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Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Analogical Mind

The recent debate regarding Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor featured the clash between “originalists” and “contextualists” in applying the law. I think it demonstrated the more fundamental clash between the univocal and analogical mind in American society.

George Murray was about three years ahead of me at our Jesuit School of Theology. He loved and promoted progressive jazz and argued that those who do not understand it “have a univocal concept of being.”

You have to understand that the predominant philosophy in our school at the time was Neo-Thomism. For Aristotelian Saint Thomas Aquinas, Platonists have a “univocal concept of being.” The “Real” means the same thing at all places and all times for all things and comes by attaining true and absolute Ideas through intuition and/or divine revelation. But Thomas, following his Aristotelian Islamic masters, affirmed that the concept of being was “analogous.” This means that knowledge starts with sense experience and is collected in categories through concepts that we infer through analogy or literally “cross reason.” We learn through similarity, metaphor, relationship and applying words and images so they best fit the situation. We could argue that it was this insight that gave rise to empirical science which many univocal thinkers today still oppose with their revealed truths.

I don’t think that all who don’t like jazz have a univocal mind. Jazz is a very culturally shaped medium. Nor do I think that all jazz lovers have an analogical mind. Certainly not “smooth jazz” elevator music lovers! But I love Murray’s characterization. Jazz experiments. Jazz weaves diverse themes and tempos, discovers harmony in discord, and builds on improvisation. Jazz is never the same. It seems to me that Murray was on to something when he divided the world between univocalists and analogicians.

And I think the distinction has relevance to not only taste in music, but also to religion, economy, politics, and human life itself. Life’s battle is not between civilizations, eastern and western, or religions, Christian and Muslim, or political parties, liberal and conservative, or psychological types, introvert and extrovert, or economies, socialist and capitalist, or classes, haves and have-nots. Rather I think the battle is between the univocal and the analogic mind in all of these and in all of us.

The analogic mind acknowledges that the images that it uses to deal with the world and other persons are indeed images, fashioned by humans, developed through historical usage, and used to project and shape the human future. It is the complex of these images in a certain time and place that make up a specific culture. These images and concepts can be set in stone as well as in pictures and words but never in eternity though the naïve mind seems to think so simply because it has not come across others.

The analogic mind is characterized by a profound sense of humor, which is not just the ability to make jokes. The sense of humor I am talking about is a sense of irony or impermanence in all our beliefs. The analogic mind laughs with the gods at all of our human conceit and foibles. The analogic mind does not take itself or the world very seriously which is not to say without passion or importance or commitment.

The analogic mind therefore is not a “true believer,” i.e. never identifies its faith with its beliefs and is always suspicious and ready to examine beliefs, especially those held most vehemently, which is why the analogic mind is not a good subject for religious conversion. This mind has made peace with uncertainty and actually revels in ambiguity finding itself in a continual point of tension between the inner life and outer action, tradition and innovation, individuality and communality, privacy and publicity.

The analogic mind is a relational thinker and doer. While avoiding absolute ways of speaking or living, it can also express and commit itself to principles and purpose. It can be argumentative, opinionated, passionate, and loyal but never unmovable. It has causes, but never ultimate ones. The analogic mind has the ability to see itself from many other viewpoints. It also recognizes that even in recognizing diverse viewpoints that there is no viewpoint without a blindspot. Scotoma is just part of the human condition from which we cannot extricate ourselves even in our fantasy of fleeing flesh to unite with the Great Spirit.

When Bernie and I saw the film No County for Old Men, we were mind-swiped. It’s the story of a man who while out hunting in the vast desert plains of Texas comes across the results of a drug deal gone wrong. He finds many men shot dead and a truck full of bags of dope. One man is alive but dying and asking for “agua’ which he does not have to give. He also finds a man dead under a tree with a case full of money which he takes home with him. The rest is the hunt for him by a sociopathic killer who seems totally at home in the country and by a tired aging sheriff for whom the country has accelerated way past him.

When the film abruptly ended, we just sat there gasping. When we were able to, we talked. We saw illustrated in the film an allegory of our time, our nation, and our choices. The film haunted our dreams that night and we discussed it more the next day. I had read Blood Meridian by Cormick McCarthy and we both read The Road so we knew that this artist was continuing his very ambiguous portrayal of an America past and present between violence and redemption. For a further sense of the film I went to the net and read reviews and comments by critical moviegoers. Large numbers of them said that the film was too violent, was boring, and were unhappy with an ending without resolution.

Here was the univocal mind encountering an analogical masterpiece.

I see Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as extreme illustrations of the univocal mind. Their jokes are not funny to me because they are all disparaging and without understanding of their own foibles. They are strident in their attacks on people with whom they do not agree or who challenge their cherished principles and beliefs.

It is not because they are conservative. John Kekes is a powerful conservative with an analogical mind. So was Russell Kirk. I enjoy engaging with them as I do sometimes with George Will (though he often falls defensively into the univocal mindset) and certainly David Brooks.

