Harald Høffding.

A history of modern philosophy; a sketch of the history of philosophy from the close of the renaissance to our own day online

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many, and the illusions of the senses, and enabled him to
establish a new world-scheme. In his Latin didactic poem,
" On the Immeasurable and the Countless Worlds," he breaks out
into a hymn of praise in honour of Copernicus. He reproaches
him, however, for having halted too soon, i.e. before he had
deduced all the consequences of his ideas. He therefore
needed a commentator, able "to think out all that was in-
volved in his discovery," and this office Bruno claims for himself
He opened men's eyes to the infinitude of the universe, showed
that this can no more have absolute limits than there can be
fixed " spheres " separating the different regions of the world
from one another, and that a single law and a single force
prevail throughout the world, so that wherever we may find
ourselves we cannot get away from God who rules throughout
the same ; moreover we have no need to go beyond ourselves
to find Him. Our present task is to assign the grounds on
which Bruno builds in his establishment and further develop-
ment of the Copernican world-scheme. These may be reduced
to two main considerations — of which one is epistemological
and the other religio-philosophical.

The old world-scheme, with the earth as the central point
and the fixed spheres as the outermost limits, has no right


to appeal to the evidence of the senses. If we examine the
different sense-images which we receive when we move, we see
that the horizon continually changes as we change our place.
Rightly interpreted, so far from proving to us that there is an
absolute centre and an absolute limit to the world, sense-
perception shows us the contrary, i.e. the possibility of con-
ceiving any place whatever, wherever we may be, or can
convey ourselves in imagination, as the central point, and also
the possibility of constantly changing and extending the limits
of our world. And in harmony with this testimony of sense-
perception is the capacity of our imagination and of our thought
to continue unceasingly to add number to number, magnitude
to magnitude, form to form ; moreover we are impelled to do
this by an impulse and striving which stir within us and which
are never satisfied with what we have already attained. It
would be inconceivable, thinks Bruno, that our imagination
and our thought should surpass Nature, and that this continual
possibility of taking new views should correspond to no reality
in the world. From the subjective impossibility of setting a
limit and of affirming an absolute central point he now argues
that there is no limit and no central point. In proof of this
Bruno relies, as he himself tells us, on the fundamental
condition of our knowledge [la conditione del modo nostra de
intendere). In strict consistency with this view — a consequence,
however, which he only incidentally points out — Bruno some-
where remarks that we have, properly speaking, no right to
conceive the universe as a totality, if it have no limit.

Since the horizon forms itself anew round every place
occupied by the spectator as its central point, every determina-
tion of place must be relative. The universe looks different
according to whether we conceive it to be regarded from the
earth, the moon, Venus, the sun, etc. One and the same place
will, according to the different points from which it is regarded
[respectu diversoruni), be centre, pole, zenith, or nadir. Deter-
minations such as " over " and " under " do not therefore signify,
as the old world-scheme presupposes, any absolute relation. It
is only when we assume definite points of view that we invest
such expressions with definite significance. And as with the
relativity of place so with the relativity of motion. Motion is
only conceived in its relation to one fixed point, and all depends
on where we suppose this fixed point to be. One and the


same motion will present a different appearance according to
whether I regard it from the earth or from the sun, and
wherever I may place myself in thought, my own standpoint
will always appear to me to be immovable. We must not
demand, therefore, that absolute certainty shall attend the
distinction between that which is at rest and that which is in
motion. The old world-scheme takes as given exactly what
has to be proved, viz. that the earth is the fixed point from
which every motion is to be measured. From the relativity of
motion follows the relativity of time. For no absolutely
regular motion can be discovered, and we possess no records
which can prove to us that all the stars have taken up exactly
the same position, with regard to the earth, as those they
previously occupied, and that their motions are absolutely
regular. We can therefore find no absolute measure of time.
Since motion appears different when regarded from different
stars, there must, if it is to be taken as the measure of time, /
be as many times in the universe as there are stars. ^

