De Docta Ignorantia and Cusanus’ Conception of GodJune 27, 2021
It is possible to learn Cusanus’s understanding of knowledge best from his work De Docta Ignorantia (Learned Ignorance). As mentioned above, Cusanus is shaken by a kind of introspection on the ship on his return journey from Istanbul to Venice, where he went in search of a reconciliation between the Eastern Church and Rome. This introspection enabled him to write his immediately mentioned work.
The work called De Docta Ignorantia essentially consists of three main books. The first book is about the maximum absolutus (Absolute Infinite), or God. The second book deals with the universe that emerged as a result of the Unlimited opening itself. The third book focuses more on theology and makes an inquiry about Jesus. As we have just stated, Maximus in the first book is God. Since Maximus is everything, it is not possible to speak of any existence that can transcend it and find the opportunity to exist beyond its limits. Therefore, the main subject in the work is the relationship of Maximus with the existence in the universe and the question of whether this interest can be known or not. In other words, Cusanus evaluates the relationship between truth, God and man in this work.
At the very beginning of the work (Part 1) Cusanus says that he observes that God has placed in all people a desire to know. However, our judgments of the world are far from fully grasping the truth that carries the world. Nicolaus Cusanus considered Aristotle to be the greatest obstacle to thought. Cusanus’s assertion of the feebleness of judgments that cannot bear the truth bears a Neoplatonist mark. Cusanus highlights the wisdom of Socrates in his work. According to him, Socrates knows nothing except his knowledge of his ignorance. Aristotle, too, in his First Philosophy (i.e. in his work titled Metaphysics. Aristotle’s work became known as Metaphysics as a result of the classification of Andronikos of Rhodes. However, Aristotle adopted the name “prote philosophia”, which can be translated as “first philosophy”). He likens our attempt to reveal the secrets of nature to an owl trying to look at the sun (De Docta Ignorantia, I, 1).
After what the ancients said so strongly, according to Cusanus, we must first recognize our ignorance. Putting it another way, Cusanus says it’s now time to know that we don’t know. If we can acquire our full knowledge of our ignorance, then we will rise to the state of learned ignorance. Thus, the more people know about their ignorance, the more they will realize that they have something to learn (De Docta Ignorantia, I, 1).
The work of learning ignorance is gradual. Based on the differing understandings among people, Cusanus says he will be interested in learning the highest degree of ignorance. Since this is related to the comprehension of the unlimited, he calls it “Maximus”. Maximus means “who cannot be greater than himself” (De Docta Ignorantia, I, 2). The ordinary mind moves from the known to the yet unknown. If the distance between the known, that is, the antecedent, and the unknown, that is, the conclusion, is small, then it is easy to make the inference. However, as the distance between them grows, the nature of the work becomes more difficult. If it is the distance between man and the unlimited, then the unlimited can never be reached, no matter how many steps are taken. For the distance between the unlimited and our starting point is unlimited. According to Cusanus, Maximus, the unlimited, coincides with Unity. Since unity exists independently of all correlations and contradictions, we can also call it Absolute Infiniteness. Since nothing can be opposed to the unlimited, it is also in everything (De Docta Ignorantia, I, 2; Maurer, 1982: 312).
In this case, it becomes impossible for mental effort to lead people to the limitless. The impossibility here is not only in terms of reaching the unlimited; but it also occurs when the truth in things is revealed. For what we call truth is not something less or more. Truth is an indivisible construct. However, in order to obtain the truth about things, the mind establishes relations between the premises and the consequences, thus trying to divide the unlimited. Nicolaus Cusanus likens the relationship between reason and truth to the relationship between a polygonal object and a circle. No matter how many edges we add to the polygon, it will never become identical to the circle. Likewise, no matter how close our minds try to approach the truth, it will never reach a level that conflicts with it (De Docta Ignorantia, I, 3; Maurer, 1982: 312).
The Absolute Limitless, that is, God, displays a character that transcends our understanding. This limited nature of human knowledge is only limited by the minds.