Apologies for the unusually crappy blogging this week. With the arrival of a replacement from my lost/stolen laptop, I should catch up on the 12,000 unread items in NetNewsWire soon, and return to normal crappy blogging.
In any event, Chad Orzel replies to last week’s ruckus over “ways of knowing” by observing that “Using Analogies on the Internet Is Like Doing a Really Futile Thing“:
No matter what the analogy is, any attempt to use analogy, simile, metaphor, or any other lofty rhetorical technique in a debate being conducted on the Internet is doomed to end badly. No matter how carefully you set up your analogy, somebody will come along and interpret it in the most stupidly literal way possible, find some tiny point where it fails to correspond perfectly with the actual topic of discussion, and decide that this disagreement is an utterly devastating counter-argument to whatever point you were trying to make.If the topic is anything remotely controversial, like religion or politics, tens of somebodys will jump on the stupidly literal interpretation, and arguments about the validity of the analogy will come to totally dominate the discussion.
This is incredibly frustrating, because argument by analogy is a tool with a long and distinguished history among intelligent people debating topics in good faith. On the Internet, though, it fails every time, or close enough that it makes no difference. ?
There are only two ways to go with this: either abandon the use of analogies entirely, or refuse to engage those who are only interested in quibbling with the analogy. Any other course of action risks disaster, in the form of complete distraction from the important argument to some complex squabble over trivialities.
The first option is impossible. Everything we do winds up touching on metaphor, metonym, and other such devices. Indeed, Douglas Hofstadter has argued credibly that the ability to understand analogies and engage in analogical reasoning is a (perhaps the) hallmark of intelligence. So abandoning metaphor entirely is giving up a key component of intelligent thought, not just of intelligent conversation.
This brings us back to the point about ways of knowing, at least in passing. We learn things through metaphor and analogy, some of which can’t be learned in other ways, or can’t be learned as easily. Thus, reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is hard, and doesn’t necessarily foster a deep appreciation for and adoption of a sensible approach to learning how to be an ethical person. Reading Huckleberry Finn is easier, and is more likely to produce a particular outlook on ethics, not to mention race, class, adolescence, and a host of real-world ethical dilemmas. This is because the reader is able to see Huck’s similarity to him- or herself, and is able to see an analogy between Huck’s moral and ethical dilemmas and those of our 21st century lives. Thus, we learn about ethics by analogy more clearly than we do via direct lecture and abstract logic.
Because I think metaphor, analogy, metonymy, and other literary/rhetorical devices matter, I can’t abandon them. And because they matter, I can’t abandon people who would rather ignore these approaches to reality. If the goal of this blog is to be at all educational, one hopes that a vigorous defense of of analogy will serve some salutary effect in the difficulties people have with analogical thinking, whether they be religious fundamentalists bent on Biblical literalism, or atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.