Analogous naming (with an eye to the divine names)

Words are used equivocally when the same sounds have different meanings. Words not used equivocally are so rare that, if you want one you have to make it de novo, like a coining a unique proper name for a child or a corporation or some new widget. Even then, all someone has to do give their kid or their boat or their dog the same name and, lo, the word now has an equivocal sense.

Equivocation in words happens for many reasons and for no reason at all. Some equivocations are pure accidents – like the Chinese “junk” as a sort of ship and the English term meaning refuse or rubbish; others have very weak and remote connections, like the the word “bat” which once meant “to strike the air” and so came to name both the flying rodent and the stick for striking baseballs, or the word “sharp” that describes both a musical half step and a flavor of cheese; still other equivocations have very strong connections, like “sewing” said of something done both by a person, a needle, and a machine.

Let’s start by claiming that analogy is just equivocation with a connection between the uses. On this account, if I name my child after myself he is analogously named, since the same sound was intentionally made to signify different individual things. But this clearly wouldn’t get us what is usually called analogy. Likewise, terms have a sort of inertia that makes us keep using them even after we’ve discovered that what we originally thought the thing was has, in fact, no relation to the real thing at all. So a “virus” once meant “poison” and now means this;  “malaria” meant “bad air” and now means a mosquito borne parasite. Even though to know this gives an historical and in some sense rational account of the connection between the terms, it is not enough to make the diverse uses analogous. We have to add the idea that the connection is rational, that the uses belong together and that one manifests something intrinsic about the other. There is something in the analogue that  deserves to be called by that name. Calling a machine “a mower” is not just an honorific or historically related name, given to it to honor those who once mowed with scythes, but a name that tells us something intrinsic and essential about the machine. It has achieved a sort of independence and self-activity that makes it similar to a human agent. Many persons, in fact, have a hard time telling the difference between mowing as a living activity and a mechanical activity – or, more significantly, the difference between computing done by a mind and by a machine. The analogous connection is so strong we take it as univocal.

But it is just this sort of strong, intrinsically descriptive and rational connection that obtains in the analogy of names between God and creatures. Philosophically we come to understand God as a primary agent to which all creatures relate as instruments, even if they are instruments like machines, i.e. instruments with a high degree of self activity. This strong connection between the analogues, coupled with the high degree of independence and self-activity in creatures even allows for a general sense of the analogous term that can be indifferent to the division between God and creature, the way we had an indifference to the division between saying “Deep Blue beat Kasparov” and “Engineers from IBM beat Kasparov”.

Note it is less important to know that we name God and creatures analogously than to know that the basis of this analogous naming is from the fact that creation is a divine instrument – even if it is one, like a person, with a high degree of independence.


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