Reasoning by Analogy

I have been thinking about analogies lately, and finding them fascinating. There appear to be three basic uses for the term analogy.


First, almost any comparison, especially one in which a familiar, simpler, or concrete thing is used to clarify or illuminate something that is unfamiliar, complex, or abstract, can be called an analogy. For example, this excerpt from George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging” is considered an analogy:

They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.

The manner in which the guards handled the prisoner is compared to men handling a fish. Most people have tried to handle a live fish just pulled from the water that wants back in, so this comparison gives the reader a vivid mental picture of the less familiar situation Orwell is describing.


Second, we see analogies in what can be called ordered-pair form: A is to B as C is to D, or more briefly A : B :: C : D. Typically these appear in the vocabulary or reasoning section of standardized tests, like this sample question from the GRE. Choose the analogous pair:

A. player : coach
B. child : parent
C. student : teacher
D. intern : doctor

The best answer is D. Just as an apprentice is training to be a plumber, so an intern is training to be a doctor. A child does not formally study to become a parent, and a player or student is not necessarily studying to become a coach or teacher (respectively).

Illustrative parallels

Third, we see analogies being used for the purposes of persuasion, called arguments by analogy, or what Aristotle calls illustrative parallels. Here is an example from Aristotle’s Rhetoric II.20:

Public officials ought not to be selected by lot. That is like using the lot to select athletes, instead of choosing those who are fit for the contest; or using the lot to select a steersman from among a ship’s crew, as if we ought to take the man on whom the lot falls, and not the man who knows most about it.

Illustrative parallels use both inductive and deductive reasoning. We use inductive reasoning to mentally move from the source (e.g. we ought not use the lot to select athletes) to a more general, unspoken intermediate conclusion (we ought not randomly select someone for a skilled position). We then use deductive reasoning to move from this intermediate conclusion to our specific conclusion, the target (we ought not select public officials by lot).

In my next post, I will explain how to construct illustrative parallels.

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