What is the Difference between Univocal and Equivocal Language?

Is it ever really possible to speak about God?

Traditional answers on talking about God have centred on the via negativa (negation or what God is not) and the via affirmative (the affirmative or positive way).

Some philosophers, such as the Vienna Circle, argued that any talk about God was meaningless. There are three main responses to this – univocal language, equivocal language and analogical language.

The Difference between Univocal and Equivocal Language

Univocal and equivocal terms are often referred to in religious language, but what do they mean?

What is a Univocal Term?

Univocal Term: A term that has only one meaning. That is, it signifies only one thought, and therefore corresponds to only one definition. Words mean the same thing even when applied in different contexts, for example, black shoes, black hair, black car. Such a term invariably has an equivalent import where it’s used. E.g. the term “entomology” signifies the study of insects.

In terms of religious language, this could mean that when we say ‘God is good’ we have exactly the same meaning of ‘goodness’ as when we say ‘man is good’. William Alston argues that there are some concepts that can be applied univocally to God and to human beings, but he rejects a completely univocal solution (http://www.iep.utm.edu/rel-lang/).

What is an Equivocal Term?

Equivocal Term: A term that has a variety of different meanings. An associate equivocal term has completely different intentions once it’s used. For instance, the term “Chihuahua” will signify (a) a breed of dog; (b) a state of Mexico.

The term ‘bat’ could also be seen as an equivocal term. You could be talking about a ‘cricket bat’ or a ‘flying bat’ (the animal).

The words ‘good’ and ‘jolly’ can mean different things to different people.

With regards to religious language, when God is described as good, this is not in the same way that a dog or a man is good. God’s goodness is different to man’s goodness.

Thomas Aquinas on Religious Language as Analogous

Aquinas argued that our positive talk about God is analogical, and neither univocal or equivocal.   He argues that we do not speak of God univocally, because words when applied to God do not have the same meaning as when they are applied to a person. He also argued that we do not speak equivocally about God because there must be some connection of the creature and the creator. We therefore speak about God analogically.

What is an Analogous Term?

Analogous Term: A term that is supposed to convey one or additional similar characteristics that exist between two ideas.

 How do you think that we can describe God? Univocally, equivocally or analogically?

5 thoughts on “What is the Difference between Univocal and Equivocal Language?”

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