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
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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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    Good actually means [G]odly, or of God. But words are often misused, thus the confusion. God is good literally means "God = Good" or "[G]odliness = Good". "Is" is defined as "equal" (=). Good is a literal definition of God and vice versa. They're interchangeable, when used correctly. And that's the problem with definitions changing by consensus through usage alone. I always go to the root meaning of all words of such import. – Bread Aug 17 '19 at 11:02

Since I know very little of theology and you've removed the "theology" tag I am putting down some linguistic observations.

The words "god" and "good" are almost the same in English. Coincidence???

Consider some other languages :

  • English : good : god
  • German : gut : gott
  • Irish : dea- dearfach : diacht
  • Welsh : da : duw
  • Swedish: god(adj), gott(adv) : gud
  • Icelandic : gott : guð

Note: The inversion in Icelandic and the double inversion in Swedish (to German and English)

And in case one is tempted to think the closeness follows from the relatedness of language consider...

  • Sanskrit : shaiva : shiva

Note: shaiva can mean good in a completely secular context. Eg. In Tamil "shaiva food" means "vegetarian food" suggesting cleanliness, wholesomeness

Shiva as the default name of God tends to flip to Vishnu going northwards. Vaishnava literally means Vishnu devotee. Yet in the song that was a favorite of Gandhi – Vaishnava jana to "vaishnava jana" more or less secularly means "good person"

Switching to the antipodes the case of native Americans is even more interesting.

In God is a verb Dan "moonhawk" Alford says in summary :

We natives do not understand the God of the white man. Their God is a noun;...
Our God is a verb!

The paper, though rambling, is worth a read. My rendering :

  • The fundamental words in English are nouns
  • Verbs connect nouns (subject) with nouns (predicate)
  • Adjectives – hanging onto nouns – are secondary
  • Adverbs – hanging onto verbs and adjectives – are tertiary

American Indian languages do it the other way round:

  • They are process-oriented – verbs primary
  • And quality/intensity-oriented – adjective/adverbs primary
  • Hence spurious nouns can be elided.

This, combined with your (interesting!) point of "Natural Semantic Metalanguage" that "good" is a universal prime/atom, suggests that the question of the attributes of God needs to be inverted:

The attribute "good" is primary and its asymptote or limit is God. IOW

Lim {n → ∞} good(n) = God

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  • The "theology" and "philosophy-of-religion" tags are functionally equivalent; I just removed one because I realised it would be good to include the "analogy" tag. – curiousdannii Aug 17 '19 at 9:27
  • "The words "god" and "good" are almost the same in English. Coincidence???" Almost certainly, or what is translated as "good" is really "godly". Also 4/5 of those languages are Germanic, so it's really very little evidence. Your conclusion doesn't seem to have anything to do with the question really. – curiousdannii Aug 17 '19 at 9:29
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    Not sure whom you are asking @curiousdanii. Your own link above says «The very Etimologie of the name with us of the North partes of the world declaring plainely the nature of the attribute, which is all one as if we said good [bonus] or a giver of good things.” (1589) “God is that which sometimes Good we nam’d, / Before our English tongue was shorter fram’d.” (1606) “An indifferent man may judge that our name of the most divine power, God, is…derived from Good, the chiefe attribute of God» – Rusi-packing-up Aug 17 '19 at 15:35
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    @Rusi None of those provide any actual evidence, they're only saying the words are similar. Folk etymologies aren't a recent phenomenon. Did you read the rest of the article? – curiousdannii Aug 18 '19 at 0:09
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    @Rusi All six languages are related (what evidence is there that shaiva even meeds good? All I can find is that it refers to a sect of Hinduism) Four of them closely related! And the Irish example isn't even very similar. – curiousdannii Aug 18 '19 at 3:11

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