All things come to pass through conflict


The Sparring Antennae Galaxies

‘The counter-thrust brings together, and from tones at variance comes perfect attunement, and all things come to pass through conflict.’




Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13t

13.6.6 The cognition of absolute truth – God is a Proclean ‘syllogism’ (continued)

Plotinus asked ‘What art is there, what method, what discipline to bring us there where we must go?’1 and answered that it is not ‘all that coil of premises and conclusions called the art of reasoning’2 – that of Aristotelian and Stoic logic – but ‘authentic science’3, ‘supremely precious’4 Platonic dialectic, which deals not with propositions and rules, but with truths of difference and identity, motion and rest, knower and known5 – of unceasing negation in emanation from the source to return to it by a process of increasingly comprehensive conceptualisation, concluding in the absolute

It is the Method, or Discipline, that brings with it the power of pronouncing with final truth upon the nature and relation of things – what each is, how it differs from others, what common quality all have, to what Kind each belongs and in what rank each stands in its Kind and whether its Being is Real-Being, and how many Beings there are, and how many non-Beings to be distinguished from Beings.6

As did Plotinus, Cusanus7 and Hegel8 also rejected the ‘laws of thought’ (those of identity [a = a], non-contradiction [a thing cannot be both a and -a] and the excluded middle [either a or -a]) from their method of knowledge, making contradiction its centrepiece. In so doing, Cusanus set the precedent of freeing God’s omnipotence from qualification9

He believed that the highest mysteries of the Trinity couldn’t be attained as long as one held that opposites are mutually exclusive

The oppositeness of opposites is oppositeness without oppositeness, just as the End of finite things is an End without an end. You, then, 0 God, are the Oppositeness of opposites, because You are infinite. And because You are infinite, You are Infinity. In Infinity the oppositeness of opposites is present without oppositeness.10

He applied this subtle manner of thinking to the world

Now, hot things are originated from the beginning of heat. Therefore, the beginning of heat is not hot. Now, in the cold I see that which belongs to the same genus (as does the hot) but which is not the hot. The situation is similar regarding other contraries. Therefore, since in the one contrary the beginning of the other contrary is present, their transformations are circular, and there is a common subject for each contrary. Thus, you see how it is that receptivity is transformed into actuality.11

Hegel wrote

Positive and negative are supposed to express an absolute difference. The two however are at bottom the same: the name of either might be transferred to the other. …Positive and negative are therefore intrinsically conditioned by one another, and are only in relation to each other. …In opposition, the different is not confronted by any other, but by its other.12

Both recognised that contradiction is the moving principle of the world13

as against contradiction, identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.14

Cusanus also preceded Hegel in recognising, better than Eckhart, ‘how much depends on defining the relation between the terms and how little on the terms taken by themselves’15.

Without a theology of contradiction, God could only be worshipped as Father, not considered philosophically as infinitude. Since, for Cusanus and Hegel, God is the coincidence (the unity) of opposites and God is all things, all things including God could now be incorporated into their method – this considered ambivalently by Cusanus, the development of which consideration Hegel completed. As I have argued, they illustrated and conveyed metaphorically and mytho-poetically their Neoplatonic system through their use of the Trinitarian myth – Hegel doing so in an overtly non-Christian manner

For Cusanus, speculative philosophical thinking and the Christian faith merge into one. …that which has been conceived in terms of philosophical speculation, and which Cusanus regards as consistent with the thinking of the Greek philosophers, is suddenly identified, as though this were the most natural thing in the world, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.16

Magee wrote of ‘speculation’ and ‘dialectic’

Speculation, in fact, is reason in its ‘positive’ aspect. …Dialectic, for Hegel, is reason in its ‘negative’ aspect: it identifies contradictions inherent in the understanding’s view of things. What is involved in speculation, again, is insight into the whole – which is what actually makes possible the supersession of opposing terms, and of one standpoint (e.g a definition of the Absolute) by a more adequate one.17

Cusanus and Hegel knew that speculative truth can only be sought through contradiction

Hence, we notice here an important speculative consideration which, from the foregoing, can be inferred about the Maximum: viz., that the Maximum is such that in it the Minimum is the Maximum, and thus the Maximum infinitely and in every respect transcends all opposition.18

Cusanus considered how contradiction functions in the process of speculation, ‘utterly failing’ Aristotle on this point

