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Analogical Speech: Its Distinction from Univocal and Equivocal Speech

The words "analogical" "univocal," and "equivocal" are not generally used. But they are of great importance philosophically. Philosophers are concerned with different senses in which we attribute characteristics to a number of things; or, to speak of this matter grammatically, they are concerned with the different ways in which we apply a predicate to two or more subjects.

For most people, the only distinction with which they are concerned is that between the univocal and the equivocal. They are seldom aware that they are saying anything analogically. The only thing that should be clear to us is that we all do need to be aware that we sometimes speak in a manner that is neither univocal nor equivocal, especially if we venture to speak about God and his creatures, or about material and spiritual things.

We speak univocal when in naming things we use a word with exactly the same meaning. If in a field of cows, we use the word "cow" in the plural to name this cow, that cow, and every other cow that we can see, we are using the word "cow" in exactly the same sense every time we use it. Similarly, if we call all the cows animals, we are using that word in the same sense when we use it to characterize all the cows.

Equivocation is of two sorts: equivocation by chance and equivocation by intention. Equivocation by chance occurs infrequently in the everyday use of language. It happens when the same word is used to name two things which have nothing whatever in common -- which are alike in no respect whatsoever. That one and the same word should have such strange ambiguity can often be explained in terms of the history of the language, but sometimes no explanation can be found.

For example: the word "pen" is use equivocally by chance when it is used to name, on the one hand, an enclosure for pigs and, on the other hand, a writing instrument. Similarly the word "ball" is used equivocally by chance when it is use to name a football or a basketball, and also used to name a festivity where an assemblage of persons will be found dancing.

Equivocation by intention occurs when a person uses a word in its literal sense, on the one hand, and in a figurative sense, on the other hand. When the Russian Emperor was called the father of his people, the word "father" was being used in a figurative sense. The Emperor stood in relation to the Russian people in a manner that bore some comparison to the relationships between a father, who is a biological progenitor, and his progeny or offspring.

Words used in a metaphorical sense are usually words that are used equivocally by intention. Every metaphor is a condensed simile. To call the Russian Emperor the father of the Russian people is to say that he stands in relation to them like a biological progenitor to his progeny.

I have already said that we speak analogically in a manner that is neither univocal nor equivocal -- using a word in neither the same sense, nor in different senses, when the senses are related (as in equivocation by intention) or unrelated (as in equivocation by chance). Yet at first glance what I am calling analogical speech looks somewhat like equivocation by chance. It is certainly not univocal speech.

The example that Aristotle gives for speech that is analogical involves the same word applied to objects of the different senses. Take the word "sharp." We speak of a sharp point when the sharpness is in the sphere of touch. We speak of a sharp sound when the sharpness is in the auditory field, and of a sharp light when it is in the visual field.

In these three cases, we are using the word "sharp" in a manner that appears to be equivocal; but it is not, because the different senses of "sharp" when we use the word in these three ways derive for the differences between the subjects of which we predicate "sharp." In addition -- and this is the mark of the analogical -- we find it impossible to say what it is that is common to these three uses of the predicate "sharp." We cannot specify what the sharpness is that make it proper to speak of a sharp point, a sharp sound, and a sharp light.

The importance of this point should be clear to persons who speak of God and human beings and other of God's creatures. We recognize that we are not using the word "exists" in the same sense when we say we and other things exist and that God exists, but we cannot specify the difference between God's mode of being and our mode of being except negatively. We know it is not the same.

We know that in the sense in which God exists, we do not exist; and in the sense in which we exist, God does not exist. The word "exists" is used analogically of God and God's creature. Similarly, the word "knows" is used analogically when we say that we know and that God knows. The difference between the two meanings of a word used analogically is like the difference between two words being used equivocally, but here the equivocation is not by intention nor is it by chance. It is derived from the difference between the two subjects to which the word is applied.

Turning from the theology to philosophy, we use the word "generalization" analogically, if we speak of the kind of generalizations that occurs in the sphere of animal or perceptual intelligence and in the sphere of human or conceptual intelligence. If brute animals do not have intellects and humans beings do, then if we ever use the word "concept" for what is in the minds of animals and what is in the human mind, when both animals and human beings solve problems by thinking, we are using the words "concept" and "thinking" neither univocally nor equivocally but analogically.


Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary



Revised 29 December 2000

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