We commonly use analogies in three domains: linguistics, science, and philosophy.
Analogies help us to linguistically help us to understand our world and have been studied since the mid-20th century. We have a strong tendency to describe our world through words that have a natural connection to what it refers to. One of the common theories of linguistic analogies is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed by linguist Edward Sapir and his graduate student Benjamin Whorf in the 1920’s.4 Sapir was documenting and recording the language of Native American tribes which were unfortunately starting to disappear, and he believed that in order to really understand Native American culture, he had to learn their languages. Sapir and Whorf hypothesized that language influences how its speakers think about the world, how they behave, and therefore affect the entire culture. Analogies are therefore culture specific and can give greater insight into the way that individual people and cultures see the world. For example, the English language separates time through past, present and future tense. These distinctions reflect English-speaking cultures’ view of time: that it occurs in discrete stages. Conversely, Hopi, a Native American language, makes no such distinctions. Indeed, Hopi-speaking cultures do not structure their world through the lens of time.4
Linguistically, analogies come in the forms of idioms, metaphors and similes. Idioms are expressions that mean something different than their literal meaning. For example, “It’s raining cats and dogs” does not mean that it is literally raining cats or dogs; it is an analogy that lets people know it’s heavily raining.5 Metaphors compare two things through a figure of speech, like saying “love is a battlefield” compares the experience of love with being on a battlefield, although it does not explicitly state that it is a comparison. Similes also compare two things but explicitly state the comparison using words such as ‘like’ and ‘as’.
In science, analogies have been used to make hypotheses on the structure of atoms since the technology did not exist to be able to see inside it. In 1897, English scientist J.J Thomson made a contribution to atomic theory by suggesting that there was some matter that was even smaller than the atom: the electron. His theory was called the “Plum Pudding model”, using an analogy to map his prediction. He used plum pudding as a source to describe the target, the structure of the atom. Electrons are like the raisins in the desert, which is the atom. This theory was later disproved by physicist Ernest Rutherford who found that atoms have positively charged centers, and described his understanding of the atom as a cherry, where the nucleus was like the pit. Danish scientist Niels Bohr in 1913 then used the solar system analogy to show people that there were also electrons orbiting around the nucleus. In the 20th century, a number of scientists showed that actually, electrons do not orbit the nucleus in neat orbits like the solar system, but instead move around like particles in a cloud. Despite the fact that some analogies have not stood the test of the time, they were useful tools to help the public understand scientific theories and make sense of complex phenomena.6
Two of the most famous philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, both commonly used analogies to make sense of the world. They both believed that the objects or phenomena used to make an analogy did not have to share an obvious relation, but could express a shared idea, pattern, or overarching philosophy. They used analogies to try and emphasize part of an argument that would normally be overseen.
One of Plato’s most well-known analogies is describing ‘Good’ as the sun. ‘Goodness’ is an abstract idea that is difficult to explain, but in The Republic, Plato’s character Socrates suggests that just as the sun allows people to see, goodness allows people to see the truth.7 One of Aristotle’s most well-known analogies was used for him to describe his theory on the soul. To describe the fact that he thought a soul was a person’s essence, he stated the following analogy: “suppose that the eye was an animal — sight would have been its soul, for sight is the substance or essence of the eye which correspects to the formula, the eye being merely the matter of seeing; when seeing is removed the eye is no longer an eye, except in name.” 8
Analogies continue to be popular tools for philosophers: Bertrand Russell used a teapot analogy to show that people should not accept that things are true without proof, not just if there is proof that it is false. He asked people to imagine that someone told them that in outer space, a Chinese teapot is revolving around the sun. The person would never be able to see it, so they could not disprove its existence. Yet any reasonable person would not blindly believe there is a teapot revolving in space. Similarly, just because God’s existence is unfalsifiable — we can’t prove he doesn’t exist — doesn’t mean he therefore must exist.9