On the so called “liberal” side, Alexander Cockburn often demonstrates a univocal mind without a sense of irony. I hear commentators on Pacifica Radio who take themselves and their ideas too seriously. Christopher Hitchens is just a little too fervent in his atheism. Richard Rorty on the other hand is epitome of the analogical mind in the progressive camp and was sometimes attacked by the true believers of the left.

William Kristol is a brilliant neo-conservative, much more affable and easy to listen to than the Coulters and Savages but as un-nuanced as Dick Cheney. Whereas Francis Fukuyama I think is an analogical mind in the neo-conservative camp, highly nuanced, self-critical, not at all absolute in his pronouncements. I have learned much from him.

Other examples: Vladimir Lenin vs. Leon Trotsky, Donald Rumsfeld vs. General Powell, Pope Benedict XVI vs. John XXIII, John Calvin vs. Martin Luther, Pat Robertson vs. Bishop Spong, Mel Gibson vs. Woody Allen, the Left Behind Series vs. the Chronicles of Narnia, Unitarian-Universalism vs. Focus on the Family. But you make your own list.

The inspirations behind most of the great religions were analogical minds; and maybe that is the “great transformation” of which Karen Armstrong is speaking in her book by that title. Lao Tsu, Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates, the Yahwist, Buddha Gautama, Paul of Tarsus, Rabbi Gamaliel all had analogical minds that challenged the univocity of the established order; their teachings and lives were then distorted by the univocal minds of “the Fathers” of the religions that codified them.

So what makes a mind analogical or univocal? I leave it to neuron psychologists and evolutionary anthropologists to identify the genetic or cultural causes.

Maybe it is education? But I think back on my early training in philosophy and theology where I found so many professors of Aristotelian Thomism who, while teaching the epistemology of analogy over intuition, were total univocalists. They taught Thomism because Rome commanded it; but they were loathe to adopt any of the insights of the great British empiricists, German idealists, or French existentialists that were then challenging thinkers and pushing beyond not only fixed ideas but the very correspondence theory of truth itself. According to these old professors, there was one reality and one truth and Thomas and Rome had it. A univocal mind does not play with ideas.

Is one approach more successful? But then I realize that univocal and analogical minds have much different gauges of success. Univocal success is usually evaluated in terms of material capital accumulation, influence on others, security and stability. While analogical success consist in the thrill of adventure, the tension of ambiguity, spiritual capital, and relational action.

Maybe the difference is just a matter of Jungian personality preference such as measured by the Meyers-Briggs test. This implies we all range in degrees between a univocal and an analogical approach to reality at particular times and positions. This explanation of course appeals more to analogical minds.

In any case, at parties and in lecture halls I do prefer the analogical mind; and I tend to engage with others of that mind no matter to what philosophical tradition, political party, religious persuasion, economic class, racial type, age or geography they belong. I don’t like univocal minds. They are too pious and preachy and righteous. And I don’t like myself when I am being a univocalist. Deliver me from the strident reactionaries and dour radicals of the world.

We need Presidents, Justices, journalists, and community leaders who like jazz.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Ethic of Transparency

Recently I listened to Janice Stein reflecting on the notion of “accountability” which has all but replaced “responsibility” in our language. Since words not only express, but also shape thought and the worldview within which that thought has meaning, I found this a very useful reflection.

We have finally begun demanding accountability. And well we should, as presidents lead us to war on false premises, as financial institutions sell products with less than stated value, and religious organizations hide their officials’ wrong doings. We now speak of the accountable public or private organization and of holding our leaders and institutions accountable. We use less the word of the responsible leader or organization or of the responsible self and society. Or we simply use the words interchangeably. And there is a loss in that.

To hold accountable or require accountability has a different nuance than to be responsible or take responsibility. To account for something to someone has a different meaning than to respond to someone for something. Rendering account focuses on measured worth. Being responsible focuses on value, but not the kind that can be easily quantified. Accountability connotes an external referee and a balance sheet. Responsibility connotes a more internal judge, a conscience. An accountable politics is one of checks and balances and looks at forms, processes, and regulations. A responsible politics is one of social justice and looks at the substance of human freedom and equality.

Elsewhere I wrote of five metaphors for ethics. And here are two: the scale or balance in commerce (accountability) and the foundation of a building (responsibility). These two are important to each other: responsibility will require accountability, which in turn can measure and promote responsibility.

Yet there is tension when we look as the behavior of corporations and encourage social responsibility, when we look at voluntary organizations not just in terms of what we get for the money, but for what kind of a community they embody and promote. There is certain a tension in a leadership that is directing and supervising according to rules and one that is trusting and encouraging innovation. Education that teaches to the test may be accountable, but may not be responsible and educing responsible citizens.

Another word is being used a lot lately: “transparency.” Maybe that could resolve the tension or make it constructive. Transparency does mean visibility—out in the open for all to see and judge. But it also means illuminating or glowing from within like a radiance you can see through.