholar Rudolf Haubst, that this Dionysian starting point was heavily influenced by Cusa’s reading of Albert the Great (cf. AT 3n8). But I also agree with Haubst and Jasper Hopkins that this influence converged with the influence of Thomas Aquinas.1 More recent publications on the Dionysian roots of Aquinas’s philosophical theology confirm this agreement, and undermine the older suspicion that Aquinas’s and Albert’s readings of Dionysius moved along different lines.2 However, I agree with O’Connell, that this is not self-evident from a classical modern point of view.

    Two of O’Connell’s objections to AT are relevant at this point, and can be put into interrogative form:

    (1) To what extent is Aquinas’s philosophical theory of knowledge consistent with a theophanic concept of illumination (or revelation)?

    (2) To what extent does the concept of revelation conflict with the autonomous activity of the human mind?

    In the wake of the neo-scholastic tradition, we are used to interpreting revelations or illuminations as something that is received passively—in contrast to the autonomous cognitive activity that governs philosophical reasoning. But are we justified in extending this interpretative pattern to earlier traditions? As I pointed out in my response to Betz, following Alain de Libera, this generalisation is not justified. Up to the Paris condemnations of 1277, the “big choices” were not between philosophy and theology, or between autonomous reasoning and matters of faith or salvation.

    Cusa’s philosophical-theological writings moved along this older line, although he radicalized it in light of the post-1277 developments. The last point not only explains why it is so hard to say where Cusa is speaking as a philosopher, and where as a theologian (apart from his sermons); it also sheds light on the work of contemporary Cusa scholars, like Kurt Flasch, who emphasize the autonomy of Cusa’s philosophical thinking at the cost of his theology. The example of Flasch (to whom O’Connell refers approvingly) might help us to see more clearly where this reading goes wrong.

    In his already mentioned monograph on the history of development (Entwicklungsgeschichte) of Cusa’s writings, Flasch provided a comprehensive summary of Cusa’s work. But there is something strange about this Entwicklungsgeschichte: Although it comprises more than six hundred pages, it almost ignores Cusa’s early Opuscula.3 What justifies this omission, given that Cusa recommended at least two of these little tractates in his last book De apice theoriae (On the Summit of Contemplation), as a preparatory reading for his other writings (cf. AT 7f.)?

    O’Connell moves along the lines of Flasch, when he argues that “Cusa’s thought does not melt away into faith, or some sort of mysticism à la Teresa de Ávila,” and that the summit of Cusa’s theory of unknowing “is something we are able to achieve through our own power.” But how are we to reconcile this reading of De apice theoriae (1464) with the basic assumptions of Cusa’s thinking, which he emphasized not only in his early Opuscula (1444–1447) but also in (what Gerda von Breda called) his testament,4 namely his 1463 letter to the young monk Nicholas Albergati? How do we reconcile the assertion that we are able to achieve everything through our own power with the assertion that our intellectual power is a gift that we receive from the “father of light,” and that all philosophers who “trusted in their own intelligence [perished] in their own vanities” (De quaerendo Dei, c. 3 n. 40; see AT 22f.)?

    This conundrum leads me back to O’Connell’s extension of Hankey’s criticism of Radical Orthodoxy. As long as we take the neo-scholastic dualism of faith and reason, and the accompanying dualism of rational autonomy and pious passivity for granted, it is not possible to make sense of these contradicting statements. All we can do is pass them over with silence (as Flasch did). But is Hankey’s position as least justified with regard to some of the sources of Cusa’s thinking?

    In the relevant essay, Hankey opposes Aquinas’s treatment of the agent intellect as a “power to abstract,” to the Augustinian concept of illumination in which “the intellect passively receive(s) a form which has somewhat detached itself from its material existence and flown into it.”5 If this depiction of Augustine were correct, then it would be, indeed, absurd to assimilate Aquinas’s theory of human knowing to an Augustinian concept of illumination, as in my view Cusa did, or to develop a kind of “Augustinian Thomism,” as (according to their critics) Milbank and Pickstock have done.

    To my knowledge, Milbank and Pickstock never had the intention of defending an “Augustinian Thomism” of this awkward kind, not even in their earlier writings. We might leave the question open if they are “Augustinian Thomists” of a different kind. Decisive in terms of my own research, is the (by now) hardly deniable fact that Hankey’s 2001 criticism built on a highly superficial reading of Augustine. What Hankey’s essay takes to be Augustine’s position is but a distorted form of Augustinianism, namely the Avicennian Augustinianism of the Franciscan tradition. For this reason, I have argued in my response to Betz—following Lydia Schumacher’s concise summary of the most recent research on Augustine—that only the Dominicans remained faithful to the original Augustinian sources.

    The main flaw of the Franciscan reading of Augustine has been pointed out by a French historian of philosophy, Jacob Schmutz. Like Schumacher, Schmutz argues that Bonaventure distorted Augustine in an ontologist way that focuses on the passivity of the receiver at the cost of her activity.6 According to Schmutz, this is consistent with a concept of causation as concurrence, in which two forces concur or compete with each other like two horses pulling a cart. By contrast, the Dominican account of divine (or heavenly) causation persisted in supporting Proclos’s concept of causation as influentia (following the Liber the causis). According to this concept of causation, every kind of illumination actualizes both the active and the passive side of the illuminated receiver—from the intellectus agens via the lumen fidei up to the lumen gloriae.

    Whenever we are dealing with transcendent causes, we have to keep in mind that we are talking about different modes of being that are only analogically related to each other, because the related hierarchical modes of causation are asymmetrical. As distinct from concurrent or competitive modes of causation, which are always located on one and the same ontological level, hierarchical modes of causation relate to each other via a kind of “inflowing.” The inflow of the divine light is an example of this kind of causation: It neither competes with my intellectual activity, nor with my receptivity towards the sensible world; it rather actualizes both of them.

    This concept of causation provides us with a concise solution to the conundrum outlined above. O’Connell argues that even the “high point of theory is something we are able to achieve through our own power, specifically through the sight of the mind (visus mentis), which Cusa called (in De apice theoriae) ‘the supreme power (posse) of the soul.’”7 With a grain of salt, we might say that this reading of De apice theoria is correct. But Cusa is also correct when he refers the reader of his last dialogue to his Opuscula, in which he argues that the power of the soul is (to quote the title of one opusculum) a Gift of the Father of Lights. This is only a contradiction if we apply a Franciscan concept of causation to Cusa’s writings.

