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The Infinite Sphere: Comments on the History of a Metaphor KARSTEN HARRIES I. "IT MAY BE THAT UNIVERSAL HISTORY is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors." With these words Jorge Luis Borges concludes his brief sketch of the history of the metaphor of the infinite sphere.1 In that essay he traces its origins back to Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles. Skipping centuries, Borges turns next to the twelfth century theologian Alan of Lille, who, he tells us, discovered the formula "God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere" in a fragment attributed to Hermes Trismegistus; followinghim, medieval and renaissance writers used the metaphor to describe the being of God. According to Borges it was given a different intonation only after the discoveries of the new astronomy had shattered the closed world of the Middle Ages: searching for words "to tell men of Copernican space," Bruno described the universe as an infinite sphere2 But while Bruno had exulted in this infinity, "seventy years later there was no reflection of that fervor left and men felt lost in space and time.... the absolute space which had meant liberation to Bruno, became a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal." Nature had become "a fearful sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere." Borges' little sketch not only needs to be filled out; it also needs to be corrected. And yet Borges is fight to insist on the importance of what he calls "the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors." In this paper I would like to support that claim by an examination of the central sh/ft in the history of the metaphor of the infinite sphere, its transference from God to the universe. Borges attributes this shift to Bruno, but Bruno was here only following the fifteenth century cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus. To point this out is not simply to add a bit of rather common information to Borges' sketch. It is rather to give greater importance to the history of this metaphor than Borges can. According to Borges the metaphor's transference from God to the universe followed the astronomical discoveries and theories of the sixteenth century. The reverse was the case. The metaphor 's transference preceded and helped to prepare the way for the new astronomy. The astronomical observations and speculations of the sixteenth century presuppose that men had already begun to look at the objects surrounding them in new ways. As Thomas S. Kuhn points out, "The very ease and rapidity with which astronomers saw new things when looking at old objects with old instruments may make us wish to say that, after Copernicus, astronomers lived in a different world.''a This statement is somewhat misleading in that it suggests that this new world had its foundation in the Copernican revo1 Jorge Luis Borges, "The Fearful Sphere of Pascal," Labyrinths, Selected Stories and Other Writings (New York, 1964), pp. 189-192. Borges here passes over the fact that neither Copernicus nor Kepler accepted the infinity of the cosmos, a Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure o] Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1970), p. 117. [5] HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY lution, but that revolution was itself made possible by a more fundamental shift in men's world understanding which opened up new perceptual and intellectual possibilities. What Alexandre Koyrd calls Cusanus' "astonishing transference to the universe of the pseudoHermetic characterization of God, 'a sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere'," 4 is part of and can furnish a key to a better understanding of that shift. But is Cusanus' transference of the metaphor really so astonishing? I hope to show that, on the contrary, it is suggestedby the metaphor itself. The metaphor of the infinite sphere presupposes an understanding of GOd and man which had to lead men beyond the medieval cosmos. A deep historical and systematic connection links medieval mysticism to the new cosmology.~Unless this connection is recognized, the work of a thinker like Cusanus will seem a curious hybrid of still medieval theological discussions and some very modem epistemological and cosmological speculations. This, however, is a false dichotomy. In Cusanus...


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