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The Analogical Turn. Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa.
Grand Rapids u. a.: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2013. XXVI, 241 S. = Interventions Series. Kart. US$ 38,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6890-9.
Building upon his previous work on Nicholas of Cusa, Professor Hoff (Heythrop College, University of London) proposes in this book that Cusa’s creative integration of medieval wisdom with Renaissance innovation may help us develop »a fresh perspective on the challenges of our late modern world« (XV). H.’s reading of Cusa accords with scholars like Haubst and Longeway, who interpret Cusa within a Thomistic framework. H. departs from twentieth century readings of Cusa which paint him as a forerunner to modern science and philosophy (e. g., Cassirer), and differs, as well, from recent readings of Cusa that tend to divorce the pioneering aspects of Cusa’s philosophy from their medieval and confessional moorings (e. g., Kearney). H.’s hermeneutic is one that interweaves intuitions of premodern Christianity, Radical Orthodoxy, and postmodern deconstruction.
Nicholas of Cusa, on H.’s read, responded to the proto-modern philosophical developments of his time with neither rash rejection nor uncritical acceptance. Rather, by drawing on the analogical rationality of the Middle Ages, Cusa developed a third path of »conservative innovation« which consisted in »a mystagogical approach to the infinity of God rooted in context-sensitive, spiritual, and liturgical practices« (XV). This path, H. suggests, is best exemplified in Cusa’s well-known mystical text, De visione Dei (1453, hereafter DvD) – especially the unique communal spiritual exercise, centered on a painting of an omnivoyant face, detailed in the treatise’s preface. H. seeks to show that Cusa embraces to a certain degree Renaissance emphases on individuality, creativity, and innovation; however, he situates these themes within an apophatic, participative ontology, rooted in liturgical sensitivity and Chalcedonian Christology, which approaches the world and the things in it (especially bodies, faces, and voices) with a fundamental trust in not only their actuality but also their ineluctable mysteriousness and theophanic potential. H. thus presents Cusa as a key resource for the recovery of what might be called an apophatic realist ontology in contemporary philosophy and theology.
More than a book on Cusa, H.’s monograph is a new window onto the seismic philosophical shifts in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that led to the emergence of modernity. H. traces artistic and philosophical developments in Renaissance Italy that, he argues, paved the way for the nihilistic tendencies of modern rationality. H. shows how Leon Battista Alberti’s new artistic approach, which fixes perspective on a localizeable eye point for the individual observer, influenced the works of other Renaissance artists and thinkers, and paved the way for the rise of the ensconced, hopelessly nescient, Kantian subject.
H.’s original narration of the genealogy of modernity places Cusa against a new backdrop. In contradistinction to Alberti’s static, disembodied, lonesome-eye representationalism, Cusa’s DvD under-scores the power of real-time, embodied, face-to-face encounters to show forth the invisible in the visible. H. reveals how Cusa builds on Dionysian and Thomistic traditions to offer a liturgical, dynamic, profoundly relational alternative to Renaissance ideas that would lead eventually to Descartes, Kant, and the »nihilist hyper-reflexiv-ity« of modern subjectivity. H. shows how Cusa’s spiritual exercise in DvD, which involves joint attention and a coincidence of the senses (specifically, sight and hearing), accomplishes much philosophical work. This underscoring of the crucial role of the second-person perspective in Cusan thought represents a key step forward in Cusanus research. (Incidentally, it also resonates with certain developments in contemporary cognitive science – specifically, embodied, enactive, and/or second-person approaches to cognition such as one finds in the work of Evan Thompson and Shaun Gallagher.)
H. is keen to temper the enthusiasm of anyone who would see concordance between, on the one hand, Cusa’s doctrine of learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), and, on the other, streams of modern and postmodern thought that maintain an attitude of fundamental distrust regarding the actuality and knowability of the world and its divine whence. In contrast to Romantics like Fichte and postmoderns like Certeau and Derrida, the invisible infinite is for Cusa (on H.’s read) not an »unknown X«, but a term known to be beautiful and good, for it is the love of the triune God.
H. also draws on Cusa to critique what he sees as arrogant and futile human intellectual pursuits. He deplores the ascendency in early modernity of »mathematically educated scientists [who] subjected the authority of our visual perception to the secretive au-thority of scientific academies and learned societies«, as well as »educated scholars [who] subjected the authority of the divine word to the authority of […] teaching-agencies« (151). In what is probably the most idiosyncratic and intrepid part of the book, H. offers an apocalyptic reading of sermo CCLXXVIII in which modern scientific rationality is linked to the persecution of Christ’s body at the end of time. H. appropriates Cusa’s Good Friday sermon to issue a call for repentance and conversion in view of what he sees as the current age’s »inflated (superba et inflans) scientific and ethical preten-sions« (187). This reviewer, it must be admitted, was struck by the curious way in which H. reclaims and proclaims Cusa’s ontology of love even while demonizing (and prescribing repentance for) seemingly all things secular and/or scientific.
A bold, complex argument always has limitations, and H.’s is no exception. Minor points include the following. First, H. employs James J. Gibson’s notion of »affordances« (39.135.147) apparently without awareness that Gibson’s theory is quite controversial in psychology and cognitive science. Gibsonian ideas may prove more helpful to H.’s argument if they were spelled out in more detail, and if a case were made for their utilization. Second, H. at times overstates his argument, as when he claims that Cusa never applies the principle of the coincidence of opposites to the creature-creator relation (137.147.153). But Cusa clearly does do this, even in DvD (XV.12), though he will of course go on to place God beyond the »wall« of the coincidence of opposites. Third, H. implies that Cusa specifically intended DvD to be a critical response to Alberti (99. 107). However, the letters between Cusa and the »beloved brothers« (DvD, prologue) of Tegernsee – which H. engages very minimally, a surprising fact given his contextual, relational emphasis – show no evidence of this.
A larger question is whether, even taking into account DvD’s remarkable preface, it can be said that loving face-to-face encounters in liturgical contexts constitute the locus of Cusa’s account of creatures’ divinizing participation in God’s infinity. A more convincing candidate for this, considering Cusa’s corpus on the whole, is the speculative creativity of the individual mind (intellectus). It may be that the rich, embodied relationality of DvD can be read back into Cusa’s other writings – that is, that Cusa views loving, desirous encounter as the condition of possibility for divinely disclosive mental creativity. H., by not taking into serious account Cusa’s many identifications of the individual mind’s speculative dynamism with the activity and presence of God in creation, leaves it to others to see whether this interpretive path might be justly pursued. Yet this is likely best viewed not as a limitation, but rather, as an invitation for others to carry forward H.’s important work.