Thursday, June 30, 2005

Non-Metaphorical Speech and God

Is all human discourse concerning God metaphorical in nature? Is it possible to speak literally regarding God, especially where his fatherhood is concerned? Influenced somewhat by Janet Soskice, Paul Brassey claims that the ostensible literary redaction “Deutero-Isaiah” (DI) implies that any affirmatory locution respecting God is of necessity metaphorical: “Human language must fail in direct description of the deity; it is inadequate to the task.”[1] According to Brassey, all divine referring expressions in DI are metasememic in nature, not literal.[2] This intimates that one cannot refer to God univocally; all theological discourse is putatively a delineation of both what “is” and what “is not” the case metaphysically or in terms of objective properties.

Alternatively, some theoreticians have suggested that not every locution or enunciative act concerning God is metaphorical, however.[3] John Cooper distinguishes between metaphor as a figure of speech and all language being “metaphorical” by virtue of the inherent finitude of rational creaturely essences and their respective speech-acts.[4] For instance, while divine titles may subsist within the matrix of inadequate human langue or parole, appellations designating the divine one are not necessarily metaphorical in the sense that they are rhetorical tropes (e.g. egw eimi ho wn is evidently not tropic). Additionally, Thomas Aquinas contends that one may predicate certain expressions of God (viz. “Father”) properly.[5] Context and intent of signification apparently determine whether divine names are metaphorical or proper markers of identification.[6]

Another thinker, who believed that one could speak of God non-metaphorically, was Duns Scotus (1266-1308 CE). While apophatic or negative theology (via negativa) has a protracted and venerable history in the Christian tradition,[7] Scotus nonetheless argues that denials concerning the divine essence are only intelligible “in terms of some affirmation.”[8] He contends that if we as rational creaturely essences deny God is X, Y or Z, “it is because we wish to do away with something inconsistent with what we have already affirmed.”[9] The via negativa presupposes the via positiva. Moreover, “a purely negative knowledge is no knowledge at all.”[10] This, of course, calls to mind Scotus’ univocity of being theory––his suggestion that univocal predication with reference to God is, under certain circumstances, possible.[11] But what does the Subtle Doctor mean by the term “univocity”?

Scotus believes “that concept [is] univocal which possesses sufficient unity in itself, so that to affirm and deny it of one and the same thing would be a contradiction.”[12] Due to its monosemic nature, a univocal term can additionally function as the middle term in a logical syllogism since it obviates equivocation.[13] For instance, Scotus argues that humans can predicate the concept “being”[14] of necessary and contingent beings, of both God and creatures. Yet, the term “being” is also a disjunctive predicate, distinguishing A from B and C from D, vel cetera.

When Scotus refers to “being,” he means “being qua being” (the proper object of the intellect), which is an abstraction logically prior to the ten genera of Aristotle’s categories.[15] Nevertheless, if the term “being” which rational creatures cannot affirm and deny of one and the same entity, does not have the same lexemic value when we predicate it of either God or creaturely essences, then it has no meaning at all for human communicative agents vis-à-vis God.[16] John Sanders accordingly suggests that if univocal predication to God is not possible, then “we will be back in the cave of agnosticism.”[17] Divine cognoscibility by means of natural revelation would therefore be impossible since knowledge of the divine perfections (=wisdom, intellect and will) as they subsist in themselves would not be possible.[18] Yet, a God about whom one cannot articulate significatively soon becomes irrelevant. Thus, while Scotus posits a theory of analogy pertaining to God-talk, the Subtle Doctor also maintains that the concept of analogy presupposes univocity.[19] Nevertheless, there are yet two other reasons why Scotus espouses univocal speech regarding God. See Scotus on nominalism. These are as follows:

(1) If the term “good” does not have a univocal denotation when we apply it to both God and creatures, it seems somewhat unintelligible to predicate “good” of either God or the created order.[20] One cannot employ a non-univocal term in deductive arguments nor can he or she apply it to the law of non-contradiction.

(2) Scotus thinks that if rational creatures cannot know what God is, they cannot know that he is. For one cannot know that a being exists unless one has some determinate notion of what the particular being under consideration is.[21] One cannot know that a cat is, unless he or she has some concept of what a cat is. Hence, it seems possible to speak univocally (i.e. monosemically) with reference to the creator of all things in some contexts.

Some who espouse analogical God-talk in opposition to univocal speech may object that since predicates such as “wise,” “loving” or “person” do not apply to God in the same manner that they refer to humans, these predicates cannot be imputed to God univocally. As Swinburne notes, however, one can affix a predicate such as “cause” to a supernova explosion and to a person whose words cause his listeners undue annoyance.[22] The meanings in both cases are synonymous. Only the referents and applications of the predicate differ. A lack of correspondence with respect to reference (Bedeutung) does not entail a disparity of predicative sense (Sinn). The denotation of the concept “wise” is the same, whether the referent is Socrates or God. God may be wiser than Socrates concerning his qualitative degree of wisdom. Yet, “wise” bears the same sense (Sinn) in both instances.[23]

[1] Brassey, Metaphor, 49.

[2] Brassey, ibid.

[3] Macky, Centrality of Metaphors, 190ff. Gunton, Act and Being. For a discussion of univocity, see Swinburne, Revelation, 152-154. Swinburne, Revelation, 156-162 talks about father and metaphor. Contra Dille, Mixing Metaphors, 18 and Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, passim.

[4] Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 67.

[5] Gustavo Zonana in Boeve, God-talk, 52.

[6] By context, Zonana has in mind a cognitive construct formulated by the speaker.

[7] See Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 2:32, 258.

[8] Gunton, Act and Being, 68.

[9] Quoted in Gunton, Act and Being, 68. See Gregory of Nazianzius also, who does not think that we can only take the via negativa or the via remotionis without employing the via positiva. Scotus has his own version of the via eminentiae (Gunton, ibid).

[10] Bonansea, Approach to God, 100.

[11] See Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 111-112. Scotus thinks that univocity only applies to natural and general concepts of God: “Univocatio enim non est nisi in generalibus rationibus” (Wolter, Duns Scotus, 116).

[12] Gunton, Act and Being, 69.

[13] “Sufficit etiam pro medio syllogistico, ut extrema unita in medio sic uno sine fallacia aequivocationis concludantur inter se uniri” (Wolter, Duns Scotus, 109). See Bonansea, Approach to God, 102.

[14] The term “being” here refers to an undetermined abstraction that is the proper object of the intellect. See Wolter, Duns Scotus, 121; Gilson, History of Philosophy, 455.

[15] See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 56.

[16] Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 110-111.

[17] Sanders, The God Who Risks, 25.

[18] Bonansea, Approach to God, 102.

[19] Gunton, Being and Act, 69, Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 112.

[20] Gunton, Being and Act, 70.

[21] Bonansea, Approach to God, 100.

[22] Swinburne 151.

[23] Swinburne 151

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