Monthly Archives: March 2017

“liberal” work, “servile” work, and plumbers–Professional Panel notes

In my last response to the 2017 Conference on Leisure and Labor at St. Gregory’s University, I discussed some questions that arose from the keynote speech, particularly as regards the terms “useful” and “useless” as used of an art or the goods it seeks.

Something mentioned in that talk, the late Roman and medieval distinction between “liberal” and “servile” arts, recurred in the Invited Scholars Panel on the second day and lingered in the air of the Professional Panel that afternoon.


The “liberal” arts are, of course, those proper to the maintenance of a “free man” (and, where culturally conceivable, a “free woman”).  A “free man” stands without intermediary before the laws of the nation, owns property in his own right, participates in civic affairs in his own name, and is not a dependent of another in such a way as to render him obliged to give anyone payment or service without an equitable contract.  Those born or reduced to service–to slavery, or in better times to serfdom–were “servile,” that is, they had become dependents (voluntarily or involuntarily) to such an extent as to perpetually be obliged to offer service for subsistence, without any standing to insist on equitable terms by litigation, legislation, or direct action.

Now, as there was limited likelihood that most people in, say, 10th Century society could move between these states, there was little incentive to propose that the “servile” add “liberal arts” to their repertoire.  And as is so often the case, the urge to turn things into tidy exclusive sets seem to have made “liberal arts” and “servile arts” seem like two exclusive groups to most moderns.  The “liberal arts,” then, are often thought of as belonging to different departments–not just practically, but by necessity and by right–from what have variously been called “mechanical arts” or “practical arts” or “useful arts.”

Indeed, though it is far from obvious that this ought to be “just the way it is,” it is quite obvious that at least some moments in history–the 10th-12th centuries, though less the 13th-14th; the late 18th and 19th centuries, though less the late 20th–made it seem very expedient that those of “servile” status not be urged to waste their time on “liberal arts,” and those who could expect “liberal” lives eschew the “servile arts” altogether.

Even in times when economic incentive or egalitarian ideology, or some combination of these and other factors (such as the sudden need of many thousands of African Americans for education to live as free in the late 19C, or the need to re-integrate many thousands of soldiers after World War Two), have put a premium on “liberal education for all,” the troubling split between the two has often remained.  This divide–even where we are trying to erase or deny it–seems to emerge in, for example, radically flattened definitions of “liberal arts” or “servile arts” that turn one or both into a pragmatic adjunct of the other.

In my post about the discussion following the keynote written by Fr. Schall, I noticed with what difficulty we find language to articulate the difference between what is “truly useless” (miseducation, wasteful and destructive activity) and what is “useless” only under the influence of a pervasive utilitarian, pragmatist, instrumentalist understanding.  We often end up conflating such apparently “useless” activity with the “contemplative life,” and using that conflation to radicalize the division between the “useless” liberal arts and the “useful” merely utilitarian arts.  In so doing, we wrong the “active life” by treating it as merely instrumental, forgetting that study and teaching themselves properly belong to the “active life”; we forget that contemplation is both flower and fruit, and therefore also seed, of that which is nurtured and fed by activity, and neither merely a product of a process nor a purchase delivered.

The liberal arts, I therefore suggested, should be viewed as incorporating education that pursues both goods that could be taken for merely utilitarian goods (convertible only for other goods in the active life) and goods that could not be taken for merely utilitarian goods (strictly liberal goods).  I concluded that, from the perspective of the liberal arts so understood,

We are either growing and shaping our active lives so as to make it more possible for ourselves and others to enjoy the goods of friendship with God, and thus converting the mixture of true and false goods that are judged useful in the utilitarian sense into liberal goods that fructify in enjoyment of friendship with God (and being converted from a utilitarian to a liberal conception of what is useful); or we are stunting and misshaping our active lives so as to convert its goods only into others of its kind, while specifically treating as useless those activities that would make the true enjoyment of those goods possible, thus making those goods truly useless to ourselves and others.

