Nicolas de Cusa on God, Motion and the Transcendence of Contradictories

Metaphysics demands that we seek for the origin of existence beyond the conceptual categories with which we perceive and organise the world.  This is what is meant by the failure of all positive metaphysical theories, that we must look elsewhere for a solution that works. This may seem a dry and dusty analytical observation of use only to scholastics but this is far from being the case.

It would be the philosophical approach required by any apophatic theology, and as such provides a logical foundation for this form of theism. It may be argued that this is not theism, and this would be my view, but it hardly matters one way or the other.  There would an inconceivable phenomenon, call it what we will, that is our origin and existential foundation. About this phenomenon we can say nothing positive since to do so would be to mis-describe it. Thus it becomes indescribable, and with it the entire world.   It then becomes possible to say with no provisos, ‘Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical’.

This is a conclusion that can be reached in discursive philosophy with or without reference to God. Here is Nicolas de Cusa showing us by the use of a theistic language that experiment and theory will lead us to the same place.

Apart from thee, Lord, naught can exist. If, then, Thine essence pervade all things, so also doth thy sight, which is Thine essence. For even as no created thing can escape from its own proper essence, so neither can it be from Thine essence, which giveth essential being to all beings. . . .

Accordingly, Thou, Lord, seest all things and each thing at one and the same time, and movest with all that move, and standest with them that stand. And because there be some that move while others stand, Thou, Lord, dost stand and move at the same time, at the same time Thou dost proceed and rest. For if both motion and rest can be individuated at the same time in diverse beings, and if nought can exist apart from Thee, and no motion be apart from Thee, nor any rest; then Thou, Lord, art wholly present to all these things, and to each, at one at the same time. And yet Thou dost not move nor rest, since Thou art exalted above all, and freed from all that can be conceived or named.

Wherefore, Thou standest and proceedest, and yet at the same time dost not stand or proceed. . . . Wherefore I observed how needful it is for me to enter into the darkness, and to admit the coincidence of opposites, beyond all the grasp of reason. and there seek the truth, where impossibility meeteth me. . . .

Wherefore I give Thee thanks, my God, because Thou makest plain to me that there is none other way of approaching Thee than that which to all men, even the most learned philosophers, seemeth utterly inaccessible and impossible. For Thou hast shown me that Thou canst not be seen elsewhere than where impossibility meeteth and faces me. Thou hast inspired me, Lord, who art the Food of the strong, to do violence to myself, because impossibility coincideth with necessity, and I have learnt that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein Thou dost abide. The door whereof is guarded by the most proud spirit of Reason, and, unless he be vanquished, the way in will not lie open. Thus ‘tis beyond the coincidence of contradictories that Thou mayest be seen, and nowhere this side thereof.

Nicolas of Cusa (b. 1401),  The Vision of God

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8 Responses to Nicolas de Cusa on God, Motion and the Transcendence of Contradictories

  1. Roger says:


    Hi, again from Roger. This was a very interesting posting! Mr. de Cusa sure had some good insights for 600 years ago. It certainly seems true that an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” will involve seemingly contradictory thoughts. I guess it’s our job to try and figure out how to resolve those contradictions into a rational solution. Good post!
    Have a great holiday and new year!


  2. dondeg says:

    Hi Peter!

    I missed this when it came out! Glad I found it! And glad to see you found Nicholas. I heard of him from all people Lyndon LaRouche! But damn if de Cusa isn’t right on the mark. As you might recall, I cited him in Experience. Great stuff. I only wish Cantor took Cusa’s ideas into account. Then Cantor might have done totally different mathematics and not the vacuous stuff that Poincare so despised, and that titillates so many people today with all this transfinite nonsense.

    I’m glad you pointed out that this “understanding” can be reached by discursive philosophy. Not much really can be said after Nicholas said it. I love his term “learned ignorance”. And while its a purely aesthetic choice, I also prefer his term “maximum” to “God”, but they are the same as long was one knows what is meant.



    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Don – Glad you’re a fan of de Cusa. I find him pretty amazing. I wish I understood Cantor better but can’t follow him. Or perhaps I haven’t tried hard enough. It seems to me his approach suffers from the same basic set-theoretic paradox as that of Russell and Frege, but I’m rather woolly about the details. Would you be able to summarise Cantor’s mistake as you see it? Or would it require an essay? .

      • dondeg says:

        Rudy Rucker has a layman book about infinity that explains Cantor’s ideas – Infinity and the Mind. It’s useful for learning the math, but the philosophy is weak. Cantor came before Russel and Frege; set the stage for them actually. I’m specifically referring to the idea of transfinite numbers, that there are different “sizes” of infinity. Poincare hated this.

        Cantor used it, for example, to prove that the number of points in a line segment of X length equals the number of points in an area of X time X equals the number of points in a volume of X times X times X.

        The whole basis of this is that the continuum is made of points and that there are more points in the continuum than in the integers.

        It all seems very appealing on first learning the ideas. I was glamored by it for many years. It is only in reading critiques of these ideas I saw the other side of the coin. Poincare, Wittgenstein, Brouwer are a few of the post-cantor critics. Leibniz had ideas about it too, that Cantor ignored or didn’t take seriously.

        Anyway, I am sure you can see the problem right away in assuming the continuum is made of points.

        It is very interesting to me that Nicholas of Cusa seemed to get things correct right at the very dawn of the modern era. As you rightly say, he shows, using discursive language, that infinity is simply beyond the mind’s ability to grasp. Although some of his elaborations on this are primitive by today’s math standards, his basic ideas are really very solid and, at least in my estimation, stand up better than the Cantor/post-Cantorian ideas.

        Anyway, this should give you an idea of what I am talking about and some names to search and follow up on, especially Wittgenstein, who worked as Russel’s student on these issues for a time. Wittgenstein hated this stuff very much and had many cogent criticisms.

        I started a blog series on all this called “Cantor’s Dupes”, but I have not posted it yet. The first installment is included in the book Plane Talk Collected Writings 2013-2014, but I am still leery to make it public yet. I want to be fair to all sides and have a balanced take on all this and still not confident I am there yet. Weyl had a lot to say about this, as you know and I am still absorbing his, and others, ideas.

        Great stuff, Peter! For sure Nicholas of Cusa needs more publicity right now so am very glad to see you posting about him!

        Best of wishes!


  3. PeterJ says:

    Thanks for that Don. I’d agree that it does all seem to come down to the assumption that a continuum can be made of points. I wonder what keeps them apart.

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