Other thoughts on analogy

Yesterday, I wrote about Douglas Hofstadter’s lecture, Analogy as the Core of Cognition. Here are a few other interesting thoughts I had while listening to the lecture.

Why does analogy occur?

Everyday, our minds come up with a great quantity of analogies. Why does it happen? DH said analogies serve no purpose at all; they “just” happen, although they could perchance be explained by evolutionary psychology.

My random guess: Some of the analogies that we come up with are useful and some are not (with the measurement of “usefulness” being whether one serves to generate some insight, solve a problem, or assist in the discovery of some knowledge in anyway). But since some of them are useful, evolution led to the analogy-making mechanism’s preservation and eventual improvement in efficiency, i.e. the ability to produce more and better analogies in less time.

Analogical reasoning = inductive reasoning?

I have noticed that reasoning by analogy, or analogical reasoning, is often just inductive reasoning. What I am not sure of is whether this is always the case, and if not, what would a non-inductive analogical reasoning process look like. Here are two examples of analogical reasoning that mentioned in the lecture that are inductive in nature:

  • Buongiorno/Salve/Ciao: There are three ways to say “hello” in Italian; which one to use depends on your relationship with the person you want to greet. When learning this, DH used the following reasoning: “This person is like that person to me, so if I say salve to that person, then I’ll say salve to this person.” This is a type of inductive reasoning, in the sense that its conclusion does not follow with certainty, but are only supported with a certain degree of strength (source).
  • Shadows: DH showed two pictures of the same tree, one with a normal “sun” shadow, and the other one with a “snow” shadow: an area beneath the tree that wasn’t covered by snow because the snow had been caught in the leaves of the tree. Since sunlight and snow both have the quality of being able to be caught by leaves of a tree, and snow is made of snowflakes, maybe sunlight is made of light-flakes. This analogical reasoning is also inductive in nature.

Picture 1

Seeing more instances of a concept perfects the concept

The example of different types of shadows mentioned above also serves to illustrate another point, which is that by seeing new instances of a shadow, we are expanding our sense of what shadow means. Perhaps we could also say that, by seeing ever more instances of a shadow, we are perfecting our concept of what a shadow really is. (Note: the action of seeing something and categorizing it as a new instance of a shadow is equivalent to making an analogy between that thing and shadow.)

If we could say that, then this leads to the following formula:

Ever increasing experience + analogy-making = concepts that are ever closer to “perfect”


This epiphany reminded me very much, as you can guess here from the picture above, of Plato’s theory of forms (watch the beginning of this video). Besides Plato, it seems that this idea is also very similar to the theory of “universals” and “particulars” in metaphysics (judging from my shallow understanding).

I also had two sub-epiphanies:

  1. Maybe this is why the standard of beauty is so high nowadays. With human population and the images of people we see per capita per day ever increasing, our concepts of human beauty become ever more perfect, and of course, impossible to attain.
  2. This could also explain why the more one reads, the better one writes. When we read stuff, we are seeing new instances of “writing”, so our concept of “writing” becomes more perfect. This concept of what good writing looks like (I said “good” because it can never be perfect—unless you read an infinite number of books) could help when one attempts to write.


The difference between analogy and a conceptual metaphor

I believe I saw a comment below the video expressing confusion over the difference between an analogy and a metaphor, more specifically, a conceptual metaphor. I thought it was an interesting question, so I will attempt to provide an answer here.

Analogy, as DH said, is the perception of common essence between two things, or as SEP defines, any comparison between two things that highlights respects in which they are thought to be similar.

As for conceptual metaphor, it “refers to the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another, for example, understanding quantity in terms of directionality (e.g. “prices are rising”).” (source) Conceptual metaphors are something that is extensively explored in The Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, for anyone who is interested.


spending some time

From these definitions, I think that a conceptual metaphor is essentially still an analogy between two concepts, but it’s an analogy that is repeated so much, and as a result becomes so entrenched in our minds, that one concept actually partially imposes itself onto the other. This conceptual chemical reaction then leaves linguistic evidence such as phrases like “prices are going up” (directionality–>prices), “winning the argument” (war–>argument) and so on. So, to answer the question, I would say that conceptual metaphors are just one kind of the many kinds of products of analogy-making.


About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
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