Analogy is a communication tool, an intellectual device or a cognitive technology that assists individuals understand something new, unknown or unfamiliar by means of a likeness or a comparison of similarity between otherwise dissimilar objects.

Importantly, analogy implicitly involves applying knowledge gained from something known (a source domain) to something unknown (a target domain).

The use of analogy is widespread, widely accepted, and widely applicable. Analogies have been shown to be particularly useful in generating scientific understanding (Hesse 1966) and conceptual change (Rumelhart and Norman 1981), as well as supporting technological prediction and engineering design (Klein 1987) . Furthermore, ‘people in all walks of life often construct spontaneous analogies to understand unfamiliar issues in terms of familiar ones’ (Duit, Wolff-Michael Roth et al. 2001, p. 284). As Holyoak and Thagard state, analogical thinking can be traced from early the phylogenetic and ontogenetic beginnings of human life ‘to an extraordinarily diverse range of uses by human adults, including generation of metaphors for the self; decision making in politics, business, and law; and scientific discovery’ (Holyoak and Thagard 1997, p. 35).

According to multi-constraint theory (Holyoak and Thagard 1997), the use of analogy is guided by similarity, structure and purpose. First, similarity at any level of abstraction must exist between the two objects or domains. Second, isomorphic correspondences must exist at a structural level between the two objects under consideration (Gentner 1989). Third, the use of analogy is purposive, and directed toward a specific goal of understanding. Importantly similarity, structural correspondence, and analogical purpose constitute the analogical relationship, which allows for the stepwise constitutive transfer of understanding from one object or domain to the other. This constructivist transfer between the two domains or objects is known as analogical reasoning or reasoning by analogy. As a process, it also has heuristic value insofar as it facilitates the generation of additional analogical relationships which in turn facilitate deeper understanding of the objects or domains in question.

The use of analogical reasoning is quite consistent with Jungian practice (Hubback 1973), and Jung regarded analogy formation as ‘a law which to a large extent governs the life of the psyche’ (Jung 1969a, p. 261). Jung’s research and its formulation are deeply saturated with analogy, and importantly he regarded his cross-disciplinary intellectual inquiries in mythology, archeology, alchemy and comparative religion as ‘invaluable analogies with which I can enrich the associations of my patients’ (Jung 1966a, p. 45).

Jung observed that the human tendency to invent analogies was ‘of enormous significance for the development of the human mind’, and that ‘the canalization of libido into analogy making was responsible for some of the most important discoveries ever made by primitive man’ (Jung 1967d, p. 141). Moreover, he saw it as an essential element in hermeneutics which he asserted consisted of ‘adding further analogies to the one already supplied by the symbol’ which in turn ‘widens and enriches the initial symbol’ (Jung 1977, p. 291). Jung viewed symbols as the union of rational and irrational elements which could be interpreted objectively and subjectively, and which were expressions of unknown unconscious contents; as opposed to semiotics which views them as abbreviations for something known. Importantly for Jung, symbols have definite goals and ‘can express themselves only in analogies’ (Jung 1970a, p. 468). Clearly, analogy was central to his methodology and motivation. Directly related to his belief that paradox is unavoidable and that ambiguity is best represented by antimonies, analogy represented for Jung a crucial bridge between the known and the unknown, and essential tool for understanding.

In Symbols of Transformation, Jung proffers two kinds of thinking, namely directed or active thinking and fantasy or intuitive thinking. Directed thinking or outward thinking or reality thinking ‘operates with speech elements for the purpose of communication’ and intuitive or fantasy thinking is ‘effortless, working as it were spontaneously, with the contents ready to hand, and guided by unconscious motives’ (Jung 1967d, p. 18). Directed thinking is very much a phenomenon of consciousness, and whilst having a base in consciousness, fantasy or intuitive thinking is a product of the unconscious, and can be inferred only indirectly. Directed thinking is thinking that is adapted to the outer world, and fantasy thinking is thinking which is adapted to the inner world.

Therefore, in light of this dualistic view of thinking, it would appear as if analogy ideally combines directed and fantasy thinking. For Jung, ‘thinking in analogies…in the stratum lying immediately below consciousness’ (Jung 1954, p. 24) activates imagination, which ‘reveals to us, in the form of a more or less striking analogy, what is in the process of becoming’ (Jung 1977, p. 287). Analogy is dynamic, revealing and related to the archaic and primitive world of the unconscious.

Jung believed that ‘the clearest expression of modern directed thinking is science and the technics fostered by it. Both owe their existence simply and solely to energetic training in directed thinking’ (Jung 1967d,p. 19). However, because Jung asserts that ‘everything that the human mind has ever created sprang from contents which, in the last analysis, existed once as unconscious seeds’ (Jung 1969e, p. 364), he is forced to acknowledge that ‘such contents cannot as a rule be realized except through passive, associative, and fantasy-thinking’ (Jung 1967d, p. 18). Accordingly, fantasy thinking brings directed thinking into relationship with the contents of the unconscious, and analogy represents an important device for such a union.