Nor have the concepts of heaviness and lightness any more
absolute significance than have determinations of place. For,
according to Aristotle, heaviness was the tendency to seek out
the central point of the world, and, since the earth was the
heaviest element, it followed that it was the central point of
the world. But the qualities of heaviness and lightness are
predicable of the particles of every individual heavenly body in
their relation to this body as a whole. When that which is
heavy falls, it does so because it seeks to return to the place in
which it is at home and where it can best maintain itself The
particles of the sun are heavy in relation to the sun, those of
the earth in relation to the earth. With regard to the universe
as a totality, the concepts of lightness and heaviness have as
little validity as motion and the determinations of place and
time. They only receive significance in relation to a particular
heavenly body or to a particular system. This theory of
weight is identicail with that held by Copernicus, only that
Bruno lays the chief emphasis on the fact that it is the impulse
to self-preservation which causes the parts to seek out their
whole. Copernicus, too, relies on the relativity of our deter-
minations, but he pauses half-way. It is Bruno's merit to have
carried out this principle, and to have shown what are the
consequences following from it. In Bruno, too, we meet for the


first time with a decided answer to one of the most weighty-
objections against Copernicus, i.e. that objects falling on to the
earth cannot fall on a spot perpendicularly below the point
from which they started, but must fall a little to the west of
this. For Bruno shows that a stone thrown from the top of a
mast will fall at the foot of the mast because, from the
beginning of its fall, it has participated, by means of strength
imparted to it {virtu impressa), in the motion of the ship. If,
on the other hand, the stone had been thrown down from a
point outside the ship, it would have fallen a little further
back. Bruno here enters on a train of thought of very great
significance, and which afterwards led Galilei to the discovery
of the law of inertia. ^

Closely connected, in Bruno's theory, with the principle of
relativity is the principle that Nature is everywhere essentially the
same {indifferenza della naturd). From relations as we find them
with us, he concludes to relations in other places in the universe.
An experience of his childhood led him to adopt this method.
From the hill Cicada, near Nola, which lay at his feet covered
with forests and vines, he looked at the distant Vesuvius which
appeared to him small, as well as bare and unfruitful. But
when, on one occasion, he had wandered as far as Vesuvius he
perceived that the two hills had exchanged aspects. Now it was
Vesuvius which was high and wooded, while the Cicada was
low and bare. The same principle which led him to establish
and extend Copernicanism through the assumption of the
infinity of the universe also led him to assume, as a matter of
course, that the same relations exist everywhere, where we have
no experience to the contrary. He now conceives the other
heavenly bodies as similar to the earth, and the other systems
as similar to the solar system, so that the fixed stars become
suns surrounded by planets. There is no ground for assuming
anything else but that the same force is everywhere in opera-
tion. But, in that case, Copernicus was not justified in
following the ordinary conception and supposing all the fixed
stars to be equally distant from us, and to lie in one and the
same sphere. Perhaps it only appears as if they always
maintained the same distance from us and from one another.
Distant ships appear immovable, and yet they are often moving
with no small velocity. Whether this is the case with the fixed
stars can certainly only be established by observations extending


