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On Trust and Transparency

For the Lyceum Institute Philosophical Happy Hour, 8 March 2023 from 5:45–7:15pm ET! Request an invite here.

Today the word “transparency” is haunting all spheres of life—not just politics but economics, too. More democracy, more freedom of information, and more efficiency are expected of transparency. Transparency creates trust, the new dogma affirms. What is forgotten thereby is that such insistence on transparency is occurring in a society where the meaning of “trust” has been massively compromised.

Wherever information is very easy to obtain, as is the case today, the social system switches from trust to control. The society of transparency is not a society of trust, but a society of control.

Transparency is an ideology. Like all ideologies, it has a positive core that has been mystified and made absolute. The danger of transparency lies in such ideologization. If totalized, it yields terror.

Byung-Chul Han, 2012: The Transparency Society, “Preface”, vii–viii.

Why has “transparency” come to haunt all the spheres of our lives? The causes, no doubt, are manifold. One reason, I believe, which Han does not here name, is that all the spheres of our lives have come under the sway of institutional dominion. Large companies—especially those in technology and most especially communication technologies, such as Microsoft, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Meta, and so on—hold a certain sway over our actions. So, too, we have witnessed betrayal from institutions with a shocking, painful regularity. Do we trust our federal, our state governments? Our religious organizations? The opacity of these organizations has allowed abuse to proliferate (and, indeed, conspiracies to flourish).

But is it not the case, as Han posits in these selections, that our more fundamental problem is not a lack of transparency, but of trust?

It is not possible simply to replace trust, which makes way for free spheres of action, with control: “The people have to believe in and trust their ruler; when they trust, they grant him a measure of freedom to act without constant auditing, monitoring, and oversight. Lacking that autonomy, he could indeed never make a move.”

Trust is only possible in a state between knowing and not-knowing. Trust means establishing a positive relationship with the Other, even in ignorance. It makes actions possible despite one’s lack of knowledge. If I know everything in advance, there is no need for trust. Transparency is a state in which all not-knowing is eliminated. Where transparency prevails, no room for trust exists. Instead of affirming that “transparency creates trust,” one should instead say, “transparency dismantles trust.” The demand for transparency grows loud precisely when trust no longer prevails. In a society based on trust, no intrusive demand for transparency would surface. The society of transparency is a society of mistrust and suspicion; it relies on control because of vanishing confidence. Strident calls for transparency point to the simple fact that the moral foundation of society has grown faulty, that moral values such as honesty and uprightness are losing their meaning more and more.

Byung-Chul Han, 2012: The Transparency Society, “The Society of Control”, 47–48.

We do patently live in a society of mistrust and suspicion. What are we to do about this? How do we rebuild trust? What does it mean to have trust? In what, in whom? Are trust and transparency absolute opposites? Are agents of institutions required to be somehow transparent in order that they build trust? Can transparency restore or build trust? What roles do transparency and trust play in our personal lives?

Join us this evening (5:45–7:15pm ET, just write “happy hour”) to discuss the meaning of trust and transparency, and keep an eye on our calendar for more upcoming events!

On the Authority of Media

While researching a variety of topics at conveniently-intersecting purposes, I came across this wonderful article from Elliot Gaines (author of 2011: Media Literacy and Semiotics), in which he explains how we need media criticism in order to avoid having our opinions settled for us by means contrary to reason in fact, even if many deem them preeminently reasonable in appearance—namely, that media gains its authority in dubious fashion.

The technologies of the media make it possible to represent symbolic systems while overcoming the natural restrictions of time and space and making communication appear immediate and intimate when received.

The notion of immediacy refers to a sense of being present at an event even though the media only represent it after the fact and from far away from its original location. Thus the power of mass media is not just in their capacities to deliver ideas and information, but also in their ability to exploit the verisimilitude of representations that are received with a sense of intimacy and immediacy. In addition, the third-person effect hypothesis suggests that people generally believe that media affects others while they themselves are immune to being manipulated or persuaded unknowingly (Rojas, Shah, and Faber 1996: 193). Audiences need to recognize that media affect every user because attention is drawn to intended meanings and inferences of consequences. Media are ubiquitous and enter personal space with a sense of immediacy that gives contemporary mass communications and opinion leaders great power and access to people. Without critical thinking and media literacy, it is easy to assume a great deal about the media and the world of objects, ideas, and situations they represent.

The goal of media is to attract attention in order to successfully profit and sustain themselves. Secondarily, media deliver information about issues and events, entertainment products that suggest social norms, attract attention to products, and influence the ethos of society. IT’s the audience, engaged in social discourse, which learns the codes and negotiates the veracity of representations intended to communicate a particular point-of-view.