Although more than all the other [philosophers] Aristotle is held to be the most careful and most acute reasoner, I think that he and all the others utterly failed in regard to one point. For since the beginnings are contraries, [those philosophers] failed to arrive at [a correct understanding of] that third, assuredly necessary, beginning [viz., privation]. This [failure occurred] because they did not believe it to be possible that contraries coincide in that [third] beginning, since contraries expel one another. Hence, from [a consideration of that] first principle which denies that contradictories can both be true at the same time, the Philosopher showed that, likewise, contraries cannot be present together.19

Not only are our concepts images of what God creates, speculative thought itself is a contracted reflection of infinite divine being.20 Cusanus’ exploration of concepts preceded Hegel’s more dynamic and integrated process of aufheben (see 11.1.1). Coincidentia oppositorum is

a state or condition in which opposites no longer oppose each other but fall together into a harmony, union, or conjunction…a unity of contrarieties overcoming opposition by convergence without destroying or merely blending the constituent elements…it…sets forth the way God works, the order of things in relation to God and to each other, and the manner by which humans may approach and abide in God21

Similarly, his neologism of God as ‘Not-other’, the aspects of which are both ‘negative’ (not one of finite, created others) and ‘positive’ (not other than any finite, created other or all of them and divine and infinite)

Not Other is not an other, nor is it other than any other, nor is it an other in an other—for no other reason than that it is Not Other, which can in no way be other, as if it something were lacking to it, as to an other. For an other which is other than something lacks that than which it is other. But Not Other, because it is not other than anything, does not lack anything nor can anything be outside it.22

Particularly, though ‘Not-Other’ can be thought, it cannot be conceived – like coincidentia oppositorum, it functions beyond the literal meaning of words.23

Redding linked Hegel to Cusanus in relation to the coincidence of opposites

(Hegel) again (my italics) follows a Neoplatonist precedent, that of Nicholas of Cusa: within ‘the One’ we have to think of opposites as coinciding.24

He adds in a note

Extracts from Bruno’s, De la Causa, which reproduced key arguments of Cusanus’ On Learned Ignorance concerning the identity of the absolute maxima and minima were appended to Jacobi’s Über die Lehre des Spinoza, and this seems (my italics) to be the transmission route for the Cusan conception of ‘coincidentia oppositorum’ into German Idealism.25

What Redding failed to add was that as well as discussing key aspects of Cusanus’ philosophy in that text, Bruno also referred to26 the ‘divine’ Cusanus (‘the Cusan’), ‘the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets’, relying on him as his guide (see 13.4). 

Both Cusanus and Hegel had the same profound appreciation for contradiction and both took the same pleasure in speculatively exploring its complexity and manifestation. Both saw it as not only the engine of the world but, together with ‘speculative’ philosophy, the method of knowledge.

Yet even though Cusanus was the Neoplatonist who most thoroughly explored, prior to Hegel, the relationship between contradiction, concepts and speculation and how to convey his ‘conjectures’ on that basis, positioning coincidentia oppositorum as the way to God, rather than those of silence, apophasis and predication, his philosophising remained programmatic rather than, as was Hegel’s, systematic. Hopkins wrote

Nicholas advances considerations that cohere with his overall viewpoint in De Visione Dei, but these considerations do not connect into a chain in which each link of reasoning is presumed to depend necessarily upon the preceding links.27

and Jaspers

One defect in Cusanus’ philosophising is that he does not distinguish between contradiction and such related concepts as difference, polarity, and opposition. Nor does he put his thinking to test categorically and systematically (we have to go to Hegel to gain clarity on this point). He sometimes identifies opposition (oppositio) with contradiction (contradictio).28

Hegel recognised that the systematic development of Cusanus’ speculative use of coincidentia oppositorum, of his focus on the unfolding and enfolding of concepts in the triadic structure of the Neoplatonic model and his metaphorical style – mytho-poetic circumscription in Hegel’s hands – was the way to best serve his own philosophical purposes, completing the growth within idealism of the potential of Neoplatonism and thereby preparing the epistemological ground for the continuation of its development within materialism.



1. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., I.3.1
2. Ibid., I.3.4
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., I.3.5
5. ‘Thus the Primals (the first ‘Categories’) are seen to be: Intellectual-Principle; Existence; Difference; Identity: we must include also Motion and Rest: Motion provides for the intellectual act, Rest preserves identity as Difference gives at once a Knower and a Known, for, failing this, all is one, and silent.’ Ibid., V.1.4
6. Ibid., I.3.4
7. ‘Cusanus’ theology abandons Scholastic logic, the logic of generic concepts, dominated by the principle of contradiction and of the excluded middle; but it demands in its place a new type of mathematical logic, one that does not exclude but, in fact, requires the possibility of the coincidence of opposites, and requires the convergence of the Absolute-Greatest with the Absolute-Smallest as the firm principle and the necessary vehicle of progressing knowledge.’, Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, op. cit., 14
8. ‘The several propositions which are set up as absolute laws of thought, are, therefore, more closely considered, opposed to one another, they contradict one another and mutually sublate themselves. If everything is identical with itself, then it is not different, not opposed, has no ground. Or, if it is assumed that no two things are the same, that is, everything is different from everything else, then A is not equal to A, nor is A opposed to A, and so on. The assumption of any of these propositions rules out the assumption of the others. The thoughtless consideration of them enumerates them one after the other, so that there does not appear to be any relation between them…(it ignores) their other moment, positedness or their determinateness as such which sweeps them on into transition and into their negation.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 411
9. ‘For Cusanus, the law of contradiction itself qualifies God’s freedom and omnipotence. By making God the coincidence of opposites, he nullifies the law of contradiction as a criterion for God’s potentia absoluta and thereby extends his conception of God’s absolute power beyond that of the scholastics.’, Moffitt Watts, Nicolaus Cusanus, A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man, op. cit., 46-47
10. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op, cit., 13,55, 705
11. Nicholas of Cusa, De beryllo (‘On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses’), op. cit., 46-47, 813
12. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 173
13. ‘Instead of speaking by the maxim of Excluded Middle (which is the maxim of abstract understanding) we should rather say: Everything is opposite. Neither in heaven nor in earth, neither in the world of mind nor of nature, is there anywhere such an abstract ‘either-or’ as the understanding maintains. Whatever exists is concrete, with difference and opposition in itself. …Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world’, Ibid., 174
14. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, 439
15. Louis Dupré, ‘The Question of Pantheism from Eckhart to Cusanus’ in Casarella, Ed., Cusanus, The Legacy of Learned Ignorance, op. cit., 74-88, 80
16. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, op. cit., 145, 148
17. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 221
18. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., I,16,43, 25
19. Nicholas of Cusa, De beryllo (‘On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses’), op. cit., 40, 810
20. ‘Our conjectures are said to arise in our mind, in the same way that the created external world arises in the infinite divine ground. Speculative thought is thus itself a contracted reflection of the infinite divine being.’, Weeks, German Mysticism – From Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History, op. cit., 115
21. Bond, in Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings, op. cit., 335-336
22. Nicholas of Cusa, De li non aliud (‘On Not-Other’), 1461-2, 6,20, 1118, quoted by Clyde Lee Miller, ‘Cusanus, Nicolaus [Nicolas of Cusa]’, op. cit.
23.Not-other may be called the Absolute Concept, which is indeed seen mentally but which, notwithstanding, is not conceived. …since every concept is not other than a concept, in every concept Not-other is whatever is conceived. But, without doubt, the concept Not-other remains inconceivable.’, Nicholas of Cusa, De li non aliud (‘On Not-Other’), 1461-2, 20,94, 1152-1153
24. Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, op. cit., 153
25. Ibid. Hegel used ‘coincidence’ in his philosophy: ‘the inseparability of the Notion’s determinations is posited; for as negation of the negation it contains their opposition and at the same time contains it in its ground or unity, the effected coincidence of each with its other.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 620; ‘Truth…lies in the coincidence of the object with itself, that is, with its notion.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 237
26. As he also does in The Ash Wednesday Supper/La Cena de le ceneri in which he also cited De docta ignorantia. I repeat that Hodgson wrote Hegel was familiar with Bruno: ‘Hegel was familiar with Bruno through Schelling’s work as well as that of J.G.Buhle and F.H.Jacobi’, Hodgson, Ed., G.W.F. Hegel, Theologian of the Spirit, op. cit., 274. See 13.4.1
27. Hopkins in Nicholas of Cusa’s Dialectical Mysticism, Text, Translation and Interpretive Study of De Visione Dei, op. cit., 43
28. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, op. cit., 258

