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Saturday, 2 June 2018

In Defense of Equivocity

There are undoubtedly bad kinds of ambiguity, potentially misleading, instruments of compromise between truth and falsity. But it is important, in seeking to avoid this ambiguity, not to thereby lose appreciation for the internal ambiguity of truth itself. This is not merely an appreciation for ambiguous statements of truth; there is an inherent ambiguity in being itself. Being is not only said in many senses; it is itself plurivocal. Or perhaps, prior to our own saying of being, being speaks itself in many voices. It sings itself in many songs, and in rich polyphony. This is a dense but ordered and harmonious ambiguity - not a chaotic and contradictory ambiguity.

It is easy to mistake an ordered ambiguity for a contradictory one. Modern philosophy has seen the rise of many forms of dualisms, predicated on a rigid either-or philosophy. The moderns saw these dualisms as problems to overcome, and many superhuman efforts were made to bridge many gaps - neglecting the possibility that order and hierarchical distinction (unity in multiplicity) does not entail opposition; either that, or the resolution to dualism was simply to accept the possibility of real and radical contradiction.  In other words, the moderns have tended either to radical univocity or incoherent equivocity, in response to the problem of dualisms: a refusal of plurivocity on the one hand, and a refusal of unity on the other hand.

It is necessary to affirm both the unity and the complex, though ordered, equivocity of being. In a certain sense, this is what the medieval conception of analogy, which has its roots in Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, was meant to convey: unity in difference. Analogy allows the philosopher to use words or names of God in a way that cannot be correlated one-to-one with the application of those same names to creatures. But it goes further than this too: even among creatures, words and names cannot be used with such absolutely simplicity. Being is said in many senses, said Aristotle: substance, quality, quantity, etc. These things all are; but to say so is not to say absolutely one thing, for the very is-ness of things differs. But there is a first sense of is, which is that which applies to substance: that which exists, or subsists, self-sufficiently.

Aristotle was no merely univocal philosopher. But certainly, from him the scholastics inherited the tendency to try and distinguish equivocal (or analogical) words into their many meanings, so as to be able to decompose equivocity into a multitude of univocities. There is some use to this, but it must be seen more as an unfolding of the density of being, rather than as an analysis of it into its component parts, as if it were a mechanism. To unfold the density of being, by making distinctions, cannot be useful except ultimately so that the original unity, as a unity, may also be better comprehended also as densely rich with meaning. The scholastic makes distinctions, but ultimately so that he might draw things back into a unity, having seen their right order to each other in distinction. In this way, he approaches God's knowledge of things - I say he approaches it,  for the density of being is potentially infinite.

Of course, there is always in this process the risk of error due to the inherent ambiguity of the equivocal nature of being. This risk is heightened by the deliberate use of words to conflate and twist the order of multiple meanings that inhere in the equivocal. One may utter an ambiguous statement, and especially a series of ambiguous statements, using words whose meaning has not been clarified, attaching attributes (predicates) to them which belong to them only at a certain level of meaning, while failing to distinguish other levels of meaning at which the same might not apply. This is the abuse of equivocity. Some philosophers, whom Plato would call the sophists, glory in this twisting of words; they glory in the thought that being is something twisted and incoherent, chaotic and equivocal without rhyme or reason, inherently deceptive and unintelligible.

The point is that ambiguity as such is not something to be avoided - indeed, it is unavoidable. And to this extent, the risk of error and misunderstanding is unavoidable. The true philosopher must brave the darkness of possible error which confronts him. He can cast a light with his intellect, but there will necessarily be shadows of ignorance where the light does not fall. The equivocity of being is inherent in the fact that there are shadows covering those aspects of being which have yet to be known - they are not false, but unknown, until they are illumined in succession. But the philosopher will not be a sophist: he will not conflate the light with the shadows, or conflate the various lights which cause different shadows, or despair of the possibility of integrating his successive illuminations of the dark into one vision of knowledge.

The sophists of the modern age love to conflate light and shadow, or to conflate the shadows of different lights with each other, or to despair of light altogether. This allows them to use their words with greater potential for harmful deception. But the proper reaction to such sophistry is not to fear ambiguity as such - it is not to fear and flee from the shadows, but to continue to seek illumination, and in doing so to embrace the multiplicity of meanings in the right order to each other. Their unity will not be brought about, like that of the sophists, by tossing them into an inharmonious mixture; but by ordering them rightly to each other, according to their proximity to the Being that contains them all.

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