    In contrast to this tradition, Cusa’s Dominican concept of causation supports (what I called in several publications on this issue) a performative-doxological approach to the problem of human knowledge. Our desire for knowledge can never build on pre-given securities: neither on empirically pre-given facts nor on a priori principles, forms or categories that “condition” our knowledge in the Kantian sense of this word. The inflowing gift of light comes first, and is superior to concurring causes on the horizontal level.

    This leads me to another critical point of O’Connell’s review, namely his criticism of my use of the semantic opposition representationalism vs. realism. AT was indeed not very explicit about this terminological distinction. But I am happy to catch up on this negligence. Why, for example, does AT present Duns Scotus as a representationalist who is not really realistic?

    O’Connell is right that Scotus’s account of human perception casts no doubt on the reliability of our sensual faculties. In this sense, Scotus is a realist of sorts: By intuitive cognition we are able to attain, for example, the colour of an object in its actual existence, since it is the thing itself that moves us to perceive it. What is more, Scotus also supports a realist understanding of universals. However, in order to account for this position, he distinguishes said intuitive cognition from abstract cognition. The latter is, in a certain sense, real. But it is indifferent to the actual existence of sensual objects, since it is motivated by a spiritual cause (cf. Quaestiones Quodlibetales q. 13).

    Hilary Putnam’s most recent statements on the problem of representationalism provide us with an excellent conceptual framework to classify this position: It represents a typical example of a “disjunctivism” or “naïve realism.” In his earlier writings (up to 2012), Putnam sympathised with a sophisticated form of this “naïve realism.” Since then, he has turned away from this position in the direction of (what he calls now) a “liberal functionalism.”8 Putnam now considers human perception as the emergent upshot of a complex transaction between objects and perceptive or cognitive acts. The most characteristic feature of this new position is in my view that it avoids analytic fallacies (see my response to Moser): It resists the temptation to focus on determinable details of human perception and knowledge at the cost of philosophically rigorous deliberations on the (overdetermined) whole.

    This position is closer to a Thomist than a Scotist position: The actuality of things enables us to enact perceptions and cognitions. As I put it in AT (following James J. Gibson, pp. 39, 135, 193): The presence of things affords actions. Affordance is not a kind of natural mirroring, but a creative form of interaction that involves our mental capacity to actualize realities (e.g., colours) that are not yet “out there” in an “external thing.” The things “out there” are only the potentiality to actualize these realities in the transaction with mental beings.

    I hesitate to call this position “liberal functionalism”; we might call it a kind of perichoretic relationalism instead. AT considers this perichoretic position as “realist” and opposes it to “representationalist” positions. The significance of this terminological opposition for my genealogy of modern epistemology might be outlined subsequent to Charles Taylor’s more historiographic research on this problem.9

    According to Taylor, the modern concept of “epistemology” is an inadequate construal because it links human knowledge to pre-given “indispensable” empirical and/or transcendental conditions. As we know from modern schoolbooks on the history of philosophy, every cohort of thinkers can be divided in accordance with these epistemological identity markers. Hence, we are used to putting them either into an “empiricist” (sensualist), or a “trancendentalist” (idealist) box. O’Connor moves along this trodden path when he distinguishes between “illuminationist” theories of knowledge (Bonaventure and Henry), and the theories of those who rely on sensual certitude (Aquinas and Scotus). Every thinker has to fit into the transcendental-empirical procrustean bed of modern epistemology. But what does this bed contribute to our understanding of these thinkers?

    I agree with O’Connor that Aquinas and Scotus were realists of sorts. But I think this is uninteresting from a hermeneutical point of view. The more relevant question might be put as follows: Do they represent a type of thinking that focuses on the disclosive nature of a truth that manifests itself via the contemplation of the here and now (as in the practice of contemplative prayer), or do they focus on pre-given, concurring conditions of human knowledge? In the introductory part of AT, I identified Cusa as a thinker of the first type when I argued that he “replaced the philosophical obsession with metaphysical identity markers by a mystagogical practice of thinking that received its core concepts, on a case-by-case basis, through a gift of the father of lights” (17).

    This spiritual approach to the practice of thinking distinguishes Cusa from the Franciscan tradition, as becomes evident if we recall their different use of the concept of causation (concursus vs. influentia). After all, the divine light in Cusa is not a cause besides others: It is the “inflowing” actuality of the present time that “overdetermines” what might be determined retrospectively as a network of concurring causes (see also AT 176f., where I build on Alain Badiou’s set-theoretical account of a similar theory of cognition).

    The Franciscan break with this Proclean tradition starts with Bonaventure. Already in Bonaventure, our sensual receptivity concurs with our receptivity for illumination. For this reason, he tends to conceive of illumination as a kind of a priori receptivity through which we receive pre-given insights. For the same reason, our receptivity for the divine light concurs with the activities of our soul. While Henry (although he was not a Franciscan) radicalized this tendency, Scotus reacted against it—and this is the point where the concurrence of causes turns in a kind of competition: Scotus emphasized our sensual receptivity at the cost of our receptivity for illuminations (cf. Opus oxoniense I d. 3 q. 4). Arguably, Ockham took the last step in this competitive game when he focused on the “empiricist” side of human knowledge at the cost of the “apriorist” foundations of Scotus’s epistemology.

    This series of competitive positions might look very heterogeneous, but they all have one thing in common: they all focus on a concept of causation as concurrence, at the cost of a concept of causation as influentia. Hence, we might say that the Franciscan tradition included illuminationist, realist and terminist strands; but they were all trapped in a kind of transcendental-empirical duality that accounts for concurring conditions of human knowledge.

    In the twentieth century, Michel Foucault described this duality as the source of the aporetic dichotomies that characterized the post-Kantian tradition of modern philosophy: Either we focus on pre-given forms, categories or illuminations and end in the vicious circle of a dogmatic (or essentialist) apriorism with regard to the empirical world (the world only reveals what has already been predetermined to be possible); or we focus on the empirical side, and end in a kind of positivist circle (we are no longer able to account for the prejudgments that inform our interpretation of the world).10

    This is the background of my language use in AT, when I opposed representationalism with realism; but I agree with O’Connell that this might be somewhat confusing, because it goes against the grain of our classical modern language use. Roughly speaking, I would consider every position as “representationalism” which supports the modern myth that human knowledge can be derived from pre-given conditions that account for its possibility.

