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The benefits and hazards of the resort to analogy

Here’s a methodological question that arises for anyone who reads a lot of ‘analytic philosophy’. Obviously, I have particular examples in mind, but I want to keep my example here completely formal. So feel free to fill in your values for the variables. In fact, I strongly suspect that different people will have different kinds of value in mind for each of the variables, which is part of the interest of the example.

Suppose that you and I are arguing over some contentious ethico-political case, C. We’re finding our disagreement intractable. You believe p about C, and I believe ~p. So it occurs to me to resolve our dispute by adducing an example that I find analogous to C, call it C*. The implicit assumption is that if we find C irresolvable, we’ll find C* resolvable, and then be able to return to our discussion of C, resolving it with comparative ease. Call this the resort to analogy.


Here’s a question: why believe that the resort to analogy will work to resolve a dispute like this one? Why not think, instead, that it multiplies and over-complicates our disagreements rather than serving to resolve them? It seems to me that there’s some likelihood—in my experience a high likelihood—that the resort to analogy merely entangles us in a version of the following dilemma:

1. Suppose that we agree about C*. Isn’t the likely explanation for the agreement to be that C* isn’t relevantly similar to C? In this case, now that we’ve come to agree on C*, we’re left with an intractable disagreement about the similarity of C* to C. In other words, we’ve merely displaced the disagreement about C to a different topic.

2. Suppose that we disagree about C*. Isn’t the likely explanation that C* and C are relevantly similar? In other words, isn’t it highly likely that precisely because they are so similar, our disagreement about C* will be just as intractable as our disagreement about C, and for the same reasons? It’s just the same disagreement about the same topic, but over a trivially different example.

I don’t want to suggest that the preceding dilemma is a literal inevitability. There are (clearly) cases in which the resort to analogy works and cases in which it doesn’t. But that fact would suggest that before resorting to analogy, the interlocutors ought first to agree on whether they’re in a case in which the resort to analogy will work, or a case in which it won’t (a non-trivial disagreement of its own).

I don’t want to over-state that point, either. It could be that you can’t, in the heat of argument, really figure out what kind of case you’re in. The best you can do is to engage in a kind of discursive trial and error, or take a discursive shot in the dark: you resort to analogy on the premise that it might help—as it might. There are cases in which you and your interlocutor basically agree on a whole set of background assumptions, but the interlocutor just isn’t seeing (through a temporary lapse) that the principle on which you agree leads to endorsing p about C, not ~p. So you pick just the case designed to show him or her the nature of that lapse. Voila: your interlocutor suddenly emerges from The Cave in which he’d temporarily found sanctuary, and you reach agreement.

Fair enough, but in a case like this, you’d have to admit that your shot in the dark was just a shot in the dark, and had a shot in the dark’s chance of working or not working. In fact, unless you had data in hand to suggest otherwise, you’d have to admit that the chances of failure are, for all you know, very high.

In this last (kind of) case, your hopes for resolving the dispute by way of a resort to analogy would have to be low. You couldn’t insist on your argument from analogy, or be deeply puzzled why, after adducing analogue after analogue, your interlocutor was unmoved by your arguments. The explanation for failure would be clearer than the analogy itself: the resort to analogy only works in certain sorts of cases, and this isn’t one of them. Resort to analogy may work with people who profess to the hold exactly the same principles—two Thomists, two Objectivists, two Marxists, etc.–but it’s less likely to work with people having fundamentally different philosophical commitments. (Actually I’m skeptical even of the “profess to hold the same principle” proviso. I have a feeling that the agreement has to be even closer than merely professing to hold the same principles. I’m an Objectivist, but I often find myself stupefied by the claims of other professed Objectivists, and have rarely found that resort to analogy has settled disputes with other professed Objectivists.)

In my view, the popularity of the appeal to analogy, especially in analytic philosophy, arises from a constricted sense of the acceptable range of views held by reasonable people (“I see that we’re disagreeing. Well, this ingeniously constructed example ought to clear things up…”). If you think that all reasonable people basically believe the same things—have the same “folk theory”—you’ll be likely to take intractable disagreements about a given case to be instances of temporary cognitive blindness by your interlocutor of a sort that can easily be remedied by a quick resort to analogy (or two or three or thirteen).

The question is whether all or most reasonable disagreements are really like this. I’m inclined to think that many if not most philosophical disagreements arise from fundamental, systematic disagreement at multiple levels. If you’re having an intractable disagreement about C, I’m inclined to think that you have to move to a more fundamental level of justification (iterated several times) to resolve it. Introducing analogues at the same level may help, but probably won’t. I’ve discussed that sort of disagreement (in a very sketchy way) here.




  1. Only tangentially related, but: I would also add that arguments by counterexample are often mistaken for arguments by analogy. Indeed, once you’re on the alert for that mistake you’ll notice it everywhere. I really think ti should have a formal fallacy name. My colleague Mike Watkins has a nice discussion of the mistake in connection with the reception of Thomson’s abortion arguments, here:

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks for the reference. Very relevant to the talk I’m giving at TAS this summer on thought-experiments–I’d intended to discuss Thomson on abortion.


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