"Infinity, Knowledge, and Divinity in the Thought of Cusanus and Cantor" (Manuscript draft of first page of forthcoming book chapter )

Berlin: De Gruyter (forthcoming)
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Renaissance philosopher, mathematician, and theologian Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) said that there is no proportion between the finite mind and the infinite. He is fond of saying reason cannot fully comprehend the infinite. That our best hope for attaining a vision and understanding of infinite things is by mathematics and by the use of contemplating symbols, which help us grasp "the absolute infinite". By the late 19th century, there is a decisive intervention in mathematics and its philosophy: the philosophical mathematician Georg Cantor (1845-1918) says that between the realm of the finite and the absolute infinite, there is an intermediate realm partaking in properties in a certain sense of both the finite and the infinite: the transfinite realm. Like the finite, the transfinite realm is a realm of mathematical objects, numbers, and knowledge. Like the absolute infinite, the transfinite is a form of infinity insofar as transfinite sets and numbers transcend any finite number. Echoing Cusanus and neo-Platonism, Cantor says that the transfinite sequence of all ordinals is a symbol of the absolutely infinite, that is, God. Moreover, Cantor envisioned his transfinite set theory (Mengenlehre) as providing the analytical methods and techniques necessary for a comprehensive, organic, non-reductive description of nature, a Naturphilosophie. Thus Cantor’s novel mathematics is presented as part of a long tradition, to which Cusanus, Bruno, Spinoza, Leibniz and others belong, in which the infinity and infinite character of organic life forms is appreciated, and is in some sense a mirror or symbol of the divine. The doctrine of symbolism and their different approach to the laws of logic present in both the work of Cusanus and Cantor enables these thinkers to articulate a transcendental apophatic approach to divinity.

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Anne Newstead
Swinburne University of Technology


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