A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Analogy

Everybody knows what analogy and metaphor are. Everybody knows what an allegory is like. Analogy is a tool of thought that acts as a link when we have to learn new things and relate them to what we already know. Metaphor, in turn, is a way of referring to something by calling it by another name, and allegory is something like that as well, right? These rhetorical devices (let’s call them that for now) are rarely given enough thought in classrooms and curricula because teaching analytical rhetoric is deemed boring and thanks to this there’s always a great deal of muddled writing about to keep teachers busy. I don’t think most kids would mind learning about these things too much, especially on a university level course, but English teachers nowadays seem to focus their efforts more on studying graffiti and slam poetry than getting to know the fundamentals of their trade with their students. I’m sure there are students who would love to learn how to scan Spenser and to analyze rhetorical figures in the well-established terms we all should know, both in poetics and argument analysis.

With that in mind, let’s start with the two obvious figures of analogy and metaphor. Analogy is the familiar pattern A is to B as C is to D. Examples are in order: Pop-music is to music as garbage is to hygiene, pop-music is rubbish. You can see that a metaphor can be derived from the analogy: “Turn off that rubbish!” This is why a metaphor can be called a condensed analogy and any metaphor should break down into the terms of an analogy. When someone tells you: “Turn off that rubbish,” you don’t have to try to figure out why is it they want you to turn off the stereo. You don’t ask: “What’s the matter with rubbish? Don’t you like rubbish?” It’s implied that the music is bad because it’s rubbish and rubbish in itself is bad because it compromises hygiene. (See how we just explained this analogy by using another analogy?) You could also replace the general notion of music here with silence and get a slightly different result, but the point is that there is an argument of some kind implied in the statement: “Turn off that rubbish!” The disparaging argument contained in the metaphor is there to add to the force of the command. It also means that the statement is open to counter-argument: “This isn’t rubbish, it’s my favorite song!”

Unlike in examples or an illustration, the terms of an analogy display a certain asymmetry in their qualities despite their neat formal shape. In order to fix this, first, following Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, the terms have to be paired by giving A and B the name theme, and C and D the name phoros. The asymmetry is explained by the fact that the theme and phoros have to be from two different spheres of, for want of a better word, reality. By spheres I mean simply that the things named in the analogy are of a different kind: pop-music and music are kinds of sound, rubbish and hygiene are concepts pertaining to sanitation. As a side note, there is no two essentially different categories of things that can give you a formula that can in turn be applied to every single metaphor and analogy you might encounter. We are not doing metaphysics here. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca say that “in the ordinary course” (373) the phoros is better known than the theme, but even this, I think, is pushing it.

Were the things of the same kind, we would have an example of argument by example or illustration: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Madonna all fall under the rubric of pop-music and therefore they could not act as an analogy in the form: Britney Spears is to Justin Timberlake as Christina Aguilera is to Madonna. Apart from the obvious, they don’t contain any argumentative element because they all are pretty much the same: pop-music, or rubbish, or whatever unifying category you may come up with. In any case it is a different matter to say that they are all members of the same class of things than it is to argue, even implicitly, that there is some similarity in them that connects them to a different order of things. It’s strange to note that the very form of the analogy can get the brain going. The above, for instance, makes one think of classifying Madonna as a man in an effort to create a symmetrical whole of the pairs. Who knows, maybe she had a penis installed at some point? And Justin Timberlake is pretty much a pussy, so they could be paired in some sense and made to relate to Britney and Christina. With four absurdly different terms, however, this doesn’t happen: your big toe is to Jupiter as Jesus is to synchronized swimming. It tickles the brain, but it’s too silly to induce a search for a claim or an argument.

There are two kinds of analogies: literal and figurative. Literal analogies have to do with the objects that are compared and figurative analogies pertain to the relationships between the objects. For instance, using precedence as a warrant for a certain action would be a literal analogy. That means simply that citing an earlier case in order to justify an action on a current one works because the earlier and current cases are more or less alike: “Øystein can listen to his heavy-metal records at full volume, why can’t I listen to mine?” What is implied is that Øystein and I are more or less the same and thus we should have the same privileges.

Figurative analogy, on the other hand, does not directly compare the objects noted in the analogy but the relationships contained in the theme and phoros. The theme is the thing we want to talk about and the phoros usually the one that is used to shed light on the former. The generic claim of the figurative analogy is that the relationship between the two objects of the theme is similar to the one of the phoros — A’s relationship to B in the theme and C’s relationship to D in the phoros share a likeness. Let’s call the former relation AB and the latter CD for short. The expression “cutting off the nose to spite the face” might act as the phoros, and burning down the house to revenge your wife’s infidelity could be the theme. Therefore, you could say that to burn down the house to revenge your wife’s infidelity is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, pretty stupid. Houses are not compared to noses or infidelity to faces or anything like that; it is the comparison of AB to CD that gives the expression its force.

If these explanations do anything, they explain something about why analogies make sense to us. They are descriptions of analogies, not claims as to how they really are — in fact, it’s difficult to even grasp what that sort of claim would entail. Again, explaining and describing rhetorical figures and devices is not a metaphysical activity. To demand anything more would be to venture into the realm of an alchemical mode of thought, thinking that words equal the reality they can only relate to.

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