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On Analogy

A Brief Primer on the Doctrine’s Confusion

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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.

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[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.

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?

The Problem of Christian Philosophy

In the second of the Lyceum Institute Colloquia in 2022, we present Dr. James Capehart, who brings us discussion of Christian Philosophy as it has been viewed in the Christian Middle Ages as well as transmitted through the debates of the 20th century.

How in fact is Christian philosophy a problem? The wording itself has proven to be the most problematic. Can there be a philosophy that is truly Christian? Does “Christian” specifically differentiate “philosophy”? Does that turn it into a theology? Given the existence of numerous volumes of Christian works of theology, can we say that any of their contents should be called philosophical? Is any of that content unique to Christian thinkers?

The Problem of Christian Philosophy – Preview

Dr. Capehart’s lecture is now available at the Lyceum Institute. The live question and answer session will be held on 14 May 2022 (Saturday) at 6:00pm ET. Colloquia lectures are released the year after publication at the Lyceum, and Q&A sessions are reserved for members. For information on signing up for the Lyceum, see here.