The use of analogy is not without its limitation. Analogical reasoning is error prone, can produce unfavourable or misleading results, and although spontaneously used by human beings, can distort information organization. Although on the periphery of the literature, Judith Hubback notes that ‘an abuse of analogies can occur if one is unclear about the other person’s exact frame of reference’ (Hubback 1973, p. 12). According to Jungian theory, the adapted psychological function of perception is a critical factor of one’s frame of reference. Consequently, as explored earlier, Jung prescribes two orienting perceptive functions, namely sensation and intuition. Sensation, being perception via the five sense, is the function that allows us to perceive the actual, the concrete and the literal. Correspondingly, intuition, being perception via the unconscious (a kind of instinctive apprehension of the object or situation), is the function that allows us to perceive the possible, the abstract possibilities and the figurative. Accordingly, sensation being pragmatic and sequential, is the function that allows perception of the specific details of the part of the whole. By contrast, intuition being imaginative and random, is the function that allows perception of the generic qualities of the whole.

Although , both these functions are necessary for a proper exercise of judgement, the theory of psychological type holds that humans have an innate preference toward one or the other. Consequently, when exchanging analogies, there exists the possibility for a mismatch or a misalignment of the perceptive function and a corresponding possibility for a misinterpretation of the analogy. One participant in the exchange might interpret the analogy in a manner that is concrete and literal, whilst the other might intent it to be used in a more abstract and figurative fashion.

Within the literature on analogy there exists two further categories of direct relevance to this discussion. First, there is a distinction between schema-driven and case-driven analogizing. Schema-driven analogizing ‘entails the rapid, automatic, and implicit identification and application of abstract experimental knowledge’ (Ball, Ormerod et al. 2004, p. 497).

Contrastingly, case-driven analogizing involves identification of concrete elements which can be mapped into the problem. The deployment of the term schema in this way to refer to an abstract knowledge structure is conventional and described in the literature by Chi, Feltovich and Glasser (Chi, Feltovich et al. 1981). This distinction also corresponds with Jung’s typological theory insofar as schema-driven analogizing suggests a predominantly intuitive approach and case-driven suggests a predominantly sensation approach.

Second, and as an extension to a seminal theme within the literature on analogical similarity, there exists a distinction between what is described as superficial or content similarity and deep or structural similarity (Chi, Feltovich et al. 1981). According to Blanchette and Dunbar, superficial similarity refers to ‘the resemblance between the objects in the source and target and their properties’ whereas structural similarity refers to ‘the resemblance in the underlying systems of relations between the elements of the sources and the elements of the target’ (Blanchette and Dunbar 2000, p. 108). Additional research by Sweller has furthermore suggested the existence of a relationship between surface and deep similarity, insofar as the solutions to the surface features often inhere in the deep structural properties of the problem (Sweller 1980).

Similarly, this theme is further advanced by Blessing and Ross in their research which suggests that the rapid application of underlying, associated or analogous schema assists problem solving (Blessing and Ross 1996). Additionally, the established distinction between expert and novice problem solvers (Larkin, McDermott et al. 1980; Chi, Feltovich et al. 1981) shows an interesting correlation with superficial and structural similarity. Experts tend to draw upon deep structural properties of the problem or object and hence tend to solve problems quicker and more effectively than novices, who tend to focus on superficial or content features. Ball’s research also shows that expert designers also tend toward schema-driven analogizing, whilst novice designers tend toward case-driven analogizing (Ball, Ormerod et al. 2004). In summary, it can be derived from the literature that expertise in problem solving and analogizing is usually accompanied by the selective application of abstract reasoning to the concrete knowledge encountered.

Furthermore, Blanchette and Dunbar (Blanchette and Dunbar 2000) introduce the notion of a “production paradigm” in their analysis of analogy, and show that when producing analogies, individuals usually pay closer attention to structural similarity than superficial similarity. This contrasts with the extant notion of “reception paradigm” which suggests that individuals pay more attention to superficial similarity when retrieving analogies. Quite possibly, the generation of analogies presupposes a pre-existing level of subject matter expertise which is reflected in the expert/novice distinction. Accordingly, experts, by relying on a schema-driven approach are more able to produce analogies with deep structural similarity, than novices, who poses less subject matter expertise and rely of case-driven similarity.

Consequently, if analogies have concrete and abstract properties, which relate to superficial or structural properties, and they are either generated or received by experts or novice, then there exists the clear opportunity for an expert to generate an analogy with deep structural and abstract properties which a novice, with less analogical reasoning expertise, may misread, misinterpret or misuse. Hence, we return to Hubback’s assertion that overuse of analogy can occur if we fail to properly understand the other person’s frame of reference.


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Blanchette, I. & Dunbar, K. 2000, ‘How analogies are generated: The roles of structural and superficial similarity’, Memory & Cognition, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 108-124

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Posted: March 10, 2017


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