Another “Way In” to Analogy

I’ve been working on some notes on Analogy–absorbing the Thomistic doctrine, on the one hand, but also working out a fresh answer to some contemporary problems that cut to the bottom of language and literature and rhetoric (not to mention metaphysical and philosophical discourse), on the other.  I’m pleased that the notes are making sense, and still working them out in enough detail that I’ll be ready to apply them clearly to the significant stack of critical and philosophical works I’m hoping to put these insights into conversation with.

I’ve already blogged a bit about this approach to Analogy, and hope as I go forward to keep being lucid without sacrificing translatability into various forms of rigorous language (and occasional jargon).

I wanted to pause, though, to jot down in brief paragraphs something that I put down on the first page in this fresh notebook I made notes on (not the first page, because I tend to jump back to the previous leaf’s verso after filling the recto in my notebooks, or to use the facing pages as text-and-notes; and not the first page I marked on, because I doodled on one page after writing “Analogy” at the top of it, too).  If your tolerance for language-theory jargon is very low, skip ahead to the John and Jim section!


Got that?  All, right, you don’t have to read it from the page.

One “way in” to understanding the basic form of analogy (this is what I am now calling “weak analogy,” not to be confused with what develops when we deal with the Being of God, which I’ll call “strong analogy” or “analogy proper”) is to look at a statement that would definitely make sense to us, and that we would assent to in its perfomative sense but also in that it expresses indirectly a claim we know can be true or false, but that we know is also false when taken literally–that is, when read according to the denotation of the words and in the indicative mode.

Before we go on, here’s one list of various ways a statement can “work”:


(Sorry for the verbiage, but follow the example and you’ll be fine–and if you spot an error in the verbiage, please let me know!)

So, then, John has a business associate named Jim that has become a personal friend.  John has mentored Jim and invited him home, and Jim has followed John through several jobs.  Introducing him, or asked to fire him, John says of Jim, “Jim is family.”

Now, if a very skeptical, naive, or curious interlocutor followed up, John would have to admit that Jim is not a relation by blood or by marriage.  And we, caring about the meaning of terms, would have to insist that “family” cannot properly denote “anyone I want to call family” or even “anyone I have strong bonds of loyalty and affection cultivated over years with,” though that last one starts to sound like a pretty plausible explanation of John’s usage.

In fact, being a sensible fellow, John would simply sidestep this conversation by saying, “Jim is like family.”

Now the ambiguity is resolved:  a probable metaphor that might have been literal classification [“Jim is related to me”], allusion (to the Mafia?), an attempt to assert an idiosyncratic definition of “family,” an obviously false assertion offered as a provocation, or some other things has been explicitly marked as a similitude. Metaphor gives way to simile, and we know that “Jim is like family” means “Jim is the kind of friend that is very much like a family member.”

Of course, if we know John and Jim even a little, we probably know they aren’t related; we would interpret “Jim is family” as a response to whatever circumstances prompted the statement–introducing Jim to someone who doesn’t know him well, asking not to be made responsible for firing Jim, etc.  But our point here wasn’t really to question whether reasonably well-informed people can navigate fairly simple conversations without much confusion; our point wasn’t even to underscore the need to keep basic terms grounded in reality, though that’s very much a reasonable concern.

No, the point is that at no point in any of this reasoning did we doubt that “family” and “friend” are analogous, that is, that at least some friends can be described truthfully and accurately with at least some significant language that also applies to family.  Friend and family are alike enough that we can learn something about a friend by hearing him called “like family.”

This gives us the rough definition of analogy that will guide us through the rest of the discussion:  an analogy is

  • a likeness of otherwise unlike things, that
  • can teach us about one or more of those things, or about the likenesses.

That is, Analogy is heuristic likeness-in-unlikeness.

Or, as I put it in some of my other notes:

“Weak Analogy” can be identified when a trope of similitude (simile, metaphor, etc.) evinces a principle; it is heuristic insofar as one may learn about the principle from the terms, or one may learn about one of the terms from observing that principle in the other.

Most important, though, it is the reality that things are analogically related–that friends can be like family because of what friends actually are and what families actually are, not by a merely subjective insistence or volitional decree–that makes it possible for metaphor and simile to be true.  The truth of tropes of similitude is underwritten by Analogy.

Without this understanding, not only learning but all of language is either meaningless, or impossible, or both.