Analogy

by Andrew Nimmo

Analogy is one of those terms often used but difficult to explain. Its use in common speech is in comparing one thing with another. The basis for analogy is something in common in the things being compared. As analogy has many applications, some of them significant, it might be well to understand it more fully.

A term, a word expressing a meaning, can be used in three different ways. When a term is being used always with the same meaning it is called a univocal term. For example, when the term "animal" is being used to express only it's meaning as a creature endowed with sensitive life, it is said to be a univocal term. Univocal means that sameness of meaning is understood - that is, where a word is being understood to mean the same thing. This is one kind of term.

In English, as in other languages, there are a finite number of words. As there are more things to be expressed than there are words to express them, sometimes the one word is used to express different things. This can be done in one of two ways. First, a term can be used to mean things which essentially have nothing in common with each other. This is using a term equivocally. The equivocal term is the opposite of the univocal where sameness of meaning is implied.

An example of a word which is used equivocally is "tick". "Tick" can be a mark on a page, the sound of a clock or that undesirable insect.

Another example is "match" - something used to start a fire, or a sporting event.

What do these meanings have in common? Nothing. The use of these equivocal terms implies no sameness of meaning, nothing in common. This is the second kind of term.

However a word can be used to express difference of meaning in another, third, way. When a term is used where there is difference of meaning but also some commonality of meaning we have something between the univocal and the equivocal - it is the analogous.

An example of an analogous term is "healthy". This term can refer to health itself, that is a normally functioning organic constitution. It can also be used in expressions such as "healthy medicine", "healthy cheeks" and so on. The expression "healthy medicine" certainly has a relation to health, but is not health itself - rather a cause of health. Similarly, "healthy cheeks" is not health itself, but is a sign of health. The different meanings of "healthy" are very far apart (almost equivocal) and yet there is some commonality of meaning. This is the specific character of analogy - there is some likeness of meaning, but more unlike than like.

"Health" and its analogates are an example of analogy of attribution or of proportion. Only one term is truly health and this is known as the principal analogate. The other analogates are only secondary and take their significance from the principal analogate, for they are not health itself.

Another example of analogy is comparing things according to universal characteristics:

The same term "good" is used of different subjects. They are very different things, yet they are the same on this score - they are all worth having, as being the goal of some inclination, which is exactly what we mean by "good". When "good" is applied to these subjects there is great lack of sameness, but not utter diversity, sufficient commonality that they can all truly be called good. This example differs from that of analogy of attribution. Here there is not one principal analogate, but the term is said truly, though diversely, of all the subjects. There is a proportion between each subject and "good", and because each is really good there is a proportion, again analogously, between each mode of goodness. By this I mean that as God is good - has a relation to His goodness, so is a man good - has a relation to his goodness. They have something in common. Yet there is a lot more not in common, for God is goodness, whereas a man only has goodness (he can even lose that part of it which is moral); and the mere sense of taste lets us know that a juicy steak is worth having. A vast difference as we can see. This double proportion, that between the subject and the term said of it, and that between each analogate - another analogous proportion, is called analogy of proportionality: proportion between proportions.

The example of "good" is proportionality properly speaking. A third example shows another mode of analogy of proportionality, that of metaphoric proportionality:

"Angry", the adjective of "anger", the desire to hurt the hurter, is applied to these three subjects diversely. It is said literally of the man since of the three only he can undergo the passions. He alone is formally angry. When it is said of God it is used as metaphoric analogy, for although God as God cannot undergo passions He can produce effects like anger. When it is applied to the rough sea it is again used metaphorically as a metaphorical sign of anger - it is like anger. In this example, unlike that of "good", only the anger of the man is true anger. The literary devices, metaphor and simile (a mitigated metaphor) are thus one of the modes of analogy.