    If we conceive the technical term “representationalism” in this strict sense, then Scotus’s position in not only incompatible with Dionysius, Augustine, and Cusa, but also with Aristotle. In Aristotle, the mind does not simply depict a reality “out there”; it rather actively participates in the being of its objects. As Oliver Boulnois has demonstrated, the Franciscan tradition moved from its very beginning along different lines, since it focused on transcendentally pre-given (concurring) “conditions” at the cost of the causal origination of our acts of knowledge qua influentia.11

    The dualist features of this “epistemological” focus on “conditions” become particularly evident in Scotus’s account of abstract cognition. In contrast to our intuitive cognition, abstract cognition focuses on an object (res or ti on) that is detached from the singularity of the existing object and its mode of presence.12 For this reason, Scotus considers the species intellegibilis itself the object of our understanding—in contrast to the Aristotelian tradition, where the species intelligibilis is considered as a relational medium that enables us to understand an extramental object.13

    This does not mean that Duns Scotus was an unsophisticated representationalist. In fact, the universals are not the upshot of an abstractive process that starts with sensual perception (as in Augustine and Aquinas); but they are just as little the upshot of an innate knowledge or an immediate illumination. Rather, they derive (in a proto-Kantian way) from the structural nature of the intellect which Scotus conceives as a condition of the possibility of our acts of knowledge (cf. ibid., 77–88). Our acts of abstract cognition relate to the objects of the intellect as detached intellectual objects, because this is consistent with the nature of the intellect itself.14 However, this does not change the fact that Scotus deviates from the Aristotelian tradition. Similar to Husserl, Scotus lets the noetic order no longer depend on the exteriority of the sensitive species. Hence, it is misleading to interpret Scotus’s “realism” as a position that puts him and Aquinas in the same camp.

    Albert the Great already opposed the dualist inclinations of Avicennian Franciscans when he insisted that our illuminated mind abstracts its intelligible forms always from sensual phantasms. However, the Albertist tradition was ambiguous. In thinkers like Dietrich of Freiberg we might still discover tendencies to preserve a space of conscious self-presence without sensory presence—tendencies that remind us of Avicenna’s thought experiment about the “flying man” (supported by Duns Scotus). This explains why I prefer reading Cusa as an Albertist who is more in line with Aquinas than with other Albertists. Aquinas’s uncompromising focus on corporeal mediation leaves no space for any representationalist dualism whatsoever; and this makes him the strongest counterpoint to the tradition of Franciscan representationalism.

    I admire how concisely O’Connell detected and articulated what might make AT appear foreign in the mindset of readers that are used to thinking along the representationalist lines of modern “epistemology.” However, given that O’Connell is convinced that “scientific” thinkers need an epistemology, I am not surprised that he felt like hobbling when he walked along the paths of my book. In my perception, this unpleasant experience was not caused by the paths that I have offered him to walk, but by the worn-out sandals that he used to go on journey. Having said that, I am grateful that he provided me with the opportunity to write down which footwear I would recommend to readers who want to walk along the paths of AT more comfortably.

    1. Cf. AT 3n8, and Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa on Wisdom and Knowledge (Minneapolis: Banning, 1996).

    2. Cf. Fran O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas (Leiden: Brill, 1992);and David B. Burrell and Isabelle Moulin, “Albert, Aquinas and Dionysius,” in Sarah Coakley, Charles M. Stang, eds., Re-thinking Dionysius the Areopagite (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 103–19.

    3. Cf. Kurt Flasch, Nikolaus von Kues: Geschichte einer Entwicklung; Vorlesungen zur Einführung in seine Philosophie (Frankfurt/M.: Klostermann, 1998).

    4. Cf. Das Vermächtnis des Nikolaus von Kues: Der Brief an Nikolaus Albergati nebst der Predigt in Montoliveto (1463) (Heidelberg: 1955).

    5. Wayne J. Hankey, “Why Philosophy Abides for Aquinas,” Heythrop Journal 42 (2001) 337f.

    6. Cf. Jacob Schmutz, “La doctrine médiévale des causes et la théologie de la nature pure (XIIIe–XVIIe siècles),” Revue Thomiste (2001) 217–64, and particularly 221–29 on Augustine.

    7. So Cusanus: “This capability of the mind to see beyond all comprehensible power is the supreme capability (posse) of the mind, wherein Possibility itself manifests itself maximally.” De apice theoriae, trans. Jasper Hopkins, 1428. This text can be found on Hopkins’ website, at, or on the Cusanus Portal website.

    8. Cf. Hilary Putnam, “Naïve Realism and Qualia,” in Adam Pautz, Daniel Stoljar, eds., Themes from Block (MIT Press, forthcoming); Hilary Putnam, “Reply to Ned Block,” in M. Baghramian, ed., Reading Putnam (London: Routledge, 2013), 318–21. Hilary Putnam, Philosophy in an Age of Science: Physics, Mathematics and Scepticism (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012), 635–37.

    9. Charles Taylor, “Overcoming Epistemology,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 1–20; see also Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) for a socio-cultural genealogy of the “epistemological” mindset of modern societies.

    10. Cf. Johannes Hoff, Spiritualität und Sprachverlust: Theologie nach Foucault und Derrida (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1999), 99ff.

    11. Cf. Olivier Boulnois, Métaphysiques rebelles: Genèse et strucures d’une science au Moyen Âge (Paris: Puf, 2013), 261–311.

    12. Olivier Boulnois, Etre et représentation: Une genealogie de la métaphysique moderne à l’époque de Duns Scot (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999), 55–104, particularly 84.

    13. Cf. ibid., 100–103, and Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles II, 75, §1550.

    14. “Duns Scot rejette une genèse empirique de l’universel, il n’admet pas non plus de concepts ou d’idées innées, et propose une théorie nouvelle, celle de l’a priori objectif. L’universalité ne vient pas de la sensation, ni d’une illumination divine. Elle est une condition de possibilité préalable à l’acte de pensée, découlant de la structure intelligible de notre intellect lui-même, parce qu’il vise toujours un objet.” Ibid., 83.

