The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 2

It all begins with “that’s not true, it’s just metaphorical.”

And it ends badly, unless it gets converted into something like this:

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

What we need, then, is a proper term that expresses the basic movement of mind common to all learning, and especially important when learning about God:  “not only this, but definitely this.”

There are several ways to point out the necessity of this move–which is essential to what we mean by analogy–in all learning.  Consider a small child who is first learning to name things, who sees a small beetle and exclaims “bug!”  The child has heard his parents and others point to bugs, shoo bugs, stomp bugs, or pick up bugs and show them to curious eyes.  The child then, excited to have connected thing and name and flushed with praise, eager to dramatize the world and imitate and please the big people, exclaims “bug!” at the sight of a spider, a raisin, perhaps even the dog (but probably not a VW Beetle).  The child is not yet sufficiently familiar with bugs, spiders, raisins, or dogs to have a firm basis for distinguishing them (or for making the leap to an automobile), so siblings and parents and friends correct the names, “No, spider.”  “That’s a raisin.”  And so on.  Some of the candidates are easily distinguished; the dog was not very much like a bug, after all.

We can easily establish the basic movements, here, and they are the movements common to all thought, all education, all reasoning:  the recognition and assertion of similitude, and the recognition and assertion of difference.  Simplistic reductions of the arguments in language theory since Saussure often assign to language only the role of delimiting differences, but the existence of poetry and toddlers ought to be enough to suggest the poverty of such a reduction.  No, in both understanding and language, which are the interior and social manifestations of human rational soul, we proceed by discovering specifiable relationships of likeness-across-unlikeness and unlikeness-in-likeness that permit differentiation to occur within a unified field.


This can be described several ways.  Downstream from the Modern Western Philosophy tradition, I have long been accustomed to using the language preferred by Kant et al, of “synthesis” and “analysis.”  Like Coleridge, and similar to Pierce (who spoke of “prehension”), I am inclined to disagree with the general notion after Kant, that the “sensuous manifold” is essentially an undefined “given,” so that analysis (differentiating, delimiting) is the basic movement of thought, after which synthesis can begin.  We all agree, however, that there is an expansive movement of understanding that strives to “take it all in,” a movement that reciprocates with an effort to “sort it all out”; and that these movements of understanding are intimately related to the use of language to “name the beasts” and to remark their differences.  These are not manifested as discrete processes, but as reciprocating movements within every act of understanding and language.

Of course, we can also use a different way of speaking about this, if we hark back to the Thomistic and even the ancient tradition and accept the need to speak of “genus” and “species” in order to discover the “essence” of each thing we perceive and name.  Roughly, we need to know “what kind of thing” we are discussing, and we need to know “in what ways individuals of that kind can vary” in order to correctly understand and properly name that thing.  If we locate the individual by partially species characteristics and partly accidental characteristics (variations that do not distinguish individuals of that kind), then I am likely to have a confused understanding.  The obvious parallel is in zoological taxonomy, where creatures have sometimes been classified by characteristics which, upon further examination, may not sufficiently describe them.  A humble example is our child, who exclaims “bug!” at the dog because it crawls on the ground, at the raisin for its shape and color, etc.  The entire effort of careful description rests on this idea that there is an “essence” by which every properly named thing takes place and is made manifest, and that this “essence” is the ground of our hope for the intelligibility of that thing–our ability to properly understand and discuss it.

One can also imagine the problems that would arise by disregarding splashes or orange paint when identifying blackbirds, or spilling white paint on a cartoon cat in the vicinity of Pepe le Pew.

But this means that all learning proceeds by analogy, that is, by recognizing the similarity in dissimilar things, first looking at them “generically” and then attempting to “specify” them, correcting ourselves when we realize that our specification leaves no generic similarity:  Both koala and Kodiak are mammals, and for a variety of reasons we often call both “bear,” but upon careful specification we realize that there is no generic similarity between “bear” as used of koala and “bear” as used of Kodiak, because the shared meaning between them is almost exhausted in the higher orders of classification (vertebrate, mammal, etc.)–the koala does not share with the Kodiak what the brown and the black do; the koala’s differences from the Kodiak are not differences of species (in the philosophical sense) but of kind (genus).

So that’s the common form of analogy–the movement between unlikeness and likeness necessary to discover the generic and specific descriptions of each thing.  This movement continues as long as we continue to learn, but also bears the fruit of increasingly definite knowledge of increasingly many things in increasingly fit relations–that is, understanding.

And we’ll turn to understanding God, and to the problem of equivocation, next.