The problems of media and “settling opinion”

The representational qualities of media phenomena are reasonable because they are logically developed from older, familiar signs that are continuous with established ideas. Media project a tacit authority to provide knowledge and expertise, but the credibility of media draws from its repetitive and persistent presence that simulates the continuity of signs necessary to logical reasoning. However, this is an illusion of veracity generated by the media that cannot substitute for verification. Part of the illusion is self-referential; media referring to (indexing) other media products or spokespersons only demonstrates social discourse but does not provide evidence of any particular argument. In order to understand authentic verification, it is necessary to look at the methods of proposing opinions about the meanings of things.

Gaines 2008: “Media Criticism and Settling Opinion” in Semiotics 2008: p.245–46 (245–251).

I highlight one key point in this last-quoted paragraph: namely, that media projects authority through repetition and persistent presence, through which it simulates the progression by which we advance logically from initial observations to inferred conclusions. Put in other words, we form habits of presupposition by allowing media’s immediacy to overwhelm our own capacity for thinking and dissecting the objects presented to us “immediately and intimately”.

The increase of personalized media experiences through digital networks has exacerbated this influence, precisely through the increased intimacy achieved by that personalization. As Gaines writes, we believe ourselves unaffected while others suffer. But, in truth, this only masks more deeply our own deceit. Is this turn of the digital inevitable? Or can we do better? Are we hapless victims of tyrannical media authority—or do we have means to free ourselves?

On Analogy

A Brief Primer on the Doctrine’s Confusion

Few topics have brought as much consternation to Thomists than that of analogy; not only those living and writing in the contemporary period (subsequent, that is, to the Leonine revival initiated in 1879), but stretching back to the first fluorescence of Thomism begun in the late fourteenth century, the question of analogy has wrought the wringing of hands.  In this earlier Thomism, two names stand out with particular importance: namely, Thomas Cajetan and Sylvester of Ferrara, authors notable not only for their independent contributions, but as those whose commentaries were included in the Leonine editions of the Summa Theologiae (Cajetan) and the Summa contra Gentiles (Sylvester).  Cajetan shifted the discourse on analogy, however, through an independent work of his own (De Nominum Analogia), often thought to be an indirect elaboration and commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ own doctrine of analogy, but well-demonstrated in recent years to be his own relatively original teaching.[1]

Largely because of Cajetan’s interjection (and the mistaken interpretations of its intent), the twentieth century saw an explosion of treatments concerning analogy.  Not only did monographs on the topic proliferate, but nearly every book of Thomistic philosophy, it seems, at least adverted to the integral importance of analogy—while few did little to clarify precisely what it was, even those monographs dedicated to the question.  Indeed, it seems that these works not only failed to bring clarity, but instead stirred up even worse yet the mud.

But what, we must ask, makes this doctrine so contentious?

Origin of Controversy

To provide the briefest summary possible: Aristotle twice in his Metaphysics (a name not chosen by his own volition) makes the assertion that “being is said in many ways.”  More literally translated into Latin, this would be rendered multiplicter dicitur, and such is a formulation we find Aquinas using often.  However, by a conflation of translations, the term analogia—despite in Aristotle’s Greek being reserved to the proportion of mathematical relations—was transferred into Latin as synonymous with the multiplicter dicitur, and thus rendered by Aquinas occasionally with the phrases analogia or analogice dictum (“analogically said”).[2]

When Aquinas refers to analogy, we see he does so as a way of naming through a kind of relation to something understood according to the perfection which we are able to grasp.  Thus, when we say that exercise is “healthy”, this is because we know the perfection of a healthy body, and that exercise is healthy because it has a relation to making bodies healthy.  Somewhat similarly, when we say that God is “good”, we do this not by knowing the goodness of God directly, but because we know the goodness of things God has created and can therefore infer logically that the goodness belonging to finite perfections has an infinite (and therefore incomprehensible) existence in the Divine Creator.  Unlike the predication of “healthy”, we do not in the case of “goodness” know the greater perfection, but only the lesser and the derivative.  Nevertheless, though our knowledge of the greater perfection remains incomplete, we can nevertheless hold it as true, albeit necessarily mediated through the lesser perfections which we do comprehend (as, indeed, we would not know the healthiness of exercise if not for knowing the health of bodies).

The diverse kinds of analogy presented in Aquinas, however, gives rise to the question: what exactly is it that differentiates the kind of analogy employed in speaking of “health” as opposed to speaking of “good”?  It does not seem unfair to claim that, even though Cajetan was not intending to provide an expository commentary on Aquinas’ teaching, he does take this question as his point of departure.

Cajetan’s Confusion

For the sake of brevity, I will not here elaborate on these distinctions (which provide an interesting cognitive exercise but which, I think, will ultimately dissipate through disuse).  Instead, we should attend to one of the principal terms, central to discussions of analogy, upon which Cajetan attempted to shine a light: namely, being.  Here, Cajetan seems to re-center the discussion on the idea of proportionality, drawing upon the original meaning of the Greek term analogia.  Certain terms, and most especially that of being—ens, in Latin—were proposed by Cajetan to be significative of concepts which were themselves analogical, in contrast to those which are univocally predicated (that is, said with one meaning in every instance).  I have criticized this view at some length elsewhere.[3]  Summarily, it is a strange shift to take a property of linguistic signifiers, namely their univocal or analogical mode of predication, and attribute this to the concept.  There are many problems this causes for knowledge.[4]

To leap ahead more than five hundred years, we find the Thomists of the twentieth century, whose concerns were shaped by the need to respond against the faults of modern idealistic philosophy, themselves deeply dissatisfied with Cajetan’s doctrine (most especially when mistaking it to be an interpretation of St. Thomas).  In part, it seems, their dissatisfaction was spurred by the failure of Cajetan’s doctrine to answer the objection, propagated largely by Immanuel Kant, that “being” (and all forms of the verb to be) constitute naught but an empty predicate: that saying “there are” of “a hundred dollars” adds nothing conceptually (let alone to our bank accounts).  Thomists were—rightly, but undoubtedly excessively—concerned to defend the reality of esse (the infinitive of “to be” and used often by Aquinas to designate the act of existence itself as a real principle distinct from the essences of being), and especially to demonstrate how this reality overcomes the “epistemological gap” introduced by Descartes in asking how we can know that our ideas represent the extramental world as it really is.

Analogy of Being

Thus, it was thought, an answer might be found in not merely having an analogical concept of being, but in holding that being itself is analogically.  To illustrate this point, John Deely, in his 2002 article, “The Absence of Analogy”, cites a 1940 publication by Edward T. Foote:

It is because things really are analogous that the universe presents itself, a unity, attractive to intellect, and penetrable by knowledge which excels science.  It is because things are analogous that mind can course up and down the grades (the “steps’” of perfections—where univocal unities would be futile—can freely range transversely from category to category.  By analogies man can go from himself, the being he knows best, far down to the truth, the goodness, the beauty of all inferior creation, which is ordered to him; he can rise to know something of what it means to be a creature without matter.  Finally, since beings are analogous to Being, from the existence and perfections of finite things, man can have knowledge of the transcendence excellences, the very subsistence of God.

Foote 1940: “Anatomy of Analogy”, The Modern Schoolman 18: 12–16.  Cited in Deely 2002: “The Absence of Analogy”, The Review of Metaphysics, 55.3: 547n32.  As Deely comments, “Pure Neoplatonism unconscious of itself.”

What would it mean for things to be analogous?  The suggestion of Foote, that there exists within all diverse things a commonality of being that allows our minds to “freely range transversely from category to category” seems in no way distinct from any generic and supposedly “univocal concept” (or “univocal essence”—which would be univocal, by contrast, to analogical “being”, one must presume)—as, indeed, the concept of “deer” being grasped allows me freely to consider the eight different ruminants picking through the snow in my neighbor’s yard at this very moment; as, indeed, by “ruminant” I am free to consider not only the deer, but the giraffe, the elk, even the bison.

I am not here proposing a solution to the question of analogy; a question legitimate and not easily resolved.  Nor can the thoughts of Neoplatonists or those under their sway be cavalierly dismissed.  But we would do well to stop and reconsider what reality we are signifying by the term “analogy” before we say that something is or is not analogical.

[1] Cf. Hochschild 2010: The Semantics of Analogy.

[2] Note, however, that “multipliciter dicitur” is, by far, his preferred term.

[3] And criticized it rather harshly, as some would hold.  See Kemple 2017: Ens Primum Cognitum, 40–51.

[4] The biggest of which would be the converse implication concerning “univocal” concepts: as though a concept not in and of itself analogical must signify precise the same cognition-independent reality—as though there exists a quantum entanglement between the concept and every instance in which the concept is precisely realized independently of the mind.

On the Value of Rhetoric

An excerpt from Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student on the value of rhetoric as needed in the modern age, accompanied by a brief commentary.

Selection from the Text:

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the three arts of language. Skill in the language arts is more important today than it used to be. Technological improvements in communication and transportation have brought us into more frequent and crucial converse with the inhabitants of our own country and with the peoples of other nations. It is important to our welfare that we learn how to ingratiate ourselves with others, how to express our thoughts and desires, how to allay their fears, and how to conciliate our differences. Rhetoric can help here… It behooves us now to withhold [violent means] of settling the tensions that exist in the world and exploit the possibilities of settling those tensions by the use of the powerful weapons of words. Rhetoric is the art that shows us how to hone that weapon and to wield it most effectively…

The road to eloquence is a hard road and a lonely road, and the journey is not for the faint-hearted. But if, as we are told, the ability to use words to communicate thoughts and feelings is man’s most distinctively human accomplishment, there can be few satisfactions in life that can match the pride a man feels when he has attained mastery over words. As Quintilian said, “Therefore let us seek wholeheartedly that true mastery of expression, the fairest gift of God to man, without which all things are struck dumb and robbed both of present glory and the immortal acclaim of posterity; and let us press on to whatever is best, because, if we do this, we shall either reach the summit or at least see many others far beneath us.”

Corbett 1965: Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 31 and 33.


While Corbett handles rhetoric much better than most who have written on it since these words were first published, I nevertheless have a bone or three to pick here. The first, and least consequential, is his use of the term “language arts”, particularly in close conjunction with the word “skill”. My objection, simply stated, is that these words seem to muddy the waters. Is logic a “skill”? Grammar? Rhetoric, perhaps, at least entails practices that we could call skillful: diction, timing, theatricality—but these seem rather incidental to what rhetoric is in itself. Certainly, the three parts of the Trivium are arts—and perhaps it is the cheapened experience of my own public school education—but the phrase “language arts” seems somehow inadequate; especially if the command of those arts is equated to skill.

My second objection concerns his claim that the road to eloquence is lonely. It may be counter-cultural, today. But it is not, and never should be, a lonely endeavor. Eloquence—the virtue of rhetoric—is relational. I cannot be eloquent except to someone else. Moreover, I could never judge my own eloquence without an audience that reacts to my words.

My third objection concerns the manner in which he characterizes the importance of rhetoric. It is true that rhetoric helps us ingratiate ourselves with others, express our thoughts, allay others’ fears, and conciliate our differences. It is also true that it may dissuade violence and war. But all this is rather utilitarian. It says what we may gain from rhetoric as a tool. It says nothing of what we may gain from rhetoric as a habit.

Thus, while we use Corbett’s book in our own Rhetoric course, for he gives an accessible insight to the ideas of classic authors, I believe he misses the spirit of antiquity. Rhetoric, that is, should be seen as part of the integral habituation of a whole human life. Gaining mastery over persuasion changes how I relate to others, to be sure. But more fundamentally, it is—or ought to be—a perfection of my own faculties. Good character antecedes being a good rhetorician, as Quintilian argues extensively. But being a good rhetorician ought also to reinforce one’s character.

Marshall McLuhan on the History of the Trivium

…the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy.  Ancient grammar was at odds with the dialectics of Plato and, especially, of Aristotle, as the art of interpreting phenomena.  As the method of patristic theology, grammar enjoyed uninterrupted ascendancy until the revival of dialectics by Gerbert, Roscellinus, and Abelard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  With the decadence of dialectical or scholastic theology in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both grammarians and rhetoricians surge forward again, finally triumphing in the work and influence of Erasmus, the restorer of patristic theology and of the grammatical humanistic discipline on which it rests.  On the other hand, the war between the dialecticians and rhetoricians began as soon as the Sophists attempted to make dialectics subordinate to the art of persuasion.  Plato and Aristotle were the greatest enemies of the rhetoricians, not so much in rejecting rhetoric, as in asserting that as an art it had no power to control dialectics.  The Stoics, however, are the main defenders of dialectics against rhetoric after Aristotle.

Marshall McLuhan, 1943: The Classical Trivium, 42.

A point which will be focused on in the present unnamed Lyceum trivium project (being constituted by a series of lectures and discussion sessions which will result either in a video, text, or other public-facing production: see more on our approach to the Trivium here), the conflict of “ascendancy” among the arts of the trivium is a subtle point to which few have drawn attention as well as McLuhan. One difficulty I see emergent from the history of their rivalry is a certain blindness to their unity. What makes something one? An indication hinted at here—whether intentionally or not—is the point of “decadence” in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries among the scholastics. This decadence itself is a point in need of exploration and exposition, for, certainly, while those under the influence of Ockham and other nominalistic theories were undoubtedly decadent in their dialectical practice, given that they had abandoned the essential principle of unity between thought and things, it is also true that other scholastics were not so decadent, though they may have been quite elaborate in their use of dialectic nonetheless. (See, for instance, the great work being done on the thought of the Conimbricenses.)

The opposition of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, that is, has never rendered robust intellectual fruit when one attempts entirely the suppression of the others. Each must be understood as an integral part of a whole. What remains a question—which we will explore explicitly in the second of our lectures and discussions—is how these parts are united and oriented as a whole. This question requires also, antecedently, a consideration of what the trivium aims at; for every unity is governed, in some way or another, by the end for the sake of which it exists. This question was the focus of our first session, wherein it was discussed that the arts of the trivium, as tools of reflection upon thought, are tools whereby we manifest in language what is true. This truth is not merely factual (i.e., of the literal and measurable), but revelatory of being.

And so the question becomes: through which of the arts do we best orient ourselves towards what is true, without leaving behind the others?