through many years, and which may even, perhaps, not yet have
been begun. But the reason that such observations have not yet
been set on foot is precisely this firm conviction that the fixed
stars never change their place, either in relation to us or to one
another 1 Thus it is evident that the principle of the " in-
difference of Nature" (or, as it is called nowadays, the prin-
ciple of actuality), no less than the principle of relativity from
which it is deduced, will be productive, since it leads to new
investigations. Bruno has a much keener sense of the necessity
of confirming theoretical and subjective considerations by the
method of experience than is generally attributed to him.
" What could we think without all the observations that have
been collected ? " he asks. He is certainly no mere enthusiast
for the infinite. He sought to show, by means of a thoughtful
and critical examination, what are the presuppositions on which
the old world-scheme rests, and how justifiable and natural it
is to bring forward other assumptions. And the onus probandi,
he thinks, lies first of all with those who assert the limitation of
the universe ; for does not experience show us that wherever
we may go the boundaries always change with our progress ?
And why should the universe extend no further than to eight
spheres, as even Copernicus still believed ? Why not to a
ninth, a tenth, and so on ? Because our sense-perception
is limited, we have no right to conclude that the universe is
limited also. Bruno's greatest merit is the energy with which
he thought himself into the new world -conception, and
demanded its verification in detail. On this account his
teaching is more than an anticipation of genius. The episte-
mological foundation on which he bases it has lasting signifi-
cance. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the passionate
consistency with which he proceeded often led him to express
himself with greater certainty than he was by rights entitled to.
Small wonder if the zeal with which he laboured, and which
was necessary to the surmounting of obstacles, carried him
beyond the goal.

By means of the relativity of place-determinations Bruno
had, as we saw, overthrown the old doctrine of the elements
according to which they were characterised by heaviness or
lightness as absolute qualities, and to each one was assigned its
"natural place" in the universe. But with this doctrine the
distinction between the heavenly and the sublunary world


vanished, as also the prejudice that no change could take
place in heaven. Bruno was especially anxious to over-
throw the belief in the fixed spheres. He shows that this
belief is a corollary from the assumption that the earth is
the absolute central point. As soon as we have thoroughly
grasped the idea that every heavenly body is, so to say, a
central point, and can move freely in space, as the earth does,
the necessity for believing in fixed spheres disappears. And
why should the heavenly bodies require external forces to move
them ? Each one of them, like every other creature in the world,
has an inner impulse to motion which carries it forwards ; every
heavenly body and every little world has in itself a source of life
and motion, and space is the great ethereal medium in which the
all-embracing world-soul is active ; there is therefore no need
for special spirits of the spheres to set particular regions in
motion. Bruno found a confirmation of his view in Tycho
Brahe's investigations into the nature of comets. He may,
perhaps, have composed the Latin didactic poem " On the
Immeasurable and the Countless Worlds " on purpose to show
how these investigations confirmed the opinions which he had
deduced on other grounds in his Italian dialogue " On the
Infinite Universe and the Worlds." He here eulogises the
Danish investigator as the first astronomer of his day {Ticho
Danus, nobilissimus atque princeps astronomoruin nostri temporis)
and as the man who put an end to the fixed spheres which were
supposed to enclose our world in layers.^' For the comets go
straight through the " spheres," whose crystal masses are said
to divide the different regions of the world from one another !

These are all Bruno's views that can be brought together
under the point of view of an epistemological foundation of the
new world-scheme. We will now pass on to what may be
called the religio-philosophical foundation. This is taken from
the idea of the infinity of the Deity, an idea which Bruno had,
from the beginning, regarded as unquestionable ; and which he
might also safely assume to be shared by his readers and
opponents, even though they might not have been clear as to
all it involved. To Bruno it seemed a contradiction that no
infinite effect should correspond to the infinite cause. If the
Deity, which in its original unity embraces all that is unfolded
in the universe, is infinite, then the universe which is the un-
folded form of God's essence must be infinite. No force limits