    • Avatar

      Daniel O'Connell


      We Have Never Been Modern: Myth and Modernity in Medieval Philosophy—A Reply to Johannes Hoff

      “This rational spirit is capable of marvelous arts and is, as it were, Wisdom’s imprint; in this spirit, more than in anything else, eternal Wisdom shines forth as in a close image [of itself]—just as an original [shines forth] in its close likeness. And what is most marvelous of all: this reflection of Wisdom approaches, by means of the effortful turning of the rational spirit, closer and closer unto the original, until the point that the living reflection, which shines forth from out of a shadowy image, becomes ever more true to, and ever more conformed to, true Wisdom.”

      —Nicholas of Cusa, De pace fidei, 4.12

      I want to thank Johannes first of all for his erudite reply to my review of AT. It has caused me to think more deeply about some of the concerns I raised in my original review, and that is always a good thing.

      In the conclusion of his reply to my review, Hoff characterizes my position as follows: “O’Connell is convinced that ‘scientific’ thinkers need an epistemology.” He then proposes that these “worn-out sandals” were insufficient and proposes to fit me with a new type of “footwear.” I’ve always been a bit picky when it comes to shoes, however, so let me attempt to say, briefly, what I find misconstructed in this fancy new footwear that Hoff proposes. The new shoes certainly look fabulous, but I worry they may fall apart on the journey.

      I. Cusa and philosophy

      First of all, and perhaps not unfairly, Hoff seeks to cast doubt on the claims made by some of my sources; but his reference contains a bit of misdirection. Flasch is characterized as someone who “emphasizes the autonomy of Cusa’s philosophical thinking at the cost of his theology.” As an example, Hoff then looks to explore Flasch’s work Nikolaus von Kues: Geschichte einer Entwicklung, a work I never cited. (I was referring to the article on Eckhart—rescuing him from the “mystical” stream—and his work on the birth of ‘German mysticism’ from the spirit of Arabic philosophy from 2008.) But the charge is made against Flasch, and by extension imputed to me: I emphasize the autonomy of Cusa’s philosophical thinking at the cost of his theology. So here’s my attempt at an answer to that.

      I admit: it might seem as if this is what I’m about, especially if there is a transference of Flasch’s motives to me. I want to insist on the power of visus mentis as a cognitive power of the mind. Hoff counters by pointing to the early opuscula of Cusa, his De quaerendo deum and De dato patris luminum, as well as Cusa’s late letter to Nicholas Albergati (the so-called Albergatibrief), to say (a.) the intellect is a gift from God and (b.) that, in the words of the Albergatibrief, “. . .[A]ll the sons of Adam presume to know, and to have a proud and puffed up science, in which they pride themselves as learned and knowing.” (Albergatibrief, 26.7-8: citation is mine, not Hoff’s.)

      The problem, however, if we read Cusa more studiously, is not with knowledge (scientia) as such, or our own powers of knowing, but rather with the failure to realize and attain to a higher mode of understanding, passing from reason (which Cusa says in his Apologia doctae ignorantiae is like ‘hearing’) onward through learned ignorance to intellection and beyond this to ‘mental seeing’ (which compares to rational theology as sight compares to hearing). As with Proclus, there are levels and modes of understanding in Cusa, who was a close reader of Proclus. He sharpens the difference between these two modes of thought even further, stating that the one who engages in mental seeing is like someone who can see the sun, and in ‘seeing’ sees that it can’t be seen as it is, as opposed to the blind man, who can’t see the sun at all and just hears that it is greater than the power of sight to be seen.

      So, yes, the intellect IS a gift of God: the creation and all its parts are a gift from God. But this is a ‘gift’ of nature and not of grace. And yes, pride—we cannot doubt this!—is a dangerous quality in a speculative thinker, but this passage from blindness to seeing, from reason to mental seeing is a passage that we make as human knowers, through the method of learned ignorance.

      Does God aid the human intellect in this human passage? Indubitably. But the effort is ours; we must, as Cusa says in his Compendium, be of much keener sight and think more clearly than Cusa himself. But this passage or journey we make is a philosophical passage, explicable in terms of our own God-given faculties, and not a “misty” theological or mystical passage.

      It is taking nothing away from Cusa’s theology to say so, although perhaps it fails to fit a larger meta-narrative and a larger intention, namely the wish to decompartmentalize philosophy and theology and, essentially, to fold philosphy into theology. But then, a meta-narrative fails when one does not have a correct understanding of the thinkers who underlie that narrative. Cusa has a theory of human cognition, and one needs to describe it, both as an historian of philosophy and as a philosopher.

      II. Decompartmentalization of philosophy and theology

      This brings me to my second point: the deconstruction of the compartmentalization (could one say merely ‘decompartmentalization’?) of philosophy and theology, a project which Hoff makes clear he supports, one which, he writes, converges with “some of the core aims of my book.” My problem with this decompartmentalization is that it seems quite often to lead to polemically-written histories of philosophy.

      Take Hoff’s reading of Bonaventure’s illumination theory. While I agree with Hoff’s claim that one can find a break with Procline (and Neoplatonic) tradition beginning in Bonaventure (more on this in a moment), his reading of Bonaventure seems quite odd. He writes: “Already in Bonaventure, our sensual receptivity concurs with our receptivity for illumination. For this reason, he tends to conceive of illumination as a kind of a priori receptivity through which we receive pre-given insights.”

      First, we cannot, if we look to the sources, understand illumination in Bonaventure as involving a priori receptivity, nor can one say that what we receive from illumination is pre-given (unless we say it is pre-given by the content of sense). Illumination for Bonaventure is his attempt to reconcile Augustinian illumination (as expressed in Book VII of Augustine’s Confessions and again in his De Trinitate) with Aristotelian demands for certitude in the sciences. (Cf. Steven P Marrone’s ‘The Light of Thy Countenance’: Science and Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century, vol I, 122-151)

      Rather than saying that the human intellect in itself is sufficient for certitude, Bonaventure, following Augustine,1 tells us there that our certainty is provided by illumination. But there is nothing a priori or pre-given here: the subjects of our knowledge are the sensible objects themselves abstracted and understood. (De scientia Christi q. 4 concl. [ed. Quaracchi V 23]) The four causes of our knowledge do not themselves depend on God (except in the sense that all created things depend on God): The “content” of human knowledge comes solely from “created” causes. (In II Sent. d. 24, pars 1, art. 2, q. 4 [ed. Quaracchi II 567–71])

      Secondly, the break with the Neoplatonic tradition comes not with notions about causality, with some sort of difference between concurrent and inflowing causes (a distinction not found anywhere in Proclus’ Elements of Theology), but with Bonaventure’s denial, in his Commentary on the Sentences, that created things exist more truly (or really) in the mind of God than they do in re.

