Analogy of proper proportionality

Now to-be is diverse; and while diverse, it is yet that ultimate act in proportion to which each being is being; so that all beings are one in being, not with the unity of a genus, but with the community of analogy: and we are speaking of the analogy of proper proportionality. (Bernard Muller-Thym, ‘The To Be which Signifies The Truth of Propositions’, Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Meeting of The American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol XVI, 230-254, 1940)1

Perhaps the most precious possession of man is his abiding awareness  of the Analogy of Proper Proportionality, the key to all metaphysical insight, and perhaps the very condition of consciousness itself. (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 240)

The following passage from the 1968 Through the Vanishing Point (TVP) has been considered at length in a previous post (here). The present post will look at its specification of “the Analogy of Proper Proportionality” in human experience.

The late nineteenth century saw a remarkable advance on Newtonian ideas, with particular emphasis on the afterimage and simultaneous contrast. While this theory is generally known to practicing painters, its wider sociological implications have never been explored. To explain simply, in the field of color the afterimage consists of a physiological balancing on integral white. A brief formula might be sensory impact plus sensory completion equals white (SI + SC = W)2 (…) It is postulated that just as white is a result of the assembling of the primary colors in ratio, so touch is an assembly of all the [psychological] senses in ratio. Black is, therefore, the after-image of touch [SI + SC = B]. Naturally as the visual gradient [or SI or white] of the culture ascends, the modalities of touch [or SC or black] are minimized. This appears very vividly in the sensory evolution of the arts. From cave painting to the Romantics, there is steady visual progress. Thereafter, with the coming of synesthesia in the arts and non-visual electronic phenomena in the sciences, we may well be moving into a kind of zero-gradient culture, with all modes of experience receiving simultaneous attention [SI + SC = BW]. The need for physiological and psychological balance means that any (…) sensory impact needs to find (…) sensory completion… (‘Sensory Modes’, TVP 15, 1968)

Another TVP passage supplies commentary and amplification:

Perhaps the most precious possession of man is his abiding awareness of the Analogy of Proper Proportionality, the key to all metaphysical insight, and perhaps the very condition of consciousness itself. This analogical awareness is constituted of a perpetual play of ratios among ratios. A is to B, what C is to D, which is to say the ratio between A and B, is proportionable to the ratio between C and D, there being a [third] ratio between these [first two] ratios, as well. This lively awareness of the most exquisite delicacy depends upon there being no connection whatsoever between the components [of these various ratios]. If A were linked to B, or C to D, mere logic would take the place of analogical perception, thus one of the penalties paid for literacy and a high visual culture is a strong tendency to encounter all things through a rigorous storyline, as it were. (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, TVP 240)3

McLuhan posits the dynamic interaction — or co-variance — or proportionality — of several ratios here at once. First, within sensory input (SI) and sensory completion (SC), each considered on its own, there is a dynamic interaction between figure and ground, or between numerator and denominator, or between individual SI color or SC sense (on the one hand) and their respective foundational “after-images” (on the other). As the ground or denominator or “after-image” asserts itself, the figure or numerator or particular color or sense recedes. And vice versa. So, as the grounding “after-image” of a particular color is emphasized, namely in favor of the full spectrum of color that is clear light, that color fades towards ‘white’; while emphasis of a particular color, contrariwise, has the opposite effect of fading out its ground in favor of its increasingly vivid individual ‘shade’. In parallel fashion, when we have only a general sense4 of, say, expectation, all the individual senses fade into the background of a global ‘feeling’; while emphasis on any particular sense has, contrariwise, the effect of depressing our awareness of our general feeing in favor of the particular sort of evidence of that single sense.5 Each of these ratios or fractions co-varies such that the more of the one component (be it figure or ground, numerator or denominator, foreground or afterimage), the less of the other. At the same time, there is also a further dynamic ratio or proportionality between these two ratios, SI and SC, together. The more SI, the less SC — and vice versa.

The rather startling implication is that these various ratios — color:spectrum, sense:synaesthesia, SI:SC — are inter-convertible.  More, since each of these ratios can be expressed in terms of one of their terms (since their terms are co-variable), it would seem that any such one, properly specified, would entail6 all the rest.

With his reference to “a rigorous storyline” McLuhan adds a further inter-convertible ratio — that of time(s).  As is observed in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

The auditory field is simultaneous, the visual mode is successive. (111)

And in the posthumous Global Village:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (10)

The ratio of the brain hemispheres is thrown in for good measure.

So it was that McLuhan could write to Hugh Kenner:

We [analogists] are in position of being able to use any insights whatever. Any kind of knowledge is grist to an analogist. But to a Kantian every new fact is a potential threat to his entire world. E.g. Newton’s system now obsolete because of subsequent observations. Progress = obsolescence, destruction. Ritual slaughter of old by young. Unilateral causal connections.7

For “that ultimate act” of “to be”, the “progress” of its creative action, while it is indeed “to be (…) diverse”, does not result in “obsolescence” or “destruction” but in the very “Establishment of the University of Being“.  It is exactly this original “uni-versity” of the di-versity of “to be” that constitutes the “unity of nature” which, according to Einstein (see here), is both the basis and the goal of scientific research.

At the same time, in our everyday lives, it is only on the foundation of this “unity of nature” aka “university of Being” that we are able to learn language and generally communicate with our surrounding world despite all the various distances we have from it.


  1. Muller-Thym’s manner of expression was exacting in a way that won Etienne Gilson’s great admiration. Like Gilson, Muller-Thym held that everything depends on an under-standing of Being as verbal (“to be”), not as substantive: “to be is (…) that ultimate act” of original di-versity as “uni-versity”.  Because it is originally creative as its way “to be” and because it does not lose or dissipate itself in its creative action, so can we, and all beings, securely be: “while diverse, it is yet that ultimate act in proportion to which each being is being”. This hold through difference is what Muller-Thym calls the “Uni-versity of Being” in explicating Meister Eckhart. (In the citation, “to be” has been emphasized and hyphenated.)
  2. This formula in round brackets stems from McLuhan.  The following ones in square brackets have been added.
  3. Twenty years before McLuhan noted in a letter to Ezra Pound (December 21, 1948): “the principle of metaphor and analogy — the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD” (Letters 207).
  4. Supposedly following Thomas, McLuhan often calls this general ‘common sense’ ‘touch’ or ‘tactility’ — just as ‘feeling’ can refer to a particular action of touching or to a general mood. The particular one-of-five sense of touch is exactly not meant (although it is, of course, included in tactility considered as the ‘common sense’).
  5. So the “Gutenberg galaxy” is first of all an emphasis on the single sense of sight and a corresponding and simultaneous depression of the common sense.  Then, exactly because the common sense is depressed, so also awareness of the other senses and especially of the acoustic.  In this way, awareness would seem always to be mediated by some or other modality of the common sense.
  6. The entailment here would of course not be direct. As McLuhan sometimes expressed the matter, a “formula” would be involved.
  7. In a letter from March 16, 1949, cited by Andrew Chrystall in his thesis, 90.