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From Analogy to Metaphor

These permutations in German idealism and its aftermath represent some of the furthest developments of modern self-reflexive subjectivity (and its inherent self-negation), which can be traced forward from Dante and Duns Scotus. They are included here for the sake of gaining historical perspective on the birth, or rather the crucial turn, of self-consciousness at the threshold between the Middle Ages and modernity that is our principal focus. Still more crucial nuances of this destiny-laden juncture in the history of self-reflection and consciousness remain to be teased out from the comparison of Scotus and Dante in their own historical contexts. This context is shared, and yet is very differently inflected in each case. The bifocal vision thus afforded enables us to outline this historically pivotal juncture at which the stakes of self-reflection for modernity momentously emerge.

Henry of Ghent and Analogical Imagination

The key interlocutor for Scotus, and the most authoritative Parisian theologian of his time, is Henry of Ghent (1217-93). His analogical thinking is close to Dante’s in some surprising and suggestive ways. Like Scotus, Henry accepted the Avicennien principle of Being as the “first intelligible”—as what our intellect always grasps and understands before it understands any particular being. But Henry attempted to evade the (for Scotus necessary) consequence of the univocity of Being and to preserve a certain doctrine of analogy. In fact, he expanded this doctrine to include the analogy not only between infinite and finite being but also between substance and its accidents, between res vera and res fictiva, and between real essences and mental constructions. The transcendental analogy between God and creatures thus proliferated to a general analogy between disparate categories of beings and ideas. Theological analogy became general ontological analogy.


Henry of Ghent’s Summa of Ordinary Questions. Article One: On the Possibility of Knowing, trans. Roland J. Teske, S.J. (South Bend: St. Augustine Press, 2008).

This shift in the focus and application of analogy can lead in a “secularizing” direction of a type that is pursued by Dante, whereby the all-pervasive relation with divinity is translated into worldly terms. Henry’s doctrine of analogy is based on universal imitation of the Supreme Being by all beings. Such imitation is the foundation of analogy. It is not an empirically real or verifiable relation. It is, instead, metaphysical and imposed from above rather than being grounded in things and their mutual causal relations. Unlike for Aquinas and Bonaventure, for Henry the analogy of being is rooted in God and not in the world. Relations for Henry are eternal and are founded in God’s own self-relation. Relation thus has a transcendent status. It is real in God, and all Creation is constituted essentially by its relation to God.

The articulable unity of being between God and creatures for Henry, then, is purely nominal. There is no stateable common being between them, and yet their relation enables all manner of analogous representations. The status of these representations is formal and “objective,” or we might say—as would apply more obviously to Dante—Active and metaphorical. This special status of relations is a way of assimilating the Avicennian-Augustinian turn to subjectivity that upstaged the Aristotelian filiation in the generation of Scholastic theologians (and intellectuals influenced by them) following Aquinas, to which Dante and Duns alike belong. Formally, Dante adheres to the Thomistic line working from creatures as effects toward God as their Cause. But his imagination conceives all things, even if from a subjective perspective of metaphor, already in the horizon of the divine Source, the “fount whence all truth derives” (“fonte ond’ ogne ver deriva,” Paradiso IV.116), the Alpha and Omega (“Alfa e O,” XXVI.17). The alphabet of Dante’s historical and apocalyptic vision is reinscribed into this transcendent Origin and Telos. This entails an otherworldly orientation that aligns Dante more with Avicennian Augustinianism and its transcendentalist tendencies, notwithstanding his embrace of Thomistic Aristotelianism, with its more empirical approach grounded in the physical senses.

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