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Category Archives: Nicholas de Cusa

The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affect and Triangulation Part IV of IV

[Finally posted, the meta-epistemic (is that what we call it?) conclusion of my engagement of Witttgenstein via Davidson and then Spinoza, (and back again). This final part is continued from Part III; and here is part I and part II]


I would like to end with a rather obvious example of a mental predicate attribution which by no means “should” be made, in the proper sense: that made upon a specific painting, (in this case by Medieval theologian Nicholas de Cusa). Taking up Wittgenstein’s thought about how it is that we might even get the idea a stone would have feeling, one might ask: However would we get the idea that a piece of wood, covered with pigmented oils has perceptions, sees things? Indeed, there is no “resembles (behaves like)” (PI §281) which would under Wittgenstein’s description would allow us to feel comfortable in saying that the painting thinks and feels. At the very most, it simply looks like us. But when interpretation is understood to be affective triangulation, the propriety of mental predicate attribution shifts its center. Instead of looking to justify attributions, one only experiences their effect, as they make the world a more sensible place. This is what Nicholas de Cusa writes of an icon of Christ that he encountered in a monastery:

In this [icon’s] painted face I see an image of Infinity. For the gaze is not confined to an object or a place, and so it is infinite. For it is turned as much toward one beholder of the face as toward another. And although in itself the gaze of this face is infinite, nevertheless it seems to be limited by any given onlooker. For it looks so fixedly upon whoever looks unto it that it seems to look only upon him and not upon anything else (“The Vision of God”, chapter 15) 

De Cusa is finding in looking at an iconographic image of Christ that his entire sense of the world and himself is changed. The deictic nature of its gaze, and the circumstances of its viewing inform. For instance, he experiences that there is even a changeability in the image, a way that it seems to pass in and out of shadow, something that for him reports back upon his own subjective state:

Your icon’s gaze seems to be changed and that Your countenance seems to be changed because I am changed, You seem to me as if You were a shadow which follows the changing of the one who is walking. But because I am a living shadow and You are the Truth, I judge from the changing of the shadow that the Truth is changed. Therefore, O my God, You are shadow in such way that You are Truth; You are the image of me and of each one in such way that You are Exemplar (ibid)

Here we have encountered a core experience of intersubjectivity and triangulation, the re-consideration of one’s own condition, but broadcast upon an inanimate thing. Surely many would claim that such an imagination on the behalf of a believer is a piece of fanciful dreaming, and has little to do with “reality”. But I suggest that de Cusa is experiencing something more fundamental, and profound. Profound, not in the religious sense, but profound in the epistemic sense. He is triangulating to the world, an objective world, within the parameters of reality itself.

He is seeing the face as it presents itself, in paint, as a kind of testament, and our two questions appear: How must the world be in order to have such a face, such an expression, for one’s own. In this way, de Cusa’s own affective experience of himself is changed into that which such a one with a face would have. He mirrors that face. The fixity of the Christ face attests to a fixity in the world, a surety of God, which for de Cusa becomes objective. And it results in a certain fixity in his own condition, to which his experience of mutability is contrasted. As well, de Cusa experiences the Christ face as looking at him, and reflecting how he, de Cusa, must be. De Cusa, as a thing in the world, becomes also the “truth” to which the pictured face is responding. And lastly one must assume that de Cusa knows that this painting is a real painting in the world, one that was produced by a human painter, and so the questions of triangulation can be replayed: How must the world be so that a painter would be able to paint such a painting? And what must a painter experience, so as to paint such a thing. Again, and again, at every level, the triangulation sews together a truth of existence.


The point here is not to prove a religiosity, for the very same triangulating experience can be undergone in viewing another subject matter, in fact one which would objectify an atheist condition in which there was no God, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” might do. The point is that the power of triangulation is so pervasive, and so illuminating, so constitutive of both our sense of ourselves and of the world, that mental predicate attribution cannot be restricted to any one level of description. Rather, attributions of belief all rely upon a more principled affective understanding of the world itself, as we are invited to imagine ourselves as others experiencing the world, a fundamental operation of understanding the world as a real and objective thing. It is not similarity of “behavior”, nor even the linguistic capacity to attest to an understanding of belief and mistake, which illumines our knowledge of the states of others, but rather, a pre-condition for any attribution, is the affective imagination of other things to be like us, and we like them. And this comes, as Wittgenstein says, “if not without justification”, with right.

It is within this affective/causal field that we as living beings thrive and communicate with each other and the world. The causal nature of belief seems best described as the realm of the interpersonal as it is subsumed within the entire fabric of a world’s understanding, the dimension of comment upon that world, such that it and us become inseparable. If anything, this study in contrast between Wittgenstein and Davidson, is meant to show how each thinker shines productive light upon the other, in particular, in fields where neither focused their energies of inquiry. Wittgenstein brings to Davidson’s rationalism of belief, a contextuality of communication that extends beyond that of language itself, his thought containing the possibilities of communications that defy easy reduction. Words like “simulation” or “intension” illuminate the world. And Davidson places Wittgenstein’s powerful rule-following language pictures within a greater conceptual framework, one in which even mental predicates are conceived under the umbrella of causality. Brought together, what presents itself is a consummate thought of informing causation, one in which our ways of talking about ourselves and the world express more primary, physical, and necessary determinations. We become, epistemically and affectively, embodied, interconnected creatures of knowledge.



Appendex: A schema of Triangulation, understood as an aesthetic theory

Works Cited


Augustine of Hippo. The City of God against the Pagans. Trans. R. W. Dyson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

–. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Albert Cook Outler. 3rd Edition Series. Dover Publications, 2002.

Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Orlando: Hardcourt Books, 2003.

Davidson Donald. “Three Varieties of Knowledge”. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Nicholas of Cusa. “The Vision of God”. Trans. Jasper Hopkins. Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1985. Retrieved May 7, 2007, from:

Quine, Willard van Ormand. Word and Object. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M. I. T. Press, 1960.

Spinoza, Baruch. The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume 1. Trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

 –. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. Elizabeth Anscombe. 3rd Edition, Hardback. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.