      Following on Plato’s notion of to ontos on (the really real), this is a proposition to which neither Plotinus, Iamblichus, nor Proclus (nor for that matter Augustine, Dionysius, or Eriugena) would ever assent. And following Bonaventure (as opposed to Albert perhaps?), Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham would all agree with Bonaventure on this point. And this has consequences for later cognition theory and represents, as it were, a certain death-knell for Platonism and illumination theories of cognition (at least temporarily), but unfortunately there is not sufficient time to go into these consequences here.

      I will leave aside here Hoff’s similarly odd reading of Scotus—suffice it to say, the notion that Scotus is some sort of proto-Kantian (a claim apparently based on the work of Courtine and Boulnois), and that the source of the universals for Scotus is not the senses is outlandish. I wish there were time enough to dissect this opinion in detail, but good work on this topic has been done by one of the best Scotists of our time, Timothy Noone.2

      Lastly, given that Hoff supports his argument with Schumacher’s work is not a good sign of serious historical scholarship. In her book and specifically in her analysis of Aquinas (the Dominican who was—Hoff claims—the true Augustinian), she basically ignores the whole of the Arabic tradition and the research that has been done on that. So her discussions there are problematic in so many ways and Hoff just exacerbates this when he draws on her for his own argument.

      These polemically-guided misreadings of the Franciscans (and the Dominicans) are important however: they constitute the pre-history of modernism, first with the supposed Augustinian Avicennism—that Gilsonian zombie—of the Franciscan Tradition and then with Scotus’ univocity of being. All of this begins to taste like a badly warmed-over Heideggerian soup, projected onto the past, in which we see (yet again) a forgetting of being and the decent into onto-theology.

      This drama is replicated in Hoff’s book, which is unfortunate because it involves not only misreadings of the major players involved but also an anachronistic reading of just the sort he goes to such great lengths to avoid in his refusal to use the word ‘epistemology’.

      As I have said before in my original review and I say here again: I really do find the sections of Hoff’s book where he deals with Cusa and Alberti and the origins of modernity in artistic, speculative, and cultural forms of the 15th century to be quite excellent, but there is no way such a book can succeed as a whole with this sort of baggage tacked on for the journey.

      III. Epistemology

      Hoff (making use of Taylor and others) raises the question of whether or not we can apply the notion of ‘epistemology’ to ancient and medieval thinkers. In short, his answer seems to be that the notion of epistemology is irredeemably modern, infected with one of those ‘bastard dualisms’ of modernity, being committed to indispensable empirical and/or transcendental conditions of knowledge.

      I am not wedded to the term ‘epistemology’ and I certainly don’t intend it in Taylor’s sense. If one prefers, we could employ a different term: call it knowledge-theory, or call it theory of cognition. The fact remains that we can examine any thinker and we can find in these thinkers a theory of knowledge, or theory of cognition, or epistemology. Whether this theory of cognition depends upon a divine influx of illumination or whether our own God-given intellectual nature is sufficient, it’s still a theory of cognition, and of course it has conditions.

      If one doesn’t want to call it an ‘epistemology’ that is just fine with me. But it’s still a logos about episteme.

      And whether these theories about knowledge are realist or representationalist? It seems to me the deck is already stacked. Hoff claims that a position is representationalist (in the strict sense) “which supports the modern myth that human knowledge can be derived from pre-given conditions that account for its possibility.” So all ‘representationalist’ positions are ipso facto ‘modern’ (that’s an analytic proposition apparently). This definition doesn’t stand up to closer examination, however, because it appears to be derived from Boulnois’ reading of Scotus (and more broadly an examination of modern philosophy), and then it’s applied to Scotus. As far as I can see, there’s not really an argument here, despite the host of philosophers who are gestured at (Taylor, Putnam, Badiou, Foucault). But perhaps I am missing something.

      IV. Conlcusion

      In closing, here is the central problem, as I see it: Hoff seems to posit some (pre-modern) ideal world where autonomous reasoning was simply folded into the ‘theophanic revelations’ of faith (whatever these might be, they are ill-defined), where analogical thinking was king, and that, further, both Aquinas and Cusa draw from this mystical well of zamzam.

      But really now, from Plato to Aquinas, and even on to Cusa, what one finds (even among Neoplatonists like Proclus and Iamblichus, who embraced theurgical practices) is that the human soul, in its reasonings, remains able to mount up to theoretical contemplation (Aristotle’s theoria in the Nicomachean Ethics Book X), and that this contemplation (rooted in and growing outward from knowledge or episteme) constitutes our happiness as human knowers.3

      Even, in the case of Cusa, where knowledge (scientia) is problematized, surely we still “desire to know” even if, in his case, we desire “to know that we do not know”—we still seek to “unknowingly embrace unknowable things.” This activity of philosophizing and speculation (whether one is a pagan polytheist or a Christian monotheist) is an activity that belongs to human beings insofar as we are human. And it’s different from theology. So, whatever one thinks of Hankey’s arguments, philosophy does (must, will always) abide.

      Yes, the intellectual power is a gift from God. The entire unfolding of creation is a gift from God. Still, this doesn’t magically transform our reasoning power, our ability to make conjectures, into some sort of activity that is somehow beyond the activity of philosophizing. There is still a domain of inquiry that is open to us precisely insofar as we are human beings, and this is not yet theology, and not properly theology.

      So we can’t simply absolve ourselves from careful inquiry into the powers of our mind and the map of the world. And when Cusa begins to speak about visus mentis he is proposing a way of seeing from afar (cf. his Apologia doctae ignorantiae), the whole point of learned ignorance in a sense, a way of seeing that is like the pilgrim who, while still a long way off from the goal, sees the distant tower, and is able to direct his steps accordingly, whatever sort of shoes this pilgrim may be wearing.

