Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Some Jottings on Analogy and Via Triplex in Philosophical and Theological Lights

When reading Erin Kidd's defense of Sister Elizabeth Johnson in response to the USCCB's criticism of her recent book on theology (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV), and in particular a passage from Johnson's book, I was reminded of how far away from contemporary theologians philosophers are. (It should be noted in what follows that I'm not attempting any sort of commentary on the USCCB's criticism or on the defense itself, only giving an example of how alien contemporary theology is from contemporary philosophy, at least as I see it.) The passage in question:

Take, for example, the term “good.” Inevitably, our understanding of what “good” means arises from our experience of goodness in the world. We experience good persons, good satisfactions, good weather, and so on. From these we derive a concept of goodness that we then affirm of God who created all these good things. But God is infinite, so we need to remove anything that smacks of restriction. Thus we negate the finite way goodness exists in the world, shot through with limitation. But still we think God is good, so we negate that particular negation and judge that God is good in a supremely excellent way that surpasses all understanding. According to analogy, when we attribute goodness to God the theological meaning is this: God is good; but God is not good the way creatures are good; but God is good in a supereminent way as Source of all that is good.

At this point our concept of goodness cracks open. We literally do not understand what we are saying. Human comprehension of the meaning of “good” is lost, for we have no direct early experience of anything that is the Source of all goodnesss. Yet the very saying of it ushers or spirit toward the presence of God who is good, a reality so bright that it is darkness to our mind. In the end, the play of analogy brings us to our knees in adoration (Quest 18-19).

And then Kidd comments that this is simply a standard account of analogy. Perhaps in theology departments, but I think those of us in philosophy departments who deal on occasion with the theory of analogy would find some questions raised almost immediately, since our discipline requires recognition of issues that are not really found here. Some points:

(A) As a matter of technicality, the doctrine of analogy is conflated with the via triplex. The via triplex is an account of our knowledge of God, and is derived largely from an interpretation of the Dionysian (Pseudo-Dionysus). It's usually put in terms of eminence (or excellence), negation (or remotion), and causality (or affirmation), or some such, and the last sentence of Sister Johnson's first paragraph in the quotation above more or less captures it for the case of God and goodness: (1) we know by causal reasoning that the goodness of creatures can only be a participation in divine goodness, which is then the principle of goodness for creatures (causality); (2) however, because the effect is not commensurate with the cause in this case, we know God has goodness in a more eminent way than any creature can (eminence); (3) but our knowledge of this pre-eminent goodness necessarily falls short of what is actually in God because it is derived from creatures (negation or remotion).

The doctrine of analogy, on the other hand, is an account of the way things can be named or can take predicates, and is derived largely from an interpretation of Aristotle. When two things are given the same name, but the meaning is different from each, the names are predicated equivocally; when two things are given the same name, but the meaning is the same in each, the names are predicated univocally. The doctrine of analogy is the position that there is something between these two, in which the meaning is not wholly the same nor wholly different. As Aquinas puts it, "a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing." 'Healthy' applies to diets, urine samples, and bodies; this is not univocal, because diets are not healthy in the same way bodies are. But neither is it purely equivocal, either, because healthiness in diets obviously has some close relation to healthiness in bodies -- to be more exact, healthy diets are those diets that have something to do with health in bodies (they are contributing causes), and healthy bodies are those bodies that are healthy. And similarly, mutatis mutandis, with urine samples.

Thus the two aren't simply the same. This need not be a problem, however; Thomists will often say that the via triplex is the reason for saying that terms are predicated of God and creatures analogically: because God is good (which we know by causality and eminence), 'good' can't be equivocal when applied to both God and creatures; but because God's goodness transcends all creaturely good in such a way that we know that the term 'good' does not adequately describe God (which we know by eminence and remotion), 'good' can't be univocal when applied to both God and creatures. This is not an argument that has convinced all non-Thomists, and you can find plenty of people who accept the via triplex without accepting the doctrine of analogy, and would not be happy with the conflation. On the other hand, perhaps Sr. Johnson was simply speaking loosely because of the occasion (because of other things she says, I don't think she was, but it's possible); and, in any case, non-Thomists are used to not being happy with these sorts of discussions.

(B) The "negating the negation" characterization of eminence, by the way, I have seen often among twentieth-century theologians; it seems to me to be one of those things theologians say without thinking. I don't know who started this fundamentally useless way of talking about it (one suspects some misguided attempt to conflate it with Hegelian dialectic), but in recent times it seems to trace back to Walter Kasper. Negation of negation in any strict sense just puts you back where you started; Kasper claimed that negating the negation posited something higher, but always seemed to leave it rather mysterious how it could possibly do so. This characterization of eminence also requires that eminence always succeeds negation; but in fact it's clear from classical texts that this cannot be taken as definitive: in the tradition you can find plenty of passages in which eminence flows directly from causation and remotion is treated as the pinnacle of our knowledge of God. Aquinas, for instance, sticks to no particular order: not counting any other works, Aquinas uses the order {causality, remotion, eminence} in Sent. (3x), SCG (1x), and ST (1x); the order {negation, causality, eminence} in Sent. (1x), SCG (1x), and ST (1x); the order {eminence, causality,negation} in ST (1x); and the order {causality, eminence, negation} in SCG (1x) and ST (3x). (The only order that seems not ever to be found in Aquinas is {eminence, negation, causality}, and this seems purely a matter of accident.) This is not at all uncommon. The three are traditionally based on nothing other than three aspects of our knowledge of causes when we reason from effects to causes; there's no particular reason why it should only go in one order -- you can have them in any order you please, or all separately, or all at once, depending on what you are doing. This has always struck me as an example of the way in which originally sophisticated accounts degenerate in contemporary theology -- Kasper gives one particular account of it, and it is repeated as a formula over and over again without critical examination, as if it were a magical method with self-evident grounds.

