A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Is the Three-Term Analogy an Analogy?

A three-term analogy is an analogy that has three terms instead of the usual A, B, C, and D. That means that we have to cope with A, B, and C and still be able to create something that resembles an analogy. Thus, one of the terms has to be shared somehow. These are not too uncommon and could be made, for instance, to create a stronger link between the two terms that share the third than a normal analogy with four different terms would provide. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca give us the scheme B is to A as C is to B and this example from Heraclitus: In the sight of the divinity man is as puerile as a child is in the sight of man. Then they say that the common term “man” invites the reader

to locate the theme in an extension of the phoros, and to arrange them hierarchically. Nevertheless, the distinction between spheres, which is essential for the existence of an analogy, is maintained. For, though the common term is formally the same in both theme and phoros, it is dissociated by being differently used, and this makes it ambiguous. (375)

The hierarchy Heraclitus wants us to construct of course goes from divinity to man to child, and this relationship is clear to everyone, but the ambiguity can be worrisome. It’s as if we should somehow make a distinction between two senses of the term “man” in order to see the form more clearly. That is, we have to dissociate two notions of the term.

I’ve actually already done some dissociating of the term “analogy” here by hinting that we might want to have two different notions of analogy if we are to count the three-term analogy as one; bringing two terms that were earlier seen as different back together we would call associating — knowing which terms are associated and which dissociated at the outset naturally requires some knowledge of your audience. You get the idea when you look at Heraclitus’ analogy and put yourself in the shoes of man and, first, look to one side to the abode of the gods and, then, to the other at the baffled child. Your relationships to these creatures will be so different that we might as well split you in two and make you the insecure man blinded by divinity on the one hand and the parent of the weeping child on the other. That is, B : A :: C : B becomes B1 : A :: C : B2 where A = divinity, C = child B = man (associated), B1 = man seeing divinity, and B2 = man seen by child. Of course you don’t need to do this schematizing in order to get Heraclitus’ point, but I think it does show where the ambiguity comes from.

The reason why three-term analogies seem unlike analogies is that they seem to draw a parallel that is in some sense very unanalogous. Then again, when it becomes clear that the shared term has, strictly speaking, two different meanings and can therefore be seen as two separate terms, the analogousness becomes obvious. But in that case it’s not really a three-term analogy and we should not call it that. I don’t know why this is, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

One final thing that should be mentioned is that three-term analogies can be used very effectively in negating things. If the form itself is already suspect, it makes sense to use the form in saying B is not to A as C is to B. If there’s anyone whose conscience says that this is manipulative and mean-spirited I can only say that it is what you make of it. One nice example from today’s HS (in Finnish) comes courtesy of the Finnish Union of University Professors (FUUP) and concerns a new Finnish university project called the Innovation University. It’s supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread with combined business schools and technology and design faculties, but the wonderfully named FUUP has found a slight snag in the plans. The project might be against the Finnish constitution. If I understand this correctly, the constitution can’t cope with the fact that the people running the university will be suits from outside the institution. That is, they want this thing to run on the basis that outside suits are to the governing of the university as democratically elected people from within the university community are to the university. The constitution, on the other hand, says that outside suits are not equivalent to democratically elected university people when it comes to governing the institution. I’m convinced by the latter view which was designed to guarantee the autonomy of universities, and I think it might have something to do with the form of the argument.

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