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Beyond the impasse

Review: Johannes Hoff, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa (Eerdmans, 2013)

By Simon Ravenscroft

In The Analogical Turn Johannes Hoff seeks to chart a way between the “univocity” of modern scientific reasoning and the “equivocity” of postmodern popular culture, by — as the title suggests – making a return to analogy. To this end he sets his critical sights on two foundations of modern science and culture: subjective autonomy, the idea that we determine ourselves; and a representationalist idea of space, the notion that we can represent our world exhaustively via a mathematically generated “picture” of it. Hoff suggests that these principles have their origin in shifts, not in scientific thinking (ironically), but in artistic thinking, specifically the 1425 demonstration of linear perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi, and its theoretical exposition a decade later by Leon Battista Alberti.

Enter at this point the German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. Familiar with these developments, Cusa put forward around the same time a “more rigorous account of the early modern mathematization of space … that avoids the simplifications of Alberti” (p. xv), the importance of which is that it “deconstruct[ed] the nihilistic features of modern rationality just at its point of emergence” (p. 25). Hoff’s chief argument is that at this, the very birth of modern times, Cusa offered a path-not-taken, one definitively forward-looking. Cusa’s philosophical theology shared “the early modern enthusiasm for social, cultural, and technical innovations that transcend our natural possibilities” (p. 21), but nevertheless remained firmly rooted in the “analogical rationality of the middle ages” (p. xv), issuing in a “humble admiration of a reality which goes‚ beyond all capacity of reason and beyond every most lofty intellectual ascent” (p. 21).

Hoff’s narrative has at least two key implications for philosophical historiography. The first is that the Kantian revolution should no longer be conceived “as the outcome of an inescapable historical fate,” an assumption that has colored many prior readings of Cusa as proto-Kantian. The second is that Heidegger was wrong to argue, in his critique of the modern “world-picture,” that the latter’s emergence was an inevitable outworking of the metaphysical principles of Western philosophy from Plato onwards (p. xxi). Rather, for Hoff, the encounter between Cusa and Alberti marks a critical moment “when an alternative vision of modernity” was genuinely still achievable. Cusa developed a way of thinking that bore an “unprecedented esteem for plurality and individuality”; for him, “the creation cannot but have the character of a mixture of unity and alterity, light and darkness that assimilates itself to the simplicity of the divine light not by reducing but (paradoxically) by increasing its multiplicity and variety” (p. 225, emphasis in original). This represents a vision, Hoff argues, that if recovered for today might suggest a way beyond our current impasse, caught as we are between the “black and white univocity of scientific rationality [and] the ambiguous equivocity of post-modern pop culture” (p. xv, emphasis in original).

Hoff substantiates this claim by way of an argument that is not exactly linear, but rather weaves its way through short essayistic chapters in and out of the diverse themes that it implicates. Many aspects of the book have been extensively commented upon elsewhere (in addition to the usual journal reviews, I particularly recommend the symposium that includes Hoff at Syndicate Theology), and so here I will attend to just one area of interest: the character of Hoff’s historiography and the nature of the claims he makes on the basis of it.

Numerous contemporary accounts of late-medieval deviation leading to modern decline into nihilism bear similarity to Hoff’s (he draws specific attention to Radical Orthodoxy in the book, but has indicated elsewhere that he bears a greater debt to Francophone scholarship, including that of Olivier Boulnois). Such accounts have been polarizing, not simply on matters of historical genealogy — the relative importance of Duns Scotus, or the extent of Luther’s nominalism, for example — but more fundamentally with respect to a style of theological discourse that relies so heavily on declension narratives that it can seem unhelpfully nostalgic. Hoff’s book could come under the latter charge, wherein an overwhelmingly negative construal of modern thought and culture is contrasted with a rosy picture, if not of pre-modern society itself, then of a preferred premodern theology and of its implications for society and the Church. Graham Ward has rightly pointed out, commenting on Charles Taylor’s work, that theologians must be careful about constructing these “decline and fall” stories, since they risk occluding God’s “abiding operations in history,” making it more difficult to discern the “new work (if any) God is undertaking in the history of our salvation.”

This has as much to do, perhaps, with the way in which a story is told as with what it says. One thing that is interesting about Hoff’s book, then, is that it offers scope — for specifically Cusan reasons — for a slightly different style of telling, more open-ended and provisional, because more iconoclastic and apocalyptic. Thus, he explains that his book should be read in terms of an

uncompromising iconoclastic account of the pre-modern tradition of Christian learning, [which] risks exaggerating its apophatic features, for it is still inclined to support the conviction of Kant, Foucault, and Derrida that we must always be ready to question every attachment to finite authorities, including the authorities of narratives (p. xxii, emphasis original).

With this Hoff opens the door for a reflexive questioning of the very narrative he goes on to develop in the pages that follow. He then indicates that he does not “assume that the nihilistic rationality of Western modernity can be simply “out-narrated,” but rather “tends toward the apocalyptic conclusion that the ‘hell’ of Western nihilism was to a certain extent inescapable and that we do not know the door through which the Messiah will return when the body of Christ will ‘arise again in splendor’” (p. xxiii, quoting Cusa, emphasis in original). In other words, Hoff is not with this book claiming to know the answers to our late-modern predicament, and later he explicitly rejects the idea that we might revive the past by “recover[ing] the tacit knowledge of pre-reflexive common-sense practices by reflexive means or by creating an inner-church ‘semantic for specialist groups’ that claim to have a copyright on the writings of their ‘fathers’” (p. 174). What is needed instead is a readiness to be surprised, as implied by his nod to Walter Benjamin’s messianism, which issues from a renewed Cusan awareness of our intellectual limits — a docta ignorantia or learned ignorance — since it is “[o]nly a gift that cannot be achieved, predicted, or safeguarded [that] can save us from the scientific vanities of a narcissistic age” (p. 187).

Hoff offers caution, then, to a mode of theological discourse that would prescribe, on the basis of tight genealogies and what he calls in his preface “pious shortcuts” (p. xxvi), how and where the divine can appear today. Instead, “we have to cope with an overall experience of displacement” (p. 174), exercising faith in “a power that resists our attempts to localize the door through which the Messiah returns” (p. 189).

It is probably true that his book still relies sometimes upon too-heavy divisions of the modern and the non-modern, and that he does not always follow his own advice not to “los[e] sight of the emancipatory legacy of the modern age” (p. xv). Even so, he is incisive where he succeeds, such as in his subtle treatment of plurality, hierarchy, and equality by way of Cusa’s dialogue On the Bowling-Game in chapter 13 (for which “the principles of every created hierarchy are contingent, like a multitude of peas … thrown — with a single toss — onto a level floor’ … [meaning] by implication, that the related rankings are always open to our creative reassessment” [p. 158]).  Overall, The Analogical Turn conveys persuasively the pressing relevance of Cusa’s thought today, demonstrating among other things the worth of his doctrine of learned ignorance in what Ivan Illich called an age of “deadly cleverness.” It deserves — and thankfully seems already to have gained — a wide readership.

Dr. Simon Ravenscroft is Murphy Research Fellow at the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry, St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge.


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