On Analogy

In a previous post we discussed the fact that our knowledge of God is analogical. In this post I want to present remarks made by Maritain in Appendix II of The Degrees of Knowledge: “On Analogy” (pages 442-45). I think that this is important in clarifying what St Thomas meant by saying that our knowledge of God is analogical.

Maritain distinguishes three different kinds of analogy:

  • analogy of attribution “has to do with a concept which is UNIVOCAL IN ITSELF (concept # 1: ‘healthy’ said of a living organism) but which the mind uses analogically by transferring it to other subjects (concept # 2: ‘healthy’ said of climate), in which case it designates something which is made known by its relation to the object of thought it signified itself by concept # 1 (a climate is ‘healthy’ because it is a cause of health—of the health of the organism). It is immediately evident that, under these conditions, an analogy of attribution, when it is all by itself, does not enable us to attain the thing analogically known in accordance with what is properly signified by the concept” (all emphasis in original). So “healthy” does not enable us to know a particular climate itself, but rather only in relation to what “healthy” means, and for different creatures different climates may be said to be healthy (a tropical island is not healthy for polar bears, but it’s great for pineapples).
  • metaphorical analogy “has to do with a concept which is UNIVOCAL IN ITSELF (concept # 1: ‘eagle’ said of a bird) and which the mind uses analogically by transferring it to other subjects (concept # 2: ‘eagle’ said of an orator) wherein it designates something made known by the likeness between the relation which that subject (the orator) has to a certain term (sublime eloquence), and relation which the object properly signified by concept # 1 (the bird) has to another term (lofty flight). It is clear that, under such conditions, metaphorical analogy (analogy of improper proportionality) never enables us, by itself, to attain the thing analogically known in accordance with what is properly signified by the concept” (all emphasis in original).
  • analogy of proper proportion “has to do with a concept which is ANALOGICAL IN ITSELF (‘knowing’ said of sense and intellect, ‘being’ said of the creature and of God), and which designates, in each of the subjects of which it is said, something made known by the likeness between the relations which one of these subjects (sense) has to the term (knowing) designated in it by that concept, on the one hand, and the relation which the other subject (intellect) has to that term (knowing) likewise designated in it by the same concept, on the other hand. It is immediately evident that under these conditions (the concept being in that case analogous of itself), an analogy of proper proportionality does enable us to attain the thing analogically known in accordance with what is properly signified by the concept. In this case, what is signified by the concept, inasmuch as it is one (even though it is so only in a unity of proportionality), is intrinsically and formally in each of the analogates” (again, all emphasis in original).

As we saw in the post linked above, Aquinas says that our knowledge of God is analogical in the last sense: “Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion” (emphasis added).

It’s also probably worth noting that these distinctions of different kinds of analogies are not a modern projection back onto Aquinas, but seem to have been common to Thomists over the centuries. Aside from Aquinas’ own use of the concept of analogy according to proportion, Maritain refers to writings of Cajetan (16th century) John of St Thomas (17th century) on the subject.

Posted in Aquinas - Philosophy, Epistemology, Thomistic Theses
4 comments on “On Analogy
  1. olivianus says:

    I notice you don’t summarize Maritain in your own words.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Drake,

    Is that merely a random observation as you’re passing through? Or is there something else on your mind?

  3. olivianus says:

    I am simply asserting that I doubt you even understand what was just said there. I read through that last section more than ten times and could not make much sense of it at all.

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Truth be told, The Degrees of Knowledge is not an easy book. If you find this little snippet to be hard, you would find chapters II-IV to be pretty much overwhelming. And I say that as someone who found them pretty much overwhelming—if not entirely, then at least for the most part. I found other parts of the book to be easier than that, but I would describe very little of it as just simple.

    I agree that his description of the third kind of analogy is difficult. But my purpose in the post was not to show or even necessarily suggest that I understand it all that well, so much as to to show that Thomists throughout history have distinguished different kinds of analogy, and to give some sense of what those distinctions are. The upshot is that if we unwittingly project back onto Aquinas a modern conventional sense of what analogy means when he speaks of analogical knowledge of God, we will almost certainly be both misrepresenting him and/or misunderstanding him to some degree or other.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else has explained analogy of proper proportion more clearly than Maritain does.

    Frankly, although I find it pretty difficult, I suspect that your difficulties are of a different sort because of your views, so that you are trying to wrap your head around something that you are predisposed to dislike and disagree with. On the other hand I accept what Aquinas says about how we know God and in what way we may do so, so that even if I don’t yet grasp every particular I am not put off by the whole thing. I don’t think that this is the right place to start with trying to understand him or Aristotle, though. The right place to start is surely with the metaphysics. Once again, I commend to you Feser’s book Aquinas as providing a useful introduction to Aquinas, if or when you find yourself inclined to have it explained by an actual Thomistic philosopher rather than an utter novice like me.

    It appears that St Thomas may discuss the subject of the post in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I have not read this commentary yet, although it is very high on my reading list (maybe starting sometime next year?).


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