The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 3

So all of our learning happens by analogy.  As we come to understand, we name things in two basic ways:  we give the same names to things which we see as “like,” though we know they are not necessarily “the same”; and we specify to find which ways an individual can vary and still be essentially “the same” (accidental differences, same genus, same species), which ways individuals can vary and still be “like” (same genus, different species), and which ways individuals cannot vary and be either “like” or “the same” except accidentally (different essences).  As our mental organization improves, we must frequently revise our understandings; the recognition of more and less “fit” analogies is a crucial skill for anyone who wants to reason skillfully.

And with many things–with almost all terrestrial things, things that we can observe with our senses, measure, manipulate, build, or participate in bodily in some way–we are able to specify our meaning so completely that there is no reason we cannot be confident that when we use the same name of two things, we mean they are “the same” (same genus, same species).

For example, when I say “those are both Shetland ponies” or “those are both triangles,” you would not think that one was a cute little baby quarter horse or that one was a parallelogram with a very short side.  You would understand that I am intend to use the name univocally.  “Univocal predication” happens when we use names in a way that assumes that whatever is so named is actually “the same” in essence as other things receiving that name.

In almost all things, then, we tend to place a very high value on univocal predication–on carefully stating our claims using only terms that the hearer can understand univocally, and arranging them so that the hearer can simply affirm or deny the entire claim.  Many philosophical conversations begin with a concern for whether and how it is possible to speak univocally about all things, but this is not only an abstract concern; every contract, and all laws, and almost every conversation between parents and six-year-olds, turns on the problem of avoiding equivocation, or the use of “equivocal predication.”

Let’s return to our example of the small child exclaiming “Bug!” at an insect, a raisin, and the dog (but not a VW Beetle).  The child is learning by analogy, and eventually learns to specify properly and to remove the raisin and the dog from the category; at this point the child seems prepared to use “bug” univocally, referring only to insects.  Whenever the child says “bug,” he now means a fly, a beetle, a mosquito, a roach, a cricket, a grasshopper, etc.  Of course, this takes a lot of learning, and continues to have gaps; the child will discover that a butterfly is usually not thought of as “a bug,” and neither is a spider; terms like “insect” and “beetle” will prove more useful for being more perfectly univocal.  He will learn, in short, that even the univocal sense of “bug” is a relatively fixed point in a larger field of learning and understanding; this univocal usage is built on analogies, and occupies a place in a larger web of more generic and more specific language.

When his big sister teases him by saying, “I see a bug!  It’s right in front of you!” so that the child searches the whole front of a VW Beetle for a cricket or moth or fly, though, the child will learn about equivocal predication properly so called.  We can simplify equivocation by talking about seemingly univocal claims that use terms that have one meaning for the speaker and another for the hearer, though that misses some of what’s happenning with regard to the analogies by which we learn and which also yield, in specific contexts, univocal or equivocal claims.

Big sister’s teasing turns on swapping analogies:  the VW Beetle is often called a “bug” because beetles (hard-carapaced insects) are among those we regularly refer to as “bugs”; the child who has just learned that “bug” does not mean raisin or dog, though, will look for anything except the car.

This teasing (like much teasing) turns on equivocation, and tends to help the child learn the limitations of his understanding.  Obviously, unintentional equivocation would be a failure; deliberate use of equivocation to deceive would be a lie, just like speaking a blatant falsehood.

So to speak analogously is to understand the name as having a general sense that must be specified before one can speak univocally; to speak equivocally is to use the name as though specified, but without specifying.  Because confusion and deception often enter our discourse through equivocation, we generally strive to speak univocally.  Because all the terms in univocal language are learned in analogy, and refined through analogous discourse, though, there can be no question of any particularly significant conversation proceeding solely in univocal terms.  As long as there is learning going on, or matters are being discussed in any terms beyond the most narrowly transactional and concrete, at least some terms in the discourse require interpretation based on the fitness of analogy after the univocality of all known terms is established.  

Nor is all equivocation bad:  all puns, and many other verbal effects, turn in part on equivocation, and draw our attention for humorous or significant effect to possibilities beyond those available in univocal discourse.  Such effects, however, depend on the univocal discourse for their truth, and refer through it to the analogical discourse that generates the univocal discourse.

Remember, then:

  • When the child learns the word “Bug!” for a beetle, and applies it to insects, raisins, and the dog (but not the VW Beetle), the child is using language “analogously,” and will learn by specification which analogies are fit and which are not;
  • When the child learns to use “bug” for a range of insects, and to exclude butterflies and spiders, the child begins to use “bug” univocally;
  • When big sister teases the child by saying “Look out!  there’s a bug in front of you!” when they stand in front of a VW Beetle, the child is confused because big sister has used “bug” equivocally.

Because this understanding is essential to your grasping why we say that we can only speak of God analogously.  [we’ll proceed there in Part 4]