Being as an Analogous Concept

BEING AND EXISTENCE: A Brief Introduction into the Nature of Reality

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.


Being as an Analogous Concept

The term being applies to everything that is or can be, things actually existing and things that could possibly exist. A strict definition of being is not possible since there is no concept wider than being. The best we can do is with a descriptive definition and this falls short of complete adequacy. We can say that viewed positively, being is that which exists or can exist; viewed negatively, it is whatever is not nothing.

Being is something, therefore, that belongs to all things and yet one being is not another being and one way of being is not another’s way of being. Things do agree in that they are all beings. But they also differ by their very being. Before we get into this topic, however, we need to understand the terms univocal, equivocal, and analogous.

Univocal And Equivocal Terms

A univocal term is one that is applied to a number of things in an identical sense. An equivocal term is one that is applied to a number of things in entirely different meanings. An analogous term is one which applies to unlike things, partly for the same and partly for a different reason, so that it is used in a meaning partly the same and partly different.

Let’s consider some examples using these concepts so we are clear about what they mean.

The term “dog,” as applied to poodles, German shepherds, collies, and cocker spaniels, is a univocal term. The term “tree,” as applied to pine, cedar, Douglas fir, and palm, is a univocal term. This is true of most terms signifying things that belong to a certain class of things.

The term “pen” can be applied to an object used for writing and can also be applied to an enclosure for animals. The term “page” can be applied to an object called a book and also to a person functioning as an attendant in the Senate of the United States. The identical term has entirely different meanings and is equivocal.

Analogous Terms

An analogous term stands midway between the univocal and the equivocal. The same term is used in a way that is partly the same and partly different. There is always some basic relation present in some things that entitles us to apply the same term to them, but not in an identical sense.

Take, for example the term “healthy.” We say that our brother is healthy and, since health is a condition affecting a living body, the term “healthy” is here applied in an absolute sense. We can and do, however, use the term “healthy” in phrases like a healthy medicine, a healthy diet, a healthy complexion, and a healthy exercise. But we are not using the term here in an absolute sense; we are using the term in a relative sense. There is a relation between medicine, diet, complexion, and exercise and the health of a living body; they have a connection but the connection is not identical.

The term “being” is an analogous concept. We can say that God is a being, man is a being, a cocker spaniel is a being, a fir tree is a being, a stone is a being, and an atom is a being. We can apply the term “being” to all of these things, but we can’t apply it in the same way. God is an infinite being and a stone is a finite being. I am an actual being but my great-great grandchildren are only potential beings.

The term “being” as applied to the infinite and the finite, to the actual and the possible, is definitely not equivocal, like the term “page” as applied to the leaf of a book and to an attendant in the U.S. Senate. The things designated by the term “page” are totally different from one another and have no common relationship. But the infinite and the finite, the actual and the possible, are beings in the true meaning of the term being. They have a common relationship and contain a common element; they are existibles.

Is the term “being,” however, applied to the infinite and the finite, the actual and the possible, in a univocal sense? Is it applied in an identical way? Is the term “being” applied to God and man and a stone and an atom in a univocal sense?

The answer is no. For a term to be univocal, there are two requirements. First, the comprehension of the one term must be present in the other terms and, secondly, the comprehension must be present in all of them in a strictly uniform manner. Being, as an existible, is present in our comprehension of both God and the stone. In other words, both God and the stone exist or can exist. This is the basic common relationship among all things; they actually exist or could possibly exist.

When it comes to the second requirement, however, we are faced with profound differences. The second requirement says the comprehension is realized in a strictly uniform manner, that is, the things involved are perfectly alike. God and a stone are both beings, the term being can be applied to both. This is a likeness, a relationship which God and the stone have in common. But here the likeness ends. They are both beings, but they differ in their way of being. God is infinite being; a stone is finite being.

There is a likeness and a difference of proportionality among beings. The term analogy comes from a Greek word meaning “proportion.” In order to express this proportionality among beings, we use the term being in an analogical manner. Thus we way that beings have something in common because they are beings, yet they are different because of their very being.

If the analogical character of being is ignored, we may subject ourselves to two serious errors. One error is called Monism, which results from using the term being as if it meant the same thing in all cases. All being then becomes the same thing or, as some would have it, all reality or all being is the great One. God, my dog, and this piece of rock are all one because all are being. Pantheism is a special type of monism which does not distinguish between the being of God and the being of anything else. God and the World are One. This error emphasizes the sameness aspect of being.

The other error emphasizes the difference aspect of being. It says that no two things should ever be given a same name, not even the name being, because things are completely different from one another. Individual things or beings have no relationship to one another at all, no common connection of any type. This doctrine, sometimes called Radical Pluralism, breaks up reality into an infinite number of parts having no connection with one another and nothing in common. This, of course, would be intellectually disastrous, not to mention it would make ordinary conversation virtually impossible.

The awareness that the term “being” is to be used analogically, and not univocally or equivocally, is vital to a Christian metaphysics. This awareness allows us to stay on a straight path between the extremes of monistic pantheism, where God is identified with all reality, and radical pluralism, where reality is infinitely fragmented.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.