Thought for the Evening: Non Aliud
In recent discussion, I mentioned Cusanus's Non Aliud as one possible parallel to Advaita nonduality, so I have been thinking a bit about the concept.
Nicholas of Cusa was probably the most talented German theologian of the fifteenth century. He was active at the Council of Basel and was a major figure in bringing about the Council of Florence. He was also actively involved in the resurgence of Platonism in the Renaissance, and in particular, the attempt to reclaim parts of the Platonic heritage of the Church that had begun to fall out of view. One of the difficulties of this project was the fact that there were really a lot of varieties of Platonism beginning to resurface, and one of Nicholas's major contributions was in trying to work out ways in which these varieties might be pulled together. A good example of this is his notion of God as Non Aliud, Not Other.
Of the Not Other (De li Non Aliud) looks specifically at a few sources for broadly Platonic ideas: Plato's Parmenides with Proclus's commentary, Proclus's Platonic Theology, the works of Dionysius (whom he also calls the Theologian), and the works of Aristotle. Nicholas recognizes that a concern common to all of these works (in one way or another) is definition. A definition is good when it can be put into a form like 'A is not other than B'; the limit case of this is 'A is not other than A'. All of the works Nicholas is considering make definition to be a central part of knowing; you know something when you know its particular definition. Definitions are called such because they are acts of delimiting.
On the basis of this, Nicholas considers the question of the act of defining that defines everything. This Definition must be not other than what it defines, which is everything, so, given this, Nicholas proposes that we call it Not Other. If definitions are in some sense 'not others', the all-defining Definition is the Not Other. It in some sense defines itself -- Not Other is not other than Not Other -- and its defining gives the things themselves. It is perfect defining. And of course, the all-defining defining is God. As he puts it, 'other' indicates a terminus or endpoint of understanding; that which is on the other end, the very beginning point of it all, has to be Not Other, on which everything else depends. Not Other is simply prior to anything and everything else that can be defined; insofar as it makes understanding possible we call it Light. But as everything is not other than itself, it also has its existence from Not Other as the Cause and Reason for everything.
This serves as the foundation for Nicholas's explanation of the tendency in Platonism to suggest that transcendentals like being, one, true, good, are posterior to God. Since one is not other than one, it presupposes Not Other (one is one because of Not Other that defines it as such), which is more simple; one is other than Not Other. Some Platonists, of course, will use One as a name for Not Other, but they will also usually recognize that this is stretching the term in some way. Likewise, we can say that Not Other is beyond being because any being is not other than a thing that is, and so for good, as well. But it's not as if being, one, good, and true follow after Not Other as something separate; they each are what they are through Not Other, so that Not Other is present to them all, and, of course, present to everything to which they pertain.
Because of this, Not Other is in whatever is other -- every other is not other than the other it is. Every other is lacking something, because it is contrasted to that to which it is other. But Not Other is not like this; all others, even the ones contrasting with each other, are what they are through the all-defining defining that is being called 'Not Other'. Thus everything that can exist or be thought is so because of Not Other. Not Other is, of course, absolutely not other than Not Other; but as all-defining, it is also not other than every other. In Nicholas's example, God is not any visible thing, because He is antecedent to them all; but as antecedent to all He is also not other than them. The sky is other than what is not sky; and God, being Not Other, is neither sky nor not-sky, both of which are other than each other. But in the sky, God is not other than the sky, without being the same as the sky, and in what is not sky, God is not other than what is not sky, without being the same as what is not sky. Being Not Other, He is not other than these things. Unnameable, He is that by which all else is nameable; indefinable, He is that by which all else is definable; illimitable, He is that by which all is limitable; all these other things cannot be opposed to Him as one thing to another thing, because that would be inconsistent with their existing at all. This is Nicholas's Non-Aliud way of characterizing what Platonists often call 'participation'. Likewise, this is another way to think of divine ideas and creation: in Not Other, the sky is Not Other than Not Other, which is the divine idea, and we get creation insofar as in the sky, Not Other is not other than the sky. And whenever we are considering the sky, we are, whether we realize it or not, always considering the sky and the Not Other that defines it. Thus everything becomes a sign of God, pointing to God. "The definition defining itself and all things is the definition every intellect seeks."
All names we give to God, then, are attempts to capture Not Other, prior and all-defining, with respect to some particular aspect of things that are posterior and defined, sometimes more and sometimes less precisely: Infinite Power (as in the infinite power of the First Mover), Creative Will, etc. We call God 'substance' or 'substance of substances' or 'supersubstantial substance' because substances are not other than their accidents, but they are limited because they are other than other substances; but God is prior to substances as Not Other, and there is no other that is opposed to Him so as to be able to limit Him. We say that God has power, will, intellect, etc., because in us these are things by which we are closest to Not Other. Intellect and will are less other and more not other than other things. Nicholas uses the example of Trajan's column: it's called Trajan because it exists by Trajan's will, which defined and delimited it, and it is not other than Trajan's will for it, what Trajan willed it to be. And because of this, the column is the sign of Trajan's will.
The whole discussion is a clever way to synthesize a very large number of very different Platonic approaches (Perhaps, Nicholas muses at one point, they were all trying to make the same point but were expressing it differently), even though in doing so he stretches both thought and language, as he himself recognizes. He spends quite some time trying to show that his account corresponds to things said by Plato, Proclus, and the Theologian, and to a lesser extent Aristotle, and therefore provides a more precise way to characterize the things they all talked about. But, a true Platonist, he also insists that 'Not Other' is not the name of God, who is beyond all names; it is merely a way to rise to Him.
Various Links of Interest
* Alexandre Costa-Leite, Oppositions in a line segment (PDF)
* Alexander Pruss on eleven varieties of contrastive explanation
* Paul R. Audi, Existential Inertia (PDF)
* An interesting discussion of the history of the Mormon Pearl of Great Price
* Quentin Ruyant, The Inductive Route to Necessity (PDF)
* Jud Campbell, Natural Rights and the First Amendment
* An interesting article on how chess grandmasters lose weight due to the stress.
* Ryszard Legutko, Nationalism, Conservatism, and the E.U.
* An interesting paper by Chad Vance: The World is a Necessary Being (PDF). The title is perhaps a bit misleading, although not through Vance's fault; it comes about because of the clunky terminological apparatus of possible world semantics as it is usually described. Possible worlds are often said to be 'the way the world can be', and The World in the title is just that whatever it is that is such that possible worlds are the way it can be. What the argument really does is establish that on certain common modal assumptions, something actually existing, on which different possibilities depend, must be necessary.
* This year is the 50th anniversary of Scooby-Doo, so various pieces have been coming out in commemoration. Far and away the best I have read is Eleni Theodoropoulos's How Scooby Doo Revived Gothic Storytelling for Generations of Kids.
* Phil Christman reviews John Warner's Why They Can't Write.
* Fr. Joseph Bolin on the seal of confession.
Robertson Davies, A Mixture of Frailties
Penelope Maddy, What Do Philosophers Do?
Declan Finn, Hell Spawn
Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson