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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.

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More than Aesthetics: Ens Artificiale & the Philosophy of Art [REGISTER]

Matthew Minerd

What is the being of a work of art?  What is the nature of “poetic” knowledge, the experience of the artisan and the artist?  How should a Thomist speak about these matters?  This lecture series is devoted to these questions, taking as their principal guide, Jacques Maritain, who probed these questions in his works Art and Scholasticism, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, and Art and Poetry.  Other thinkers will be consulted along the way, presenting a synthesis which, however, uses Maritain’s texts as the primary guiding thread of the lecture discussion. [REGISTER]

Thomistic Psychology: The Meaning of Evil [REGISTER]

Kirk Kanzelberger

Every human being has some notion of evil, vague though it may be, as that which is opposed to a good:  the good that one desires, the good that one honors – or, perhaps, the good that one wishes one honored or desired more than one does.  Even those who lack an inclination to deeper questioning concerning the matter and the meaning of evil can nevertheless find themselves possessed with anger at states of affairs, ideas, and other persons they clearly judge to be evil.  Might there be some relation of dependence between the lack of deeper questioning and the frenzy of the anger, as well as the lack of humility it evinces?  For if we are honest, we must admit that, despite every good intention, we ourselves have some share in, and make some concrete contribution to, the mysterious reality of evil in the world.  This seminar aims to deepen our questioning concerning the meaning, that is, the intelligible reality signified by the term evil. [REGISTER HERE]

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Brian Kemple

In the second Metaphysics seminar, we will engage in a deep Thomistic discussion of the intelligible discovery of the existence of God and the justifiable inferences which may be made concerning the Divine Nature.  This stands in corresponding opposition to the via resolutionis secundum rationem discussed in the first Metaphysics seminar, concerning the discovery of ens inquantum ens, as the via resolutionis secundum rem—according to the thing, according to the existential cause.  This will unfold further into a consideration of the attributes of the Divine which may be justly inferred from the resolution to a First Cause.  Thus, the primary reading for the course will be from the Prima pars of the Summa theologiae. [REGISTER HERE]

[2021 Fall] Metaphysics: The Existence, Nature, and Intelligibility of God

The fourteen questions which we will read in this seminar, comprising eighty-five articles, will explore the existence, nature, and intelligibility of God.  The existential demonstration—the famous “five ways” of Aquinas—will be covered quickly: for their intelligibility grows the better we understand the rest of the questions, and we will be better equipped for grasping their significance in light of the divine nature and its intelligibility to us.  In addition to the divine attributes (simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, omnipresence, immutability, eternality, and unity), we will take recurrent interest in the topics of analogy, significance, knowledge, and the relation of act and potency which cuts across all being.

In this seminar, lasting 8 weeks (see here for more information on all Lyceum Institute seminars), basic principles of metaphysics will be applied to an understanding of the existence, nature, and intelligibility of God. One should be at least passingly familiar with both Aristotle and Aquinas, and especially the doctrine of act and potency. The instructor for this seminar is Brian Kemple, PhD, the Executive Director of the Lyceum Institute. You can read more about Dr. Kemple here and download the syllabus here.

October 2–20 November
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