Approximate Analogies

In 1950, biologist J.Z. Young was tasked with undertaking the Reith Lectures, an annual radio lecture series organized by BBC. For Young this was an honor yet a chore to organize. In the midst of writing summations of his work to present, Young hit on a unique observation:

“…when I began to do this I came to realize the extent to which having to describe the results of one’s thoughts to others is a part of the process of discovery itself”.

How human beings communicate their thoughts is a way that separates them from animals. Young mentions in the first lecture how a useful tool in the shed of human language is analogy:

“This procedure of finding analogies is a characteristic human method. It suggests, as we shall often see, new ways of looking that actually lead us to new discoveries. The brain is continually searching for fresh information about the rhythm and regularity of what goes on around us”.

The catch is that when we use analogies, we cannot take them for face value. Electricity, as Young describes in Doubt and Certainty in Science, does not actually “flow”. It is merely “the condition we observe when there are certain spatial relations between things”. He goes on in this way discussing the analogy of matter being “made”:

“Physicists do not…say that matter ‘is made’ of bodies called atoms, protons, electrons, and so on. What they have done is to give up the materialist method of describing their observations in terms of something made as by a human process of manufacture, like a cake. The word atom or electron is not used as the name of a piece. It is used as part of the description of the observations of physicists. It has no meaning except as used by people who know the experiments by which it is revealed”. 

In music we use analogies all of the time. Take comparing music with other music: “Oh…X is just like an upbeat rock version of Y”. I cannot tell you how many times I felt genuinely disappointed when I heard nothing of the analogy many a friend has made.

How about two other analogy examples. We say artist X is like the new Y. Only later do we decry X for not fulfilling the expectations of being the new Y. The music culture of X is discussed using the musical terminology and structure of Y. In doing so, musicologists get annoyed when the music of X fails to be defined by Y.

No wonder these can lead to frustration if taken at face value. These cases are a failure to discern the wood for the trees.

X is not an upbeat rock version of Y. X is not the new Y. The music culture of X does not fit the same mold as the music culture of Y. As Young emphasizes, when we use analogies they are just approximations; a “part of the description of observations” from people.

Where do we go from this acknowledgement? Maybe we can take a lead from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and how he approached studying myth as mentioned in The Raw and the Cooked:

“In wanting to imitate the spontaneous movement of mythical thought, my enterprise, itself too brief and too long, has has to yield to its demands and respect its rhythm”. 


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