John Bussanich

title.none: Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa on Wisdom and Knowledge (Bussanich)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.001 97.02.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Bussanich, University of New Mexico,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Hopkins, Jasper. Nicholas of Cusa on Wisdom and Knowledge. Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1996. Pp. x, 543. $35.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-938-06046-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.01

Hopkins, Jasper. Nicholas of Cusa on Wisdom and Knowledge. Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1996. Pp. x, 543. $35.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-938-06046-5.

Reviewed by:

John Bussanich
University of New Mexico

Ernst Cassirer believed that the thought of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) was a focal point of the fifteenth century. Even if he exaggerated, Nicholas is a thinker who deserves more attention than he has received, especially when it comes to making his philosophical, theological, and scientific writings available in accurate translations. Jasper Hopkins is to be congratulated for his persistence in advancing our understanding of Nicholas' difficult thought and also for translating several works into philosophically precise and readable English. Previously he has published Nicholas of Cusa's Metaphysic of Contraction (1983), Nicholas of Cusa's Dialectical Mysticism: Text, Translation, and Interpretive Study of De Visione Dei (Second Edition 1988), A Concise Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa (Third Edition 1986), and A Miscellany on Nicholas of Cusa (1994), all by the Banning Press.

The present collection contains the Latin text with facing English translation (355 pages) of Nicholas' Idiota de Sapientia, Idiota de Mente, Idiota de Staticis Experimentis ('On Experiments Done with Weight-Scales'), and the Compendium. Accompanying the texts and translations are a highly informative introduction (81 pages), substantial endnotes (71 pages), and an excellent bibliography. There is, alas, no word or subject index.

The central themes of the treatises collected here and the focus of Hopkins' critical remarks are, as the title of the volume suggests, Nicholas' views on the nature of wisdom and his theory of knowledge. In the introduction Hopkins first concisely presents the major influence on Nicholas' conception of wisdom, viz. Aquinas' synthesis of Augustinianism and Aristotelianism (9). The rest of the long introduction is devoted to summarizing Nicholas' theory of knowledge, in the course of which Hopkins helpfully quotes at length both from the treatises included in the present volume and, especially in the notes, from other treatises. In conjunction with these generally excellent outlines Hopkins critically examines -- and systematically rebuts -- the most influential interpretations of Nicholas' epistemology. In light of the size of the introduction and endnotes this matter comprises virtually a monograph on Nicholas' theory of knowledge. I will focus my attention on these parts of the book.

Hopkins has a precise grasp of the mind of this speculative theologian who exhibited strong mystical tendencies. Central to Nicholas' epistemology and theology is the distinctive manner in which he construes the theological datum that the human mind is ignorant of God's nature: for Nicholas there can be no relation between the finite and the infinite. Hopkins articulates very well Nicholas' heavy dependence on Aquinas as well as his significant departures from him. Thus, the incommensurability of the finite and the infinite amounts to a rejection of the Thomistic "analogia entis". Hopkins rightly stresses that in Nicholas' speculative and mystical theology one finds greater emphasis on negative theology than in Aquinas. His mystical inclinations are evident in the reliance on dialectical paradoxes: Eternal Wisdom is "untasteable by any tasting" and yet it "is tasted in everything tasteable" so that it is "tasted untasteably through our affections" (13). The basic character of this dialectic of transcendence and immanence is presented well by Hopkins. Perhaps if he had more space available to him he could have presented the earlier history of these ideas among both pagan and Christian Neoplatonists and how they shaped Nicholas' thought.

Hopkins is quite eager to clear the field of scholarly errors. Generally, he is fair to his opponents, quoting them at length and also supplying passages from Nicholas' treatises which supply him with ammunition for his refutations. What follows are the highlights of these critical counter-attacks. Not only does Nicholas insist that the mind is incapable of grasping the divine nature but he also asserts that the mind can't really know the essences of finite objects either. Hopkins criticizes those who because of these views consider Nicholas a radical skeptic. He points out that Nicholas does not deny that there is empirical knowledge but instead believes that it is inexact. Hopkins is correct, I think, in maintaining that the skeptical tendencies of a mystical philosopher are quite different from those of non-transcendetalist thinkers. On all these points Nicholas' views are very much in line with those of pagan and Christian Neoplatonists before him.

Hopkins next takes up a series of philosophical issues that in his view have been seriously misinterpreted by Cusanus scholars. Hopkins demonstrates clearly that Kantian and idealist accounts of Nicholas' theories of time, perception, and concept-formation are based on incomplete and tendentious readings of the texts. On the first topic Hopkins easily shows that for Nicholas the existence of time is not dependent on human minds (21ff.). (In this section more extensive comparison with Augustine's theory of time would have been instructive.) On perception (26ff.) and on concept-formation (31ff.) Hopkins attacks those who have argued that Nicholas' putative idealism was seriously at odds with his Aristotelianism and Thomism, e.g., the view that "in our reason there is nothing that was not previously in our sense." A longer extract will convey the extent and cogency of Hopkins' counter-attack:We have been told that Nicholas's theory fosters nominalism; that it anticipates Kant's transcendental idealism or even nineteenth-century German Idealism; that according to the Cusan theory mind unfolds all concepts from itself and uses these to measure sense-data; that mind creates time; that mind knows only its own images and mental contents, not extramental objects themselves; that the intellect is not subject to causal influences from what is ontologically inferior to it; that because a thing's quiddity is said not to be knowable precisely, critical realism is abandoned and all putative empirical knowledge is, fundamentally, poetic knowledge; that because all knowledge aims at self-knowledge, the human mind cannot escape epistemological subjectivism, cannot escape 'immanent idealism', so that any so-called empirical object is an almost pure fluidity that assimilates itself to the mind's categories. (72-73)

In rejecting these idealist interpretations Hopkins concludes, sensibly I think, that Nicholas is intellectually closer to the epistemology of Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas than to that of Kant and Hegel (73).

Two of Hopkins' points illustrate his insight into Nicholas' epistemology. First, some of Nicholas' remarks about the creative, or constructive, powers of the mind have been wrested from their theological contexts and misconstrued. Certain passages have been misapplied to the workings of the individualized, immanent mind which in fact refer "only to the resurrection state of the intellect of believers alone" (58), i.e., the cognitive intuition in the future state of deificatio (68). Second, when Nicholas states that the human mind "examines all things and creates the concepts and likenesses of all things" he is not advancing a theory about the mind's transcendentally productive powers but rather, H. argues (70), Nicholas explains how concepts are constructed by the mind out of its own contents which in turn derive from perception. Hopkins is certainly right about this; and he might have added that this is a very Aristotelian theory of sense-perception and concept- formation.

The final section of the introduction discusses the influence of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) on Nicholas. Hopkins shows Nicholas's strong empirical interests in scientific experiment, basic physics, and astrophysics. Like Roger Bacon, Nicholas emphasized observational and experiential knowledge (80), though these tendencies must be seen from within the metaphysical perspective where God is the earth's center and circumference. In Hopkins' judgment it is clear that "his empirical strategies did not anticipate the scientific method but only supplemented, in a preparatory way, medieval speculative metaphysics" (81). He concludes with stimulating remarks on how Nicholas "opened the door to Modernity without ever crossing the threshold" (83). I would add that Nicholas of Cusa is worthy of attention at least in part because he did not cross that threshold.

Anyone interested in the thought of Cusanus will be grateful to Hopkins both for his fine translations and for his distinctive and powerfully argued interpretations of his theory of knowledge.