In other words, a true liberal arts education will eschew some things that are truly “servile” in the worst sense, but will not make that distinction at the line of “knowledge worker” versus “laborer” or “white collar” versus “blue collar” or “theoretical” versus “practical” or “intellectual” versus “mechanical.”  A true liberal arts education will jettison whatever is contrary to human dignity, anti-realist, merely utilitarian, merely pragmatic, designed to bind us more completely to the powers of this world and make us more efficient subjects to secular tyranny; it will not train slaves, slave traders, or slave-drivers.

A true liberal arts education will include many things, then, that are often seen as on the “wrong” or “lower” side of these divides:  useful trades, especially those that can be taught from generation to generation, from craftsman to apprentice, farmer to farmhand.  These well-chosen trades will have two defining characteristics:  they will tend to make those who learn them capable of securing and enjoying the purely liberal goods, the leisure for contemplation; and they will tend to make those who learn them more capable of securing these goods for others, and teaching them to enjoy them.  It is necessary, then, that those who will be thought masters (fit to teach) or doctors (fit to devise programs of study, to teach teachers) be able to articulate the relationship of these chosen trades, and other fields of study, to the liberal goods and the contemplative life.

A liberal education, that is, aims at true conversion, not to be confused with a bare grasp of a concept or a temporary redirection of one’s aspirations.  This is a conversion of the goods of life, that is, a materially real and thus thoroughly personal commitment of one’s ability to gain a subsistence, to work and to learn, to a way of life that pursues the truly good and promotes the common good; that eschews the truly servile, wasteful, and destructive; that refuses to permit goods to remain merely earthly, consumed and being consumed, but cooperates with grace to heal and perfect nature.

To do that, it is probably practically necessary that there be three tiers of training, and these correspond readily to the traditional bachelor, master, doctor system:

  • the bachelor gains a trade and also studies the liberal goods in a way that orients his trade toward securing, enjoying, and sharing those goods;
  • the master continues in study of the liberal goods sufficiently that he can teach these through the bachelor’s level;
  • the doctor commits his life to the ongoing study of the liberal goods sufficiently that he can devise and refine courses of instruction, taking responsibility for the cultivation of these goods at all levels of society as his profession.

Now, I would contend that much of the bachelor’s training in a trade (and also much of liberal education) should be completed well before and probably through other means (here again I mention apprenticeship) than what we consider “college education” these days; honestly, the resources currently spent giving so many such a poor education through high school, and then through most four-year programs, are not only wasted but turned to positively destructive ends.  But whether achieved before, around, or through any particular educational organization, it is the aim of the liberal arts educator that every person who is willing and able should leave the family home to start a new life, likely a new family, equipped with the ability and understanding to secure, enjoy, and share the liberal goods–though we have to recognize that we, too, will have limitations in ability (and in will, though we ought to overcome these).


All these reflections, swirling in my head over the years and intensified in the last few years, were coming into fresh clarity as I heard the formulations of others at St. Gregory’s last week.  It was with some disappointment, then, but not much surprise, that I kept hearing the Professional panel talking about “critical thinking” and “problem-solving skills,” all too often exemplifying “character” only through literally servile traits like regarding inefficient use of on-the-clock time as “stealing” from one’s employer.  Even “empathy” in management, though certainly not negligible (no more so than punctuality, at least), was justified in terms of its capacity to make the workplace more efficient, for the most part.

Over the course of the question-and-answer period, however, some well-considered and even pointed questions and comments from the audience started to tease out of these presenters their better reflections about the relationship of the spiritual life to work, including not only the useful-to-employers traits they began with but the common understandings of what is good for humans that workers at all levels of organization must share if they are to produce real, truly durable, even eternal goods.

The problem, though, was that even in the context of such a conference, it was evident that the participants in the “Professional” division were initially primed to regard merely utilitarian goods as self-justifying and necessary, “tangibles” that were enhanced and optimized by the addition of “intangibles” superadded by the “liberal arts.”  When engaged in discussion, however, in most cases elements of their formation were drawn out that indicated their ability to understand–indeed, at some level, the basically human need to understand–that the liberal goods are not “intangibles” at all, not luxuries or even highly desirable option packages, not optimizations or class upgrades, but tangible human goods made ready for conversion, cultivated to the point of fructification.

This difficulty was, as evidenced above, the occasion of a number of reflections on the nature of the liberal arts.  Let me suggest one final thing it suggests, though:  it suggests that those who are already basically capable of gaining their subsistence, of acquiring utilitarian goods by work, can and should be prompted to consider again the need to sort these goods and convert them to “liberal goods”–to those goods that are, either mediately or immediately, convertible into the goods of contemplation, the fruit of leisure and a well-furnished mind.  It suggests that we can and should teach our friends and neighbors, “in the middle of life,” to commit themselves to securing and enjoying these goods in a way that also helps others to secure and enjoy them, that shares these goods and teaches others how they are to be enjoyed.

And that, friends, is worth a lot more than another cooking video, or another course in critical thinking.

It is the difference, not between a job and a career, but between a career and a life.

It’s what I was put here for.

Short Reminders on Indissolubility

A friend’s request for some background after reading a clumsily written attempt to muster a revisionist Latin Christian tradition on marriage reminded me of this book:


And led me to suggest the following:

Remember a few basic things when you talk to people who may not know what marriage really means but nonetheless enter disputes about the Catholic tradition concerning marriage.

Indissolubility is a property of a sacramental marriage, that is, of an actual marriage of two baptized persons. Indissolubility does not apply to natural marriages that do not have this character, though such marriages are permanent by their very nature. A “temporary marriage” is nonsense; but many things that are intrinsically permanent in character may possibly be dissolved by extrinsic forces.

For a marriage to be sacramental, both persons must be baptized; doubt about the baptism of either would also leave doubt about the indissolubility of the bond, though not of the permanent nature of marriage.

For a marriage to be sacramental, it must also actually be a marriage; doubt about the fact of the marriage would also leave doubt about the indissolubility of the bond (what doesn’t exist can’t be indissoluble), though not about the indissolubility of sacramental marriage as such.

Refusal of consent to the marriage, including rejection of any of the goods of marriage (so that I may be consenting to some sort of bond, but not to marriage), or lack of freedom to consent to marriage are, among others, grounds for concluding the nullity of the marriage–that is, they deny that there was any marriage, not that marriage is indissoluble.

The goods of marriage include fecundity and permanent sexual fidelity and exclusivity. Determining whether any of these has been rejected, or consent withheld or coerced, or consent at first withheld or coerced and later given freely, requires careful inquiry into complicated personal circumstances. Doing this may well be incredibly messy, and people may well express the terms of such an inquiry very badly indeed; this can lead to very badly worded rules and guidelines that need later correction or that require thorough familiarity with their immediate context.

Marriage, being a public act with civil consequences, has always had legal and juridical implications as well as ecclesial ones. Divorce, especially, is a civil act that is generally not an ecclesial act at all, especially in the West. (One reason for differences in the East is that the Caesaropapist tendency leads to a need to adapt ecclesial law to civil law, rather than use Church teaching as a foundation for the reform of unjust civil laws.) Ecclesial law, and even teaching, is often spoken toward and assumes the language of civil law as it is given; often we must read it against the customary, common, or statutory law of the place where the matter was discussed.

Leisure and Labor–notes from the conference at St. Gregory’s University

As St. Gregory’s University in nearby Shawnee, Oklahoma, welcomes its new president, Michael Scaperlanda, we nearby academically-inclined folks get to enjoy a conference designed to offer shape and scope to the direction St. Gregory’s is heading–and it’s encouraging!

Alas, keynote speaker Fr. James V. Schall was sick, and not able to read his own paper, but it was read by the learned and witty Dr. Wilfred McClay in his stead, with comments offered by Dr. Marcel Brown, Dr. Kyle Harper, and a stimulating discussion from the audience.


And the conversation really did continue at the reception afterward.

There were too many good turns and reflections in the original paper and the total conversation to remember, and I won’t wear you out trying to recount them all in my wandering fashion–nor would I do justice to the “you had to be there” quality of such a good discussion, if I tried.  You’ll just have to come join the conversation when you can.

But there was one really good thread that I wish we’d had even more time to pull.  Fr. Schall’s talk included a discussion of the “uselesness” of much that is still true and good to learn, distinguishing it from the merely instrumentally “useful” nature of other things.  In commenting later, someone linked “leisure” (as conceived by Pieper, especially–note the forward written by Schall) to the “uselessness” of learning, and linked these in turn to the need for a “contemplative” as well as an “active” component to life.

But in that process, I really found myself wanting to jump up and press for some distinctions.  (I have now decided that, given a chance to teach an appropriate audience, especially in a Socratic classroom, I will certainly ritualize the cry, “Distinguo!”)

Specifically, teaching and study are considered to be part of the active life, not part of the contemplative life.  The relationship between these things, as external actions that prepare us for well-ordered, peaceful adoration of God in a state of readiness to obey Him, is less like the relationship between toaster and toast (instrument and object) than like the relationship between preparing a cup of tea for my wife when she’s reading and enjoying the repose I’ve cooperated in making more completely fit, or perhaps better yet by responding gratefully to God who arranged the giant gaseous ball that sends the rays that warm her and that help the tea grow (and all other things on this Earth).  It is less like working to put gas in the car to drive it down the road on vacation; more like repeatedly fueling the car and driving through the night and seeing my family’s back porch as I roll in the driveway.

In other words, the active life–to include teaching and study, that is, including leisure activities as well as “work” in our modern sense, whether professional or “labor”–is not of a kind with the contemplative, just arranged as the product of a process of manufacture, as commodity to factor.

Instead, the active life reaches many goods, and commensurates those goods in order to achieve the economies that let us recombine those goods in order to achieve goals; but this system of nominally commensurable exchanges does not reach all goods–we say vulgarly, “Money can’t buy me love”–because some goods have directly to do with the good of friendship with God, a good which is too basic to our nature (on the one hand) and too far beyond our powers of estimation and comprehension (on the other) to ever build the right theoretical or practical structure to grasp or “buy into” on the basis of activity alone.

But that means that our definition of “useful” needs some modification, so that we can understand how the active life can aid the contemplative life.  We can approach this in steps:

  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield only nominal goods that are not essentially good (false goods); they are truly useless.
  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield goods convertible only for other goods that are part of the active life; they are useful only in the utilitarian sense, but that sense is not negligible, as such activities can help us and help others toward truly liberal goods.
  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield goods that actually prepare us for and provide expanded opportunity for the contemplative life (or “leisure”); they are useful in the liberal sense, the sense intended by the liberal arts (and these therefore include more mechanical arts than many think).  These activities, or “liberal arts” properly so called, are not themselves contemplations or the goods of contemplation, but like driving through the night they are definitely related to the enjoyment of the goods of seeing one’s family home (and higher goods yet).
  • Contemplation, however, is our increasing capacity for enjoyment of friendship with God, sincere and constant prayer, docility to His leading in public and private, and readiness to cooperate in His movements (as when He directs us to some good activity); it is useless in the utilitarian sense, as its goods are not convertible for other goods that are part of the active life.  It is useless in the liberal sense, as it is the enjoyment of that for which we have gained and used both utilitarian and liberal goods.

This paradoxical double sense of “useless,” however, should alert us that a conversion from merely utilitarian to properly liberal activity is an essential property of our becoming capable of friendship with God, of gaining the opportunity and readiness to truly enjoy this transcendent good.

Where we find ourselves describing the contemplative life as useless in the utilitarian sense, our words are trivially true but dangerously wrongheaded:  all utilitarian goods ultimately (at the horizon of death) “cash out” either in liberal goods that make possible the enjoyment of friendship with God, or they prove to be false goods.

Put differently, we are either growing and shaping our active lives so as to make it more possible for ourselves and others to enjoy the goods of friendship with God, and thus converting the mixture of true and false goods that are judged useful in the utilitarian sense into liberal goods that fructify in enjoyment of friendship with God (and being converted from a utilitarian to a liberal conception of what is useful); or we are stunting and misshaping our active lives so as to convert its goods only into others of its kind, while specifically treating as useless those activities that would make the true enjoyment of those goods possible, thus making those goods truly useless to ourselves and others.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Here, enjoy some Hugh of St. Victor on the divisions of the liberal arts:


On Doubt and Investigation

I recently had the chance to sit down with a friend (a college student, though not one of mine) and discuss the way encountering the questions of others, and the active unbelief of others, affects us.  Some people find it easy to disengage from these encounters; others seek them out; others, having learned that aggressively seeking those encounters, or forcing them, is unwise, are nonetheless regularly called into the place where such encounters are inevitable.  Unless we simply say “Am I my brother’s keeper?” about these matters, we find ourselves obligated to at least do what we can to remove misunderstandings, to be sure we leave the situation better than we found it.

Of course, with malicious malingerers, that is not always possible.

Anyway, enough of these encounters and the honest reasoner begins to discover some skipped points, some blind spots, some stolen bases, in his own approach to expressing the truth.  That’s fine; it is a good opportunity for taking a deep breath, reflecting a bit, and looking around for a more thorough, more graceful, more complete and economical method of exposition and argument.

But of course we are spiritually complicated people, and our still-unformed character also seizes hard on our need to be right, our impatience with the stiff-necked and perverse generation, and other ways that the faithful have, since the beginning, struggled to emulate the Christ who expressed anger without sin, who questioned His Father without unbelief, who was both more authoritative and more meek than we have any right to be–who was the Rock, who gushed forth water at a word, who did not forget himself and strike the Rock like Moses, or like Peter the Rock striking the servant in the Garden.  He was not only forceful and effective, he was restrained.

So we often enter into periods of doubt ourselves after significant efforts to represent the truth to an audience with doubts–still more if we regularly meet with the sorts of bad faith that are common in our public discourse, today, or the organized opposition to the possibility of meaningful discourse that we often encounter.  There is a flatly demonic spirit abroad in this nation, in these times; we are confused by our own din.

But doubt, by itself, is just exactly an invitation to investigate.  It is a question, to searching eyes; it is a petition, to praying lips.  It is fine–simply fine, no questions need be asked–to find oneself in a season of doubt.

What I suggested was very important, though, was that my friend enter into that season–and, secondarily, into dialogues with others–aware of the difference between experiencing doubt and practicing unbelief.

Unbelief is not at all like doubt, though we often cloak one in the language of the other, whether in extenuation or in accusation.  Unbelief decides against, fails to assent to, treats as practically false what we know to be true–what God has clearly revealed, what has been proposed to us on good authority.  Unbelief is serious sin, and the grace of God cannot flourish in our lives while we continue to practice unbelief.

So, practically, I suggested that my friend watch the following distinction in himself, closely, as he lived through a season of doubt:  Am I posing questions, expecting answers? or am I defending questions against answers?

We have all experienced this distinction, I think, in ourselves–or if by some chance not, surely in another.

Yes, it is true that sometimes a question must be reconsidered and posed again where an answer is reasonably seen to be incomplete, inadequate, inapposite, or impracticable.  One should not, after all, assume that one answer given ends the relevance of every question!  Nonetheless, there is both inside me–and you–and in our conversations with others a “But…!” that refuses to accept an answer, not because it is inadequate to the question, but because it is not the one I hoped for.

There is a tight nexus between that risk of practicing unbelief–of defending my questions against their answers–and the problem of despair, in fact.  I said that it would be wrong to refuse to accept an answer “because it is not the one I hoped for.”  But why would I hope for the answer that is, in fact, wrong?  Why would I hope for something not properly articulated to reality, not capable of leading me on to things I hope for more durably and deeply?

Well, again, in honest doubt the reason might be that I am aware that the answer is actually inadequate.  I may need to continue in prayer, to continue living in hope, for a question that draws a better answer; in fact, that total growth in my hope and faith may well be a reason for entering into a season of doubt.

In fact, in the case of the friend I was talking to, I suspect that is just what is happenning.

However, you or I may also be hoping for too little.  We may not have learned, really wholly absorbed, the goodness of our God, and the way He forgives, and calls, and shapes us.  Cardinal Newman was right to note the relationship of this kind of trust in God’s goodness–which has the character of hope, and is a constituent of friendship–to our capacity to grow in faith:

Yet there is a way, in which the child can give an indirect assent even to a proposition, in which he understood neither subject nor predicate. He cannot indeed in that case assent to the proposition itself, but he can assent to its truth. He cannot do more than assert that “Lucern is medicago sativa,” but he can assent to the proposition, “That lucern is medicago sativa is true.” For here is a predicate which he sufficiently apprehends, what is inapprehensible in the proposition being confined to the subject. Thus the child’s mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as “The quality of mercy is not strained,” or “Virtue itself {16} turns vice, being misapplied,” she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know: and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition,—not, that is, to the line itself which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good.

Of course I am speaking of assent itself, and its intrinsic conditions, not of the ground or motive of it. Whether there is an obligation upon the child to trust his mother, or whether there are cases where such trust is impossible, are irrelevant questions, and I notice them in order to put them aside. I am examining the act of assent itself, not its preliminaries, and I have specified three directions, which among others the assent may take, viz. assent immediately to a proposition itself, assent to its truth, and assent both to its truth and to the ground of its being true,—”Lucern is food for cattle,”—”That lucern is medicago sativa is true,”—and “My mother’s word, that lucern is medicago sativa, and is food for cattle, is the truth.” Now in each of these there is one and the same absolute adhesion of the mind to the proposition, on the part of the child; he assents to the apprehensible proposition, and to the truth of the inapprehensible, and to the veracity of his mother in her assertion of the inapprehensible. I say the same absolute adhesion, because unless he did assent without any reserve to the proposition that lucern was food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical name and description of it, he would not be giving an unreserved assent to his mother’s word: yet, though {17} these assents are all unreserved, still they certainly differ in strength, and this is the next point to which I wish to draw attention. It is indeed plain, that, though the child assents to his mother’s veracity, without perhaps being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, insomuch as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings.

Accordingly, by reason of this circumstance of his apprehension he would not hesitate to say, did his years admit of it, that he would lay down his life in defence of his mother’s veracity. On the other hand, he would not make such a profession in the case of the propositions, “Lucern is food for cattle,” or “That lucern is medicago sativa is true;” and yet it is clear too, that, if he did in truth assent to these propositions, he would have to die for them also, rather than deny them, when it came to the point, unless he made up his mind to tell a falsehood.

Sometimes, I am convinced, a season of doubt is not even about the questions and the answers.  It is about the way that faith and hope interact, drawing us into that friendship with God that is perfect charity.

So pose your questions.  Investigate your doubts.  Do not defend your questions from answers.  Pray as you reason, and reason as you pray; do not set the two against each other.  And know, when you’re right but also experiencing doubt, that God may want you to really trust His goodness in the matter–to really expect good things to follow from truth.

My friend was Protestant, but I still didn’t scruple to recommend the best way I know to let my questions simply be–real and answerable, surrendered to God’s will against unbelief and despair, but not suppressed and not clamoring:


Because we know–even if we must keep learning to dwell more fully in its truth, even if doubt is the necessary experience of learning–that the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the reality that cuts more deeply to the heart of God than any other.  The very fulcrum of Creation and Redemption cannot fail to be more than the answer to more than the questions we know how to think of, so we can break into doxology without failing in our pursuit of truth:

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(source:  Romans 8:31-39 RSV-CE)

Another “Way In” to Analogy

I’ve been working on some notes on Analogy–absorbing the Thomistic doctrine, on the one hand, but also working out a fresh answer to some contemporary problems that cut to the bottom of language and literature and rhetoric (not to mention metaphysical and philosophical discourse), on the other.  I’m pleased that the notes are making sense, and still working them out in enough detail that I’ll be ready to apply them clearly to the significant stack of critical and philosophical works I’m hoping to put these insights into conversation with.