      Of course, there is praise (laus) and there is even a scientia laudis (cf. Cusa’s Albergatibrief in several places). There is liturgy. These things connect us to God or to the gods. Still, just as Iamblichus and Proclus had their theurgy, but preserved a noble and robust philosophy, so we also have our philosophy (and our history of philosophy), alongside our theology and liturgy, and we would lose something in the attempt if one were to try to collapse philosophy into theology, or to mistreat the history of philosophy to satisfy our own aims, theological or otherwise.4

      So, like Cusa’s pilgrim, I attempt to the best of my ability to see with intellectual sight—using the ‘bezels of wisdom’—to spot the landmarks from afar by which I can direct my steps. If I hobble in my philosopher’s sandals (and I most certainly do, even in this brief response), I still have hope to arrive at a glimpse of the quidditas which I seek, that “possibility itself” (posse ipsum), which is able “to satisfy the desire of the mind.”5

      1. “And admonished by all this to return to myself, I entered inside myself, you leading and I able to do so because you had become my helper. And I entered and with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw above that eye of my soul, above my mind, an unchangeable light. . . . Whoever knows the truth knows this light. . . . O eternal truth and true love and loved eternity, you are my God; to you do I sigh both night and day. (Augustine, Confessiones, 7.10; CCSL 27: 103)

      2. See Timothy B. Noone, “The Franciscans and Epistemology: Reflections on the Roles of Bonaventure and Scotus,” in R. E. Huser (ed.), _Medieval Masters: Essays in Memory of Msgr. E. A. Synan (Houston, 1999), 63–90.

      3. There is of course a different argument that one can make against such theoria, one which is made by Horkheimer first and then continued by Habermas in his inaugural lecture at the University of Frankfurt, but leave that aside for now: it’s not relevant to the discussion at hand. Their argument seems to be directed primarily at Husserl.

      4. “. . . to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception . . . taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet a monstrous one . . . the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed.” (Deleuze [1973] “Lettre à Michel Cressole,” La Quinzaine littéraire, 161)

      5. De apice theoriae 11.

    • Avatar

      Johannes Hoff


      The Unity of Faith and Reason and the Post-Liberal Divide

      I am grateful to Daniel O’Connell that he tried to work out such an elaborate response to my above reply. Unfortunately, it appeared only shortly before the closing time of this symposium. For this reason, I was not able to write a comparably elaborated response to his objections. However, since many readers will not be familiar with the increasingly multilingual research on the topics of our controversy, it seems to me indispensable to write at least an improvised response to O’Connell’s text. I have to apologize that this response is not written in a polished English. Since I am not a native speaker, I hope the reader will read the following paragraphs benevolently

      I certainly do not agree with O’Connell’s reading of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, but this would require a more thorough engagement with the primary texts. Aquinas, for example, says on many occasions that thethings are more real and more themselves in the mind of God. Here O’Connell commits a simple error, but he is correct about Bonaventure. In Bonaventure the certainty of our intellect is not sufficient, but in need of an additional illumination. Moreover, I agree with his observation that, as with Aristotle, the content of our knowledge derives (of course!) from sensory evidence. The critical point that distinguishes Bonaventure from Aquinas and Cusa is that the latter felt no need for an additional ‘regulative and moving cause’ (De scientia Christi, q. 4 [ed. Quaracchi V 23b]). Our power of judgement is sufficient to provide us with certainty as soon as it is one with itself – and this happens to be the case not despite but precisely because the light of our knowledge is a gift of the father of lights that transcends our rational and intellectual power. “Be your own and I will be yours” says God to the prayer in De visione dei (c. 7 n. 25, 12-14; AT 210).

      For this reason, Jacob Schmutz was right, when he traced back the emergence of a competitive concept of causation to Bonaventure: as soon as we admit the need of an additional moving cause of certainty, we have broken with the Proclean concept of causation as influentia. Oliver Boulnois excellent, most recent research on the relation between Bonaventure and Avicenna (in Métaphysiques rebelles, 2013) supports this reading and is consistent with Lydia Schumacher. Hence there is no reason to be scornful about Schumacher’s engagement with the Arabic tradition. In genealogical terms Bonaventure marks a turning point: The introduction of an additional source of certainty undermined the analogical ontology of philosophers like Aquinas and Cusa, who distinguished (as Cusa expressed it latter) different ‘modes of being’ that are asymmetrical, and not to be located on an ontologically equal (or competitive) plane.

      For this reason, I agree with O’Connell’s revised reading of Cusa in his reply to my criticism only up to a certain point: The distinction between reason and intellect, and the related distinction between four ‘onnesses’ in De conicturies, is indeed crucial for Cusa’s account of the foundations of human knowledge; but I disagree with O’Connell’s conclusion that this supports a clear distinction of philosophy and theology. As I have demonstrated more thoroughly in my earlier German monograph on Cusa, it rather undermines every distinction between these disciplines from the outset. Cusa’s account of the foundations of human knowledge leaves now space for an ontic distinction between intellectual and doxological (or divine) modes of knowledge. Rather, the continuity of theological and philosophical modes of knowledge requires us to take seriously that human knowledge is doxological from the outset – and there is not textual basis to find anything in Cusa that deviates from this path. No one sets in doubt that there is a relative distinction between natural contemplation and the ascent to the vision of God, which is mediated by grace. However, although Aquinas puts more emphasis on difference than Cusa (and Eckhart) in all these cases they are in continuity, since in all these cases the difference of nature and grace is not an ontic difference

      The last point relates to contemporary debates about onto-theology. In the first part AT I developed an historical and systematic account of the doxological foundations of human knowledge in Cusa, starting from Denys the Areopagite and Thomas Aquinas on the one hand, and more recent debates about the pre-reflexive foundations of our concept of truth, such as in Heidegger, Derrida, and Marion. O’Connell does not feel any need to engage with this debates; he rather assumes that everyone who engages (however critically) with the question of onto-theology wastes his time by warming up a “Heideggerian soup”.

      Against this background it comes not as a surprise that he does not feel any need to engage with contemporary philosophical debates about our knowledge of the truth either. In my publications, I have repeatedly emphasized the performative features of Cusa’s ‘theory of knowledge’ in order to account for its mysterious features as an ‘event’ (in the sense of Martin Heidegger). This is consistent with significant strands of contemporary phenomenological and post-analytic philosophy (and not necessarily a sign of mysticism). O’Connell seems still to assume that human knowledge can be described and explained just as I can describe and explain the reflexion of a tree in a mirror, but perhaps I have missed something here.