(C) As I mentioned, the point in (A) is mostly a technicality, and could be regarded as simply a result of writing in a popular manner. But most of what Sister Johnson says here about analogy is most naturally read as saying that we are really in the realm of equivocation, unless she is engaging in a much more massive set of conflations than suggested above. If it's predicated analogically of God and creatures, in what sense can we say that "our concept of goodness cracks open" when we are talking about God? What is the metaphor here supposed to imply? In what way does it follow that we "literally do not understand what we are saying"? If we literally didn't understand what we were saying, we would have no way of telling whether the terms are predicated analogically or not! Precisely the point of the doctrine of analogy is that we know very well what we are saying in both cases, and there is a clear link between the two, despite the fact that we are not saying exactly the same thing in both cases. All three of those points (we find the uses of the term intelligible, we see that the uses are not the same, and we see the link between them) require that we understand what we are saying. Possibly this is a problem arising from the conflation of the triplex via (which is about what we can know about God) with analogy (which in this context is about how we use terms applying to both God and creatures); our knowledge of God may fall short of all God is, but nothing about this implies that we don't know what our words mean or why it's right to use them. It's not at all clear how one can pull out of the doctrine of analogy the idea that "human comprehension of the meaning of 'good' is lost" when we apply it to God. God, who is good, evades our comprehension because the word 'good' doesn't cover His excellence, being limited by the fact that we apply it to him by seeing good in creatures and realizing that this is just a participation of divine good; but the word 'good' and the concept good themselves are not so elusive, and our intellects are quite able to handle them throughout. There seems to be an intrusion foreign to the doctrine of analogy here, leading to analogy being described in exactly opposite terms to those with which it is usually described.

UPDATE: James has a better discussion of this point.

(D) When I read something like, "Yet the very saying of it ushers our spirit toward the presence of God who is good" I begin to suspect that the theologian in question is merely playing with words. The saying of things we literally do not understand, of which we have lost all human comprehension, "ushers our spirit toward the presence of God who is good"; how, one scarcely can conceive. Sober minds that are not apt to be spirited away by characteristics of names and predications may well marvel at the ease with which theologians are ushered toward the presence of God; it is only slightly less wonderful than being ushered toward the presence of God by exclamation points and question marks or by modes of supposition. Even the triplex via is just about causal reasoning, or about participation in matters of cause and effect. Of course, Johnson is probably only being florid here in the bad-high-school-poetry style modern theologians seem more and more to love, in which incoherent effusion takes the place of coherent thought, but I prefer to think that this is really performative, and that Sister Elizabeth Johnson is actually demonstrating the account she has just laid out by saying something we literally cannot understand, and of which all human comprehension is lost. It indeed shares the most famous feature of the peace of God: it surpasses all understanding. The Holy Spirit ushers our spirit toward God; perhaps you can say that creatures from whom we begin to reason usher our spirit toward God; but saying things we literally don't understand doesn't in any comprehensible usher our spirits toward God -- it just leaves us literally not understanding. And while it may be true that "the play of analogy brings us to our knees in adoration," one suspects there are a few steps left out between the cause and effect here; I, for one, know of nobody who, recognizing the play of analogy in talking about healthy bodies and healthy urine samples, was brought to their knees in adoration because of it. Something would have to be going on beyond analogy itself, indeed beyond the threefold way itself. All we seem to have here is the sort of useless and florid rhetoric contemporary theologians like to think is profound. I don't mind florid rhetoric, of course; but the thing about it is that its proper place is as flourish, not as substance. Try to make it substance and it becomes mere wild handwaving.

What once was theology is now scattered over at least three disciplines, biblical studies, philosophy, and theology. This has been to the detriment of all three, but I think theology is the scion that has most lost its robustness, and the above is an example of the problem. Johnson's account is, as Kidd notes, fairly standard for theology departments. But it seems to me to be clearly a degeneration of the original -- it's what happens when sophisticated and difficult philosophical discussions become treated in a formulaic or talismanic manner. This is not the only case I've ever seen. (Every work I've read by Johnson, all of which are actually quite good in comparison with most theological work done these days, suffers from analogous problems: vague methodology with at best loose foundations, inconsistent applications of principles, uncritical reiteration of things, rhetoric doing the work of reasoning, extraordinary imprecisions, and in short the whole kaleidoscope that makes modern-day theology a mere bagatelle constructed of phrases people find striking rather than a genuinely creative and intellectually powerful discipline.) There are lots of intelligent people in theology; but I worry about the habits of thought they are being taught to inculcate in themselves.

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