restricted access 3. Wise Ignorance: Nicolaus of Cusa’s Search for Truth
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58 3.  Wise Ignorance    Nicolaus of Cusa’s Search for Truth In his approach to the problem of knowledge, Nicolaus of Cusa (1401–1464) can rightly be considered, as Ernst Cassirer observes, “the first modern thinker.” The title belongs to him because he first grasped a principle that modern Western philosophy has erected into an unimpeachable doctrine: the principle that rational or scientific knowledge, properly construed, has to be anchored in measurement and empirical comparison—methods that completely sideline traditional metaphysics (with its claim to deliver speculative knowledge). In his long string of writings, Nicolaus of Cusa never ceased to stress this need for measurement, but with a dramatic twist. Had he limited himself to this emphasis, he would have been a modern thinker just like a host of others. What distinguishes him is that he allowed his modern rationality to be touched by a sensibility for the unconditional , the absolute, or the divine—and again, he did so with a dramatic twist. Contrary to the conventional modern opposition between reason and faith, knowledge and belief, Cusanus saw rationality itself inhabited by self-transgression, by a yearning for something that cannot be strictly known but can only be intimated in a mode of “knowing unknowledge” or “learned ignorance.” To this extent, although he was modern, Cusanus was also a more than modern thinker, someone who might be able to speak to us today. In the words of Cassirer, yearning for the good or divine “must spur on and give wings” to our thought, “even though the ‘what,’ the substantive essence of the good, remains inaccessible to knowledge. Here, knowing and not knowing coincide.”1 The movement from rationality to knowing unknowledge involves not merely a cognitive growth but also an existential transformation Nicolaus of Cusa’s Search for Truth  59 or pedagogy—a practical as well as intellectual journey animated by love (traditionally expressed as amor Dei intellectualis). In many ways, Cusanus’s entire life story can be seen as a restless journey propelled by an intense love of learning and goodness. It will suffice here to recall a few way stations on this remarkable thinker’s path. Cusanus was in his early teens when he left his father’s house to receive instruction from the Brotherhood of the Common Life, a pedagogical community devoted to personal-experiential piety (the so-called devotio moderna) and inspired by German mysticism, especially the teachings of Meister Eckhart. From there, the young man moved to Heidelberg to learn about the emerging and highly innovative construal of medieval philosophy and theology (the via moderna). The most decisive influence on his intellectual development, however, came during his Italian period in Padua, where he encountered the rising trend of Renaissance humanism, with its combined accent on both classical (especially Greek) studies and undogmatic, personalized modes of inquiry. After these youthful peregrinations, Cusanus’s mature period was spent mainly in the service of the church: as secretary to the archbishop of Trier, as bishop of Brixen and cardinal in Rome, as emissary of the Vatican to Germany (1450–1452), and finally as personal counselor of Pope Pius II. Although deeply immersed during his later years in church business and practical and political matters, he left behind an incredible wealth of philosophical texts, letters, and other literary documents—a wealth that has staggered great contemporary thinkers (such as Cassirer and Karl Jaspers). For present purposes, rather than attempting a bland overview, I want to join Cusanus in some of his intellectual journeys, focusing on three major aspects: his emphasis on experiential learning and piety; his key notion of the “coincidence of opposites” (linked in “learned ignorance”); and his concern with interreligious harmony and peace. A Layman’s Pedagogy In many of his writings, Cusanus privileges the outlook of the ordinary layman, the man of the street or the marketplace (idiota). No fewer than three of his important texts include the term layman in their titles: The Layman on Wisdom (Idiota de Sapientia), The Layman on 60  Prominent Searchers in the Past the Mind/Spirit (Idiota de Mente), and The Layman on Experiments (Idiota de Staticis Experimentis). This emphasis is always philosophically significant, but it is especially so in our modern and contemporary era. In large measure, modern Western philosophy has been professionalized, or transformed into an academic discipline; what is called analytical philosophy is, above all, a discourse confined almost entirely to academic logicians and epistemologists. Concerns voiced by ordinary people on the street, by contrast, tend to...


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