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

Aristotle and Nicholas of Cusa: to be and/or not to be, that is the question

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet ‘…she described her character as “manly and resolute, but nonetheless thoughtful…[he] thinks before he acts, a trait indicative of great strength and great spiritual power”.’ (Wikipedia)

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet ‘…she described her character as “manly and resolute, but nonetheless thoughtful…[he] thinks before he acts, a trait indicative of great strength and great spiritual power”.’ (Wikipedia)

‘Now it is also the case that there can be nothing intermediate to an assertion and a denial. We must either assert or deny any single predicate of any single subject. The quickest way to show this is by defining truth and falsity. Well, falsity is the assertion that that which is is not or that that which is not is and truth is the assertion that that which is is and that that which is not is not. Thus anyone who asserts anything to be or not to be is either telling the truth or telling a falsehood. On the other hand, neither that which is is said either not to be or to be nor is that which is not.

And if there were an intermediate of contradictory statements, then it would either be like grey between black and white or like the non-man-non-horse between man and horse.’

Aristotle The Metaphysics, Gamma 7 1011b, Trans. and Introduction by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin, London, 2004, 107


‘I want to tell you of one more thing that I see to be marvellous above other things. …since all things are singular, they are both similar, because they are singular, and dissimilar, because they are singular; (and they are not similar, because they are singular), and not dissimilar, because they are singular. A corresponding point holds regarding same and different, equal and unequal, singular and plural, one and many, even and odd, concordant and discordant, and the likes, although this (claim) seems absurd to the philosophers who adhere – even in theological matters – to the principle that each thing either is or is not (the case).’

Nicholas of Cusa, De Venatione Sapientiae (On the Pursuit of Wisdom), Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations, Six Latin Texts Translated into English, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998, 1320-21



Breaking News! Nicholas of Cusa failed Aristotle in First Philosophy!

Aristotle portrayed in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle as a scholar of the 15th century AD.

Aristotle portrayed in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle as a scholar of the 15th century AD.

NICHOLAS: I laud your remarks. And I add that also in another manner Aristotle closed off to himself a way for viewing the truth. For, as we mentioned earlier, he denied that there is a Substance of substance or a Beginning of beginning. Thus, he would also have denied that there is a Contradiction of contradiction. But had anyone asked him whether he saw contradiction in contradictories, he would have replied, truly, that he did. Suppose he were thereupon asked: “If that which you see in contradictories you see antecedently (just as you see a cause antecedently to its effect), then do you not see contradiction without contradiction?” Assuredly, he could not have denied that this is so. For just as he saw that the contradiction in contradictories is contradiction of the contradictories, so prior to the contradictories he would have seen Contradiction before the expressed contradiction (even as the theologian Dionysius saw God to be, without opposition, the Oppositeness of opposites; for prior to [there being any] opposites it is not the case that anything is opposed to oppositeness). But even though the Philosopher failed in first philosophy, or mental philosophy, nevertheless in rational and moral [philosophy] he wrote many things very worthy of complete praise. Since these things do not belong to the present speculation, let it suffice that we have made the preceding remarks about Aristotle.

Nicholas of Cusa, De Li Non Aliud (‘On God as Not-Other’), 1461-2, in Nicholas of Cusa on God as Not-other, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1999, 1108-1166, 89, 1150



Engels on Hegel: part 3 The end of philosophy?


With all philosophers it is precisely the “system” which is perishable; and for the simple reason that it springs from an imperishable desire of the human mind — the desire to overcome all contradictions. But if all contradictions are once and for all disposed of, we shall have arrived at so-called absolute truth — world history will be at an end. And yet it has to continue, although there is nothing left for it to do — hence, a new, insoluble contradiction. As soon as we have once realized — and in the long run no one has helped us to realize it more than Hegel himself — that the task of philosophy thus stated means nothing but the task that a single philosopher should accomplish that which can only be accomplished by the entire human race in its progressive development — as soon as we realize that, there is an end to all philosophy in the hitherto accepted sense of the word. One leaves alone “absolute truth”, which is unattainable along this path or by any single individual; instead, one pursues attainable relative truths along the path of the positive sciences, and the summation of their results by means of dialectical thinking. At any rate, with Hegel philosophy comes to an end; on the one hand, because in his system he summed up its whole development in the most splendid fashion; and on the other hand, because, even though unconsciously, he showed us the way out of the labyrinth of systems to real positive knowledge of the world.

Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886


Full text at Marxists Internet Archive


Some Troubling Words For Those Who Crave Stasis: From the Quill of a Concealed Priest


‘But it is one of the fundamental prejudices of logic as hitherto understood and of ordinary thinking, that contradiction is not so characteristically essential and immanent a determination as identity; but in fact, if it were a question of grading the two determinations and they had to be kept separate, then contradiction would have to be taken as the profounder determination and more characteristic of essence. For as against contradiction, identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, (Vol. I The Objective Logic) Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 439


Image source

Hegel the Poet, on the Poetry of the World: Quantity and Quality

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 5.10.03 PM

‘At first, then, quantity as such appears in opposition to quality; but quantity is itself a quality, a purely self-related determinateness distinct from the determinateness of its other, from quality as such. But quantity is not only a quality; it is the truth of quality itself, the latter having exhibited its own transition into quantity. Quantity, on the other hand…is…quality itself in such a manner that apart from this determination there would no longer be any quality as such. The positing of the totality requires the double transition, not only of the one determinateness into its other, but equally the transition of this other, its return, into the first. …quality is contained in quantity, but this is still a one-sided determinateness. That the converse is equally true, namely, that quantity is contained in quality and is equally only a sublated determinateness, this results from the second transition – the return into the first determinateness. This observation on the necessity of the double transition is of great importance throughout the whole compass of scientific method.’

 G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, (Vol. I The Objective Logic) Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 323


A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Six

Frede wrote that the skeptic ‘thinks of himself as following Socrates…What I want to suggest is that Arcesilaus and his followers thought of themselves as just following Socratic practice’54 They may have thought that, but their approach was vastly different to that of Socrates.

Although Socrates relentlessly questioned others and stated that he knew nothing, he never said that the truth could not be known. Rather, his life was committed to what was an uncompromising essentialist pursuit, and he gave his life for it. Skepticism, on the other hand, is inherently conservative.

Refusing to ‘take a position’ on the truth of their views, the skeptic lives according to the laws and customs of their society. Empiricus wrote ‘we live in accordance with everyday observances, without holding opinions…By the handing down of customs and laws, we accept, from an everyday point of view, that piety is good and impiety bad.’55 Montaigne expressed it more colourfully ‘“since I am not capable of choosing, I accept other people’s choice and stay in the position where God put me.”’56

The relationship between skepticism and Neoplatonism (the great hidden – and when raised, denied – influence in philosophy), particularly from the early modern period requires research. In his book, Popkin several times mentioned Neoplatonism and Nicholas of Cusa and with regard to a 1652 Dutch study of skepticism in which Cusanus was discussed, he referred to him as a ‘modern skeptic.’57 In his introduction to Montaigne’s essays, Screech also referred to Cusanus.

In her 1935 essay on Montaigne and Melville, Camille La Bossière stated that Montaigne owned a copy of the 1576 edition of Cusanus’ single most important treatise De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). Montaigne’s skepticism is inseparable from his religious perspective which he powerfully exemplified in the closing section of his Apology, quoting at length from Plutarch and Seneca.

His adopted son summarised this ‘The only possible way of knowing God is to know him negatively, knowing what he is not. Positively, “True knowledge of God is a complete ignorance of Him. To approach God is to be aware of the inaccessible light and to be absorbed by it.”’58

The materialist acknowledges the importance of skepticism (doubt, self-criticism), but this is a skepticism which is not absolutised to the point of agnosticism and which recognises that theorising about the world is always a reflection of the world in thought and therefore must be anchored in the world, as the key element of cognition. In science this is the ‘the scientific method.’

Philosophical skepticism distinguishes between us and the world – in its prioritising of consciousness over objective reality through its concepts ‘mind’ and a ‘truth’ which is formal and absolute. In its treatment of our senses and reason. In its response to appearance as a barrier to knowledge rather than its entrance. In its denial of causality and inability to understand contradiction and its effect – change.

