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Self-Reflection in the Tension between Science and Mysticism

Thus, self-reflection points in some very different, even opposed directions on the terrain of our cultural heritage. However, Dante holds both of these tendencies together in tension. Self-reflection can be a homogenizing mechanism that turns everything into the same—or it can be the means of opening the self toward radical otherness. In one case, selfreflection creates a structure—essentially a code—with an internal coherence that enables mastery and manipulation of a constructed system. It circumscribes and defines the real in terms of its own. One’s self-referential system can generate a world all its own that need not even admit the existence of others except as mere material—as grist for its mill. In this case, self-reflection is technical and mechanical. This type of self-reflection leads toward and enables the technological applications of science in all their inestimably powerful workings. This is the inadvertent legacy of Duns Scotus outlined in Part II.

But self-reflection can also lead toward a kind of “transhumanization.” This is much more the case with self-reflection taken to be a reflection of theological transcendence on the model of Dante’s trasumanar. This path entails open-ended searching in a psychological-existential register of reflection. Such self-reflection opens us to an unfathomable and uncontrollable depth within rather than empowering us to imprint our own image forcibly on the world through a schematized system that brings it under our control. This latter is the “mystical” way of self-reflection along which Narcissus can be redeemed. Such self-reflection does not establish itself as the foundation of everything but rather erases its finite self in opening to a larger reality in which it is itself reflected. Such reflection opens itself to “divine” self-reflection.

By this latter route, what one learns to know, fundamentally, is that one does not know. This was the wisdom that set Socrates apart from other men, according to his own understanding of the Delphic oracle (Apology 20e-24c). The knowing of one’s own unknowing underlies a tradition of negative theology that stretches from Dionysius to Eriugena and Eckhart and from Augustine to Bonaventure and Nicholas of Cusa. Cusanus, as the last in this series of pathbreakers, makes self-reflection programmatic under the title of “learned ignorance.” He also enacts a self-reflective, mystical-dialectic seeing of the invisible in De visione Dei (1453). This genealogy forms one axis along which the mystical potency of self-reflection, counterbalancing its scientific powerfulness, plays out historically. However, the wisdom of ignorance can itself be conceived of as a kind of science. It was so conceived by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) in his Scienza nuova (1744).

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