Thursday, January 17, 2013

Analogies and Metaphors, Or Leading the reader into error

My friend Russ Lewis sent me this quote recently:

“The great thing about metaphor is you can find a little bit of everything in anything. The problem with metaphor is that there is only a so much of anything in everything.”

I think there's a lot of insight in here. This is, for instance, the fundamental flaw in “reasoning by analogy” where someone says is “X is like Y,” then goes on to say “doing A with Y is obviously wrong/stupid/impossible,” and finishes by saying that, as a result, “A should be wrong/stupid/impossible with X, also”. As Russ' quote points out that almost anything can be said (in some sense) to be like something else. Often the comparison is often strained (“how is a raven like a writing desk?”) and people are suspicious of those. But that just means that it’s the analogies that seem plausible ‘on their face’ that are dangerous (“a country is like a big family”—well, no, it’s not and is not in many critical ways) when used to draw a conclusion.

Where analogies are useful are where they make you look at something in a new way. The analogy highlights some feature or purpose of the target that you might otherwise ignore or gives you a new approach to dealing with the target (often the ‘strained’ analogies are the most valuable because they are more likely to give you a genuinely new insight). What makes analogies is that initial “A-ha!” experience where you experience the rush of a new insight: “My gosh, that’s right—and this is useful”. That initial inspiration can then lead you to push the analogy too far and lead you into error.

Metaphors are the most insidious of analogies because unlike similes which are flagged with an explicit “like” or “as” keyword (as in my lake/saint example), metaphors aren’t flagged in the language. In fact, it’s almost impossible to speak English without using metaphors (though many of them are dead). We’ve already spoken of “anything in everything” as if these abstract concepts were somehow packed inside each other like presents in boxes and “insightful” as if we were physically seeing into something that was obscured before (and there’s the metaphor of “understanding” as “seeing”).

There is a defense: For an analogy to be genuinely useful without being dangerous, it’s critical to specify in what ways the analogy works: “a pretty lake is like a saint in that….”). Going on to specify where** the analogy doesn’t work is also a good idea as people don’t tend to think “Oh, I can only use this analogy within the specified limits”—people often need to be explicitly told that “This analogy stops here.”

A trite metaphor is one that gives you an insight that you’ve already had and is, in fact, commonly known.

**notice the metaphor implied by “where” as suggesting physical locations in space—I’m surprised I didn’t talk about “fencing off” the analogy

Reading or read

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