Collected Quotes

Analogy and Metaphor

The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him. All our other faculties keep us within the realm of the real, of what is already there. The most we can do is to combine things or to break them up. The metaphor alone furnishes an escape; between the real things, it lets emerge imaginary reefs, a crop of floating islands. A strange thing, indeed, the existence in man of this mental activity which substitutes one thing for another — from an urge not so much to get at the first as to get rid of the second.

José Ortega y Gasset

We have repeatedly seen how analogies and mappings give rise to secondary meanings that ride on the backs of primary meanings. We have seen that even primary meanings depend on unspoken mappings, and so in the end, we have seen that all meaning is mapping-mediated, which is to say, all meaning comes from analogies.

Douglas Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop, 2007

Metaphor is the joining of like to unlike such that one can never become the other. ... At its root all language has the character of metaphor, because no matter what it intends to do, it remains language, and remains absolutely unlike whatever it is about. ... The unspeakability of nature is the very possibility of language.

— James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

I've managed to convince myself that analogy is really at the core of thinking — not just for myself, but for other people, too. I'm trying to put forth a vision of thought that involves — if you don't want to say "analogy-making" you can say "stripping away irrelevancies to get at the gist of things." I feel I've discovered something essential about what thinking is, and I'm on a crusade to make it clear to everybody.

Douglas Hofstadter, Wired 3.11, 1995

One should not think of analogy-making as a special variety of reasoning (as in the dull and uninspiring phrase "analogical reasoning and problem-solving," a long-standing cliché in the cognitive-science world), for that is to do analogy a terrible disservice. After all, reasoning and problem-solving have (at least I dearly hope!) been at long last recognized as lying far indeed from the core of human thought. If analogy were merely a special variety of something that in itself lies way out on the peripheries, then it would be but an itty-bitty blip in the broad blue sky of cognition. To me, however, analogy is anything but a bitty blip — rather, it's the very blue that fills the whole sky of cognition — analogy is everything, or very nearly so, in my view.

Douglas Hofstadter, Analogy as the Core of Cognition, 2001

My thesis is this: what makes humans smart is (1) our exceptional ability to learn by analogy, (2) the possession of symbol systems such as language and mathematics, and (3) a relation of mutual causation between them whereby our analogical prowess is multiplied by the possession of relational language.

Dedre Gentner, Why We're So Smart, 2003

Our conceptual networks are intricately structured by analogical and metaphorical mappings, which play a key role in the synchronic construction of meaning and in its diachronic evolution. Parts of such mappings are so entrenched in everyday thought and language that we do not consciously notice them; other parts strike us as novel and creative. The term metaphor is often applied to the latter, highlighting the literary and poetic aspects of the phenomenon. But the general cognitive principles at work are the same, and they play a key role in thought and language at all levels.

Gilles Fauconnier, Mappings in Thought and Language, 1997

Intelligence is the capacity of the brain to predict the future by analogy to the past.

Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence, 2004

Still, I think that metaphor really is a key to explaining thought and language. The human mind comes equipped with an ability to penetrate the cladding of sensory appearance and discern the abstract construction underneath — not always on demand, and not infallibly, but often enough and insightfully enough to shape the human condition. Our powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature, and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself.

Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2007

The ability to consider differences between differences is important because it lies at the heart of our abilities to solve new problems. This is because these "second-order-differences" are what we use to remind ourselves of other problems we already know how to solve. Sometimes this is called "reasoning by analogy" and is considered to be an exotic or unusual way to solve problems. But in my view, it's our most ordinary way of doing things.

Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, 1988

What, then, is a metaphor? It might be easy to agree on functional definitions like "A metaphor is that which allows us to replace one kind of thought with another." But when we ask for a structural definition of "metaphor," we find no unity, only an endless variety of processes and strategies. Some are simple, as when we make an analogy by stripping away so many details that two different objects seem the same. But other forms of metaphor are as complex as can be. In the end there is little to gain by cloaking them all under the same name "metaphor," because there isn't any boundary between metaphorical thought and ordinary thought. No two things or mental states ever are identical, so every psychological process must employ one means or another to induce the illusion of sameness. Every thought is to some degree a metaphor.

Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, 1988

Logical Thinking: The popular but unsound theory that much of human reasoning proceeds in accord with clear-cut rules that lead to foolproof conclusions. In my view, we employ logical reasoning only in special forms of adult thought, which are used mainly to summarize what has already been discovered. Most of our ordinary mental work — that is, our commonsense reasoning — is based more on "thinking by analogy" — that is, applying to our present circumstances our representations of seemingly similar previous experiences.

Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, 1988

How do we ever understand anything? Almost always, I think, by using one or another kind of analogy — that is, by representing each new thing as though it resembles something we already know. Whenever a new thing's internal workings are too strange or complicated to deal with directly, we represent whatever parts of it we can in terms of more familiar signs. This way, we make each novelty seem similar to some more ordinary thing. It really is a great discovery, the use of signals, symbols, words, and names. They let our minds transform the strange into the commonplace.

Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, 1988

Logical and analogical reasoning are sometimes viewed as mutually exclusive alternatives, but formal logic is actually a highly constrained and stylized method of using analogies. Before any subject can be formalized to the stage where logic can be applied to it, analogies must be used to derive an abstract representation from a mass of irrelevant detail. After the formalization is complete, every logical step — of deduction, induction, or abduction — involves the application of some version of analogy.

John Sowa and Arun Majumdar, Analogical Reasoning, 2003

We never map mathematics to reality. We map a simplified system to a more complicated one, using the language of mathematics. Think of a computer simulation to predict the solar cycle. It’s a map from one system (the computer) to another system (the sun). If you do a calculation on a sheet of paper and produce some numbers that you later match with measurements, you’re likewise mapping one system (your brain) to another (your measurement), not some mathematical world to a real one. Mathematics is just a language that you use, a procedure that adds rigor and has proved useful.

Sabine Hossenfelder, What are you, really?, 2012

Nothing unknown can ever become known except through its analogy with other things known.

Charles Sanders Peirce, Logic, Considered as Semeiotic, 1902

Let us speak of metaphor. The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an understatement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language. I am using metaphor here in its most general sense: the use of a term for one thing to describe another because of some kind of similarity between them or between their relations to other things.

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976

The concepts of science are all of this kind, abstract concepts generated by concrete metaphors. In physics, we have force, acceleration (to increase one's steps), inertia (originally an indolent person), impedance, resistance, fields, and now charm. In physiology, the metaphier of a machine has been at the very center of discovery. We understand the brain by metaphors to everything from batteries and telegraphy to computers and holograms. Medical practice is sometimes dictated by metaphor. In the eighteenth century, the heart in fever was like a boiling pot, and so bloodletting was prescribed to reduce its fuel. And even today, a great deal of medicine is based upon the military metaphor of defense of the body against attacks of this or that. The very concept of law in Greek derives from nomos, the word for the foundations of a building. To be liable, or bound in law, comes form the Latin ligare, meaning to bind with cord. In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors, even, we may say, created the abstract on the bases of metaphors.

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976

It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. ... Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980

Vito AcconciCity of Words