In my readings in patristic and medieval theology, I have seen numerous references to the etymology of theos. It is supposed to include connotations of seeing (theorein) and also of running (not sure the exact word here), but the emphasis is much more on seeing. I have no idea whether this supposed etymology is accurate, but Cusanus’ use of it in On Learned Ignorance — wherein he anticipates Kepler’s cosmology — set off a series of associations in my mind.

Could Kepler et al. have seen the evidence against the traditional cosmology if someone like Cusanus hadn’t come along to clear the ground theoretically? Scientists like to pose as though they are simply responding to the raw data, at least when talking to the unwashed masses, but none of the major scientific paradigm shifts were “empirically grounded” in any serious way — instead, they came up with a compelling new way of looking at the world and, usually, a relatively limited number of examples that cohere unusually well with the theory. After that, people know what to look for, and the theory is confirmed, at least for a certain amount of time.

So theory determines what you will see — and since the two concepts are etymologically linked, this need for theory in order to see must be an essential feature of Being itself.


Cusanus‘s On Learned Ignorance is one of the most fascinating things I’ve read in a long time. Particular points of interest:

  • Book I features a demonstration that an infinite line is also equal to an infinite triangle, circle, and sphere. I’m convinced.
  • Book II outlines a cosmology that is, in its basic principles, identical to Kepler’s — the universe doesn’t have a center, and there are no perfect circles in nature. He derives this stance from theological principles. My jaw may literally have dropped.

I found the introduction in the “Classics of Western Spirituality” edition to be characteristically helpful, and the other shorter pieces they package with it are a good warm-up for On Learned Ignorance.