Prolegomena to Nicholas of cusa's conception of the relationship of faith to reason


Is there any such thing as the Cusan view of the relationship between faith and reason? That is, does Nicholas present us with clear concepts of fides and ratio and with a unique and consistent doctrine regarding their interconnection? If he does not, then the task before us is surely an impossible one: viz., the task of finding, describing, and setting in perspective a doctrine that never at all existed. For even with spectacles made of beryl stone or through the looking glass of Lewis Carroll, we could not descry the totally nonexistent. Four lines of argument purport to show that the task before us is fundamentally impossible. 1. First of all, it may be argued (a) that Nicholas of Cusa can have a coherent doctrine of faith and reason only if he has a generally coherent theory of knowledge and (b) that since his theory of knowledge is generally incoherent, so too must be the aforesaid doctrine, which is an intrinsic part of the theory of knowledge. Let us grant—for the sake of the argument—the disputable logic of this reasoning, and let us focus on the question of whether Nicholas does or does not have a viable general theory of knowledge. Many philosophers judge the theory to be unviable. For example, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg writes: “I will not make what I believe would have to be a futile attempt at a unitary interpretation of the Cusan theory of knowledge. Here in particular the inner consistency of his philosophical accomplishment is doubtful. The reason for this can be specified: it lies, again, in the inability to deal with or successfully to evade the consequences of nominalism.”2 Other philosophers are quick to agree that Cusa’s epistemology consists of a host of glaring contradictions: Cusa’s theory of representative perception is said to be incompatible with his doctrine of homo mensura—i.e., with his doctrine that man is the measure of the reality that is perceived and conceived by him. Cusa’s notion that empirical concepts are abstracted from perceptual and imaginative images is asserted to be contradicted by his further claim that all concepts are derived a pri- ori from the mind itself..



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Jasper Hopkins
University of Minnesota

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