Several theologians following Aquinas have said that when we say things like "God is good" that this must mean something different to when we call other things good; this is called analogical use of language.

For Aquinas, language can only be used analogically of God (from analogia, the Greek for proportion). Saying Mary is good and God is good shares some meaning, a proportion of the meaning, but not all the meaning. Aquinas uses a truly medieval example to explain. A good bull has a sleek coat, big muscles and a strong interest in cows; a good God would scarcely have these attributes! Nevertheless a good bull also produces good things (healthy urine and manure, high-quality semen and prize-winning calves) and does what good bulls are supposed to do, conforms to the ideal. In this we can see the proportion of meaning that could be shared between a good bull and a good God. God could also produce good things and fully fulfil his divine nature, not falling short in any respect. God being good in that he produces good things is known as analogy of attribution; God being God in that he perfectly fulfils His nature is known as analogy of proportion. (The Tablet)

To say that "good" means the same thing in regards to God and bulls is called univocal language, and is denied by many.

But this seems to me to conflate the sense of a word with its connotations. Obviously what it means for a hamburger to be good is different from what it means for a day to be a good day for flying kites. But I would say this is because of the contextual connotations, not an actual difference in sense of the word "good". According to the Natural Semantic Metalanguage Good is a semantic prime, one of the basic concepts of human language, and which cannot be usefully defined with other words or primes.

Is it fair to say that those who say that "God is good" is analogical are conflating sense with connotation? Did Aquinas and other medieval writers ever discuss the univocal/analogical divide with the Latin word connotō?

  • This kind of mixes Fregean and Millian terminology, sense and connotation are often used as synonyms. I think what you mean is literal vs metaphorical meaning, or semantics vs pragmatics, but that distinction is disputed by many modern authors, e.g. Davidson, so it is hard to call denying it "conflation". Scholastic authors did not subscribe to modern truth conditional semantics either, see Eco, Meaning and Denotation, meanings were "affections in the soul". – Conifold Aug 15 '19 at 5:18
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    A detailed discussion of Aquinas vs Scotus on univocity is in Hall's book Thomas Aquinas & John Duns Scotus: Natural Theology in the High Middle Ages (freely available). It is not clear that either had such distinction in mind. – Conifold Aug 15 '19 at 5:21
  • Definitely not "literal" vs metaphorical (I don't think it's a real division, everything is idiomatic, and many metaphorical meanings are part of the sense of words), but the division or lack thereof between semantics and pragmatics is something I had considered. I have read a little bit about Scotus and his position does seem better I think. So I'm more trying to make sense of the original univocal/analogical divide (which is still taught by Christians today). – curiousdannii Aug 15 '19 at 5:21
  • And thanks for the book suggestion, added it to my list. – curiousdannii Aug 15 '19 at 6:05
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    Barnes gives a survey on the uses of connotare in The Doctrine of Connotation and Denotation. It did not mean what you have it mean, neither for scholastics nor for Mill. For Ockham, for example, "white" denotes white things and connotes whiteness, i.e. it is close to what Frege called sense. They also used significare, apellare and denotare, none of them in your sense, see Eco. The use for "overtones of meaning" is colloquial and recent, univocal/analogical is the relevant terminology for that time. – Conifold Aug 17 '19 at 5:16

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