From Logical (Dis)Analogy to Imaginative Conjecture versus the Forgetting of Being

This apophatic or negative theology takes on a new sort of pertinence in Dante’s historical context of crisis concerning the metaphysical realm of revealed truth. Relation to a purportedly higher world involves analogy, but also dis-analogy. This holds for Dante, just as it holds for Dionysius (the Pseudo-Areopagite) and for the whole Dionysian tradition of apophatic mystical discourse. God’s own proper being is inaccessible to natural reason. There is in this predicament already an epistemic break. It gives Dante poetic license and prophetic freedom to reinvent, in his own very personal terms, the other worlds of Christian damnation, purgation, and salvation. Yet, at the same time, Dante solemnly maintains that his poem is true prophetic revelation. Dante recognizes the mediation of imaginative representation as necessary in order to reveal the other world of the divine. Our human predicament as apophatic—our existing in relation to an unsayable Other—issues in free, creative, imaginative expression of this existential condition.

Dante retains the truth that genuine knowing is possible only on the basis of our existential involvement and is not purely objective knowing. Duns, too, realizes that our knowing of God is possible only through charitable relations and actions, but he also defends a knowledge of finite things as rationally grounded without necessary reference to the infinite. This furnishes the basis for scientific knowing—yet only at the price of forgetting the totality of the Infinite, the Cause in which all exists, and thus also of forgetting Being as such. Duns’s univocal concept of Being renders eminently possible, if not inevitable, a forgetting of infinite Being as something concretely experiential, and this forgetting itself is then forgotten rather than retained as the final and definitive revelation delivered by finite being and its history. Dante, in contrast, remembers this existential condition of inadequacy, which he calls “disaggualianza” (Paradiso XV.83). He acknowledges programmatically this incorrigible, necessary forgetting at the core of his paradisiacal experience as enframing the


I pursue this train of thought in “Dante and the Secularization of Religion through Literature,” Chapter 1 of Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2016), 9-42.

(Dis)Analogy and Imaginative Conjecture 157 entire poem in Paradiso 1.7-9 (“nostro intelletto si profonda tanto I che dietro la memoria non pud ire”) and in Paradiso XXXIII.94-96, where it is called “letargo.” Just such a forgetting comes to pass as the “concealment of unconcealing” that Heidegger recognizes as dominating the whole history of Being. This forgetting, which he calls “metaphysics,” is what all his thinking strives so titanically to overcome.

Dante, like Scotus, is on the path of the dissolution of the medieval doctrine of allegory in face of the newly discovered radical subjectivity of human knowing. Meister Eckhart (1265-1329), another exact contemporary, likewise uses analogy as a way that makes expression of the divine only a subjectively mediated metaphor for what cannot be objectively known and expressed without becoming idolatrous. All beings are immediately related to God, the infinite. The ownmost being of anything is an objectively unknowable mystery, like God.[1] Symbolic thinking flourishes in the age subsequent to Duns Scotus, but it is not objectively grounded so much as a human and subjective way of construing things. It is, in Nicholas of Cusa’s vocabulary, conjecture. Cusanus will be among the first to fully recognize and assimilate the new episteme. A conjecture is not just an arbitrary construction: it aims at, and is called forth by, an unknown, an enigma.

Dante is able to invent—or conjecture—the world of his poem with utter freedom of imagination because the world it relates to is strictly speaking unrepresentable. The other world does impinge on and inform his representations at every point, but there is no calculus for how or with what results. Subjective mediation by the personal passion of the poet becomes the condition of possibility of revelation. Dante discovers the freedom of poetic imagination such as it can be exercised in a secular universe. The doctrine of artistic or creative genius will develop later in the Enlightenment, notably with Kant, to account for this productive faculty and its freedom unconfined by the apparent reality of the empirical world. Even so, already for Dante, such imagination is all geared toward and aimed at the absolute reality beyond all finite beings.

In effect, Dante exploits analogy for the very same reason that Scotus rejects it. Both understand that in their post-Aquinian era analogy cannot provide scientific knowledge of God and of the “separate entities” of the other and invisible world. All this surpasses our sense-bound means of knowing, for we have no sensory intuition of purely intellectual beings. This is the predicament that Kant takes to heart as the starting point for his critical philosophy. At this point, accordingly, representation of the other world can only be a free invention. This causes objective discourse and practices in finite realms such as jurisprudence to enter into crisis and contradiction. Yet, on this basis, Dante pursues his poetic creation as the expression of his personal, existential relation to an ultimate reality.

In Paradiso IV.40-42, Dante explains (through Beatrice) that even Scripture employs poetic metaphor to speak to human beings of God and angels, since human understanding takes from sense alone (“solo da sensato apprende”) that which it then makes worthy of intellection. Thus Scripture “condescends” to human faculties, attributing “hand and foot” to God and human form to the angels Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, while “meaning something else” (“e altro intende,” IV.43-48). Dante’s own methods of representing metaphysical reality likewise resort to sensible images as existential witness to a metaphysical experience that is otherwise ineffable.

Scotus, like Kant, and well before him, turns to the will and love as the only way of relating to this higher, supernatural reality that cannot be known theoretically—not concretely anyway, not by us, at least not in this life. And this delimitation of the realm of spirit and freedom from that of nature and necessity frees the sublunary world (in fact, the whole physical universe) to be investigated in terms of its own logic and intrinsic order. This universe becomes the domain of the natural sciences.

Duns opens a sphere of conceptual creation—just as Dante opens a sphere of imaginative creation—that is autonomous, a realm of freedom and contingency, a secular realm. Yet it still stands radically in relation to another realm, one that is inaccessible by merely human means but one that can be sounded by theology. In contrast to theological revelation, human means discover their own self-reflexive powers of establishing relations internal to reflection as a mediated way of relating to the radically exterior. These self-reflexive ways of science and imagination become radically separated from theology after Scotus, and even Dante becomes adamant against confusing the secular and sacred orders, notably with regard to their claims for authority in government. In Monarchia, Book III, he argues rigorously for this binary, “two-truths” type of political doctrine, which reverberates throughout his oeuvre from Convivio IV.iv-ix,


This upheaval in the juridical domain is examined by Justin Steinberg, Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

  • (Dis)Analogy and Imaginative Conjecture 159 on the foundations of imperial authority, to Paradiso XXX.133-48, with its projected celestial incoronation of Emperor Henry VII. Both secular and spiritual authority, nevertheless, in Dante’s teaching, are based on a direct relation to the one God, as Monarchia III.xv and all of Paradiso unequivocally attest.
  • 1

These complicated relations are lucidly delineated by Jason Aleksander, “Dante’s Understanding of the Two Ends of Human Desire and the Relationship between Philosophy and Theology,” The Journal of Religion 91/2 (2011): 158-87.

  • [1] Alain de Libera, Le problème de l’être chez maître Eckhart: Logique et métaphysique de l’analogie (Genève: Cahiers de al Revue de théologie et de philosophie, 1980) parses this predicament in detail. 2 Cusanus’s De coniecturis (1441-42) directly follows up and completes his groundbreaking De docta ignorantia (1440). 3 Pannenberg, Analogie und Offenbarung, presents this transition from objective analogy to subjective symbol penetratingly in Chapter VI: “Das Verblassen des Analogiegedankens auf dem Weg vom spâtmittelalterlichen Platonismus zur neuzeitlichen Philosophie,” 181-211. 4 Contemporary scientific cosmology again pullulates in imaginings of other worlds, even ones beyond time and space. This science requires us “to believe in the existence of many other universes” that “we cannot prove” and that “are accidental and incalculable.” Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 214.
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