The Danger of Analogy

The Danger of Analogy
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analogies-examplesIn the employment of analogy, one must always exercise extreme caution. A bad analogy is apt to lead the reader away from the salient point, and down any number of blind alleys leading to false conclusions.

A prime example of this can be found in Herbert Spencer’s essay “The Social Organism,” in which he analogizes society with the physiology of the human body. While Spencer makes some useful points, the analogy ultimately only serves as a distraction and something for his critics to seize upon.

For example, Prof. Thomas Huxley challenged Spencer’s advocacy of limited, decentralized government by extending the analogy to encompass the central nervous system as follows:

“Suppose that, in accordance with this view, each muscle were to maintain that the nervous system had no right to interfere with its contraction, except to prevent it from hindering the contraction of another muscle; or each gland, that it had a right to secrete, so long as its secretion interfered with no other; suppose every separate cell left free to follow its own ‘interests,’ and laissez-faire Lord of all, what would become of the body physiological?”

Spencer recoils from this, alleging that his views have been mischaracterized by Huxley, while conceding that if he were an anarchist, the analogy would be unanswerable. I will go farther than Spencer, however, and answer it.

Analogy has always been a popular and useful tool in debate. By drawing parallels between the complex and the simple, we hope to clarify the former by relating it to the latter. The things need not be identical – indeed they cannot be or else the technique ceases to be analogy at all and becomes a definition. Where we too often err is in extending the analogy past its limits, past the particular aspects of two things being compared, and instead treat them as wholly identical.

The shape of the Earth can be analogized to that of an orange, but trying to extend the analogy to include color, texture, and flavor will result in abject failure. Similarly, the comparison between society and the human body may have some merits (although of this I remain unconvinced) but extending the analogy as Huxley does misses the point entirely. While he may think he has made a clever retort, in fact all he has done is claim that, since the Earth does not produce juice when squeezed, it must not be round after all.

The analogy makes the mistake of going too far. By conceding that society may in some way resemble a body, Huxley and Spencer have both fallen into the trap of thinking that all functions of the body must therefore have correspondences in society.

Society is not, in fact, like a body at all, at least not in any way which is important. A body is a single organism, centrally controlled. No part can function without the brain and certain other vital organs keeping things running. A society, on the other hand, is comprised of discrete individuals. To claim that an individual cannot function without a central planner flies in the face of history, not to mention anatomy.

In fact, the very word “society” is misleading in that it ascribes a unified whole to what is really no more than a loose organization of autonomous beings. By employing a singular noun to describe a multitudinous process, we have tricked ourselves into thinking that a collection of bodies can behave as one, when in fact, it cannot. This is the simplest kind of analogy, and the most insidious: a single word shaping our deepest misperceptions of reality.

It is important to remember that language is nothing more than a tool for communication. While some studies have shown that language can determine how we think, a thesis heartily endorsed by George Orwell, this is not a state of being which we should encourage or aspire to. Language should follow thought, not the other way around. By bearing this in mind, we can employ analogies usefully to further our arguments and make ourselves better understood. However, if we let words determine our thoughts, we become slaves to propaganda and the poor communication of others.

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Profile photo of Logan Albright

Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.

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