188.8.131.52 ‘Understanding’, ‘reason’, finitude and infinity
I will now go over and expand on my initial discussion at 4. of the difference between Hegel’s Verstand and Vernunft, sourced in the Enneads as discursive analysis and the reason of contemplation (the final stage of which, for the Neoplatonist, becomes ‘pure vision’), which Cusanus knew in turn as ratio and intellectus1.
The first pertains to the senses and excludes contradiction thereby dissolving relationships, merely distinguishing between things (e.g. the antithesis between infinity and finitude) and identifying only multiplicity. It draws inferences on the basis of non-contradiction
reason denies that there is an enfolding of opposites, and it affirms the unattainability of enfolded opposites…the root of all rational assertions is the following: viz., that a coincidence of opposites is not attainable.2
The latter functions on the basis of the unity of opposites, presupposing the self-movement of ‘mind’ unfolding in the process of its thinking.
That unity of opposites is reflected even in the name of Cusanus’ principle of ‘learned ignorance’ which principle exemplifies how those opposites ‘coincide’.
Where contradiction is a barrier for the understanding, for Cusanus, true reason’s grasp of contradiction and its necessity is the means by which the philosopher, in humility, makes their way to the wall of Paradise, their intellectus going beyond to the vision of God, while for Hegel it is the thoroughly explicated engine of a complete system, the pinnacle of which, again, is that same ultimate apprehension.
Of particular importance (on which I will soon develop), where the former reason works with bounded, defined concepts and judgements, the latter works with concepts which have their meaning in their inter-relationships – most importantly, that between infinity and the finite
through a movement of reason, which is much lower than the intellect, names are bestowed for distinguishing between things. But since reason cannot leap beyond contradictories: as regards the movement of reason, there is not a name to which another name is not opposed. Therefore, as regards the movement of reason: plurality or multiplicity is opposed to oneness.3
Where the act of understanding is that of finitude because it addresses objects as though they are distinct and self-sufficient, thereby taking them out of context and treating them abstractly, the higher ‘reason’ – intellectus or Vernunft – is speculative.
Where intellectus explores the contradictions in conceptual relationships, Vernunft, a most important further development on this, explores those conceptual relationships in their dialectical development. It treats objects as ‘determinate’, showing the ‘totality’ of relations that conditioned them.
While Neoplatonism has undergone development – clarification as much as anything – it has always pursued the mystical merging of knower, knowing and known, of subject and its object, leading to infinite and absolute truth. Towards this,
the main point is to distinguish the genuine Notion of infinity from spurious infinity, the infinite of reason from the infinite of the understanding; yet the latter is the finitised infinite, and it will be found that in the very act of keeping the infinite pure and aloof from the finite, the infinite is only made finite.4
1. ‘Nicholas’s distinction between ratio (reason) and intellectus (understanding) —the latter being the higher mental faculty—has been thought to resemble, in relevant respects, Kant’s distinction between Verstand (understanding) and Vernunft (reason), so that for the most part nowadays the Germans translate Cusa’s word “ratio” by “Verstand” and his word “intellectus” by “Vernunft”…Nicholas claims that the principle of noncontradiction applies only at the level of ratio, not at the level of intellectus.’ Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, op. cit., 15. Kant’s relationship with Neoplatonism is yet another, not only of philosophers, that has been suppressed in the name of patriarchal capitalist ideology and white, Western supremacism. ↩
2. Nicholas of Cusa, De coniecturis (‘On Speculations’), op. cit., II, 1, 76, 200 ↩
3. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., I,24,76, 40 ↩
4. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 137 ↩