I’ve already blogged a bit about this approach to Analogy, and hope as I go forward to keep being lucid without sacrificing translatability into various forms of rigorous language (and occasional jargon).

I wanted to pause, though, to jot down in brief paragraphs something that I put down on the first page in this fresh notebook I made notes on (not the first page, because I tend to jump back to the previous leaf’s verso after filling the recto in my notebooks, or to use the facing pages as text-and-notes; and not the first page I marked on, because I doodled on one page after writing “Analogy” at the top of it, too).  If your tolerance for language-theory jargon is very low, skip ahead to the John and Jim section!


Got that?  All, right, you don’t have to read it from the page.

One “way in” to understanding the basic form of analogy (this is what I am now calling “weak analogy,” not to be confused with what develops when we deal with the Being of God, which I’ll call “strong analogy” or “analogy proper”) is to look at a statement that would definitely make sense to us, and that we would assent to in its perfomative sense but also in that it expresses indirectly a claim we know can be true or false, but that we know is also false when taken literally–that is, when read according to the denotation of the words and in the indicative mode.

Before we go on, here’s one list of various ways a statement can “work”:


(Sorry for the verbiage, but follow the example and you’ll be fine–and if you spot an error in the verbiage, please let me know!)

So, then, John has a business associate named Jim that has become a personal friend.  John has mentored Jim and invited him home, and Jim has followed John through several jobs.  Introducing him, or asked to fire him, John says of Jim, “Jim is family.”

Now, if a very skeptical, naive, or curious interlocutor followed up, John would have to admit that Jim is not a relation by blood or by marriage.  And we, caring about the meaning of terms, would have to insist that “family” cannot properly denote “anyone I want to call family” or even “anyone I have strong bonds of loyalty and affection cultivated over years with,” though that last one starts to sound like a pretty plausible explanation of John’s usage.

In fact, being a sensible fellow, John would simply sidestep this conversation by saying, “Jim is like family.”

Now the ambiguity is resolved:  a probable metaphor that might have been literal classification [“Jim is related to me”], allusion (to the Mafia?), an attempt to assert an idiosyncratic definition of “family,” an obviously false assertion offered as a provocation, or some other things has been explicitly marked as a similitude. Metaphor gives way to simile, and we know that “Jim is like family” means “Jim is the kind of friend that is very much like a family member.”

Of course, if we know John and Jim even a little, we probably know they aren’t related; we would interpret “Jim is family” as a response to whatever circumstances prompted the statement–introducing Jim to someone who doesn’t know him well, asking not to be made responsible for firing Jim, etc.  But our point here wasn’t really to question whether reasonably well-informed people can navigate fairly simple conversations without much confusion; our point wasn’t even to underscore the need to keep basic terms grounded in reality, though that’s very much a reasonable concern.

No, the point is that at no point in any of this reasoning did we doubt that “family” and “friend” are analogous, that is, that at least some friends can be described truthfully and accurately with at least some significant language that also applies to family.  Friend and family are alike enough that we can learn something about a friend by hearing him called “like family.”

This gives us the rough definition of analogy that will guide us through the rest of the discussion:  an analogy is

  • a likeness of otherwise unlike things, that
  • can teach us about one or more of those things, or about the likenesses.

That is, Analogy is heuristic likeness-in-unlikeness.

Or, as I put it in some of my other notes:

“Weak Analogy” can be identified when a trope of similitude (simile, metaphor, etc.) evinces a principle; it is heuristic insofar as one may learn about the principle from the terms, or one may learn about one of the terms from observing that principle in the other.

Most important, though, it is the reality that things are analogically related–that friends can be like family because of what friends actually are and what families actually are, not by a merely subjective insistence or volitional decree–that makes it possible for metaphor and simile to be true.  The truth of tropes of similitude is underwritten by Analogy.

Without this understanding, not only learning but all of language is either meaningless, or impossible, or both.