      In my perception the blind spots O’Connell’s hermeneutic of my own texts are symptomatic for a deeper level of incomprehension. Hence, I will conclude my response to his reply with some more general remarks concerning the potential incompatibility of our hermeneutics of premodern texts.

      (1) Let me first summarize what I consider to be the core of the contemporary paradigm shift in the historiography of philosophy, and why I am convinced that this shifts needs us to pay more attention to the contributions of French scholars, who build on the post-Heideggerian hermeneutic of continental philosophy.

      In contrast to the analytic rationality of modernity, premodern philosophers resisted the inclination to draw a clear demarcation line between the scientific cultivation of rational arguments and the religious cultivation of the symbolically charged spiritual practices that guide our attention (see also my response to Betz). For this reason, Pierre Hadot was right when he pointed out that philosophy was considered a spiritual form of life in antiquity. Hadot only misdated the point where this spiritual approach started to fade out. As Alain de Libera has demonstrated, the famous condemnation of 219 philosophical and theological sentence by Bishop Tempier of Paris in 1277 marked the decisive breaking point. Only after 1277 did philosophers feel increasingly forced to sunder their evidence-based rational arguments from the spiritual seedbed of their thinking patterns in everyday life.

      With the benefit of hindsight we might perceive this break as the starting point of modern secularism. However, it might come as a surprise that those who encouraged the modern separation of philosophical arguments from the spiritual ascent to the truth were not rationalist agnostics. Rather the decisive break of 1277 was enforced by Franciscan theologians who wanted to subject a purified concept of reason to the oversight of a purified concept of revelation and faith. Before that time it was neither possible to draw a neat separation line between philosophy and theology, nor to treat these disciplines as functionally differentiated modules of a philosophical-theological ‘system’ in the style of Neo-Scholasticism. As de Libera has masterfully pointed out, up until the 13th century the “big choices” were not between faith and reason, or theology and philosophy.1 After all he philosophical theologies of pagans and the revealed theologies of Christians were dedicated to the same concerns: the ascension to the truth, the desire for salvation and unification, questions of hope and faith (fiducia philosophantis), the experience of unity, etc.

      My own attempts to overcome the modern divide between philosophy and theology are to be read in the light of this paradigm shift in contemporary philosophy, theology and historiography; and this explains, not least, my strong emphasis on the Dominican tradition, including Albert and Aquinas. None of these Dominicans would have supported a divide between philosophical acts of reasoning and religious practices. After all the spirituality of philosophers included also the contemplation of the heavens and their intellectual movers (both in Aristotle and in the Neoplatonic tradition). Albert might have left more space for ‘autonomous’ philosophical accounts of the ‘ascension’ to the truth. However, neither Albert nor Aquinas would have supported an ‘autonomous’ concept of reason that is detached from the spiritual practices of our everyday life – let alone a ‘neutral’ concept of reason in the sense of modern liberalism.

      (2) This leads me to my second point. I am aware that the efforts of leading contemporary scholars to overcome the modern divide of faith and reason has created a new divide: the divide between philosophers, theologians and historiographers who try to defend the modern compartmentalization of these disciplines based on the secularisation narrative of the liberal tradition, and those who (like Charles Taylor) deconstruct this narrative in favour of a new reading of classical sources. But this new divide is of a different kind: I consider it as a characteristic feature of our ‘post-liberal age’.

      Other than in the good old time of Kant and Habermas, post-liberal societies no longer have access to a neutral space of deliberation that enables them to discuss critically the achievements of older religious traditions and narratives in the light of the allegedly ‘more advanced’ universal rationality of our present time. However, we should not conclude from this sobering observation that the liberal myth of progress has simply vanished – or that it will become ‘out-narrated’ as Milbank occasionally promises. The liberal tradition has survived, and it will not vanish in the near future. But something has changed: Instead of providing us with a ‘neutral space’ of deliberation, liberalism represents now only one tradition among others.

      For this reason it would be misleading to replace the liberal narrative of progress with a new totalizing narrative of decline. Rather, we have to accept that our reading of the past is informed by divergent, and occasionally incompatible viewpoints, and cultivate a new sensitivity with regard to the ‘big pictures’ that frame our heterogeneous readings of the past – as Paul Tyson has brilliantly pointed out it in his comment below. In the 19th and (to a large extent) 20th century, a scholar who engaged in a ‘smart well written historiography’ might have denounced scholars that deviate from the trodden paths of the mainstream as ‘mendacious’ (see O’Connell’s below response to Tyson) without feeling biased. In post-liberal societies we need to take into account that our view of the past might be obscured by a blind spot that limits our perspective.

      This does, of course, not mean that every scholar who engages with the history of philosophy is required to address the “big philosophical picture” that informs our interpretation of the past. We need scholars who do the careful work of historiographers and philologists; and it is still legitimate to follow the well-trodden paths of early-modern historiography if we struggle to make sense of alternative views. But we should not pretend that these well-trodden paths are neutral or superior to the historiography of those who challenge the mainstream. If we want to demonstrate that the latter is superior to alternative views, then we have to engage with the basic assumptions that frame it; but if we are not prepared or willing to do so, we should suspend our judgement and not try to make bold claims, or indulge in polemic denunciations.

      O’Connell’s reading of high medieval texts might be consistent with the hermeneutical framework that guides the research of Marenbon (who does not like the concerns of post-Heideggerian hermeneutics and tends to project back modern analytical concerns into the past), or Kurt Flasch (who tends to project back modern Kantian concerns into the past). But his hermeneutic is surely not compatible with the research of leading French scholars like Olivier Boulnois, Jean-Francois Courtine, Jacob Schmutz, and Alain de Libera.

      In my perception, Kurt Flasch is the most illuminating representative of the first mentioned party (see also my response to Moore). In his earliest writing (such as his Die Metaphysik des Einen bei Nikolaus von Kues of 1973) he tried to engage with the ‘bigger picture’ that guided his philosophical research; in is later writings he retracted from this engagement, and adopted a more sceptical attitude. While he still supported the idealist tradition of the German mainstream historiography, he tried to demonstrate now that this hermeneutical approach does not always work, and that it is ultimately impossible to make sense of the ‘glass coffins’ that we have preserved from the past.

