Thursday, September 21, 2006

Religious Language

Two forms of language are commonly used to describe the infinite: via analogia and via negativa. Via analogia is used when the Christian says "God is my shepherd", while via negativa is used when the Buddhist says "the infinite is unchanging". These two forms are normally presented and discussed separately — I think there's a more elegant way of describing them: both can be seen as explanation by analogy. That is, both these forms describe something unfamiliar by the means of something familiar. Via analogia does this by comparing positive characteristics (similarities), while via negativa compares negative characteristics (differences). What's interesting is that the positive comparisons are more prone to comparing groups of characteristics while negative comparisons are more about single characteristics (we say, more often, "God is not x" rather than "God is not like x"). I expect there is a neural efficiency explanation for this bias, but it seems like the opposite bias we'd expect.


Jason LaPorte said...

I've noticed this too, but never in terms of the infinite, but rather in terms of love.

Love is almost always described in the same way, via analogia and via negativa. The canonical example would be in 1 Corinthians 13, where both are used to describe love. (Via analogia: love is patient, love is kind; via negativa: love does not get provoked, love doesn't hold the past against you).

It seems to me that love, like infinity, is a concept that cannot be perfectly and completely grasped. I feel like I can snatch at snippets and pieces, but can never hold or describe the whole thing.

Kyle said...

It's funny you mention 1 Corinthians 13, someone brought up that passage as an example during Philosophy of Religion as well :) There are two issues here: communication and understanding. Being able to "perfectly and completely grasp" love or infinity is a question of understanding, while via analogia and via negativa are about communication. I expect we find things like love hard because, unlike other ideals, it's not built from experience directly (like the concept of "dog" for example) but reflection on experience. Things built on reflection must be communicated in a way that allows the listener to recreate that reflection for themselves — hence passages like 1 Corinthians 13. Of course, Christians also say they know Love directly, so besides poetic-analogical language, they can also use direct prosaic explanation: "God is Love", etc.

Jason LaPorte said...

I agree, but my point is that if I can't fully grasp a concept, my ability to communicate it is veiled.

I just think it's interesting that when one tries to communicate something they don't fully understand (love, infinity... even, for example, an object that is in one's hands, when they're blindfolded), they resort to analogizing it to something they know (love is patient, since we all know what patience is; the infinite is unchanging, because we know what static things are like; this object is long and bumpy, since even though I can't tell it's a clarinet, I know what long, bumpy objects must be like).

I would tend to assume that's because we gain new experiences through analogue to old experiences. But this reasoning breaks down, because at some point, we had no experiences to relate to.

Kyle said...

"at some point, we had no experiences to relate to." I think we understand new experiences in the context of old experiences (i.e., by analogy) and by themselves (through reflection and raw sense perception).

"...even though I can't tell it's a clarinet, I know what long, bumpy objects must be like" I think what you said earlier in the paragraph is more accurate, it's not that you can't tell it's a clarinet, just that you "don't fully understand" it.

Jason LaPorte said...

Well, if I was blindfolded, and someone handed me a clarinet, I wouldn't know what it was. I would know that it's at least a musical instrument, but for all I know, it could be a flute or a piccolo.

Kyle said...

Even you would know what it was: you would have the experience of its length and its bumpy texture. You wouldn't be able to hear its sound or see its color, and you wouldn't be able to name it (that is, categorize it by these properties); but what something "is" is first about the raw perception and second about the analogy to other things (categorization, like flute vs. clarinet).