Philosophical skepticism fails to recognise and acknowledge that we have developed in order to know the world, as every part of our material structure, on the basis of engagement with the world, is the most astonishing evidence of. We are of the world (matter), will never leave it, and will vanish back into it. The very self-doubt that made philosophical skepticism so useful as a weapon makes it so useful ideologically. As Paul Lafargue wrote of the workingman’s sausage

‘The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.

The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble…In order to know an object, man must first verify whether his senses deceive him or not…The chemists have gone deeper – they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves. The God of the Christians, if he existed and if he had created the world, could do no more.’59



54. ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ op. cit., 258

55. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 9

56. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 52 For Montaigne, Pyrrhonism annihilates man’s ‘judgement to make more room for faith; neither disbelieving nor setting up any doctrine against the common observances; humble, obedient, teachable, zealous; a sworn enemy of heresy…He is a blank tablet prepared to take from the finger of God such forms as he shall be pleased to engrave on it.’ ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ op. cit., 187

57. Ibid., 162. Also ‘Prior to the period I shall deal with, there are some indications of a sceptical motif, principally among the antirational theologians, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian. This theological movement, culminating in the West in the work of Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century, employed many of the sceptical arguments in order to undermine confidence in the rational approach to religious knowledge and truth.’ xix. Skepticism is not the same as apophaticism – the primary difference being that where the skeptic holds that the truth cannot be known, the apophaticist holds that while the truth (meaning God) cannot be known linguistically, through ‘reason’, it (He) can be known (attained) intuitively. Cusanus wrote with profound foresight about the world.

58. Ibid., 58 Popkin added ‘Once having joined the negative theologian’s contention that God is unknowable because he is infinite to the skeptic’s claim that God is unknowable because of man’s inability to know anything, Charron employed this double-barrelled fideism to attack the atheists.’ 58-9

59. Paul Lafargue, ‘Le matérialisme de Marx et l’ idéalisme de Kant,’ Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900

A Materialist Critique of Skepticism: Part Five

Empiricus wrote ‘Scepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgement and afterwards to tranquility.’41 For the skeptic, contradictory appearances – which particularly Empiricus documented at length – end their enquiry, but for the materialist they prompt investigation.

Skepticism fails to recognise the dialectical nature of reality – that A does not exist without not-A and that it is through the cognition of this relationship that the world is known. Contradiction is the very doorway into the matter, into matter, and the matter’s relative [to a theoretical absolute] resolution). Hegel wrote: ‘contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.’42

The centrality to skeptical argumentation of the prevalence of contradictory appearances – even though, for them this supposedly led to the desired end of ataraxia43 – contributed to the development of dialectical materialism.

Directly related to the skeptical foil of absolute truth is the skeptics’ inability to correctly theorise change or in the example of Montaigne, accept it.44 Of skin colour Empiricus wrote ‘the colour of our skin is seen as different in warm air and in cold, and we cannot say what our colour is like in its nature but only what it is like as observed together with each of these.’45

Montaigne, desiring that which is ‘beyond change’ wrote ‘Oh God, how bound we are to the loving-kindness of our sovereign Creator for making our belief grow up out of the stupidities of such arbitrary and wandering devotions, establishing it on the changeless foundation of his holy Word!’46

Montaigne was profoundly sensitive to change and its implications, quoting from Plutarch near the end of his Apology: ‘(the nature of the world) is always to flow…all things are subject to pass from change to change, Reason is baffled if it looks for a substantial existence in them, since it cannot apprehend a single thing which subsists permanently, because everything is either coming into existence…or beginning to die before it is born.’47 For the materialist, change is the effect of contradiction and involves every interaction and motion.

The history of skepticism is one of vested interests. Empiricus had a vested interest in portraying the New Academy as dogmatic in relation to his Pyrrhonism. Frede points to Augustine’s criticism of skepticism in Contra Academicos, reinforcing the perception, after Cicero, that skepticism equated with a simple dogmatism.48

In the medieval period skepticism was used to reject Aristotelian science and to argue for the need for faith and revelation.49 It was used by both sides against the other during the Reformation/Counter-Reformation.50 The outstanding (for the success of its effect) example of this is Descartes’ Meditations.