The preceding division of analogy can be thus schematized:

Analogy: A term may be equivocal, analogous or unequivocal

Using Analogy

When do we use analogy? We use it in understanding those things which fall outside the immediate and proper object of our intellect. What does this mean? I am going to use an analogy to explain analogy. The analogy is that of sight and its proper object. What sight attains immediately is colour. Colour is said to be the proper and immediate object of sight. But is sight restricted to knowing only colour? No, it attains other objects; namely, number, movement, rest etc. But how does sight see that there are two dogs, that one is moving, the other stationary etc? It is insofar as these objects are coloured and thus visible. It is through the medium of colour that sight is able to attain other objects. Thus, colour is the immediate object of sight and number, movement, rest etc are mediate objects of sight. Whatever sight attains it is going to be in terms of its immediate and proper object, yet is not restricted to this object.

How is sight an analogy for the human intellect? Well, the intellect also has a proper and immediate object and it is in terms of this that it understands everything else (in this life). The proper object, also called the formal object, is always in proportion to the power of knowledge. Colour is in proportion to sight. What is in proportion to the human intellect? Let us consider it. What are the nature and state of the human intellect in this life? It is a spiritual power but operating dependently on a corporeal subject. The intellect, though an immaterial power, depends in this life upon the senses of the body it is in to provide objects of knowledge for it to understand. This is an objective and extrinsic dependence. Thus, the nature of the intellect is spiritual but its natural state is that of objective dependence on the body. What object is in proportion to this? To put it simply: the intellect is an immaterial power in a material body - its object is the (immaterial) natures of (material) bodies. There is a lot more that could be said about this but we must move on.

The natures of bodies are the formal object of the human intellect in this life. This means that whatever the intellect understands in this life will be in terms of the natures of bodies. Where does analogy come in here? Well, if we are considering something within our immediate object we have no need of analogy; say for example if I am considering the nature of gold, or a carrot, or a leopard, or a man. But if I am considering something which falls outside my immediate object, that is, something not bodily, then I have to employ something else. If I am thinking about God, or the angels, or the human soul, or the virtues, or concepts or anything not material I have to go beyond my immediate object.

How can I do that? I have to understand in terms of my immediate object, as sight has to know in terms of colour, so I have to consider immaterial things in terms of material things and even give them names which have a relation to bodies. Yet I am still attaining the immaterial, even though the natures of bodies are material.

As we recall that two things compared analogously have something in common, but are more unlike than like, we see that as we move into the realm of immaterial things we are considering realities which are like bodies, at least inasmuch as they are beings, but are very much unlike in other ways. So as we wish to understand those things which are above our formal object, we need to remember two things. First, whatever we understand is going to be in terms of the natures of bodies, and secondly, we are going to have to employ analogy to take this step.

To understand "angel", for example, I recognize that I am moving to a reality beyond the bodily world, to something very unlike it. Yet there is something in common. There is an analogy between angels as beings and men (as an example of something with a body) as beings. What is the analogy based on? Well, angels and men have in common that they are both beings, but are very different in the type of beings they are. Angels are pure spirits. Men are spiritual and corporeal. Angels are immortal. Men are mortal. Angels understand without reasoning. Men reason in order to understand. There are many differences.

What do we observe through this analogy? We see that angels are like men: they are both beings, both have understanding etc., but they are not of the same nature, and angels (at least in the order of nature) are more perfect than men. Like, not and more than - these characterise understanding through the steps of analogy. We begin with our formal object, the natures of bodies - that which we understand first and best and in terms of which we understand everything else, and then by seeing a similarity (like), a negation (not), and a transcendence (more than), we arrive a new analogous knowledge. To revise: an angel is like a body (insofar as it is being), it is not a body (as it is a pure spirit), and it is more than a body (immortal etc.). The natures of bodies are what we primarily understand but analogy enables us to move beyond the scope of our immediate object. Thus the natures of spiritual things are not within our immediate object (although it is in the angel's), but in our mediate object, that which is attained by medium of the immediate or proper or formal object, just as number is attained by sight through the medium of colour. Although it is true to say that our knowledge of things above bodies is negative, that is we know what it is not rather than what it is, and that what we do know is a lot less than what we do not, still the little knowledge we have by analogical comparison is true knowledge.

Andrew Nimmo


Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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