      Flasch tends to present this aporetic conclusion of his research in a positivistic framework, but this should not distract from the fact that his hermeneutics is anything but neutral – pace his honourable opposition against ‘mystical currents’ that tried to transform the apophatic tradition into a ‘misty affective mysticism’, which I share for orthodox reasons (as Cusa did). It is no accident that Flasch has rejected his former attachment to the Christian tradition in his book Warum ich kein Christ bin (Why I am not a Christian) of 2013. Far from supporting a neutral hermeneutic, his thinking is framed by a highly selective ‘big picture’. I would not blame him for adopting this secularist position, or denounce his reading of Cusa, Eckhart or Aquinas as ‘mendacious’. But I would always insist that it has blind spots, and that it is possible to provide an alternative reading of these authors that is more faithful to their religious convictions.

      (3) This leads me to O’Connell’s suggestion that my book supports a narrative of decline (see his below response to Tyson). If the reader reads AT in an unbiased manner, he will discover that this accusation is misleading. Rather AT supports a plurality of genealogies that might be assessed differently – although I never concealed my conviction that I consider the orthodox tradition as superior. Let’s take as an example the following quotation of AT (p. 23f.):

      ‘On reflection, it is remarkable that Cusa was able to articulate [his] doxological approach to the foundations of human knowledge and creativity as late as in the 15th century. The orthodox vision of a concordance between philosophy (science) and liturgy (theology) had already been corrupted following Duns Scotus’ (1265-1308) ‘systematically unsystematic’2 response to the Aristotelian renaissance of the 13th century. The consequences of this upheaval then became further aggravated after Cusa’s time. Apart from a few exceptions (like Johannes Georg Hamann, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Søren Kierkegaard), the doxological and apophatic roots of Christian learning became increasingly detached from theological considerations on the foundations of Christian doctrine. The academic inheritors of the pre-modern tradition of Christian learning increasingly resembled representatives of a specialized discipline that met the demand for ‘revealed’ forms of knowledge about the divine. Aquinas’ “science of God and the blessed” no longer appeared to be the source and summit of the every scientific endeavour, but more like a revealed added offering to the more advanced achievements of the scientific community, or like a relic of the past to be sold on request in the name of a religious confession. Hence, in neglecting its liturgical and apophatic anchoring, modern Christianity provoked the iconoclastic countermovement of modern atheism, which, ironically, can claim with a certain amount of justification to be the more legitimate inheritor of the ‘Christian legacy’.’

      We might read this passage in support of a narrative of decline. But this is only a consistent reading, if we adopt a strictly ‘ortho-dox’ point of view (in the doxological sense of this word, as outlined in the paragraphs that precede this quotation). Seen from a secular point of view, it might equally be argued that Duns Scouts marked the starting point of a history of progress that culminated in the liberation from the ecclesial hierarchy, and the paradox of a crucified God who sacrificed himself in order to reveal the truth about our dignity as autonomous subjects. This reading would be consistent with an hermeneutic of the history of human freedom that builds on Kant, and leads via Hegel and Marx to the humanism of late modern philosophers such as Ernst Bloch (the teacher of Jürgen Moltmann) and Slavoj Zizek.

      Now, I would never argue that the ‘big picture’ that guides this reading is simply wrong. As indicated in the last sentence of the above quotation, I am rather inclined to argue that, up to certain point, these philosophers are justified to claim that they are the true inheritors of the Christian legacy. I would only insist that the legacy they claim to inherit represents only one strand of the Christian tradition, namely that ‘analytic’ Franciscan tradition of Christian learning that emerged in late Middle Ages.

      Given this post-liberal dichotomy, I would not even argue that every appropriation of the latter tradition is heretical or agnostic. It is still possible to provide a more orthodox reading of the modern history of progress. AT does not engage explicitly with this possibility, but theologically educated German readers of AT would be easily able to read ‘between the lines’.

      Let us take for example the fundamental theology of my Freiburg colleague Magnus Striet. Striet builds on the philosophical research of Ludger Honnefelder in order to demonstrate that the history of human freedom, which culminated in Kant and Fichte, can be traced back to Duns Scotus. According to Honnefelder (who is surely not to be dismissed as ‘outlandish’) Scotus reworking of the ‘transcendental’ marked the starting point of this development. Striet builds on this reading and argues that it is precisely this tradition that Christians should support, if they want to engage with the biblical tradition on the level of the enlightened rationality of modern science and culture.

      I do not disagree with this genealogy of modernity – nor do I think that Honnefelder’s reading of Duns Scotus distorts the primary texts. I only disagree with Striet’s (and Honnefelder’s) assessment of this genealogy; but this disagreement is not primarily based on historiographic but philosophical reasons: I am convinced that the above, agnostic or atheist inheritors of Duns Scotus are the more authentic inheritors of the Franciscan tradition, and that theological appropriations of this traditions are too weak to compete with their secular counterpart. Similar to Kant and his idealist successors, agnostics like Bloch, Flasch and Zizek are no atheists in the strict sense of this word; their agnosticism leaves space for religious convictions. However, they build on the voluntarist tradition of the late Middle Ages and conceive this open space as a matter of practical reason. Hence, it comes as no surprise that theologians who try to occupy this open space are ultimately forced to build on weak practical postulates. In AT I quoted Heinrich Heine in order to express why I consider this theological appropriation of the secularisation narrative as inferior to its agnostic counterpart (see AT 172f.)

      I am not sure if O’Connell is aware of this broader context of my research. He might simply argue that the ‘big questions’ that are at stake in these debates are not his concern. In my view, this would be a perfectly legitimate position; but I would expect him then to be more cautious in his assessment of the work of scholars that do engage with these questions.

      1. “Les grands choix du Moyen Âge ne passent pas entre raison et foi, théologie et philosophie comme telles ni même entre la théologie révélée et une philosophie tout entière absorbée dans ce que Gilson appelle théologie naturelle.” Alain de Libera, Raison et foi. Archologie d’une crise d’Albert le Grand Jean-Paul II (Paris: Seuil 2003), 28.

      2. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, 152; cf. also Catherine Pickstock, “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance.” In Simon Oliver and John Milbank, editors, The Radical Orthodoxy Reader (London: Routledge 2009), 116–47.

Verified by ExactMetrics