itself, and the infinite force has nothing by which it can be
limited. If the Deity is conceived as the principle of good,
must we not then assume that it will impart all that it can ?
Shall we suppose it to be envious or niggardly ? The infinite
perfection must express itself in infinitely many creatures and
worlds. It is not justifiable to attribute to the Deity a force
or a possibility which does not become reality. This opposition
between possibility and reality is only valid for finite creatures,
and must not be transferred to the Deity. Otherwise we shall
have two Gods, — one possible, and one real or active, — in
opposition to one another ; a blasphemous theory contradictory
to the unity of God. Jakob Boehme, as we saw above, was
not afraid of this blasphemy. His religio-philosophical specu-
lations remind us, in several points, of those of Bruno ; and for
him too the new conception of the world had significance. But
Boehme was concerned with the problem of evil, not that of the
interconnection of the world. The religio-philosophical proof
on which Bruno relies did not originate with himself As he
himself mentions, it had already been established by PlETRO
Manzoli of Ferrara, who, under the name of Palingenius,
published a Latin didactic poem {Zodiacus vitae, Lyons, 1552),
in which he taught the infinity of the universe ; although he
conceives the world-scheme with fixed spheres in the tradi-
tional way ; in addition to the eight spheres Palingenius intro-
duces an incorporeal and infinite world of light. It does not
derogate from the originality of Bruno that he thus made use
of former thinkers, e.g. Palingenius here, and, in other passages,
Cusanus, Copernicus, and the old Atomists. In all cases he
reduces their thoughts to greater coherency, and carries them
out with greater consistency and on a basis of richer experience
than was possible to them.

It seemed to Bruno as if he had never breathed freely
until the limits of the universe had been extended to infinity,
and the fixed spheres had disappeared. No longer now was
there a limit to the flight of the spirit, no "so far and no
farther " ; the narrow prison in which the old beliefs had
confined men's spirits had now to open its gates and let in the
pure air of a new life. He has expressed these thoughts in some
sonnets which precede the dialogue on " the infinite Universe."
The] picture of reality, at the shaping of which his thought had
laboured so enthusiastically and untiringly, contained for him




a symbolic significance. The outer infinity was for him the
symbol of the inner. Not all symbolism rests on so firm a basis.

(c) Fundamental Philosophical Ideas

Bruno's greatest achievement as a thinker is the foundation
which he assigned to the new world-scheme in the nature of
our sense-perception and of our thought, and also his extension
y of this world-scheme, and the proof that such an extension was
necessary. Closely connected with this world -conception of
his, however, are his general leading thoughts, his doctrine of
the ultimate principles of existence. On the basis of a
thorough-going study of Bruno's Latin writings, and after a
comparison with his Italian works, Felice Tocco has attempted
to show that, with regard to Bruno's fundamental philosophical
conception, three stages are to be distinguished. In the first
I stage he stands near the Neo-Platonists, since he regards the
world as well as human knowledge as an efflux of the Deity.
This stage is more particularly represented in his De Umhris
Idearum (The Shadows of Ideas). In the second stage he
conceives the Deity as the infinite substance, which persists
through all change of phenomena, as the unity of all the
opposites in existence. This stage is represented in his chief
works, the Italian dialogues, which appeared in London. In the
third stage he conceives that which underlies phenomena as an
^2?. infinity of atoms or monads, without, however, abandoning the
idea of the one substance moving in all things. This stage is
expressed in the Latin didactic poem, which appeared at
Frankfurt, and more especially in his De Minimo. I can, on the
whole, endorse this conception of the philosophical development
of Bruno during the last ten years (1582-92) that he spent
at liberty, especially when sufficient weight is laid on the fact,
which Tocco points out, that Bruno himself was not aware of
these transitions and differences. There are, however, several
points of detail which, in my opinion, are susceptible of a
different interpretation from that given them by the untiring
Italian student of Bruno.

Bruno began as a Platonist. Everything has its ultimate
ground in an eternal idea which is one with the essence of the
Deity. It is the task of our knowledge to raise itself out of
the confused manifold of the senses to the unity which moves