Popkin, noting a review of the traditional interpretation of Descartes 51 wrote that the ‘basis for a complete scepticism was provided in order to shock the audience and get them to seek for absolute certainty.’52

Descartes pursued doubt to its extremity and emerged with the certainty that God was his anchor – in both the metaphysical and sensory realms. In his Meditations Descartes sought, against the Reformation and the revolution in science (to which he contributed), to establish subjective certainty as the objective truth of the Catholic church.53

Part five/to be continued…


41. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 4

42. G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 439

43. The dilemma of Buridan’s ass is a counter-example…

44. ‘All three forms of Hellenistic philosophy share the same goal, although each strives to achieve it in a different way. Stoic immovability, Epicurean apathy, and skeptical imperturbability are all versions of the divine stasis and thus are attempts to escape the temporality and changeability that are integral to the human condition.’ It should be remarked – and the world. Anne Hartle, ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, Ed., Ullrich Langer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 183-206, online, 196

45. Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Scepticism, op. cit., 32

46. ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, op. cit., 652. ‘What is it then which truly is? That which is eternal – meaning that which has never been born; which will never have an end; to which Time can never bring any change.’ Ibid., 682

47. Ibid., 680

48. ‘The sceptic’s two kinds of assent and the question of the possibility of knowledge’ op. cit., 273-274

49. Ibid., 276

50. ‘The employment of Pyrrhonism both as a means of destroying the theological opponent and as a defence of one’s own faith appears in the writings of some of the major figures of the Counter-Reformation in France.’ Ibid., 66, ‘The intellectual crisis brought on by the Reformation coincided…with the rediscovery and revival of the arguments of the ancient sceptics, and so scepticism was available as a means for combatting the innovations of the reformers. …the traditional, i.e., Catholic side finds an ally in scepticism, especially in the skeptical determination to submit to custom. This solution might be characterised as “conformist fideism” or “skeptical fideism.”’ ‘Montaigne and Scepticism’ op. cit., 185-86

51. ‘Although the traditional interpretation of Descartes saw him as the scientific enemy of Scholasticism and orthodoxy fighting to found a new era of intellectual freedom and adventure, this is gradually giving way to a more conservative interpretation of Descartes as a man who tried to reinstate the medieval outlook in the face of Renaissance novelty, and a thinker who sought to discover a philosophy adequate for the Christian worldview in light of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.’ The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, op. cit., 143

52. Ibid., 147

53. ‘The marriage of the Cross of Christ and the doubts of Pyrrho was the perfect combination to provide the ideology of the French Counter-Reformation.’; ‘Descartes, in the tradition of the greatest medieval minds, sought to provide this basis by securing the superstructure, man’s natural knowledge, to the strongest possible foundation, the all-powerful, eternal God.’ Ibid., 51, 147

My Comment on ‘Nicholas of Cusa and the Instruction of Ignorance’

From ABC Radio National 12.04.14

Your treatment of Cusanus from the perspective of bourgeois ideology – interspersed with nineteen product placements, appropriately detailed for those keen to make a purchase – was very interesting. Perspectivism, reconciliation, the acknowledgement and acceptance of difference and diversity… True, but why ‘neo-Platonic’ once and ‘Plotinus’ never? Could Inigo Bocken really believe that the reason why Cusanus is known as a mystic is because he had an aptitude for religious paradox? Cusanus was a Christian Neoplatonist. What are you collectively afraid of?

Now that the ideological caravans of modernism and post-modernism have run out of steam, what next? Mysticism? But this is a very hot potato – for two reasons:
– the primary Western form – Neoplatonism – has been treated by generations of academics as the pornography of modern Western philosophy, even as its Siren call has been eagerly responded to, particularly by male philosophers, and its profound influence on their work dissembled about or denied. To explore mysticism in this regard threatens to undermine gods, expose lies, damage careers and lay bare a cultural arrogance and self-delusion that we in the West are the champions of ‘Reason’ while others stare at their navels or are obsessed with filial piety
– as Marx recognised, its contradictory core is nothing but revolutionary. It rings the bell for the passing of all and everything but matter in motion itself – it speaks of a mobile infinity…’in some strange way’

No sooner did you present this genius and humanist to us than you buried him in the very academicism he despised and reacted against. Your speakers have sought to contain and gut the subject and bleed the passion that has inspired so much.

I think of Morawski’s definition of ideology: a system of belief…delimited by interests.

Philip Stanfield