When Analogies Fail

Alexander Stern in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_78335_landscape_650x433An analogy is, according to Webster’s, “a comparison of two things based on their being alike in some way.” The definition seems to capture exactly what Simmons, a sports commentator, and Dowd, a New York Times columnist, are doing in the sentences above: comparing two things and explaining how they’re alike. Being a dictionary, however, Webster’s has little to say about why we use analogies, where they come from, or what role they really play in human life.

Analogies need not, of course, all have the same aim. They’re used in different contexts to varying effect. Still, it is evident that we use analogies for mainly rhetorical reasons: to shed light, to explain, to reveal a new aspect of something, to draw out an unseen affinity, to drive home a point. As Wittgenstein wrote, “A good simile refreshes the mind.”

This Simmons’s and Dowd’s analogies demonstrably fail to do. Our understanding of Trump is unlikely to benefit from an attentive viewing of Species. The careers of the basketball player Robert Horry and the actor Philip Baker Hall, admirable though they may be, leave Australia similarly unilluminated. This kind of analogy — which often consists of an ostensibly funny pop-culture reference or of objects between which certain equivalences can be drawn (x is the y of z’s) — has become increasingly common.

You also find it in academic writing. For example, from the journal Cultural Critique: “Attempting to define multiculturalism is like trying to pick up a jellyfish — you can do it, but the translucent, free-floating entity turns almost instantly into an unwieldy blob of amorphous abstraction.” The analogy aims not to enlighten, but to enliven, adorn, divert.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes, but its increasing prominence reflects more general changes in the way we relate to the world around us.

More here.