in all things, even though the highest knowledge attainable
by us is only a shadow of the divine ideas. But Bruno
parts company from Plato in one, and that a very essential,
point. While Plato understands by ideas general concepts
which are common to the particular phenomena, universals,
Bruno expressly explains that the concepts by means of which
we raise ourselves above the confused manifold of the senses
are no mere graduated series of universal concepts {universalia
logicd), but concepts which express the real connection of
phenomena ; so that instead of an unformed manifold of parts,
we get a firmly connected and formed whole. The particular
parts thus become comprehensible as they could never be
when held apart and considered each one for itself; just as we
can only understand the hand in connection with the arm, the
foot in connection with the leg, and the eye in connection with
the head. The highest unity which is set up as the ideal of
knowledge, then, is not an abstract idea, but the principle of real
interconnection according to law, which alone lends existence
to the particular phenomena, and makes them comprehensible
to us. Bruno here expresses a thought which may be traced
under different forms throughout the whole history of modern
philosophy. While ancient philosophy turned its attention
chiefly to the form or idea, the attention of modern philosophy
is mainly directed towards the law. The interconnection of
existence according to law is the fundamental fact which it
strives to think out and expound. Bruno only touches on this
thought in his work on the " Shadows of Ideas " ; he does not
enter into it any further since his interest in it is mainly
memotechnical ; he recommends for the better remembering of
ideas that we should unite them with one another in the same
way as the corresponding phenomena occur together in reality,
since this connection will facilitate remembrance as well as
practical application. It is thus not difficult to understand
how Bruno passed over to the conception which he develops
in the Italian dialogues in close connection with the logical
consequences of the new world-scheme. What he was really
seeking, even in the first stage, was the inner principle which
underlies the real connection of particular things as well as the
things themselves. His solution from the first is from within,
not from without, or from above.

In the dialogue " On Cause, Principle, and Unity," we find


the complete working-out of this fundamental thought of
Bruno's. His endeavour throughout is to conceive the universe
as a whole, moved by inner forces, in which everything is inter-
connected, and which is itself the unfolding of that which is
contained within the infinite principle, the highest thought
attainable by us. In distinguishing between cause and principle
Bruno means to indicate that the infinite unity may be regarded
sometimes as the antithesis to all which springs out of it, — and
then he calls it the cause ; sometimes as that which moves
within the manifold of phenomena, — and then it is called the
principle or world-soul. In the first form it is not accessible to
our thought, but is an object of faith alone. The true philo-
sopher and the believing theologian differ from one another
in this : that while the latter seeks the Deity beyond and
above, the former seeks it within Nature. As we saw in our
discussion of his world-scheme, Bruno emphatically asserts that
the infinity of the effect follows necessarily from the infinity of
the cause. But precisely because the effect is infinite it cannot
be grasped, and any knowledge of the Deity to which we can
attain, must therefore always, even when it is regarded as the
principle (or immanent cause) or world-soul, remain incomplete.
That any knowledge at all is possible is because this principle
moves in us as in all other things in the world. The new world-
scheme shows how illusory it is to seek for the seat of the
Deity altogether beyond our own ego, and teaches us that, on the
contrary, it is to be sought in our innermost selves, " in a closer
relation to us than that in which we stand to ourselves " {di dentro
piu che noi medesmi siaino dentro a not). The Deity is the soul
of our soul as it is the soul of the whole of Nature.

The world-soul is for Bruno the principle which unites and
orders all things, by means of space, which is not empty but
forms an infinite ethereal medium ; it evokes reciprocal action
between particular things. Just as space does not exclude
bodies, but, on the contrary, is precisely that which renders
their visible connection possible, so the world -soul, as the
bearer of ideas {mundus mtelligibilis), works not from without
inwards, nor as something alien to things, but as the law of
their own nature. It is an artist which produces and develops
from within the forms which natural phenomena assume ; not a
spirit which sets the world in motion from without, but the
inner principle of motion. At every single place, in every


single particle, the world-soul works as a totality. The uni-
versum does not exist as a totality in its particular parts, but
the world-soul moves as a totality in each one of these parts :
anima toto et qualibet totius parte ! '" There stirs in everything
an inner impulse to motion, a vital force, a will, which leads
things by the ways which render self-preservation possible to
them. It is this inner impulse which leads the iron to the
magnet, which makes the drop of water as well as the whole
earth assume the form of a ball, which is that best suited to

Online LibraryHarald HøffdingA history of modern philosophy; a sketch of the history of philosophy from the close of the renaissance to our own day → online text (page 13 of 52)