Giordano Bruno on Scepticism

  • Tristan Dagron
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 199)

Giordano Bruno may not be a sceptic, but Scepticism marks an essential and formative stage of his philosophical thought. Rather a starting point than an end result, the sceptic's enquiry about the conditions and the possibility of knowledge never leads, for Bruno, to an actual challenge of the claims to knowledge, and even less so, to an ethics of ataraxia. On the contrary, the critical investigation into the instruments of knowledge, together with the acknowledgement of a basic defect of human knowledge with regard to its object, or the acknowledgement of a “blindness” natural to man, is tied to his praise of disquiet and infinite desire. There is a certain sense in which desire is vain if it never attains its object. But this desire, which cannot possess and which is the principle of infinite motion, defines the “infinite power” of the human being. Bruno, far from considering this endless desire as a “privation,” identifies it as the “positive perfection” of the “heroic” person. The theme of “natural blindness,” insofar as it directly refers to the disproportion between the human intellect and its infinite object, calls for a transformation of the notion of potentiality, and in particular of the potential intellect of the Aristotelian tradition. Bruno always presents the problem of knowledge at this radical level. In a sense, he merely takes up the paradoxes of “negative” theology or the “Platonic” theory of the eminence of the divine in contrast with the intelligible. But the infinite object refers not to a singular object, according to Bruno, but to the universal domain of nature or of being. Thus, obviously, the distinction imposes itself between an order of finite realities, suitable to become the object of scientific knowledge, and an order of an infinite principle which evades the instruments of knowledge. The distinction between forms of knowledge is no longer based on any ontological or real difference: it proceeds first and foremost from our way of knowing. The gap between the finite and the infinite is firstly epistemological. It is a matter not of the modus essendi of the objects in question, but of their modus cognoscendi: one and the same object is finite when conceived by the imagination, and infinite when grasped by the intellect. The architectonic structure, that is to say, the articulation which unites the different species of knowledge — and in particular the physical species with themetaphysical one — into the form of a system, thus no longer has the function of distinguishing orders of reality — but rather “means of apprehension” or “means of speaking.” One discourse concerns “natural, corporeal, mobile realities” insofar as they are “sensible.” The other considers the “subject” of this physical science of appearances, i.e. a nature which is “eternal, unchanging, true, constant, simple, one and always identical, and everywhere the same.”1


Posterior Analytics Intellectual Effort Human Intellect Potential Intellect Aristotelian Tradition 
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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tristan Dagron
    • 1
  1. 1.CNRS/CERPHI, Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences HumainesLyonFrance

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